Shisha Lounges

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 5th December 2018.

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Photo of Shabana Mahmood Shabana Mahmood Labour, Birmingham, Ladywood 2:30 pm, 5th December 2018

I will develop that point. I absolutely acknowledge that shisha lounges are often small businesses, but a lot of the troubled premises are not the average small business. They are big venues and very lucrative—I have learnt a lot more about shisha than I ever anticipated when I first became a Member of Parliament—and the biggest establishments can afford to have personal appearances by celebrities. It is not unusual to find boxers or Instagram stars visiting such places, putting in a personal appearance in the same way as they might for a new nightclub or members’ club opening in any city across the country. There is a distinction to be drawn between the much smaller operations, which are more similar to a café with the added ability to offer shisha smoking to its patrons, and the big ones that are much more like nightclubs.

The legal tests in existing legislation are onerous, and there is a balance to be struck in ensuring that people can have a viable business and not be shut down on spurious grounds or unfairly. Police and council officers are cognisant of their legal responsibilities and do not want to drive away good businesses, but I believe them when they tell me, in my conversations with them, that some of the most troubled establishments employ high-powered lawyers and do everything they can to frustrate the process. That happens right at the beginning of the process, at the planning stage—they set up as a café or restaurant, and add other things as they go along, developing the shisha business. There are many ways around the system, as well as many gaps, which some individuals are keen to exploit, because this is a lucrative business.

In London, Westminster City Council in particular—I am pretty sure it is Westminster, so I hope I have got that right—has led work looking at tobacco duty, which is often not paid on imported shisha, so there are tax implications as well. I do not want to make out that these are all bad businesses—they are not—but where people flout rules and regulations, they do so in a considered and planned way. They know what they are doing, so it is right to weight the law and to make the thresholds in the legal process that have to be crossed more favourable to residents, because when it goes wrong, as it did for the people of Highgate in my constituency, it is horrendous. It ruins lives and breaks communities, and that is too high a price for local residents to pay for the sake of the business needs of some of the shisha establishments.

In Birmingham, we have 37 premises, many of them concentrated in my constituency, but with some in other parts of the city. That is only the ones that we know about—37 premises known to Birmingham City Council. With no specific licence requirement for shisha, many places open without any recourse to any of the authorities whatever. As I said, the numbers have grown rapidly. The highest concentrations of shisha premises are found in the London boroughs of Westminster, Ealing and Brent, while Birmingham has the highest concentration outside of London.

The statutory provisions around fire risk, indoor smoking, the sale of tobacco to minors and the non-payment of tobacco duty, which I mentioned, are regularly frustrated. The sanctions available under tobacco-related laws are not acting as a deterrent. That is certainly our experience in Birmingham.

The fire risks are considerable. In Birmingham alone, we have had six major fires over the last five years. That is not surprising when one drills down into the situation, because within those premises there is a high number of ignition sources, combustible material and often low staff awareness of fire safety, and some of the venues are situated in hard to get to places, or are big and spread out over a number of floors, which poses a risk in and of itself. A business sector that is relatively small in number suffering six big fires in a five-year period is indicative of a much wider problem. Other local authorities are also greatly concerned about the fire risks.

Something that I thought about when drilling down into the issue—the Minister might raise this himself—was whether it was simply a case of the different agencies not working effectively together. Could it be that although the law, annoyingly, is not all neatly in one place and the powers are spread across different Acts of Parliament, it can be used creatively and effectively to bring the problem under control? After two years of dealing with these issues, I can say that it is not a case of the agencies not coming together. I have seen nothing but good practice at Birmingham City Council, and I pay tribute to Janet Bradley, who has taken the lead on shisha issues, and all of her team there. They have worked with all the other teams across the council, they have worked with partner agencies and they have worked very closely with the police, to whom I also pay tribute for all their work, particularly on getting closure orders.

That is the case not just in Birmingham. Westminster City Council, too, has published a strategy, held a symposium, and got everybody with any interest, whether public health, fire safety, or policing—the whole picture—into a room together to create a strategy for them to deal with the problem as far as the law currently allows. Brent Council either won an award or was shortlisted for one for its work in preparing its strategy. In the Commons debate pack produced by the Library, there was an article that I had not seen before, in which Brent Council’s leader, who wrote to the Home Secretary about the problem in 2017, called some of the shisha establishments in Brent “lawless” places that attracted drug-dealing and sex-trafficking. It is not for want of trying by different local authorities run by different political parties, where people have tried to grasp the issue and find a way to cut through and get enforcement action quickly and effectively, but no matter how much good work is done, in truth it takes a disproportionate amount of time to take action with the available powers and resources.

The time has come to enhance the legislative framework surrounding shisha premises and, I believe, institute a licensing regime specifically for shisha premises. That would allow local authorities to license shisha premises to operate in their area and make it illegal for a shisha premises to operate unless it was licensed. It is important to go after the shisha aspect of the entertainment offer of those premises, because that is the basis on which the business model operates. Those venues are not interested in being your average café or restaurant. The shisha is key. It is lucrative. It is absolutely essential to the business model. That activity, rather than anything else that might be included and covered by licensing regulations, needs to be licensed now.

The first aim of the licensing regime would be to reduce the detrimental impact on communities; that must be at the heart of any such regime’s objectives. It must ensure that premises do not cause a public nuisance, along with all the other crime and disorder issues that I have highlighted. There is also space for the raising of hygiene standards and for safeguarding policies to restrict the admission of under-18s. That is not something that I have focused on particularly in my work in Birmingham, but I often see college-age students—under-18s—going to those venues, and it is pointless to have age limits in law if they are openly flouted in that way. A licensing regime would give us the opportunity to put those policies in place.

We need to have sanctions for non-compliance that cannot be frustrated by the company changing name, which often happens. Even when we do have absolute clarity on the ownership and management of the business there are problems. For example, when the police obtained closure orders for the three venues in my constituency, it was normal, when they or council officers turned up, for people who clearly worked in those establishments to say that they did not work there and did not know who the owner was. Many of the venues do not even have a postal address because, like some other problem night-time economy venues, they evade postal contact. That sounds like a small issue, but it frustrates council officers’ or police officers’ ability to contact those responsible when trying to fulfil their legal duties, and from day one, that stops them taking effective action.

Following discussions with officers at Birmingham City Council and others, I conclude that there are three ways in which we could pursue a licensing regime for shisha premises. The best and most workable solution would be to make an amendment to the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982, which would simply state that we are going to control shisha premises. That amendment should provide for an adoptive licensing regime that gives flexibility to local authorities, so that they can set local controls to deal with the issues that they face in their areas. That is important because problems take different forms according to the locality in which the shisha lounge is located. On Edgware Road, for example, problems in connection with shisha premises are of the same order but play out slightly differently from those in Highgate, in my constituency. An adoptive regime that gives flexibility to local authorities is the best way forward, taking a similar approach to that which has been taken on sex entertainment venues. That gives local authorities powers to set local controls and, in doing so, puts local people back in the game and gives them a say on what happens in their local area. I believe that is the change that best lends itself to a licensing regime for shisha premises.

Many of the standard terms that apply in other licensing regimes would be easily transferable to a shisha regime, which would comprise all of the standard enforcement actions that flow from licensing regimes. The key ultimate power would be the ability to revoke a business’s licence and thereby put it out of business, rather than providing an opportunity for it to come back in some other shape or form.

If we do not go down the road of an amendment to the 1982 Act, there are two other ways that I and others consider that a change might be made. Another way of trying to control shisha premises is to strengthen the current provisions of the Health Act 2006 and the Smoke-free (Premises and Enforcement) Regulations 2006. Current regulations stipulate how enclosed a space has to be in order to comply with the legislation. Obviously, there must be proper ventilation and so on. Some premises earning good money can install a retractable roof. When somebody goes to conduct a check, the roof is off so it looks like there is adequate ventilation, as required under the regulations. The roof, of course, goes straight back on as soon as the officer has left the building, because offering shisha outdoors, in the cold weather or in the rain, will massively affect the business model. It is not tenable to assume that the 2006 regulations are being regularly complied with in some of those establishments. We could try to find a way around that but, in the end, I concluded that trying to draft something that closes all the loopholes in the legislation and covers the ways some problematic shisha premises operate would not achieve the desired effect.

I also considered whether it would be possible to reach an agreement on an interpretation of the local government declaration on tobacco, for local authorities with public health duties. An interpretation could be added that councils cannot allow any kind of licence for businesses with a model that gains money from people smoking. The public health duty is to try to reduce the risk of harm from smoking. I am not an official draftswoman, but I did not think that would work. I played around with two other possibilities before deciding that the 1982 Act is the way forward.

Following advice from Janet Bradley and the officer team at Birmingham City Council, and having consulted other local authorities that face this issue, I concluded that the cleanest and most effective way of dealing with the problem is to adopt a licensing regime under the 1982 Act. I would be delighted if the Minister stood up and said, “Yes, you’re absolutely right. We will get on this straightaway.” If that does not happen, I would like him and his officials to have an open mind about the licensing regime and at least to commit to exploring what changes under the 1982 Act might look like. There is a wealth of experience across local government and from other parliamentarians in this House—some colleagues are waiting to speak in the Brexit debate in the main Chamber and could not be here—that the Minister could draw on, which hopefully will convince him that there is a problem that needs a solution, and that this is the best solution on offer.

Following the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton about public health, shisha smoking is as harmful as normal tobacco smoking, if not more so. People still think that the smoke is much less harmful because it goes through the water filtration system before being inhaled. The World Health Organisation and other organisations that have researched this are clear: in one hour on a shisha pipe, a person can take in as much tobacco as if they had smoked 100 cigarettes. The health implications of large numbers of our population smoking shisha on a regular basis cannot be underestimated.

Local authorities have a public health duty. Places such as Manchester, Westminster and Birmingham are trying to do what they can to raise awareness of the public health implications of shisha, but piecemeal work by good people in good local authorities is not the way forward. The work should be led at ministerial level, at least to convene a roundtable to get the right people in the room, to think about how we might do more together through central Government and to raise awareness of the harm of shisha smoking.

We are storing up future public health problems for ourselves. I would be grateful if the Minister shared his thoughts on that. My absolute ask, as I have said throughout my speech, is for a licensing regime for shisha. The residents in my community have suffered greatly because of the gaps in the current system. It has taken us too long to get temporary action. That is not good enough. My residents deserve better. A licensing regime is the best way to deal with the problem once and for all.