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Mr. Don Foster:
The Minister needs to check his own legislation. Saying that licensees must apply by 24 November is a load of nonsense. Applications must be received far earlier than that, because time must be allowed for a potential appeal and the setting up of a magistrates Bench to hear it. There must be time for the
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application to be consulted upon and notice given, and time must be allowed for the local authority officers and then a committee to consider it. What is the Minister's estimate of the date by which an application needs to be made if it is to go through all the potential hoops by the second named day, 24 November?
James Purnell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I mis-spoke. I meant to say that licensees had to have their application in by 24 November. We would encourage people to get their application in as quickly as possible if they fail to meet the 6 August deadline.
I want to make it clear that we have no intention of delaying that 24 November deadline. We have been urged by a large number of organisations not to delay the deadline, including ACPO and a large number of organisations in the industry, which believe that the Act will be helpful to them. We have also been urged not to delay by people who are involved in dealing with antisocial behaviour, who want the new powers that come with the Act so that they can deal with concerns about that.
Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton) (Lab): I understand that some local authorities take a different attitude to licensing, and obviously there will be differences round the country. Is there a perceptible difference in the percentage of applications made in different parts of the country, or is it pretty uniform?
James Purnell: That is a good point. Application rates vary. Among the best ones, Bolton, for example, is up to 40 per cent. Some are below 20 per cent. We are working closely with all local authorities and have worked specifically with those that have received fewer applications, to make sure that we can help them increase the number of applications that they receive.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead mentioned the cost of licences. Yes, the cost of alcohol licences has gone up, but she knows very well that the reason for that is that previously the taxpayer was subsidising the cost of running the system, to the tune of £25 million a year. When the Bill went through Parliament, we said that that should not continue to happen. The taxpayer should not continue to subsidise the sale of alcohol because people are making money out of it. She and her party agreed with that principle.
It is important that the cost of the fees represents the actual cost of administering the system. That is why we have asked Sir Les Elton to examine the issue. The right hon. Lady will be happy to know that we have asked him to report by November with some initial recommendations, particularly if there are any anomalies to be addressed. He needs some evidence about the implementation of the Act before he can present us with evidence about the cost. That is why we said that after that first report he should report 12 months after the Act comes into force. Local authorities and industry broadly agree with that.
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Peter Luff : Will one of the anomalies that the Minister considers be the issue of sports clubs or holiday caravan parks such as the Ranch caravan park in my constituency, which is now assessed for its fee on the whole area of the park, not just on the size of the bar or the alcohol that is serves?
James Purnell: That is one of the matters that we have asked Sir Les Elton to consider. I am told that it depends on its hereditament and that it can apply, if it wants to, to have its rateable value applied just to the area where it sells alcohol. The hon. Gentleman's constituents can examine that if they are concerned about it. We will ask Sir Les Elton to consider that issue overall.
Chris Mole (Ipswich) (Lab): The Minister will recall that I wrote to him about a speciality cheese shop in my constituency that sold alcohol as a very marginal element of its business. Will he confirm that it would be right and proper for that business, and others that hon. Members mentioned, to make its contributions directly to Sir Les so that we can judge the Bill in its entirety, not on the anomalies that have been raised by a few hon. Members this evening?
James Purnell: We will indeed look at that. My hon. Friend may well find that that shop is at the lower end of the rateable value. If it is right at the bottom end, it will be paying £70 a year. Those are exactly the kinds of issues that we want Sir Les Elton and his colleagues to consider.
Let me say a few words about village halls, which several hon. Members have concerns about. We have responded to what the Prime Minister said at Prime Minister's questions. Today, I met representatives of Action with Communities in Rural England, having spoken to them previously, and we are going to consider their concerns. They have been working closely with my officials over the past few months and have been kind enough to say in their publication that the DCMS has been extremely helpful in helping them to explain to people how to comply with the Act.
ACRE is concerned about three things: the cost of the annual licence; the up-front cost of applying for the licence; and the fact that some volunteers are worried about the legal responsibilities that they take on. We have tried to clarify some of that, for example by saying that there is no need for the personal licence holder or the designated premises supervisor to be on the premises at any time that alcohol is being served. That has reassured people. We will continue to work with ACRE over the next few months on those concerns. We have written to Sir Les Elton to ask him to consider charges for village halls as a matter of urgency, and we will think about whether there are any other issues that we can deal with.
Alistair Burt : I am puzzled. If the Minister thinks that charges being levied on village halls are too high, why does he have to refer it to anyone? Can he not make a decision instead of asking Sir Les to look into it?
I have responded to what ACREthe representative body that we are dealing withhas asked us to do. It would be wrong to make a decision before the Act has come into force based on an inadequate
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understanding of the evidence involved. We are doing exactly as ACRE has requested, which is to look at the evidence that it collects and to refer it to Sir Les Elton, and if there are problems to try to address them in any way that we can. If there are matters that require primary legislation, we will have to wait for a legislative opportunity, but for those that do not require such change we will be happy to deal with them if there is evidence that that is required.
Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): In the year of the volunteer, does the Minister understand that bureaucracy like this is driving people away from doing important voluntary acts such as being on a village hall committee? It is not that these people have nothing else to do with their timethey really want to do something good for their community, but this sort of thing is stopping them volunteering.
James Purnell: We completely support and appreciate the work that is done by volunteers across the country, including in village halls. When I met ACRE representatives today, it was clear that many village halls have successfully applied for licences and that many welcome the extra flexibility that they will get, just as pubs welcome it. However, we recognise that some village halls would rather not take out a licence and would prefer us to increase the number of temporary events notices, or TENs. We do not rule that out, but it would need to be carefully considered. During the Bill's passage through Parliament, we increased the number of TENs from five to 12. It is worth noting that that regime is extremely deregulatory. Essentially, it allows the applicant to put on an event that can last for up to 36 hours without anybody being able to object apart from the police, who can do so only on the grounds of law and order. In effect, people can run events without any closing time and with no opportunity for the local community to make representations. If we accepted the suggestion of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, we would effectively have 30 of those events happening in any of our constituencies during the year, and they would not be confined to village hallsthey could be in pubs or anywhere else. If we did that without properly considering the evidence, our constituents might be rightly concerned that we had gone too far in the direction of allowing flexible drinking.
However, we do not rule out moving on the issue of TENs, and we are happy to look at submissions on that over the summer when we consult on regulations for the TENs regime. We will also be happy to consider whether there are particular ways in which individual categories of licensees can have the regime apply to them in a different way.
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