Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Bill: Progress

Oral Answers to Questions — Communities – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 22 June 2021.

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Photo of Sinéad Ennis Sinéad Ennis Sinn Féin 2:15, 22 June 2021

3. Ms Ennis asked the Minister for Communities for an update on the progress of the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Bill [NIA 10/17-22]. (AQO 2270/17-22)

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Members will be aware that the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Bill passed its Further Consideration Stage yesterday. The Bill has taken a long time to get to where it is today, and I am happy with the progress that has been made on it in the Assembly in the past seven months. I am particularly happy with the work of the Communities Committee in scrutinising the legislation and working with me on amendments. I am also happy with the work that other Members have done over the past few weeks to help make the Bill better. Members will be glad to hear that Final Stage is scheduled for 29 June, which is next week. Having the Final Stage before the summer recess means that Royal Assent will, hopefully, take place over the summer months.

Photo of Sinéad Ennis Sinéad Ennis Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for that. I think everybody will agree that modernisation of our liquor laws was long overdue. I know that the hospitality sector is supportive and appreciative of the Minister's attempts to get the Bill passed as quickly as possible. The Minister referred to amendments that have been made, and she tabled a few herself, so will she reiterate the main benefits in the Bill for the sector?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

The hospitality industry has suffered during the pandemic. It will benefit from the removal of restrictions at Easter time, which will come into effect next Easter. The industry has said that that measure will see an estimated £20 million going into the local economy each year. I know from my time on Belfast City Council that easing the restrictions is a critical factor in attracting visitors to our towns and city centres over that period and in our ability to take advantage of it.

The industry will also benefit from pubs and hotels being able to open to 2.00 am, with an extension to drinking-up time, and from the creation of new categories of licence for local producers and cinemas. Those provisions are a result of the iterations of the Bill as it passed through the Assembly. The changes will better enable the hospitality sector to cater for changing customer behaviour and to support it as we grow our tourism sector.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I agree that the Bill is a step forward. As the Minister knows, I have worked with her Department on a specific amendment that provides for an independent review of our licensing system. The Bill has limitations, and the reforms are relatively modest in getting our craft beer sector to where it needs to be, so does the Minister agree that local producers should participate in the review and make their voices heard along with existing licensees? Will she also commit to appointing that independent person as quickly as possible, ideally before the end of the mandate?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

I thought that I answered that yesterday, Matthew. I am giving a commitment to try to have that person in place. The procurement will take about six months, but there is a commitment to make that appointment. If we had tried to change everything in the legislation to get it perfect, we would not have got it passed in this mandate. There was an urgency for me, because we had waited 25 years to get to this point and I did not want to wait any longer because the industry, particularly after the pandemic, is screaming for the change, as are our communities and people. Of course, more changes will be needed to the legislation in the longer term. The review will help in that regard by making sure that the legislation is fit for purpose. The legislation will, hopefully, be passed and will start to take effect by the autumn. There will be at least half a year of learning, from the enactment of the legislation, once the independent person is in place.