Licensing Bill [HL]
Lord Davies of Oldham (Government Whip (technically a Lord in Waiting, HM Household); Labour)
My Lords, the amendment seeks to amend Clause 170, which is an important clause. Clause 170 provides that an activity is not a licensable activity if it is carried on at particular locations. These include aboard an aircraft, where separate legislation applies, or aboard a railway vehicle engaged on a journey and also aboard a vessel engaged on an international journey, where domestic law does not apply.
As the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, indicated, he seeks to add a new category of exemption for vessels licensed to carry fewer than 100 passengers. The Government do not consider vessels with just under 100 passengers small vessels. The "Marchioness" tragedy gave rise to the vessels clause. The number of people involved in that tragedy was only just over 100. The noble Lord, Lord Greenway, described river journeys in almost idyllic terms, as did others who enjoy the delights of the river. However, I stress that the Government wish to address an important issue here with regard to the necessity for licences.
The Bill provides a simple licensing process for vessels of the kind we are discussing that is not excessively expensive. We should take public safety into account with regard to a vessel on the water. I think that the noble Lord will appreciate why I am reluctant to respond completely positively to his amendment although I recognise the force of his argument.
The laws in regard to the licensing of activities on vessels have always been inadequate. For instance, it is perfectly legal to sell alcohol to children on vessels on a journey and for them to consume it. It cannot be right in the Government's view that the sale of alcohol and other activities aboard vessels—for example, pleasure cruisers—should not be licensed when the risks associated with those activities are at least as great as they are on land. Public safety and prevention of harm to children and of disorder are probably the main considerations. But there will also be questions of public nuisance—to which noble Lords referred—to people who live on the banks of waterways or in houses by the edge of canals and rivers.
Lord Justice Clarke's view, stated in his interim report on the Thames Safety Inquiry, and supported in his final report, was that:
"If we are to retain liquor licensing laws and require premises to be licensed to sell alcohol, then the reasons that commend themselves to require such premises on land to be licensed seem to me to apply with at least equal force in respect of vessels. Indeed it might be said that safety concerns demand even higher standards for those in charge of serving alcohol on board boats".
Following that inquiry the Deputy Prime Minister made a commitment that the Government would close the loopholes in regard to the sale of alcohol on vessels. The Bill fulfils that commitment and will bring about 600 vessels within the licensing regime. As I believe the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, recognises, the amendment would prevent licensing authorities from taking any measures in respect of the licensing objectives with regard to the protection of children from harm. That is an important consideration. The noble Lord will recognise that that is one of the golden threads that run through the Bill.
We recognise that this is one of the areas of the Bill that is regulatory rather than deregulatory, but given the overwhelming public interest issues it is necessary to bring vessels within the licensing regime. I emphasise that for smaller vessels the process will be simple and not costly.
I recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, made a persuasive case. The Government will consider whether we could exempt the category of boats—I believe that the noble Lord referred to single-deck boats and to barges—that hold eight to a dozen people. I am sure the noble Lord will recognise that we must be careful in this regard. Some small pubs have capacity for only a small number of people in their bars. We cannot have a situation where a pub that can establish that it has a capacity as small as that of a barge should be exempt because we have accepted the strength of the noble Lord's case in relation to a certain category of vessel. As I say, we shall consider the matter to see what can be done. I hope that with that earnest of intent the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.