Licensing Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Moss: I hear what the Minister says, but I am not sure that he has addressed the concerns of the police about the implementation not only of clause 112 but of other clauses in this part of the Bill. If he cannot give the Committee an assurance here and now, I ask him to take up the offer by the police to discuss the matter. I am relating their concerns, and it is they who have to implement the law.

Dr. Howells: I assure the hon. Gentleman, and the rest of the Committee, that we meet the police regularly, and are open to their latest thoughts on the clause or any matter relating to it.

Mr. Moss: I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that there is ongoing dialogue between him and his officials and the police. It may well be that the police who made representations to us have not yet been able to put their views to the Minister directly. I will go back to them and say that there is an open door policy, and access would not be barred.

At the base of the police concerns lies the removal of the definition ''fit and proper person'' from the Bill. The police think that their past assessments of whether someone was an appropriate person to hold a licence have now been undermined by the Bill. The Minister and the Government must explain fully that in their opinion, the police will still be able to intervene and object where they believe that people are not, in the words of the existing legislation, ''fit and proper'' to hold licences. That is at the core of their argument and their concern, and it must be addressed.

Clause 112 may not be the appropriate place, and we do not want to undermine the purpose of the 1974 Act, which attempts to get people off the path of crime and so on by rehabilitating them. As the Minister rightly points out, it seems grossly unfair that a conviction obtained a long time ago should stand on a person's record for ever and prevent them from doing all sorts of things, including applying for a personal licence. However, I do not believe that that is behind what the police are saying, which is that a whole list of minor offences will not be recognised under the Bill. Yet over a protracted period, those offences could add up to contribute to an assessment by the police that

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someone is not an appropriate person to hold a licence.

Dr. Howells: This is an important point, and I should reassure the Committee. We have discussed these matters at great length with the police. To turn the coin over, I would expect the police to be wary of individuals who may not have any convictions, but whom they know to be organised in criminal gangs or undertaking nefarious activities, and to make that information available to the licensing authority in the form of an objection by them as one of the responsible authorities.

Mr. Moss: I am grateful for that assurance from the Minister that he hopes and expects that the Bill will enable that to happen.

To return to the main thrust of my argument, under our interpretation of clause 112 and allied clauses, a minor criminal, if one can call him that—someone who has had lots of minor convictions and has no spent—

Mr. Field: No spent convictions.

Mr. Moss: Yes, absolutely. That person could be an individual who, over a period of time, had something that showed them to be an unsuitable person to be involved with the sale, or particularly with the supply, of alcohol.

Mr. Turner: Does my hon. Friend recall that over the weekend it was reported that the police have found that clamping down on those who have committed motoring offences is an effective means of clamping down on those with a propensity for other criminal activity?

Mr. Moss: I am sure that that is right. It seems to me that it is the same individuals in our society who perpetrate almost all the crime, and that locking them away reduces crime dramatically—although I shall not pursue that argument now.

The Minister has listened carefully and has given us the important assurance that ongoing dialogue takes place with the police authorities. Representations have been made to us on this matter and, as he says, they must be taken seriously. No doubt he will see that they are. Perhaps, before Report, some thought will be given to wording the Bill in such a way that the police concerns are adequately taken care of. A good starting point would be to refer back to the case that I mentioned earlier this morning, which was put to me by the police as a useful vehicle to enable them to make a challenge in various situations.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 112 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 113

Period of validity of personal licence

Mr. Moss: I beg to move amendment No. 349, in

    clause 113, page 63, line 7, leave out 'ten' and insert 'five'.

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

Amendment No. 350, in

    clause 113, page 63, line 9, leave out 'ten' and insert 'five'.

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Mr. Moss: These are, obviously, probing amendments. The Government have set down in the Bill that a personal licence will initially be granted for a period of 10 years. We simply want them to explain that 10 years. The amendment suggests five years. Might not some individuals who have been granted licences get up to all sorts of activities that are unhelpful to their role during that 10 years, which is a long time? Perhaps a five-year period would provide an opportunity to reassess how individuals are conducting themselves with regard to the responsibilities under their personal licence. Why did the Government decide on 10 years?

[Mr. Mark Field in the Chair]

Dr. Howells: The system for grant and renewal of personal licences has been designed to benefit the industry by eliminating as much bureaucracy as possible, while providing safeguards, through the application of open and transparent but robust criteria. That should protect the public interest and drive up standards.

Reducing the period of validity of a personal licence from 10 to five years, which would be the effect of amendments Nos. 349 and 350, would upset the balance that we have struck and is unnecessary in view of the safeguards already provided in the Bill. The Bill currently requires a personal licence holder to notify the licensing authority of any change in name and address and of any relevant offences or foreign offences of which they have been convicted during the period of the licence's validity. Failure to do so will be an offence.

In addition, where a personal licence holder is charged with a relevant offence, they must notify the courts that they hold such a licence. Again, failure to do so will be an offence and the courts, on becoming aware of such information, have a duty to notify the licensing authority of any convictions of relevant offences by that personal licence holder.

Such obligations in the Bill provide the safeguards necessary to ensure that all information relevant to the licensing authority for the consideration of applications for the grant or renewal of a personal licence is before it and is up to date. In addition, a sentencing court may order the forfeiture or suspension of a personal licence whose holder is convicted of a relevant offence during its validity.

Reducing the period of validity would not only put an unnecessary burden on law-abiding personal licence holders but place considerable administrative burdens on licensing authorities. It is difficult to see what benefits a shorter period of validity would offer, particularly given the safeguards that I have mentioned.

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Mr. Moss: I am listening carefully to the Minister's argument, and I accept that to reduce the period would involve more bureaucracy and regulation. However, to turn his argument on its head, if he is saying that there are already plenty of safeguards in the system, why limit the licence period to 10 years? Why not have 20?

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Dr. Howells: That is a very good question. My only answer can be that it is a question of balance. A period of 20 years seems like a lifetime for some of us, compared with 10 years. There is a judgment to be made. There is no monopoly of wisdom on the point, and we have chosen 10 years, after speaking to the people involved, as a convenient period that would not be too much of a burden for the personal licence holders or for the authorities that will have to process the applications for renewal.

It is also a fact that an application for a renewal will involve only the question of whether the applicant has been convicted of an additional relevant offence or an equivalent foreign offence since the grant of the licence or its last renewal. As the new regime is intended to be self-financing, any additional cost in operating the system will be passed on to the industry in increased fees. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not really want to double the costs of the personal licence system for the industry at a stroke, which is what the amendments would achieve.

The 10-year period of validity has been agreed after extensive consultation with the various stakeholders. It is consistent with periods of validity for other important forms of identification such as passports and driving licences. Ten years provides the right balance of acceptable administrative demands and appropriate security. Altering the period would upset that balance. It has been suggested that a period of 20 years, as opposed to 10, would mean that many of us would have to have more photographs taken, as appearances tend to change dramatically over 20 years, if not over 10. Anyone who has taken as many Bills through Committee as I have will know that it is possible to age dramatically in a very short time.

11.15 am

Mr. Moss: Ministers usually receive important information while they are on their feet, but I am not sure about the relevance of photographs. Will the Minister enlighten the Committee?

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