Licensing Bill [Lords]

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Dr. Howells: Before I deal with the Government amendments, I want so speak about amendments Nos. 87, 167, 168 and 169. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Selby who came charging on to the battlefield like the fifth cavalry. The Committee will remember what happened to them. I must tell my hon. Friend that the LGA is an interesting body because it seems to hold different views simultaneously. It is a democracy, but if it changes its mind from hour to hour we shall have something to say about that.

On cost, I must ask my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire what difference it would make for the BBPA to talk to local authorities about costs. They will be permanent and ongoing throughout the years and not one-off, as those for registration will be. The costs are, therefore, unlimited and would have to be paid from the annual charges paid by tenants, not landlords. If I were cynical, I would be worried that there was some confidence trickery going on—I am not implicating my hon. Friend—but we shall come to that in a moment or two.

Mr. Moss: Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Howells: No.

Amendment No. 87 is not necessary and would have undesirable effects. It would add to the list of information to be kept in the licensing register set out in the Bill all relevant contact details that the Secretary of State may set out in regulations. The amendment is unnecessary because clause 9(1)(e) provides that the Secretary of State may set out in regulations such other information as may be prescribed.

Leaving the detailed contents of licensing registers to secondary legislation provides for a degree of flexibility. Should it be necessary to amend the list of prescribed information to be contained on the register in the light of experience or future developments, we will not have to wait for the opportunity to amend primary legislation, which is an important consideration. Furthermore, by prescribing such further information in secondary legislation, we will ensure consistency and transparency throughout all licensing authorities.

Amendment No. 87 would also remove the requirement for licensing authorities to keep a record of personal licences issued. For reasons that I set out in detail when speaking to Government amendment No. 44, I ask that amendment No. 87 be withdrawn. When discussing amendment No. 44 and the amendments grouped with it, we had a useful debate

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about the provisions in the Bill to establish a central licensing database. Although the drafting of the Bill is flexible so that implementation of the new regime can go ahead in the absence of a single, central system, the Government are committed to setting up such a system. That is why I cannot accept amendment No. 167, which would remove the power to make regulations as to the form and manner of licensing authority registers.

If we are all committed to a central database, as the Government are and as I feel Opposition Members are, there will come a point when data held severally by individual licensing authorities will need to be transferred under the central system. That process will be made considerably easier if licensing authorities record the same information in the same way. Amendment No. 167 would undermine that sensible objective and I hope that it will not pressed.

For similar reasons, I cannot accept amendment No. 169, which would remove the flexibility that the Bill gives to the Secretary of State to determine when it would be appropriate for details to be recorded on the central register.

Amendment No. 168 would allow the licensing authority to charge people to view the licensing register. I thought that the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire over-egged the pudding. I understand completely that licensing authorities may wish to charge when, for example, they provide photocopies of information in the register. Surely it is too much to ask people who may be concerned, such as local residents, to pay just to see the information. Putting that information on the local authority web site is a useful suggestion, and there may be ways of considering that, but we cannot accept the amendment as it stands.

The Government certainly think that local residents, for example, should be able to see such information in the register without having to pay. That is why we resist the amendment. This is supposed to be an open and transparent system. Charging people for access to information in that way will place a barrier in the way of local people and I hope that amendment No. 168 will not be pressed to a Division.

On the Government amendments, the issue of registered interests had a good airing in another place. The purpose of this group of Government amendments is to restore the Bill to its original position following changes accepted there. The amendments would remove from the Bill references to persons having a registered interest in the premises affected. The changes were pressed for by some parts of the pub industry—we have heard all about that—and we have discussed the matter with it at great length. Although we are offering the pub industry considerably more flexibility and less red tape, we have not been able to agree with it on the subject. I shall try to explain why.

The Government believe that a licence holder's responsibility in respect of his licence is to the licensing authority, and that if a tenant is in dispute with the owner or lessee of the property, that is not a matter for licensing law. The Bill is about the carrying on of

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licensable activities, not regulating interests in land. The Bill will improve on the current situation by providing a clear focus on matters that properly concern the licensing regime. Under the current system, which ties alcohol licences to the individual running the business on any premises, it makes more sense for those with an interest in the premises, often pub companies and breweries, to be able to register an interest.

If a pub manager leaves, the old licence must be transferred by the justices to the new manager, with a full hearing before the justices and decisions on whether the new manager is a fit and proper person. However, under the new system set out in the Bill, which splits the personal and premises licence, any pub operating company will be able to hold a premises licence itself and designate a manager as the premises supervisor. The Bill does not require the managers or tenants to hold a premises licence. When the premises licence holder wants to change the premises supervisor, there will therefore be no need for any hearing, just a simple notification—unless, exceptionally, the police elect to intervene. That is a significant reduction in red tape.

Notification of matters relating to licensable activities can be a requirement of the contractual relationship between the operating company and the manager, or the landlord and the tenant. Those with an interest in premises may avail themselves of protections in property law, such as registering a caution against dealings with premises, but those matters are properly outside the sphere of the regulatory regime, and are properly matters of private law. Before the Bill was amended, it set out quick and easy procedures to deal with transfers and changes of premises licences.

An interim authority notice can be given following the death, insolvency or mental incapacity of a licence holder. That reinstates the licence for two months, during which time an application for transfer can be made. Clause 47(2) sets out who can give such an interim authority notice. I would like to emphasise that, with a view to providing for continuity of business, it is intended that clause 47(2)(a), which refers to a person who

    ''has a prescribed interest in the premises concerned'',

will capture pub operating companies and owners of premises. At least one of the changes made in another place would therefore replicate provision for some of those whom it is already intended to cover.

Alternatively, in the case of death, insolvency or mental incapacity of the premises licence holder, or when a licence is surrendered, if it is known who will take over the business, a transfer of the premises licence may be applied for with immediate interim effect. Although the pub industry wants the concept of registered interest, that, of course, applies only to the big players in the industry. Many of the licensees in our constituencies will be tenants, and I am confident that several of those would not like that kind of control given to their landlords, some of whom may be

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banks or property developers, not to mention pub companies.

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Indeed, the big companies would expect to pay a few pounds for registering their interest, but the cost and bureaucracy that flow from the scheme, which sees large numbers of modifications and consents flying backwards and forwards between the companies and the licensing authorities, would not fall on them. Additional costs would have to be recovered by increasing the main fees for premises licences and annual charges. The tenants who hold the licences will have to pick up those costs and will probably pass them on to their customers. Notice of any surrender would be recorded on the licensing authority register, and could be accessed. Furthermore, there is no requirement to notify a landlord of surrender of a justices' licence under the current regime. If the Government amendments are accepted, the Bill will still offer protections for business, provide quick and simple procedures where changes are needed and require licensing authorities to record and make available information about all authorisations and notices.

The Bill must remain focused on matters that properly relate to licensing. However convenient it may be to the pub industry, the Bill cannot become a means of addressing issues that are the concern of contractual arrangements between parties, which are subject to private law. We must therefore restore this part of the Bill to its original form.

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