I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the Culture, Media and Sport Committee's report on the Licensing Act 2003. The Committee held a wide-ranging inquiry into the Act. We had four public evidence sessions and received a wide range of submissions, and I would like to put on record my thanks, and those of Committee members, to our staff and to our legal adviser, Sara John.
The principle of post-legislative scrutiny is a good one, and it would be helpful if more Acts could be looked at two or three years after their implementation to see whether the objectives set out when a Bill was first introduced have been achieved. No one could possibly argue with the objectives of the 2003 Act. The four licensing objectives clearly make common sense and the Act's intention, which was to streamline the process and make it easier to reduce costs, is one we all supported.
I apologise for intervening so early, but having sat on the Bill's Standing Committee, and as the legislation affects central London, where there are many licensed premises, I must say that we had significant objections to what it was trying to achieve in the first place. We wanted to see streamlining and cost-effectiveness, but our biggest concern at the time was that the legislation had not been properly thought through and that unfortunately it was driven more by the objective of obtaining large moneys for the Labour Government from the large-scale alcohol and entertainment industry.
I shall, Miss Begg, and I take your point, although I believe there are another 147 minutes to go. My point is that many of us had grave concerns about the legislation, and I am afraid that they have been borne out, as the Committee's excellent report shows.
There are concerns, which I shall move on to. I recognise my hon. Friend's position, as he represents an area that presents unique challenges for licensing authorities. I was shadow Secretary of State when the Bill was going through Parliament and recall going out with representatives of Westminster city council one night to visit what I believe are called vertical drinking establishments, which pack in many people whose sole purpose there is to drink as much as possible.
I also met local residents who, night after night, had to put up with drunken yobs vomiting on their door steps, and all sorts of other unpleasant behaviour. The challenges in Westminster are probably far greater than those anywhere else, so I fully recognise the concerns raised by my hon. Friend, who has done a good job in speaking up on behalf of his constituents who have to live with that kind of behaviour. I will return to that point shortly.
Still in the spirit of trying to be positive, we found that the Act had in the main achieved many of its objectives, but we identified several areas where we felt it was not working as the Government had intended, or where it could be improved. The Government's response to our report was full of warm words, which were welcome. They told us how helpful the report had been, that it contained practical and helpful recommendations and that they were pleased to be able to accept, or partially accept, the majority of the 26 recommendations. On examination, we found that those were the recommendations in which we had, in essence, agreed with the Government, so perhaps it was not wholly surprising that they agreed with us.
However, there were one or two areas where we had significant differences, and I think that it is true to say that the Government did not accept our recommendations on any of them. Those are the areas on which I wish to concentrate today, because they continue to cause concern. The biggest area of concern relates to live performance.
Clearly, we in the Committee are concerned that the Government have not gone far enough in their response to the report, but will the hon. Gentleman at least welcome the proposal to exempt venues with a capacity for 100 people for live music from having to go through the licensing bureaucracy? That would help pubs, in particular, which used to benefit from the two-in-a-bar exemption, and in fact goes further than that. Will he at least congratulate the Minister on that proposal?
Up to a point. The proposal is late and fairly small, and I will speak about it at greater length shortly, although any movement on the part of the Government is clearly welcome. As I said, I was acting in a different capacity when the Bill was going through Parliament, and it was notable that much of the debate then related to the implementation of what the media termed 24-hour drinking. As we all know, very few establishments applied to open for 24 hours.
Nevertheless, there have been concerns about the impact of shifting closing times, and the Committee received some worrying evidence from the police about the effect in inner cities. The Police Federation made a strong case for the view that the period when there was most public disorder and potential for problems had simply shifted from the period between 11 pm and midnight to between 2 am and 3 am. That obviously put much greater strain on the police and meant that their shifts had to be longer, with more overtime. Generally, the measure has not really led to a reduction in the problems they faced, but has simply shifted them to a more inconvenient time both for them and, presumably, for residents in local communities.
At the time, much of the publicity about the legislation focused on 24-hour drinking, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that there has not been an explosion in 24-hour drinking and that most licensed premises have not gone down that route, but does he agree that the bigger concern, which has been borne out in the five years since the legislation came into force, relates to the rights of local residents? In areas that may not have had many licensed premises before, residents' interests have been put in a much more secondary position than under the old regime, when licensees had to go to a magistrates court for licensed premises permission.
As I said, I have spoken in the past to the local residents my hon. Friend represents and I recognise that they have particular concerns, which I fully appreciate. It would be worrying if the legislation has made it more difficult for them to register those concerns.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned problems in inner-city areas. The problem of shifting the trouble zone applies equally to rural areas and small seaside resorts such as Teignmouth and Dawlish, so it is not just an inner-city problem. The difficulty is that residents are now being disturbed at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning, rather than earlier at 1 o'clock.
It is probably fair to say that the problem will affect places that have a significant influx of people who do not live locally, which is the case with the west end of London and with seaside resorts, so I recognise the concern in those areas as well.
There have been disturbing reports about the growth of alcohol-related violence. A report in the Evening Standard the night before last said:
"London has the highest rates of alcohol-fuelled crime in the country, with more than 80,000 drunken fights, rapes, burglaries and car thefts each year."
The Committee considered some of the problems of binge drinking. We looked, for instance, at drinks promotions, which I know the Government have been looking at too. I am slightly concerned that many of the initiatives on such issues seem now to be coming from the Home Office. I would be interested to know whether the Minister feels that he is still in control of licensing policy.
We also have a report that the Prime Minister would move to allow councils to suspend licensing in areas where there were particular problems with antisocial behaviour. I would be interested to know what has happened to that proposal-what is its present standing?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on being such an excellent Chairman of the Select Committee. He touched on drinks promotions. Would he agree that the vast majority of people in this country drink responsibly, and that banning those deals would be a completely over-the-top reaction and yet another triumph for the nanny state?
I agree that the majority of people are responsible and enjoy drinking in moderation, and that it would be completely wrong to punish them for the irresponsible behaviour of others. As a member of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend will recall the promotions that were of particular concern. Some of those connected with happy hours, and clubs giving free drinks, create an incentive to drink as much as possible in a short space of time. Obviously, there are issues around the retailing of drinks, but I share his view that the Government should not try to ban promotions completely. As he said, the vast majority of people behave responsibly.
The first of the Committee's main concerns that I want to touch on is the cost of obtaining a licence. We accepted that much had been done to try to reduce the bureaucracy involved and to keep down the cost, and I am glad that since we produced our report, the Government have made one or two further moves that have helped. For instance, I welcomed the Legislative Reform (Minor Variations to Premises Licences and Club Premises Certificates) Order 2009, which means that an applicant does not have to go through the whole process of applying for a new licence if they want to make a small change to their licence. That was clearly sensible. I am also encouraged to see the announcement about online applications, which will obviously simplify the process still further.
Given the impact on them of the costs of the new regime, we had considerable concerns about community sports clubs and non-profit-making clubs. I should declare an interest: I am the vice-president of Maldon cricket club and vice-president of Maldon rugby club-a non-playing vice-president in each case, I am afraid, but I go to the matches and enjoy a pint from the bar in the sports club after the game.
I know from speaking to members of the club how important the income they receive from the bar is in sustaining the club. It is true that sports clubs have never found things easy, but they are having a particularly hard time at present. They are suffering from the economic recession in the same way as any other business, and they have had to put up with increased utility costs, music licence costs and the smoking ban, and the move to the new licensing regime has resulted in a significant increase in their licensing costs.
The Central Council of Physical Recreation gave evidence to the Committee that rang considerable alarm bells about the difficulties that sports clubs face and the danger that many would not actually be able to keep going. The CCPR said that 6,000 sports clubs were at risk as a consequence, at least in part, of the legislation. Surveys that it had conducted showed that most sports clubs fall into bands B and C, which means that the annual cost of renewing their licence is either £180 or £295, whereas previously it had been perhaps £16. Then, of course, they face additional costs for advertising licences and so on.
We very much supported the CCPR's proposal that sports clubs should be treated differently, one reason being that other establishments that sell alcohol are generally not contributing to a healthy population, whereas sports clubs most certainly are. Their main purpose is to encourage people to get out and play sport, which is something that the Government are keen to encourage, as is the Committee. If we are making it harder for such clubs to survive, that is a matter of concern, so we supported the CCPR's proposal that just as the Government created the community amateur sports club scheme, which gave mandatory rate relief, there should be a similar provision that would mean that clubs are banded on the basis of 20 per cent. of their rateable value. That would cause all, or nearly all sports clubs to move to a lower band and, in doing so, would significantly help them by reducing their licensing costs.
The Government seemed to think that that would in some way subsidise the sale of alcohol. I do not accept that view. The Government recognised that sports clubs had a case for rate relief, and the case for licensing relief is equally strong. I hope that they will continue to consider and, indeed, accept our recommendation in that regard. Equally, we were concerned that non-profit-making clubs should not necessarily be treated in the same way as J.D. Wetherspoon and similar commercial establishments, and that perhaps they could be assessed on their bar area.
Another concern that we identified involved a national database of personal licence holders. Registering personal licence holders is clearly a good thing, but the fact that anybody who loses their licence through some transgression can go to another authority and apply for one without anyone being able to check on them seems to be a flaw. We received evidence from the Association of Chief Police Officers, which stated that the lack of such a database had caused concern to police forces nationally since the introduction of the Licensing Act. The Magistrates Association made similar representations to us and said that there really needed to be some kind of national register of personal licence holders. There is, of course, already a database through the Security Industry Authority for those who operate as doormen at establishments, and we cannot see why there could not be a similar arrangement for personal licence holders.
The Government say that there is not sufficient evidence to support the need for a database, but that is difficult to know. How can one tell the extent to which people may be applying for licences in other areas, having lost their licence in one area? An example given to us was that somebody might have trained in the hospitality industry in one place and applied for a licence from that local authority while undergoing education, then gone to work in a second authority, lost their licence and reapplied in a third. At present, that would be almost impossible to detect.
A concern with which the Government appeared to express some sympathy-I would be grateful if the Minister could update us-is what happens when a personal licence holder dies. At present, there are seven days in which to find a new licence holder for the premises. Obviously, it could be a tragic time, so we felt that seven days was too short and recommended 21. The Government accepted that case and said that they would consult on it, but I would be interested to know when the consultation will take place and whether the Government intend to make a change.
However, the main thing I want to highlight this afternoon is live performances. One of the most controversial aspects of the Bill was the abolition of the so-called two-in-a-bar rule, which previously exempted a venue where there were one or two performers from needing any kind of licence. That was something which, wearing my previous hat, I strongly opposed from the Opposition Front Bench. It was also opposed by the Liberal Democrats and it was fought in the House of Lords. The Government were forced to make some small concessions for reasons that were welcome but not quite clear. Morris dancing was exempted from the legislation, unlike any other kind of performance. Morris dancers are the one group that can perform without needing a licence. That has led to speculation about whether, if Metallica played with a morris dancer in the front, they might get around the legislation. I suspect that that is not so. It was a matter of great concern and, at the time, the Government said that they believed that the provision of the Bill would lead to an increase in live music performance, that the Bill certainly would not be damaging to it, and that they would keep an eye on this position.
I can tell the Minister that we have received quite a lot of evidence showing that there has, indeed, been damage to the performance of live music. One problem is that we will never know how many venues previously hosted live music performances by one or two performers but ceased to do so when they were required to apply under the Act, because of course previously they did not need to apply so there is no record of how many were doing so. But probably every hon. Member, including me, knows of pubs in their constituencies that did not want to go through the burden of acquiring an entertainment licence.
I support what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Does he agree that, especially in rural areas such as Montgomeryshire, where live music is part of the tradition of the county, many places that did not regard themselves as formal venues but nevertheless provided a starting point for many new musicians simply will not bother with the bureaucracy? Effectively, this legislation has kicked four or five rungs out of the bottom of performing arts in this country, to the great cost and detriment of our culture.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is real evidence of that happening, not just in Montgomeryshire but right across the country. As he suggested, those are the places where many bands start. They do not suddenly find themselves playing Wembley stadium; they would normally start off elsewhere. I remember in my teens seeing a band I had never heard of in a pub, playing a song called "Roxanne". I consider myself fortunate to have seen The Police in an audience of about 150.
I got old.
We have not just received evidence from pubs and clubs. I should like to draw attention to a submission I received just a few hours ago from the Independent Schools Association:
"The administrative and financial burden on schools as a result of the...Licensing Act only serves to put so many off. Few have the capacity or resources to jump through all of the hoops that the Act suggests, and this" is
"a crying shame on so many levels. Schools want to provide a fantastic wealth of opportunities...and so many young people are inspired by the exposure to cultural activities...The 2003 Act was never intended to create such a burdensome, bureaucratic nightmare for schools".
And that does not just apply to schools.
The hon. Gentleman says that it was. I am glad that my hon. Friend brought that up, because it is an interesting point. It seems that it was licensed, unlike the performance by The Frontiers, a young band from Liverpool, who on
The demonstration was well attended by clowns, stilt-walkers and Punch and Judy men. We heard performances by Rhythms of the City, the Oompah Brass Band and Zambezi Express. Rhubarb and Rainbow the clowns were also present. However, the serious point of that was to reflect the concern right across the spectrum of performing artists about the effect of the Licensing Act. I was given a letter signed on behalf of Equity and the Musicians Union, which represent more than 60,000 performers and other creative workers and support the recommendations of the Select Committee report, particularly on red tape-the process of applying for a licence is too bureaucratic. They also strongly support the suggestion that licensing requirements should be removed for small venues and that the two-in-a-bar rule should be reinstated. I will mention other recommendations later, including on travelling entertainment in circuses.
There is no doubt that the requirement for all forms of live performance to be licensed is having a damaging effect. I understand from the newspapers that the Government have begun to shift on this. It is reported that the Minister will consult on bringing in an exemption for venues with a capacity of less than 100. As I mentioned earlier to my Select Committee colleague, Paul Farrelly, any movement is welcome. A consultation has been promised for a long time. However, I am not entirely convinced that there needs to be a consultation at all. The evidence is clear. A huge amount of work has been done already, demonstrating that there is a need to relax the law in this area. I am concerned, because apparently it will take three months for the consultation to take place-and then, I am sure, the Department will need to assess it and think about it. The chances of a change happening before a general election seem pretty slim. I hope that the Minister will assure me that I am wrong on that point.
I will mention what the hon. Gentleman says later, during my speech, but I just want to say that for me, this is about hearing both sides of the debate regarding live music. He has rightly focused on his worry about the impact on live music, but does he not have a view on, and will he say something about, the views of local authorities, the Local Authorities Coordinators of Regulatory Services and similar bodies, which have great concerns about our going too far on such issues?
I accept that there is concern, although in my view a lot of the worries that local authorities rightly have can be addressed through environmental health legislation, for example. Actually, the practice of local authorities is also giving rise to concern, because even those venues that have taken advantage of the Act and applied for an entertainment licence are finding that the conditions being imposed are in many instances draconian.
I do not know whether the Minister is aware of the survey done by the Welwyn Hatfield Live Music Forum on the actions of just one council-St. Albans district council-which, I am afraid to say to the three hon. Members to my left, is a Liberal Democrat-controlled council. The survey showed that, of 85 pubs in the St. Albans district,
"30 have restrictions on the number of musicians who can perform...45 have restrictions on the regularity or frequency of musical performances" and
"4 have a restriction on the genres of music which can be performed...1 pub has to display a suitable and conspicuous notice advising the residents of forthcoming live music events" and
I will not mention the full list, but I will just give one example. Clarence park in Clarence road, St. Albans, is subject to a licence with conditions running to more than 2,000 words. The associated event risk-assessment form runs to another three pages. St. Albans district council states, in its licensing policy:
"The policy does not provide for any standard conditions to be imposed to avoid the imposition of disproportionate and burdensome requirements."
There is concern that local authorities are going way beyond what is required under the Act. I fear that St. Albans is not unique in that. That, too, was a matter of concern to the Committee.
To redress the balance slightly, I thank the Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Clement-Jones, who has introduced a Bill in the House of Lords that seeks to implement the Committee's recommendations in this area. I hope it is successful.
Miss Begg, I have already apologised to you, the Minister and the excellent Chairman of the Select Committee because I am unable to stay for more than a couple more minutes.
Since Lord Clement-Jones's Bill has been mentioned, and given the Minister's rather belated announcement that the Government will consult on the possibility of exempting venues of up to 100 from a requirement for a live music licence, will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the Select Committee believes that that figure should be up to 200, as mentioned in that Bill? The Minister will not mind my saying-I discussed this with him-that in an earlier conversation with him today I said that 100 did not go far enough and asked what would happen if the consultation, which I agree is not needed, suggested that 200 was a better figure. I then asked what the Government would do. The Minister was gracious enough to say that in such circumstances they would seriously consider 200. That is good news, and we should welcome it.
If that is the case, I welcome it, and I hope that the Minister will confirm it in his response. The Select Committee recommended that the appropriate figure was 200, which is what the Musicians Union suggested. The Minister would win many friends if he announced this afternoon that, having listened to us, he will change the figure to 200. [Hon. Members: "Go on."] We will give him a while.
I want to refer particularly to the problem affecting portable entertainment, especially circuses. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Peter Luff, who is unable to be present but asked me to give his apologies. He has done immense work in support of circuses. Their problem is that it is extremely unclear whether they need to be licensed. Local authorities have different views-some say that they do not need licences, but others require 14 days' notice and the full licensing process before a circus can perform. Because they move around the country, that causes uncertainty because they are unsure of where they can go without a licence. Equally, if something happens that requires them to move, it renders that almost impossible. Two examples were given to me.
Zippos circus, which I visited in Colchester, had been due to spend four or five days in Windsor when Princess Diana was killed. It rightly thought that that would be inappropriate because people did not want to be seen at a circus in that vicinity, with which she was closely identified, and it wanted to move. Another such occasion was when there was flooding in Sheffield. The circus had to move a long way to somewhere where a licence would not be necessary, because there was no time to apply for one and to undergo the 14-day period required by the legislation. Instead of being able to move to a different part of Sheffield, it had to come to Barnes in London, which was a great deal more expensive.
It was suggested to the Committee that the obvious solution, if the Minister still believes that circuses should be licensed-it is not clear to me why they should be, when fairgrounds, for example, do not have to be, and no problems have been related to circuses-is to have a single licence at the place of origin, rather as a cruise ship obtains a licence from its home port. I know that the Government have considered that, and I hope the Minister will say a little about it.
For one or two other community-type performances-for example, Punch and Judy men, and mummers-the licensing requirement is unnecessary, unjustifiable and should be removed. I hope the Minister will also reconsider that.
Another aspect of the performance of live music has caused concern in the capital. The Minister will be aware that the Metropolitan police require form 696 to be submitted 14 days prior to a performance. The police say that that is a voluntary measure, but many councils make it a condition of a licence, so that it is no longer voluntary. I understand the police's concern about gang-related violence, but it is difficult to find any evidence to suggest that music in itself leads to violence. There is a worrying level of violence, particularly among the young ethnic minority communities in London, and obviously we want to support the police, but there is little evidence of an apparent linkage with music, and the requirement is doing real damage in two ways. It has led to some proposed performances being cancelled because the police have refused to allow them to go ahead.
I am not talking just about small clubs where there may be concern about security or the clientele. The problem is affecting major venues, such as the O2, which is perhaps the most successful music venue in the world at the moment. It has pointed that that it has had real problems as a result of form 696. It says that the administrative cost is £27,000 a year. If that was clearly justifiable, perhaps the O2 could afford to pay it, but it says that because of the 14-day time frame it has had to turn away short-lead events and has been unable to fill empty dates because of the required notice period. It has had to turn away three events as a result. It also said that the requirement to submit a guest list is completely impracticable, because it may change up to 24 hours before an event takes place, and will often say "plus one".
Most worrying are the occasions on which the police have required events to be cancelled. One was a Project Urban event-a black urban music gig involving major artists, including Tinchy Stryder, who is very successful.
My hon. Friend is a great expert in contemporary music, and is as familiar with Tinchy Stryder as I am. Master Stepz was also involved. Those are major performers, but on that occasion the police expressed concern that the combination of those artists and the fact that the promoters were young contributed to the possibility of the event attracting public disorder, so it had to be cancelled.
The second event was the Black Comedy awards, which was not even a music gig. One day before the event, the police said that they had received intelligence that gang members would attend and some of their names were spotted on the guest list. The O2 did not want to risk the police closing the event in the middle, so it decided to postpone it, and the promoter lost £12,000 as a result.
Another event involved Rick Ross, a black rap artist from New York. Form 696 was submitted within the time frame, and the police said that it was a low-risk event, but when the guest list was submitted the day before, it raised concern with the police to the extent that they requested that it cancelled. The O2 resisted, and pointed out that it was the fourth event in six months that had followed a similar trend-that attracting a black crowd raised concerns with the police. The O2 pointed out that it operated a high level of security with random searches on entry, had its own policing and was confident that the event would be secure. Only after intervention by the council leader and the Metropolitan police borough commander was it allowed to take place. It passed off with no problem at all. However, the O2 points out that such things are a having a significant effect on it. If they are affecting the O2 to that extent, they will plainly be affecting many other venues.
The Minister should be concerned about this. I quite accept that the Metropolitan police are not operating these provisions on the grounds of racism, but there is no doubt that that they are looking at specific types of music. Originally, as he will know, the form required the identification of the type of music to be performed. That requirement has since been removed, but it is still widely believed that the form is being used to target black music events, and that is causing deep resentment among certain communities. The Minister will be aware of the importance at the present time of not alienating certain minority communities, and the form is a cause of resentment. I therefore hope that he will talk to the police and look seriously at whether it really is necessary to have the form at all. The Select Committee's view was that the form was unnecessary and unjustified and that it should be abolished.
I want to touch briefly on one other issue that the Committee examined as part of its consideration of the Act. The licensing of lap-dancing clubs has been subject to legislation, and a new category has been created, so lap-dancing clubs can be treated as sex-encounter venues. The Committee's view was that it was not right that local residents living next door to a normal nightclub or bar should wake up one morning to discover that it had turned into a lap-dancing club and that they could do nothing about it. We felt that there was a case for a separate category that would allow local residents to express a view as to whether a location was appropriate for a lap-dancing club. Equally, a number of the people who gave evidence to us wanted to ban lap-dancing clubs completely, but we were of the view that such clubs are a legitimate and legal form of entertainment, which some people enjoy.
We were concerned about one or two aspects of the new provisions, particularly where owners have invested large sums to establish clubs in locations where there has been no record of disorder. Indeed, the Lap Dancing Association made the point that lap-dancing clubs are probably some of the best policed and secure venues and have less of a record of public disorder than almost any other type of entertainment venue. Nevertheless, they are required, for instance, to renew their licences annually, which makes it difficult for them to have security about their long-term investments. We could not see that annual renewal was necessary, and if there is a problem, there is always the provision allowing local residents, the police and others to make representations about the licence. The automatic annual renewal requirement is, therefore, not necessary.
We also had concerns about the transition to the new regime. We believed that existing clubs should have quite a lengthy period-perhaps five years-before they have to meet the full licensing requirement. Those remain concerns, and I hope that the Minister will briefly touch on them.
As I said, our overall impression was that the Act had achieved a large part of what it was intended to achieve. However, there were real concerns about specific provisions, and the Committee was disappointed that the Government did not seem willing to address them. I hope that the Minister will correct that this afternoon.
Let me start, Miss Begg, by apologising to you, the Minister and my Select Committee Chairman, my hon. Friend Mr. Whittingdale, because I will not be able to stay until the end of the debate. I do, however, want to make a couple of points.
Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend, who really is an excellent Chairman of the Select Committee. On most issues, there is a diverse range of views on the Committee, and my hon. Friend is one of the very few people who can bring them together to produce reports on which we all agree. He does not always manage that, but most of the time he manages it very skilfully.
My hon. Friend has gone through the issues that the Committee raised on a range of measures far more effectively than I ever could, so I do not intend to repeat everything that he said, but I do I want to touch on two issues. First, I want to elaborate on an issue on which my hon. Friend merely touched. Secondly, I want to reiterate a point that he made.
My first point relates to drinks promotions, which were covered in the Committee's recommendations. I feel particularly strongly about the issue. I never cease to be amazed at the number of times the Government accurately identify a problem, only for the solution to be a complete shambles, which does not actually address the problem. We have to recognise that we have a problem with excessive drinking in some of our town centres and that that causes an awful lot of misery for the people who are subjected to it. It also causes an awful lot of problems for the police, who spend a lot of time policing drink-related incidents when they might be better employed doing other things.
We have a big problem with excessive drinking, and I am not going to stand here and say that we do not. Indeed, I have spent time at my local police force's custody desk, and I never cease to be amazed by the number of people whose crimes are fuelled by alcohol. There clearly is a problem, but what I want to take issue with is the solution. In Parliament, we tend to thrash around, looking as if we are doing something, because we know that there is a problem and we want to be seen to be doing something. My fear is that the things that we try to do often do not address the problem, but instead make decent, law-abiding citizens suffer even more.
That is why I want to touch on the issue of drinks promotions. A head of steam seems to be building up behind the idea that the solution to all our drink-related violence is to ban happy hours in pubs or to ban supermarkets from selling alcohol as cheaply as they do. To be perfectly honest, those things will not make a blind bit of difference to alcohol-related violence on our streets. Whether we like it or not, we have to recognise that some people go out on a Friday or Saturday night with the intention of getting drunk. Ending a promotion here or adding a few pence to the price of a litre of wine in a supermarket there will not change that mindset-this is a much deeper problem than such simplistic solutions suggest.
I want to share something from my own experience. Before entering Parliament, I worked for Asda-I should probably say that so that people understand that I have a natural affinity with supermarkets. After work on a Friday, my colleagues and I tended to go to a local pub in Leeds that had a happy hour when it sold two drinks for the price of one-that is probably why we went there. An awful lot of people from Asda used to go along-we always had an eye for a good deal. The implication of banning all these happy hours is that everybody who goes along to them will come out completely hammered. However, I am not aware that any of us from Asda who used to dutifully troop along to the local pub at the end of the day came out completely hammered. We used to drink responsibly and we were just getting a good deal.
We all know that many pubs are struggling to survive and that 50 pubs a week are closing. If a happy hour was a way for that pub to attract a bit of extra custom on to its premises, I do not see what harm was being done. People were not going there to get hammered, but to get a good deal. It would be a terrible mistake to think that by banning pubs from having happy hours or similar promotions we would be waving a magic wand and that we would suddenly have no alcohol-related violence on our streets.
The same applies to buying alcohol in supermarkets. I do not see why the vast majority of my constituents-decent, law-abiding citizens who drink and behave responsibly, and many of whom are struggling to survive and pay the bills, particularly in the recession-should be forced by people in Parliament to pay extra for their bottle of wine or their pack of four cans of beer at the supermarket simply because a few hooligans cannot hold their drink and are out to cause trouble. Why should the law-abiding majority suffer again and have to pay more for their weekly shop? It seems completely ludicrous.
It may well be our policy; that does not stop it being ludicrous. This may not be the only context in which I feel that, to be honest, but we shall steer clear of the others for now, despite the encouragement of my hon. Friend on the Front Bench. It is the old idea of politicians wanting to look as if they are doing something-and doing something that does not help with the problem, but further punishes decent, law-abiding citizens.
Are there no circumstances in which the hon. Gentleman thinks there are irresponsible promotions? I am thinking of those aimed particularly at women and young girls. Does he think that there are opportunities for action when specific groups are targeted?
No, I do not agree about that, and I hope that the Minister will support me in trying to help him to buy alcohol at his local supermarket in Bingley a bit more cheaply. I am doing my best to represent my constituents.
The reason I do not agree is that the responsibility for people getting drunk and violent, and causing trouble, lies with the individuals who get drunk and violent and cause trouble. We go down a slippery slope if we start to pass responsibility for people who cause trouble away from those people and on to someone else-to an industry. Surely it cannot be the fault of a supermarket that people become obese, just because it sells cream cakes. It is a ludicrous premise that supermarkets are responsible for any individual's obesity. We desperately need in this country to get back to individual responsibility for one's own actions. The cheap sale of alcohol does not mean that any individual must go out and get drunk.
No, it is not the responsibility of drug dealers that people take drugs. It is the responsibility of the people who take them. However, that is not to say that I am a supporter of drug dealers. Obviously, for people to take drugs they need a drug dealer; but I should be surprised if a Liberal, or someone who calls himself a Liberal, did not accept the idea of individual freedom and, therefore, individual responsibility. Blaming someone's actions on someone else is a senseless route to go down. They should be blamed on the person responsible, so let us target the offender.
If we have a problem with alcohol-related violence, perhaps we should spend more time making sure that the people who commit it are arrested and locked up. If the punishment were harsher and those people had, for example, to spend a harsher time in prison, they might feel less inclined to come out and get drunk and go down the same path. Surely that would be a better way to tackle alcohol-related violence than penalising a supermarket that sells a bottle of wine for 10p less than someone else thinks it should. It is a futile exercise.
I have been told of supposedly irresponsible promotions in which people can buy a ticket to something and drink as much as they like, for nothing-as part of the price. I do not know what happens at local Labour party functions, as the Minister has not yet invited me to one, although I look forward to such an invitation; nor do I know what happens at Lib Dem political events, but it is not uncommon-I do not know whether my hon. Friends have had this experience-for the price of a ticket to Conservative party events to include what people drink. The drink is free and the ticket price covers its cost. I have yet to see people leaving any of those functions legless.[Interruption.] I see from the reaction of my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford that he has; I do not know whether he means himself or someone else. I certainly have not seen people leaving legless because they have drunk as much as they could, just because they could.
Just because people can drink as much as they can does not mean they will. People tend to take responsibility for their lives and actions. It is not the promotion in itself that causes a problem. It is the individual's reaction to the promotion that does it. If some people are determined to get drunk, whether there is a promotion or not, the likelihood is that they will do so. I hope that the Minister will explain that the Government have no intention of banning any drink promotions or pursuing the ridiculous idea of forcing supermarkets to charge their customers more for alcohol. I hope that my hon. Friend Mr. Vaizey will give that commitment too, for what I hope will be a Conservative Government after the general election. The banning approach would be terribly misguided, and would punish decent law-abiding citizens, and it would make no difference to alcohol-related violence.
I wholeheartedly endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford about lap-dancing clubs, and I want to reiterate them. The issue is not whether the clubs are a good or bad thing; people can have their own view on that, and they may have moral objections. I tend to be a libertarian and if people want to work in those places and to go to them that is a matter for them-I do not want to stand in their way. The issue is one of natural justice. My hon. Friend made the powerful point that people who have invested considerable amounts of money, in good faith, in opening such establishments under the Licensing Act 2003, which the Government passed, may face the prospect of having them closed down under new licensing regulations imposed by the same Government, which they could surely never have envisaged when they made their investment.
The Government are right to want to give residents more of a say about where such places should be, and about whether locations are acceptable. However, I hope that they will provide some protection-some grandfather rights-for businesses that were opened in good faith. It would be unacceptable and unfair for those businesses to be closed down within a year. The least that the Government can do is allow a decent transitional period to protect the rights of establishments that have been opened in good faith under the current licensing arrangements. As my hon. Friend said, the Committee recommended that that should be a period of five years. I should like to think that five years would be a minimum; a much longer time would be fairer. I hope that we shall not get bogged down in an argument about whether lap-dancing clubs are a good or bad thing. That is neither here nor there-the point is simply one of natural justice.
When the Government legislated on the matter recently, I raised this subject and was told that the intention was not to close down lap-dancing clubs that had just opened, and that there were discussions with the Lap Dancing Association and other parties to work around some of the issues. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that some sensible progress is being made, so that people are not treated unfairly, and businesses are not put out of business, on a basis that they could not have predicted.
I endorse the recommendations that the Select Committee made on other issues, including live music, a topic on which my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford concentrated. I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to those other recommendations.
I am grateful to you, Miss Begg, and to others for allowing me to speak in the debate. I apologise once again to the Minister and others, because I have to address a meeting at Birmingham university this evening. I realise, though, that under the current regime, were I to play a musical instrument in that venue I could be arrested, so I declare an interest in advance of my arrival in Birmingham. For me, the issue is about keeping music live.
I am a great lover of music and, as some hon. and right hon. Members know, I play the harmonica. Using nothing but my musical talents and my blues harp, I have emptied pubs up and down mid-Wales, but I am happy to say that others are rather more adept at playing musical instruments than me.
My big concern is the limitation on small venues being able to give a starting opportunity for performance artists up and down the land. Outstanding performers, such as Kate Rusby, Roy Harper, Cara Dillon and the late John Martyn, all made their life and reputation in those small venues. Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame is known to get the guitar out occasionally and play bars in my locality.
That is what performance art is all about. It is not about paperwork, it is not about red tape, it is about giving people the opportunity to express themselves in artistic form. In that sense, to be restricted by bureaucracy is the absolute antithesis of what such artists seek to do. The bureaucracy may be well intentioned, but the purpose it serves is nothing but damaging in making it more difficult for venues to operate, often on an ad hoc basis. Indeed, the likes of Andy Kershaw and the late John Peel discovered many artists ad hoc, by coming across individuals and bands with superb capability in a musical situation just because they saw a sign outside a pub saying, "Live music tonight". In my area there are bands such as Smoke like a Fish and Up All Night-with Brian perhaps one of the most talented singers of his generation-who do not intend to get famous for their performing but do enjoy entertaining local people. That, to me, is what it is all about.
The Government have not always looked too supportive of live music. To quote the words of the band Roots,
"And a minister said his vision of hell
Is three folk singers in a pub near Wells."
I know for a fact that the Minister enjoys performance arts and loves live music, so I am optimistic that the new regime will use common sense and heed the concerns that have been raised.
For those reasons, I ask the Minister to take on board the cross-party consensus that he has heard so far in defence of live music and in support of the small venues that are the bottom rungs of the ladder, often not to fame but to a lifetime of performance in a local community. I recently saw a band called Toy Hearts, which is one of the best blue grass bands that I have ever seen in Britain. The band is growing, but it still plays the small venues because the band members love to entertain and to perform.
I see the Minister nodding, and I am encouraged that at least in sentiment he probably supports the spirit of the debate so far, but I am also going to ask him for action on support, so that places like The Grapes, a pub in Newtown where we have an informal music night, or The Red Lion in the small town of Castle Caereinion are not technically breaking the law if they happen to have a collection of musicians who come together to entertain themselves and other customers in the pub.
All the Minister has to do is to take on board the points made by the Chairman of the Committee, Mr. Whittingdale, especially in terms of the size of venue that would be allowed to operate musical and other performances without licence restrictions such as we have now. I can see no downside to the Minister taking that request on board. As the Chairman of the Committee rightly pointed out, everyone in the industry who is asked says that there is now less opportunity to perform, as a direct result of the regulations. Although we cannot quantify that in detail, the mood music-if I may use that phrase-is clear that a negative has come about, which the Government promised would not occur. To put that negative right, all they have to do is to take the common sense position being proposed, which will do nothing other than enhance the Government's reputation with performing artists. By doing so, the Minister will not only enable thousands of small locations to be reinvigorated by the enjoyment of live performance, but he will get rid of expensive red tape that serves no useful purpose.
My plea to the excellent Minister is to heed the arguments that he has heard here-to free the spirit of the British performing arts and to keep music live.
It is a great pleasure to make a small contribution to the debate, which was initiated by the report of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. One of my unfulfilled ambitions is to be a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, but the Whips have always considered my talents would be better served being a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. I respect their judgment, but at least I can contribute to this debate.
One of the few occasions on which I have been asked on to "Newsnight" to defend Government policy was in 2005, when the Licensing Act 2003 was about to be implemented. The interviewer was Kirsty Wark. I was having rather the worst of the interview, it has to be said, and the clock was ticking towards 18 minutes past 11, when the programme ends. I thought that I would have one last try at making the case for the Licensing Act reforms. Obviously that was before the relaxation of licensing laws, and all pubs closed at 11 o'clock, so I looked at her and said, "Would it be the end of the world if, after the show finished, the pubs were still open and I was able to invite you out to have one drink at one of the local pubs?" She looked at me, and by the look on her face it would have been the end of the world, so my final argument failed.
However-the report is generous in this regard-the fundamental tenets of the Licensing Act will last the test of time. No political party will go into the next general election arguing that all pubs should close at a fixed time, at 10.30 or 11 o'clock, despite the comments of Mr. Field, who has now left the Chamber, although I understand the particular problems in his constituency. However, his wish to go back to the local magistrates process is not prevalent in the country as a whole. Ordinary local residents and citizens have found it easier to make points to local councils than they ever did to magistrates, in a fairly remote legal process that was intimidating to some people. It is absolutely right that local authorities are at the centre of the licensing process. I do not think that will change.
Philip Davies, in an interesting speech, asked what would work to deal with the problems of alcohol-related violence. Indeed, the Prime Minister, at the Labour party conference in Brighton, said that no one had yet cracked the whole problem of the youth drinking culture. That is certainly true, but a great deal of progress has been made.
We should recognise two things. One is-I recognise some of what the hon. Member for Shipley said-that there is a danger of grand gestures in such an area of policy. It is tempting for all political parties to come up with such grand gestures. For example, I wonder whether as my right hon. Friend Hazel Blears spends more time with her constituents and looks back on her legacy as a Minister, she will see alcohol disorder zones as one of the things of which she was most proud. That measure was rushed through the House, because it was part of a moral panic, yet I do not think that there is one alcohol disorder zone in the whole country. No local authority has said that it wants the powers of an alcohol disorder zone. Which local authority would want to label itself as an alcohol disorder zone? To do such a thing would, basically, be saying, "Come here for a fight." Probably, now that she has a little more time, my right hon. Friend might reflect that the policy was over-prescriptive and a waste of parliamentary time
We should look at what does work, which is very much identified in the Select Committee report, in recommendation 15:
"The development of partnership working is an extremely important part of ensuring that the licensing objectives contained in the Licensing Act are achieved. We welcome the efforts made by all involved to develop and maintain successful partnerships and recommend that the Government should continue to promote partnership working as the most effective method to deal with licensing related issues."
That is not rocket science, but it works in cities up and down the land.
My hon. Friend the Minister and I, at the Labour party conference in Brighton, took a little time out, fairly late in the evening, to go with the Conservative chair of the licensing committee, Geoffrey Theobald, who has made a great contribution in the area, to look at a couple of venues in Brighton. In a well managed night-time economy, crime can be massively reduced.
In my market town of Selby, simply the introduction of night marshals to assist the police has reduced alcohol-related violence by 50 per cent. That is the case in many towns and cities up and down the country, including on Broad street in Birmingham, and in Nottingham, where there was a big problem. The British Beer and Pub Association in the region is working with the local police and the council, and they have begun to make a difference, so I stress the importance of local action.
On that point, the visit to Brighton was to see a beacon council, because it showed best practice. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems is the inconsistent approach taken by police authorities and local councils when applying the principles of the Licensing Act?
Yes. Obviously, however, not everyone is up to the standards of the best. It is interesting to think how one might try to change that. We are starting to see a will for it among some in the pub and beer industry. Why not have the same map on the association's wall as that on the Home Office's wall, showing areas that still have problems, and trying to target resources and spread best practice in those areas? It can be done; things can be turned around.
It is interesting to see how localism could be carried forward. In response to the Government's proposal in the Policing and Crime Bill for a mandatory code of practice both nationally and locally, the Conservative-controlled Local Government Association has said that local authorities are already empowered to lead local action against alcohol disorder. I believe that it is Opposition policy-I hope that it will become Government policy-that local authorities should be empowered to initiate action against problem pubs. I understand that at the moment they have to wait for a complaint to be made; local authorities would like to be a little more proactive when they have such difficulties. It would be a more constructive way of dealing with the problem, rather than introducing code upon code. It will be interesting to see how that debate goes in the other place when the Bill returns to us.
I shall make a couple of other observations. I hear what the hon. Member for Shipley says about the importance of personal responsibility, personal freedom and so on, but I believe that there should also be social responsibility, and that applies to private industry as well. Many in the pub trade are as aghast at the £5 drink-all-you-can promotion as are many parliamentarians.
I shall speak a little more supportively of the Opposition Front Bench than did Mr. Whittingdale made some interesting suggestions, saying for instance that alcohol should not be sold below cost in supermarkets. It is a question of how it is done, and I would be interested if the idea were to be fleshed out. It is a worthwhile proposal, as is changing the balance of taxation on stronger drinks such as strong cider, doubtless keeping the same tax take but changing the balance. Those proposals are worthy of consideration, and I hope that they will be considered by other parties.
The debate about minimum pricing is not likely to go away, particularly as in Scotland the matter will be progressed over the next year. I believe that there is an absolute determination among the Scottish Executive to bring in minimum pricing. I know that is Liberal Democrat policy, and it is one with which I have some sympathy.
I said that my contribution would be brief. It is not often said in such debates that the pub trade and the night-time economy make an enormous contribution to our economy. They are not merely a source of problems; they are a source of employment and enjoyment and, for many towns and cities, they are a way of advertising themselves and bringing in investment. For example, it is important that all those who come to the London Olympics in 2012 should be able to enjoy the London night-time economy. It would clearly be ridiculous if the whole of London were to shut down at 11 o'clock. That was one of the motivators for the Licensing Act.
Even though political parties will from time to time suggest detailed changes to the Licensing Act, I hope that it will be recognised, as the Committee did, that the Act is a sound piece of legislation. It has enabled citizens and residents to have more of a say on licensing than before. It has also enabled cost savings to be made in the night-time economy and has allowed the development of a wider range of bars, pubs and restaurants than were available in the past. Then, the only way of staying out after 11 o'clock was to pay a large amount of money to get into a loud nightclub, which one may not have wanted to do.
It has been a good debate. The Select Committee's report is excellent, and the presentation given by Mr. Whittingdale was well thought out. I hope that the Minister will answer the points raised today both in his summation and later, once the debate is over.
I should point out to Philip Davies-he apologised for having to leave early-that there is a difference between a Liberal and a libertarian. He described himself as a libertarian, but Liberals are not necessarily libertarians. As we heard earlier, Liberals believe in social responsibility and the role of the community. I am not sure whether libertarians always do exactly that.
We have plenty of time, but I shall try not to overextend my contribution. I wish to touch on four matters, the first of which concerns recommendation 2, which deals with sports clubs. I shall not repeat all the strong arguments put earlier. I used to work in architecture, and I worked for a time at a firm that did a lot of work for Wetherspoons. Being responsible for designing its pubs, I would occasionally be brought before the magistrates to explain the licensed areas shown on the plans. The areas were clearly defined by a red line. However, that was not necessarily the area of the premises, because some external areas were not part of the licensed area. That was clearly understood-but not, it has to be said, by all magistrates. However, there was no difficulty in having two zones.
It is practical and easy for sports clubs to have two zones-a red line to define the pub and bar area for which a licence fee should be paid, and a blue line to define the wider area. So doing would reduce the cost to those sports clubs, perhaps helping them to do more of their health-giving activities than the slightly more damaging ones that tend to happen after exercising on the rugby pitch or the cricket field-or, in my case, rowing on the River Thames.
Much has been said about live music. Indeed, many Members enjoyed a little light music yesterday, organised by the all-party group on folk arts. I believe the Minister was there.
The Minister nods, so it cannot have been his double. We were in the Members' Dining Room to listen to Ralph McTell. He played three songs, including the wonderful "Streets of London". That was the latest event, but the previous event that I attended, involving Muse, was slightly bigger.
Although some Members may not have heard of Muse, they are rated the most popular and best live band in the world. They started their tour on the seafront at Teignmouth, their home town, which is where they met and used to play as kids. That concert gave the local authority a difficult problem; it had to license it yet limit the noise, as it was held in a confined area that had residential properties overlooking one side of the Den. If anyone wants to see the beauty of that occasion, the BBC filmed the concert from a helicopter. Looking at Teignmouth at night, lit up as it was, with the band playing-even I thought it would be a great place for a holiday. I went there this year, and I might go again next year.
Big events such as that mentioned earlier can be worked on, and that provides an answer to the questions raised by hon. Members about the need for local authorities and magistrates. The local authority was able to negotiate in a way that I suspect would not happen in a magistrates court. That is merit in having the local authority engaged in the process.
Although it is accepted that there is an overall increase in the number of venues, the numbers of small venues and small gigs are in decline. The Liberal Democrats are committed to supporting the Select Committee recommendations that the capacity limit that the Government are to consult on should increase to 200, and that we should reinstate the two-in-a-bar rule. That would help in those areas where there is difficulty and decline, and bring clarity where people are afraid of red tape and bureaucracy.
We have already had six years of legislation, eight consultations, two Government research projects, two national review processes and, as mentioned, a Select Committee report. Do we need more consultation on something that has already been well looked into? Why do we have to wait 12 weeks? Will the legislation be changed before the inevitable general election some time next year, whether that is in March, April or May?
We still have form 696. However, as far as I can see, the new proposals will not help hospitals, schools or other buildings capable of holding more than 100 people, which might want to have a small event. We are calling for exemptions for venues with a capacity of up to 200 people, and for schools, hospitals and so on. I do not believe that the new consultation will clear up some of the confusion over minor variations. Recently, the Government have said that there is no connection between the size of audience or the number of performers, and the potential for noise and disorder. There seems to be a contradiction or change in Government policy on that.
The Minister referred to the concerns of local government, and I will address that point in a moment. The Live Music Bill, which has been mentioned by Lord Clement-Jones, creates an exemption for live music in licensed venues that have a capacity of up to 200 people. That exemption is conditional, and a review of a venue that provides live music can be triggered by residential complaints-that ought to answer the concerns of local government and councillors. Should those complaints be upheld, local authorities could then place restrictions on live music in the venue.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the concerns felt by local government and the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services-LACORS. He has an opportunity to help us because Councillor Chris White, who is a lead member of the Local Government Association on these issues, is a Liberal Democrat. His authority, St. Albans, and its attitude to some of these issues, has been mentioned today. We can get this provision through if we have all-party support. I will be looking for the support of the hon. Gentleman to ensure that people such as Councillor White follow what he suggests.
We have listened to our council colleagues very carefully and we have discussed this issue. My hon. Friend Mr. Foster and I fully endorse the proposal, which is supported by the Liberal Democrat party. Perhaps the easiest route for the Government would be to look at the Bill that is already in preparation, give it their support and bring it through. That might be a quick and easy way to ensure that the legislation is brought in before we have the inevitable event next year.
The Bill would create an unconditional exemption for up to two performers to play unamplified, or minimally amplified, live music in a venue. Performances of live music that is incidental to why people are in a venue, such as a pianist playing in a restaurant, would no longer be caught by the licensing regime. Licences are required for schools, colleges and hospitals to perform concerts and music therapy treatments. The final element of the Bill creates a complete exemption for the live music in those institutions, providing that no alcohol is sold and that no more than 200 people are in attendance. I hope the Minister will look at that and confirm the point made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Bath. If the consultation on a capacity of 100 shows a desire for it to be increased to 200, I hope that the Government will support it.
I am grateful for the opportunity to do that now-I was asked to do it by the Chairman of the Select Committee. Clearly, if the consultation overwhelmingly shows that everybody is happier with the figure of 200, and that will get us through the legislative reform order, we will consider it. We are suggesting the figure of 100, but that is one of the reasons for the consultation.
I thank the Minister for that positive response; we will have to wait and see what the consultation shows. I am sure that some of the people listening to the debate will want to ensure that their view that 200 would be the better figure is clearly put to the Minister.
I have one more point on licensing before I move on. Difficulties with the 14-day rule have been mentioned. Other events-not only circuses-have this difficulty if they suddenly find that they need to change venue. Will the Government look at an exceptional circumstances clause to allow local authorities to consider and supply a licence in less than 14 days, even if defining that would be difficult? I remember one organised event where the alcohol sales were arranged by a local establishment. Notices had to be sent to different people at the same time, but one notice went in a day late because there had been some confusion or a delay in the post. The result was a dry event, much to the embarrassment of the publican concerned. Having an exceptional circumstances rule would be wise.
That brings us to the issue of alcohol abuse. As far as I can see, although I agree on a lot of licensing issues with both the Government and the Conservative party, there is one fundamental disagreement-over the idea that rising prices and taxes on alcohol will resolve the issue of alcohol abuse. It will not. If we increase the tax by 10 per cent., for example, on the price of a pint in a pub, 30p will be added to the price and it will cost £3.30. If 10 per cent. is added to the price of a 50p can of lager in the supermarket, it will become 55p. I do not believe that a 10 per cent. increase-5p or 10p-on a can of lager in a supermarket will have any impact on those sales. Therefore, the Liberal Democrats would propose and support minimum pricing as the way to deter people from buying excess, cheap alcohol.
Mr. Grogan made the point that people who buy a bottle of wine during the week might find that the cost of their wine goes up slightly. However, in my view, the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. One of the advantages of minimum pricing is that although it does not make the price even, it levels the differential between the supermarket price and the pub price. The advantage for the supermarkets is that they would make more profit on what they sell. This is not a tax; we are not going to take the money and give it to the Inland Revenue. There would be a minimum price that supermarkets could not go below.
Such a measure would almost certainly damage some producers who produce very cheap, high-alcohol drinks. In my view, that would not be a bad thing. If as a result of this provision, quality is driven up so that people buy something with a fuller flavour or a better quality drink, perhaps they will not want to knock back quite so many as quickly as they do. That is often why people buy very cheap alcohol. It is to get a cheap thrill. The problem with alcohol sales is that people go to the supermarkets and buy cheap spirits, cider or whatever. They tank themselves up at home, or perhaps sat on the seafront, and then go to the pubs, which get the blame for the alcohol sales from the supermarkets. We must consider that as a particular problem and issue.
Let us consider premises with 24-hour licences. In 2008, there were 7,100, and in 2009, 7,400, which is a 4 per cent. increase. There was a 17 per cent. increase in supermarkets wanting 24-hour licences, and a 19 per cent. increase among bars and nightclubs. Interestingly, the largest group that has 24-hour licences, and the group that one would have thought the legislation was designed for-hotels-has seen a 3 per cent. decrease. I am concerned about 24-hour licences in supermarkets. I am not too sure about the justification for them, or the need. Yes, it might be convenient for someone leaving the House of Commons at 11 pm who has forgotten to buy a bottle of wine. Perhaps a little bit more pre-planning and thought would not go amiss, rather than going for the lowest common denominator and taking the easiest option.
The Select Committee says that happy hours and two-for-one promotions are encouraging irresponsible drinking. Although it acknowledges that banning all such deals would be irresponsible, it says that the problem must be addressed. Minimum pricing would help to do that.
Alcohol-related antisocial behaviour is a serious, country-wide problem that has not become any better since such areas were introduced. Do the Government seriously expect us to believe that in all the metropolitan areas in England and Wales, there are only some 45 places where there is a problem? I do not believe that. From time to time, I see a drink problem in my own community, and I am sure most Members know of areas that experience drink problems and drink-related crime and violence on a Friday night.
The Public Health Observatory figures show that more than 860,000 people were admitted to hospital for alcohol-related harm last year. There were more than 80,000 alcohol-related fights, rapes, burglaries and car thefts in London alone. At the 2007 party conference, the Prime Minister said:
"Let me tell the shops that repeatedly sell alcohol to those who are under age - we will take your licences away."
They might be good words, but that is not what is happening. I say to the Minister that under-age alcohol sales are a serious problem that must be tackled. Again, minimum pricing would help to deal with that.
I said that I would not be too long, so let me briefly tackle one other issue, which relates to the licence trade. The Office of Fair Trading report on tied houses has shown that there are no problems. Well, the OFT produces many reports. It produced one on supermarkets that said there were no problems. I think most Members recognise that that OFT report was deeply flawed, and that it is beginning to re-examine some of the issues. We should not view the issue of tied houses from an OFT perspective only; it is broader and more complex than that. I am not doing a broad sweep and saying that all tied houses are problematic, but I believe that a number of them are creating problems in the industry and contributing to the very high turnover of publicans in some areas.
I am grateful for this opportunity to welcome the excellent Select Committee report that we have debated this afternoon, and will continue to debate for some time to come. I also congratulate the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend Mr. Whittingdale, on the debate. Every time I debate with him, I find out something new about his racy past. Today, we learned that he discovered The Police and its singer Sting in a pub somewhere in Essex.
Indeed. My hon. Friend is a man who discovered Sting, pogoed to The Undertones and got down with Lemmy from Motörhead. He is about as cool as they come. He puts to shame some of the Conservative MPs who will be joining us in 2010 and who regularly feature in articles bigging up the Conservatives as the new cool political party. Whether he likes it or not, he is clearly as Cameroonian and hip as they come, and perhaps is now an honorary member of the Notting Hill set. He is also a very effective Chairman of the Select Committee, which continues to make an extraordinary impact in areas of policy surrounding culture, media and sport.
We are now without my hon. Friend Philip Davies, who is, perhaps, the antithesis of my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford. He is studiedly anti-cool-a sort of black hole of non-coolness and distinctly out of step with developing Conservative policy, which is perhaps why he is not here. Another hon. Member who is sadly absent is Lembit Öpik, and he really is cool. He takes a close interest in popular contemporary music, as we know from the gossip columns of the newspaper. I can reveal exclusively-I learned this yesterday from ITV-that he is to appear in the new year in "Celebrity Come Dine With Me", so he continues to make an impact in that area.
I turn now to another hon. Member who has left the debate. Every single Member who has contributed to this debate, apart from the Chairman of the Select Committee, the Front-Bench spokesmen and the Minister, has left this debate. I cast no aspersions on the speech of Richard Younger-Ross to which I will return in a minute. We heard from Mr. Grogan, who is a fine contributor on all matters related to culture, media and sport. Sadly, he is to retire at the next election. Halfway through his speech, I thought that he could become a Conservative working peer after the election because of his support for our policy. However, considering that he has supported the policies of all three parties, he would perhaps be better off as a Liberal Democrat working peer. Finally, we heard an excellent contribution from the hon. Member for Teignbridge, who is a fine spokesman on culture, media and sport for the Liberal Democrats.
Opposition Members welcome this debate, and I shall begin by focusing on the importance of live music. Picking up the mantle left by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, who talked in great detail and with affection about his constituency, perhaps I could do the same about my own fine constituency of Wantage. In Faringdon, in the west of the constituency, we have the Faringdon arts festival, which I open every year. It holds a live performance in Faringdon's historic market square with a range of bands whose names I cannot remember. I know, however, that one of the guitarists is a producer on GMTV. The festival has been organised for several years by an excellent local resident, David Reynolds.
Moving over to Wantage and Grove, we have the Wantage silver band. It is important in this debate to emphasise that brass bands are not simply a province of the north, and we have our own excellent brass bands in the south, which are campaigning to raise funds for their own homes. If any Members want to see me afterwards and write me a cheque, that would be most welcome. The Didcot arts centre was recently opened by a Conservative council in south Oxfordshire and is fast becoming a very important venue for live music. There is also the unsurpassable Wallingford blues and beer festival, in the east of my constituency on the banks of the River Thames. There is also the very well known Truck music festival, held in Steventon on Europe's largest village green.
We are awash with talented and world-famous musicians: Sandy Shaw, Brian Eno, and Radiohead have their offices in Sutton Courtenay. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford can come and meet them. We also have Whispering Bob Harris and Mark, the keyboard player from Marillion. To cover every base, I should not omit sport: I am the president of Didcot Town football club, so I am well aware of its sporting difficulties, and I am also aware that, as a Member of this House, one should never accept a vice-chairmanship or a vice-presidency; always go for the top.
To pick up on the points that were made about helping the police to deal with violence that is potentially alcohol-related, I was very pleased two weeks ago to attend the launch of the Wantage and Grove street pastors organisation. I would not want to give the impression that Wantage and Grove is awash with alcohol-related violence; it certainly is not. However, the street pastors are a community group of local Christians go on to the streets of Wantage and Grove on a Friday night, to help the local community deal with the after-effects of a good Friday night out. [Interruption.] I am delighted to welcome the hon. Member for Selby back to the Chamber and to let him know that if he reads Hansardhe will see some glowing remarks that I made about him while he was absent, dealing with the pressing needs of his constituents.
The Licensing Act 2003, in both its tortuous passage into legislation and its tortuous life since, has been pretty much a complete Horlicks, which is why we have pledged-I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley could support this pledge-to undertake a proper, thorough and strategic review of the Act if we win the election. I am mindful of the danger of saying that, and I am also mindful of the groans as people raise their eyes to the ceiling, given that this Government, who passed the Act after endless consultation, have managed to undertake eight reviews of that legislation in the six years since it was passed into law. Here we are at an historic moment, when the Minister, in just a few minutes, will announce the ninth review of this extraordinary Act.
The Government love reviews-they cannot get up in the morning without reviewing how they got out of bed-and they have actually built into the legislation ongoing reviews. Local authorities now have to review their own licensing policies every three years. If a Minister accidentally fails to call for a review, he can be sure that at least the local authorities are conducting reviews. Consequently, at any time there is sure to be a review of the Licensing Act going on somewhere in this country.
What we have had with the Licensing Act is a huge amount of bureaucratic meddling and typical Labour top-down prescription. The latest Government review, as UK Music has pointed out, is simply a fig leaf. Given the parliamentary timetable and the pressure on that timetable, it is very unlikely that it will be conducted in time for a legislative reform order before the next election; it is just another fobbing-off.
In fact, in support of that assessment, I shall quote someone with a great deal of credibility-none other than Feargal Sharkey, the close friend of my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford. I am tempted to try to deliver the quote in Mr. Sharkey's voice, because my constituency is also the home of Rory Bremner and he has taught me everything I know about how to imitate celebrities, but I will not risk it under your chairmanship, Miss Begg. Feargal Sharkey said:
"After six years of legislation, eight consultations, two Government research projects, two national review processes and a Parliamentary Select Committee report"-
He might have added, "And a partridge in a pear tree", but he did not-
"all of which have highlighted the harmful impact these regulations are having on the British music industry, Government's only reaction is yet another review."
That is the view of someone whom the Government themselves have appointed as their live music champion. Even he is completely disillusioned with what has been going on.
As for the changes brought about by the Licensing Act to the availability of live music, before it was passed into law every bar could enjoy the two-in-a-bar rule, so that someone could go to any bar and enjoy music played by one or two musicians. However, 40 per cent. of our bars and clubs no longer have the automatic right to stage live music. Extraordinarily, even private concerts and charity events are covered by this onerous legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford was quite right to point out the astonishing fact that, à la Baroness Scotland, the regulations passed by the Government are now so complicated that even the Government who passed them do not understand them. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport held a live concert by a fantastic band, The Frontiers, on
And now the Minister says that it did not need a licence-the situation is becoming even more confusing. What I think he should do is simply hand himself over-
If the Minister will just let me finish, I was going to say that he should simply hand himself over to the nearest policeman. I must say that if he had represented Ashford, he would have been arrested by now and threatened with life imprisonment.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I want to make it clear that that event at DCMS was a private event and did not need a licence.
Oh, the Minister has to write to me, but he cannot cite the specific section now. That is how clear the legislation is.
There has been a 5 per cent. decrease in the number of venues available for live music. There is also a very serious point to be made about our community centres, by which I mean pubs. Pubs are, as it were, the new post offices, given the threat of closure that they face. In 2006, just two pubs a week were closing but now, in 2009, 52 pubs a week are closing. I know from my own constituency that pub owners struggle to think of events that they can put on, whether it is curry nights or pub quizzes, to attract people to the pub during the week and over the weekend. Live music would be one of those attractions and surely, given the threat to something that has been at the heart of our community for centuries, we could be a little more imaginative in lightening the regulatory burden.
As for pubs that have managed to secure entertainment licences, 50 per cent. of them now face onerous restrictions, and 80 per cent. of restaurants have not bothered to get a licence because of those restrictions. We therefore welcome the imminent announcement of the ninth review of the highly successful Licensing Act and we look forward to supporting the changes that we hope it will bring about by relaxing the regulation on small venues that want to have live music.
There is a very serious point to be made about lightening overall regulation. It is extraordinary that sport should have escaped some of these regulations-in fact, I am delighted that it has done so. It is very odd that one can watch a live football match in a pub, with hundreds of people cheering and shouting, as they quite rightly should as England progress towards the World cup, and the pub does not need a licence for that. However, if 50 people sit down and watch a couple of people playing guitars in a pub, the pub needs a licence. The word that I have been searching for, as people might have worked out by now, is "anomaly".
As the Olympics approach, it is obviously very important that we have the opportunity to provide outside venues for people to watch the Olympics, as they have done in the past with sporting events such as the European and World cups. However, as the Minister knows, I am a strong supporter of getting the cultural olympiad right. I want London and the whole country to have a fantastic party as well as enjoying excellent sport, and it is important to have a licensing regime that is flexible and easy to understand, so that we can take as much advantage as possible of the opportunity that the Olympics and the cultural olympiad will bring.
I have focused my remarks mainly on live music, but there are a host of other issues that this thoroughly comprehensive Select Committee report has covered in its recommendations. As I have said, we will undertake a thorough and strategic review of the Licensing Act if we win the next election, but let me just cover some of those issues very briefly, because I know that the Minister will want the full hour and 10 minutes left for this debate to make his points about the Act, by which time he may have found the section of the Act that exempts him from prosecution.
We support a national database for licensees. A personal licence-holder can have their license removed, but there is a difficulty because, when a premises licence is revoked, if the licence-holder has not had their own personal licence removed, they can simply move elsewhere and set up shop. We think that a national database would provide consistency and allow serial offenders to be tracked around the country. Personally, I am sympathetic to the controversy that form 696 has generated. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford described some clear and worrying examples of how the form has been-I cannot think of any other word for it-abused. The police must be extremely careful how they use it. I gather that the form has been amended, and that it must be reviewed in conjunction with the Home Office. I hope that our shadow home affairs team will look at that.
I am also extremely sympathetic to the points made in the report about relief for sporting establishments. As I said, I am the president of Didcot Town football club, and I concur with the remarks made by the Chairman of the Select Committee: most sporting clubs rely on their bar for much-needed income. Temporary event notices are a legitimate matter for debate. The Select Committee made the fair point that stakeholders give conflicting evidence or arguments on whether to increase or decrease the number of TENs allowed, but personally, I think that a modest increase would be relatively uncontroversial.
Much was made of the Licensing Act's effect on the night-time economy. The hon. Member for Teignbridge concentrated on it in his excellent speech and, as I said, the hon. Member for Selby rowed in strongly behind both Conservative and Liberal Democrat policies on the issue, which is welcome. There are myriad issues that could be considered regarding the perceived increase in alcohol-related violence at night and the concentration of bars and drinking culture in this country, but it seems to me that supermarket pricing of alcohol is a significant factor. It is pretty well known that a lot of teenagers buy cheap alcohol and do what is known as pre-loading, or drinking cheaply before going to more expensive bars and clubs. I believe that it is our policy to raise the duty on alcopops to reduce commensurately the duty on beer. As we know, the high duty on beer is another cost that must be borne by pubs struggling for existence.
It is important to emphasise that we have a strong localist agenda. We support local councils having the opportunity to put together flexible licensing regimes suitable for their area. The hon. Members who have contributed to this debate are right that nobody wants to put licensing back in the hands of magistrates. Everybody recognises that, now that local authorities control licensing, we have an opportunity for local policies suitable for local residents and economies. It is vital that local authorities have the power and flexibility to introduce imaginative policies suitable for the people whom they represent.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Begg, and to be here to respond to the excellent report of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. I pay tribute, as colleagues have done, to the Chairman of the Select Committee, Mr. Whittingdale for his excellent chairing. We will not always agree on the issues raised by the Committee, but he has always treated Ministers reasonably in putting points to us. I was grateful for his broad welcome of many of the measures in the Licensing Act, and I will respond to some of the issues that he raised later in my contribution.
As Mr. Vaizey said, no hon. Members who have spoken, other than my hon. friend Mr. Grogan, chair of the all-party group on beer, are with us, but I am sure that they will be interested to read in Hansard my responses to the issues that they raised. Each, in their own way, has brought expertise to this debate in terms of commitments to their constituency and the issues that they raised.
I acknowledge the contribution made by Philip Davies, who has his own personal views on how to deal with the issues that he faces. I did not agree with him about irresponsible advertising; I shall return to that a little later. As has been said, Lembit Öpik supports live music and is passionate about the issues that face his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Selby has an excellent track record on issues relating to the Licensing Act, and I am grateful to him, perhaps more than most, for killing some of the myths around the Licensing Act relating to binge drinking. Some people have tried to use the Licensing Act as the bearer of bad news for all issues involving problems with drinking. We know that that is not the case, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his work with the sector.
Mr. Field raised different issues relating to the uniqueness of the capital and the problems that it faces with licensing. Richard Younger-Ross raised a number of issues to which I ought to respond, but again, he broadly welcomed what occurs in relation to the Licensing Act and the objectives that we have tried to reach. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Selby said that very few parties, if any, will go into the next election saying that they want to move away from the change in licensing hours. The hon. Member for Wantage clearly must have his political rant; that is what he is there for. He is the Opposition spokesperson, so he cannot agree with anything that the Government do for fear of losing his job. However, I recognise some of the points that he raised, and I will try to respond to them in the spirit that he made them.
It is always a great pleasure to be involved in such debates. What strikes me is how many people's lives are affected by the Licensing Act and by Department for Culture, Media and Sport issues. The issues that we face are important to the economy right across sectors, but they are also important to the lives of our constituents. I have listened to the many points raised by hon. Members, and I will try to respond to them.
We should not lose sight of the important impact that the Licensing Act has on our economy. It is vital, particularly in difficult times, not to do anything that damages opportunities within the economy. I am mindful of that and have tried to ensure that colleagues are too as we have talked through the issues. However, although it is important to the economy, it is also important to the enrichment of our lives, whether that involves visiting the pub, watching a ballet performance, attending a village fête or going to a gig. Many licensed premises such as community pubs and village halls play an important role in our communities.
The Act also covers areas where it is important to provide public protection from crime and disorder, public nuisance and so on. The Government believe that it is vital that the sale of alcohol, in particular, is properly regulated. However, there is a fine balance between providing the necessary public protection and safeguarding the rights of the responsible majority. It is particularly right and important to get the legislative balance right in these difficult times when many businesses are struggling, local authorities' resources are being squeezed and individuals are tightening their belts.
That was apparent in the statistics released today that show an increase in the number of premises licences surrendered and lapsed and a decrease in applications compared to last year, which may be a result of the recession. However, the industry seems to be responding innovatively, with businesses diversifying what they offer to attract customers, as the hon. Member for Wantage pointed out. The number of temporary event notices increased, and I am pleased to say that so did the number of premises licences with any regulated entertainment. Significantly, today's statistics show that there has been an 11 per cent. increase in premises licences with live music authorisation between 2007 and 2009.
That leads me to perhaps the main issue raised by the Select Committee Chair in relation to live music. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I understand that many people who are passionate about live music are sincere in their view that some small events are being deterred or restricted because of unnecessary regulation. We are therefore minded to consider an exemption from the Licensing Act for live music in small venues with a capacity of less than 100, and we will set out the consultation. My right hon. Friend will write to Cabinet colleagues about the possibility of bringing forward a legislative reform order to deliver such an exemption. As hon. Members know, for that to be successful it must have the support of cross-party Committees in both Houses of Parliament. He believes that this should not be a party political issue, so he will write to his opposite numbers in other parties to try to establish a cross-party consensus. We believe that it is possible to deliver on that.
In establishing the consultation, I understand that local authorities and others have concerns. I acknowledge the point that was made about St. Albans and I was not trying to chide the Select Committee Chairman. I think that Councillor White has an opportunity to help and I am sure he will want to, given that we have expressed our views on the issues that affect St. Albans. I acknowledge that there are concerns about public protection issues such as disorder, public safety and noise nuisance. That is why we have to consult fully on the exemption. We will also seek to create a power to remove an exemption if there are problems at a premises.
We propose to consult on measures to clarify that facilities for making music do not require a licence if they are used to play incidental music, which is already exempt from licensing requirements. For facilities to be separately licensable in such situations would be absurd and was not intended under the 2003 Act. As part of the clarification, the consultation will propose a change to the definition of "entertainment facilities" so that the mere provision of musical instruments, such as a pub piano, is not licensable. We believe that the changes will assist the excellent work of the Musicians Union, local government and the British Beer and Pub Association on the live music working party to ensure that venues take advantage of the incidental music exemption and, where appropriate, the new minor variations procedure.
In addition to those measures, we will continue to support live music through music sponsorship initiatives. Arts Council England supports a wide range of artistic activities. It funds 107 music organisations and makes a large number of project funding awards through the "Grants for the arts" lottery programme. Following a recommendation by the Live Music Forum, we have committed £500,000 to set up 10 pilot music rehearsal spaces in local authority-owned buildings in England over the financial years 2008-09 and 2009-10.
Live music is just one area in which we are pleased to announce progress since the publication of the Select Committee's report. As the Select Committee Chairman has acknowledged, we have taken several important steps to make the licensing regime more efficient and to remove unnecessary burdens on thousands of businesses and voluntary organisations. We have introduced the minor variations process to make it quicker and cheaper to make small changes that do not affect the licensing objectives. We have introduced an order to ease the burden on village halls and community premises when applying for licences to sell alcohol. We have published a consultation document on the introduction of an electronic application process.
Those are important steps that reduce the burden of the 2003 Act and have resulted in a considerable reduction in red tape. The administrative savings are estimated to be £99 million per annum. That will benefit not just businesses, but the third sector and non-profit-making clubs. We are aware that more needs to be done and we plan to consider the design of the licensing forms and other aspects of the application system, such as advertising, once other simplification measures have been implemented.
We are in the early stages of drawing up a consultation on new simplification measures that are designed to reduce the administrative costs of the 2003 Act. I will mention just two of the proposed changes. First, on temporary event notices, we intend to consult on giving the police a discretionary power to allow late notifications for low-risk events. That might help circuses. As the current minimum notice period for temporary event notices is 10 working days, that will help event organisers when, for example, they are forced to cancel an event at short notice and wish to reschedule for the following weekend. The police have indicated that, in principle, they would welcome such a discretion.
Secondly, as I indicated in my response to the Select Committee, the consultation will propose an extension to the period during which the licence can be transferred after the death of the premises licence holder. As the Select Committee Chairman said, the current period is seven days. That also applies to incapacity and insolvency. We agree that in such circumstances the time scale is too short and are minded to replace it with a period of 28 days.
I have listened to requests for the licensing authorities to be more involved in the review process. We have proposed amendments to the Policing and Crime Bill to increase their involvement. That would allow any member of the local council to call for reviews by making them interested parties under the legislation. At present, a local councillor cannot call for a review unless they live near the premises or are asked to do so by a local resident. We propose to allow licensing officers, who often have local knowledge about licensed premises, to call for reviews without waiting for another part of the authority or the police to do so. That would replace the parts of the proposed mandatory code that would have given licensing authorities similar, but less flexible, powers on groups of premises. Those proposals have been welcomed by licensees and local authorities.
I now turn to specific issues raised by the Select Committee Chairman and other hon. Members. On alcohol promotions, we are not minded to introduce minimum pricing, as suggested by Richard Younger-Ross. We will look closely at what happens in Scotland. We want to use legislation to take action when there is an evidence base to show that promotions are irresponsible. We will ensure that those issues are discussed under the Policing and Crime Bill.
The mandatory code is important. We want to ensure that the more than 7,000 responses are analysed properly. The Select Committee Chairman spoke about the Prime Minister's announcement. It is important that we do all that we can to ensure that we have the right powers in the right places. The Prime Minister simply wanted to ensure that we had looked at all the avenues and that we move forward on the right basis.
The Government are not minded to implement a database of personal licence holders. We do not think that there is a strong enough business case to justify committing public money to that proposal. That is based on the evidence put to us by external consultants in 2005. We will monitor the situation and consider the suggestions of local authorities and responsible authorities on how the existing information can be shared more effectively. I am sure that the Select Committee will return to that issue if no progress is made.
As the Minister with responsibility for sport, gambling and licensing, I believe that sport at every level is vital to the nation. Community sports clubs are a key element in creating the champions of the future. We do not want to do anything that would attack or upset such clubs. That is why we strongly support the community amateur sports club scheme, which provides a range of tax benefits, including mandatory tax relief on 80 per cent. of business rates and the ability to claim gift aid on donations. There is a difficulty in subsidising alcohol in such premises. We need to discuss further how such a differential can be made. I was interested in the comments of the Select Committee Chairman on that. Perhaps we will return to that issue in our discussions about how to support such small clubs, which are a key part of our sporting life.
The Government want to work with the Live Music Forum and local government to support more live music. We want to ensure that musicians at all levels have the opportunity to perform live. The two-in-a-bar rule militated against groups. As we heard earlier, many people now get involved in music by joining groups. We will listen to campaigners and work with the Musicians Union and the Live Music Forum. Now that I have made the announcement about the consultation, I am happy to have further discussions about how we can move forward.
The debate on this issue is passionate, but we must recognise the role that local government plays. I do not support local government being aggressive by putting preventions in place to stop live music. We must strike the right balance. The working groups have given us good evidence and I hope that the Select Committee will support us as we move forward.
The hon. Member for Teignbridge asked why we do not simply implement Lord Clement-Jones's Live Music Bill. Clearly, the Bill contains similar measures to those I have announced today, and would have a stronger chance of being passed if we get all-party support and use the legislative reform order procedures.
I recognise the great work done by Peter Luff on circuses-he has talked to me on many occasions about the problems that they face. Through the simplification plan, we have tried to help travelling circuses and we think that the electronic application form will benefit them. The decision to allow people to make late notification for low-risk temporary events where the police do not have concerns will also help circuses. That does not meet all the hon. Gentleman's requirements, but they are positive steps in the right direction.
I share the Committee's concerns about form 696. Committee members and colleagues will know that the form is a matter for the Metropolitan police. I am very concerned about the application of the form and, through officials, have had discussions with ACPO and the Met. I am pleased to say that the form is to be re-presented, which we expect to happen some time soon. The form will be voluntary and is not intended to be used for live music events, which is a significant step forward.
Clearly the police must find a balance in terms of their concerns, and it is right that they put things forward in a positive way, but they must do so sensitively. They need to ensure that the language of the form is correct. We have been offering advice to the Met, but as the form is its responsibility, we will wait to see what happens when the new form is published. As I have said, it is important to recognise that 696 is a voluntary form. Of course, unlike the Mayor of London, we believe that the Met is operationally independent. I understand that there have been several incidents and serious violence at some venues, therefore the right balance must be sorted out.
On the issues around lap-dancing, the Home Office has released a consultation on the transitional arrangements for existing lap-dancing businesses, and we will closely examine the responses. We have talked about the annual review, but clearly if a case is made about business concerns, we will consider it. It is clear that a balance has to be struck between the rights of such businesses to exist and the needs of local people and the issues that affect them. We will therefore consult on the matter.
The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford talked about the need for partnership working, and he was right to do so because the issues raised in the Committee's report affect a number of Departments. His contribution related to the Home Office, with which it is important we continue to work. The Home Office is very clear about the DCMS view on many of these issues, and we had a joint seminar on the approach of councillors and local authorities to licensing. The variance in the different guidelines given by local authorities to the bodies concerned is quite staggering. The guidelines range from being 2 inches thick to those that are more appropriate.
That variation was the reason for adopting the beacon authority principle. Brighton is a good example of what can be done-people have been working together and have been flexible, both from the business and community side. There is nothing at all party political in dealing with the matter. Geoffrey Theobald has done a fantastic job in leading that side of policy. As well as his work in Brighton, he has put his comments through the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services and has worked tirelessly to try to ensure that the Act works properly.
I was staggered to find that there is a Punch and Judy association. Its website states that there are myths about Punch and Judy performances and that the Licensing Act has not restricted Punch and Judy performances in any way.
It is always a pleasure to respond to the Committee's welcome reports. There are issues that will continue to be discussed and that we will have to face in the future. It is with great pleasure that I have been able to respond to the Committee today, and I look forward to the further work ahead.
I thank the Minister for that response. He has indicated that the Government are prepared to look at possible further changes in several areas. That is obviously welcome and, in terms of exemption for small venues, I very much hope that his view that changes can be brought in before an election is right. I cannot speak for my hon. Friend Mr. Vaizey but, judging from what we have heard from both Front Benchers, I think that the Minister will find that there is general support for such changes.
Question put and agreed to.