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Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab): I start by feeling somewhat embarrassed because both my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport have been friends of mine for in excess of a quarter of a century. I hope that they will not take offence at some of the things that I have to say.
I fundamentally believe in representative government. Nobody gets into this place, nobody becomes a junior Minister, a Cabinet Minister or even a Prime Minister unless they purport to represent their constituents. In pursuit of trying to represent the interests of my constituents, for more than six or seven years I have been urging Ministers to take action to tackle the disorder, the nuisance and the loutish behaviour that is making life intolerable for people living in many parts of my constituency. It is not just the people living there whose lives are made intolerable but people who want to go to the theatre or a restaurant in the area where all that drinking is taking place. That applies to my constituency, Covent Garden, our part of the west end and Camden Town. I have been raising this
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issue for a number of years, but we have never had a jot of support from Tory or Liberal Democrat Front Benchers. I have been joined in my efforts by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) and, if I am truthful, the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), and his predecessor, Peter Brooke, who is now a Member of the House of Lords. We have pressed for the law to be toughened up to protect law-abiding people who are going about their business and, above all, to ensure that local residents can maintain the quiet enjoyment of their homes, to which everyone is entitled. My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North can claim the credit for some of the best parts of the Licensing Act 2003.
When my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) was a Minister of State at the Home Office, I took a delegation of local people to see him. When we came out of his office, they said that he really understood what they were talking about, and listened to their points about disorder. Partly as a result of that meeting, the law was changed so that licensed premises that are a source of disorder can be closed by the police for 24 hours without resort to magistrates or anyone else. That was greatly to my right hon. Friend's credit, and it was a big step forward.
About four years ago, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North, I met the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw). We made many more points, and I remember confessing that I had not pressed my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South enough. My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn agreed that 24-hour closures could be extended beyond premises causing disorder to premises causing serious nuisance. That provision has since become law. He agreed that councils should have a licensing plan so that if they received applications for a new premises they could say, "I'm sorry, this street has enough booze outlets already". That, too, is an important provision in the Licensing Act. He also agreed that all the costs of dealing with licensing, when transferred to local authorities, would have to be met in full from the fees charged to the licensing applicants. When he agreed to those three concessions, one or two officials, while not exactly grinding their teeth, were none too jolly about it. Nevertheless, it was the right thing to do.
When my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell) became Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, responsibility for the booze laws was transferred to her Department. I mentioned the three undertakings that we had been given, but she told me that her officials could not find any record of them. Fortunately, I had issued a press release, which was cleared by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn, and when I passed a copy to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, she accepted those undertakings, all three of which were included in the Licensing Act. There were further meetings with Ministers, and other issues were raised in debate. One of the problems was that change had become an article of faith for Ministers, and there was an unrelenting commitment to 24-hour opening which, it was believed, would end British binge drinkingeverybody would be knocking back the odd
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Campari in delicate circumstances à la Tuscany. I never believed that that would be the case, and we could have avoided many of the problems that have confronted the Government in the past few weeks and months if Ministers had listened more carefully to representations made by MPs on behalf of their constituents, to organisations such as Alcohol Concern, to academics who had studied the topic, and to the police. In fairness to Ministers, some of the police criticisms of the Government proposals came a bit late in the day. I exhorted the police to object when the Licensing Bill was going through Parliament, but they would not do so, so they only have themselves to blame.
I remain concerned about the extension of opening hours. To give a simple example, at one end of a street is the Dog and Duck, which still closes at 11 o'clock. In the middle of the street is a pub called the Pig and Whistle, which receives permission to close at 12 o'clock. A fancy wine bar at the other end of the street closes at 1 o'clock. Instead of being woken up and disturbed by people turning out at 11 o'clock from all three establishments, the residents are woken up at 11, 12 and 1 o'clock, with intermediate problems caused by shuffling and shouting as people move from the pub closing at 11 o'clock to the one closing at 12 o'clock and then to the wine bar closing at 1 o'clock.
"local people don't want 24 hour drinking or extended hours they won't have to have itfor the first time the Licensing Act puts control over licensing decisions in the hands of local people and their representatives."
I hope that means that councils can reject applications for longer opening hours if local people object to them. In my constituency, where my right hon. Friend lives, there will be objections to most applications, so I hope that the council will reject them. I hope that the Standards Board for England will not complain if local councillors start to lobby the licensing committee to look after the interests of local people.
We must remember that we are not dealing with the odd individual who runs the Rovers Return or the Queen Vic. We are usually dealing with large, well funded, nationwide chains and, in some cases, multinationals with lots of money that are likely to challenge court decisions, thus increasing councils' costs. We have been promised, however, that the fees charged will meet costs. I have made representations to Ministers, as have the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster and my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North. The fee levels have been revised and improved, but they will still leave Camden council with a £2 million deficit
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over the next three or four years, so it is clear that the fees will not meet costs, which is quite unacceptable. The Government should make a clear commitment so that if they have got it wrong, Camden council, Westminster city council and other councils that operate at a loss can recoup their losses. I choose my words carefully in saying that it would add injury to insult if people had to pay for the licensing system for all those sources of nuisance.
There is one last point that I shall make. Several times we made representations to Ministers, drawing attention to the fact that many licences contain conditions and also undertakings, which are not quite as powerful as the conditions. We pressed Ministers to require someone applying for a new licence to disclose to the new organisationthe councilthe undertakings, as well as the conditions, because many of those undertakings protected local people. Ministers rejected that. If there are to be the revisions in the law that have been proposed recently, I hope they include the requirement that applicants disclose to the council not just the conditions, but the undertakings that were introduced to protect people. That will be a step forward.
I hope that in future the Government will learn and that, instead of listening to ghastly organisations like the Portman Group, which is just a front for the booze industry, they will pay more attention to what elected Members of Parliament and local councillors are saying to protect their people.
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