I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to permit licensing authorities to regulate the sale of alcohol from licensed premises after 11 o'clock at night in prescribed circumstances, in prescribed locations and on prescribed days.
It is estimated that some 40 per cent. of violent crimes, 78 per cent. of assaults and 88 per cent. of criminal damage cases are committed while the offender is under the influence of alcohol. The Government's White Paper, "Time for Reform", contains proposals for the modernisation of our licensing laws which would help to reduce the levels of alcohol-related crime in this country.
One key proposal is for flexible opening hours for pubs and clubs, with the potential for 24-hour opening. The aim of that proposal is to discourage binge drinking before closing time and to avoid the mass exodus on to the streets of drinkers from town centre pubs after 11 o'clock. Research indicates that over 50 per cent. of all arrests for drink-related crimes occur at that time, while 47 per cent. of all incidents of violence and disorder take place at closing time on Friday and Saturday evenings.
Fear of alcohol-related violence and intimidation has also meant that large numbers of people avoid town centres on weekend evenings, and that has had a significant effect on many town centre economies. It is hoped that the introduction of flexible opening hours would lead to a significant reduction in reports of drink-related offences and arrests, a reduction in the incidence of bingeing and drunkenness, the increased availability of transport facilities and fewer reports of noise nuisances.
Flexible hours have the potential to create a new generation of more responsible, socially aware drinkers, who are less likely to get drunk and less tolerant of drunkenness and drunken behaviour. Longer opening hours would help to place greater emphasis on the social function of pubs, and encourage people to drink less, or at least more slowly and responsibly. However, any relaxation of licensing regulations in favour of prolonged opening must proceed with caution.
Under the proposals in the White Paper, the courts would consider reasonable objections to an application for extended hours based on crime and disorder issues, public safety and public nuisance considerations, but the burden of proof would fall on the objector, not the applicant. It would be far from easy, in advance of the licence being granted, to provide substantive evidence that the extension of premises' opening hours would lead to an increase in crime and disorder or cause unreasonable public nuisance.
If local authorities possessed a town centre strategy, clearly defining what is and what is not acceptable in licensing and planning terms, it would be possible to provide the substantive evidence needed. Unfortunately, few local authorities possess such a strategy. In the light of the White Paper and the Human Rights Act 1998, many local authorities face the problem that, having raised no objection to one application for extended opening hours, they find it extremely difficult to object to a second application for a similar extension of opening hours, even if they have strong grounds for believing that the presence of two venues with extended hours in the same town centre would be unsustainable. The powers of local authorities to control and regulate the night-time economy are therefore in urgent need of review.
The assumption made in the White Paper is that if more pubs and clubs are allowed to open for longer, there will be both a gradual drift from premises and lower densities of people in each place. There is a case in Dartford for allowing certain premises to open for longer to reduce the number of people on the street at any one time, but there is a feeling that allowing a significant number to be open for longer would lead to a greater and potentially unsustainable influx of people into the town centre to fill any spare capacity that would be created.
We need not simply flexible opening hours but staggered opening hours in our town centres. Given, though, that a system of staggered opening hours is unlikely to be achieved through a voluntary agreement between licensees and the licensing authority, there is a clear need for a new regulatory framework to be introduced.
If a town centre management strategy framework existed with a clearly defined town centre strategy and guidelines for the development of a night-time economy, local authorities would be able better to assess the impact of each application for extended hours, and would be able to point to the framework if it felt that a particular application was unsustainable.
I would like to see local authorities placed under a legal duty to produce such a town centre strategy management framework. Authorities would also have a duty to consult local residents, the police, the emergency services and licensees on its contents to ensure that it fully reflected the needs, rights and responsibilities of each section of the community.
Though the local authority would still have to accept the burden of proof should it decide to object to an application, it would be able legitimately to object if it deemed it not to meet the development criteria set out in its framework.
Officers of my local council tell me that the lack of an effective consultation mechanism between the council, the police, licensees, residents and emergency services has undermined any attempts to establish an effective town centre strategy.
A town centre management framework would not only enable more joined-up thinking to take place but would allow local people to have a genuine say in how they want their town centre to develop. It would also require the local authority to evaluate what expansion of the local night-time economy could be tolerated within the existing service infrastructure, and require it to establish a set of clear long-term objectives for the development of the town centre. As such, it would make the licensing procedure more open, more transparent and more accountable. Having been involved in the consultation process, local people would have a clearer understanding of how the licensing system operated and how their town centre was being managed, and would be more inclined to make representations to the local authority and so play an active role in shaping the future of their own community.
In short, a legally enshrined town centre management framework would provide local authorities, working in partnership with local agencies and residents, with the opportunity to forge a joint strategy and better manage and regulate the night-time economy. If local councils are prevented from exercising adequate control of the night-time economy, it is likely that further fissures will appear in the fabric of urban society; disenchantment with the ability of the local authority to manage the town centre will grow; and urban residents will become increasingly disinclined to use their town centres. For those reasons, I recommend placing on local authorities a legal duty to establish a town centre management framework.
In conclusion, I shall read a letter of support that I have received from the divisional commander of part of the Kent police, Superintendent David Ainsworth:
In respect of the evening economy there is a need to achieve the right balance for all town centre users taking full cognisance of issues such as housing policy, access to transportation, food and liquor licensing, lighting. CCTV schemes, entertainment licensing, parking, emergency service provision and pedestrianisation … I very much support this initiative by Dr Stoate, the Member for Dartford. As Chair of the Dartford Community Safety Partnership, I see the management framework he calls for as representing a major step forward in terms of establishing the basis for positive engagement by both public service and private sector partners to the benefit of everyone in Dartford.
Initially, 1 thought that I could wholeheartedly support the Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate). However, having listened to his speech, I have been dissuaded. I frequently argue that there should be staggered licensing laws. We see a huge number of people turned on to our village streets, town streets and city streets, in the case of Lichfield, at 11 o'clock at night. They often cause disturbance on a Friday and Saturday night. However, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's tone is completely right. What put me off what was not the hon. Gentleman's excellent preamble, in which he stated the reasons for having staggered licensing hours, but his subsequent proposal that the burden of proof should be shifted. He argued that it should be shifted to those who oppose staggered licensing hours, not to pubs applying for licensing hours to be extended.
The hon. Gentleman then used a series of phrases that are anathema to me. He said that an objection should be valid if it relates to a proposal not within the development criteria. He said that there should be better management and regulation, and talked about needs, rights and responsibilities in a town centre strategy. That sounded rather like new Labour speak. I support anything that would reduce the burden on town centre policing. Heaven knows, the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who is listening patiently on the Front Bench has heard me speak about that on several occasions, and knows that I think that it is wrong that there are only three or four police officers available in the city of Lichfield on a Friday or Saturday night.
Although the Minister wishes to intervene now, there will be many opportunities for him to do so in a later debate on this very subject. I promise him that I will raise this issue again and give way to him then.
The sort of regulation that proposes controls and states that businesses should not be free to decide for themselves whether or not they should be open after 11 o'clock is patently wrong. If a pub were next door to housing and might cause a disturbance to elderly people late at night, of course it would be right for a local authority to say that it would be inappropriate for it to remain open. That is right and proper. However, the idea that there should be a town centre strategy has great dangers. For example, what if Dartford took one view and Sevenoaks a different one? What would be the result? Far from there being drift into a town centre—which, at least, would be a pedestrian drift—people might get into their cars at 11 o'clock at night and drive from Sevenoaks to Dartford, if Dartford took a liberal view, or vice versa, if Sevenoaks took a liberal view. That could lead to situations in which there was more drink-driving, which the whole House and every Member would deplore.
The Bill is well intentioned—as much new Labour legislation is well intentioned. However, when we get into the detail and start to read the fine print, we realise that it is impractical and destroys that which it is our main cause to preserve, namely the tranquillity and safety of our streets and cities late on Friday and Saturday nights. For that reason, I oppose the Bill.
Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to. Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. Howard Stoate, Mr. Gordon Marsden, Dr. Phyllis Starkey, Ms Karen Buck, Mrs. Diana Organ and Dr. Desmond Turner.