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Alistair Burt : The hon. Gentleman was rather cheekily challenged on his party's attitude to binge drinking. Might not that intervention have had rather more force had not one of No. 10's policy advisers, Miss Casey, given a rather different interpretation of binge drinking last week? It ill becomes Labour Members to take up that issue tonight before there has been a full recantation of such views by such an important adviser.
Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman makes his point eloquently.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, although the Government are obsessed with public research, they are ignoring their own research into public opinion, which shows that the country is not with the Government on this issue? The country does not want an extension of licensing hours. Market towns such as Newport, Shifnal and Albrighton in my constituency see the after-effects of binge drinking on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is largely right. However, I suspect that his constituents, like mine, will welcome some aspects of the Licensing Act, such as the increased powers of the police to take action against bad behaviour in pubs and clubs. Some people might, in certain circumstances, welcome the flexibility that the Act provides, but there are many other aspects about which people are rightly concerned.
I do not wish to repeat the points made by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who identified a large number of problems relating to the Act. I merely wish to add a few more to the list, so that the Minister can explain, to the House and to anyone else who might be interested, how we got into a situation in which the Government have introduced legislation that is frankly a complete and utter Horlicks from beginning to end.
For example, the Act provides for an escalator for the fees charged for big pubs in town centres where there are problems. That is finewe understand the "polluter pays" principlebut why will nightclubs not have to pay an escalating fee as well? Nightclubs contribute equally to the problem in many of our town centres, yet they will get away scot-free. That simply does not make sense. Why will pubs have to pay £1,200 for the first year and £700 in subsequent years, when nightclubs will pay nothing? We know the answer. The legislation defined nightclubs as not being primarily for the sale of alcohol. The Government should have spotted that and done something about it.
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At Question Time yesterday, I raised the issue of a special saturation policy. Surely the Minister must acknowledge that only about one in five local authorities have availed themselves of what might have been a good opportunity for local communities to control problems in their locality, because, as Andrew McNeill, the director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies says,
We need a solution to that problem.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead and the Minister have talked about a late surge in applications. Has it not occurred to the Minister why there is a late surge? It is because of the way in which the Act is framed. It says, bizarrely, that if someone applied for their new licence on the first named day, back on 7 February, they would next have to pay for their renewed licence on 7 February next year. However, if they delay applying for their licence for as long as possible, they will not have to pay for their renewed licence until very much later. So there is a perverse incentive for people to delay their applications, and it should come as no surprise that that is what pubs and clubs are doing.
The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) is not in his place at the moment, but I know that he is particularly exercised about this aspect of the Act. He had a debate on the subject in Westminster Hall on 2 June, during which I intervened on the Minister and asked him to explain a number of potential anomalies in the legislation. I should like to give the Minister the opportunity to do that tonight, because he has now had more than a month to work out his answers.
Can the Minister tell me whether the licensee of a hotel will breach the Licensing Act if a 16-year-old is left by themselves in a room in that hotel that has a mini-bar? Hoteliers are concerned to know. Clearly, after a month, the hon. Gentleman still does not know. I shall try again with another point. Is it illegal for a 16-year-old to go into a supermarket between midnight and 5 am to buy a loaf of bread, if that supermarket is selling alcohol?
James Purnell: That is perfectly legal, and on the hon. Gentleman's other point, we have no policy objective of making that illegal either, so both those points are distractions.
Mr. Foster: The question is not whether that is a policy objective but whether the legislation makes it illegal or not. Can the Minister tell us whether it is legal in relation to the hotel?
James Purnell indicated assent.
Mr. Foster: It is legal. Good. Many people will be delighted to know that we have an answer. Equally, however, many questions remain unanswered.
In relation to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) about carnivals, the Minister has said that the Government will look into his helpful suggestion. The Minister should be aware, however, that under the current legislation a float in a carnival can legally go ahead and not require a licence, but the marching band coming
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behind the float is likely to be in breach of the legislation, which is why carnivals, which are often hybrids of floats and marching bands, are so concerned.
The Minister agreed to look into the issue of circuses, but we still do not have clear answers. He has also agreed to look into the issue of village and community halls, but again we do not have clear examples. In relation to temporary event notices, he says that consultation on the details has not even started, and he said interestingly today that the number of events in a particular village or community hall will be considered before such a temporary event notice will be given, which will be welcomed by the House.
The Government have also made a Horlicks in their failure to do much about the legislation once they got it through Parliament. The Minister has only recently been on his grand tour, having all his press conferences, having photographs taken and sending out leaflets. It was far, far too late. The Government must take much of the blame for the low take-up, not only because of the fee structure but because of the failure to publicise the legislation.
Is the Minister aware of the problem in respect of theatres? We are told of a figure of 33 per cent. overall, but I have evidence that only 10 per cent. of theatres have so far applied. Will he advertise to them the need to do something? Why are so many parent-teacher associations, individual schools and others still applying in their droves to magistrates courts for licences for events that will take place after 24 November? Clearly, they have not yet been told that they need to do something differently.
Why have local authorities, which were abiding by the guidance issued by the Department, only recently started to be slightly more flexible about whether they can accept application forms in the wrong colour ink? Many application forms have been rejected because they are in the wrong red ink. At long last, the Department has said that local authorities should forget the guidance that it issued, and that it was perhaps a bit over the top. [Interruption.] That is true, and the Minister should be aware of it.
All that is not surprising, because everything was done so late in the day. The fee regulations were published on 20 January this year, only two weeks before the first appointed day, 7 February. Interestingly, as Members will know, the House did not get round to debating the fee regulations until 23 February, long after the first appointed day, which incidentally is in clear breach of the parliamentary 21-day protocol.
Delay in respect of the pub use class orders also raises issues. We were told that pubs were going to be made a single class order. A press release issued on behalf of the then Minister for Housing and Planning on 27 November 2003, was entitled, "Hill calls time on high street blight". But when was legislation brought before the House? As we know, the Government acted 14 months later, on 21 January 2005, and yet there is clear evidence that in the intervening period there was a huge upsurge in the number of pubs and clubs on our high streets, the competition between which drove down the price of drinks and led to the development of the happy-hour culture.
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I genuinely believe, and I say to the Minister, that there is no evidence to suggest that the Act will help deal with binge drinking. It is clear that it is extremely uncertain that it will. It would therefore be sensible to delay implementation. The Government could and should be doing a number of things, such as providing for better labelling of alcoholic drinks, more funds for treatment of alcohol abuse and improved alcohol education in our schoolsand what about at least giving the House some benchmark statistics to enable us to judge whether the Act, if implemented, will have led to the improvements that the Minister has claimed for it? We have seen no evidence of the Government's willingness even to consider producing agreed figures of that kind.
We also need to know about a minimum price policy. At present there is total confusion over the ruling of the Office of Fair Trading on whether local authorities have power to set a minimum price for drinks.
The Act was rushed through, not as a result of a desire to deal with binge drinking but to pander to the youth vote, as we know from the infamous text message
We know why the legislation was introduced. It was not introduced to address the issues of binge drinking. It was introduced in haste, without thought. Indeed, as the Minister said, the Government are still thinking about it now. It is full of problems, and is causing a great deal of difficulty to a great many people. It would be far better to concentrate on some of the other measures that could deal with binge drinking before implementing the Licensing Act.
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