Licensing Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:15 am on 20th May 2003.
I beg to move amendment No. 265, in
schedule 8, page 156, line 28, at end insert
'and the day so specified shall be no earlier than the date on which expires the period of nine months beginning with the date on which section 5 of this Act comes into force.'.
Schedule 8 deals with the transitional arrangements before the superseding of the existing 1964 Act by the new Act. The time limits imposed on the transitional period for instigating the new law could put undue pressure on the licensing authorities to deal with all the necessary conversions of existing licenses. In some cases the process will be very straightforward—a simple conversion, with the licensee seeking nothing additional to the existing arrangements. However, in
many cases licensees will wish to take advantage of the new opening hours, which may lead to opposition from local residents or other interested parties. In those cases, the granting of a premises licence will not be a single and straightforward issue for the licensing authority to deal with. In particular, licensing authorities operating in areas with a high density of licensed premises may find the time restrictions imposed on them far too onerous. A large number of licensing hearings will take place during the transition period, and it is not reasonable to assume that all those can be completed within the six-month time limit that the Government have determined.
The amendment preserves the six-month period from the date that the law commences, but licensing authorities would be granted a further nine-month period from the date of commencement of clause 5, which deals with the general duties of licensing authorities. That would allow for the licensing authorities to develop licensing policies before putting them into practice, and ease the considerable burdens that they will inevitably face in adopting their new status and acclimatising to their new role.
I, too, wish to question the transitional arrangements, although I appreciate that they will be of limited importance in many parts of the country. I have spoken a number of times on behalf of my local authority, the city of Westminster, so, to ring the changes, I shall mention a briefing that I received from the licensing department and senior officers of the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea—of which I was a member until last May—and its deputy leader, Mr. Daniel Moylan. They are concerned about the time limits in the schedule, especially the notion of a first appointed day. That would not allow a significant number of licensing authorities, particularly in areas such as central London, enough time to deal properly with the applications that came before them.
Although the problem is specific to one London authority, which is not necessarily typical of the country, I should like to go into some detail about it. The royal borough has approximately 1,200 licensed premises. In February the licensing offices sent a letter to all of them asking, among other things, whether licensees would apply for extended opening hours during the proposed transitional period. Of the 311 responses—that is a high rate; most of us would be happy with a 25 per cent. response to our round robins—some 178, over 60 per cent., indicated that they would apply for additional operating hours. Assuming a similar rate of return from all the licensed premises, there will be some 700 applications to extend opening hours during the transitional period. The royal borough has a large number of well organised and vocal residents' associations that who work vigorously to protect their local environmental amenity. I know what that is like for its Member of Parliament, as the city of Westminster is similar.
Without taking into consideration any of the representations from the responsible authorities defined in the schedule, it is expected that Kensington and Chelsea will receive from residents
and their representatives up to 600 relevant objections to applications to vary existing licences, all of which will require hearings before the licensing committee. Many of those applications could arrive in a large group during the early stages of the transitional period, leaving the licensing committee with the impossible task of hearing all the contested applications within the permitted two-month period. We have discussed before the period to be prescribed by the Secretary of State within which interested parties and responsible authorities may make representations to the various applications. I believe that the period mentioned in the first draft of the guidance notes was 28 days. If that period were ratified in regulations, the licensing authorities could only have another 28 days to set up licensing hearings. That would be impossible, given the numbers that I have quoted.
Applicants would then have two slightly unpalatable choices—to lodge an immediate appeal with a magistrates court against the deemed refusal, on the basis of the clogged-up system, or to make a further application to vary the premises licence once the transition period had ended. My fear, above all, is that if the new regime is to have credibility among both applicants and residents' associations—and all other interested parties—it will be fatal for it to be undermined by the entire procedure being log-jammed in the way that I have described. I appreciate that we might have to return to the matter on Report, as the Minister has received other representations.
The amendment relates to ameliorating the obligations of the licensing authority by extending the time before persons may apply for the grant of a premises licence under the transitional arrangements. The Government have a duty not only to the licensing authorities, residents and the industry—the three groups that have been the subject of the most detailed debate in the Committee—but to the vast majority of ordinary people in the country, who wish to be treated as adults and are looking forward to the reforms.
Most people think change is long overdue, and they would not thank us for the further procrastination that would result if the amendment were accepted. It would mean that the transitional period could not begin until nine months after clause 5, which relates to the general duties of the licensing authorities, had come into effect. Incidentally, I think that the amendment cites clause 5 in error and that the reference should be to clause 6, which relates to the statement of licensing policy; however, we can argue about that another time. It is clear that the licensing authority will have had to develop its licensing policy before it can determine applications, and also determine the assiduity with which some local authorities pursue their obligations to consult.
Clause 6(7) allows provision about the determination of the policy and the preparation of statements to be made in regulations. However, there is no reason why it should take anyone nine months.
Nor is there any reason why responsible licensing authorities cannot start as soon as the guidance has been issued. We expect licensing authorities at least to have prepared draft statements of licensing policy well before the beginning of the transitional period. I hope, therefore, that the Committee will understand why the Government must resist the amendment.
We have discussed timing matters with a standing group of stakeholders, including representatives of the local authorities and of the industry and I am grateful for the additional information that the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) has provided in that respect. Both sides in the debate have been obliged to compromise, but the view of that group is that a period of six months would be sufficient for a licensing authority to prepare a draft statement of licensing policy, complete the consultation required by the Bill, analyse the results of the consultation and publish the statement. We expect the first appointed day to be immediately afterwards.
Local authorities already handle the processing of large volumes of applications across a range of areas. Some of the licensing functions will be new to licensing authorities, but they already process about 9,000 permanent and 37,000 temporary public entertainment licences under the current licensing regime. They are used to the work and the Government believe that in the vast majority of cases they should be able to cope. In addition, applications for the conversion of existing licences to premises licences are expected to be largely administrative and capable of being dealt with by officers of the authority rather than the licensing committee or sub-committee. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman.
The local authorities have been vocal in their calls for the transfer of licensing functions to them. In return for those additional powers, it should not be forgotten that many people throughout the country are looking forward to the increased diversity of entertainment provision, the broader demographic profile of the late-night economy and the reduction in binge drinking and antisocial behaviour that its provisions will introduce. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear those people in mind, accept my assurances and ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Yet again, the Minister seeks to strike a balance between the wishes and desires of those who want a liberalised licensing regime, some of which we share, and the new requirements and burdens that will descend on the local authorities as licensing authorities. In certain circumstances, the transition period envisaged by the Government and set out by the Minister may not be sufficient. We tabled our probing amendments simply to ascertain whether the Government were truly satisfied that they had got the timing right and that there would be no problems in implementing the transition period. The Minister gave us an assurance that he had got the timing right, and time will tell. Some authorities and chief executives have told us that the time scale is too short and will give rise to problems, and the last thing any of us wants is to put on the statute book legislation that cannot be implemented according to the time scale that we have agreed. However, given that the Minister
has put on record his belief that the time scale is adequate and deliverable, we shall leave it at that. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move amendment No. 297, in
schedule 8, page 156, line 44, leave out sub-sub-paragraph (a).
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment No. 298, in
schedule 8, page 156, line 45, after second 'to', insert 'existing'.
The amendments deal with what one might call grandfather rights for two in a bar and we have approached the issue from two angles. Amendment No. 297 would delete paragraph 1(2)(a), which refers to performers and to section 182 of the 1964 Act, which deals with the
''relaxation of law relating to music and dancing licences''.
Amendment No. 298 would interpose the word ''existing'' in sub-paragraph (2)(a), which would then refer to section 182 as being ''disregarded so far as it relates to existing public entertainment by way of music and singing provided by not more than two performers''.
Unless the Government have a massive change of heart, or agree to some of the amendments and new clauses that we may table on Report, the generally accepted view will remain that the Bill requires live musical entertainment to be provided in line with licensing objectives and irrespective of the number of musicians involved. However—we have been over these arguments many times—if such entertainment takes place regularly and without problems, there is no reason why it should not continue under the principle of keeping current permissions. In other words, we should give premises—and, indirectly, the performers involved—grandfather rights if they have two-in-a-bar provision at present and there are no problems. The Government should give some thought to allowing such premises to continue in the same way. Anything new would have to come under the new licensing regime.
The amendments would certainly take some of the heat out of the situation with the Musicians Union, and if the Minister is looking for a way out, they might provide him with one.
Indeed, the parts of the Bill to which the amendments refer have generated huge controversy. Many very colourful stories have been peddled about the Bill. Some have caused great upset and many performers have come close to undermining the Bill's positive effects on the provision of entertainment.
The tale that takes the top prize, however, is the one about the two-in-a-bar rule. I am glad that we have had an almost nationwide debate on the issue, at least among music aficionados because, to paraphrase Michael Caine, not a lot of people knew about it. Yet, it was there, and it determined much of the shape of live music in this country. I will try to explain the case for doing away with it and removing that distortion in live music in England and Wales. It
might be helpful if I also set out what the two-in-a-bar rule is, what we are putting in its place and why that will result in a vast increase in the opportunities for artists of all types—not just one or two musicians—to perform.
The two-in-a-bar rule is an exemption in the Licensing Act 1964 that allows two performers—two all night, not two and then another two and then another two—to perform live music in licensed premises such as pubs without needing a public entertainment licence. That is the current system.
It is easy to see why the rule is popular with some musicians and publicans. There are inconsistencies in the ways that local authorities set fees for public entertainment licences. We have heard that there are a variety of reasons—some more credible than others—why in some areas, particularly in London, those fees can rise as high as many thousands of pounds. They are the reasons why many pubs are put off from applying for an entertainment licence: their fall-back position is to rely on the two-in-a-bar rule.
The Bill will abolish that rule for a number of sound reasons, none of which are to do with a wish to restrict opportunities for performers to perform—indeed, the opposite is the case. The effect of the rule is restrictive: it drastically restricts the forms of entertainment that may be carried out in licensed premises where a justices' licence is in force—only entertainment consisting of one or two performers of live music is exempt. I hope that Committee members can immediately see that the perverse effect of the rule is that many types of music and other forms of entertainment are discouraged. Furthermore, that means that the range of cultural experience available to the general public is severely narrowed—what about two guitars, a drum and bass, or a chamber quartet? Under the present rules, the licensee must have an entertainment licence and that can be very expensive.
I have been closely following the Minister's argument and it seems to me that he is saying that the Bill will open up opportunities for musicians and the music industry rather than discourage them. ''Discourage'' is the word that he used, but why will they be discouraged if the two-in-a-bar rule is retained under grandfather rights? It is a concession that has worked well. Why would others—three in a bar—be discouraged if that is not in the Bill? They would be discouraged because they would have to apply for a licence, with all the associated costs.
That is a good point and I will try to deal with it soon. I wrestled with this matter for a long time. The basis of my argument is that businesses—particularly small businesses—often feel more comfortable with retaining what they have than with exploring the possibility of something new. I hope that I will be able to explain my reason for resisting the hon. Gentleman's good argument.
We are not alone in wishing to see an end to the two-in-a-bar rule. On 8 April, the Association of British Jazz Musicians issued a briefing note—the tone of which, I must admit, is critical of the Bill. I believe
that it was sent to a number of Committee members. It states:
''The current legislation concerning live music in pubs, bars and other liquor licensed premises, commonly referred to as the 'two in a bar rule', already makes it extremely difficult for musicians to find work''.
That is where I have started from on this matter. The problem is how to proceed. We believe that the right way forward is to abolish the two-in-a-bar rule. We are putting in its place a simple, cheap and streamlined licensing system that should encourage—if industry makes full use of the reforms—a huge opening up of the opportunities for performing many sorts of regulated entertainment. To encourage pubs and other venues to take maximum advantage of the new system, we have agreed to work with the Musicians Union and other organisations representing performers and artists to develop a leaflet that their members can hand out to local licensees to persuade them to apply to put on live music. That is an important undertaking. There will be a steep learning curve for many of us, including the Musicians Union and other organisations, which realise that we must engage with the holders of premises licences to ensure that they know that they can put on live entertainment and that they do not have to pay the earth for it.
Let us focus on pubs, as that is where the current exemption applies. Pubs will need a premises licence to sell alcohol. They will have to go through the application procedure and pay the fee applicable if they want to sell alcohol. It will cost them nothing extra to seek at the same time authorisation in the premises licence to put on regulated entertainment in any of its diverse forms. The situation is as simple as that. Where no relevant representations are received on the application, it will be granted automatically.
Let us compare that with the current system, in which huge fees for a public entertainment licence—many thousands of pounds in some areas—act as a considerable deterrent to pubs obtaining such licences. The Government are firm in our belief that the combination of the abolition of the two-in-a-bar rule with the much simpler and cheaper licensing system under the Bill should open up opportunities for entertainers to perform.
Amendment No. 297 would allow the continuation of a form of the two-in-a-bar rule in the converted new licences issued during the transitional period. Automatically permitting the provision of entertainment in the form currently exempted by the two-in-a-bar rule would simply perpetuate the current restrictive framework by placing a disincentive on businesses to apply to vary their existing licences on transition to extend the range of entertainment that they are permitted to provide.
Amendment No. 298 appears intended to have the same purpose as amendment No. 297. It, too, is flawed and would fail to provide any benefit to performers. Again, the intention appears to be to perpetuate the exemption for two in a bar by converting schedule 8,
so that the existing provision of live music, albeit in a slightly amended way, would appear as an authorisation on the new premises licence. However, the amendment would not achieve that. Paragraph 1(2)(a) of schedule 8 provides that the exemption in section 182 of the 1964 Act is to be disregarded in determining what existing licensable activities can be converted. Adding the word ''existing'' before the words ''public entertainment'' would do nothing to change the fact that the activity is to be disregarded.
I hope that the Committee accepts that the amendments pose a threat to amateur and professional musicians of all shapes and sizes. I trust that the amendments will not be pressed because I have great hopes that the regime that we are putting in place will mean a great change for the better in the organisation of live music.
We seem to have had this argument several times already. The Minister repeats his case that this is simply about a tick in the box. That has been said to the representatives of the music industry more than once in the past few months, if not years, but they are not reassured that this is simply about ticking the box at no extra cost. They accept that there is a simple procedure to go through at the time of application. However, they say from their experience, which admittedly is of the current regime, that when the local authority gets involved in applications for entertainment licences it all starts to go wrong. As the Minister said, unless there are representations, the application will go through fairly smoothly. If the Government set the fees for the application—we still do not know what those will be—we may see that it will not be terribly onerous in some or even many cases. I accept the Minister's argument that if there are grandfather rights, licensees or publicans may say, ''I'm not going to bother extending the licence; I'll just keep to two in a bar'', and the opportunities for more musicians to take part will be reduced.
Thinking about the transitional period, does the hon. Gentleman accept that a temporary event notice would be a useful way for those who felt some reluctance about taking risks, in terms of ticking a box, to test out entertainment with more than two in a bar? They would have much more flexibility and far less regulation at a nominal cost. A temporary event notice is a useful form of transitional arrangement to encourage people to go the whole hog with public entertainment.
That is an interesting idea that will perhaps be explored. Of course, the limit in that case is 499 people. There may well be representations when such applications are made on the basis that the number of people attracted to a certain event would be far too great and the restrictions would then come in. We are still not getting away from representations. The people making them, whether concerned with health and safety or fire, will say that unless certain changes are made to the premises, the licence should not be allowed. That is where the problem arises.
I have been to pubs in my constituency and have talked to my local brewer. My local authority has told that brewery, as well as local publicans and tenants, what they would have to do to gain a public
entertainment licence, and it would cost a lot of money. Those changes involve, for example, making structural changes to the premises for obvious fire and health and safety reasons. One would not say that that was unnecessary; however, it is slightly misleading to harp on about the tick in the box and the fact that there are no costs. There are real costs, particularly for the many old pubs that lend themselves to a small combo in the corner, but where there would be fairly serious implications if they wanted to extend beyond that.
As the hon. Member for South Dorset said, TENs—temporary event notices—may provide a way around that problem for the transitional period. Although the limit of 499 people would give room to manoeuvre to some, there is no way that the local police or whoever will allow 499 people into a couple of bars in a pub. There will be obvious restrictions that we must not overlook.
May I give the hon. Gentleman and the Committee some reassurances? Under the Bill, the local authority, as the licensing authority, would be operating under a different regime. That regime would include checks and balances designed to ensure that an authority could not impose conditions, other than those necessary to promote the licensing objectives, without breaching its statutory duty.
I want to give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are determined to ensure that under no circumstances will frivolous conditions be imposed on licensees, such as that mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, who want music or other entertainment allowed at present to continue. We want to ensure that that will not require the addition of another fire door or whatever.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will concede that if there is to be a huge change—if a big band were to play at the premises, or if many more people were to be attracted—then of course the authority will have to take cognisance of that and must require the premises to make whatever changes are necessary to ensure that public safety is paramount and is maintained.
I do not disagree with the Minister; obviously, even if the music is incidental in the final analysis the safety of the public should be paramount. It is all a matter of scale. In the majority of pubs and clubs, there are small groups of musicians—more than two, but not in many cases an orchestra—and fewer than 499 people are attending. How can we ensure that such events and opportunities take place? I hear the Minister saying that he wants a system that encourages greater participation, with more musicians involved. We concur. However, can we be certain, in the light of the Bill's wording, that that will happen?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for being patient and giving way to me again. We have convened a working group that includes representatives from the local authorities and the performers to explore what might or might not constitute appropriate conditions for various scales and various kinds of music. The statutory guidance, to which the licensing authorities must have regard, will contain model conditions.
That is a positive way forward. I thank the Minister for alerting the Committee to it.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the limited role of the licensing authority in terms of the licensing objectives—it cannot go beyond its remit. However, the authority may receive an application for an entertainment licence and make that known to the fire officers locally. If a fire officer returned a report to the local authority insisting that major changes had to take place, that would surely have a bearing on whether the licence was issued and on the cost implications for the premises licence holder. That is true, is it not?
All those things would, of course, be costs. However, the hon. Gentleman would have to concede that in most cases there would not be great changes. He talked about two musicians becoming three, for example, or two becoming four. I hope that the model working practices in the statutory guidance will not involve much expenditure for those who own or maintain the venues. As the hon. Gentleman has hinted, my saying that that will not happen is, in some respects, a statement of faith. That is, however, a consequence of my extensive discussions with all the parties involved and my saying that that is the best way forward, if we are to change the way live music is staged.
I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying some of those issues. It is a pity that we do not have the guidance—I do not suppose that it will be available before Report and Third Reading. I know, however, that there is still concern out there that will not go away. Perhaps when the Bill returns to another place there will be a strongly defended rearguard action to tackle the issues yet again.
I am looking at the draft guidance the Committee has received. Section 4.45 says:
''In determining what conditions should be attached to licences and certificates . . . licensing authorities should be aware of the need to avoid measures which deter live music, dancing and theatre by imposing direct costs of a substantial nature''.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the fire authority imposing substantial costs. Those would be imposed for public safety. I am sure that none of the applicants would want to put on events that were unsafe. There is, however, a concern that unnecessary conditions would be placed upon them, and the guidance suggests that that should be avoided.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The key word there is ''substantial'', as in substantial costs. Costs of any degree are unwelcome, particularly for people running small businesses. We heard what the hon. Gentleman and the Minister have said. We take on board his assurances that he is working closely with the people involved to find good working practices. The Minister used the word ''model'', which is a useful one. We need clear guidance on those matters so that the fears that are still being expressed are fully allayed. We shall return to the matter on Report and I am sure that it will be returned to in the other place. The sooner that the Minister can issue his detailed guidance and have his consultation
the better for all concerned. We wish him luck in that and hope that he achieves it sooner rather than later. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move amendment No. 224, in
schedule 8, page 157, line 16, leave out first 'the' to end and insert
'applicant for a premises licence has served a copy of the notice of application on the last known address of the existing licensee or licensees.'.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment No. 315, in
schedule 8, page 157, line 16, at end insert
(c) it is made by or on behalf of a person having an interest in the premises registered under section 32(1) or (2) of the Licensing Act 1964, who shall produce written evidence of such registration.'.
These amendments refer to paragraph 2 on applications for conversion of an existing licence. The industry has been to see us and has expressed concern about having to obtain the consent of the licence holder for an application to convert an existing licence, as set out in sub-paragraph (3)(b). Amendment No. 224 is designed to protect businesses from unscrupulous or malcontent individuals who leave their employers with massive costs and uncertainty for the security of their licence. Even when precautions have been taken to ensure that one store has numerous licensees on site, in a trade with high staff turnover, some may find that only one individual remains when the Bill comes into effect. Furthermore, that is not an option for many smaller businesses. Therefore, the Government's previous assertions—I believe in the debate in the other place—that internal disciplinary procedures will sufficiently ensure that on-site managers approve all applications may prove to be wholly inadequate.
Current practice deems that applications for interim authorities and protection orders require the service of notice only upon the court and police. No notice is required to be served on existing licensees as it would be redundant to do so. The new system of transfer of justices' licences will require notice to be served on the licensee. That is understandable. If granted, the transfer application has the potential to deprive the licence holder of their right to sell or retail alcohol. So the licence holder ought to have the opportunity to appear in court to oppose the application, although there is no legal requirement for the consent to transfer the existing licensee. In the example given in the Bill, the transfer will not deprive the licence holder, who will be granted a personal licence under the transitional provisions. Service of notice of application upon the existing licensee can be proved by providing a simple signed certificate to the licensing committee, asserting that the licensee was served notice at his or her last known address.
The amendment provides that only the applicant for a premises licence serves a copy of the notice of application on the last known address of the existing licensee. There are 25,000 independent grocers and
shops representing half of the off-trade licences. They are responsible for about a tenth of the sales. Is the Government expecting that in all circumstances disputes can successfully be dealt with by normal disciplinary procedures? It is likely that in some cases the manager may have disappeared, walked out or, under the powers invested in him in the new law, is able to hold the business owner to ransom by withholding his consent. Businesses cannot be expected to relinquish power over their own future in such a manner.
Amendment No. 315 deals with the operation needs of multi-site retailers. For example, in the pub sector where premises are managed, the manager, who is an employee of the company that owns the premises, holds the licence. Under the new system, it is highly likely that companies that own or have a significant business interest in the premises might want to hold the premises licence, while the pub manager will be the personal licence holder. Under the transition provision in the Bill, the application to convert the licence can be made only by existing licence holders or with their consent.
It is unacceptable that companies running managed pubs, supermarkets, off-licences and so on will not be able to apply for their premises licence without the consent of all their managers. In the case of the pub sector, that means obtaining the consent of thousands of individuals, which is likely to prove difficult. It would be more effective if provision was made for a company to register its interest as a superior landlord. The amendment clearly indicates the existence of a registrable interest, which already exists in legislation.
As the hon. Gentleman has informed us, the intention of amendment No. 315 is to protect the interests of companies that have disagreements with licence holders at the time of transition, which result in the licence holder either refusing to co-operate or leaving without providing a forwarding address. In those circumstances, the consent of the existing licence holder would be impossible to obtain and the conversion of the licence could not take place. The Government do not accept that the wording of the clause will present any problem in most circumstances. I am sure that it is not being suggested that an employee will do anything other than what his employer requires. For instance, the owner of a pub chain can take action in respect of the individual under his employment contract if the employee acts against his instruction, or actively seeks to damage his employer's business by refusing to give consent.
I remind the Committee that the Bill will not prevent applications for justices' licences or for their transfer during the transitional period. A pub company with a licensee who will not give his or her consent to an application for a conversion of a licence would be free to recruit a new licensee and seek their consent to conversion. Committee members may consider that to be an onerous process, but I remind them that the provisions are for preserving special rights and are based on judgments that have already been made about individuals who have satisfied the licensing authorities or licensing justices on any points of concern. It is therefore right that they should either
make conversion applications, or give them their consent.
Amendment No. 315 would add to the list of those eligible to apply for conversion any person who has registered an interest in the premises under the terms of the Licensing Act 1964. We are talking only about justices' licences and breweries and pub-operating companies that do not hold the licence themselves. In most cases, an employee—a manager or a tenant—will hold the licence. It should be noted that the amendment would provide that the consent of the licence holder would not be needed if a person or business decided to apply. That is a recipe for confusion. What if both the licence holder and the person with a registered interest applied? How is a licensing authority to decide which applicant should be given precedence? Is the intention that it should be first come first served and are we expecting licensing authorities to decide disputes between tenants and landlords? I think not.
Confusion aside, grandfather rights are being afforded because, in the case of justices' licences, particular individuals—the licence holders—have shown themselves to the satisfaction of the licensing justices to be fit and proper people to sell alcohol. It is therefore unnecessary to ask them to go through the tests set out in the Bill. Those with registered interests under the 1964 Act have not satisfied any licensing body of their fitness to sell alcohol, and the right therefore belongs to the individuals holding the licences. We have been flexible by providing that where the licence holder is prepared to give his or her consent another individual may apply. That prevents confusion and would allow a person with a registered interest to make an application for conversion, but there can be no automatic right for such people.
With that explanation, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.
I am still not convinced that there will not be problems for the industry where there is a dispute between the current licence holder—who may be a tenant or a manager—and the company involved. The Minister seems to be saying that the Bill should not interpose itself between the contractual obligations between them, but I can envisage situations arising in which consent will be withheld, to the detriment of the business. That is a bargaining chip that ought not to exist in the transitional period before the new licences are introduced.
I accept part of what the Minister says and our amendments might not solve the problem, but it is unreasonable in all instances to leave the consent in the hands solely of the current licence holder and for the balance to be tipped in their favour. I admit that on the appointed day, or in the transitional period leading up to it, there will be few disputes between managers and tenants and their employers or the companies involved. Companies will be out on a limb if consent is withheld by an individual who is in dispute with them or who, under the new licence arrangements, ought not to have a licence because of transgressions that they have committed.
I will happily withdraw the amendments if they do not fit the bill, but we might look at this matter again on Report. At present, the benefit is totally tipped in the direction of the current licence holder and it lacks balance. However, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move amendment No. 322, in
schedule 8, page 160, line 21, at end insert—
'( ) the purposes embodied in those undertakings of a permanent nature relating to the licensing objectives which have been offered by the licensee and which attach to the relevant existing licence,'.
With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 323, in
schedule 8, page 160, line 24, after 'the', insert 'permanent undertakings and'.
Undertakings are an important matter. I understand that several interested parties have lobbied the Minister about it, and I have no doubt that we will return to it on Report. I hope that the Minister will take on board the concerns that have been expressed and deal with them when he replies to this brief debate.
Those concerns predominantly involve central London—my own City of Westminster. However, they also involve the London borough of Camden, and the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) has made detailed representations. I wish to take this opportunity to put on the record my thanks to Matthew Bennett and David Bieda for their briefings to me: they are hard-working local activists in the west end and they have expressed some of the grave concerns.
I will talk about the amendments together, and I will subsequently say a few words on staggered timing, which is one of the centrepieces of the law and order aspect of the Bill.
The undertakings offered by a licensee are generally a non-statutory set of conditions or agreements that are read in conjunction with the liquor licence and then attached to it. Under the current regime, non-compliance with those undertakings is a matter that the justices can take into account when determining whether to renew a licence.
Until now, undertakings have often been used to cover matters that have been subject to objection or complaint from neighbours or other interested parties. Under the future regime, we would like local representatives and councillors to be such interested parties in their own right, rather than as part and parcel of the local licensing authority. Undertakings have been widely used by many licensing justices' committees to resolve problems about licensed premises, rather than simply to revoke the licence. It provides a flexible touch.
One of our concerns is the notion that undertakings will be done away with and that the Government will end that more flexible regime. Often, undertakings have been attached at the request of the police or other law and order authorities. The Bill, if unamended, could sweep away all the undertakings, including those put into place at the request of the police as an
alternative to revocation. Clearly, revocation is an important step; however, the current regime allows for strict undertakings and if they are done away with, some of the more unsavoury operators, who have been able to get away with quite a lot in the past, will be seen to get away scot free.
Many licences, particularly in central London, have detailed undertakings. They may deal with double-glazing, numbers of customers or staff, the fitting of noise limiters, the need for doormen to encourage customers outside premises to disperse quickly and quietly, the restriction of music-playing hours, or the request that there be no off-sales—there is a whole range of conditions. A premises may have some 20 or so undertakings. There may have been an accretion of undertakings over time, because of particular circumstances, the concerns of residents or the fact that an area has subtly changed. There is no doubt that all the areas in central London that I have referred to, and particularly Soho and Covent Garden, have changed immensely in recent decades.
Undertakings are almost a patchwork or network of protection, not only for residents but for the better operators, who deserve to be able to ensure that the tenor of the area is not undermined. The great worry is that if the Government simply sneak the regime of undertakings away, the lowest common denominator will, as ever, be played to.
In another place, Baroness Blackstone said:
''these undertakings do not have any legal force. They may be considered now by licensing authorities when licences are being renewed. If the undertakings have been broken, that could lead to renewals being refused. But they cannot of themselves lead to a criminal prosecution as would be the case with licence conditions.
Therefore, should it be mandatory for applicants for licence conversions to provide information on these non-legal obligations? There is one key reason why I do not believe that it should. Under the Bill, interested parties and responsible authorities can request the review of any premises licence on a ground relating to the licensing objectives. This gives ample opportunity for residents, for instance, to seek recourse if any premises give rise to problems of crime and disorder or public nuisance.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 4 March 2003; Vol. 645, c. 780.]
What sort of message does it send if a premises operator who has run premises in such a way that the licensing justices required many undertakings of them does not even have to provide information about those undertakings to the new licensing authority to get a transitional licence? Is that a satisfactory position in which to put residents and neighbours?
We fear that the new Bill will sweep away all the protection offered by undertakings, which may well be the result of months, if not years, of nuisance, distress and bureaucratic wrangling. That would be very much to be regretted. I am not entirely sure how the regime works outside central London, but from my experience in central London, it is clear that a patchwork or network of undertakings has provided a sort of protection.
Perhaps the Government do not want to be seen as being anti-liquor trade. I do not think that they would have anything to fear on that score if they accepted my
amendment; it simply ensures that the conditions in the new licence embody the purposes of the undertakings. Those are the conditions under which licence holders have willingly decided to operate their licence at present. Let us face it, undertakings are not simply bureaucratic nonsense that can easily be swept away and dismissed as red tape; they have been given only because there have been, or might be, problems in the area.
I appreciate that there has been a lot of lobbying from other Members of Parliament outside this Committee, and I understand that the Minister may well come back to the matter on Report.
Briefly, on staggered closing hours, there has been some misapprehension about them by the Government in these debates. We shall return to the matter on Report, but I should like some guidance from the Minister as to what he understands the notion of staggered closing to mean. Ministers seem to have given two quite distinct meanings at various times. Either it should mean dispensing with all controls over opening hours or it should mean that effectively there will be a larger number of people on the streets, but over a longer period of time—there would not be a witching hour at 11 o'clock , 12 o'clock or even at later times within a number of bars in central London, to which I have already referred.
We have grave concerns about central London and precisely how the system will operate. Undertakings have been an integral part of ensuring that there is a balance that all of us wish to maintain between the residential population and the interests of business—particularly the interests of long-standing local businesses, which have not only been the life-blood of many of our inner cities but have provided the commitment to ensure that the tenor of many of our inner cities is maintained. A vibrant resident population is the prerequisite to ensure that our inner cities can be lived in and that the objectives of law and order, of which the Government rightly make much play, can be maintained.
The hon. Gentleman gave us come compelling arguments for continuing with the kinds of undertakings that he has described. I acknowledge that a number of right hon. and hon. Members have expressed views about the continuing beneficial effect of undertakings and what the Bill will do to them. The words of my noble Friend Baroness Blackstone in another place are the words that he shall more or less hear from me, because of the difference between undertakings and the statutory obligations that we seek to impose.
Amendments Nos. 322 and 323 would require that a premises licence must be granted under the conversion provisions in schedule 8, subject to such conditions as reproduced the effect of the undertakings subject to which the existing licence or licences—for example, a justices' licence—had been granted or renewed. The Bill addresses comprehensively the attaching of existing conditions to a new premises licence under the conversion arrangements.
Undertakings are a very different matter and it is important that the Committee should understand
what they are. I chose the example of a justices' licence because that is the area of licensing where undertakings are often mentioned at present. Undertakings that are sometimes sought by licensing justices do not have any legal force unless they themselves form conditions on the face of existing licences. I think that the hon. Gentleman repeated the words of my noble Friend in another place to reinforce the assertion. They may be considered by licensing authorities when licences are being renewed. If the undertakings have been broken, that could lead to the renewal of licences being refused. However they cannot themselves lead to a criminal prosecution, as would be the case with licence conditions, and they cannot be enforced. In essence, they are entirely voluntary undertakings and they do not, as such, attach to a licence. They amount to no more than a personal promise by the applicant for a licence or its renewal under current legislation.
Surely the Minister must appreciate that although he was talking about the distinction made by his noble Friend in another place, none the less undertakings are very powerful—particularly within a local area. If an operator deliberately flouts those promises, those personal undertakings, that has a major effect upon future licence applications, both for that premises and the other premises within the same area.
Yes, indeed. I acknowledge that—
It being twenty-five minutes past eleven o'clock, The Chairman, pursuant to Standing Order No. 88 (Meetings of standing committees), deferred adjourning the Committee.
Thank you very much, Mr. Benton. That is a wise decision. I shall try to be brief—[Hon. Members: ''Get on with it.''] Right, I will.
The question is whether it should be mandatory for applicants for licence conversions under paragraph 2 of schedule 8 to provide information on non-legal matters and whether we should give those undertakings new legal force. However, there is one key reason why it should not be mandatory.
Under the Bill, interested parties in responsible authorities can request the review of any premises licence on grounds relating to the licensing objectives. That gives ample opportunity for residents and others to seek a remedy if a licensee does, or fails to do, something that was previously the subject of an undertaking, provided that the act or omission is relevant to the licensing objectives. I hope that the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster accepts that. I assure him that the Bill provides ample protections and it provides more opportunities than exist at present for residents and others to seek a remedy if a premises causes a particular problem. There is nothing to be gained from transferring undertakings to premises licences. I therefore hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.
I must confess that I remain unhappy, but I appreciate that the Minister has been clear and we shall return to the issue on Report. I hope that he will be open enough to take on board some of the concerns that have been raised in Committee.
The concern that I have above all is that the Minister said—I paraphrase—that the undertakings should be in keeping with the four key objectives under clause 5. Surely, those undertakings in accordance with the Bill's objectives would be covered under the licensing matter anyway. The sorts of undertakings that take account of localised factors require protection for residential populations or other traders, but they will fall foul of the provisions and probably will not be covered by the main objectives. With that in mind, we have expressed our grave concern that the whole patchwork of undertakings can be done away with. That gives a further weapon in the armoury of those unscrupulous operators whose plan is to run roughshod over the interests not only of the residential population but of the smaller, independent family operators in central London—for whom in many ways I have greater concern—many of whom provide brilliant service in wine bars, restaurants and a range of other licensed premises.
My concern is that the next time that there is an economic upturn, it will be all too tempting for operators in my constituency, such as those in Soho, to sell out because they realise that the ambience of the area is diminishing. No choice will be left for the residents or any other users of our central London entertainment industry and only large operators will remain, appealing to the lowest common denominator. I do not suggest that all large operators are like that; many have sensible policies. There is a concern, however, that we will see a McDonaldisation and Starbuckisation of the whole district to the detriment of the charm that we retain in many of our inner cities. I appreciate that the Minister has not been persuaded by my words on the amendment or, dare I say it, any of my words during the past six or seven weeks of the Committee.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will seriously consider this matter because we will return to it on Report. I hope that in the interim—during the next two or three weeks—he will try to find some means whereby we can at least retain the best of the undertakings regime. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendments made: No. 33, in
schedule 8, page 166, line 9, leave out 'section 73' and insert
'sections (club premises certificate authorising supply of alcohol for consumption off the premises) and 73'.
No. 34, in
schedule 8, page 166, line 14, leave out 'section' and insert
'sections (club premises certificate authorising supply of alcohol for consumption off the premise) and'.—[Dr. Howells.]
Mr. Moss: I beg to move amendment No. 299, in
schedule 8, page 167, line 25, after
'licence', insert ', or a person who within the last 12 months prior to the appointed day has held a justices' licence which has not been subsequently revoked,'.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment No. 300, in
schedule 8, page 168, line 39, after 'licence', insert
', or is a person who within the last 12 months prior to the appointed day has held a justices' licence which has not been subsequently revoked,'.
Thank, you, Mr. Benton, for using your discretion to extend our proceedings. I am sure that we can finalise things quickly. I shall be brief.
Under the current proposals, only those actively holding a justices' licence on the appointed day will be entitled to receive the new personal licence. Anyone who has been in the trade without being specifically responsible for a premises will not get that benefit. We believe that that would be grossly unfair on those who, through no fault of their own, are not at present listed as a licence holder. There could be various reasons for that. A company may have gone into receivership and a manager may have lost his position; a supermarket manager may be in between positions and a tenant may be in the process of acquiring a new tenancy.
The industry and the trade organisations have long argued that transition should allow people who are for whatever reason temporarily without a licence on the appointed day to obtain a new-style licence without the need to get a qualification. Some of those affected may have many years' experience in the trade and it would be more than insulting for them to have to sit an examination. Indeed, many of them would already have obtained all the necessary qualifications that are available.
The amendments would go beyond the rights given to an individual currently holding a justices' licence, even if the law did not change. It cannot be assumed that a person who has been considered fit and proper in the past can automatically be considered fit and proper now—that is the same as the current law. We do not know what the justices would make of those people. The grandfather right as a privilege should be applied only to those who are considered fit and proper by the justices. Those who fall outside the privileged group will have to apply for a personal licence during the transitional period and must meet the qualifying tests in part 6 of the Bill.
Hon. Members will no doubt argue that that approach is harsh or unfair. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire hinted at that. We are, however, obliged to draw the line somewhere. The hon. Gentleman did just that in choosing a limit of 12 months. I ask hon. Members to remember that under paragraph 23(2), any individual in the kind of circumstances that were described would have at least six months—the so-called transitional period—in which to obtain a justices' licence if they had recently surrendered one. If they were successful, they could, within that period, use the licence to secure a grandfather right. The justices will still be functioning throughout that period and an application will carry appropriate eligibility as long as it is made in the transitional period. That arrangement is not unreasonable or rigid; it is pretty fair and I hope, with that undertaking, the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.
I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation and for a way forward for those who seem to be caught in this in-between situation. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Schedule 8, as amended, agreed to.