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15 Nov 2002 : Column 328—continued

1.54 pm

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent): I have asked to speak about the licensing Bill, because I represent a brewing constituency. Shepherd Neame, which is the oldest family owned brewery in Britain, is based in Faversham. It is a sizeable local employer, and an enormously generous benefactor to many worthy local causes. However, I represent a large rural constituency and my patch contains many country pubs on the north downs and the east Weald. They are desperately concerned about their profitability and any increase in bureaucracy, or costs, would undoubtedly hit them very hard. Many of those pubs are more than simply pubs: they are the focus of village life. If any had to close, a severe blow would be dealt to the rural economy—and once closed, pubs almost never reopen. The Bill is therefore hugely important to a great many of my constituents.

I welcome many of the proposals enormously. The liberalisation of the laws to permit 24-hour opening is long overdue. It is ridiculous that, for many people in London, a night out stops at 11 pm. A night out with the Swale police during the summer recess convinced me of the foolishness of the present arrangement. It is, however, important for appropriate safeguards to be introduced for residents.

I also welcome the extra powers that will enable the police to deal with disorderly premises. This is clearly a public-order issue, which should have been tackled before.

It is also sensible to end many of the anachronisms that exist in the current Act, but I am worried about the transfer of licensing powers from the magistrates courts to local authorities. When it was trailed in the White Paper, we held a forum at the brewery in Faversham.

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We invited many local authority representatives from all over Kent. They generally favoured the proposal, but an overwhelming majority of publicans and representatives of the brewery industry were firmly set against it. As the Secretary of State will know, 70,000 licensees were asked about the proposal in a poll conducted in September by a licensing magazine. A staggering 94 per cent. supported the retention of control by magistrates.

While I recognise that the current system is not perfect, it enjoys the support and confidence of the country's licensees. They also have a number of specific anxieties, with which I hope the Secretary of State will deal. The first concerns independence. Magistrates are independent of local politics and constituency pressures. Like many other Members throughout the House, I write regularly to local authorities to try and influence decisions; I would not dream of writing in the same way to magistrates.

Local authorities also have a valid role in objecting to licences or their conditions. They cannot be both judge and jury. The loss of a licence often leads to loss of livelihood. I am not a lawyer, but a lawyer told me that the granting of this power to local authorities would have important indications for human rights.

There is also the question of local knowledge. Good licensing requires knowledge of local criminals and their haunts. Magistrates have such knowledge, but I am afraid that council officials do not. Then there is the question of respect. Licensees have great respect for the courts, to which they are ultimately answerable. If the contents of my mailbag are anything to go by, I must say that, sadly, that is not true of local authorities.

Speed is essential in the event of sudden changes caused by the death of a licensee or by the licensee's taking up a new occupation, or by unpredictable occasions such as celebrations, sporting replays or rescheduling. Magistrates can make decisions quickly—it is, after all, their job—but local authorities generally do not, at least according to my experience of the planning system.

Bureaucracy is another issue. The White Paper has given each pub the task of producing an operating plan. Apart from the expense, the extra form filling will be detested by publicans. Good pubs, which we do not want to penalise, will of course comply; bad pubs, almost inevitably, will not, and it will take a huge amount of extra time and effort to track them down.

There is the question of music, as is demonstrated by early-day motion 1182, signed by 233 Members during the last Session. And, of course, there is the question of costs. Magistrates currently administer the licensing system for a fee of #10 a year. The new fee has yet to be announced, but I cannot imagine that it will match that amount.

I welcome much of the Bill, but I have serious reservations about the proposal to transfer licensing from magistrates to local authorities. Magistrates are quick, generally consistent, cost-effective, independent and impartial; they understand crime and local criminals; and, critically, they have the huge respect of licensees.

I go back to the survey: 94 per cent. of licensees want to keep the current system of magistrates licensing. It is a powerful endorsement. I urge the Government to take notice of it when formulating the proposals.

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2 pm

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford): We have had a wide-ranging and well-informed debate. A number of the contributions have been on education, the first subject on the Order Paper. Perhaps that is unsurprising given the crisis that now afflicts our education system, yet all the Queen's Speech has to offer to improve the education system is a promise to bring forward proposals for reform of universities, a commitment that most people seem to believe will turn out to be the introduction of top-up fees.

I shall not repeat the many excellent points that were made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green). My hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) also made an extremely well informed and thoughtful speech. While it is not for me to comment, I hope that the Secretary of State and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford will study carefully the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, because his arguments were persuasive.

The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) was right to express some disappointment that the Secretary of State did not spend more time talking about the Government's policies and less time asking questions of the Opposition parties, but that perhaps is an indication of the dearth of thinking on the Government side on the subject of education.

The hon. Gentleman told us of the unfortunate fire that took place in his constituency office last night. We are glad that it was brought under control. We noted that the Fire Brigades Union chief officer went to see him to offer his moral support. It might have been better if the hon. Gentleman had rung up the prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate for his constituency, Mike Penning, who has eight years' experience as a firefighter and may have helped him to put the fire out.

During this debate, no Liberal Democrat Member has mentioned any of the issues covered by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. That shows the priority that the Liberal Democrats attach to those important issues.

I want to concentrate on the measures in the Queen's Speech that are the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Unlike the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, she cannot be accused of doing nothing: she has two substantial Bills, although each is a little late in coming. It was clear that there would need to be further legislation dealing with the ownership rules and regulation of the media almost before the last Broadcasting Bill passed on to the statute book in 1996.

I once wrote a pamphlet on media ownership laws and I was extremely flattered that the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) appears to have read it. He is a member of a rather small but well informed group and I congratulate him on having managed to get hold of the pamphlet. It is something of an embarrassment to discover that the liberalisation of the rules that I argued for strongly at that time is finally being enacted by the Government. I have no hesitation in welcoming the broad thrust of the new Bill. We strongly support its provisions to allow greater cross-media ownership,

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consolidation and foreign investment and to move towards a regime where the media industries are treated under the same competition rules as other industries.

I was particularly pleased and surprised when the Government reversed their declared policy of retaining the bar on non-European ownership of our broadcasting companies. I was even more heartened when the Government stuck to their guns and resisted the calls of the Joint Scrutiny Committee that considered the Communications Bill to reverse their position. I have no doubt that the issue of foreign ownership will be much debated in the coming months, but we will support the Government in their robustly pro-market position.

The Government have shown an encouraging willingness to move still further in the direction of a competitive market in broadcasting. We welcome yesterday's announcement by the Secretary of State that the Government intend to allow an even greater relaxation of the local ownership rules. We will support the right hon. Lady in that. Indeed, we might even press her to go a little further. We also hope that her open-minded approach to the Bill will continue and that she will perhaps consider other areas for greater liberalisation, such as the rules governing the ownership of ITN, the restrictions on cross-media ownership and the disqualification of religious broadcasters. However, lest I give the impression that we can all agree on the Bill and that therefore it will complete its passage through the Standing Committee in just a few hours, let me say that it requires close and detailed scrutiny.

There is one area in which we strongly disagree with the Government's approach. Whatever consolidations and takeovers take place in the media sectors following the passage of the Bill, for the foreseeable future there will remain one broadcaster whose dominant position is likely to remain unchallenged—that is, of course, the BBC. That is because of its dominance, because it is owned by the state and because it is financed by a compulsory poll tax, which is enforced by criminal law. It has obligations and duties which do not apply to any other broadcaster. It has a public service remit and it is subject to strict controls on its commercial activities, yet unlike other broadcasters, responsibility for ensuring that it meets the requirements upon it and for adjudicating on complaints about its activities rests not with the new regulator, but with its own board of governors. Yet the BBC is most in need of external accountability and independent adjudication. That need has become more serious as in recent months the BBC has become increasingly powerful and aggressive. At a time when the commercial broadcasting companies are struggling because of the advertising downturn, the BBC is enjoying steadily increasing revenue and is adopting an increasingly aggressive commercial approach. It is competing in the market to buy rights; it is scheduling its most popular programmes with an eye to winning a ratings battle and it is launching new channels and services which in some cases are almost carbon copies of those that are already available commercially.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) said at the end of his speech, in the past few weeks the debate about the role and financing of the

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BBC has grown louder and there is an increasing level of discontent among people who do not see why they should be forced to pay for services that they do not necessarily want when they are already paying for services that they do want. The Government first tried to argue that now was not the time for this debate and then appeared to dismiss the alternatives before the debate had even started. The Bill offers an opportunity to begin the debate about the role of public service broadcasting in general and the BBC in particular, and we intend to take that opportunity.

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