Licensing Bill [Lords]

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Dr. Howells: Absolutely; I have no beef with that argument. I have tried to make it clear what the position would be if there were no representation and no objection to a licence application. That is where the provision kicks in. If the local councillor who does not live in that part of town and is not directly affected by the problem decides off his own bat to object, even though no one has asked him to, that is the difference. I am not sure that there is a difference between the hon. Gentleman and myself on that matter, but I hope that I have made the position clear. We shall discuss MPs and MEPs later.

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Mr. Turner: There may not be a difference between the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire on the Front Bench, but that is not to say that there is not a difference between the Minister and his hon. Friends on the Back Benches. A councillor, like a Member of Parliament, is a representative, not a delegate. He is entitled to form a judgment on what is right or wrong for his area, even if no representations have been made to him. That sometimes happens. If, for example, elderly people's housing, or a home for those who are mentally infirm, adjoins a pub, it is possible that none of the residents will object, but that does not invalidate the idea that a councillor can act on their behalf. It certainly does not invalidate a councillor's ability to make representations on their behalf.

Dr. Howells: I am not for one minute arguing that we should prevent a councillor from making representations on behalf of residents who object to a licence application. I have made that clear time and again. We object to members of the council that sets up the licensing authority stepping in and objecting to an application, even though they would not be affected by it and not one objection has been made about it. Indeed, support for it may have been expressed. [Interruption.] I think that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight said from a sedentary position that he was not objecting to that. I am trying to clarify the distinction between a councillor who acts on behalf of someone and a councillor who takes it on himself or herself to object to a licence application.

Mr. Moss: I am delighted that the Minister agrees with proposed new subsection (9A), in amendment No. 86. It is explicit. It does not refer to any elected member of a local authority, but to an elected member of council who makes representation

    ''on behalf of the residents of the ward or other electoral sub-division, or the authority which he represents.''

Dr. Howells: Yes, I have made that clear.

Mr. Moss: So you knew that?

Dr. Howells: I should not conduct a conversation like that across the Room, Mr. Gale—nor shall I.

The amendment would not make such persons interested parties for the purposes of the Bill, but it would achieve that effect indirectly. We cannot accept it, because such people are not professional experts in respect of the licensing objectives, or entitled to act in the capacity of an elected member of the council, a local resident or someone who is in business locally. As I have said, if the person is a local resident, that is a different matter.

The amendment would also expressly prevent a councillor making representations on behalf of constituents from being involved in decisions about the matter in question. One aim of the amendment may be to address specific fears that councillors might be involved in decisions about premises in their wards, as those are the premises that they or their constituents are likely to be worried about.

4 pm

I expressed in a previous debate the Government's confidence in existing measures and mechanisms in

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respect of the way in which local authorities discharge the functions vested in them. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney reinforced that argument when he referred to the Nolan rules, which are clear and specific. The amendment would also allow the elected member to make representations on behalf of the authority that he represents, a point made by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight. We shall be discussing a relevant amendment later and, if accepted, it will overturn an amendment that was made in another place, which makes a licensing authority a responsible authority under the Bill.

The intention of that amendment is that a licensing authority in which the premises is situated should be able to object to an application for the grant of, or a variation of, a licence and complain about certain premises and thus give rise to a review of the licence. Amendment No. 86 would not make the licensing authority a responsible authority but, by allowing an elected member to make representations on its behalf, would give it a similar status by the back door.

The licensing authority itself will fulfil the role of deciding the merits of the application to grant or to vary a premises licence. In doing so, it will need to weigh the merits of any representations. If no representations were made about an application to grant or to vary a premises licence, the application must be granted in accordance with the proposal by the applicant. The licensing authority's discretion is engaged only when relevant representation has emerged. That allows there to be a considerable reduction in bureaucracy. It means that only potentially problematic premises would be the subject of more detailed scrutiny at a hearing. The others would be dealt with simply and administratively.

However, the proposed amendment would leave the system open to substantially more bureaucracy with the licensing authority, through its elected members. It would be able to challenge every application even though professional and expert bodies, such as the police and fire authority, and local residents were perfectly content. The licensing authority would also effectively be making representations or complaints to itself and then judging the merits of the representation. That is not ideal. It would disturb industry, which is concerned about the overly zealous behaviour of some local authorities.

Under the Bill, specialist local authority officers, such as environmental health officers, can make representations to the licensing authority on the basis of their expertise. Although they will form part of a local authority, their views and the capacity in which they make representations in fulfilling a separate statutory function to licensing functions are both technical and expert on, for example, noise penetration. It is entirely proper that their expert views should be engaged.

The amendment would broaden the approach to general issues, which is not appropriate in the context of the regulatory role that the local authority as the licensing authority will perform. In exercising its regulatory role when it is engaged, the licensing authority will have all the tools that it needs to reach

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a decision on the competing interests in the overall public interest, being fully informed by the input from responsibilities authorities and interested parties. With that reassurance, I hope that hon. Gentlemen will withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Moss: The amendment has generated a fair amount of debate. I thought at one stage that the Minister agreed with the first part of the amendment. However, he rescued himself by saying that the words ''or the authority'', by allowing local councillors to represent the views of their electorate in the ward or the electoral sub-division that they represent, not the views of the authority, would compromise its main thrust. I accept the hon. Gentleman's argument that the words ''the authority'' might enable a councillor to speak on behalf of his authority, without the representation and support from local residents to challenge various licence applications.

If the Minister were content with most of the amendment, why has he thrown it out on the basis of a couple of words? I am surprised that he did not draft a Government amendment to say that such a proposal was fine, apart from the words ''or the authority'' that we have unfortunately left in the amendment. We shall be returning to clause 14(4)(e), which gives local authorities, as responsible authorities, the power in some respects to challenge certain decisions and become the arbiters of their own judgments.

I take on board the hon. Gentleman's argument about ''the authority''. On the basis of his ministerial response, unfortunately I shall have to retire, licking my wounds. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 9

Requirement to keep a register

Mr. Moss: I beg to move amendment No. 87, in

    clause 9, page 5, line 37, leave out from 'and' to end of line 38 and insert

    'and all relevant contact details that the Secretary of State may by regulation require.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendment No. 9.

Amendment No. 167, in

    clause 9, page 5, line 45, leave out subsection (2).

Amendment No. 168, in

    clause 9, page 6, line 3, at end insert

    'except such as is necessary to cover the costs of providing access or making available a register'.

Amendment No. 169, in

    clause 9, page 6, line 8, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

Government amendments Nos. 12, 13, 46, 47 and 14.

Mr. Moss: The clause is important, not least because the Government are wanting yet again to overturn an amendment that was introduced in another place, an amendment that was well debated

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at the time, and that had considerable support not only from those on the Conservative Benches, but people throughout—I use that word wisely—the industry that will be affected by the Bill.

Amendment No. 87 has been overtaken somewhat by our lengthy debate on clause 4 stand part on a central licensing authority. We debated whether there should be a central register or database and received a concession from the Government that they will now begin to honour the White Paper's intention, which stated clearly that a central database or register will be established.

The amendment has also been overtaken by events, because the details issued by a local authority should not be on a central register, although the local authority will be required to put on a database information that is deemed important by the Secretary of State and made by regulation. That may have to follow as a result of the Government's concession to set up the register. We shall await their proposals about what they intend to include on it.

Through the clause, the Government are yet again seeking to centralise their influence and power, and have included some fairly unnecessary rules and regulations pertaining to the decision making of the local authorities involved.

We accept the need to impose the obligation to maintain a register, but detailing exactly how a local authority should keep that register seems unnecessary and unacceptable. If central Government desire of local authorities that they use some ingenuity or initiative in doing what they are supposed to, they should trust them to be capable enough of keeping a register, and credit them with some responsibility.

Amendment No. 168 ensures that the cost of implementing the requirements of the provisions will not be too onerous for the local authorities that will be assuming the role of licensing authority. The costs incurred by local authorities could be fairly substantial. Recent representation from the LGA has reflected some disquiet on its part that the costs of implementation are going up by the minute as we proceed through the Bill.

We would like to see changes made to the legislation so that those costs are minimised and, if at all possible, have a neutral effect on the issuing functions that local authorities will take up. Subsection (3) demands that all licensing authorities make necessary arrangements and provide facilities for the inspection of the register by any person who turns up during office hours. We believe that that particular measure is unnecessary and is an unnecessary cost imposition.

The local authority will probably have to make a room available for such facilities and have someone on tap to look after people who want to examine the register, and we feel that there are other ways of doing that than the ways suggested in the Bill. In any event, if that provision remains, local authorities ought to be reasonably remunerated in some way for providing that facility. It could be carried out through the

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council's IT system as part of its website. That would not cost the council very much, and would be accessible to quite a lot of people. Some consideration should be given to the unnecessary bureaucratic and regulatory burden of the provision.

Amendment No. 169, which I referred to during this morning's sitting, removes the word ''may'' in subsection (6) and inserts the word ''shall''. We have asked for the amendment to be considered to give a clearer indication of the Government's intention to ensure that the Secretary of State will arrange for the central database register to be set up—a move that is supported throughout the industry, and by local authorities. Such a register seems a highly desirable and pragmatic way of ensuring that references that need to be made to the details on personal licences will be held centrally and kept up to date. That will obviously have a financial implication, which, as the Minister said in an earlier debate, will be less than the implementation of a central licensing authority. Nevertheless, it will cost a lot of money. The question of appropriate computer systems must be thought through and, in the Minister's words, that may be delayed for some time until the problems can be overcome.

4.15 pm

Government amendment No. 9 would delete subsection (1)(d). That subsection was carried in the other place after a lengthy debate in which many speakers supported it. In deleting it, the Government are seeking to remove ''the name and address of any person who has an estate or interest in the premises'', which are the subject of the licence. There is an existing right to register interests in section 32(2) of the Licensing Act 1964, and the question why that right is not being maintained in the Bill obviously arises.

The Government have to explain why they deem it necessary not only to ignore that point in drawing up the first draft of the Bill, but to remove a sensible amendment from the other place. They have attacked subsection (1)(d) once in a negative way by not including the right, which is in the 1964 Act, in the Bill and once in a direct and obvious way by tabling a Government amendment indicating that they want nothing to do with it. The right already exists and should be preserved and linked to all situations in which the investment of the party with the superior interest is potentially threatened by actions by the designated premises supervisor or the premises owner, or in any other circumstances that may arise.

An owning company will often be in a position to promote licensing objectives through its contractual agreement with the tenant or lessee, which is support for the Government's licensing objectives from an important party with a vested interest. It seems sensible that the Government and that interest should be drawn into the licensing objectives, which were set out and discussed earlier. The ability to register an interest would enable the owning company to meet its reversionary interest in the event of the demise of a tenant, which could be useful to both parties in the event of death or incapacity. It would also be beneficial where a tenant suddenly disappears leaving a serious problem behind. It would mean that,

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by virtue of its interest, the owning company can step in, quickly appoint a new personal licence holder and continue trading without too much of a hiatus.

The beneficiary of the superior legal interest, which is protected, is entitled as a matter of natural justice to seek to ensure that its interest in the property—the value of which is linked to a significant degree to the possession of the premises licence—is indeed properly recognised. Over the past decade, we have seen the growth of companies with hundreds, if not thousands, of pub outlets—we will not name names. That has been a feature of the past few years, and many of those companies rely on their quotations in the City and on their share price for running their businesses and further expansion. In that regard, Opposition Members think it important to recognise that the City will look at the legislation relating to those businesses. If they can see a situation in which the so-called owner of the business does not have legal backing or the ability to solve local problems with its tenants and managers, the value of that business might not be deemed to be as high as perhaps it should be.

This is a very practical measure. No matter which way one looks at it, it makes sense. It makes sense from the industry's point of view—and we know that its representatives have consistently and seriously lobbied the Minister and his Department. It has not met with any objections that I am aware of, from any serious and involved quarter. There may well be a question mark over the individuals who run or manage such enterprises and outlets. Some may fear that if this overriding, overarching interest is too closely set out and detailed in the legislation, their security of tenure and position will be in some way undermined, in which case, that must be considered. However, it is my understanding that the people involved have looked at the matter carefully and are happy for the amendment made in the other place to stand. They are totally against the Government's intention, in amendment No. 9, to remove it.

I know that many other Committee members want to speak to the amendment. This is a very important point, which has been alluded to on many occasions, not least in the other place. We shall oppose the Government's intentions.

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