Pavement licences

Part of Business and Planning Bill – in the House of Commons at 8:15 pm on 29th June 2020.

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Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee 8:15 pm, 29th June 2020

I rise to discuss new clause 6, which stands in my name. The Bill has been very rushed. It was announced on Thursday in the business of the House. We had to lay amendments by Friday, and I thank you, Dame Eleanor, for allowing a manuscript amendment today in order to get the new clause put forward.

As the Government rush into this legislation—I think there are questions about why that is—it is important that we make sure there are points of review and reflection about how well it is working. To put it more charitably, I am trying to save the Government from themselves. I think there is a lot of support across the House for the new clause, but in the very short time between Thursday and now, it has been hard to marshal all that and enable people to come and express their views.

The Minister may be able to answer this, but why has the Bill been quite so rushed, given that we have been in lockdown since 23 March and we knew that was coming for some time before then and given that we knew these sectors would be among the hardest hit? One would have thought that somebody in the Government would have been working up a Bill and stress-testing it before now, so that it was not such a surprise to Members of this House and sectors out there.

Local government has been caught rather by surprise. Of course it has been involved. I am not saying to the Minister that the Government have not spoken to local government. It would be extraordinary if he had come to the House from his Department and not done that. But there has not been enough detailed discussion about the impacts. We have heard, and I will not go into the detail again, about some of the impacts in constituencies such as mine and other urban constituencies with a high density of licensed premises, where antisocial behaviour has already been happening as a result.

We are already seeing problems, so there is a warning sign for the Government. The reality is that once off sales are allowed, as the hon. Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan said, at the same hours as on licensed premises—almost with a sweep of a pen, with a very short period for councils to object—we will see an awful lot more sales off the premises at all hours of the day and night. We also have the big issue about the resources involved from the police and local councils to police it.

It is easy to say, as the Minister did, that the police have certain powers and there are powers for local authorities, but the issue is the resourcing. We cannot just do all of that in one go. A lot of licences are being applied for. There are more than 1,300 licensed premises across my borough as a whole. How many licensing officers are needed to do that work? The police have other things to do with their time—certainly that is the case in my constituency, where they are dealing with serious crime issues, as well as antisocial behaviour and managing and policing social distancing and covid-19 regulations. There is a lot on everyone’s plate. We want to support businesses, but a three-month review after this has been in place would give the Government the chance to come back and either reassure us that it is all fine everywhere, or, if there are problems, look at ways of addressing that. The Minister has heard today from the Labour Front Benchers that there is strong support to get the economy going, and backing to make sure that businesses can survive the next period, as we still live in the pandemic. That is really important, certainly in a constituency such as mine with so many licensed premises, but we have to get that balance so that residents do not lose out.

This is a very mild amendment. Earlier, the Secretary of State rejected it because I had discussed a rolling amendment—I just say to the Minister that I had very little time to draft it and get advice about how to make it fit. I did not have time to discuss it in detail with the Government, otherwise I would have, and I know that other Members around the House agree with it.

I will not push the amendment to a vote today, but I am hoping that in the other place, they will have more time to think about, listen and reflect upon it, and that, in the meantime, the Government will also have time to reflect on it. Perhaps the Minister can give me some indication of whether this is something that the Government are willing to reflect on—to build in, simply, a three-month review point, so that three months after the Bill becomes an Act, the issue would come to the House again. A Minister would come to explain what is happening and we would have a debate about how this is working in our constituencies up and down the country, in the four nations of the UK, and we can make sure that we are getting it right. If there are problems then, the Government would have my backing to bring in certain powers to ensure that the antisocial behaviour that I fear this may herald is tackled, and I am sure that the Government would have the backing of other Members.

It would be helpful to hear from the Government about their thinking on this very mild amendment. We pushed for a review of the covid-19 legislation, which was pretty draconian. That was accepted by the Government and I propose this review in a similar spirit. I do not think that this will provide uncertainty for businesses. A review, when there has been such cross-party support in general for a proposal that supports businesses, is unlikely to completely reverse it, but it may allow for amelioration of some of the worst impacts if they materialise, as I fear they may in my constituency, or it may allow for different approaches to how the measures are applied in different nations of the UK, different regions or different cities.

They key thing is that if we have the review, it would give the Government and the House an option to look at this again. I think that something as draconian as this—the biggest change in licensing rules for decades—warrants a review. Some of these licences will be granted for a year if they pass through on the nod. A lot of them will go through very fast because of a lack of resources in local authorities. I urge the Minister to take my suggestion for this amendment constructively. I will not push it to a vote today because I recognise that, although the Bill is rushed, the amendment is also rushed. I hope, however, that the other place will consider it, that the Government will approach it thoughtfully and that when the Bill returns to this place, we can consider having a three-month review.