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Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): As we are experiencing the parliamentary equivalent of a lock-in, as I gather from the screens, perhaps it is time to make many interventions. The key point that the Minister must understand is that we are not debating the flexibility of the Act, but the inflexibility of the Act—the one-size-fits-all approach has penalised village halls. Will the Minister reconsider this regime and how it
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affects village halls, which are staffed by volunteers and do not have the resources to have a designated premises supervisor and do not need licensing training?

James Purnell: I am happy to consider that. I am also happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and other colleagues if that is their wish.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead has no alternative but to focus purely on the implementation of the Act. She does not have a position on the overall intent of the Act.

Jonathan Shaw : As well as 24-hour drinking, on which we have not heard from the right hon. Lady for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), she also failed to mention the president of the National Association of Kebab Shops, who thinks that the Bill is top dollar. He has said:

There we are. Put chilli sauce on that.

James Purnell: I look forward to my hon. Friend's press release and seeing him pictured in one of his local kebab shops.

The truth is that the Tory party has sacrificed long-term credibility for the prospect of winning the support of an agreed section of the population, or even the possibility of winning votes in the House. That is what the shadow Chancellor said when he was explaining why the Conservative party did so badly at the last general election. It seems from the speech of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead that not much has changed. We are left only with criticism and no positive alternatives.

The truth is that the legislation that we are discussing is long overdue.

Mrs. May: I set out a number of positive alternatives in my closing remarks. I offered suggestions to the Minister on ways in which the Government could get out of the mess into which they have got themselves.

James Purnell: We still do not know what the right hon. Lady's views are on flexible hours. Through the Act—[Interruption.] The core of the Act is about flexible hours and still, after years of scrutiny, we have no idea of what Tory policy is on the issue.

Alistair Burt: The Minister is a bright chap. We are not dealing with a motion that condemns the entire Act in all its aspects. The point of the motion and that of the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) was to pinpoint the failure of the Act and the possibility of repairing the damage that is being done to certain of the community because of that Act. If the Minister would get off 24-hour drinking and spend 20 minutes answering the questions perhaps we would have a better debate.

James Purnell: That is exactly what I am going to do. If the hon. Gentleman supports the Licensing Act, presumably he is against the shadow Home Secretary, who is busy campaigning against it. That is the problem for the Opposition—they have taken two totally
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different positions and have contradicted themselves so they now find themselves in the position where they do not have a position.

Mr. Heath : I want to make a positive suggestion. The Minister knows that I am interested in the problem relating to carnivals, which is an unintended consequence of the Bill. Traditional carnivals in Somerset include moving floats, which are exempt, and people walking along, who are not exempt. Would he consider using a definition from the Town Police Clauses Act 1847? It is an old Act, but every carnival uses it to secure road closures. It refers to

Although that definition is 150 years old, it would get round the difficulty for carnivals. Would the Minister look at it and see whether he can send a letter of comfort to district councils so that they know how to administer the law?

James Purnell: I am happy to look at that, although my understanding is that, perhaps partly thanks to the hon. Gentleman's assiduous campaigning in Parliament, Somerset councils have now decided that their existing carnivals do not include licensable activities. New events, however, may need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Mr. Heath: Yes, the councils have made that decision this year, but it is open to challenge from anyone who believes that a carnival needs to be licensed. The law is imprecise, and the carnival organisers are worried that they could be liable to six months' imprisonment or a fine of £20,000 if they are found to be in breach of licence requirements. That is why we need Government reassurance that their interpretation is right.

James Purnell: I am happy to see if we can write a letter that provides comfort. The core of the Bill is about giving local authorities the power to make those decisions locally, so we would not want to override their ability to take those decisions.

Peter Luff : When the Minister debated this matter with me some weeks ago in Westminster Hall, he was in a constructive mood. When I met him to discuss touring circuses only a few weeks he was in a constructive mood again. I am glad that he is returning to a constructive mood now and engaging with the real issues, but when will I receive the letters that he promised me on designated persons for village halls and on the impact on touring circuses? Village halls and circuses cannot wait much longer for that clarification, which he promised some time ago.

James Purnell: We were looking at that in the Department only today. We are trying to secure the final piece of legal advice that we need to send the letter, but we shall do so as soon as possible.

Thanks to the Act, we can finally look forward to longer pub opening hours, which will boost tourism and help to stamp out binge drinking through a more relaxed and responsible approach to the enjoyment of alcohol. The current laws are based on laws introduced
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during the first world war and have no place in today's society. That is the view of the Campaign for Real Ale, which is right. The current law is full of anomalies. The "two in a bar" rule, for example means that the White Stripes,—as the House knows, one of the most successful bands in the world but which has only two members—could turn up in a local pub and put on a concert for thousands of people. Our very own MP4—a band with growing support in all our constituencies—would not be able to perform unless the pub had obtained a special licence for them. The band has a slightly smaller fan base than the White Stripes. [Interruption.] At the moment—perhaps one day it will be headlining at Glastonbury. [Interruption.] Unfortunately, I wrote it.

Uniquely in Europe, we have an 11 pm closing time, which means that people neck two or three pints before being thrown out on the streets at the same time, fighting for a taxi and sometimes even fighting one another. There is a loophole in a law that allows people to sell alcohol after 11 pm, as long as they serve food and provide music and dancing. That means that the one group of people to whom we allow alcohol to be served after 11 pm are those whom our constituents are most worried will be a source of nuisance. The regime clearly needs to be updated, and Members on both sides of the House will agree that the change in the law is overdue.

The greater flexibility that we are introducing will save the industry money. At the moment, any pub that wants to stay open late, to open early on Christmas eve or to show the Lions test, must go to a magistrate to secure special permission at a cost of £10 a time. There are about 1.7 million such applications a year. The Licensing Act will sweep away anomalies as well as the need for people to go to a magistrate every time that they wish to apply for a special permission. It replaces that requirement with a system in which people apply for a licence once without further need for form filling. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead was stretching the point when she said that because people have to send off a cheque they are making an application. We have front-loaded the application process—people apply up front, then they need never apply again for a premises licence.

Meg Hillier : My hon. Friend mentioned magistrates. Hackney council welcomes the Government's resolve to stick with the 6 August deadline, but would like to know whether applications referred to magistrates on appeal after automatic refusal could be fast-tracked back to the local authority for redetermination. Given the likely last-minute rush, that would make the scheme more workable.

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