Licensing Bill [Lords]

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Dr. Howells: The amendment relates to ameliorating the obligations of the licensing authority by extending the time before persons may apply for the grant of a premises licence under the transitional arrangements. The Government have a duty not only to the licensing authorities, residents and the industry—the three groups that have been the subject of the most detailed debate in the Committee—but to the vast majority of ordinary people in the country, who wish to be treated as adults and are looking forward to the reforms.

Most people think change is long overdue, and they would not thank us for the further procrastination that would result if the amendment were accepted. It would mean that the transitional period could not begin until nine months after clause 5, which relates to the general duties of the licensing authorities, had come into effect. Incidentally, I think that the amendment cites clause 5 in error and that the reference should be to clause 6, which relates to the statement of licensing policy; however, we can argue about that another time. It is clear that the licensing authority will have had to develop its licensing policy before it can determine applications, and also determine the assiduity with which some local authorities pursue their obligations to consult.

10.30 am

Clause 6(7) allows provision about the determination of the policy and the preparation of statements to be made in regulations. However, there is no reason why it should take anyone nine months.

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Nor is there any reason why responsible licensing authorities cannot start as soon as the guidance has been issued. We expect licensing authorities at least to have prepared draft statements of licensing policy well before the beginning of the transitional period. I hope, therefore, that the Committee will understand why the Government must resist the amendment.

We have discussed timing matters with a standing group of stakeholders, including representatives of the local authorities and of the industry and I am grateful for the additional information that the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) has provided in that respect. Both sides in the debate have been obliged to compromise, but the view of that group is that a period of six months would be sufficient for a licensing authority to prepare a draft statement of licensing policy, complete the consultation required by the Bill, analyse the results of the consultation and publish the statement. We expect the first appointed day to be immediately afterwards.

Local authorities already handle the processing of large volumes of applications across a range of areas. Some of the licensing functions will be new to licensing authorities, but they already process about 9,000 permanent and 37,000 temporary public entertainment licences under the current licensing regime. They are used to the work and the Government believe that in the vast majority of cases they should be able to cope. In addition, applications for the conversion of existing licences to premises licences are expected to be largely administrative and capable of being dealt with by officers of the authority rather than the licensing committee or sub-committee. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman.

The local authorities have been vocal in their calls for the transfer of licensing functions to them. In return for those additional powers, it should not be forgotten that many people throughout the country are looking forward to the increased diversity of entertainment provision, the broader demographic profile of the late-night economy and the reduction in binge drinking and antisocial behaviour that its provisions will introduce. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear those people in mind, accept my assurances and ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Moss: Yet again, the Minister seeks to strike a balance between the wishes and desires of those who want a liberalised licensing regime, some of which we share, and the new requirements and burdens that will descend on the local authorities as licensing authorities. In certain circumstances, the transition period envisaged by the Government and set out by the Minister may not be sufficient. We tabled our probing amendments simply to ascertain whether the Government were truly satisfied that they had got the timing right and that there would be no problems in implementing the transition period. The Minister gave us an assurance that he had got the timing right, and time will tell. Some authorities and chief executives have told us that the time scale is too short and will give rise to problems, and the last thing any of us wants is to put on the statute book legislation that cannot be implemented according to the time scale that we have agreed. However, given that the Minister

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has put on record his belief that the time scale is adequate and deliverable, we shall leave it at that. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Moss: I beg to move amendment No. 297, in

    schedule 8, page 156, line 44, leave out sub-sub-paragraph (a).

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

Amendment No. 298, in

    schedule 8, page 156, line 45, after second 'to', insert 'existing'.

Mr. Moss: The amendments deal with what one might call grandfather rights for two in a bar and we have approached the issue from two angles. Amendment No. 297 would delete paragraph 1(2)(a), which refers to performers and to section 182 of the 1964 Act, which deals with the

    ''relaxation of law relating to music and dancing licences''.

Amendment No. 298 would interpose the word ''existing'' in sub-paragraph (2)(a), which would then refer to section 182 as being ''disregarded so far as it relates to existing public entertainment by way of music and singing provided by not more than two performers''.

Unless the Government have a massive change of heart, or agree to some of the amendments and new clauses that we may table on Report, the generally accepted view will remain that the Bill requires live musical entertainment to be provided in line with licensing objectives and irrespective of the number of musicians involved. However—we have been over these arguments many times—if such entertainment takes place regularly and without problems, there is no reason why it should not continue under the principle of keeping current permissions. In other words, we should give premises—and, indirectly, the performers involved—grandfather rights if they have two-in-a-bar provision at present and there are no problems. The Government should give some thought to allowing such premises to continue in the same way. Anything new would have to come under the new licensing regime.

The amendments would certainly take some of the heat out of the situation with the Musicians Union, and if the Minister is looking for a way out, they might provide him with one.

Dr. Howells: Indeed, the parts of the Bill to which the amendments refer have generated huge controversy. Many very colourful stories have been peddled about the Bill. Some have caused great upset and many performers have come close to undermining the Bill's positive effects on the provision of entertainment.

The tale that takes the top prize, however, is the one about the two-in-a-bar rule. I am glad that we have had an almost nationwide debate on the issue, at least among music aficionados because, to paraphrase Michael Caine, not a lot of people knew about it. Yet, it was there, and it determined much of the shape of live music in this country. I will try to explain the case for doing away with it and removing that distortion in live music in England and Wales. It

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might be helpful if I also set out what the two-in-a-bar rule is, what we are putting in its place and why that will result in a vast increase in the opportunities for artists of all types—not just one or two musicians—to perform.

The two-in-a-bar rule is an exemption in the Licensing Act 1964 that allows two performers—two all night, not two and then another two and then another two—to perform live music in licensed premises such as pubs without needing a public entertainment licence. That is the current system.

It is easy to see why the rule is popular with some musicians and publicans. There are inconsistencies in the ways that local authorities set fees for public entertainment licences. We have heard that there are a variety of reasons—some more credible than others—why in some areas, particularly in London, those fees can rise as high as many thousands of pounds. They are the reasons why many pubs are put off from applying for an entertainment licence: their fall-back position is to rely on the two-in-a-bar rule.

The Bill will abolish that rule for a number of sound reasons, none of which are to do with a wish to restrict opportunities for performers to perform—indeed, the opposite is the case. The effect of the rule is restrictive: it drastically restricts the forms of entertainment that may be carried out in licensed premises where a justices' licence is in force—only entertainment consisting of one or two performers of live music is exempt. I hope that Committee members can immediately see that the perverse effect of the rule is that many types of music and other forms of entertainment are discouraged. Furthermore, that means that the range of cultural experience available to the general public is severely narrowed—what about two guitars, a drum and bass, or a chamber quartet? Under the present rules, the licensee must have an entertainment licence and that can be very expensive.

Mr. Moss: I have been closely following the Minister's argument and it seems to me that he is saying that the Bill will open up opportunities for musicians and the music industry rather than discourage them. ''Discourage'' is the word that he used, but why will they be discouraged if the two-in-a-bar rule is retained under grandfather rights? It is a concession that has worked well. Why would others—three in a bar—be discouraged if that is not in the Bill? They would be discouraged because they would have to apply for a licence, with all the associated costs.

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