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House of Commons

Monday 11 July 2005

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Licensing Act

1. Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): What recent meetings she has had with representatives from amateur sports clubs regarding the implementation of the Licensing Act 2003. [10510]

The Minister for Sport and Tourism (Mr. Richard Caborn): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has had no recent meetings on that subject, but my officials remain in close touch with the Central Council for Physical Recreation about the implementation of the Act. The Government have actively supported community amateur sports clubs through lottery funding and tax benefits over recent years and are taking full account of their concerns.

Stephen Hammond: I represent one of the finest sporting venues and clubs in the country, which will of course be an Olympic venue in 2012, and I congratulate the Minister and the Secretary of State on what they have done to bring the bid to London. However, does the Minister really recognise the impact of the Licensing Act on many of the smaller clubs in my constituency and across the country? Wimbledon cricket club, for instance, pays £16 at present for a 10-year club licence. It is now applying for the necessary club premises licence, which costs £450 for an application, £320 for annual renewal and £300 for the newspaper advertisement—a total of £1,070. Many such smaller clubs in our constituencies are the lifeblood for those who will be the athletes of the 2012 games. Does the Minister recognise that many of them rely on bar profits to survive, and that many of them may not survive?

Mr. Caborn: Very much so. That is why the high-level review will take into account all the discrepancies that may arise. I say "discrepancies" for a simple reason. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a particular club, but the vast majority of sports clubs will fall in a band between about £70 and £100. When the CCPR
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visited my Department, it cited the Heaton tennis and squash club as one of the clubs to which we should give the facility not to make such payments. It stated:

That is probably a very wealthy club, and it would be wrong to give exemptions to that type of club. However, in the case of a small cricket club, the high-level group would look into the situation. The vast majority of genuine sports clubs will pay between £70 and £100 a year, less than they pay at present for an occasional licence.

Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): I, too, have clubs that face the same problems as Wimbledon cricket club, such as Sheerness golf club and Sheppey rugby club. Has my right hon. Friend considered whether, on Second Reading of the Olympics Bill, we could add a clause to help clubs when they are caught by the Act? They are charged on the basis of rateable values, but not on the lower rateable value.

Mr. Caborn: The calculation is based on the non-domestic rate and turnover. If there is genuine concern among such sports clubs, the high-level group will look into it. That applies not just for sports clubs but for the whole implementation of the Act. We gave the Local Government Association those assurances when we said that we would examine implementation, but there is a major difference for sports clubs that are run both as major social clubs and genuine amateur sports clubs, and we shall have to look into that.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): Why are the only people who think that there is no problem whatever in the implementation of the Licensing Act Ministers in the right hon. Gentleman's Department?

Mr. Caborn: I think that that is a bit churlish, to say the least. Under the current licensing system, many amateur sports clubs have to pay a considerable amount for occasional licences, including payments of between £20 and £30 to solicitors to make applications to court. When we have streamlined the system, by bringing six licensing regimes into one, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that sports clubs and all other licensed premises will be far better off and we shall have shifted all the red tape that the Opposition have been asking us to move for years.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend accept that, although it is up to licensed premises to approach local authorities, it would help if local authorities were more proactive? There is still much ignorance among smaller amateur clubs that rely on bar takings about what to do, so it would help if    central Government, without instructing local government, could at least put some pressure on local government to take the initiative in explaining what clubs should be doing?
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Mr. Caborn: That is a little unfair on local authorities, and I say that from some experience. Last night, I went down to the Sheffield Trades and Labour club, which actually has its licence, and the local authority—Sheffield—assisted it greatly in getting the licence through. The LGA has been very proactive in helping licensees in making their applications. It is wrong to say that local authorities have not been proactive, because they have.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I am amazed at the complacency of the Minister's response to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), who highlighted in clear focus the problems facing many local sports clubs. The Minister likes to quote the CCPR. Well, the CCPR has urged the Government to

We are all excited that the Olympics are coming to the UK, but it is no good destroying the small, voluntary sports clubs that nurture our future Olympic athletes. The Minister has set up the licensing fees review panel, but it will not report until autumn 2006. Will he now bring forward the review, tell it to report by the November deadline this year and agree to backdate any proposed reductions in fees?

Mr. Caborn: On 5 April, there were discussions in my office with my officials and the chair and the chief executive of the CCPR. We asked them to come forward with their problems and give us examples. To date, three months on, not one word has been heard from the CCPR. People cannot start to challenge us unless they have the evidence. We have met the CCPR. The right hon. Lady quotes the CCPR saying that we are crippling amateur sports clubs. We have given the CCPR an opportunity. We have had meetings with the CCPR. We have challenged it to come forward with the evidence. [Interruption.] Will the right hon. Lady listen? [Interruption.] The right hon. Lady has come to the Dispatch Box and cited the CCPR. I am challenging the CCPR to produce the evidence that it promised my officials three months ago.

2. Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): What steps she is taking to ensure that the implementation of the Licensing Act 2003 will take local concerns into account. [10623]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (James Purnell): Giving local communities real influence was one of the Government's key objectives in introducing a new licensing regime, and that remains so as implementation progresses. Local flexibility is built in to the 2003 Act, allowing decisions to be made that fully reflect local circumstances, including the views of the police and local residents.

Nia Griffith: Although I welcome the Minister's reassurances that local views will be respected in granting licences, what chance will my constituents have of getting licences revoked or limited if they are not working well in practice?
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James Purnell: That is one of the key intentions of the 2003 Act. As my hon. Friend knows, it is very difficult to get a problem pub closed down. For the first time, the Act introduces a power for the local community to review a licence and a power to hit problem licensees where it hurts by asking for their licences to be suspended. It will allow us to close down their premises much more easily, to introduce new conditions and to change the management. Most importantly, it introduces a new offence and a fine of up to £20,000.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): Is the Minister aware of the grave concerns of my constituents about 24-hour licensing and the consequences that they fear of an increase in binge drinking and antisocial behaviour? That is already a great problem in many of our town centres. Surely, this measure will make it worse.

James Purnell: The hon. Gentleman completely misunderstands the Act. The Opposition have expressed worries about 24-hour drinking. Only one application for 24-hour licensing has been granted so far in the whole country, when 60,000 applications have been made. The Act will be much tougher on antisocial behaviour. The problem at the moment is that magistrates have only one power, which is to close down a pub. We will now have much greater powers. I am sure that some of his constituents are worried about areas where there are already too many pubs and, where there is saturation, local authorities will have the power—again, for the first time—to have a presumption that they will not grant any more applications. This is good legislation: it will promote greater flexibility for consumers and the industry, as well as introducing much greater powers against antisocial behaviour.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): The Minister will be aware of much local concern about the possible effects of the Licensing Act on local clubs. I have looked at the membership of the licensing fees review panel, under the excellent chairmanship of my old friend, Sir Les Elton, but I notice that no one on the panel seems to have any expertise in non-profit-making private members' clubs. Will the Minister extend the membership of the panel to include a member of the Committee of Registered Clubs Associations, so that the 5,000 private clubs in this country can be represented?

James Purnell: I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend and, indeed, representatives of the club movement. There are only five people on the panel, so I do not think that it will be possible to extend the membership, but we would be happy to look at any evidence that is presented. When the Act was passed by Parliament, we made a specific exemption for members' clubs, so that they do not need a personal licence holder. If there is evidence to show that we should do anything else to help the club movement, we will do it.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): What account is the Minister taking of the local concerns of village hall committees in my constituency? I have so far heard from Felbridge, Godstone, Bletchingley, Warlingham, Hurst Green and Limpsfield village hall
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committees, as well as many user groups, including the Royal British Legion, about the impact of the Licensing Act 2003 on their incomes. The Minister wrote to me on 27 June to say that he had received no reports from the police or licensing authorities of anyone trying to abuse the licences that they have at the moment. The legislation seems pointless in connection with village halls and it imposes undue burdens on people who can ill afford them.

James Purnell: We take those concerns seriously. In fact, I am meeting Action with Communities in Rural England, the body that represents village halls, tomorrow and will listen to any evidence that it has. It has asked us to participate with it in an exercise in which it will examine evidence, and if there is evidence of problems, we will act. We hope that the body will report in November. We have exempted village halls from the need to pay for public entertainment licences, but I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree that, where alcohol is served, some licensing regime is needed. However, I emphasise that, if it is shown that any problems exist with village halls, we will act upon that.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): It is my pleasure to live just yards away from one of the finest pubs in Staffordshire: "The Gresley Arms" in the village of Alsagers Bank in Newcastle-under-Lyme. Regulars there welcome the Act and the pub experiences no antisocial behaviour. Does my hon. Friend agree that village pubs such as the Gresley should not be criminalised if they want to serve after 11 pm and that the Act—properly policed, of course—should be welcomed by all parties in the House?

James Purnell: I agree with my hon. Friend. There is no reason why the responsible majority should be curfewed and have to stop drinking at 11 pm because of the actions of an irresponsible minority. It is much better to do what the Act does and to bring in specific and much more stringent powers for the people who are causing problems and allow the responsible majority to drink in peace.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): In Singapore, I had the opportunity of congratulating the Olympic bid team on its great success. May I take this opportunity, on behalf of all my hon. and right hon. Friends, to reiterate those congratulations?

Turning to licensing, does the Minister accept that one of the last-minute agreements to provide a bulwark for local communities against unwanted late-night drinking was the idea of the special saturation policy? Is he aware that there is such concern about the legal minefield that was created by the guidance on the policy that only a quarter of local councils have taken the opportunity to use it? Will he at least make a commitment today to work with his colleagues in the Home Office to use any legislative opportunity that might avail itself to improve the legal back-up of the policy?

James Purnell: We are working on the Violent Crime Reduction Bill to introduce a range of measures to reinforce the powers to deal with such problems, but I do not think that there is a problem with the framework
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of the law. We are bringing in a new piece of legislation and devolving power to local authorities, so it is up to them to decide how to implement the law. The hon. Gentleman will recognise it as welcome that, if local authorities are worried about saturation, for the first time, they will be able to turn down applications. Under the current law, they have no opportunity to do so and must grant licences even if there is an excess of booze factories, as they are called, in an area. The Act is a better piece of legislation and when people look at it in one or two years' time, they will probably agree with that.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): In relation to the Licensing Act, when did the Government ever take on board the concerns of local sports clubs, village halls and music groups? Answer: never. Why do the Government seem incapable of implementing anything successfully? The whole farce of the Licensing Act is heading for a total debacle. Is that the fault of Ministers or civil servants? Either way, as a local publican in my constituency said to me recently, they could not organise a proverbial in a brewery.

James Purnell: The hon. Gentleman is on thin ice in saying that the Government cannot implement anything effectively given that we have just delivered the Olympic bid. Perhaps he should have taken a leaf out of the book of the Liberal Democrats, who at least had the good grace to acknowledge that, unlike any member of his Front-Bench team, two of whom have now spoken, but have failed to mention that once.

We made specific concessions for village halls and clubs during the passage of the Licensing Bill. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we made specific concessions on temporary events notices so that the regime would be extended to make it much easier for people to get them. We have listened and we will continue to listen, but when people look back, they will say that it is much better to have a regime that will save the industry £2 billion, that will be more flexible for consumers and that will provide much greater powers to deal with binge drinking. In one or two years' time, I am sure that people will agree that the legislation is much better than the current framework, which was allowed to continue to exist by the Conservatives.

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