Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for this invaluable opportunity. During my 13 years in the House I cannot remember having an Adjournment debate that has attracted more interest in the outside world. That is a measure of the concern that is now felt throughout the land about the Licensing Act 2003.
"In my view, we are in danger of having a wholly disproportionate attitude to the risks we should expect to run as a normal part of life. This is putting pressure on policymaking, not just in government but in regulatory bodies, on local government, public services, in Europe and across parts of the private sectorto act to eliminate risk in a way that is out of all proportion to the potential damage. The result is a plethora of rules, guidelines and responses to 'scandals' of one nature or another that ends up having utterly perverse consequences."
Those are not my words; they are those of the Prime Minister during one of his first major speeches since the general election, at the Institute for Public Policy Research on 26 May. What a relief it was to discover that he is indeed thinking what I have been thinking for a long time. Understandable concern about antisocial behaviour that is fuelled by alcohol in our towns and cities is having "perverse consequences" for local communities. The Prime Minister gave the example of a village in the Cotswolds that had to remove a seesaw with an unblemished safety record because it fell foul of an EU directive on playground equipment for outside use.
The Licensing Act means that villages in every corner of the country, not just in the Cotswolds, will say goodbye to the traditional touring circus, see more village shops go to the wall, watch local sports clubs forgoing much-needed income and lose their village halls, despite no accidents, no antisocial behaviour and nothing worrying having occurred in, outside or even remotely close to them.
More pertinently, during my eight years as Member of Parliament for Worthing there has been no complaint to me about drinking in the golf club, in church halls and so on, and I suspect that the same applies elsewhere. The problem arises with young people in licensed premises on high streets, where the regulation does not have a major impact. I am worried about small businesses on which it does have an impact.
I do not argue against the idea of simplifying and rationalising the licensing laws by bringing together the provisions on entertainment and alcohol. I expect that the new provision will make the lives of many larger commercial organisations simpler and make it easier for enforcement authorities to deal with antisocial behaviour, which is often caused by alcohol, especially in major urban areas. However, there has never been a riot at a circus, and circuses do not offer alcohol to their audiences. Village shops do not offer their customers entertainment other than local gossip and have never been the cause of a drunken rampage. Local sports clubs, which often rely on their bars to provide income to support their activities, have never provoked major disorder. The village halls I know that provide venues for both alcohol and entertainment for local people have never caused scenes of carnage or outrage.
To control some imaginary terror, the Act will impose rigid and unworkable bureaucracy on circuses, increased costs on village shops and sports clubs, and unbearable responsibility on the volunteers who care for village halls. On top of that, local authorities are struggling to keep up with the burdens placed on them by the Act and by the way in which the Department has handled its implementation.
Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): On village halls, does my hon. Friend agree with the correspondents who have written to me from the management committees of Dickleburgh and Morley St. Botolph village halls in my constituency that the Act is confusing and likely to put some halls out of action? Does not it suggest a lack of understanding by the Government of the problems facing rural areas?
Peter Luff : There is consensus among those of us who are worried about the Act, and my hon. Friend summarised some of the points that I want to make towards the end of my speech about the impact of the Act, particularly on village halls. I entirely agree with what he said.
It would have been good to have had a reply to my letter of 10 March to the Minister who was then responsible for the Act. I raised serious concerns on behalf of Wychavon district council about the publication of application forms, regulations and fees and about communication between the Department and local authorities. In the light of the deadline of Saturday 6 August there should be serious concern about the low rate of response for applications to convert existing licences. It seems that there will be a late rush and woe betide anyone who submits their application too late for it to be checked.
Errors mean rejection and the burden and cost of a brand new application, copied with all supporting documentation to seven other regulatory bodies and advertised expensively in local papers. Local authorities that have received a significant number of applications are having to reject many of them because of inaccuracies. That is fine now because there is time to
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put the matter right, but it will be a problem if an application is made too close to the deadline of 6 August. The Department has not done enough to publicise that important date and, as a result, even commercial organisations, never mind the volunteers who run village halls, are cutting it fine.
My first main point concerns circuses. I had a full debate on the subject in this Chamber on 27 April last year. I shall not rehearse all that I said then, but for the benefit of the new Minister I repeat that circuses, which already bear a heavy burden of legislative inspection to protect public safety, are perfectly happy to adapt to a new licensing regime. However, the cost and bureaucratic rigidity of the proposal may make touring with a circus virtually impossible. Local communities, often small villages, for which the only live performing art that ever comes near them is the circus, will lose out and a great British invention will be put in jeopardy.
The root of the problem is that the Government told circuses that they would be exempted from the legislation but broke their word and took no account of the needs of circuses. Fairgrounds were exempted; I have struggled for months to understand the logic in that but cannot begin to do so.
I have had two meetings with representatives of the circus industry and the previous Minister. I was encouraged by what I thought was the growing understanding in the Department, but nothing has happened to address the concerns expressed and, as implementation of the Act draws closer, the situation is getting much worse.
The Minister advocated that local authorities should license land on which circuses could then perform without an additional licence. Leaving aside the fact that many circuses rely on private, not public, land for their sites, that idea seemed worth exploring, but local authorities have taken a different view of the Act. Following a decision by West Berkshire council, all applications by circuses to other councils have been refused. A precedent has been set which other licensing officers, who are lost in a vacuum until new procedures are set, have been only too ready to follow. On Thursday 28 April, the licensing sub-committee of West Berkshire council dealt a potentially fatal blow to the Government's cunning attempt to find a way out of the mess that they had created.
"Two objections to licences for a circusfrom the parish council and the fire brigadewere satisfactorily dealt with but the licences were still refused because a plan of the premises was not submitted as required by section 17(3) of the Act and the application did not comply with regulation 23 of the Act (which deals with the nature of plan required)."
"Our intention is to hold Premises Licences for circus venues without specifying a detailed plan of the circus . . . in the application. In this way, the licence can exist unchanged for the future. Safety authorities have been satisfied with our voluntary condition to supply a detailed plan 28 days in advance of each circus visit.
The West Berkshire sub-committee considers the Act is prescriptive in requiring a detailed plan with the application. As well as the circus tent, the plan must include locations of exits, details of fire safety equipment, furniture, items in fixed locations
A licence granted would therefore only be valid as long as nothing in the plan was changed. The layout of any circus is likely to change annually for example when equipment is updated, when a new act installs a major prop, and when new legislation requires it.
The new applications we have so far made have cost an average of £500 each. For a circus visiting 40 venues each season, this is a considerable outlay. While it will be possible to retain the licence and apply for a licence variation to accommodate the changes, the procedure for obtaining a variation is almost as involved as a new application."
"If a detailed plan is required, it will not be possible for a local authority to hold a licence. This does not only apply to circuses: every separate event in a local park or any other area will need its own licence for each individual event. Thus the DCMS objective for Local Authorities to license their own land cannot be achieved in the light of this judgement."
I believe that a legal challenge is planned, but I could not obtain up-to-date information and it may even have happened. What a mess the Government have got us into; it is even worse than we predicted. I wrote to the Minister last week asking for a meeting to discuss the specific issue and I hope that he will agree to meet a small delegation from the circus world before we rise for the summer recess. After all, the problem now goes beyond circuses to all activities that take place on local authority land.
In that context it is worth mentioning just how worried are the organisers of local festivals such as the Bromyard gala. The complexity of the rules and how to avoid punitive licence fees of many thousands of pounds for these events are matters that tax the ingenuity of very professional organisers. I think that I am right in saying that if a band plays at the gala from the bandstand but there are no chairs in front of it, that is fine, but if chairs are put there and people listen, it becomes a licensable event. The location of the bandstand in relation to the beer tent is a matter of great importance in determining what licence is required and how much it costs. What a farce.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): As well as the impact of the Licensing Act, is my hon. Friend aware of the impact of the Private Security Industry Act 2001? These Acts create a double whammy for the Coleford music festival in my constituencya volunteer-run festivalputting a huge burden of cost on it. The future of the event is in jeopardy.
Peter Luff : We see the common theme that is beginning to emerge in the debate: the cost on volunteers' shoulders above all elseI accept that circuses are professional organisations. There is already a very heavy burden on volunteers in the organisation of such events; this additional responsibility for many of them is either financially or organisationally intolerable.
Small village shops are finding life pretty difficult as it is with death by a thousand regulations and Government policy changes, plus unfair competition from the big supermarkets. Benefit changes have hit post offices and many have had to comply with
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demanding disability legislation. The general burden of regulation and stealth taxesminimum wages, new rules on part-time employment, even the climate change levyhas steadily increased. The next threat is the brilliant scheme of the Office of Fair Trading to allow supermarkets to buy newspapers and magazines direct from the publishers, which could destroy the viability of the local newspaper delivery network in rural England.
It is against that background that the impact of the Licensing Act must be judged; it puts another nail in the village shop's coffin by making it much more expensive to obtain licences to sell alcohol. For example, in order to sell alcohol, the modest Bishampton village store in my constituency now faces an initial bill of £120 and an annual bill of £40 based on its rateable value of £4,200, where it previously had a £30 bill for 3 years: £10 a year. The alcohol sales there generate little, if any, profit; it is more of a service to help villagers and maintain that precious commodity, footfall, for the other things that the shop offers. Now it risks becoming an unaffordable loss leader.
Meanwhile, down the road in Evesham, Tesco, which has a rateable value of £1.2 million, faces an initial bill of only £725 and an annual fee of £225. It has a rateable value some 250 times that of Bishampton's small village shop, but a fee a little more than five times that of the shop. Where is the justice in that? Whatever happened to the Government doctrine of rural-proofing policy?
It is not just village shops that are worried. Westminster city council has told me of its concern for hundreds of smaller, independent traders, and in particular ethnic businesses, shops and restaurants that are still struggling with the process in London.
There was no rural proofing for village halls either, which brings me to the major theme of my speech. They are perhaps most at risk from this Act. The same village hall that has often benefited from large lottery grants in recognition of the benefits that it brings to the community it serves has had its death knell sounded by the Department that oversees the lottery: the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. We must remember how important the village hall is in rural life. Many hon. Members have raised the matter with me in advance of the debate, and I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) for what he said about village halls in his constituency. There is a strong consensus among Members who have village halls in their constituencies about the problems that the Act will cause.
One village hall in my constituency has held about 80 events in the last year of which the new laws would require a licence. Those included dances, dinners, plays by the local drama group and groups sponsored by the county council, garden produce shows, church fêtes, social barbecues, private parties, wedding receptions and charity events raising money for the air ambulance and hospices. Our village hall hosts events for the Mid-Worcestershire Conservative Association, too.
"The volunteers who help run village halls are unlikely to want to shoulder the burden of responsibility for supervising the premises for the sale of alcohol. The costs in licence fees and training will be extortionate. The limit of 15 days for temporary event notices will squeeze the life out of many rural communities."
He wrote that after attending a meeting 10 days ago in Bishampton hall attended by representatives of a total of 12 village halls from around my constituency. They heard an authoritative explanation of the new law from officers of Wychavon district council, butand this is no fault of those excellent officersthe audience were more concerned and confused afterwards than they had been before.
Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): I would like to take the opportunity to explain to the Minister that my constituency has 32 villages, many of which have village halls, and all those halls are having these difficulties. That is in one constituency in Surrey alone; multiply that figure and we can see the size of the problem.
Peter Luff : It is fair to say that of the representatives of the 12 village halls in the room for that meeting, one left after five or 10 minutes because their hall was so small that it was not affected by the Act, but theirs was a particularly small hall. The other 11 were all terrified by what faced them, and I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.
The old system worked well. It was easy to apply for a community premises licence costing only £27, and for a series of occasional licences costing only £10 and valid for up to 12 events. It ain't broke, so why are we fixing it? The more we delved into the process, the more problems we discovered. To start with, apparently, and bizarrelythe Minister may put me right on thisthe safety requirements of the new licences are less onerous than those of the old ones because electrical and fire safety certificates no longer have to be produced.
When it comes to licences for alcohol, it is only the sale of alcohol that is controlled. A wedding reception where the booze is free does not need a licence, but one with a cash bar does. In theory, I know which of those is more likely to lead to public disorder: the one where price is not rationing consumption.
The essence of the problem is threefold. First, the cost of the new licensing regime is much higher. An application fee for a typical hall is around £190it could be much higher for a bigger hallplus about £60 to add alcohol to the licence, which is waived if the application is received and approved before 6 August. Moreover, for a typical hallagain, it could be much largerthere is an annual fee of around £180. If one wants a variation at a later date, there is the huge cost of advertising and sending all the relevant documentation to seven different public bodies. That advertising has to be expensive advertising in local papers covering a wide area, not affordable, or perhaps even free, advertising in the local parish newsletter or magazine that covers the area the hall actually serves.
Secondly, there is the bureaucratic nightmare. The forms are complicated and the conditions difficult to understand. For the volunteers who run village halls
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that alone is bad enough. In fact, one person at the meeting admitted that she had just thrown the forms away because she could not understand them. She took another set as the meeting ended.
Thirdly, and perhaps most worryingly of all, there is the huge burden of responsibility that must be borne by one person, the designated premises supervisor, if the hall decides to put alcohol on its licence. That one, named person, who must be trained at a cost of at least £100, probably more, and then pay his or her own licence fee too, will bear responsibility for ensuring that the terms of the licence are complied with and will face criminal sanctions if they are not.
With many halls having 30 or 40 licensable events a year, and the busier halls having up to 80, that is an intolerable burden. It is difficult enough to find volunteers to run village halls as it is without that burden; this is now a job that no one in their right mind would volunteer for. What a way to celebrate the year of the volunteer.
Another possibility is to hand over the running of the bar to the local publican, who will supply trained staff and take a good cut of any profitshardly an attractive option, given the tight budgets with which village hall committees, and all the other people and voluntary groups who use the halls, have to work. Another alternative is to restrict the number of events to 12 over a maximum of 15 days by using temporary event notices. However, that will sharply reduce the rental income of many halls below the level of viability. As Crowle village hall told me:
"The limitation of twelve TENs per calendar year is the key problem in our particular case. We hold some 26 events per annum involving the sale of alcohol. The letting income from these events is a significant part of our total income. We cannot afford to discard this source of income so we must accept the additional cost of the Act and raise our letting rates to cover the increase."
Temporary event notices are needed to modify any term of a new licence, not just to sell alcohol. If, for some reason, one wants a later night for the village pantomime than the standard licence allows, that is one of the 12 TENs gone. If the application goes beyond midnight, that takes two TEN days out of the total allowance of 15, not one, because anything after midnight is counted as a new day.
If someone were to decide not to put alcohol on the new premises licence because they expected to rely on 12 TENs for the events that they organised, what would happen if someone who hired the hall took the TEN for his event? The premises will have lost one of those nights, which will put the holder of the licence in real trouble.
"The law is now so expensive, time consuming and complex that really it is not worth the effort for many small organisations to bother to try and fund raise. There will be no profit at the end of the day. The income for both organisation and Hall will suffer . . . If the local publican becomes the licensed premises controller, many of the village functions will be too small to warrant carrying alcohol and employing staff. He will refuse to support the event. The function will then be either illegal or will not happen . . . Many small functions which attract only a few people, to get a TEN, will have administrative costs of nearly £2.00 per heada lot out of a £4.00 ticket."
It is not just village halls, by the way; I am told that even farmers markets are at risk for similar reasons. It seems that if wine is soldI am sure that we all want to encourage English winesthose markets will need a full licence, and all the burden of cost, bureaucracy and responsibility that applies to village halls will apply to them too. That reminds me: it is not even clear how the new Act affects the traditional bottle stall at a village fête, another great English tradition that is apparently under threat from unthinking regulation.
There are similar problems for sports clubs. They have faced a raft of expensive legislation, much of which is justified, such as that dealing with child welfare, health and safety, and new electrical requirementsthe list goes on. Now they are faced with the Licensing Act. Richard Wood, the chairman of Ombersley cricket club in my constituency, tells me that the club has 120 juniors who play cricket and 80 who play football, with a further 100 senior members for cricket and bowls, and 300-plus social members and parents. The bar is a major source of income for the club and largely funds all the junior activities. In fact, it represents more than half of the total income of the club.
Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware of the effect on other sporting bodies? Newbury and Crookham golf club in my constituency has estimated that it will cost up to £1,000 to process the licence. That will have a devastating effect on its income.
Peter Luff : I am hugely encouraged, and I am glad that I gave way to my hon. Friend because the figure that he gave is exactly the figure that Ombersley cricket club quoted to me. It says that the licence is so central to its functions that it will have to use professional advice to shape its application. It cannot afford to get it wrong. It reckons that, taking the professional advice and fees together, the cost will be £1,000. To be fair, Richard Wood tells me:
"The bottom line is that the club can afford to pay this money, but it's money that won't then be available for equipment and machinery to support the junior boys and girls playing football and cricket."
What is to be done? Of course, few local communities will suffer each of these hammer blows, but every child who loses the opportunity to see traditional live entertainment at a circus will have missed out on something valuable. Every village shop that is forced to put up the shutters for the last time takes something precious from the community that it served. Every sports club that restricts its activities with young people will cause deep sadness among those who understand the value of encouraging sporting activity, and every village hall that curtails its activities, or even closes, strikes a real blow to the sense of community that makes England's villages what they still are.
"There is usually a seductive logic to any new regulation. There is almost always a case that can be made for each specific instrument. The problem is cumulative. All these good intentions can add up to a large expense, with suffocating effects. Sometimes,
Again, those are the words of the Prime Minister in the excellent speech that I began by mentioning. There are solutions, such as new exemptions for circuses, small shops, community-based activities and the charitable trusts that often run village halls. That may take primary legislation, but there is now a hole in the Government's programme because we do not have to ratify the European constitution, so there is time for an emergency Bill. I urge the Minister to pause for a moment and think, to quote the Prime Minister,
He must delay the so-called second appointed date, when the legislation goes livecurrently expected to be in Novemberand conduct an urgent review of an Act that deserves to be put out of its misery.
David Taylor (in the Chair): There are five Members who wish to speak. Members should bear it in mind that I intend to call Members to make winding-up speeches at half-past 10, and restrict their comments appropriately.
Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) on securing the debate and on the typical passion and vigour with which he introduced his case. In the few minutes for which I seek the Chamber's attention, I intend to complement what he said by concentrating on pubs and the licensed trade.
I will begin by praising the role of council licensing officers, whom the hon. Gentleman referred to. When I worked in local government some years ago, licensing was relegated to a fairly minor function. I remember that, at Leeds city council, where I worked, it was adjacent to the cemetery section. However, in recent months and years, that has changed. In Selby and York, which are the two councils that I represent, there are two outstanding licensing officers: John Lacy in York and a gentleman by the name of Tim Grogan in Selby, which has caused slight confusion. I know which individual the pubs are most concerned with at the moment and it is not their local MP; it is their licensing officer. Both licensing officers are doing a splendid job. They go around Selby and York, without employing any great bureaucracy, and encourage licence applications to be made.
It is interesting to look at some of the figures in Selby and York. In Selby, of the 400 licensed premises that will need licences, 10 per cent. have passed through the entire system and 75 per cent. of those30 of themhave applied for variations on their licences. On the whole, that has been for the odd extra hour, often at weekends. Ten premises have just converted their licences. There has been no need for any hearings in Selby at this stage. Everything has been done through delegated powers. There is a confidence there that the licence applications will be made and that the deadlines will be met.
In York, rather more than one in seven107of the 725 premises have gone through the system. Forty applied for variations and 67 for direct conversions.
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There have been three hearings so far in York. There are one or two cause célèbres, one of which is in my constituency. It will no doubt go to a hearing of the licensing board soon. According to evidence from the parish council, the Charles XII pub, which is in the student area of Heslington, has not been particularly good in its relations with the residents down the years. It has not necessarily adhered to its public entertainment licences and has had people still revelling in the garden after midnight, which is against council regulations.
Given such cases, hon. Members and Ministers can expect that, as with a controversial planning application, there will be local controversy and various factors will need to be weighed at a licensing board. However, from the evidence that I have seen in my local area, it is a misleading characterisation to say that no applications are being made or that licensing boards will not be able to cope with the number of hearings that they will have to hold. Across the swathe of middle England that I represent, people are quietly getting on with implementing the Act. In many cases, there are no objections whatever to variations in hours. As both licensing officers remind me, the councils in Selby and York, like all councils, have strong powers to bear down on pubs that abuse the extra hours that they are granted, and no doubt they will use them. I am encouraged by that.
I am the chair of the all-party beer group. It is a tough job, but someone has to do it and I hope to be re-elected. Incidentally, I hope that we can maintain our status as the largest all-party group. The annual dinner is coming up in July and prior to that we intend to do a survey of local authorities, on an all-party basis, to look at how many applications they are getting and what problems they are encountering.
In terms of both councils and pub companies, there will be little sympathycertainly in the case of the pub companiesif applications do not go in on time. The pub companies have big resources and they need to get themselves organised, as most of them are, to get their applications in on time. Equally, there will be little sympathy with councils that are over-bureaucratic in their approach to licensing. If they are turning down applications because of minor errors on forms, rather than just making a quick phone call and getting the necessary amendment, people will not sympathise when well known and well run pubs are closed down for a period. There is an onus on both councils and pub companies to make this work, and on the whole they are doing so.
I welcome the Minister to his post. It is good that the licensing function has stayed within the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. As a Back Bencher, I can say that the implementation of the Act has not been without problems. There have been creative tensions between the Home Office and the DCMS and that has led to some of the delays. However, I, for one, am pleased that the function is staying at the DCMS. The Home Office sometimes views the licensed trade purely in terms of antisocial behaviour; the function is in the right place.
There is an onus on both the Department and councils to publicise what is going on. The pub companies and big chains will be all right, but there are also smaller, independent pubs, sports clubs, which have been mentioned, and late-night refreshment houses outside London, which will have to apply for licences for
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the first time. There needs to be an awful lot of publicity and effort over the next few months to generate those licence applications.
There is a related agenda of antisocial behaviour and the various measures that the Home Office is introducing in conjunction with the Act. Some of the measures are welcome, such as fixed penalty notices for trying to buy alcohol under age or for selling alcohol to people under age, and powers for the police to close down pubs that persistently serve people who are under age. However, I urge Ministers to be careful with the concept of alcohol disorder zones, which was in our little red bookthe manifesto. The implementation of that concept requires great care.
An alcohol disorder zone represents a breakdown in the partnership between the police, the licensed trade and councils in an area. With a levy on licensed premises in an area where there are alcohol disorder problems, the zone could be characterised as a business improvement district in reverse. Is it fair that all licensed premises in a particular area, even those with no record of trouble, have to make a payment? Who decides when an alcohol disorder zone is lifted or imposed? Should the decision be made by the bodies that benefit from the extra revenue? One or two of my colleagues have told me that their town wants to be the first to have an alcohol disorder zone. I again urge caution. The zone would not be a badge of pride, as it could attract the wrong sort of people and destroy a town's reputation for its hospitality industry. The measure should be one of last resort; we should not pepper the country with such zones and impose burdens on well run businesses.
There is a quiet revolution taking place throughout middle England. People are applying for extra hours, and on the whole they are getting them and no one is objecting. That is good, because of all the nations of Europe, surely it cannot be just the English and the Welsh who cannot be trusted to have a quiet drink after 11 o'clock at night. The day when people can drink after 11 o'clock will comehopefullyin November. The date should not be put back. The pub trade is certainly not asking for either the date in August or the date in November to be put back. Indeed, if it were, it would be a very quiet Christmas and new year in terms of pub opening hours, because the previous provisions would no longer apply. It is essential that those provisions of the Act are introduced on time, and there is every reason to have confidence in their being implemented with good consequences. There will be the odd difficulty and the odd local hearing that causes controversy, but that is as it should be. It puts power in the hands of local people, which is where it should be.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), but I must say to him that it will be a quiet Christmas and new year in many village halls throughout rural England and Wales if we are not careful. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) on securing the debate and on his comments. He covered the ground extremely well. I shall reiterate two areas that he discussed, and I shall mention one other.
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I am no great fan of the Act. When it was introduced I spent quite a lot of time campaigning against it, to the extent that a sort of west country fatwa was declared by the Wurzels, no less, on the then Minister in the Department, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), when he made disparaging comments about folk singers in Somerset. At that time we were concentrating largely on the risks to live music.
I want to discuss the effect of the Act on communities. The Act is having a direct effect on village shops, which stock, as a small part of their business, a few alcoholic beverages. They are sold as a service, more than anything else, to the shop's customers, for which the shop has an off-licence. It is not remotely feasible economically for shops to continue to sell alcoholic beverages under the new licensing regime. It is having a negative effect on villages and on individuals who have to drive to another village or the nearest town to buy drinks, with all the possible dangers that that entails. There is also a danger to the viability of the shop. Those effects are all of little benefit to the licensing regime, and they run entirely against the principle that we have heard espoused many times in the House of keeping village shops as a viable and visible presence in our villages.
The threat to village halls that the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire mentioned is serious. I have two examples in my constituency. First, the representatives of a substantial village hall, Beckington memorial hall, have written to me. They are extremely concerned because last year they had 27 events with a licensed bar but this year, because of the way in which the temporary events licensing system works, they are restricted to 12 events. That is having a serious effect on the financing of the hall as a centre for village life, and that is replicated in village halls throughout my constituency.
Secondly, at the other extreme, a small village hall, the reading room in Charlton Mackrell, does not serve alcoholic beverages. It is a small reading room that was set up by a beneficent incumbent to provide a place for quiet reading and recreation for the village. It holds Women's Institute meetings, parish council meetings, art classes for some elderly residents and a Christmas panto. Its officers have had to go through all the nonsense of paying a surveyor to provide detailed plans of the building to continue their entertainment. They have had to pay for the cost of licensing, and they will have to pay for the recurrent costs of maintaining the licence.
We are talking about volunteers who run small premises because they think that it is a vital part of village life. Confronted by two copies of a 21-page form and a further 64 pages of explanatory notes, there comes a point when they say, "Forget it. I'm sorry, but I'm not prepared to spend my life reading explanatory notes rather than doing what I want for the purposes of my village."
My final point is about something that is perhaps unique to Somerset, and something with which many hon. Members may not be familiar. It concerns the Somerset carnival tradition, which has been going for 400 years. The carnival circuit in Somerset is massive, attracting on average 500,000 people a year. The biggest carnival is the Bridgwater carnival, which on its own attracts more than 100,000 people. It is one of the best kept cultural secrets in the country, because people are
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simply not aware of its scale. When I first came to London and saw the lord mayor's show, I thought, "What on earth is this pathetic excuse for a carnival?", compared with Bridgwater carnival and the Somerset circuit.
The carnival circuit is under serious threat from the Act, not because it does not exempt moving vehicles but because carnival comprises not only moving vehicles but walking exhibitors, marching bands and many others for whom it would appear that a licence may be required. The district councils in Somerset have got together this year to try to interpret the law, but they cannot do so. They have taken legal advice, which says that carnival may be all right this year. "May be" is not good enough for the thousands of people throughout Somerset who work all year to prepare the floats. Carnival raises an enormous amount of money, and the licence fee, if required, is £64,000, which will kill carnival stone dead. The councils have asked for guidance from the Department, but it is unable to provide any, other than to say that some carnivals may be exempt but others may not.
It is not worth the risk of being taken to court because of one person's complaint about the carnival for whatever reason. The organisers risk hefty fines of £20,000, prosecution and a prison sentence of up to six months. Of course people are not prepared to take that risk. We could lose an important and vital tradition in my county, and I am not prepared to stand by and let that happen. I hope that the Minister is today able to provide a definitive view on carnivals. If he cannot, it suggests that there is a gap in the law that must be corrected at the earliest opportunity.
Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): In Bridgend, everything is in place: our licensing committee has been expanded, we have additional sub-committees, members have been trained, and training has been provided to the trade to ensure that applications can come in. There does, however, seem to be a problem with getting applications in. I accept that that is an issue. The local authority has done its bestback in February, there was a four-page article in our local newspaper. There is no problem with people knowing what they have to do, but there does seem to be a problem with them actually doing it.
I have been here before because, before I entered the House, I was a member of the Care Standards Inspectorate. Many volunteer organisations had to submit applications to that inspectorate to be registered as domiciliary care agencies. Exactly the same situation arose. We were told that they would not apply. What happened was that, despite the fact that we were available to give advice and guidance for months, as the licensing people in my local authority are, on the last day of registration those organisations were queuing up at the front door. It caused chaos. Applications did come in, but people must understand that their movement through the application process can be eased if they apply early.
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That is the message that we must get out there. We must get the message out that there is support from the local authorities, that licensing officers are willing to sit down with people to make sure that they do not get their application wrong, and that if applicants can get their application right and get it in they can move through the process. Changes will almost certainly be needed to the application form and the Minister might be able to consider them. Experience always brings improvement.
What worries me in my constituency are the small shops that local people are frightened to approach because gangs of youths hang around outside them, urging adults to go in to buy them alcohol. My local residents want the Act in place and want the police to have the power to prosecute those youngsters. At the moment, the police suddenly descend on local shops and put a cordon up at the two ends of alleyways because they know that, at the back, youngsters who have intimidated the staff in the shops and people going into the shop, asking them to buy alcohol for them, and are drinking illegally. The Act will help to reduce that problem.
Supermarkets must also lead the way and set an example. The trade has been given advice and must help local and small organisations to move forward so that the Act, which can tidy up many anomalies, can be put in place effectively and in time.
Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I shall not attempt to give any more than the briefest history of this wretched legislation, partly because of the time, but also, Mr. Taylor, because I do not wish to try your patience.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) on introducing the debate. As he rightly said, we have all been here before. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), I served on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill. We had a good time talking about the alcohol issues, many of which concern Westminster city council. Many people did not realise the great implications that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire rightly pointed out for the range of village hall-related events. The issue has the makings of an absolutely horrendous mess. In Committee, we gave repeated and persistent warnings that there were great inconsistencies between the proposed liberalisation of alcohol licensing and the Home Office agenda on binge drinking and antisocial behaviour. What the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) referred to as "creative tensions" are, I fear, somewhat more than that.
The legislation as a whole is unrealistic. It has been driven by the large-scale alcohol and entertainment industry. Even in my constituency, in places such as Soho and Covent Garden, one of the interesting things is that many of the smaller, family-run businessesthe bars and restaurants that have been around for 50 or 60 yearsare as appalled by the Act as many of the residential population.
It is impossible for us to Europeanise the drinking habits of people in this country simply by changing the hours of operation. We need only to consider the experience of places such as Scotland and Ireland to
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realise the impossibility of that goal. I can assume only that the measure was led by the large-scale alcohol and entertainment industry, which rammed it through and probably paid large sums to Government funds. As with the Gambling Act 2005, there was a commitment to try to make radical changes without thinking them through.
We have also seen the undermining of a well-balanced undertakings regime. I have worked closely with the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson), because we share responsibility for part of Covent Garden. In the past, undertakings have been given by a number of pubs, bars and restaurants. That has worked extremely well, but that regime is being swept away and there threatens to be something of a free-for-all that will affect the balance in our neighbourhoods. The issue is not simply one for central London and the hot spots of coastal England; it has an impact throughout the country, along the lines pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire.
The new Minister has an opportunity to wield a new broom. I do not think that he realised when he took on the post how the Act was likely to blow up in his face. He may know that, in the last few weeks, I have tabled questions about the flexibility of the new regime and about how much consultation has taken place. It is clear that, when the transition period began in February 2005, there was an opportunity for consultation with local authorities, licensing authorities and people who required licences. At this stage, I am not aware that many changes or recommendations have been made by the Government in consequence.
My view is that, potentially, we have an absolute mess in the making. I would like there to be a delay of at least eight months to allow licensees adequate time to complete the complex and overly prescriptive application procedure that has been dictated by the new Act. The problem is not simply going to occur on Saturday 6 August; there will be a problem in November. I fear that even local authorities, such as mine in the city of Westminster, that are well organised and used to large-scale and important licensing arrangements will face a massive logjam in the second half of the year. I hope that, even at this late stage, the Government will give serious consideration to delaying implementation to allow for the full implications to be thought through.
The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) rightly suggested that, inevitably in any such process, there will be a queue on the final day. My fear is that it will be a hell of a long queue and will have an impact, particularly in this important area, in the run-up to Christmas which could be little short of disastrous. The Government's approach to the start date is hopelessly optimistic. One must consider those local authorities that are less well attuned to such matters, which will find themselves in great difficulties.
The Minister probably now appreciates that, with this Act, he has inherited something of a mess. It has been poorly drafted and has an unrealistic timetable. However, I believe that there is still time for him to take action to prevent something that is not only a public relations disaster in the making but has negative implications.
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I would like to say much more, but I realise that two other hon. Members wish to make contributions. I thank you for your indulgence, Mr. Taylor, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire for introducing this vital debate at an important time.
Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): I begin by congratulating the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell), on his appointment. We served as councillors on the same council for several years, although sadly not at the same time. I am glad to see him in his new post. In his new role, I invite him to come up to sample the many joys of Wakefield, which include our cultural attractions of the Yorkshire sculpture park and the national coal mining museum for England.
I would like to talk briefly about the two local authorities that I represent, Wakefield and Kirklees. In common with what other Members have said about their constituencies, about 10 per cent. of licensed premises in Wakefield have applied for and received the licences, and that has been a smooth process. Wakefield is known as "the merrie city" because it has a large number of historic pubs. We are also known as a place to have a great night out in the region. There is something called the Westgate run, in which people start at the bottom of the Westgate area and walk up to the top, pausing to drink in the many pubs on the way. I have never managed to complete it.
We also have a thriving micro-brewery industry, with companies such as Clark's and Fernando's breweries, as well as many small businesses. I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) about the alcohol disorder zones; in those areas, a voluntary approach is always better than a coercive one. I also welcome the action taken by my local police, who support the Licensing Act 2003, and the local paper, the Wakefield Express, in its Streetsafe campaign.
Members have raised issues to do with the cultural changethe attempted Europeanisation of England and Wales. I welcome attempts to introduce a more adult and European approach to alcohol. I also welcome the Act for what it does about under-age drinking. Members of all parties will have come across articles in their local newspapers about minors buying alcohol; it happens every summer. If we are talking about gateway drugs, then we should acknowledge that alcohol is the first and the major gateway drug: it leads to all sorts of antisocial behaviour, and also to drug use and drug abuse. I welcome the fact that the Act allows us to take tough action. We know which are the problem premises in our constituencies, and we can now shut down such off-licences, as well as those premises where violence is perpetrated.
There is also a role for regeneration and for introducing greater flexibility. That will lead to people wanting to come into city centres at night because they are less threatening places, and, perhaps, more family oriented. We have an annual beer festival in Wakefield; people from throughout the country come and sample our many different beers. The merging of the entertainment licence with the alcohol licence is also to be welcomed.
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I seek clarification from the Minister on the issue of festivals. We have the Emley show in the Kirklees area of my constituency, and there was some shroud-waving about it from my Conservative opponent during the election campaign. As Members of Parliament, we need to adopt a community leadership role in this regard. Instead of saying, "It won't work," we should say, "We can do it; we can get this in on time." As for stressing that people have, for example, eight or 10 weeks left, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) said, we must acknowledge that leaving things until the last minute is human natureit is what people do. We always wait until the last minute before paying our credit card bills and sorting things out. I know that that is the case: I failed to pay the congestion charge a few days ago, because I left it until the last minute. I will be in negotiations on that; I might approach the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) about it. That aside, my point is that we need to adopt community leadership.
I would also like the Minister to say what the large supermarkets are doing, because there is little excuse for them not to prepare for this. I know that we in Wakefield are set up: we have three new licensing sub-committees; we have meetings booked for July; and we will have a smooth and successful transition. That is certainly what I want to happen, and I welcome the new legislation.
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I thank the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) for her courtesy in allowing me a few minutes in which to speak. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff) on the way he introduced the debate, and on providing so many examples. Those of us who have concerns with regard to village halls would wish to align ourselves with his arguments.
Listening to the debate, two things have become clear. First, there is a degree of urban-rural divide. Members have brought out into the open the fact that different issues affect different parts of the country. Secondly, very few Acts are unutterably bad and do not have something within them that could be changed and made better. I join other Members in welcoming the Minister, who is a friend, to his new position, and I say to him that he now has an admirable opportunity to pick out of this legislation those things that have the potential to go very wrong, and to make a difference by saying, "In view of what has been said in the lead up to implementation, perhaps we could and should do things differently." On behalf of rural communities, I appeal to him to make a difference on the specific issue of village halls.
I speak on this subject with two hats. As the Member for North-East Bedfordshire, I commend the work done by Sue Norman of the Bedfordshire Rural Communities Charity with regard to village halls in our area. She has brought to their attention the problems created by the Act, and she has listened to them and reflected to me and to others the problems for village halls. Those problems have been ably outlined in the debate by Opposition Members.
I also thank Rodney Tate, the chairman of the Swineshead village hall management committee, for putting things so graphically. He wrote to me some time
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ago, and he also wrote to the Department. Swineshead has no shop and no pub now; the village hall is where people meet, and the bar profits are used to do things for the village. Mr. Tate wrote:
"Swineshead Village Hall is managed as a registered charity, and at the discretion of Bedford Borough Council, is exempt from charges for its public entertainment licence, and we pay only £30 for renewal of the liquor licence every 3 years, i.e. an average of just £10 pa. Under the new Act with the proposed fees, we will face costs in 2005 of £191 just to transfer to the new regime the existing licence rights with 3 joint licensees. Then we shall be faced with renewal costs of £40 . . . for the premises and £111 for the personal licences, although it is not clear how frequently the latter would be payable. All this has to come out of our annual bar profits of only £300400 pa, on average, money that we need to maintain and improve the village hall and the church. We had been thinking of adding more joint licensees so as the share the burden of responsibilities"
My second reason for speaking is that I am the shadow Minister for communities and regeneration. Wearing that hat, I ask the Minister to draw the attention of the new Minister for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Miliband), to this debate, and to ask him to consider the damage that is being threatened to local communities throughout the land because of the Licensing Act and the matters raised in this debate by Member of all parties.
Sue Norman forwarded to me a note that she received from one of the charity trustees for a village hall. It is entitled, "Who wants to be a designated premises supervisor?" The lady who wrote it comments:
In your own time, go on a training course to get an 'accredited personal licence qualification'. (Nobody knows how long the course will last, where you'll have to go to do it, or what it will costbut as it will cover 67 topics in 14 different categories, it's quite a big commitment).
"Agree to be the Designated Premises Supervisor for the Village Hall. This apparently means that every time there is an event where the consumption of alcohol is requiredand the Hall has an average of 26 of these every yearyou'll have to either sell the alcohol yourself . . . or authorise the sale of alcohol by someone else . . . You may not know these people from Adam".
"be present at each event for a substantial period, be immediately contactable for the time when you're not present, and turn out if there are any problems. For most events that means being available on a Friday and/or Saturday evening between 18.00 and midnight (assuming the event finishes on time)".
Two things are clear. The first of them is that the Government are determined to control, bureaucratise and centralise, almost regardless of what the issue is or the appropriateness of the measures they seek to bring
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in. A bit of discrimination could make a lot of difference. Secondly, there is an inability to comprehend any opposition or truly to understand what is being said. The Government are often in the position of the archetypal Englishman abroad, who when faced with lack of comprehension simply shouts louder to get his point across. Sometimes, the Government should realise that they have simply not been understood, and that what they are requiring is not wanted. In this particular case, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire has said, as far as village halls and local communities are concerned, there is no evidence of things being broken.
"Village halls offer a vital public service, especially in small rural communities, which often have no pub, shops, post office or other social facilities. They do not suffer from the issues of crime and disorder, public safety, public nuisance and the protection of children, which the new Act is intended to address. Yet we are being inflicted with the same extra bureaucracy and high costs as for commercial premises. Does the Government really want to strike a further blow against rural communities by closing down the small village halls throughout the country?"
Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): Like others, I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) on calling for this debate, and on making a powerful contribution. I offer congratulations, too, to all other Members who have spoken. The hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) is perhaps more supportive of the legislation than I am; nevertheless, he rightly reminded us that if we are to go ahead with the second named date, which is in November, there is an urgent need to advertise to a wide range of people the importance of getting applications in quickly.
The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire referred to issues of concern to circuses, village halls, small shops and many other places, and he was right to do so in every single regard. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) added to that list his concerns about the important issue of carnivalsa point also picked up by the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh). The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) was perhaps more supportive of the Act than I am. Nevertheless, she too reminded us of the urgent need to promote the measures and to get licence applications in as quickly as possible.
Then we heard the contribution of the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt); I will return to the issue of his village hall later. His view is that there is, to some extent, a rural-urban divide. I must say that I do not entirely agree. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) made the point that a number of the problems referred to by the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire also applied in his distinctly urban constituency, as they do in parts of mine.
The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire rightly said that of course there is merit in some aspects of the legislation. However, we really need far greater
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flexibility, so that we do not have to take tough measures to crack a nut that does not even exist in some of our rural communities. Sadly, however, the problems of binge drinking and their impact on local communities are growing in many parts of the country. Accident and emergency admissions related to alcohol misuse are increasing, and the number of violent episodes and violent crimes related to alcohol misuse is rising.
It is interesting that although the Government are keen on introducing lots of new legislation, existing legislation is hardly being used: on average only 11 landlords a year are prosecuted for allowing drunken behaviour on their premises. Under the new measures brought in by the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, there has been only one, failed, prosecution. The real question is whether we need the new Act, and whether it will really help solve many of the problems.
Before the Government rush ahead with all their plans, there are so many measures that we need put in place. Frankly, we need more support for the police and local authorities. We need more flexibility in the legislation for local authorities. I take as an example the last-minute agreement of the Government to allow reference to special saturation policies. When they did that, the details were not in the 2003 Act, but it is interesting that the guidance that accompanies the Act says, in relation to special policies on cumulative impact:
So we can have a special saturation policy, but it will not necessarily do very much. Given that, it is not very surprising that Andrew McNeill, the director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, has stated:
Because of that legal minefield, a number of local authorities that are keen to pursue the potential of the measuresuch as my local authority, Bath and North East Somerset councilhave decided not to go ahead; they fear those legal complexities.
Indeed, the Act is full of legal complexities that are causing a nightmare. For example, can the new Ministerwho I welcome to his posttell me whether, under the new legislation, it is legal for a family to go out for the night and leave their 15-year-old child in their hotel room, which has a minibar, between 12 am and 5 am? I ask the Minister a straight question: is that legal or not? Those are the sorts of complexities that I fear he will find as he considers the legislation. [Hon. Members: "He doesn't know."] Well, I will ask the Minister another one; hon. Members might be able to help him. Will it be possible for a family to send their 17-year-old son to a 24-hour supermarket to buy a loaf of bread between midnight and 5 am? I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us, because those sorts of thingswhether people can get their loaf of bread at that time of nightaffect local communities.
Also on complexity, the Minister is keen to press ahead with the Act, but although we have been told at the last minute that we are to have back-up measures such as alcohol disorder zones, we do not even know how they are to operate. They will be covered in the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, which has not yet been considered. How are we meant to know how all these things will relate to each other?
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We need to do more about alcohol labelling. We need to build on the welcome measures of the British Beer and Pub Association, which is banning drinks promotions, although other pubs and clubs need to be advised to do it. We need more support for those who work to try to tackle the problem of alcohol misuse. We need time to sort out a lot of the nonsense. I have given some examples of it, but others have talked about the problems for supermarkets; nearly everyone who has spoken mentioned them.
The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire rightly raised the concerns mentioned by Rodney Tate, chairman of the Swineshead village hall management committee, which is in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. That honourable gentlemanRodney Tatehas managed to express himself even more succinctly than he did in the letter that the hon. Gentleman read out. In another very good letter to The Daily Telegraph on this very subject, published just yesterday, he says that he had already written a letter to the newspaper about the huge increase in the fees that the village hall was to be charged, and says:
The Minister will need time to sort out the issue of temporary event notices. That will be fascinating. We understand that TENs will be issued, but we do not know how that will be done because we have not yet had the regulations. Can the Minister tell us when we will see them? Will he guarantee that there will be a consultation period before he sets out the regulations? Can he tell the House whether the official Cabinet Office guidelines for the length of consultation will apply, which would make the consultation 12 weeks? If it is 12 weeks, will there be time to introduce the statutory instrument, to consider whether to pray against it, and then to have a debate? If all that is to happen, and if we are to go ahead with the appointed date of 7 November, how will the Minister get it all in place in the time provided? As I understand it, we simply cannot do that.
Is it really the case that the only people who can object to a temporary event notice are the police, and that they have only 48 hours to do that? If so, someone who wanted to organise a rave on the outskirts of my constituency could simply shove a letter through the letterbox of the village police station, if there is oneand there are one or two aroundlate on a Friday night, and then have the rave on the Sunday night, with no time for the police, or anyone, to do anything about it. Have I got that right?
Can the Minister tell me whether local councils will be given more powers? Is it not daft that local councillors in whose ward an application has been made cannot be involved in deciding it? Will he do more to tell those who need to apply what to do? Frankly, a huge number of problems need to be resolved. I welcome the new Minister to his post, but from everything that he has heard today, he will see that he has a huge fight on his hands to convince many people in communities up and down the country that the Act will help them. Frankly, I do not think that it will.
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Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) on securing this debate. As we have heard from the contributions, the problem under discussion is extremely vexatious and affects not only constituencies with a rural bent, but the industry across the board.
I congratulate the Minister on his new post. By now, he will have realised that he has been sold a hospital pass. He has the most poisoned of all the poisoned chalices not only in his Department, but across the whole of the Government. He is the third Minister with whom I have had to deal across the Floor of the House, and I say to himthe point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt)that he has the opportunity to right a great wrong.
The Act is very problematical. In the past, Ministers did not have the necessary tight control. The bureaucrats have been allowed to run riot, and there is now an incredibly difficult situation and a time scale that does not give the Minister much room for manoeuvre. However, he has a massive opportunity to make his mark by grasping the issue by the throat, shaking it hard and coming up with something sensible that will not lead to the kind of problems that have been listed today.
We are on the verge not only of a disaster, but of a total debacle that will affect thousands of businesses and blight local community facilities, including village halls and sports clubs, to mention just a few. I am ashamed to be part of a legislature that is involved in this kind of nonsense. The situation now verges on the farcical. It is not only unfair, but, as my hon. Friends have mentioned, over-zealous and disproportionate. It is certainly over-bureaucratic, and is turning out to be very expensive indeed.
I am also embarrassed not to have been able, with my hon. Friends, to make any fundamental changes to the Bill in Committee and on Report. I regret that. We certainly won the arguments, many of which have been repeated today. However, the Government are still not listening. I am angry that we are visiting such considerable cost and inconvenience on so many businesses and individuals. We need to ask the question, "To what end?" What is the purpose of it all?
It is difficult to come up with a sensible conclusion. The old system was not doing a bad job; in fact, it worked perfectly well. There may well have been a hidden subsidy involved throughout the court systemI am prepared to admit that. However, that could have been addressed separately. Instead, we now have a bureaucratic nightmare that involves many different facets of our society.
We have done some research. In some Labour constituencies it is claimed that 10 per cent. of potential applicants have now made applications, to which I say, "Whoopee!" However, our research shows that, across the board, around 5 per cent. have done so. Only 5 per cent. of all the businesses that need to apply for a licenceall the clubs, village halls and so onhave so far come forward.
As we all know, the cut-off date is 6 August, and I do not see how the issue will be dealt with in that tight time scale. Why have applications been slow in coming
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through? The hon. Members for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) and for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) made the point that such slowness was an aspect of human nature. That is nonsenseit is not human nature to leave one's business hanging over the edge of a cliff, waiting for some bureaucrat on the council to stamp it as okay.
The reason is down not to human nature, but to the Government. The regulations were laid on 13 January to come into force on 7 February, the first appointed day, on which the application process was to begin. Even at that stage, the forms released on the DCMS website were incorrect and had to go back because they did not conform to the regulations. Corrections were made and the forms were reissued on 7 February. It goes without saying that without the forms, the regulations relating to the plans required, the advertising requirements and other similar details, it proved difficult for businesses or councils to plan ahead.
Businesses that tried to do work in advance, particularly those that prepared plans of premises, had to revise it to ensure that the 11 different requirements that suddenly came out of the blue were met. Despite repeated requests by the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services and the industry, and despite a promise from the DCMS, the industry is still awaiting clarification on the extent to which outside areas must be shown on the plans. Some councils still believe that all outside areas must be shown on a scale of 1:100. What is the point of sheets of paper that show the golf course, the hotel gardens or the race track? The confusion over plans is probably the single biggest issue holding up applications.
As applications were extremely slow in coming in, on 30 March a number of interested parties wrote to the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn). They included the Local Government Association, LACORS, the British Beer and Pub Association, the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, the British Institute of Innkeeping, Business in Sport and Leisure, the Bar Entertainment and Dance Association andthe police were involvedthe Association of Chief Police Officers. They wrote expressing their concern about the lack of applications and made points that could be taken on board to ease the process.
The letter suggested, for example, that a reason for the delay was a lack of awareness of the new law among licence holders, particularly among small independent businesses, largely due to a severe lack of information and publicity from the DCMS. They also mentioned the late laying of the regulations and the due date for annual fees, which have to be paid on the anniversary of the granting of the licence, and provide no incentive for early application. We have said time and again that if the renewal date were simply a year after the second appointed day, there would be no problem. However, no one will put in an application early if next year they have to pay their new fees earlier than their neighbour. That is an obvious point, made to the then Minister not only in the letter, but over and over by Opposition Members. Again, the Government just did not listen.
The letter also highlighted the need for multiple copies of applications to the various authorities responsible under the Act and the absence of a slip rule
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in the regulations that would have allowed the correction of minor errors rather than the rejection of applications. We have heard stories of local authorities sending back application forms because they had not been completed in black ink; the whole process had to be gone through yet again. A slip rule would have prevented some of that nonsense.
The letter also raised the implications of alterations made to licences after the first appointed daythere could, for example, be a change of licenseeand mentioned the lack of clarity about aspects of the existing law which are carried forward under the new Act. For example, there is still an argument about embedded rights; people have gone to court. The LGA believes that it can interpret them in one way and the DCMS says, "We're not sure; let the courts decide." What nonsensical legislationit is absolutely appalling. Ministers should have resigned over this nonsense, but they have not.
In replying to the letter that I mentioned, the then Minister more or less indicated that it was all the fault of the pubsof everyone but the DCMS, which was whiter than white. Unless this Minister gets a grip of the issue, he will have on his hands the biggest debacle for years. If the pubs do not get their licences through by 6 November, they will not be able to trade, and people will not be able to buy a drink in their local pub.
The three-month time scale from the 6 August cut-off until the second appointed day does not, in my opinion, give the time needed for the local authorities to process all the late applications. There was one example of a club that applied early and had done all its homework, but its application still took eight weeks to process because there were objections and the issue had to go to a hearing. Let us remind ourselves that no other applications were being processed by the council during those eight weeks.
If objections are raisedand they will be, without failthere will not be time to hold all the hearings during that three-month time scale, which will mean that those who do not get their licences in time will go to court. Magistrates courts will be clogged up with people saying, "You have not processed my licence in time, and I am taking the matter to court to have it resolved." Either today or very soon, the Minister must introduce, or announce the introduction, of legislation. I do not mean legislation to move the second appointed day, because that has not been decidedNovember is only a possible date. However, that has to be shifted. Eight months has been suggested by Westminster
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (James Purnell) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) on securing this debate, which I am delighted to have because it helps to publicise issues about the Licensing Act 2003. In particular, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising issues not just about pubs, but about other affected organisations. One of the key tasks that we face is ensuring that people who are involved with village halls, restaurants or kebab shops are aware that the Act applies to them.
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This has been a constructive and well-informed debate and I will reply to as many points as I can in 10 minutes. I will endeavour to write to hon. Members about the individual points that they have made if I do not answer their questions.
It is worth mentioning briefly the reasons for this reform: it is intended to make the system more flexible for the vast majority of responsible drinkers and licensees, while giving more powers to local communities and the police to deal with those few licensees that cause problems, whether they are off-licences, pubs or other organisations. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), I believe that the Act gives people that power and that, if we return to it in a year or two, we will find that it has had a significant positive effect.
The Act gets rid of the double madness of people having to gulp down two or three pints of beer before the 11 o'clock closing time and of their all being chucked out at the same time. It allows people in a village shop to sell a bottle of wine to someone coming home from work at 11 o'clock on a Sunday, whereas at the moment they face the problem that although they know that that person is reliable and trustworthy, they cannot sell him a bottle of wine for an arcane reason.
In implementing the Act we need to give people certainty about the framework and flexibility in how the rules are interpreted. The Bill tries to give local authorities as much flexibility as possible and we will, as we have done in the past few weeks, continue to make it clear what flexibility local authorities have in implementing the legislation. For example, we have been working with the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services and others to make it clear that the type of plan that is submitted to local authorities depends on the organisation submitting it. If the plan involves a large nightclub in the constituency of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), it may need to be of a different level than that from someone in a village shop selling a few bottles of alcohol every now and then.
Let me turn to the individual issues raised by hon. Members. We recognise that there are issues faced by circuses in making applications, and my predecessor appreciated the constructive way in which the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire raised them. We know that there have been concerns about the requirements for plans. I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman as soon as it is convenient for him, and for him to bring a delegation to discuss those matters. However, in addition to that, although we cannot comment on individual cases, we will write to him shortly to see whether there is anything that we can suggest to circuses that might help them draw up plans that are sufficiently flexible while meeting the requirements of the legislation.
We have flexibility in respect of the second appointed date. In previous debates the hon. Gentleman raised the possibility of delaying that date because most touring circuses finish their touring season in mid-November and face the challenge of having to get a licence for the last couple of weeks. We will be able to delay the second appointed date to later in November. We have listened to the arguments for further delay, but have heard strong counter-arguments from the industry, police and others, and from local government. The key thing is to
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give people certainty, so they know that they need to apply, and to ensure that instead of continued speculation about whether we will delay the date, we focus people on submitting their applications. To give people that certainty, the second appointed date will be 24 November and we will shortly introduce plans to make that clear.
On the point raised by the hon. Gentleman, local authorities such as Brighton and Richmond are considering whether they can license sites. That would allow a number of circuses and other forms of entertainment to use that public land over the period of a year. We strongly support that and will continue to work with local authorities to make that possible, because that may be an appropriate solution to many of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raised about circuses. It would, for example, remove the need for them to have a licence every time they went to a particular piece of land.
Turning to village shops, the new licensing regime gives grocery stores and mini-markets more flexibility and represents a business opportunity for them. It is also worth saying that the Government are trying to give support to village shops. We have introduced reform that allows the extension of the mandatory 50 per cent. rate relief from sole village shops to all village food shops in a area of settlement of 3,000 people or fewer, where the rateable value is £9,000 or less. That is a significant financial boon for those organisations and would certainly outweigh any increases under this regime.
There are some fee increases under the new regime, because under the previous regime the cost of the alcohol licensing system was cross-subsidised from the rest of the court system and, in effect, the taxpayer was subsidising the sale of alcohol to the tune of £25 million. That should not continue. Some people said that the fee system should reflect the cost of the alcohol trade overall and the cost of wider social behaviour, but we rejected that because it would be draconian. However, the cost of running and enforcing the licensing system should be reflected in the fees, which is why these increases are included in the new system.
James Purnell : The issue of night clubs is a general social one. There is a difference between night clubs and shops, for which the legislation allows an escalator. The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) made the point that under the Act a supermarket will be charged more, which was not possible under existing legislation and was asked for in this debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) on her point about the potential danger of a few off-licences and local shops selling alcohol to under-age drinkers; we need to deal with that. The Act provides for greater fines for people who do so, and we have also brought in fixed penalty notices. The Violent Crime Reduction Bill will continue to deal with that. That is an important point that we should continue to look at.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) that there is a community leadership role for us to play in respect of festivals. It
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would be inappropriate for the Government to say which festivals are to be licensed. The legislation gives local authorities the flexibility to do that and local authorities are able to subsidise fees exactly as they do at the moment. It would be inappropriate for any Minister to say what Somerset or Wakefield county councils should do. I should be delighted to visit my hon. Friend's constituency to see the beer festival, and I look forward to crossing the Pennines to do so.
At the moment sports clubs need licences. Greater flexibility is built into the legislation: once people have a licence, they will not have to apply all over again. The licence will last in perpetuity, as long as they do not vary it.
James Purnell : That is an important issue. We do not intend to undermine the contribution that village halls make. There is an exemption for people who, if they are not providing alcohol, will not have to pay any fee. The fees under the existing regime could be up to £600. The long-term fees faced by people will not be excessive. There is no requirement for the personal licence holder to be there at all times.
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