Suspension of Licences

Policing and Crime Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 12th April 2016.

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“(1) Licensing Act 2003 is amended as follows—

(2) After section 171 insert—

“171A Suspension of Licences

(1) A licensing authority may suspend a premises licence, or a club premises certificate if the holder of the licence or certificate has failed to pay the non-domestic rates due, from one or more previous financial years, to the licensing authority in respect of the premises for which the licence or certificate relates.

(2) A licensing authority may not suspend a premises licence or a club premises certificate using the powers granted by this section if—

(a) the licensing authority is unable to demonstrate that earlier efforts to secure payment of the debt have been made but have failed, or

(b) either—

(i) the licence holder failed to pay the required amount of non-domestic rates at the time it became due because of an administrative error (whether made by the holder, the authority or anyone else), or

(ii) before or at the time the non-domestic rates became due, the holder notified the authority in writing that the holder disputed liability for, or the amount of, the rates.

(3) If a licensing authority suspends a premises licence or club premises certificate under subsection (1), the authority must give the holder of the licence or certificate notice of the grounds on which the licence or certificate has been revoked and specify the day the suspension takes effect.

(4) The date specified in the notice under subsection (3) must be at least 10 working days after the day the authority gives the notice.

(5) The amendments made by this section apply in relation to any outstanding non-domestic rates which are owed to the licensing authority six months after the commencement of this section.””—

This new clause would enable a licensing authority to suspend a premises licence where a business has wilfully or persistently failed to pay the business rates due to the licensing authority.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

With this it will be convenient to discuss:

New clause 52—Cap on Licensed Premises—

“(1) Amend the 2003 Licensing Act as follows.

(2) At the end of subsection 3 of section 18 insert—

“(c) have regard to the cumulative impact of granting the licence application given the number of other licensed establishments in the vicinity of the applicant premise.”

This new clause would allow local authorities to reject a licensing application on the grounds that there are already too many licensed premises.

New clause 53—Public health licensing objective—

“(1) The Licensing Act 2003 is amended as follows.

(2) After section 4(d) insert—

“(e) promoting public health.””

This new clause would make promoting public health a statutory objective for licensing authorities.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Home Office) 4:45 pm, 12th April 2016

These new clauses have all been tabled to help local authorities to carry out their alcohol licensing function.

New clause 51 would enable a licensing authority to suspend a premises licence where a business had wilfully or persistently failed to pay the business rates due. It has been tabled with the support of the Local Government Association. New clause 52 would allow local authorities to reject a licensing application if they felt there were already enough licensed premises in a particular area. New clause 53 would make promoting public health a statutory objective for licensing authorities.

New clause 51 has been tabled because, as the law stands, local authorities must issue licences to businesses even when they may owe debts running into tens of thousands of pounds. I am told by the LGA that that has become a problem in some localities, such as West Sussex, where local authorities are struggling to collect the business rates to which they are entitled. The new clause would end the problem by allowing local authorities to suspend the licence of an establishment that has persistently failed to pay its business rates. The hope is that the power would rarely be used, as premises would change their behaviour as they would no longer have reason to see their local authority as a soft creditor.

The new clause is by no means an attack on drinking establishments. We recognise the role that they play in our communities as social hubs that are an important part of our cultural heritage. The Opposition want to ensure that we keep as many of our well-run drinking establishments open as possible. We understand that the proposal could be seen as a threat to that, which is why it contains a power for a local authority to revoke a licence that would apply only if it was able to demonstrate first that earlier efforts to secure payment of the debt had been made but failed. That safeguard is included to ensure that the power is used only as a last resort.

Furthermore, the power to revoke a licence would not apply if the business failed to make the payment because of an administrative error on the part of the holder, the authority or anybody else—for example, the business’s bank. Taken together, those safeguards would ensure that the power to revoke licences was used only as a very last resort and would protect well-run local pubs from accidentally having their licence removed because of an administrative error.

The Local Government Association predicts that the safeguards, alongside the Government’s extension of small business rate relief, would mean that we would not see important community pubs closing as a result of the new power. However, the power would enable local authorities to ensure that they do not lose out on important revenue to which they are entitled and on which many of our basic services rely.

New clause 52 would allow local authorities to reject a licensing application if they felt they were saturated with licensed premises in a particular area. The Licensing Act 2003 allows local authorities to reject licensing applications only in a limited and defined set of situations: either where the premises has not demonstrated that it will meet statutory licensing objectives, or where door or cover supervision is not provided for.

Home Office guidance suggests that a local authority can refuse a licence based on

“the potential impact on the promotion of the licensing objectives of a significant number of licensed premises concentrated in one area.”

However, a local authority can do so only if it demonstrates in its licensing statement that the number of licensed premises in its area has already had a negative cumulative impact on its licensing objectives. That is called a cumulative impact policy and means that local authorities have to wait until they can demonstrate a negative impact on the prevention of crime and disorder, public safety, the prevention of public nuisance or the protection of children from harm. That leaves local authorities powerless to act until after the fact, and I just do not think that that is right. I believe that the licensing objectives are incredibly important and I want to give local authorities the power to be proactive to ensure that they are upheld.

For instance, a small town with two large nightclubs could not reject an application for a licence from a third nightclub even if the local authority believed that it would not be appropriate for the town to have yet another nightclub. It is of course important to consider the individual characteristics of the premises concerned, but it is also important to consider the individual characteristics of our towns and cities, which many residents want to see conserved. In effect, local authorities have no power to control the number of licensed premises in any given locality until they can demonstrate that it is having an adverse impact on one of their licensing objectives, by which point it would be rather late.

New clause 52 would allow a local authority to reject a licensing application based on the belief that an area is already saturated with drinking establishments. It would give local authorities a sure footing and a legal foundation to allow them to be proactive in ensuring that their licensing objectives are met, and more power over how their towns and cities look and operate.

New clause 53 would make promoting public health a statutory objective for licensing authorities. I do recognise—honest—the important place that pubs, clubs, bars and restaurants play in our society. Drinking is a social activity, and drinking establishments are essentially social places where people go for conversation, relaxation and pleasure. I understand that in our busy and stressful lives, the socially integrative, egalitarian environments in our favourite locals can be the perfect way to switch off and unwind. For me, a decent beer, a good meal, an engaging book and the company of my four-legged friend is a great joy and a perfect way to spend a weekend afternoon or an evening. I also acknowledge that that can provide significant public health benefits—it certainly does for me—but we must not lose sight of the significant impact that drinking can have on public health.

It is well known that there is a causal relationship between alcohol consumption and a range of health problems, including alcohol dependency, liver diseases, some cancers and cardiovascular diseases. Furthermore, it can lead to unsafe behaviour and thus the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. The World Health Organisation estimates that 5.1% of the global disease burden is due to harmful use of alcohol. New clauses 52 and 53 would enable local authorities to reject licensing applications on the basis that the number of premises in an area was having a negative impact on public health. We cannot ask local authorities to be responsible for public health and then not give them the powers that they say they need to have an impact upon it.

I understand that implementing public health as a licensing objective in Scotland has proved to be somewhat difficult; however, that should not deter us from at least considering it. Alcohol clearly has a major impact on public health, so local authorities should be enabled to consider that impact when undertaking their licensing function. I believe that we have to find a way of successfully implementing what was attempted in Scotland. Local practitioners certainly think so; a recent Local Government Association survey of directors of public health found that nine out of 10 were in favour of adding a public health objective to the Licensing Act 2003, saying that it would help them do their jobs more effectively. Our amendment has the support of the Local Government Association.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank the shadow Minister for her comments. I too have read the very informative LGA briefing. I ought to declare an interest in that I am not just an avid—and regular—user of licensed premises. I grew up in a licensed premises, and my brother still has a licence and runs the family pub, which has been in the family since 1967. I think we probably have some experience of these things. Perhaps I could deal with the new clauses in the order that I am attracted to them.

I will start with new clause 51. The four licensing objectives that local authorities have are the prevention of crime and disorder, public safety, the prevention of public nuisance, and the protection of children from harm. It is very important that we stick to those when we come to look at the new clause. The hon. Lady will know that there is a provision in the 2003 Act for the licensing authority to suspend a premises licence or club premises certificate if the premises has failed to pay the annual fee. That power is directly linked to the local authority’s need to obtain a fee from premises in order to carry out its functions. If it is not paid it undermines licensing authorities’ ability to operate fully, and it is therefore right that they should have the corresponding power to suspend the licence and thus the legal operation of such premises.

Business rates are a different matter. They must be paid by not just licensed premises but all businesses. There are already enforcement remedies available to local councils for the non-payment of those rates. I am not sure that linking the payment of business rates to the right to hold a licence to sell alcohol is necessarily an appropriate route to take. I am therefore afraid that I cannot commend new clause 51 to the Committee.

New clause 53 seeks to introduce a health-based licensing objective. I want to assure the hon. Lady that the Government have sympathy for the view that considerations of public health should play a greater role in licensing, and we remain interested in the possibility of introducing a health-related licensing objective. However, this is neither the right time nor the legislative vehicle to do so. It may superficially seem straightforward, but licensing decisions must be proportionate and made on a case-by-case basis. To try to establish direct causal links between alcohol-related health harms and particular premises would be very difficult. Without the necessary processes and supporting evidence in place, licensing decisions based on health grounds would be unlikely to stand up to legal challenge.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I have an awful lot of sympathy with what the hon. Lady says, especially about this not being the right legislative vehicle. It was an opportunity for us to test the waters.

We did not envisage this new clause being about the health risk of a particular pub, premises or bar, but about the amount in a particular area, or possibly the type of risks in a particular area. Effectively, the new clause would allow local authorities to take that into consideration when making decisions on licences.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I understand the hon. Lady’s point. I should make the point that the public health requirement, in the case of two-tier authorities, is on the county council, as it is in my case, but the district council deals with licensing. Licensing decisions are taken on a case-by-case basis, so we would be asking a district or borough council to take a licensing decision on an individual premises on the basis of a public health implication that may or may not be properly founded. I want to assure the hon. Lady that Public Health England is looking at the lessons learned from the evidence-based work that was done in 2014-15. A consultation process would need to follow, but it is looking carefully at that point.

New clause 52 covers the cumulative impact. The hon. Lady linked new clauses 52 and 53, but I do not think we need to do that. I hope that she has read avidly the Government’s modern crime prevention strategy, which was published just last month, because in that we made a commitment to put cumulative impact policies on a statutory footing.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham 5:00 pm, 12th April 2016

It is my understanding that if a local authority draws up a local policy, it can use cumulative impact to refuse further licences in an area.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There are already more than 200 cumulative impact policies in England and Wales and they allow local authorities to control the number or type of licence applications granted in an area where it can be shown that high numbers or densities of licensed premises are having an adverse impact on the licensing objectives. They can also put a levy on such premises. However, the cumulative impact policies currently have no statutory basis and it is unclear whether all local authorities are making best use of the power. That is why we intend to place them on a statutory footing both to maximise their effectiveness and to improve local authorities’ ability to ensure that the right premises for their area are granted licences to sell alcohol and late-night refreshment.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I am a bit of an anorak on the Licensing Act 2003 from when we were in power. The Minister makes an important point about putting cumulative impact on a statutory footing. One thing that confuses the public is that while the ability to reduce licences or take action is there—the onus is on the local authority—in many cases they do not use the powers they have got.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that local authorities do not necessarily use the powers available to them and this measure will ensure that they understand those powers and use them. I hope that he and the hon. Member for West Ham understand that the change requires proper consultation with those affected. We need to consult the licence trade, the alcohol industry and local authorities. Therefore—I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me—we need a little time to undertake such consultations. We will do them as quickly as possible. I cannot promise that they will have been completed in time for Report, but suffice it to say that we support the objectives behind new clause 52 and will seek to bring forward proposals of our own as quickly as possible.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Home Office)

The Minister has obviously delighted me. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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