I beg to move,
That this House
notes with concern that with only 25 days to go before the 6th August deadline set in the Licensing Act 2003, only 20 per cent. of licence applications have been received;
further notes the chaos that this is creating both for the licensing trade and for local authorities;
is concerned by the problems of extra cost that the legislation is creating for village halls, sports clubs and community centres;
regrets the effect that this will have upon local communities;
condemns the Government for its lack of action in dealing with the problem;
and calls upon the Government to extend the deadlines for the receipt of applications and re-examine the impact upon village halls and sports clubs.
I do not think that the Government will be surprised that we have tabled this motion. We have raised the issue in departmental questions, tabled early-day motions and debated the matter in Westminster Hall. Moreover, the Conservative party opposed the Bill when it was first debated in the House, and we did so because we thought that it was ill thought out and badly targeted, that it failed to address the real problems and that it would be impossible to implement. I pay tribute to the work done by my hon. Friend Mr. Moss, who, during the passage of the Bill, consistently pointed out to the Government the practical problems that they would face with this badly drafted and ill-thought-out legislation. I hate to say this to the Minister, but "We told you so".
At every stage of the implementation of the Licensing Act 2003, we have attempted to make constructive and positive suggestions about how it could be delivered. We have raised concerns from the brewing industry, village halls, voluntary groups, musicians and sporting clubs. At every stage, sadly, the Government have ignored our pleas, denied that there was a problem and buried their head in the sand. Their response has been—to paraphrase a former Prime Minister—crisis, what crisis?
The right hon. Lady sets out what she describes as chaos. Does she agree with the leader of Westminster city council, who said:
"The Licensing Act brings enormous potential to consolidate Westminster's position as a premier evening and late-night destination."?
What has she got to say to that?
It has come to a pretty pass when a Labour Member has to quote a first-rate Conservative council to try to defend the Government on such a matter.
I shall make just a little more progress before giving way.
We can talk to all sorts of bodies—the licensing trade, Action with Communities in Rural England, the Musicians Union, the Central Council of Physical Recreation, which is dear to the heart of the Minister for Sport and Tourism, or the Local Government Association—and they will all tell us that the Government are presiding over the biggest chaos in implementation since the last big chaos in Government implementation. Indeed, I was at a dinner in Harrogate only last Tuesday—a mere week ago—when the leader of Westminster city council made a key point in telling me and the others there that it was high time that the Government listened to the issues that were being raised by local authorities about the problems of implementing the Act.
Would the right hon. Lady like to visit my constituency, where the local authority in Hackney has done an excellent job in working with the community and local people to bring in locally controlled licensing hours? Local people are delighted that they can go to their elected representatives to tackle problems, rather than experiencing the chaos that we had before.
I am always very happy to visit Hackney and talk to people about the implications of what the Government are doing in the hon. Lady's constituency. I suggest that she visits other constituencies throughout the country in which village halls and many publicans are experiencing chaos and local authorities face the prospect of having to deal with large numbers of licence applications in the next couple of weeks.
For the third time in her speech, my right hon. Friend has correctly cited a list of organisations that are deeply and seriously affected by the Act as implemented. I have a sheaf of letters from village halls and parish councils in my constituency that endorse everything that she said—[Interruption.] I shall happily take the Minister for Sport and Tourism through the letters one by one if he doubts me, because he would be shocked by what he found in them. Can my right hon. Friend assure me—[Interruption.]
I can certainly assure my hon. Friend of that fact. Indeed, I have so far failed to mention farmers' markets, take-away food stores, off-licences and corner shops, all of which are deeply affected by the Act. He mentions the sheaf of letters that he has received from his constituents. My hon. Friends have sent me copies of the correspondence that they have received from village halls, sports clubs and other organisations in their constituencies, all of which are complaints about the implications of the Act.
The right hon. Lady might not know that the third largest pub chain in the United Kingdom is headquartered in my constituency and run by the excellent Wolverhampton and Dudley breweries. I spent last Wednesday evening at a dinner in the company of some of its representatives, and although they said that there were some teething problems, they were entirely happy with the Licensing Act 2003, as far as I could gather. The industry is certainly not entirely against the legislation.
The whole point is that the big chains have the personnel, resources and funding to provide support to their pubs. The hon. Gentleman should perhaps talk to smaller brewery chains such as Brakspear, which is an excellent local brewery in Henley. Only last week I met a representative of the company who told me about the real problems that its pubs are having in dealing with the extra cost and additional bureaucracy and time involved in the licence applications.
Just so that the right hon. Lady's list becomes ever longer, another group of voluntary organisations that is deeply affected by the Act is the carnival circuit in Somerset. She might not know that that massive affair attracts up to 150,000 people a night, but it could be decimated as a result of the Act.
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely valid point. The Government have completely failed to understand the number of organisations and activities that are affected by the Act and will find matters involving licensing applications rather more difficult than they did in the past.
I am not sure what I find most galling: the inability and incompetence of the Government, or the arrogance of Ministers about the matter. During Culture, Media and Sport questions yesterday, the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, James Purnell, told us that 33 per cent. of expected applications had been received. He said:
"Applications are starting to pick up, although there is still some way to go."—[Hansard, 11 July 2005; Vol. 436, c. 555.]
With 25 days to go, for 190,000 premises—I am setting apart personal licences—an outstanding total of 133,000 applications are yet to be made. As a result of the Government's deadline of
Will the right hon. Lady also acknowledge that in addition to the many licence applications that are still to come forward, there will be a large number of appeals? Does she think that the magistrates courts will be in a position to deal with them, let alone that the local authorities will be able to deal with the licence applications?
Indeed; the hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. There are three stages to the problem. Local authority officers must first deal with processing. Then local authority councillor panels might have to meet many times a week over the rest of this month to deal with applications. There could then be a problem for the magistrates courts, which was raised with me when I visited my local magistrates court in Maidenhead a couple of weeks ago. People are worried about what they must do to ensure that the Act is properly implemented.
In a sense, I feel sorry for the Under-Secretary. This was a disaster waiting to happen and it has just been dropped in his lap. Even the Financial Times has documented his annoyance at dealing with the ensuing chaos and the fact that he is becoming fed up with "these ridiculous photo opportunities" that have seen him pictured in every catering magazine from Fast Food & Frying Operator to Masala. I am sure that they are worthy and well-read publications, but even if the Under-Secretary were to appear as the centre spread in Vogue, OK! or The Guardian's media pages, he still could not meet his
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for the opportunity to clarify the fact that I was absolutely delighted to give interviews and participate in all those photo opportunities. Although the FT is a very august and respectable paper, for once it got the emphasis slightly wrong.
Oh dear, the damage is done. I am afraid that I cited a direct quote from the Under-Secretary.
Of course we accept that applicants, especially commercial businesses, should pay the cost of their licensing applications. However, running such a burdensome, bureaucratic and unnecessarily complex system is introducing additional costs that the industry, let alone voluntary organisations, simply cannot afford to bear.
The Tories have flip-flopped constantly on the Act. They cannot decide whether they want it to be more regulatory or deregulatory. Perhaps the right hon. Lady will clarify their position.
I want the Act to be fair to all pubs, clubs, voluntary organisations, village halls and sports clubs throughout the country, although some are now faced with possible closure as a result of the Government's actions.
The Under-Secretary tells us that the new system is not bureaucratic at all. He tells us that filling in the new forms is simply a matter of ticking a few boxes. He said:
"It's much simpler than filling in a tax form".
Well, I do not know what sort of tax form he fills in. I took the opportunity to download an application form from the Department's website. It is indeed just a matter of a few boxes—97 of them, in fact. Those are just the boxes to be ticked, because another 508 boxes require further information. More than 600 boxes must be completed, yet the Under-Secretary says that the form is simpler than the two pages of application that people had to complete in the past.
To tick all those boxes, an organisation would have to be a venue with a dance floor that would serve alcohol and late food, in addition to putting on dance, showing films and putting on a wrestling match, indoor sports and plays. If an organisation is just converting, the application form is only seven pages, not 21 pages with 500 boxes, as the right hon. Lady suggests.
I shall respond to the Minister's point first.
The application form is not just seven pages, because the form entitled "Application for an existing licence to be converted to a premises licence" is for a conversion application and it is 27 pages long, including the guidance notes. It is all very well for the Minister to say that people do not have to complete every box. They may not wish to apply for everything, but they have to read the form and decide whether to complete it. The point is the time that it takes to fill it in.
On effort, I commend to the right hon. Lady one of my two local authorities, Salford, which has got around the problems that she raises by doing the simple things that a local authority should do in such circumstances. It has run workshops, given advice and sent out letters to prompt applications. That is not difficult. [Hon. Members: "It is."] It is not. The key point is to bring local authorities and communities into a dialogue on licences. Talking to—
I accept that some local authorities are running workshops. That is a good idea and is helpful, but if someone is a volunteer running a small village hall committee, he still has to find the time to attend those workshops and to fill in the form, regardless of whether he has been to a local authority workshop or not.
Far from communities having a greater say in what is happening in their area, a publican told me the other day that the village where her pub is located is concerned because the application form, which goes up in the pub's window, has to contain the full hours for which she is applying for a licence. As she wants the opportunity to have an extended licence for new year and sometimes to have people in to watch the rugby in the morning, she has applied for a licence from 8 am to 1 or 2 am. Far from feeling that they are being consulted, local villagers are saying, "What's this? Why is the pub going to be open every day from 8 am to 2 am?" It is not, but the way in which the Government have drafted the legislation is causing all those worries.
The system has become so bureaucratic that it is a lawyer's licence to print money. Hon. Members should not take my word for it: ask a lawyer—everyone else has to in order to fill in the forms. Peter Lockley of Blythe Liggins solicitors in Leamington Spa says:
"The Government could not have produced a more complicated form had it tried. Even seasoned lawyers and experienced licensees are on the whole totally confused."
For once, that piece of legal advice is free.
"I have personally devoted at least two man weeks to understanding the requirements, attended a training evening and had two meetings with the licensing authority at Mole Valley. I have purchased two HMSO publications on the Regulations and the interpretation costing £24. I have read 30 pages of accompanying notes. I have completed a form 21 pages long, each page seriously complicated and detailed, compared with 2 simple pages previously. We have had to prepare a plan of the hall to scale 1:100 done by volunteers but costing us £120 for computer software to run it. We have by law to advertise our change of licence at a cost of £292".
That is the process that people have to go through to apply for the licences.
Indeed, simple is how the Minister describes it. He has no idea what people face.
Let me draw the Minister's attention to the e-mail that I received from the chairman of the Pinder hall committee in Cookham in my constituency—Pinder hall is the village hall. She says:
"Our Social Club has thrown in the towel and is going to a solicitor, as they feel the forms are so complicated. The Sailing Club"—
Cookham Reach sailing club—
"have discovered the cost is more than they bring in in fees and we at the Pinder Hall believe we will have to pay well over £1,000 for just eighteen events a year. The Cricket Club say no one told them about it . . . The whole thing is a total fiasco".
That is the point. If even trained professionals like that lawyer are struggling to cope with the system, how on earth are volunteers supposed to cope? The complex nature of the regime is putting at risk the future of our sports clubs and village halls.
The Minister has made a number of statements about the new regime. He has said that it simplifies matters and makes it cheaper for organisations in the long run, and that once completed, organisations will never have to apply again. Indeed, on the "You and Yours" programme on BBC Radio 4 two weeks ago, he said:
"The light at the end of tunnel is that they can know that they will never have to apply for a licence again".
My version of never having to apply again is clearly not the same as Ministers'. My "never having to apply" means exactly that. The reality is, however, that organisations will have to renew their licence every year at the cost of between £40 and £225. [Interruption.] Ah! The Minister says that they will not have to fill in the same form. What he said on the Radio 4 programme was:
"they will never have to apply for a licence again", yet they will, because every year they have to apply to renew their licence.
When is a licence for life not a licence for life? I suggest that it is when it is issued by this Minister. His one-off licence looks a little dodgy to me. Perhaps he has become the Del Boy Trotter of the licensing trade: "Lifetime guarantees but don't expect your money back."
I have other examples of people who face the reality of filling in the forms. Bob Hulley, the secretary of Sonning working men's club, says:
"Hitherto, Clubs have had to apply to a Magistrate's Court for a Club Registration Certificate. This cost is £10, and lasted for ten years. Under the new Act, we have had to pay £250 to apply . . . £230 to advertise our application, and starting next year there is an annual fee of £180. We are constituted on a 'not for profit basis', and exist to serve as a focus and meeting place for the local community. If we finish a financial year and all bills paid and a surplus of only a few hundred pounds in hand, we feel we have done quite well.
We are looking at ways to increase income, such as increasing our membership fees, but we have to recognise that many of our members are pensioners, who are living close to the financial edge themselves."
Sonning working men's club
"has served the community in Sonning for over 100 years. We will do our utmost to keep going, but I have to describe our future as uncomfortable to uncertain."
No. I want to make progress.
That is the reality of what is happening as a result of the Act. When the Minister says that it will not affect community groups, perhaps he has not heard of organisations like Sonning working men's club or the Italian Circle in Welwyn Garden City. The committee of the Italian Circle has written to us. It was established a few years ago to provide talks about Italian subjects to members and visitors. It has slide shows, videos and so forth, and offers members and visitors the opportunity to have a glass of wine. The consumption of wine averages four to five bottles a meeting, yet it has been informed that it has to make an application under the Act for temporary event notices. According to the chairman, however, the way in which the Act is drafted has presented it
"with severe problems, which may result in the closure of the Circle."
The Government have failed to grasp the way in which this ill-thought-out and heavy-handed law is impacting not just on community groups, village halls and working men's clubs, but on small businesses. I have a letter from Wines Unlimited in Worcester Park, which says:
"We are a small wholesale wine business, selling by the case, which my husband set up when he retired as a hobby. Under the old regulation we did not need a licence to trade as a wholesaler. Under the new regulation we have to have a premises licence for our storeroom, a Personal licence, pay Band D Charges council tax and many more regulations, which of course all cost money. Our profit margin is very small and therefore would not stand this kind of expense. So we can only go out of business."
It goes on to say:
"The Legislation has not been thought through properly. We have to spend between £100.00 and £300.00 on a course to teach us NOT about wine or how to serve the community" but
"to teach us how to throw someone out of a bar! (which we do not have and have no intention of having)".
That is how ill-thought-out this particular piece of legislation is.
"I do understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns. We tried to introduce a licensing regime that puts more power in the hands of local people. I understand the problems of village halls—I have heard about them myself—and we look further into them to see if anything can be done. Obviously, in the end, we need a licensing regime that pays its way."—[Hansard, 22 June 2005; Vol. 435, c. 798.]
Perhaps the Minister can tell us what can be done or what he intends to do as a result of the Prime Minister's commitment to the House that this matter would be looked into. What will the Minister be doing for Richard Slater of the Village Halls Advisory Service, who says that the new Act seems very unfair. He adds:
"For halls to be limited to 12 temporary event notices means that small money-raising activities for, say, a playgroup holding a cheese and wine event will either be driven to private houses for a few or penalise an essential facility in a village."
That is the problem. Community activities will cease as a result of what the Government have been doing.
There are further complications. I have seen a letter from Mr. Barclay, the honorary treasurer of Roydon village hall.
I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way for a second time.
The right hon. Lady has talked much about chaos, disorder and complication. However, she would deprive the police, local authorities and local residents of important new powers to deal with problems created by alcohol-fuelled disorder and violence. Does she have an alternative for dealing with such problems? Does she agree that the problems exist?
I suggest that the hon. Lady thinks seriously before making such an intervention. When have there been problems of social disorder in village halls as a result of cheese-and-wine fundraising events for play groups? There have not been any. The Government have used an Act that introduced various other facilities as a sledgehammer to crack a nut in relation to village halls and sports clubs.
There are other complications. The honorary treasurer of Roydon village hall has said that before it can have a designated premises supervisor it must undergo a Criminal Records Bureau check. He added:
"We have been informed that this check cannot be carried out in England because the organisation to process these checks has not been put in place, and the current information supplied by the English Criminal Records Bureau does not meet the requirements of the new legislation. Therefore the application has to be processed in Scotland. We have four members on the Committee, who have undergone enhanced CRB checks in England, but this check is insufficient for the new regime, and they will need to undergo these checks again if they would wish to be designated premises supervisors."
I have merely touched the surface in my remarks about what is a bad piece of legislation. Sadly, there is little time left for us to make it better. If the Minister had decided to work with us when we first raised these issues, he would have extended the deadlines, and we would have given him our support. However, we are now faced with just a few working days in the House, and no chance of bringing forward primary legislation to extend the
The Minister has not yet laid the statutory instrument setting the second deadline of
The Minister has set up the licensing fees review panel—I repeat the questions that I put to the Minister for Sport and Tourism yesterday, which he singularly failed to answer or even attempt to address in his responses—which will not report until autumn 2006. Will he now bring forward the review, tell it to report by the November deadline this year and agree to backdate any proposed reduction in fees, particularly to sports clubs and village halls? Will he agree also to review the way in which charges are apportioned to clubs, particularly sports clubs, so that they are based on the rateable value of only the area that is serving alcohol, rather than the club premises and grounds as a whole? Will he review the preposterous issue of temporary events notices, and increase them from 12 to at least to 24, and preferably to an even higher number?
We are discussing the implications that this bad Act will have for the licensing regime. I have not mentioned many other organisations and businesses that are affected by the legislation, such as travelling circuses. Mr. Foster mentioned carnivals. There are also farmers' markets, fast food outlets and corner shops, some of which are finding things very difficult and may go under. All of those organisations, businesses and community activities are being affected by the Act.
No, I am coming to a conclusion.
The Minister should now face the truth and accept the reality of what is happening. He need not accept my word, but he should accept the word of village halls, community centres, clubs and sports clubs throughout the country. He must face the truth, accept the chaos that the Act is causing and do something about it now.
I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
"commends the Government on its effective publicity campaign that has significantly increased the rate of applications to convert existing licences under the Licensing Act 2003 before 6th August;
encourages remaining licensees to fulfil their responsibilities and get their applications in before that date;
considers that failure to implement the Act without delay would deny local communities increased powers of intervention and improved democratic accountability with regard to licensing and deny the police the expanded powers that are vital to their efforts to tackle alcohol-related crime and anti-social behaviour;
welcomes the powers in the Act to prevent crime and disorder and public nuisance, and protect children from harm;
believes that the Act will benefit local communities, local economies and tourism and generate savings for business of almost £2 billion over 10 years;
and furthermore, believes that the Act will be successfully implemented by 24th November 2005 and will be welcomed by industry and non-commercial organisations, including village halls and sports clubs, alike.".
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State regrets that she cannot be here for this important debate. As the House will be aware, she has been asked to take on a role working with the families of the victims of last week. I think that it will be understood why she is not able to be in the Chamber.
I listened carefully to Mrs. May. After 28 minutes of her speech, I am still not clear whether she is in favour of more flexible hours or against them. There was no mention of her view on that or of the alternative policy that she was putting forward. We have some sympathy with her in that her quandary is really her predecessor's fault. As has been said, the Tories have flip-flopped all over the place on the Licensing Act 2003. They started by being in favour. When the Bill was passing through the House, the right hon. Lady's predecessor said that the Conservatives agreed with the need for greater flexibility on opening hours, and that they accepted the argument for doing away with universal chucking-out time. Then, just before the election, when the political editor of the Daily Mail telephoned and said that it was launching a campaign against 24-hour drinking, the Tories decided that they were wrong after all, that they would come into line with the Daily Mail and would oppose the extension of the opening hours that they had supported in the first place.
Today, the problem for the right hon. Lady is that she cannot say what she thinks about flexible hours. I suspect that she agrees with them, but she cannot say so because in another part of the forest the shadow Home Secretary is still busily campaigning against 24-hour drinking, even though no one has applied for 24-hour licences.
As we are experiencing the parliamentary equivalent of a lock-in, as I gather from the screens, perhaps it is time to make many interventions. The key point that the Minister must understand is that we are not debating the flexibility of the Act, but the inflexibility of the Act—the one-size-fits-all approach has penalised village halls. Will the Minister reconsider this regime and how it affects village halls, which are staffed by volunteers and do not have the resources to have a designated premises supervisor and do not need licensing training?
I am happy to consider that. I am also happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and other colleagues if that is their wish.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead has no alternative but to focus purely on the implementation of the Act. She does not have a position on the overall intent of the Act.
As well as 24-hour drinking, on which we have not heard from the right hon. Lady for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), she also failed to mention the president of the National Association of Kebab Shops, who thinks that the Bill is top dollar. He has said:
"We are happy with this law because the longer opening hours will be available to most take-away shops."
There we are. Put chilli sauce on that.
I look forward to my hon. Friend's press release and seeing him pictured in one of his local kebab shops.
The truth is that the Tory party has sacrificed long-term credibility for the prospect of winning the support of an agreed section of the population, or even the possibility of winning votes in the House. That is what the shadow Chancellor said when he was explaining why the Conservative party did so badly at the last general election. It seems from the speech of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead that not much has changed. We are left only with criticism and no positive alternatives.
The truth is that the legislation that we are discussing is long overdue.
I set out a number of positive alternatives in my closing remarks. I offered suggestions to the Minister on ways in which the Government could get out of the mess into which they have got themselves.
We still do not know what the right hon. Lady's views are on flexible hours. Through the Act—[Interruption.] The core of the Act is about flexible hours and still, after years of scrutiny, we have no idea of what Tory policy is on the issue.
The Minister is a bright chap. We are not dealing with a motion that condemns the entire Act in all its aspects. The point of the motion and that of the speech of my right hon. Friend Mrs. May was to pinpoint the failure of the Act and the possibility of repairing the damage that is being done to certain of the community because of that Act. If the Minister would get off 24-hour drinking and spend 20 minutes answering the questions perhaps we would have a better debate.
That is exactly what I am going to do. If the hon. Gentleman supports the Licensing Act, presumably he is against the shadow Home Secretary, who is busy campaigning against it. That is the problem for the Opposition—they have taken two totally different positions and have contradicted themselves so they now find themselves in the position where they do not have a position.
I want to make a positive suggestion. The Minister knows that I am interested in the problem relating to carnivals, which is an unintended consequence of the Bill. Traditional carnivals in Somerset include moving floats, which are exempt, and people walking along, who are not exempt. Would he consider using a definition from the Town Police Clauses Act 1847? It is an old Act, but every carnival uses it to secure road closures. It refers to
"all times of public processions, rejoicings or illuminations, and in any case when the streets . . . may be thronged or liable to be obstructed".
Although that definition is 150 years old, it would get round the difficulty for carnivals. Would the Minister look at it and see whether he can send a letter of comfort to district councils so that they know how to administer the law?
I am happy to look at that, although my understanding is that, perhaps partly thanks to the hon. Gentleman's assiduous campaigning in Parliament, Somerset councils have now decided that their existing carnivals do not include licensable activities. New events, however, may need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Yes, the councils have made that decision this year, but it is open to challenge from anyone who believes that a carnival needs to be licensed. The law is imprecise, and the carnival organisers are worried that they could be liable to six months' imprisonment or a fine of £20,000 if they are found to be in breach of licence requirements. That is why we need Government reassurance that their interpretation is right.
I am happy to see if we can write a letter that provides comfort. The core of the Bill is about giving local authorities the power to make those decisions locally, so we would not want to override their ability to take those decisions.
When the Minister debated this matter with me some weeks ago in Westminster Hall, he was in a constructive mood. When I met him to discuss touring circuses only a few weeks he was in a constructive mood again. I am glad that he is returning to a constructive mood now and engaging with the real issues, but when will I receive the letters that he promised me on designated persons for village halls and on the impact on touring circuses? Village halls and circuses cannot wait much longer for that clarification, which he promised some time ago.
We were looking at that in the Department only today. We are trying to secure the final piece of legal advice that we need to send the letter, but we shall do so as soon as possible.
Thanks to the Act, we can finally look forward to longer pub opening hours, which will boost tourism and help to stamp out binge drinking through a more relaxed and responsible approach to the enjoyment of alcohol. The current laws are based on laws introduced during the first world war and have no place in today's society. That is the view of the Campaign for Real Ale, which is right. The current law is full of anomalies. The "two in a bar" rule, for example means that the White Stripes,—as the House knows, one of the most successful bands in the world but which has only two members—could turn up in a local pub and put on a concert for thousands of people. Our very own MP4—a band with growing support in all our constituencies—would not be able to perform unless the pub had obtained a special licence for them. The band has a slightly smaller fan base than the White Stripes. [Interruption.] At the moment—perhaps one day it will be headlining at Glastonbury. [Interruption.] Unfortunately, I wrote it.
Uniquely in Europe, we have an 11 pm closing time, which means that people neck two or three pints before being thrown out on the streets at the same time, fighting for a taxi and sometimes even fighting one another. There is a loophole in a law that allows people to sell alcohol after 11 pm, as long as they serve food and provide music and dancing. That means that the one group of people to whom we allow alcohol to be served after 11 pm are those whom our constituents are most worried will be a source of nuisance. The regime clearly needs to be updated, and Members on both sides of the House will agree that the change in the law is overdue.
The greater flexibility that we are introducing will save the industry money. At the moment, any pub that wants to stay open late, to open early on Christmas eve or to show the Lions test, must go to a magistrate to secure special permission at a cost of £10 a time. There are about 1.7 million such applications a year. The Licensing Act will sweep away anomalies as well as the need for people to go to a magistrate every time that they wish to apply for a special permission. It replaces that requirement with a system in which people apply for a licence once without further need for form filling. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead was stretching the point when she said that because people have to send off a cheque they are making an application. We have front-loaded the application process—people apply up front, then they need never apply again for a premises licence.
My hon. Friend mentioned magistrates. Hackney council welcomes the Government's resolve to stick with the
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We need to work with magistrates to ensure that if the application is for a conversion and there has been no objection, it should be possible, if it is not processed within two months, to fast-track it through the magistrates courts. I do not know whether we can take up the point that my hon. Friend made in relation to conversions, but I shall certainly look at it and write to her.
As I said, the new Act sweeps away anomalies and ends the need for people to go to the magistrate every time that they want to put on an event. Consequently, the amount of forms processed will be greatly reduced from 16 million a year to 2 million per year. The number of hearings will go down from 2.4 million a year to 80,000. There will be great savings of about £1.5 billion in lawyers' fees, so it is not surprising that the lawyer whom the right hon. Member for Maidenhead cited was not happy.
I am grateful for the generosity of the Minister in giving way once more. On the reapplication for licences, will he confirm that it is not the case that once a licence has been granted it is there for life? Will he confirm that it is not a lifetime licence for which nothing else has to be done? Will he confirm that an application has to be made every year to renew the licence? If he is saying that all that someone has to do is sign a cheque, put it in an envelope and post it, is he guaranteeing that local authorities will not require any paperwork other than the cheque?
There is no renewal process. Licensees send in a cheque to fund inspection and enforcement, but no other action is required of them or the licensing authority.
In the next 10 years, the Act will save the industry about £2 billion. I accept that there is an up-front cost, which we do not seek to minimise—it was included in our calculations for the £2 billion. As the industry asked us, we front-loaded the application process so that licensees do not need to return every time that they wish to put on an event. The current law is inflexible and archaic, and it fails to deal with concerns that we share with our constituents about antisocial behaviour. The only sanction that we have against a pub that is causing problems is closure. Magistrates are naturally reluctant to use that, because it is the nuclear option. Only 0.2 per cent of pubs failed to secure a licence renewal last year.
I am not sure whether I am required to declare an interest, as my wife holds a highly distinguished position as a member of Tameside council's liquor licensing panel, and my agent chairs it. Is my hon. Friend aware that in Tameside, a local authority that also covers his constituency, the liquor licensing panel refused the first two applications under the new Act because the applicants both had convictions for selling alcohol to children? Is that not a prime example of the way in which the Act, which has given real powers back to local authorities and local communities, is working?
That is an extremely good point, and it shows the powers that local authorities will have under the Act. Previously, they found it difficult to exercise such powers, because they were removed from local accountability. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's wife and agent, who are leading the efforts of one of the best councils in the country—it is also my council—to introduce the law.
Instead of the present situation, where there is only the nuclear option of closure, the Act will give us a full range of powers to cope with the problems that a minority of pubs and other licensees can cause. For the first time there is a power for the local community to ask for a review of a licensee who they are worried about. The local authority can then intervene in a targeted way, by imposing new conditions. It can ask for new doormen to be put in, for the management to be changed or for a TV screen to be moved if too many people watching sporting events are causing trouble. If targeted early intervention fails, the local authority can hit the licensee where it hurts—in their pocket. It can suspend the licence and, if necessary, revoke it. If the worst comes to the worst, the fines have been increased in the Act and the maximum fine is now £20,000, possibly with six months in prison.
We now have a full range of powers to deal with our constituents' concerns about antisocial behaviour. I was therefore surprised to see that the Liberal Democrat motion suggested delaying the implementation of the Act until binge drinking has been addressed. The whole point is that the Act is designed to help us address binge drinking and to give us much better tools to deal with it and much better ways to tackle the problems caused by a small minority of premises. That is why the police are pressing us to bring in the Act as soon as possible. For once, perhaps, the Liberal Democrats are barking up the wrong tree. The Act is a good piece of legislation.
I am grateful for the Minister's comments, and I will respond shortly. Can he tell us which police are urging the Government to push ahead as rapidly as possible with implementation?
On antisocial behaviour, Mrs. May spoke about corner shops. The sale of alcohol by corner shops to young people is a serious issue. There are other licensing issues, but that is a serious one in many constituencies. The idea that such a business could not fill in forms and renew them annually is ridiculous. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is high time the measure came in? Control of the sale of alcohol to young people in my constituency is a serious matter and I would welcome the implementation of the Act without delay.
My hon. Friend is right. I know she has campaigned on the issue, and in response to her and other hon. Members who were worried, as I am, about the sale of alcohol to under-age drinkers, we have brought in the powers to deal with it. We have increased the fine from £1,000 to £5,000, we are introducing fixed penalty notices to deal with people who sell persistently to under-age drinkers, and the Violent Crime Reduction Bill will allow us to close down instantly and for 48 hours businesses which are doing that. We need to change the culture in this country, where some people think it is acceptable for children of nine, 10 or 11 to be drinking alcohol and to be drunk on our streets at 11 o'clock on a Friday night.
My hon. Friend referred to the Violent Crime Reduction Bill. Is it not the case that there are powers in that Bill which will ensure that premises have to pay towards some local services if they do not co-operate with local councils, police and so on?
My hon. Friend is right. The idea is that if a local community and a set of licensees fail to deal with concerns about alcohol over time, there will be a charge on them. We see that as a red card, to encourage them to act before that becomes necessary. The power is available to deal with the worst problems.
Implementing a new piece of legislation is always challenging, and it is not surprising that in a situation where there are about 190,000 licensees and where we are collapsing six regimes into one and dealing with a sector that was previously regulated by up to 50 pieces of legislation, there will be some sectors and individual licensees that suffer anomalies. We will examine those if they occur. We have worked closely with representatives of all the organisations that were cited by the right hon. Lady and other hon. Members, and we will continue to do so.
The right hon. Lady cited the issue of applications. She carried out a helpful survey in May to see how many licensees had applied. At that stage the rate was too slow. She found that the figure was 3.5 per cent. We therefore decided to increase our awareness-raising efforts and put in place a national campaign. We placed adverts in 28 regional and trade publications. We have done several regional tours and 50 interviews. The right hon. Lady was kind enough to mention some of them.
We are particularly grateful for the help that we received from brewers—for example, Cobra, which helped us to reach the 8,000 Indian restaurants that they supply with beer. We are also grateful to the cash and carry network, 95 per cent. of which has participated in our initiative and helped us to distribute over 200,000 leaflets to make sure that we can reach people who do not read the trade press and who do not necessarily join trade membership organisations. We can make sure that they are reached as well and that they know they need to apply.
We do not want to minimise the work that remains to be done, but applications have started to pick up. They were at 3.5 per cent. in mid-May, 10 per cent. by mid-June, 25 per cent. last week and they are now up to 33 per cent., so steady progress is being made. We recognise that there is much further to go, but there is other encouraging news, such as the fact that the British Beer and Pub Association reported this week that about 60 per cent. of pubs have now applied. If that rate of increase in applications continues, a very significant number of those that need a licence to trade will have applied by the first deadline of
If licensees miss that deadline, they have not entirely missed their chance to apply. They will be able to apply as if they were a new licensee. That will be potentially a more difficult process because there would rightly be an opportunity for the local community to make representations. The key message that we should send out today is that they need to apply by
The Minister needs to check his own legislation. Saying that licensees must apply by
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I mis-spoke. I meant to say that licensees had to have their application in by
I want to make it clear that we have no intention of delaying that
I understand that some local authorities take a different attitude to licensing, and obviously there will be differences round the country. Is there a perceptible difference in the percentage of applications made in different parts of the country, or is it pretty uniform?
That is a good point. Application rates vary. Among the best ones, Bolton, for example, is up to 40 per cent. Some are below 20 per cent. We are working closely with all local authorities and have worked specifically with those that have received fewer applications, to make sure that we can help them increase the number of applications that they receive.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead mentioned the cost of licences. Yes, the cost of alcohol licences has gone up, but she knows very well that the reason for that is that previously the taxpayer was subsidising the cost of running the system, to the tune of £25 million a year. When the Bill went through Parliament, we said that that should not continue to happen. The taxpayer should not continue to subsidise the sale of alcohol because people are making money out of it. She and her party agreed with that principle.
I have given way a number of times. I shall make a little progress.
It is important that the cost of the fees represents the actual cost of administering the system. That is why we have asked Sir Les Elton to examine the issue. The right hon. Lady will be happy to know that we have asked him to report by November with some initial recommendations, particularly if there are any anomalies to be addressed. He needs some evidence about the implementation of the Act before he can present us with evidence about the cost. That is why we said that after that first report he should report 12 months after the Act comes into force. Local authorities and industry broadly agree with that.
That is one of the matters that we have asked Sir Les Elton to consider. I am told that it depends on its hereditament and that it can apply, if it wants to, to have its rateable value applied just to the area where it sells alcohol. The hon. Gentleman's constituents can examine that if they are concerned about it. We will ask Sir Les Elton to consider that issue overall.
The Minister will recall that I wrote to him about a speciality cheese shop in my constituency that sold alcohol as a very marginal element of its business. Will he confirm that it would be right and proper for that business, and others that hon. Members mentioned, to make its contributions directly to Sir Les so that we can judge the Bill in its entirety, not on the anomalies that have been raised by a few hon. Members this evening?
We will indeed look at that. My hon. Friend may well find that that shop is at the lower end of the rateable value. If it is right at the bottom end, it will be paying £70 a year. Those are exactly the kinds of issues that we want Sir Les Elton and his colleagues to consider.
Let me say a few words about village halls, which several hon. Members have concerns about. We have responded to what the Prime Minister said at Prime Minister's questions. Today, I met representatives of Action with Communities in Rural England, having spoken to them previously, and we are going to consider their concerns. They have been working closely with my officials over the past few months and have been kind enough to say in their publication that the DCMS has been extremely helpful in helping them to explain to people how to comply with the Act.
ACRE is concerned about three things: the cost of the annual licence; the up-front cost of applying for the licence; and the fact that some volunteers are worried about the legal responsibilities that they take on. We have tried to clarify some of that, for example by saying that there is no need for the personal licence holder or the designated premises supervisor to be on the premises at any time that alcohol is being served. That has reassured people. We will continue to work with ACRE over the next few months on those concerns. We have written to Sir Les Elton to ask him to consider charges for village halls as a matter of urgency, and we will think about whether there are any other issues that we can deal with.
I am puzzled. If the Minister thinks that charges being levied on village halls are too high, why does he have to refer it to anyone? Can he not make a decision instead of asking Sir Les to look into it?
I have responded to what ACRE—the representative body that we are dealing with—has asked us to do. It would be wrong to make a decision before the Act has come into force based on an inadequate understanding of the evidence involved. We are doing exactly as ACRE has requested, which is to look at the evidence that it collects and to refer it to Sir Les Elton, and if there are problems to try to address them in any way that we can. If there are matters that require primary legislation, we will have to wait for a legislative opportunity, but for those that do not require such change we will be happy to deal with them if there is evidence that that is required.
In the year of the volunteer, does the Minister understand that bureaucracy like this is driving people away from doing important voluntary acts such as being on a village hall committee? It is not that these people have nothing else to do with their time—they really want to do something good for their community, but this sort of thing is stopping them volunteering.
We completely support and appreciate the work that is done by volunteers across the country, including in village halls. When I met ACRE representatives today, it was clear that many village halls have successfully applied for licences and that many welcome the extra flexibility that they will get, just as pubs welcome it. However, we recognise that some village halls would rather not take out a licence and would prefer us to increase the number of temporary events notices, or TENs. We do not rule that out, but it would need to be carefully considered. During the Bill's passage through Parliament, we increased the number of TENs from five to 12. It is worth noting that that regime is extremely deregulatory. Essentially, it allows the applicant to put on an event that can last for up to 36 hours without anybody being able to object apart from the police, who can do so only on the grounds of law and order. In effect, people can run events without any closing time and with no opportunity for the local community to make representations. If we accepted the suggestion of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, we would effectively have 30 of those events happening in any of our constituencies during the year, and they would not be confined to village halls—they could be in pubs or anywhere else. If we did that without properly considering the evidence, our constituents might be rightly concerned that we had gone too far in the direction of allowing flexible drinking.
However, we do not rule out moving on the issue of TENs, and we are happy to look at submissions on that over the summer when we consult on regulations for the TENs regime. We will also be happy to consider whether there are particular ways in which individual categories of licensees can have the regime apply to them in a different way.
Does the Minister accept that this problem extends not only to village halls and temporary events but to small village shops? These are small shops, not areas where there is a problem of binge drinking. One in my constituency is only just being maintained by the actions of villagers. It is having to subscribe a very large sum of money in payment to consultants to help it to fill in forms. The village shop is confronting a permanent problem that will not be addressed by the measures that he is suggesting.
I do not want to test the patience of the House by going on too long. I think that the hon. Gentleman's village shop would be able to apply for mandatory rate relief, which should save it a significant amount more than the cost of the annual licence. We understand the vital role of village stores and have already tried to do what we can.
We will continue to consider the representations from ACRE. It agreed today to come on to our high-level group and to help us further with implementing the Act. Of course, we will continue to work with the Central Council of Physical Recreation, with carnivals, with working men's clubs, with circuses, with small village stores and with any other organisations that I may have failed to mention.
The next stage of implementing the Act will come after
We have turned the corner. Applications are up. We have clear plans to target those who miss the
I believe that all hon. Members would like to congratulate the Under-Secretary on a sterling performance. He has been dealt an especially bad hand and he is doing his best to play it. However, hon. Members will have been astonished by the way in which he has done it. Throughout his speech, he acknowledged a range of problems with the Licensing Act 2003.
At a time when the Act is almost due to be implemented, a Minister stood before us and promised that he would continue to consult group after group—village halls, carnivals, circuses, small shops or anything that anyone cared to mention—about the various issues. He even told us that, during the summer, there would be consultation on the temporary events notices arrangements. I stress that all that relates to a measure that is already in force and is due to be effected on
All hon. Members will acknowledge that we have a serious problem of binge drinking. I mention that because the Under-Secretary wanted me to deal with his anxiety about our position. In a recent parliamentary question, I asked about the increase in violent offences connected with licensed premises. In the past 12 months alone, the figure has increased by 15 per cent., so that a staggering 50,000 such offences were committed in England and Wales in the past year. Recent figures show that admissions to accident and emergency departments resulting from alcohol abuse are now a staggering 25,000. A parliamentary question from my hon. Friend Lynne Featherstone elicited the response that, in the past 12 months, there has been an increase of 18.5 per cent. in alcohol-related deaths. We are storing up a huge problem. According to the Government's figures, 44 per cent. of 18 to 24-year-olds binge-drink at least once a month. Again from the Government's figures, we know that binge drinking costs our society more than £20 billion a year.
What has been the Government's response to that? They were elected in 1997 and it took them six years to devise their alcohol harm reduction strategy. In that time, 240,000 people died from alcohol abuse. It took until last year for the Prime Minister to acknowledge that binge drinking was a British disease. The Government did not consider existing legislation to ascertain whether it could help to tackle the problem. Legislation exists to prosecute landlords for allowing drunken or riotous behaviour on their premises. Since 1997, when the Government came to power, there has been an average of only 11 prosecutions a year. That shows how little use is made of existing legislation.
Legislation also exists to prevent people from buying drinks for others who are clearly drunk. Yet how many prosecutions have been brought since 1997? The answer is a grand total of 12—and in 2000 or 2001, none were brought.
I shall give way to all three hon. Members shortly. I simply want to make it clear that legislation exists to deal with some of the problems. The Government introduced a new measure—in the Criminal Justice Act 2001—to tackle the problem. It provides that it is an offence if an employee as well as the landlord serves alcohol to someone who is behaving drunkenly. The Under-Secretary will be interested to know that, since the measure was introduced, not one successful prosecution has been brought.
In the hon. Gentleman's litany of criticism, will he acknowledge that the Government have allowed local people to have a say in licensing in their area and to approach their democratically elected representatives about the licences? Surely he can at least acknowledge that that is a good step forward.
I am delighted that the hon. Lady believes that the Bill does that. However, people in my constituency—and, I suspect, in hers—would say that that is not the case. In the majority of cases, we have the ludicrous position whereby a local councillor, who represents an area where there are public houses, cannot get involved in the deliberations about the licensing of a specific pub. Local representatives cannot get involved. As I shall show shortly, special saturation polices, which were introduced at the last minute to help local communities, are a complete mess. I am being polite.
The hon. Gentleman recited statistics relating to death and incidents involving binge drinking. He also talked about his local community. Is he still in favour of 16-year-olds buying alcohol and drinking? Does he believe that the people of Bath would think that was a good idea?
No, I hope those people would not. The hon. Gentleman is picking up a hoary old story, but, if he wishes, I shall respond. We believe that, over time, we should move the age of majority for many events to 16. We have also made it clear that, in the current climate of binge drinking, it would be irresponsible to do what the hon. Gentleman suggests.
Instead of spending much time on that, I refer the hon. Gentleman to a good publication that he will have received in the past couple of days from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. It provides a good definition. I shall not read it out but it is in Box 1 and he can read it.
Since I have an opportunity to refer to that document, let me consider whether, in this country's climate of binge drinking, the measure that has been passed but not yet implemented will be beneficial. On the police, whom the Under-Secretary mentioned, the document states:
"The changes to licensing laws have been widely criticised by scientists, clinicians and the Police."
Leaving that and the reference to the recent conclusions of the Home Affairs Committee aside, I draw attention to the expert advice of the Science and Technology Committee. It bears reading precisely. It states:
"Central to this debate is the issue of whether or not increasing access to alcohol will lead to a rise in consumption. Experience from various countries around the world is mixed. For instance, in Perth, Western Australia, an extension of bar opening times from midnight until 1 am led to a rise in alcohol consumption, violence and drunkenness. Similar effects have been reported in Iceland, Ireland and Canada, while a reduction in licensing hours in Norway, Finland and Sweden led a decrease of alcohol consumption among heavy drinkers."
But then it quite fairly puts the other side of the argument, saying:
"On the other hand, availability of alcohol in many Mediterranean countries is not restricted and yet those countries are not affected by binge drinking on the scale seen in the UK. Overall, it appears that the prevailing drinking culture is a key factor in determining consumption patterns."
Crucially, it goes on to say:
"In those countries with a well established binge drinking culture, increasing access to alcohol has led to increased consumption."
It would be absolutely crazy to press ahead with this legislation without first having put in place measures to tackle binge drinking.
The hon. Gentleman was rather cheekily challenged on his party's attitude to binge drinking. Might not that intervention have had rather more force had not one of No. 10's policy advisers, Miss Casey, given a rather different interpretation of binge drinking last week? It ill becomes Labour Members to take up that issue tonight before there has been a full recantation of such views by such an important adviser.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, although the Government are obsessed with public research, they are ignoring their own research into public opinion, which shows that the country is not with the Government on this issue? The country does not want an extension of licensing hours. Market towns such as Newport, Shifnal and Albrighton in my constituency see the after-effects of binge drinking on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
The hon. Gentleman is largely right. However, I suspect that his constituents, like mine, will welcome some aspects of the Licensing Act, such as the increased powers of the police to take action against bad behaviour in pubs and clubs. Some people might, in certain circumstances, welcome the flexibility that the Act provides, but there are many other aspects about which people are rightly concerned.
I do not wish to repeat the points made by Mrs. May, who identified a large number of problems relating to the Act. I merely wish to add a few more to the list, so that the Minister can explain, to the House and to anyone else who might be interested, how we got into a situation in which the Government have introduced legislation that is frankly a complete and utter Horlicks from beginning to end.
For example, the Act provides for an escalator for the fees charged for big pubs in town centres where there are problems. That is fine—we understand the "polluter pays" principle—but why will nightclubs not have to pay an escalating fee as well? Nightclubs contribute equally to the problem in many of our town centres, yet they will get away scot-free. That simply does not make sense. Why will pubs have to pay £1,200 for the first year and £700 in subsequent years, when nightclubs will pay nothing? We know the answer. The legislation defined nightclubs as not being primarily for the sale of alcohol. The Government should have spotted that and done something about it.
At Question Time yesterday, I raised the issue of a special saturation policy. Surely the Minister must acknowledge that only about one in five local authorities have availed themselves of what might have been a good opportunity for local communities to control problems in their locality, because, as Andrew McNeill, the director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies says,
"it's going to be a legal minefield".
We need a solution to that problem.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead and the Minister have talked about a late surge in applications. Has it not occurred to the Minister why there is a late surge? It is because of the way in which the Act is framed. It says, bizarrely, that if someone applied for their new licence on the first named day, back on
Peter Luff is not in his place at the moment, but I know that he is particularly exercised about this aspect of the Act. He had a debate on the subject in Westminster Hall on
Can the Minister tell me whether the licensee of a hotel will breach the Licensing Act if a 16-year-old is left by themselves in a room in that hotel that has a mini-bar? Hoteliers are concerned to know. Clearly, after a month, the hon. Gentleman still does not know. I shall try again with another point. Is it illegal for a 16-year-old to go into a supermarket between midnight and 5 am to buy a loaf of bread, if that supermarket is selling alcohol?
That is perfectly legal, and on the hon. Gentleman's other point, we have no policy objective of making that illegal either, so both those points are distractions.
The question is not whether that is a policy objective but whether the legislation makes it illegal or not. Can the Minister tell us whether it is legal in relation to the hotel?
It is legal. Good. Many people will be delighted to know that we have an answer. Equally, however, many questions remain unanswered.
In relation to the point raised by my hon. Friend Mr. Heath about carnivals, the Minister has said that the Government will look into his helpful suggestion. The Minister should be aware, however, that under the current legislation a float in a carnival can legally go ahead and not require a licence, but the marching band coming behind the float is likely to be in breach of the legislation, which is why carnivals, which are often hybrids of floats and marching bands, are so concerned.
The Minister agreed to look into the issue of circuses, but we still do not have clear answers. He has also agreed to look into the issue of village and community halls, but again we do not have clear examples. In relation to temporary event notices, he says that consultation on the details has not even started, and he said interestingly today that the number of events in a particular village or community hall will be considered before such a temporary event notice will be given, which will be welcomed by the House.
The Government have also made a Horlicks in their failure to do much about the legislation once they got it through Parliament. The Minister has only recently been on his grand tour, having all his press conferences, having photographs taken and sending out leaflets. It was far, far too late. The Government must take much of the blame for the low take-up, not only because of the fee structure but because of the failure to publicise the legislation.
Is the Minister aware of the problem in respect of theatres? We are told of a figure of 33 per cent. overall, but I have evidence that only 10 per cent. of theatres have so far applied. Will he advertise to them the need to do something? Why are so many parent-teacher associations, individual schools and others still applying in their droves to magistrates courts for licences for events that will take place after
Why have local authorities, which were abiding by the guidance issued by the Department, only recently started to be slightly more flexible about whether they can accept application forms in the wrong colour ink? Many application forms have been rejected because they are in the wrong red ink. At long last, the Department has said that local authorities should forget the guidance that it issued, and that it was perhaps a bit over the top. [Interruption.] That is true, and the Minister should be aware of it.
All that is not surprising, because everything was done so late in the day. The fee regulations were published on
Delay in respect of the pub use class orders also raises issues. We were told that pubs were going to be made a single class order. A press release issued on behalf of the then Minister for Housing and Planning on
I genuinely believe, and I say to the Minister, that there is no evidence to suggest that the Act will help deal with binge drinking. It is clear that it is extremely uncertain that it will. It would therefore be sensible to delay implementation. The Government could and should be doing a number of things, such as providing for better labelling of alcoholic drinks, more funds for treatment of alcohol abuse and improved alcohol education in our schools—and what about at least giving the House some benchmark statistics to enable us to judge whether the Act, if implemented, will have led to the improvements that the Minister has claimed for it? We have seen no evidence of the Government's willingness even to consider producing agreed figures of that kind.
We also need to know about a minimum price policy. At present there is total confusion over the ruling of the Office of Fair Trading on whether local authorities have power to set a minimum price for drinks.
The Act was rushed through, not as a result of a desire to deal with binge drinking but to pander to the youth vote, as we know from the infamous text message
"Cldnt give a XXXX for last orders? Vote Labour for xtra time."
We know why the legislation was introduced. It was not introduced to address the issues of binge drinking. It was introduced in haste, without thought. Indeed, as the Minister said, the Government are still thinking about it now. It is full of problems, and is causing a great deal of difficulty to a great many people. It would be far better to concentrate on some of the other measures that could deal with binge drinking before implementing the Licensing Act.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. For about half an hour this evening, Members and Peers were prevented from entering the building while the House was sitting. If the sitting had been suspended or the building had been evacuated, that would have been a legitimate reason for refusing entry. However, if it is the Metropolitan Police Commissioner who, in contravention of the Sessional Orders, has prevented Members from entering, may I ask for Mr. Speaker to request the Home Secretary to come and make a statement to the House? I believe that that is a serious contempt of Parliament and know of no constitutional precedent for Members being refused entry while the House is in session.
What we need are more flexible opening hours, and that is one welcome aspect of the Act. Flexible opening hours will certainly be a big improvement on the current position. Few if any establishments will want to open for 24 hours. Indeed, I think the Minister confirmed that none had applied to do so. A more flexible system to replace a single chucking-out time will probably lead to a more staggered leaving of pubs and clubs—if that is the right term to use in this context. It would not work if some pubs closed at 1 am, some at 2 am and some at 3 am, because people would simply move from one to another, but I think that the later such establishments stay open, the more likely people are to disperse gradually. The current thinking of the Tyneside police is that the appropriate time is 3 am. I do not know whether that is the case, but it is probably about right.
The Act will be an improvement on the current system because of that greater flexibility and because there will be a single licence rather than the six for which people must often apply nowadays. After the initial registration, there will be less red tape. The Act will also bring more local control and more consideration of the needs of local communities.
Given the concerns of many chief constables, might it not have been better to trial the arrangements in certain towns to establish whether they would indeed reduce binge drinking and the violence that results from it?
So far as I am aware, this proposal has been trialled throughout Europe, and notably in Scotland, for many years. The experience is that flexible opening does lead to less binge drinking and to less trouble on the streets.
The Act will also give local representatives more power to control licensed premises in their area in the interests of the local community, and to tailor activities and opening hours accordingly. For instance, local authorities might treat pubs and clubs on housing estates differently from those in city centres. But there is no doubt that implementation has led to some problems and I hope that the Minister will look again at how some of them might be alleviated. I do not share in the doom and gloom and cries of "Chaos!" from Opposition Members, but there are some issues that need to be addressed.
Last week, I had the honour to be elected joint chair of the all-party group on non-profit-making members' clubs. There are more than 5,000 of these private clubs throughout the country, and they are covered by the Working Men's Club and Institute Union and the Committee of Registered Clubs' Associations. Such clubs include working men's clubs, Royal British Legion clubs, RAF clubs, and Labour, Conservative and Liberal clubs. They are run for, and by, the members themselves. The members elect the committees and the committees elect the secretaries. They do not have the resources or the professional expertise of the big organisations. They are run by—dare I say it?—amateurs, although often very professionally. Some do have full-time secretaries, but they are not the professionals whom we expect to see in the big organisations.
There is no doubt that many club secretaries have found filling in the 18-page form daunting. I agree with Mrs. May—that does not happen often—that, regardless of the number of boxes that club secretaries eventually need to tick, they still have to read the entire form to decide which need to be ticked and which do not. I spoke to one of my local club secretaries—a very intelligent man who runs an excellent club—as recently as last Saturday, and on first receiving the form, he found it daunting and put it away in a drawer. On looking at it carefully some time later, he discovered that it was not as daunting as he first thought. On the other hand, club secretaries are often elderly and not necessarily computer literate. They have found dealing with these issues difficult, which may explain why less than 25 per cent. of clubs have returned their applications to date. Of course, the rate of return is increasing as
I am afraid to say that there has also been a considerable increase in the associated costs for clubs. A £16 licence will now cost £190, and to that must be added the cost of solicitors. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead said that solicitors have a licence to print money, but they have never needed a licence—they do it without one. Architects' plans are very expensive and we should also consider the cost of advertising. Some newspapers have capitalised on the situation by doubling the cost of such advertising. Clubs are having to fork out as much as £1,000—that is not an unusual sum—to comply with the administration associated with this legislation, so this is a problem. The Minister said that the legislation will save the industry some £2 million a year, but it will not save working men's clubs and non-profit making members' clubs that sort of money. They do not make a profit, so the extra costs will have to fall on the members.
On Monday, I asked the Minister whether he would include a representative of clubs on the licensing fees review panel, which Sir Les Elton will chair. The fee structure is a very important issue for clubs, so I hope that he will look at it and that more can be done to help clubs through that vehicle. Will he also look at the way in which local authorities are handling this matter? There is evidence to suggest that some councils and some police forces are pressurising clubs into applying for a premises licence, rather than the club premises certificate. That might make matters easier for local authorities and the police, but it will not be advantageous to clubs. They would be well advised not to take that course and to stick to the premises certificate.
There are some advantages for clubs in the new legislation. One is that they will be able to hold up to 12 special events in which non-members can participate without having to apply each time for a special licence. That will apply to weddings, christenings, birthdays and so forth and is to be welcomed. That was the intention. However, we now find that some local authorities take the view that if "The Dog and Duck" darts team visits the local club for a game of darts, that represents one of those special events. If that happens, all the special events in most clubs will be taken up in the first month, which I am sure is not what the Minister intended. I hope that he will look further into the problem and ensure that local authorities are advised that that is not the intention behind the Act.
In its operation, once up and running, the Act will be an improvement on the legislation that it replaces. It contains many welcome provisions and will make for a more flexible and less bureaucratic system. However, for whatever reason, it is causing initial difficulties and could lead to some smaller clubs and organisations losing their rights to trade after
My right hon. Friend Mrs. May provided us with a long list of complainants and most of the complaints also apply to my constituency. However, I want to focus on one particular aspect—village halls. The Prime Minister gave us a glimmer of hope, and the Leader of the House a faint glimmer of hope the next day, but I have to say that, in a Westminster Hall debate, the Minister brushed aside village halls in about five words. He seems to be a little more amenable this evening. I rather hope that we can secure much more rapid progress than he suggested in his opening speech.
As I mentioned in an intervention during the Westminster Hall debate, my constituency has about 32 villages, almost all of which have halls as well as churches that also have halls. I estimate a total of about 50 such halls in my constituency.
I cannot remember receiving so much vitriolic correspondence from so many people as I have received in connection with these halls. I would like to present to the Minister a few extracts from those letters. People from the Leigh village hall, for example, justly proclaimed that the hall was
"a central component of village life, providing the premises in which many activities are pursued. It is managed and maintained by a group of very publicly-spirited villagers, who give considerable time and effort to ensure it is always available as a clean" and attractive venue. They are deeply concerned about the new regulations and the fees, which they believe are already discouraging their voluntary helpers. It is, they state,
"the antithesis of proclaimed government intent to support and reinvigorate rural communities such as Leigh."
Their point is that people living in rural areas who
"give up their time, on a voluntary basis, to support their village hall" after returning home from work in the evenings or on Saturday and Sunday mornings
"are alarmed at encroaching regulation, which makes it increasingly difficult to sustain their hall", which plays an "essential part" of village life.
Another example is from people associated with the Beare Green village hall. I shall pick out just a few points from a very long letter. The letter explains that the hall has been sustained up to now on the basis of making a tiny profit from each event. It runs a number of events and views a good profit as £100. Presently, six event licences cost £10 in total, but under the new regime, each temporary event notice licence will cost £21, putting the total up to £126, which obliterates more than the profit from one event.
A letter from Ripley village hall states:
"The appointment of a Premises Supervisor will be virtually impossible due to the unreasonable burdens placed upon the position."
Another example comes from one of my tiniest villages with a tiny hall. Thus, Holmbury St. Mary
"would like to emphasise that for small, multi-use halls such as ours, which are run entirely by volunteers for a local rural community, this new Act is a nightmare. The paperwork is oppressive whilst the limit of only 12 functions per year at which alcohol can be present is far too small."
Thirty is the number that it would like.
I am aware that some of my hon. Friends want to add to my comments, so I shall be prompt. Essentially, under the new regime, people associated with my village halls feel that there is excessive bureaucracy. They have to produce plans, but they are not clear why they are required. Some have felt the need, as mentioned earlier, to consult lawyers and they are also required to produce an operating schedule—whatever that is for these tiny little halls.
Generally, each of these little village halls is run by a small group of people who are bullied and cajoled into serving. No one wants to be the designated licence holder. All the people to whom I have spoken think it ludicrous that the temporary event notice licence has been set at one dozen, and most would like the limit to be three or four dozen. Moreover, all of them feel that the fees are far too high, especially given the minimal profit—if any—that the halls make. The House must bear it in mind that most village halls are run for the community, not for profit.
Some positive points have been made in the debate. I hope that the Minister will take them forward, and that he will do so quickly, as village halls that do not break even will close and never open again. I am tempted to suggest that Ministers might consider setting a de minimis level for some of the very small halls. Such halls serve very small communities and are run by a very few people, and they could easily fall below the de minimis level.
In such cases, there is clearly a need for a dramatic reduction in the fees. I hope that the Minister will consider changing the thinking behind the Act slightly and introducing the concept of personal licence holders for temporary events. Under that proposal, the person running an event would apply for a licence, at the previous level of £10. He or she would take responsibility for the event, with the result that the hall would not have to provide a person who would be personally responsible.
Local halls are vital in rural areas such as mine. Surrey is full of such halls, and they are of enormous value. Events such as Guy Fawkes night, Christmas and new year's eve will be on us soon, and the House must remember that local halls also present film evenings, opera sessions and so on. Although he does not come from a rural area, I hope that the Minister will accept that they play a very important role. We must save our village halls but, if it is not changed, this Act will destroy them.
I rise to support the amendment and oppose the motion. The somewhat apocalyptic opening speech by Mrs. May did not do justice to the real issues in this matter. In contrast, Sir Paul Beresford gave a much clearer demonstration of the genuine difficulties and offered a much more constructive approach to dealing with them.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead presented an apocalyptic vision of what local communities would be like after
I do not want to pour scorn on the genuine problems that people have raised, but overstating the case does the argument against the Act little good. I trawled through my memory for complaints that I had received about the legislation and recalled that, when the idea was first mooted 18 months ago, one sports club told me that it was worried that its bar might be priced out of activity. However, since the publication of the fees and the various regulations, I have received no correspondence whatever on the matter.
I have received correspondence from any number of my electors about nuisance from pubs, about antisocial behaviour generated by binge drinking youths and about clubs and publicans who were not prepared to recognise the legitimate concern of their neighbours about noise nuisance. I do not want to stigmatise the whole profession, because some publicans are responsible and are concerned about their locality and operate in a way that is compatible with good relations; none the less, there is substantial concern about the antisocial behaviour that is often associated with drinking.
The Act was passed in July 2003, so, by
It is only fair to point out that, in most local authority areas, the forms and guidance for applying for the new licences have been available only since the beginning of April, not two and a half years as the hon. Gentleman suggested.
No, but the hon. Gentleman overlooks the fact that there was debate with the industry and trade associations long before that. They were involved in drafting the regulations and the form from August 2004 until their publication in January or February 2005. They have had plenty of opportunity to become acquainted with the legislation and to understand the application process before the licences were available.
When the actions that the Minister spoke about earlier are supplemented locally by a proactive local authority, we can see the results. In my local authority, Brighton and Hove city council, until the beginning of last week, 78 per cent. of the premises expected to apply for a new licence had done so and more did so at the beginning of the week—I declare a non-registerable interest, as I have done before, as my wife is chair of its licensing committee. National action coupled with a proactive local licensing authority, offering support to the trade, can pay off. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I most certainly agree. Indeed, my hon. Friend has just taken the next section of my speech from me.
When I consulted my local authority, Sandwell metropolitan borough council, it was clear that it saw no problem. It has engaged in a consultation and advisory exercise with people who were affected by the legislation locally. The authority anticipates being able to meet demand for applications from would-be licensees and has said that, if it is necessary for staff to work long, extra hours to get the licences through in time, they will do so. It reflects well on the local authority and emphasises the point made by my hon. Friend. With a proactive Government and a proactive local authority, the difficulties can be overcome.
My hon. Friend Jonathan Shaw mentioned the kebab trade association, and that is an area of concern. In Sandwell, we have 23 kebab sellers, not one of which has as yet applied for the licence. I make a public offer to the Minister—unfortunately he is not in his place, but I am sure that his colleague will convey it to him—to come to Sandwell and share a kebab at one of our magnificent local culinary establishments to promote the need to license them. I assure him of a warm welcome.
That is a good point. For a start, they can speak in the Chamber to advertise the issue. I shall certainly ensure that my press release goes out to emphasise the point. When MPs know, after consultation with the local authority, that certain groups of licensees have not yet engaged with the process, they have an obligation to ensure that those people are informed of the need for a licence. We should do everything in our power to promote the new procedure.
I note that the Opposition want to extend the deadline for the submission of applications, but I seriously caution against that. Whatever deadlines are set, some people—for a variety of reasons—will not meet them. Penalties accrue if people do not return their tax forms, but some still fail to do so. If we put back the deadlines, the danger is that it will send the wrong messages to people. The Government have already had one of the longest possible consultation periods and extended the deadline already. A further extension would send the message that there is not much pressure on applicants to send in their forms, and that would be counter-productive. Selling alcohol is a serious professional responsibility. If people wish to sell alcohol in our local communities but cannot—after the whole process we have been through—get an application in on time, it raises serious questions about whether they should be allowed to do so.
My greatest concern is that, if we postpone the deadlines, we would also postpone all the other aspects of the legislation to deal with drunken and antisocial behaviour, including possible enforced closures and increased fines, which the public want. The Opposition's argument is that, because some difficulties have been experienced with the applications and fees from the licences, the whole raft of benefits from the legislation—which the majority of the public desperately want—should be postponed. That is not a credible position.
The Act is deregulatory, which the Opposition say they favour. It is cost-effective and, in the long run, will be simpler for those involved. Above all, it provides much needed associated provisions that would deal with the social problems that plague us day in and day out. I therefore support the Government's position on the legislation.
I am delighted to follow Mr. Bailey. I am pleased that, in his considered opinion, he thinks that the measure is deregulatory. I invite him to spend some time with Mr. Rodney Tate, chairman of the Swineshead village hall management committee, to whom I shall refer again later, who spent at least a week of his life dealing with the complexities of the 2003 Act, so that he can discuss his view of its deregulatory nature. I am not sure whether that meeting should take place at the village hall or in the kebab shop, but perhaps they could come to an accommodation there.
I shall do my best to be brief, as other hon. Members want to speak and an awful lot has been said already. I wish to tell the Minister that I revert to my usual position, which is that very few items of legislation are wholly bad or wholly good. I put the point to him that I put to the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, James Purnell: Conservative Members' complaint is that all the evidence suggests that certain aspects of the legislation are defective and possibly highly damaging. What we seek on behalf of our constituents is a review of those items that are most damaging.
I am not persuaded by what the Minister said, when he suggested that, because of his meeting with ACRE this afternoon, the concerns of village halls have been well taken into account during the consultation procedure. Hon. Members with village halls in their constituencies know that those representing village halls have been engaged in an active national campaign for months to draw the attention of the Minister and the Government to their concerns. An eleventh-hour meeting shortly before the Act is implemented is hardly evidence of consultation or good faith.
I was not particularly taken in by that suggestion; nor was I particularly convinced by the fact that the matters in the Minister's remit about which he could take quick and urgent decisions were being referred to Sir Les for adjudication. It is unfortunate, of course, that the very mention of Sir Les brings to all our minds the great Sir Les Patterson, as personified by Barry Humphries, who knew so much about the cultural delights of alcohol that he was made the cultural attaché to the Court of St. James's. I know that this Sir Les is not the same one, but I think that he will live in our minds because of that very identification.
I wish to refer briefly to the efforts made by my constituent, Rodney Tate, who has been engaged in long correspondence with both newspapers and others to set out the problems. I pay tribute to him. Like my hon. Friend Sir Paul Beresford, I am picking out one example—I could pick out many more, as there are 54 parish councils, well over 70 villages and a lot of village halls in my constituency. Rodney's criticisms are shared by a good number of others. I am grateful to Sue Norman of the Bedfordshire Rural Communities Charity, who has also been very active on behalf of village halls, which she loves and promotes. She shares with many others genuine concerns about the legislation's impact.
Rodney has been mentioned before in a previous speech as bringing the House up to date about these concerns. Swineshead is a village with 125 people in the northern part of North-East Bedfordshire. It has no pub—the pub closed about 10 years ago—and no shop. An active village hall committee is absolutely vital to the village's well-being. Profits are modest and are used to benefit the village, so the taking away of any profits in extra bureaucracy makes a substantial difference.
Notwithstanding the review that is sent to Sir Les, I ask the Minister to pay urgent and immediate attention to issues that relate to cost in the first instance. The village hall's direct licensing costs this year will increase from £10 per annum to £240. As my right hon. Friend Mrs. May mentioned, the annual renewal charge will be £70 for that village hall. Villagers can think of better uses for that hard-raised money than spending it on those extra costs.
The excessive bureaucracy was somewhat dismissed by the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West, but Mr. Tate tells us that he has spent a total of a week on seminars, form filling and correspondence. He draws attention to the fact that thousands of on-licence premises now need to apply for a variation of their new premises licences so that they can retain the extended opening hours over bank holiday weekends that were previously granted by magistrates' block extensions. As Mr. Clelland said in his good and measured speech, that leads to extra fees, advertisements and notices to official bodies, so there is more bureaucracy to do something that is currently achieved with little fuss.
When the Minister conducts his review, will he consider the different interpretations of the Act by local authorities that is leading to different levels of fees being charged in otherwise similar circumstances? The duties of designated premises supervisors has again been raised because their onerous nature is driving people away from volunteering to do that important social job in their villages.
Additionally, individuals need to be trained to get a personal licence. Mr. Tate tells me that such training costs about £150, but the training needed for the licence holder at Swineshead village hall gives him the power to be the licence holder at much bigger premises, such as a town-centre pub. There is no correlation between the two roles, so the licence is being used inappropriately. It is ridiculous to train someone in a village hall in all the techniques required to run a big city-centre pub.
My postbag is remarkably silent about that. Scratching my head, I suspect that the answer is between nil and one, but I shall let the House know if that turns out to be wrong. My hon. Friend makes a fair point.
Mr. Tate was recently required to adhere to special conditions of the public entertainment licence that is now required at Swineshead village hall. Condition 3 said that by
"arrange for and maintain at least one Senior Member of staff"—
Mr. Tate does not have any members of staff—
"to be the holder of the British Institute of InnKeeping Awarding Body's . . . National Certificate for Entertainment Licensees."
That seems to be rather unnecessary, as Mr. Tate pointed out in his letter to the local authority.
Another special condition has caused even greater concern in Swineshead. Bedford borough council's special condition 8 told the people of Swineshead:
"There shall be no provision of lap, pole, table or podium dancing or similar style dancing or striptease without prior written consent of the Service Manager (Registration and Administration). This Licence does not constitute such written consent."
Mr. Tate was proper enough to respond to the borough council. He wrote:
"Condition 8 seems wholly inappropriate for a small rural village hall, but since we should never wish to engage in the banned practices, we should not object to this condition."
I merely point out to the House the nonsense of such a condition even being suggested to a village hall, notwithstanding the fact that now that I have publicised it, I might be inundated with letters from the good people from Swineshead who perhaps do not agree with their chairman's quick approach on such a condition.
I shall rest my case. Conservative Members have tried to suggest that elements of the Act are nonsense for village halls. Despite the humour that some objections have caused, the serious point is exactly that raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley. The people who run village halls are volunteers, so the burden of their paperwork will be onerous. The money taken out of village halls due to bureaucracy will be lost to communities.
People genuinely fear that damage will be caused. This is not scaremongering; it is real for those who have been campaigning on the matter for a long time. If the Minister and his colleagues can encourage Sir Les to conduct a rapid review of the circumstances and make some concessions for village halls, perhaps the Bill's good aspects will not be swept away with concerns about the bad.
It is a great pleasure to follow Alistair Burt, who put his case in his usual measured way. I feel I now know everything there is to know about Swineshead, and am all the better for it. I can boast more villages in my constituency than he can. I have 88, many with pubs and village halls, and I am doing my bit to publicise the licensing laws by going around as many of them as I can.
I look forward immensely to
I noticed two different approaches from the Opposition parties. The Liberal Democrats took a fundamental approach. Unlike some of my colleagues, I like Liberal Democrats. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] I do. Progressives are few and far between in North Yorkshire. It was once a completely blue county and we had many alliances. It is a cause of particular disappointment to me that Mr. Foster has gone back to the original Lloyd George position. The logic of his argument is that there should be no flexibility in opening hours. What would that do for binge drinking? People who go out under our current restrictive licensing laws are younger people. Our towns and city centres would remain dominated by them and they would have the same incentives to drink far too much far too quickly.
According to an incomplete survey by the all-party beer group, more than 2,000 licensed premises have applied for extended hours. They do not want 24-hour opening, but an extra hour or two on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday. Those premises have had no objections and the applications have gone through on the nod. The only controversial application that I have been involved in was for the Charles pub in Heslington village. It is a student pub with a long record of complaints of noise and nuisance, and the application was rejected.
I worry about the change in the Liberal Democrats' position. The hon. Gentleman said—I am sorry he is not in the Chamber to hear my little critique—that it is a pity that only a fifth of local councils have adopted the saturation clauses. Many rural districts do not have the problems of saturation of licensed premises that might be found in urban areas. It is not surprising that only a few of them have taken up that option.
I advise the hon. Gentleman to be careful in his choice of quotes. He called in aid the Institute of Alcohol Studies as part of his criticism. One of its main funding bodies is the UK Temperance Alliance, which approaches the debate in a certain way.
On village halls and sports clubs, the Minister has not done at all badly in recent weeks in grasping the issues quickly. Perhaps village hall and sports club secretaries are made of sterner stuff in Selby than they are in Surrey, but I have had only one letter on the subject. I do not mean to decry the seriousness of the subject. The one sports group that wrote to me is having to pay a £300 fee. On the other hand, it is getting £17,000 in rate relief from the Government. It is a large sports club. I worry more about the smaller sports clubs and some of the smaller village halls.
Some interesting ideas have been put to the Minister, such as basing rateable value on the size of the bar and extending somewhat the number of temporary event notices. However, until Sir Les Elton undertakes his study and takes his evidence, it will be difficult to judge the impact of raising the number of temporary event notices from 12 to 15. What difference would that make to village halls? How many village halls would that help? By bringing forward the initial study and the initial review by 12 months so that we have the report by November, I think that my hon. Friend the Minister is responding to criticisms that are real but can be exaggerated.
In the week that we won the Olympics, I hope that some of the London councils will now adopt a less churlish approach to the Act. The leader of Westminster city council has been quoted in a positive way. I am glad that he is beginning to recognise the potential for the development of London's entertainment sector in a safe way but also in an innovative way, now that councils have a say in licensing. We do not need a great structure of bureaucracy to implement the provisions in the Act in Westminster or in any of the London authorities, as health and safety and environment provisions are already very much in place. The fire authority is also in place, so those provisions do not need to be replicated.
We need, however, to get a night life in London that is fit for the Olympic games. One of the first meetings that I went to about licensing laws was held by an organisation called London First. It said that we would never get a great sporting event unless we had a safe and varied night life of which we could be proud. We have six or seven years to get that right.
The hon. Member for Bath has missed most of my critique, but as someone who went to Singapore and argued the case strongly for Britain, can he imagine having the Olympic games in London in 2012 without having some form of flexible opening hours? Will all the many visitors to London and all the many athletes, unlike in Athens last summer, have to go home at 11 pm? What a laughing stock we would be if that were the case.
I have a long-standing interest in the subject of the debate. My constituency was one of the very last in Wales to put an end to Sunday closing, which was one of the last gasps of specifically Welsh 19th century liberalism. As we used to say in my constituency, "If you want to drink on Sunday, you will have to wait until Monday."
I share with other Members serious concern about the hard-drinking culture that seems to be prevalent, particularly among young people. I represent a tourist area, and there are concerns about the effects of the Act on small bed-and-breakfast businesses. My particular concern, which I have taken up with the Minister before, relates to the unavailability of Welsh language application forms so close to the deadline of
As I have said, I have discussed the matter with the Minister previously. I had a useful meeting with him, along with my hon. Friend Mr. Llwyd and others. I am glad that the Minister has moved from his initial position with reference to the non-production of Welsh language forms when he said:
"The decision was taken that as most of the applications would be processed in English, it would be better for them to be submitted in English".— [Hansard, 13 June 2005; Vol. 434, c. 8.]
That is decidedly not the case.
I raised a further question with him yesterday because the situation has moved on in that Conwy county borough council in north Wales has now produced Welsh versions of the prescribed English forms. These Welsh versions are not prescribed, and I take the point that the Minister has made that it will not now be possible to prescribe Welsh language forms for another three months or so. However, the Minister has indicated that the Government are willing for local authorities in Wales to use the Conwy translation for now. That is all right as far as it goes, but some local authorities worry that a precedent might be established. If central Government have not provided the appropriate Welsh language documents, those authorities fear that they may be expected to step in. I hope that the current circumstances are unique and that no such precedent has been set.
There are, however, further problems. Some local authorities may take the prudent view that they should not use forms that are not officially prescribed. Would they be liable if there were a dispute with an unsuccessful applicant, who could cite the fact that the Welsh forms that they used were not prescribed? More straightforwardly, who would be liable if there was a mistake in translation? Licensees might reasonably expect to use officially prescribed Welsh language forms and could be wary about using locally produced versions. Hon. Members may wonder how the situation has arisen and how the Government have got into a fix so close to the
Finally, on a positive note, the Minister will be glad to hear that subsequent to our discussions, my own local authority, Gwynedd county council will adopt and adapt the Conwy forms. Those forms may be used in only a small number of cases, but I hope that they will solve the problem. The council will also take steps to publicise the availability of the Welsh language forms, and will target information at applicants who may wish to use them. I do not know whether all local authorities in Wales will take such action, but the positive steps taken by Gwynedd county council are welcome. It has pointed out, however, that Conwy county borough council has translated only five of the 100 or so forms available in English. The sooner that all prescribed forms are available in Welsh the better.
As I said, the problem has arisen because of a weakness in the 1993 Act. DCMS was not asked to produce a Welsh language scheme, so it was not prompted to produce Welsh language forms. In Wales, that is interpreted as a reason for a further review of the Act and, indeed, as proof that it needs to be replaced. That is certainly my position, and it is the position of my party.
I am grateful to Hywel Williams for keeping his speech brief and giving me an opportunity to address the House. I have discussed the issue with the Minister on previous occasions because, unlike the constituents of Mr. Bailey, two categories of people in my area have been inadvertently affected, including small, independent publicans. Much of the Licensing Act 2003 appears to have been drafted to allow major pub-owning groups to comply with the immense additional bureaucracy that, as I have seen for myself, is involved in the initial application. I appreciate that the application may not have to be repeated, but for a publican operating on his own, perhaps with the help of his wife—many of the pubs that are still going in villages in my rural constituency are run in that way—the prospect of having to complete a 77-page application is overwhelming. In a village near Bridgnorth that I shall not name for fear of precipitating problems, the publican is in the throes of deciding whether to carry on, given the challenge of completing the application form, not least the requirement to provide a seating plan of his pub. For what purpose? What on earth has that got to do with having a licence or not having a licence? There may be other health and safety reasons, such as fire regulations, for providing a seating plan showing the position of the chairs, but that has nothing to do with a licence. That is one category about which I am concerned.
As the Minister is present, I want to raise an issue that was touched on by the hon. Member for Caernarfon—small guest houses. He mentioned bed and breakfasts in his constituency. We have a number of small guest houses in some of the towns in my constituency. I am thinking particularly of Church Stretton, an area that is trying to attract rural tourism. A number of the small houses there might have two or three bedrooms for use as bed-and-breakfast accommodation. They have a licence for the sale of the odd bottle of wine. The Minister said that the legislation would save money for these licence holders. At present a three-year licence costs £30. The licensees now face a tenfold increase in the cost of obtaining a licence. If they are selling only a few bottles of wine a year, I am told they will not bother to carry on doing so. So the Act may reduce the services available to the tourists in the area, making it less attractive and reducing economic activity.
My constituent who runs The Studio restaurant in Church Stretton was unfortunate enough to go up a rateable value band as a result of the change in the rateable valuation. As a result, his fee will increase not just by 10 times the current charge, but more like 20 times, from £30 to £730 for no reason whatsoever, other than that his rateable value just tipped him over into band B.
The second category, village halls, has been mentioned by many hon. Members. Rather than quote at length from the raft of examples raised with me by village hall committees, I shall pick up two points to illustrate the financial viability question posed by the legislation and a point about TENs. Brian Wilkes, who is the chairman of the Cleobury North and district village hall committee, tells me that the village hall
"is run entirely by volunteers and last year the income was less than £3,000, with expenses of £3,600. The difference was met by donations and fundraising. We are applying for a new licence under 'grandfather rights', however this would restrict us as we would only be allowed 12 licensed events each year."
He is concerned that the committee will not be able to put on sufficient events to meet its costs.
The other example comes from Mrs. Mollie Oatley MBE, who is the secretary to the management committee of the Newcastle community centre, which is a thriving centre but has running costs of £10,000 per annum. At present the licence is provided by the village publican, Mr. Tony Burton of the Crown Inn, who runs the community bar and provides the profits as a contribution towards the hall.
Because the committee has to hold so many events in order to meet its costs, the 12 permits allowed under the temporary events notice are insufficient, so the committee is contemplating having a full premises licence to allow 50 licensed events per annum. The problem is that Mr. Burton, as the first point of contact, is not prepared to undertake responsibility for that number of occasions during the year. As a consequence, he is proposing to pull out of the arrangement with the community centre and none of the other trustees are prepared to take it on. The point is a serious one, which I hope the Minister will address in his concluding remarks.
The legislation seems to have been with us since the ark. It is now two years and rising, and the Under-Secretary of State is the third Minister who has been sold this hospital pass. The Minister of State should know better than to have delivered it into his hands in the condition in which it arrived.
Flexible hours was never an issue. Twenty-four-hour drinking was never an issue, as the Minister continually asserts, most recently on the "You and Yours" programme only a few Fridays ago. There are real concerns, though, and there is considerable agreement on both sides of the House about what they are. They include binge drinking; the proliferation of drinking establishments in town and city centres; over-regulation; confusing, unintelligible bureaucracy; and loading unnecessary expense on sports clubs and community and village halls. Conservative Members are absolutely right to raise those matters in this debate.
The motion is not an attack on the whole Act, only on those parts of it that are not working and unlikely to work in the time scale of implementation. We agree with the Government on the objectives—protection of children, flexible opening hours, and new powers for local authorities and the police to tackle nuisance and antisocial behaviour, which was mentioned by Mr. Bailey.
However, five months into the application phase of the implementation of the Act, we are hearing alarming stories about the lack of applications, spiralling costs, widespread misunderstandings, and simple mistakes arising from the complexities of the system. In his parliamentary answer to me only a few days ago, the Minister estimated that approximately 47,500 applications for premises licenses and club premises certificates under the Act have been made—that represents approximately 25 per cent. of existing licensed premises and registered clubs—and said that he would expect 65 per cent. of those applications to involve variations. With variations, of course, come the possibility of objections, local hearings and appeals, and the rest of it. Surprisingly, the Minister went on to say that he had no estimate of the number of applications that will have included regulated entertainment as a licensable activity.
The progress of the Act from July 2003 has been dogged by periods of delay and inactivity, accompanied by a refusal by all DCMS Ministers to revisit the timetable although it has been glaringly obvious that the necessary infrastructure has not been in place early enough to move forward to the next stage. It took a whole year for the Government to finalise the guidance to the Act. That guidance, which was acknowledged by both Houses of Parliament as being fundamental to an understanding of the Act, was published only on
The application in the transition phase runs to more than 245 pages, and copies of the 26-page form that my right hon. Friend Mrs. May showed to the House have to be sent to eight "responsible authorities" plus the Licensing Authority—nine in total. The number of pages is the same whether or not one wants to change the licence in any way. Thanks to the Government's refusal to grant grandfather rights for the provision of live music under the two-in-a-bar rule and the loss of bank holiday extensions, many businesses will have to fill in 18 pages of the 26-page form that relates to varying the licence. The form is complicated and the process itself is complicated. I have had letters from individuals running clubs—experienced retired business people—who say that it took them 200 hours to complete the form satisfactorily to the Licensing Authority's requirements.
In many cases, the lack of information meant that councils could not release draft policies until September or October, thereby truncating the consultation process and time for consideration. Regulations were finally laid on
It proved difficult, without the forms, the regulations for the required plans, the advertising requirements and other similar details, for businesses and councils to plan ahead. In March, several interested parties, including the Local Government Association, the Local Authorities Coordinators of Local Services, the British Beer and Pub Association, the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, the British Institute of Innkeeping, Business in Sport and Leisure and the Association of Chief Police Officers, wrote to the then Minister to express their concern about the lack of applications to licensing authorities.
Several issues, which caused delays and obstructions in the system, were highlighted. They included a lack of awareness of the new law among existing licence holders, especially small independent businesses, and the late laying of regulations. Many of the problems could have been avoided by postponing the start of the application process—that is, the first appointed day. That would have given more time for everyone to get to grips with the intricacies of the process.
Mr. Foster mentioned the due date for annual fees, which are required to be paid on the anniversary of the granting of a licence. That provides no incentive for early applications. Other problems include: the absence of a slip rule in the regulations, which would allow the correction of minor errors rather than mean the rejection of applications; the implications of alterations to licences after the first appointed day, for example, the change of licensee, and the lack of clarity around aspects of the existing law, which the new Act perpetuates. I refer especially to embedded rights and restrictions about which the DCMS and the Local Government Association cannot agree even at this late hour.
Several hon. Members mentioned village halls, including my hon. Friends the Members for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) and for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead. The Under-Secretary's concession of an offer to revisit TENs is tantamount to accepting that the Act has got it wrong. Although it is reassuring to know that he spoke to representatives of ACRE only today, they must have told him what they told us back in spring 2003. ACRE was not offered meetings then, and the Government arrogantly rejected its sensible proposals for practical implementation of the new licensing regime.
We tabled amendments to address the key issues of the number of temporary permissions, the special case for voluntary and non-profit-making organisations, increased costs for licensing and the added administrative burdens for volunteers in village communities. The relevant amendment in Committee was No. 213, which was moved at column 456 of the Official Report of Standing Committee D on
Many hon. Members raised the time scale for implementation, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead, the hon. Member for Bath and the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West. The cut-off date of
We can well understand the Minister's reluctance to indicate any slippage at this juncture, but if the fears of many of those directly involved are realised, the sheer volume of applications sitting with local authorities and the cases queuing up for appeal hearings will force the Minister to do a major U-turn. As with so many sensible and practical suggestions relating to this legislation, "You heard it here first!"
When licensing and entertainment are on the agenda, we always have a lively debate. We have certainly had one this evening. There is broad consensus that the objectives of the Bill—[Interruption.] Well, Alistair Burt, who is one of the more measured Members of the House, made a very sensible contribution—
Yes, but it was a very measured one. He homed in on a problem that has been discussed again this evening, namely that of village halls. We will take those issues on board through the high-level committee. One issue has been taken out of context today: Members said that there had been just one meeting with ACRE. There has been a whole series of such meetings, and ACRE welcomed the fact today that we had moved on temporary licensing. I should like to quote ACRE's newsletter of June 2005. It states:
"ACRE (Action with Communities in Rural England) has been following the implementation of the Act and working with the Communications and Strategy Team at DCMS who have been very helpful in explaining the new processes and providing guidance and legal interpretation of the new legislation. They have set up the Live Music Forum to encourage the provision of live music in licensed premises . . . and published Countdown to explain the Act in a user-friendly way . . . Training sessions for village hall advisers have also taken place with the support of DCMS".
I am not going to say that all the problems have been resolved. Clearly they have not, and a great deal of concern has been expressed this evening. However, let us be clear that what we are trying to do with this piece of legislation is to modernise in a way that most sensible people would want us to. We are reducing bureaucracy by merging six regulatory regimes into one. That is important for this country. This is about bringing the licensing regime into the 21st century. Central to that is the empowerment of local communities by increasing their right of intervention, which will be particularly important in licensing cases. The Act will enhance the democratic accountability and empowerment of local authorities; that is where we believe such powers should lie.
On the problems of binge drinking in modern society, we have removed the nuclear option that existed before. We have expanded police powers the better to enable the police to respond in a proportionate way when tackling crime and antisocial behaviour. That has been welcomed by many, particularly those in the police force and in the Association of Chief Police Officers, which recently reaffirmed its support for the Act.
The Act merges six complicated and, in some cases, outdated regulatory regimes into one. This will affect about 190,000 licensing authorities. We accept that there will be problems with implementation, but we shall be able to implement the provisions in regard to fees and to the operation of the Act, particularly for village halls and sports clubs. Mr. Moss did not choose a very good example of a club. Yesterday at Question Time, Stephen Hammond mentioned Wimbledon cricket club. The club has an adult membership of 1,200, and an additional 800 junior members. It has a 9-acre site and is one of the wealthiest clubs in the country, thanks to the six-figure sum paid to it by its neighbour, the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet club, which uses the site for car parking and corporate hospitality. It is therefore quite a wealthy club. I know that some Conservative Members might want to prosecute their case that such clubs should not pay the licence fee, but that would be wrong.
The main reason for this major piece of modernisation is something that the Opposition have been crying out for for years, namely the reduction of red tape and bureaucracy. That is what we are going to achieve. We are moving the whole licensing regime in a direction that many people in the tourism industry have been calling for. We have debated the tourism industry many times in the Chamber, and discussed how we want to modernise it and to increase its activity. The Act provides the tools to do that.
In relation to entertainment, which is linked to tourism with regard to central London, it is important that we modernise our licensing regimes. The chairman of the British Beer and Pubs Association said as late as
"have delivered flexibility. We have seen the back of the ludicrous 11 pm closing time."
Therefore, the Act has had tremendous support across the board.
In terms of sports clubs, no Government have helped truly amateur sports clubs more than we have. We introduced mandatory rate relief, for which there have been calls for more than 30 years, and our investment in amateur sports clubs is second to none. If there are problems with genuine sports clubs, we will consider that, as I said that we would with regard to village halls.
I cannot do justice to all the points raised this evening, but I will respond in writing on those that I do not cover. Let me just respond to the point made by the Opposition spokesman about 24-hour opening not being an issue. David Davis, who might be the new leader of the Conservative party, said on
"What on earth is the Government doing? In the face of these figures, its policy of 24-hour drinking is nothing short of madness."
"Given that a lot of violent crime is caused by binge drinking, it beggars belief that the Government are going ahead with 24-hour opening".
How can Opposition spokesmen say that there is no disagreement about 24-hour opening? They ought to get their act together.
As for the comments of
In relation to the points made about the Local Government Association, may I put on record the role that local government and the Local Government Association have played overall in the implementation of the Act? It has been professional, detailed and extremely helpful. I say that from my own experience. As I said at Question Time on Monday, in the case of my trades and labour club, of which I am the honorary president, the volunteer who runs it, Alan Jackson, an ex-National Union of Public Employees steward, has got our licence through without any help from solicitors. That cost under £200, and the club has a turnover of about £500,000 a year. He admitted that it was a little difficult to start with, but once the steward's wife helped with filling out the form, it was pretty simple. The only mistake that Sheffield trades and labour club made in its application for a licence is that while we have all these extensions, we will only be open until 5 o'clock in the morning on general election night. That is disgraceful—as we will win the next two elections, the extension ought to be until midday the following day.
Question accordingly negatived.
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to
Mr. Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House commends the Government on its effective publicity campaign that has significantly increased the rate of applications to convert existing licences under the Licensing Act 2003 before 6th August; encourages remaining licensees to fulfill their responsibilities and get their applications in before that date; considers that failure to implement the Act without delay would deny local communities increased powers of intervention and improved democratic accountability with regard to licensing and deny the police the expanded powers that are vital to their efforts to tackle alcohol-related crime and anti-social behaviour; welcomes the powers in the Act to prevent crime and disorder and public nuisance, and protect children from harm; believes that the Act will benefit local communities, local economies and tourism and generate savings for business of almost £2 billion over 10 years; and furthermore, believes that the Act will be successfully implemented by 24th November 2005 and will be welcomed by industry and non-commercial organisations, including village halls and sports clubs, alike.