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James Purnell: My hon. Friend makes a good point. We need to work with magistrates to ensure that if the application is for a conversion and there has been no objection, it should be possible, if it is not processed within two months, to fast-track it through the magistrates courts. I do not know whether we can take up the point that my hon. Friend made in relation to conversions, but I shall certainly look at it and write to her.
As I said, the new Act sweeps away anomalies and ends the need for people to go to the magistrate every time that they want to put on an event. Consequently,
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the amount of forms processed will be greatly reduced from 16 million a year to 2 million per year. The number of hearings will go down from 2.4 million a year to 80,000. There will be great savings of about £1.5 billion in lawyers' fees, so it is not surprising that the lawyer whom the right hon. Member for Maidenhead cited was not happy.
Mrs. May: I am grateful for the generosity of the Minister in giving way once more. On the reapplication for licences, will he confirm that it is not the case that once a licence has been granted it is there for life? Will he confirm that it is not a lifetime licence for which nothing else has to be done? Will he confirm that an application has to be made every year to renew the licence? If he is saying that all that someone has to do is sign a cheque, put it in an envelope and post it, is he guaranteeing that local authorities will not require any paperwork other than the cheque?
James Purnell: There is no renewal process. Licensees send in a cheque to fund inspection and enforcement, but no other action is required of them or the licensing authority.
In the next 10 years, the Act will save the industry about £2 billion. I accept that there is an up-front cost, which we do not seek to minimiseit was included in our calculations for the £2 billion. As the industry asked us, we front-loaded the application process so that licensees do not need to return every time that they wish to put on an event. The current law is inflexible and archaic, and it fails to deal with concerns that we share with our constituents about antisocial behaviour. The only sanction that we have against a pub that is causing problems is closure. Magistrates are naturally reluctant to use that, because it is the nuclear option. Only 0.2 per cent of pubs failed to secure a licence renewal last year.
Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): I am not sure whether I am required to declare an interest, as my wife holds a highly distinguished position as a member of Tameside council's liquor licensing panel, and my agent chairs it. Is my hon. Friend aware that in Tameside, a local authority that also covers his constituency, the liquor licensing panel refused the first two applications under the new Act because the applicants both had convictions for selling alcohol to children? Is that not a prime example of the way in which the Act, which has given real powers back to local authorities and local communities, is working?
James Purnell: That is an extremely good point, and it shows the powers that local authorities will have under the Act. Previously, they found it difficult to exercise such powers, because they were removed from local accountability. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's wife and agent, who are leading the efforts of one of the best councils in the countryit is also my councilto introduce the law.
Instead of the present situation, where there is only the nuclear option of closure, the Act will give us a full range of powers to cope with the problems that a minority of pubs and other licensees can cause. For the first time there is a power for the local community to ask for a review of a licensee who they are worried about. The local authority can then intervene in a targeted way,
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by imposing new conditions. It can ask for new doormen to be put in, for the management to be changed or for a TV screen to be moved if too many people watching sporting events are causing trouble. If targeted early intervention fails, the local authority can hit the licensee where it hurtsin their pocket. It can suspend the licence and, if necessary, revoke it. If the worst comes to the worst, the fines have been increased in the Act and the maximum fine is now £20,000, possibly with six months in prison.
We now have a full range of powers to deal with our constituents' concerns about antisocial behaviour. I was therefore surprised to see that the Liberal Democrat motion suggested delaying the implementation of the Act until binge drinking has been addressed. The whole point is that the Act is designed to help us address binge drinking and to give us much better tools to deal with it and much better ways to tackle the problems caused by a small minority of premises. That is why the police are pressing us to bring in the Act as soon as possible. For once, perhaps, the Liberal Democrats are barking up the wrong tree. The Act is a good piece of legislation.
Mr. Don Foster : I am grateful for the Minister's comments, and I will respond shortly. Can he tell us which police are urging the Government to push ahead as rapidly as possible with implementation?
James Purnell: The Association of Chief Police Officers, which was represented on our high-level group. The Act is also supported by the Police Superintendents Association. I admit that there are individual police officers who do not support the Act, but the bodies representing the police have supported us.
Ms Keeley : On antisocial behaviour, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) spoke about corner shops. The sale of alcohol by corner shops to young people is a serious issue. There are other licensing issues, but that is a serious one in many constituencies. The idea that such a business could not fill in forms and renew them annually is ridiculous. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is high time the measure came in? Control of the sale of alcohol to young people in my constituency is a serious matter and I would welcome the implementation of the Act without delay.
James Purnell: My hon. Friend is right. I know she has campaigned on the issue, and in response to her and other hon. Members who were worried, as I am, about the sale of alcohol to under-age drinkers, we have brought in the powers to deal with it. We have increased the fine from £1,000 to £5,000, we are introducing fixed penalty notices to deal with people who sell persistently to under-age drinkers, and the Violent Crime Reduction Bill will allow us to close down instantly and for 48 hours businesses which are doing that. We need to change the culture in this country, where some people think it is acceptable for children of nine, 10 or 11 to be drinking alcohol and to be drunk on our streets at 11 o'clock on a Friday night.
: My hon. Friend referred to the Violent Crime Reduction Bill. Is it not the case that there are powers in that Bill which will ensure that premises have to pay towards some local services if they do not co-operate with local councils, police and so on?
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James Purnell: My hon. Friend is right. The idea is that if a local community and a set of licensees fail to deal with concerns about alcohol over time, there will be a charge on them. We see that as a red card, to encourage them to act before that becomes necessary. The power is available to deal with the worst problems.
Implementing a new piece of legislation is always challenging, and it is not surprising that in a situation where there are about 190,000 licensees and where we are collapsing six regimes into one and dealing with a sector that was previously regulated by up to 50 pieces of legislation, there will be some sectors and individual licensees that suffer anomalies. We will examine those if they occur. We have worked closely with representatives of all the organisations that were cited by the right hon. Lady and other hon. Members, and we will continue to do so.
The right hon. Lady cited the issue of applications. She carried out a helpful survey in May to see how many licensees had applied. At that stage the rate was too slow. She found that the figure was 3.5 per cent. We therefore decided to increase our awareness-raising efforts and put in place a national campaign. We placed adverts in 28 regional and trade publications. We have done several regional tours and 50 interviews. The right hon. Lady was kind enough to mention some of them.
We are particularly grateful for the help that we received from brewersfor example, Cobra, which helped us to reach the 8,000 Indian restaurants that they supply with beer. We are also grateful to the cash and carry network, 95 per cent. of which has participated in our initiative and helped us to distribute over 200,000 leaflets to make sure that we can reach people who do not read the trade press and who do not necessarily join trade membership organisations. We can make sure that they are reached as well and that they know they need to apply.
We do not want to minimise the work that remains to be done, but applications have started to pick up. They were at 3.5 per cent. in mid-May, 10 per cent. by mid-June, 25 per cent. last week and they are now up to 33 per cent., so steady progress is being made. We recognise that there is much further to go, but there is other encouraging news, such as the fact that the British Beer and Pub Association reported this week that about 60 per cent. of pubs have now applied. If that rate of increase in applications continues, a very significant number of those that need a licence to trade will have applied by the first deadline of 6 August.
If licensees miss that deadline, they have not entirely missed their chance to apply. They will be able to apply as if they were a new licensee. That will be potentially a more difficult process because there would rightly be an opportunity for the local community to make representations. The key message that we should send out today is that they need to apply by 6 August and if they miss that deadline, they need to apply by 24 November.
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