Licensing Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Moss: I am still not convinced that there will not be problems for the industry where there is a dispute between the current licence holder—who may be a tenant or a manager—and the company involved. The Minister seems to be saying that the Bill should not interpose itself between the contractual obligations between them, but I can envisage situations arising in which consent will be withheld, to the detriment of the business. That is a bargaining chip that ought not to exist in the transitional period before the new licences are introduced.

I accept part of what the Minister says and our amendments might not solve the problem, but it is unreasonable in all instances to leave the consent in the hands solely of the current licence holder and for the balance to be tipped in their favour. I admit that on the appointed day, or in the transitional period leading up to it, there will be few disputes between managers and tenants and their employers or the companies involved. Companies will be out on a limb if consent is withheld by an individual who is in dispute with them or who, under the new licence arrangements, ought not to have a licence because of transgressions that they have committed.

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I will happily withdraw the amendments if they do not fit the bill, but we might look at this matter again on Report. At present, the benefit is totally tipped in the direction of the current licence holder and it lacks balance. However, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Field: I beg to move amendment No. 322, in

    schedule 8, page 160, line 21, at end insert—

    '( ) the purposes embodied in those undertakings of a permanent nature relating to the licensing objectives which have been offered by the licensee and which attach to the relevant existing licence,'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 323, in

    schedule 8, page 160, line 24, after 'the', insert 'permanent undertakings and'.

Mr. Field: Undertakings are an important matter. I understand that several interested parties have lobbied the Minister about it, and I have no doubt that we will return to it on Report. I hope that the Minister will take on board the concerns that have been expressed and deal with them when he replies to this brief debate.

Those concerns predominantly involve central London—my own City of Westminster. However, they also involve the London borough of Camden, and the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) has made detailed representations. I wish to take this opportunity to put on the record my thanks to Matthew Bennett and David Bieda for their briefings to me: they are hard-working local activists in the west end and they have expressed some of the grave concerns.

I will talk about the amendments together, and I will subsequently say a few words on staggered timing, which is one of the centrepieces of the law and order aspect of the Bill.

The undertakings offered by a licensee are generally a non-statutory set of conditions or agreements that are read in conjunction with the liquor licence and then attached to it. Under the current regime, non-compliance with those undertakings is a matter that the justices can take into account when determining whether to renew a licence.

Until now, undertakings have often been used to cover matters that have been subject to objection or complaint from neighbours or other interested parties. Under the future regime, we would like local representatives and councillors to be such interested parties in their own right, rather than as part and parcel of the local licensing authority. Undertakings have been widely used by many licensing justices' committees to resolve problems about licensed premises, rather than simply to revoke the licence. It provides a flexible touch.

One of our concerns is the notion that undertakings will be done away with and that the Government will end that more flexible regime. Often, undertakings have been attached at the request of the police or other law and order authorities. The Bill, if unamended, could sweep away all the undertakings, including those put into place at the request of the police as an

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alternative to revocation. Clearly, revocation is an important step; however, the current regime allows for strict undertakings and if they are done away with, some of the more unsavoury operators, who have been able to get away with quite a lot in the past, will be seen to get away scot free.

11.15 am

Many licences, particularly in central London, have detailed undertakings. They may deal with double-glazing, numbers of customers or staff, the fitting of noise limiters, the need for doormen to encourage customers outside premises to disperse quickly and quietly, the restriction of music-playing hours, or the request that there be no off-sales—there is a whole range of conditions. A premises may have some 20 or so undertakings. There may have been an accretion of undertakings over time, because of particular circumstances, the concerns of residents or the fact that an area has subtly changed. There is no doubt that all the areas in central London that I have referred to, and particularly Soho and Covent Garden, have changed immensely in recent decades.

Undertakings are almost a patchwork or network of protection, not only for residents but for the better operators, who deserve to be able to ensure that the tenor of the area is not undermined. The great worry is that if the Government simply sneak the regime of undertakings away, the lowest common denominator will, as ever, be played to.

In another place, Baroness Blackstone said:

    ''these undertakings do not have any legal force. They may be considered now by licensing authorities when licences are being renewed. If the undertakings have been broken, that could lead to renewals being refused. But they cannot of themselves lead to a criminal prosecution as would be the case with licence conditions.

    Therefore, should it be mandatory for applicants for licence conversions to provide information on these non-legal obligations? There is one key reason why I do not believe that it should. Under the Bill, interested parties and responsible authorities can request the review of any premises licence on a ground relating to the licensing objectives. This gives ample opportunity for residents, for instance, to seek recourse if any premises give rise to problems of crime and disorder or public nuisance.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 4 March 2003; Vol. 645, c. 780.]

What sort of message does it send if a premises operator who has run premises in such a way that the licensing justices required many undertakings of them does not even have to provide information about those undertakings to the new licensing authority to get a transitional licence? Is that a satisfactory position in which to put residents and neighbours?

We fear that the new Bill will sweep away all the protection offered by undertakings, which may well be the result of months, if not years, of nuisance, distress and bureaucratic wrangling. That would be very much to be regretted. I am not entirely sure how the regime works outside central London, but from my experience in central London, it is clear that a patchwork or network of undertakings has provided a sort of protection.

Perhaps the Government do not want to be seen as being anti-liquor trade. I do not think that they would have anything to fear on that score if they accepted my

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amendment; it simply ensures that the conditions in the new licence embody the purposes of the undertakings. Those are the conditions under which licence holders have willingly decided to operate their licence at present. Let us face it, undertakings are not simply bureaucratic nonsense that can easily be swept away and dismissed as red tape; they have been given only because there have been, or might be, problems in the area.

I appreciate that there has been a lot of lobbying from other Members of Parliament outside this Committee, and I understand that the Minister may well come back to the matter on Report.

Briefly, on staggered closing hours, there has been some misapprehension about them by the Government in these debates. We shall return to the matter on Report, but I should like some guidance from the Minister as to what he understands the notion of staggered closing to mean. Ministers seem to have given two quite distinct meanings at various times. Either it should mean dispensing with all controls over opening hours or it should mean that effectively there will be a larger number of people on the streets, but over a longer period of time—there would not be a witching hour at 11 o'clock , 12 o'clock or even at later times within a number of bars in central London, to which I have already referred.

We have grave concerns about central London and precisely how the system will operate. Undertakings have been an integral part of ensuring that there is a balance that all of us wish to maintain between the residential population and the interests of business—particularly the interests of long-standing local businesses, which have not only been the life-blood of many of our inner cities but have provided the commitment to ensure that the tenor of many of our inner cities is maintained. A vibrant resident population is the prerequisite to ensure that our inner cities can be lived in and that the objectives of law and order, of which the Government rightly make much play, can be maintained.

Dr. Howells: The hon. Gentleman gave us come compelling arguments for continuing with the kinds of undertakings that he has described. I acknowledge that a number of right hon. and hon. Members have expressed views about the continuing beneficial effect of undertakings and what the Bill will do to them. The words of my noble Friend Baroness Blackstone in another place are the words that he shall more or less hear from me, because of the difference between undertakings and the statutory obligations that we seek to impose.

Amendments Nos. 322 and 323 would require that a premises licence must be granted under the conversion provisions in schedule 8, subject to such conditions as reproduced the effect of the undertakings subject to which the existing licence or licences—for example, a justices' licence—had been granted or renewed. The Bill addresses comprehensively the attaching of existing conditions to a new premises licence under the conversion arrangements.

Undertakings are a very different matter and it is important that the Committee should understand

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what they are. I chose the example of a justices' licence because that is the area of licensing where undertakings are often mentioned at present. Undertakings that are sometimes sought by licensing justices do not have any legal force unless they themselves form conditions on the face of existing licences. I think that the hon. Gentleman repeated the words of my noble Friend in another place to reinforce the assertion. They may be considered by licensing authorities when licences are being renewed. If the undertakings have been broken, that could lead to the renewal of licences being refused. However they cannot themselves lead to a criminal prosecution, as would be the case with licence conditions, and they cannot be enforced. In essence, they are entirely voluntary undertakings and they do not, as such, attach to a licence. They amount to no more than a personal promise by the applicant for a licence or its renewal under current legislation.

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