Clause 3 - Licensing Authorities

Licensing Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:25 am on 3rd April 2003.

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Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire 10:25 am, 3rd April 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 59, in

clause 3, page 2, leave out lines 34 to 38 and insert—

'(a) the licensing justices, as defined in section 2 of the Licensing Act (1964) (c.26),'.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 60, in

clause 3, page 2, leave out line 40.

Amendment No. 61, in

clause 3, page 2, leave out line 41.

Amendment No. 64, in

clause 3, page 2, line 41, at end insert—

'( ) The University of Cambridge,'.

Amendment No. 62, in

clause 7, page 4, line 31, leave out subsection (2).

Amendment No. 63, in

clause 8, page 5, line 33, leave out subsection (10).

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I will start with amendments Nos. 60, 61, 62, 63 and 64 and come to amendment No. 59 afterwards.

Amendments Nos. 62 and 63 are consequential on Amendments Nos. 60 and 61. Amendments Nos. 60 and 61 delete subsections (f) and (g), which refer to

''the Sub-Treasurer of the Inner Temple''


''the Under-Treasurer of the Middle Temple''.

Those subsections contravene the main purpose and thrust of the Bill, which is to transfer power from licensing justices to democratically accountable and elected local authorities. Due to their nature, the Middle and Inner Temples are not democratically accountable institutions. It is our understanding that benchers govern both the Middle and Inner Temples having been elected by their fellow benchers, rather than by members of the Inn or those who live and work there. Not much democracy is involved in that. Due to their self-perpetuating nature, those bodies are not accountable to an electorate and are only answerable themselves.

In addition, the question arises as to whether the Inner and Middle Temples have taken steps to prepare themselves for carrying out the functions of the Bill. For example, do they have the necessary expertise to prepare a statement of licensing policy? Will they establish procedures for granting licences to premises? I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about those questions.

On amendment No. 64, those of us who happened to be blessed with three or four years at that wonderful institution the university of Cambridge, as I was, were completely unaware that the university was responsible for its own licensing and policy on drinking. I feel that that responsibility should be recognised and respected in the Bill. There is no known reason to revoke the tradition. It is hardly a major

issue, but by including the provision, the Government would allow the tradition to be maintained.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Labour, South Dorset 10:30 am, 3rd April 2003

Will the hon. Gentleman explain why he wants to respect tradition in relation to the university of Cambridge, but not in relation to the Temples?

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I have knowledge of the workings of the university of Cambridge—albeit that it was 30 or 40 years ago—and there have been no complaints about the judicious and efficient way in which the university has administered its drinking policy.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Labour, South Dorset

I have to confess that I, too, was privileged to attend the university of Cambridge. However, I recall plenty of circumstances in which disorder resulted from the drinking activities of students and members of the university. It seems logical to put such matters under the jurisdiction of the licensing authority, which is democratically accountable.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I am not in favour of making legislation on the basis of the experience of one Member—[Interruption.] I thoroughly researched the matter and in my day, there were certainly no problems. The hon. Gentleman is much younger than I am. I shall move on.

Amendment No. 59 will doubtless be described as a wrecking amendment, in so far as it drives a sword to the heart of the Bill. The Minister has already mentioned some of the reasons behind the Government's decision to move the responsibility for licensing policy and the issuing of licences from magistrates to local authorities. We tabled the amendment because we have had strong representations from those who are directly involved, who say that they are less than happy about the prospect of the change.

We have also had representations, albeit not necessarily in a direct sense, from some local authorities. They are faced with setting up a whole new edifice to cope with the requirements. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight said this morning that he has had conversations with the chief executive of his local authority. Local authorities are expressing some concerns that many of them will not be ready in time—we will discuss the transition period later—for the huge undertaking involved in transferring the issuing of licences from justices.

Perhaps there is a hidden agenda. Huge changes are required in the magistracy, so perhaps the move emanates from the Lord Chancellor's Department, rather than from the Home Office or the DCMS. If magistrates are to perform different roles in the future, if their responsibilities are to be reduced and their activities curtailed, and if there are ideas of winding down the service or making it more cost-effective, perhaps those things are driving licensing away from magistrates and into the arms of local authorities. Local authorities already do a lot of licensing work, so it seems easy to shift the whole process across to them. A number of matters need to be considered.

Good licensing practice needs local knowledge of known troublemakers, problematic haunts and so on. Magistrates have gained local knowledge through their experience over time. Many local councils do not. Councillors change at every election. In many cases, they do not have the thread of experience that magistrates have acquired over many years. Regional councils do not have the slightest idea about what is happening in pubs 50 or 60 miles away.

Who is supporting the move to local authorities? In a recent independent poll of about 1,000 publicans, 94 per cent. of the respondents wanted to retain magistrates. It will be hard to introduce new systems without the good will of licensees. Magistrates have done a good job for many years. The Minister is nodding his head. There is no question that they have failed in their duties and responsibilities. In the main, there have been no substantial complaints about the way that they have administered the system. On the contrary, there is a general acceptance both by those who apply for licences and the general public, that they have done an excellent job. Why make the change? It is a cost-effective service. The current licence fee administered by magistrates is about £10 a year. The new fee is expected to be between £100 and £500, an increase by a factor of 10.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

The hon. Gentleman knows that that is a one-off charge for the lifetime of premises. The savings are considerable and are not disputed in that respect.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I thought that it was a 10-year licence.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

Is it a lifetime licence that is renewable every 10 years?

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

Perhaps we should check that. We will come to that matter later. Whatever the fees will be, local authorities are already worried whether they will cover their costs.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Would there not be a saving to individual premises? At the moment, those without a public entertainment licence have to apply for a separate licence and expense would be involved in that. Fees also vary from council to council. In the constituency of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster, some licences cost £20,000 a year.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We do not dispute the fact that there is variation in licences from authority to authority, and we know that in many cases they are extremely expensive. We have not discussed costings or fees, so we do not know what the new regime will introduce. The Minister and the debate in the other place suggested that those would represent a saving, but we have yet to see the result of adding fees to the system.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Opposition Whip (Commons)

Is my hon. Friend aware that, notwithstanding the suggestion that there may be a saving, most licensees oppose the change from magistrates to local authorities? There is widespread concern among licensees in my constituency who are prominent in their industry and trade bodies that the

system will be more bureaucratic and oppressive for pubs, despite the savings.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I mentioned the response to the poll, which was that 94 per cent. of licensees—mainly pub landlords and tenants, I readily admit, and better the devil you know than the devil you don't know—want to retain magistrates. In my experience as an MP, I have had a number—not many—of complaints from licensees who had problems with the magistrates, but in those cases I concluded that the magistrates were taking the right action. No doubt many hon. Members have had the same experience.

Photo of Adrian Sanders Adrian Sanders Liberal Democrat, Torbay

Has the hon. Gentleman shared my experience that most of the objections to the current system are not about the decision of the magistrate, but the High Court appeals that overturned it?

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I cannot agree or disagree with that, because I have not dealt with such cases. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can elaborate on that, but I have not received any complaints of that nature.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Manchester, Blackley

The hon. Gentleman makes the case that extra costs are associated with the provision. The regulatory impact assessment shows a £1.97 billion saving. Can he explain where he disagrees with that?

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I was going to deal with costs later. I, too, have the assessment and I intend to speak about it. If the hon. Gentleman believes that there are £1.9 billion of savings, he would believe anything.

While we are on the subject of costs and cost-effectiveness, it may be true that there is an element of subsidy involved in the present system and the magistrates in their fee-charging structure do not cover the real costs of providing the service. That is a separate issue that could be addressed by changing the fee structure, rather than shifting the whole thing across to local authorities. As the Minister mentioned, there will be costs upfront during the transition period. I have had information from the British Beer and Pub Association. It has calculated the costs as best it can, on the basis of possible fee structures that may be implemented. Managed premises could be faced with transition costs of around £200 in legal fees, which is twice the figure normally allocated. Given the application fee of about £500 per pub, the cost of advertising would add nearly £400, since most pubs are likely to seek a variation at least to retain the two-musician band on their entertainment licence.

Setting aside the cost, the transition period will require each local authority to set up new systems and recruit staff. That is supposed to take place in six months. Every pub and every licensee will have to apply for a licence and there will be double handling of all the charges during the transitional period. That short time scale could lead not only to a high-risk policy, but to potential disaster. Speed of response to changing circumstances is an essential requirement in the licensing arena. At the moment, magistrates respond extremely quickly to local needs as they arise. Many will give up time at a weekend to have a sitting and agree a licence application. We do not

envisage that local authorities will be anything like as co-operative and flexible.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea 10:45 am, 3rd April 2003

Will the hon. Gentleman tell me why those arguments do not apply equally to the City of London? By applying the amendment to lines 34 to 38, he has excluded every local authority in the country from being a licensing authority apart from the City of London.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

The point that the hon. Gentleman makes is hardly a major one. The amendment addresses the decision to move the whole edifice of licensing from magistrates to local authorities. The Government must substantiate why they feel the need to do that. A debate in the other place has covered that matter, which is important because it is at the heart of the Bill. Local authorities must understand what is expected of them. Local authorities are already saying, ''Hold on a minute''. They can see the argument that the move fits in reasonably well with what they are already doing, but they have the pressures of the transition period to consider and they do not know what the costs will be. The guidance is not as flexible as some of them would like, which provides considerable problems.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

The hon. Gentleman said that my point was hardly substantial, but he wants to exclude every district council and county council in England, every county and county borough in Wales and every London borough, but not the City of London. Surely consistency is important. Has the hon. Gentleman done that because he has an interest in the City, because the City is the only non-democratically elected local authority in the entire country, or because his hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster represents the City?

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

It is none of those things. I do not have any interest in the City, although I have some shares. Does that count as being involved in the City? I suspect not.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

I shall overreach my hon. Friend to answer, in part, the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton). There are, of course, historical norms for the City of London. That also explains the issue relating to the Middle and Inner Temple, part of which are in the City of London and part in the City of Westminster. Hence, they have been treated as separate for licensing purposes for some time. That is an historic anomaly; such anomalies obviously have their part to play, which, I am sure, is why my hon. Friend has decided that there should be ongoing different treatment for that very narrow part of London.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, which cleared up some problems.

On the judicial function, one of the new licensing aims, as the Minister has oft repeated, is to prevent public nuisance. Local authority environmental health officers will be much involved and will have to prosecute. However, we think that much of the new law is subjective. If councils adjudicate in such cases, they will act as both judge and jury. We will come to

the guidance notes under clause 179, but perhaps I can allude to paragraph 4.11 of the guidance here, which, tellingly, says:

''Whether or not incidents can be regarded as being 'in the vicinity' of licensed premises . . . is . . . to be decided by the courts in cases of dispute.''

Licensees, as I have mentioned, respect the present system. There have been occasional problems but in the main, better the devil they know than the devil they do not. They respect the system because under it, they are answerable to the courts. We suggest that that is why there are so few problems with ordinary licensing.

On cost, one of the main selling points that the Government have used until now—perhaps the Minister will back off from it—is in the White Paper, which I have before me. The sections at the back deal with costs, resources and compliance costs. The White Paper was published some time ago, as we all know, by the Home Office. To my knowledge, there has been no amendment to the figures in the White Paper since the date of publication, April 2000. There has, therefore, been only the one attempt to produce costings. For those who have access to the document, chapter 13, ''Costs and Resources'', starts at page 52, and compliance costs are on page 69 in appendix 4. That is where the Government claim, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) did in his intervention, that there will be savings of about £1.9 billion over the first 10 years of operation of the new system.

I have read the White Paper several times and I recommend it to members of the Committee who have not read it. However, I recommend that they set aside at least four or five hours, because it is incredibly turgid and difficult to follow. I wonder whether the Minister has read it. When he replies perhaps he will tell us that he has read it and understands it.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that I have read the White Paper, but I am not about to give a literary criticism of it; I am about to refer to the details in it and not to the reading experience.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

We now know that the Minister has read it, so he will be able to answer any questions on it that come up in Committee.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

Does my hon. Friend agree that literary criticism is sometimes important for White Papers placed before the public as a statement of Government policy? If they are turgid and impossible to understand, the public cannot respond properly.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

One of the most critical aspects of the White Paper is the assumption that it makes that, under the present system, the average cost to a chain of pubs for applications for alcohol licences and PELs is about £3 million over 10 years. There is a chain not far from here—I shall not mention the name, but I am sure the Minister knows which they are—with 360 pubs, which is slightly more than the example given in

the White Paper. Their costs—the actual costs that the managers of the business know about because they are in their accounts—are less than £250,000. How on earth can we believe any of the White Paper's figures when it alludes to a chain of 300 pubs having costs of £3 million, while a chain of pubs not far from here has costs of about £250,000?

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Clearly it depends on the type of licence. If they are on-licences, that might be the case, but if the pubs have public entertainment licences, as they are in the constituency of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster and given the rates that Westminster council charges, it would be more than £200,000.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I do not dispute that fact. It is an incredibly difficult exercise to do. I am not saying that it is easy. The hon. Gentleman should try to read it.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

The Government say that there will be about £1.9 billion of savings over 10 years and they use that as an argument to persuade people that the switch from magistrates to local authorities will be good for everybody. From my reading of the White Paper, which I commend to every member of the Committee, I believe that if the Government make the wrong assumptions at the beginning, saying that a chain of pubs will pay £3 million as opposed to £250,000, they are bound to end up extrapolating those figures to conclusions that are miles out.

I do not know what the real figures are, because, as the hon. Member for North Durham said, it is complex to calculate them. To do so would depend on the size of the operation, whether PELs are being applied for, which council area one is in, and so on. However, the document purports to give a sensible, pragmatic, analytical look at the whole question of costs and it is full of holes.

When the responsibilities are transferred to local authorities there may well be a wailing and gnashing of teeth from those involved because their costs will not have decreased. The document says that there will be a £5,000 saving. Authorities' costs will have gone up and they will be paying out more that they have in the past. If one of the arguments that the Government are using is ''This is going to save you money, boys'', those figures do not assure me that that is the case. It is up to the Minister to justify the figures and acknowledge that saving costs is not one of the positive reasons for making the change.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that as a result of this legislation, certainly in Westminster because of the stealth tax imposed by the Conservative council, people who have public entertainment licences will make substantial savings?

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

Yes, that is the case because Westminster charges more than other local authorities. It is already saying that if there is a fixed-fee structure it will not be able to deliver as it does at the moment. That is not my argument. I am saying that the Government's figures on the cost of compliance compared with the current cost do not bear scrutiny. Those figures cannot be

justified and if the basis for making the switch is that there will be a saving, I think that it is unproven.

The Government should retract any argument that says that licensees will save money. I suspect that once the local authorities get their hands on the process, there will be real fear. One of the reasons that publicans are saying that they would rather stay with magistrates than make the switch is their experience of PELs. Their experience of applying to local authorities for PELs is horrendous in many instances. The last thing that they want is to turn to local authorities for all their licensing. They are resisting that change and it is down to the Government to make the case that a switch of the sort suggested in the Bill is beneficial to the community and to those involved.

Photo of Adrian Sanders Adrian Sanders Liberal Democrat, Torbay

The position adopted by the Liberal Democrat party is to consider licensing as an administrative function that ought to be devolved to local councillors. I can go along with that logic, but I would like to state one or two personal experiences as I represent a constituency that has an above average number of hotels, pubs and restaurants and a large nightclub capacity. Licensing issues are important there and regularly feature in the local media and in general discourse.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Order. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I should have said before I called him that the group of amendments is so wide-ranging that I shall allow this to be treated as a stand part debate. If hon. Members wish to intervene on the group of amendments, they would be wise to do so.

Photo of Adrian Sanders Adrian Sanders Liberal Democrat, Torbay

Thank you, Mr. Gale.

That being the case, one has to look at how the existing licensing system operates, where it is deficient, and perhaps what reforms would be needed. The general feeling among licensees in my constituency is, ''If it ain't bust, don't fix it''. However, there is recognition that the new system could, in time, result in savings, particularly for licensed premises. I cannot predict whether the new system will be better, but the main complaint with the existing system is not so much the conclusions that magistrates come to in the local community; it is that their decisions, which might be favoured by the local community, are sometimes overturned by a higher court with no connection to the local area.

I do not know whether the new system will change that; probably not. Local people, or those who are more accountable to the community, will be taking decisions but they could still be appealed against at a higher level. We will not know the answer to that until the new system is up and running. I cannot speak for other areas of the country, where I know there have been some complaints about local magistrates' decisions. Other hon. Members may be more familiar with such complaints. I can only speak from experience.

On the listing of the licensing authorities, why are unitary authorities not listed separately? I am sure that the answer is simple, that they are covered by one of the other categories and that it is not a drafting

mistake. A possible advantage of the new system is that a clear list will be set out of the functions and objectives that must be considered in licensing—prevention of crime and disorder, public safety, quality of life and the protection of children from harm. However, could not that set of objectives be put before magistrates? Obviously, that would be done not by DCMS, but by the Home Office. Also, do not magistrates at present take into consideration some of those general ideas, if not the specifics as set out in the Bill?

I am keeping an open mind. My party favours the change and I am willing to go along with it, but the experience of my constituency—and perhaps that of other hon. Members, too—is that magistrates have done an excellent job in carrying out their licensing functions until now. It remains to be seen whether local councillors can do as good a job, if not better.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham 11:00 am, 3rd April 2003

I wish to speak against the amendment. I support the transfer of responsibility for the licensing of premises to local authorities. Local authorities already administer public entertainment licences, and do so well in my experience. They also deal with issues such as taxi licences, door registration schemes—in certain parts of the country—and planning applications. They have a wealth of experience of dealing with that type of enforcement.

I mean no disrespect to hard-working magistrates, some of whom do a sterling job. They give up their time unselfishly. However, in my experience, they are not in tune with what is going on locally. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire said that they are in touch on issues such as licensing. However, I know that in Newcastle a number of the licensing magistrates did not even live in the city and had no connection with the area.

Councillors administering public entertainment licences get to know the type of issues that are faced locally: the type of operators to be dealt with and the public order problems that are faced. The main reason why I support transferring the responsibility is that the new system will be clear and transparent and local people will know who is taking the decisions on licensing.

Again, in my experience as a local councillor, when people wanted to object to a public licence at a magistrates court, they found it very difficult to find out how to do it and, when they did, they found a magistrates court very intimidating—not only the legal process, but the fact that applicants' solicitors often threatened local residents with costs and so forth. That deterred local people from expressing their views in front of licensing magistrates. Reference was made earlier to the flexibility of magistrates. I am sorry but that is not my experience. They are very rigid in the way in which they implement the law, and often give undue weight to the views of the local police, for example, as opposed to the concerns of local residents.

There is much to be gained from transferring licensing responsibility to local authorities. It will also make applying for a local licence simpler. I disagree with the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire, who said that it would be more

expensive. It will be cheaper. At the moment a local publican who wants, for example, a liquor licence and a public entertainment licence has two hoops to go through. The publican has to apply, first, to a magistrates court and, secondly, to a local authority for a public entertainment licence. Such licences vary widely throughout the country. I agree that some local authorities are using public entertainment licences as a stealth tax—a way of generating income, which they do not put back into enforcement. The standardisation of fees will make the system transparent and fair for people who apply.

There are costs involved for people who apply—the legal cost and the cost of re-applying for a public entertainment licence, which involves going before magistrates every year. They will not have to do that under the proposed system.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

The hon. Gentleman spoke in favour of a standardised fee. Can he not see that in a place such as Westminster, which has huge numbers of entertainment outlets and a massive policing and regulatory function, the costs would be higher than in my rural constituency of North-East Cambridgeshire, or even in the constituency of the hon. Member for Waveney?

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I appreciate that, and that is why the fees will need to reflect the type of enforcement that there will be. However, at the moment, we have a system whereby a local authority can set a fee for a public entertainment licence which bears no resemblance whatsoever to its enforcement in practice. It is important that, if publicans and other people apply for a public entertainment licence, they are not treated unfairly compared to a neighbouring authority with similar establishments, and that the money is going into enforcement. That is what local people would like to see.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

The hon. Gentleman spoke of the opportunity of applying for a premises licence and a public entertainment licence at the same time on one form. We understand that the premises licence will last indefinitely. How can an authority that is undertaking that type of licensing possibly assess what will happen in 30 or 40 years? Forty years ago very few people had motor cars. Now, many people have them. How can one possibly consider the impact of such an application on local people?

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Authorities cannot do that, and I do not believe that that is what the Bill is expecting them to do. At the moment one has to re-apply every year, which is burdensome for the licensees. It serves no useful purpose. If a public house, restaurant or a nightclub is run professionally and is well maintained with no disorder, why do those involved have to pay a fee each year? The provision will allow well-run establishments to carry on their businesses and not become bogged down in unnecessary bureaucracy?

The hon. Gentleman referred to the problems that will occur in certain establishments over time. The authorities will be able to step in. At present, a local authority can do that in respect of public

entertainment licences if there are public order problems. Unfortunately, however, the present law hinders the actions that the police and councils can take to control disorder, which can result, for example, from a change of management in a nightclub, as I know from experience.

We need to give local authorities some respect. At present, local councillors make many difficult decisions. They will be able to operate the system in a professionally and fairly. If local authorities are found not to be doing that, there will be recourse to local magistrates, whereby licences will not be granted, for example, although I should have preferred such matters to be left with the High Court. Amendment No. 59 should be rejected.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

I endorse the approach taken by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire and I accept the comments of the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders). There is a view that, if something is not broken, why fix it? However, as the hon. Gentleman said, there are different regimes throughout the country. I am sure that the Torbay, Torquay and Brixham area is small and defined, as are many local authority areas in London. Under the current system, magistrates and justices work well. They are understanding of the vicinity, often have been on the Bench for some time and deal with a significant number of such cases. They do not come out of the blue.

We are worried that the Government take an over-prescriptive approach on several occasions. The real worry is about local decision making, because the licensing authorities will have a minor power compared with the centralised approach that has already been advanced by the Minister. I have not come here to bury or to praise Westminster City council, but the hon. Member for North Durham has tempted me to say a few words on it. The system will not be used along the lines of a stealth tax. It is instructive to compare it with the current planning regime, which is administered by a local authority. The proposal is that licensing authorities will act in parallel with planning authorities.

There is an under-resourcing problem in Westminster, and that applies to other London boroughs of all political parties such as Camden and Lambeth, which is on the other side of the river. Fixed fees for planning mean that the market has to decide—

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is not a member of Westminster City council, but is the money raised from current public entertainment licences ring-fenced for enforcement in Westminster?

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

I am not sure about that. Anyone on the streets of Soho or Covent Garden in the early hours of a Saturday or Sunday morning will realise the enormous expense and enforcement that is in the hands of Westminster City council and local authorities such as Camden next door. Such sums dwarf the modest fees that are raised by planning and general entertainment licences. It is perhaps easy for the hon. Gentleman to bandy around figures such as £20,000 for the large-scale operations in Soho, which deal with several thousand covers nightly. Given the

turnover of such organisations, £20,000 is relatively small fry.

I turn to planning. A number of the largest property companies with dealings in Westminster have made representations over the years for the cap on fees to be lifted. They realise that that cap means they get a less speedy and perhaps a less efficient service than they would receive otherwise.

I accept that there must be a balance. No one—certainly no one on this side of the Room—wants an increase in the number of stealth taxes. However, with a relatively low, nationally set fixed-fee basis, we run the risk that organisations in the alcohol and entertainment industry will become rapidly disillusioned with the system, not least because it will become log-jammed, especially in stress areas, such as parts of central London.

I appreciate that it is unlikely that we will win, looking at the numbers in the Committee. However, we should seriously consider the licensing justices and, in so far as we must have licensing authorities, we must ensure that the system is not overly centralised and that those involved have an understanding of local interests in the broader sense, including long-standing business interests and those of residents and residents' associations.

Photo of John Grogan John Grogan Labour, Selby 11:15 am, 3rd April 2003

When this matter was considered in the other place, a large majority were against similar amendments for a number of reasons. This debate has been going on for years and the Government have reflected some of the concerns to which hon. Members have referred, such as those of the industry. For example, the White Paper does not mention appeals on the merits of a licensing decision; those were to be made only to the magistrates on points of law. Whether there could be appeals to the magistrates courts on the merits of all licensing cases is now being considered.

One of the aims of the Bill is to streamline the licensing systems and if that is being done, a choice must be made between councils and magistrates. The implication of the amendment is that many powers held by democratically elected councils would be taken away. There is, at the moment, a dual lock on late licences: people must obtain a public entertainment licence from the council and they must get an extension to their liquor licence from the magistrates. It is absurd to think that most citizens would find it acceptable for councils to be taken completely out of managing the night-time economy of late-night openings and so on.

Consider Westminster, for example, where the civic sense of the hon. Gentleman's constituents has been an example to us all; they have made many representations to him and to all Committee members. Without doubt, all the residents' associations seem to favour the move to councils, which is probably because they feel that it would be easier to make representations to those bodies than it was in the past to magistrates.

No other country—I think—has a judicial approach to liquor and entertainment licensing. It is usually done through some system of local authority control—it is done that way in Scotland. As the chair of the all-party beer group's liquor licensing reform panel, I visited Denmark in search of inspiration. We returned with what we referred to as the ''Danish model''. I hasten to explain that the Danish model was a hybrid system of magistrates and councils, rather like our police authorities. While I have, and always will have, great affection for the Danish model—it will always have a place in my heart—the bureaucracy of setting up that system might be more trouble than it is worth.

I agree with a couple of the points made by Opposition Members. The transition is important; we must get it right. Arguably, it should last longer than 12 months. It is also important that licensing has increased status among local authorities. I think that magistrates have become better at licensing in the past four or five years. They have produced a good practice guide. There were many anomalies, and many complaints were made about the huge books on licensing policy. Birmingham magistrates, particularly, were infamous in that regard.

Local authorities are warming to the task. The Local Government Association is keen on the transfer and keen for its members to give licensing proper status. When I worked on a council, licensing had a similar status to cemeteries. The two functions were put next to each other. It is important that that sort of practice is ended. Licensing will be a key function for many local authorities. On the whole, I think that the change is sensible. In the end, we must choose between magistrates and councils, and I think that we must choose councils.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Manchester, Blackley

I support the Government and oppose the amendment for some of the reasons that have already been given. There is no perfect system. Local authorities fail and get decisions wrong, just as magistrates do. I served on a local authority for 19 years and could probably spend the rest of this sitting and the next telling stories of eccentric, bigoted and prejudiced decisions made by licensing committees. I am sure that such decisions were replicated elsewhere, too.

I could also tell stories about times when the licensing magistrates in my city got decisions badly wrong. They created a vicious circle by deciding that there should be a limit on the number of licences in the centre of Manchester, as the police had objected and said that the city was full. The magistrates did not give any more liquor licences out and that created a private market in which licences changed hands for £20,000 each. It was a corrupt system, caused by the magistrates not really understanding what was happening in the centre of Manchester. It took some time to change that situation, unfortunately. It has changed now; there are two and a half times as many licences in Manchester as there were before, and there has been very little detrimental effect and great benefit to the economy.

Both magistrates and local authorities can get things wrong, but the balance of the arguments is in

favour of dealing with licences in one place, so that people can respond to the needs of the local community. It is much more likely that those elected by the local community will get decisions right. They might sometimes get them wrong and make strange decisions, but hopefully the national guidance will help them. Those on local authorities are, in many cases, more likely to be responsive than magistrates, particularly if they have just been through an election.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire argued that magistrates had greater longevity and local knowledge. That means that they might well get out of touch. Certainly, in big cities, many magistrates come from outside the city boundaries, although I accept that that might not be the case in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney. If we consider the composition of members of the bench in terms of ethnicity, gender, and postal codes, we will find that people on local authorities are much more representative and are more

likely to be responsive, so the hon. Gentleman's argument does not stand up.

The regulatory impact assessment shows a saving of £1.98 billion over 10 years. I accept the hon. Gentleman's argument that we cannot take every figure in the assessment as gospel, but generally the figures show a direction towards savings. In my previous existence in the Cabinet Office, I used to have to read regulatory impact assessments and I assure the hon. Gentleman that the one before us is better than most. It indicates savings, even if one could not defend it to the last odd £50 million or £100 million over ten years. I therefore hope that the Committee will reject the amendment.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I wish to refer to the inclusions and exclusions in subsection (1)—

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till Tuesday 8 April at five minutes to Nine o'clock.