I noticed a look of dismay when I rose. It is 28 minutes since the proceedings began, and I have restrained myself so far. I hope that the dam has now been breached and water will flow more freely.
I am not convinced that the appeals mechanism, straight from a refusal by the SIA to a magistrates court or the High Court, is appropriate. There could be 100,000, 200,000 or even more applications subject to a licensing process. I hope that companies eventually will be subject to compulsory licensing. There will then be a lot of people heading to magistrates courts all over the realm and SIA officials will be run ragged from Manchester to Walsall to Newcastle.
I do not understand why we could not have an appeals committee within the SIA, separate from the personnel department, perhaps headed by a senior judge, and involving those not taking part in the normal process of the regulatory authority. Does the Human Rights Act make such a process impossible? If an application were turned down, for whatever reason, within the time constraints, the applicant would write off to the authority or to an independent body within the SIA. Perhaps the Minister might say that only then would the applicant turn to a magistrates court. If members of the Committee are struggling with the complexities of the Bill, and we have not even seen the hundreds of pages of regulations that will ensue, how can a group of magistrates make a decision on whether a licence shall be approved, especially if some of the information is exceedingly confidential and may be based on intelligence sources?
Unless there is an overriding argument under the Human Rights Act, deep consideration should be given to a simple procedure by which the whole process could be expedited. It could be very fair. The Minister is not only taking no prisoners, he is not taking any amendments. I hope that, even at this late stage, it might be possible to have a more efficient and fairer system and to keep it away from magistrates, who are neither interested nor competent to make a judgment in this case.
They are not competent, because they are overburdened with functions. They will have to read the legislation. They will have to do all sorts of things and this is not an appropriate matter for them.
I profoundly disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. My concern about the Bill was not in the direction that he has just suggested, but more that magistrates should have a greater role. As we pointed out on Second Reading, and as I have often said to the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, there is a danger not only in that so many magistrates courts have closed during this Parliament, but in that the Government have seemed to move, in relation to liquor licensing, away from the lay magistracy—with all the expertise that it has built up and all its independence from the licensed trade—towards a system of local councillors dealing with the matter.
We believe that lay magistrates should have a central role, so we agree with what the Government are proposing. We see no difficulty along the lines described by the right hon. Gentleman. Magistrates courts have experienced clerks to advise the lay magistrates on the nature of the law. That has always been the case. We want that to continue. Has the Minister had any further thoughts about the possible confusion that we described on Second Reading between the role of councillors in relation to licensing and what we regard as a sensible appellate role for lay magistrates, with possible further appeals beyond the magistrates to the Crown court?
I, too, take the view that a system is needed that goes to some judicial authority by way of oversight of licence granting. There are many licences, such as gaming licences and justices' licences granted for liquor and licences for music and dance. With the new licensing law, the likelihood is that more and more first decisions will be taken by local authorities. I support that. An appeal to the local court seems reasonable. People know which court it is. It is geographically based.
I differ from the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) in that I believe that magistrates are trained to be licensing magistrates. They deal with all the licences, whether for market traders, nightclubs or whatever. They are used to working out who are fit and proper people. There are sometimes lawyers in important cases who do that all the time, too. They deal with licensing matters. They may be different parts of the spectrum, but they are all under the same umbrella.
We seem to have got locked into a historical system that gives us this 21-day rule. Most people do not live life in cycles of 21 days. It would be much fairer generally to allow people a month in which to appeal. People are likely to remember. Occasionally, people fall out of time simply because they do not remember, and 21 days means nothing to them. I simply flag that up. It is really a matter for the Lord Chancellor's Department and other legal Departments as much as for the Home Office. The Minister has heard me make similar requests in the past. I simply ask him to consider a timetable that will allow people to understand the appeals process most easily.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South on successfully tweaking the tails of the lawyers. The Home Office has some sympathy with the points raised about the need for a separate appeals system, and had originally proposed that the Secretary of State should establish an appeals tribunal by regulations. The Human Rights Act 1998 and natural justice itself require an avenue of appeal against authority decisions. That is an important part of our system.
There was, however, substantial opposition in the other place—not only on the Opposition Benches—to an internalised appeals mechanism as favoured by my right hon. Friend, and originally by the Home Office, too. A powerful argument was put, which we finally decided to accept, that appeals should be to the legal system—to magistrates courts and to the Crown court.
I do not accept the suggestion that magistrates courts would not be competent to deal with such matters. Plenty of magistrates courts are competent to do so. However, I understand the point that it might be better to have an internal system, which could deal with some arguments more expeditiously than the full-scale legal process.
Does the Minister accept that one of the difficulties with an internal system would be that an aggrieved party might nevertheless go to law, and would then do so through an application for judicial review of the Security Industry Authority's decision? That could be much slower and more costly for all concerned than the appellate system to which the Government have, reluctantly but rightly, agreed.
That is one of the arguments for going straight to the legal channel, rather than through other processes first. One of the first political lessons that I learned was from John Smith, the late leader of my party. He told me, at a key time, never to forget that the law will have its way. That is an important lesson, which I learned over many years and could pass on to many others. It is the point that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath is really making, and is a reason for going down this path.
I have much sympathy, as do the Government, with the crusade of my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South to have more and more such processes dealt with in a non-legalistic way. The only aspect of his remarks that I cannot accept is that magistrates courts might not be competent to deal with such matters.
Substantial criticism, such as that made by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, of the idea of a separate appeals process—rather than going straight to the legal system—made us feel that it could stand in the way of people's access to an appeal. That is why we tabled an amendment on Report in the Lords to get rid of the kind of proposal that my right hon. Friend suggested, and to replace it with what is now in the clause. That is the history of the matter.
Points have been made about the general relationship between councillors and magistrates over licensing, but I have nothing further to add on that. It will be debated in the context of liquor licensing when any legislation to implement the White Paper that we have published is considered by the House. That will be the appropriate place for that debate.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 11 ordered to stand part of the Bill.