‘(1) No later than the end of the period of 6 months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, the Secretary of State must commence a cross-government review of all legislation relating to local authority licensing, consents, permits and registrations.
(2) The review must include a review of whether and if so how the legislation can be simplified and consolidated.
(3) A report on the review must be presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State no later than the end of the period of 18 months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed.’.—(Toby Perkins.)
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
This is possibly the last time during our proceedings in Committee that I will have the pleasure of speaking under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. If so, it is good that I find you in such stringent form this afternoon. You have kept us all very much on the straight and narrow during the Bill Committee, and it has been a tremendous pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
As a former councillor, I move the new clause with great pleasure. It is only right to pay my tribute to all those heroes up and down the country who serve as councillors in difficult circumstances. They do so because of their commitment to their local area. Many of us in this place were once councillors, and some people continue to perform their duties as councillors alongside being a Member of Parliament. A large number of us certainly served in local government. We should ensure that our tribute to the role played by our local authorities is heard loud and clear.
As a former councillor, I echo the thoughts of the hon. Gentleman and add to them by encouraging anyone who reads the transcript of the debate to consider standing for council and playing a part in the local community. As we all know in all parts of this House, we look to obtain candidates for council elections, and those who do stand should be applauded, as opposed to being derided as they sometimes are in the press, however unfairly.
I agree entirely, although people who take time out of their schedule to watch the Deregulation Bill Committee certainly do not have time on their hands to serve in local government. I hope that they take the hon. Gentleman up on his challenge, because we are talking about important though often thankless work. People in our communities often think that those on the council are getting far greater financial reward than they are; many councillors serve long hours, with limited financial reward, because they recognise the importance of local authorities in our democracy. It is right that he has joined me in placing that tribute on the record.
Labour has supported the Government’s proposals. In fact, we have called for them to go further in some respects, namely with regard to the deregulation of the alcohol and entertainment industries in clauses 38 to 43. We did so because we recognise that our night-time economy is tremendously important to our economy and to jobs, in its contribution to the type of places that we have and the type of country that we want to live in, and to tourism. We should support the night-time economy, which is vital to building growth, jobs and prosperity. The average pub or bar employs 10 people, often from those groups in society who find it most hard to access employment, such as young people or single mothers. Each pub contributes around £80,000 to its local economy. We therefore support any move to help grow the sector, which is why we have taken such a leading role on pub companies, the regulation of which will have a dramatic and positive impact on the health of the pub industry. We are constantly trying to find new ways to support the sector. We are deeply concerned about the increase in the past 12 months in the number of pubs that are closing. We have spoken out on many occasions about some of the steps that we think could be taken to support more pubs in the industry.
While supporting the industry, we are conscious of the potential impact on antisocial behaviour. With that in mind, we tabled the new clause, and it is worth reflecting on what it is about. It was suggested to us after consultation with colleagues in the Local Government Association that a cross-Government review of all legislation relating to local authority licensing, consents, permits and registration should be conducted within six months. That is what the new clause would provide for. The review should consider whether and how the legislation can be simplified and consolidated—so the new clause is absolutely in keeping with the principles of a deregulation Bill—and a report on the review should be presented to Parliament within 18 months of the Bill being enacted.
This is very much about the principle of recognising the huge pressures that local government is under. We have all seen, in Budget after Budget, that the level of cuts expected of local government has far outstripped central Government’s expectation of being able to make the same cuts. There has been a real devolution of passing out the pain. What the Government have said on many occasions is: “There are going to be massive cuts, but rather than us in central Government facing the wrath of the public, we’re going to pass it on to the council leaders and councillors.” They then have to go to their communities and tell them why they are having to choose between the mobile library service or potholes in the road, social services for elderly people or social services for young people, housing or parks, or funding the voluntary sector or local community groups.
Over the course of this Government, there has been real pressure on local government. At the same time that this massive financial burden has been handed down, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has placed a variety of additional expectations on local government. He is obsessed with bin collections and wants to pass down expectations in a variety of other ways. He says to local authorities: “You have to cut the amount you’re spending, but I have ever higher expectations of what you are delivering”. We all understand the principle of delivering more for less, but the extent to which local government has been expected to do it—in a way that the health service or even the police, with their stringent cuts, have not—has really been about passing on the responsibility for austerity to local government in a way that it is not expected of central Government.
The new clause would enable a root-and-branch review of those expectations on local government. When it comes to issues like licence consents, permits and registrations, these are often one of the few areas where hard-pressed local authorities are able to raise more income. We all know that in broad terms the local authorities with the greatest levels of deprivation have been those that have seen the biggest cuts. Often those local authorities find these kinds of areas one of the few where they can actually raise more income, so we have seen a disproportionate level falling on some of these areas.
What the Local Government Association suggests—and we agree—is a root-and-branch review of the impact of all these different areas of licensing. What is actually needed and could the Government, as we suspect, have gone much further in deregulating this area? We think there is potential for the Government to go further in deregulating the sector. In considering further changes, it is important that they listen closely to those most involved in the sector. Hosting a consultation—asking local authorities, licensees and proprietors to have their say—would generate new ideas for deregulation.
In some of our debates on the earlier clauses in the Bill, we were alarmed by the lack of evidence that the new powers were in accordance with what local authorities prioritised and would use—for example, the number of temporary event notices that they could grant. Most local authorities that we heard from neither strongly opposed the policy nor prioritised it as a major issue that would help them. At the same time, conducting a much broader consultation on this policy area would help us to break through this barrier and listen to the ideas that local authorities think would have most impact on growing their economies on the ground and reducing the burdens on their budgets.
The LGA proposed a more formal review, with all local authorities required to send in their response. We have fears that that would be costly for some councils that did not consider they had much to add to that debate at the time—their budgets have been decimated by the Government. We are calling for a consultation with councils and businesses, including the night-time economy businesses, in which they will be free to participate, however as they feel appropriate and within their budgets, recognising the desire to reduce the bureaucratic burden on local authorities and the fact that the Government are placing tremendous burdens on local government. A full review would be timely and potentially advantageous to deregulation and enable us to take a proper view of the full gamut of responsibilities on local authorities and how those burdens can be lessened.
I hope that explains why the new clause would be beneficial to local authorities of all colours, and I commend it to the Committee.
The Local Government Association recently drew attention to the breadth and complexity of the legislation driving local authority licensing activity. As the hon. Gentleman made clear, the LGA report, “Open for Business: Rewiring Licensing”, which was published in February, set out the complex landscape of local authority licensing. Since then, Departments have considered the report very carefully.
This is not just about alcohol licensing; it is about licensing of many different kinds. Some 30 pieces of primary and secondary legislation were identified, together with numerous byelaws and local Acts, all of which involve a licensing function. The new clause would require the Secretary of State to present to Parliament a report reviewing all the legislation relating to local authority licensing, consents, permits and registrations. The report would include recommendations on how local authority licensing might be simplified and consolidated, and would have to be presented within 18 months of the Bill coming into force.
The Government are committed to reducing the impact of regulation on business and supporting local government to improve its efficiency. A great deal has already been achieved—a large part without the need for primary legislation. Given our commitment to regulatory reform in general, I can assure all members of the Committee that the valuable work undertaken by the LGA will be taken seriously by Departments over the coming months as they continue to identify ways to deregulate sensibly. As for the new clause, however, I do not consider it necessary to place such a strict timetable in primary legislation. I am concerned about the nature of the timetable, given the breadth of the work involved.
Perhaps I can explain a little more fully. The Government were asked in the LGA paper to undertake nine actions that would involve a considerable amount of work for Departments. Indeed, we are talking about something on a much more substantial scale than the sort of reviews that the Law Commission undertakes.
For example, the Government were asked to undertake
“a comprehensive review of licensing legislation to determine what can be scrapped, or amended and consolidated”,
and to introduce a “reformed licensing framework”, which should be
“overseen by a single government department.”
One can imagine the amount of liaison and cross-Government needed for that. The other proposals were as follows:
“The Government should deliver on their overdue commitment to localise alcohol fees…Licensing decisions should be reached locally based on a broader set of licensing objectives that includes…public health…Businesses should be able to apply to councils for a single licence tailored to their business needs…The licence for life should be consistently applied to all licences, with clear mechanisms for addressing issues of non-compliance…The process for appeal should be transparent and consistent across all licences, ensuring no applicant is disadvantaged…When granting licences councils should be able to effectively consider local representations…Government should ensure that councils have the legal flexibility to offer diverse payment options to businesses. Councils should consider what more they can do to assist businesses, including direct debits and instalments.”
I am not saying that any of those ideas are bad; each Department will be looking at all those things in areas that concern licensing. They would, however, involve a massive amount of work, including restructuring, changing frameworks and changing ways in which business is done. It is an enormous undertaking. Once the ideas are subjected to research and further inspection and thought, the Government might not want to take some of them forward. Setting a tight timetable of 18 months is not realistic, which is why I ask for the new clause to be withdrawn.
I want to speak briefly in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield and new clause 5. I represent a town with a large number of small restaurants, run mainly by those from the Bangladeshi community. The Government and the Labour party consistently support the idea that small businesses are more and more the backbone of our economy, but such businesses have difficulty with the enormous range and number of licences imposed on them. They are expensive for the local authority and a burden for local businesses, particularly restaurants. Larger businesses employ dedicated people to keep track of licensing.
The Minister suggests that the new clause would not reduce costs, but one would hope that if the whole system were rationalised, the local authority system would be more efficient and there could be cost savings in administration. There certainly would be cost savings for businesses, and there is everything to be said for that.
May I point out that local authorities may already act without such review or indeed legislation? My local authority, the London borough of Sutton, moved from a system where it had three different officers going into one business to check different standards to training one person to go in to a business once.
The hon. Gentleman will remember the process that led to the Licensing Act 2003—he and I were both in the House at the time. There were statements, major debates and reports, and that was for one small part of the licensing regime. In this case we are talking about Acts going back to 1916 that nobody has reviewed in donkeys’ years. It is a huge piece of work.
I appreciate that it would be a huge piece of work, as the Minister says, but it could be beneficial for local authorities and, in particular, small businesses. The point I wanted to emphasise is that licensing is important. Local authorities must regulate businesses in their areas to ensure that they adhere to health standards, for example. Health in restaurants is very important. All sorts of licences and regulations are necessary, but if they can be rationalised, co-ordinated and integrated, it will save businesses a lot of effort and worry and benefit local authorities because their administrative machinery would scale up and become more efficient. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield and new clause 5. I would like to think that even though there has been some to-ing and fro-ing across the Committee, there is a degree of consensus about the objective at least, if not the way forward.
First, the Minister was absolutely right to say that this is not just about alcohol licensing. My enthusiasm for and commitment to the pub industry may have led me to stress that point a little too strongly. He is right that this issue covers a whole gamut of areas, although the main clauses in the Bill that we discussed previously predominantly dealt with alcohol licensing.
The Minister says that although this is important work and the Government will look at it, it is a bit too much work in too little time. There will be a huge number of local authorities listening to that line with a mirthless smile on their faces because there are any number of commitments that have been required of them over the last three and a half years, at a time when their budgets have been drastically cut. They might well have said, “This is a bit too much work in too little time for us,” but they were not given the luxury of being able to opt out of their responsibilities that way.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just the local authorities who will be surprised at this Government’s lack of energy? It will be struggling small businesses up and down the high streets across the country, who have apparently been told by the Government: “We can’t be bothered doing some work, so you’ll have to shoulder all the burden.”
Precisely. My hon. Friend makes the point very well about the lack of energy, as he puts it, that the Government want to put into this.
We all recognise that this issue is important. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North is absolutely right: there is a broad consensus that this is something that should happen. Our new clause seeks to ensure sure that we do not just talk about it, but actually get on and do it. Let us get on and do it, and ensure there is a timetable in place.
In a moment. The Minister was free to say that the Government think that 18 months is too short and that we should say 24 months or perhaps 30 months instead. He is only going to be in government for 12 months anyway. He could have made a suggestion about the timing, but he has chosen to kick the issue into the long grass by saying, “We promise we will have a look at it.”
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way—much appreciated—but his party had 13 years. The last Government did do a small amount on licensing—with our support—but the idea that this is so urgent that it can all be done really quickly, when the Labour Government did absolutely nothing about it, does not hold water. Why is it that his party did not tackle all these issues, which were well known then? Why does he think it can be done in two minutes now?
The hon. and learned Gentleman will be aware that the Labour party inherited an NHS on its knees and school buildings where children were still going to toilets outside. The 1997 Labour Government had a number of priorities that were not the same as those facing us today.
The other difference between now and then is the pressure on local government funding. I remember being a councillor between 2003 and 2011 under a Liberal Democrat council. That council used to say on a regular basis that the financial pressures it was facing were terrible. Local authorities did not know how good they had it at that time, compared with how it is for local authorities now. At a time when the Government’s expectations of local government have never been higher and when the budgets they give to fulfil those expectations have never been tighter, they have a responsibility to prove that they are doing everything they can to reduce those burdens and support businesses in this area.
My hon. Friend is making some excellent points. Does he agree that another difference between now and 1997 is the opportunity for the digitisation of many services, as I am sure the Minister is aware, working with the Government Digital Service? Should the Government not also be looking to bring these services, particularly licensing services, together?
My hon. Friend makes a good point and I agree with her entirely. There are technological advances that were not available at the start of the previous Government. However, we will not get very far if we just say, “Couldn’t you have done this in the past?” We could all say that—why did the Solicitor-General’s party not do it before 1997? That does not take us anywhere; what is valuable is to look at what we are doing now.
The Minister laid out some of the principles in the LGA report, and they sounded exactly like the principles that would have informed the Deregulation Bill in the first place. Should he not have done an analysis of the ancient or no longer used regulations that we could get rid of and the regulations that could be slimmed down to ease the burden on businesses and local government before introducing the Bill? Given those principles, one would hope that such work had been done. Instead of simply tabling rather narrow amendments in clauses 38 to 43, the Government could have been much more ambitious.
The principles laid out by the Minister are valuable and very much in keeping with the principles of the Deregulation Bill. That is precisely why we think the Committee should take the opportunity to do something substantive and significant that benefits businesses and local government. The point was also raised about whether this would save money for local government. If we think back, the basis on which we have been asked to support some of the Government’s estimates of how much money would be saved seemed to be literally plucked from the air. The principles outlined in our amendment—
“a cross-government review of all legislation”,
“a review of whether and if so how the legislation can be simplified and consolidated”— would be likely to lead to a reduction in the amount of money spent by local government.
I am keen to give the Minister the opportunity to demonstrate how open-minded and persuaded he is by the powerful case that I have made, and to support our new clause, so that we can all get on with supporting our colleagues and friends in local government.