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Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. For about half an hour this evening, Members and Peers were prevented from entering the building while the House was sitting. If the sitting had been suspended or the building had been evacuated, that would have been a legitimate reason for refusing entry. However, if it is the Metropolitan Police Commissioner who, in contravention of the Sessional Orders, has prevented Members from entering, may I ask for Mr. Speaker to request the Home Secretary to come and make a statement to the House? I believe that that is a serious contempt of Parliament and know of no constitutional precedent for Members being refused entry while the House is in session.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I understand that what the hon. Gentleman says about access is true. Whatever has been done will have been done with the knowledge and under the direction of Mr. Speaker.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab):
What we need are more flexible opening hours, and that is one welcome aspect of the Act. Flexible opening hours will certainly be a big improvement on the current position. Few if any establishments will want to open for 24 hours. Indeed, I think the Minister confirmed that none had applied to do so. A more flexible system to replace a single chucking-out time will probably lead to a more staggered leaving of pubs and clubsif that is the right term to use in this context. It would not work
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if some pubs closed at 1 am, some at 2 am and some at 3 am, because people would simply move from one to another, but I think that the later such establishments stay open, the more likely people are to disperse gradually. The current thinking of the Tyneside police is that the appropriate time is 3 am. I do not know whether that is the case, but it is probably about right.
The Act will be an improvement on the current system because of that greater flexibility and because there will be a single licence rather than the six for which people must often apply nowadays. After the initial registration, there will be less red tape. The Act will also bring more local control and more consideration of the needs of local communities.
Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Given the concerns of many chief constables, might it not have been better to trial the arrangements in certain towns to establish whether they would indeed reduce binge drinking and the violence that results from it?
Mr. Clelland: So far as I am aware, this proposal has been trialled throughout Europe, and notably in Scotland, for many years. The experience is that flexible opening does lead to less binge drinking and to less trouble on the streets.
The Act will also give local representatives more power to control licensed premises in their area in the interests of the local community, and to tailor activities and opening hours accordingly. For instance, local authorities might treat pubs and clubs on housing estates differently from those in city centres. But there is no doubt that implementation has led to some problems and I hope that the Minister will look again at how some of them might be alleviated. I do not share in the doom and gloom and cries of "Chaos!" from Opposition Members, but there are some issues that need to be addressed.
Last week, I had the honour to be elected joint chair of the all-party group on non-profit-making members' clubs. There are more than 5,000 of these private clubs throughout the country, and they are covered by the Working Men's Club and Institute Union and the Committee of Registered Clubs' Associations. Such clubs include working men's clubs, Royal British Legion clubs, RAF clubs, and Labour, Conservative and Liberal clubs. They are run for, and by, the members themselves. The members elect the committees and the committees elect the secretaries. They do not have the resources or the professional expertise of the big organisations. They are run bydare I say it?amateurs, although often very professionally. Some do have full-time secretaries, but they are not the professionals whom we expect to see in the big organisations.
There is no doubt that many club secretaries have found filling in the 18-page form daunting. I agree with the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May)that does not happen oftenthat, regardless of the number of boxes that club secretaries eventually need to tick, they still have to read the entire form to decide which need to be ticked and which do not. I spoke to one of my local club secretariesa very intelligent man who runs an excellent clubas recently as last Saturday, and on first receiving the form, he found it daunting and put
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it away in a drawer. On looking at it carefully some time later, he discovered that it was not as daunting as he first thought. On the other hand, club secretaries are often elderly and not necessarily computer literate. They have found dealing with these issues difficult, which may explain why less than 25 per cent. of clubs have returned their applications to date. Of course, the rate of return is increasing as 6 August appears on the horizon, but that in itself could cause problems as local authorities struggle to deal with an avalanche of applications. The Minister will doubtless want, as he has said, to stick to the deadline, but it is obvious that there will have to be some flexibility.
I am afraid to say that there has also been a considerable increase in the associated costs for clubs. A £16 licence will now cost £190, and to that must be added the cost of solicitors. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead said that solicitors have a licence to print money, but they have never needed a licencethey do it without one. Architects' plans are very expensive and we should also consider the cost of advertising. Some newspapers have capitalised on the situation by doubling the cost of such advertising. Clubs are having to fork out as much as £1,000that is not an unusual sumto comply with the administration associated with this legislation, so this is a problem. The Minister said that the legislation will save the industry some £2 million a year, but it will not save working men's clubs and non-profit making members' clubs that sort of money. They do not make a profit, so the extra costs will have to fall on the members.
On Monday, I asked the Minister whether he would include a representative of clubs on the licensing fees review panel, which Sir Les Elton will chair. The fee structure is a very important issue for clubs, so I hope that he will look at it and that more can be done to help clubs through that vehicle. Will he also look at the way in which local authorities are handling this matter? There is evidence to suggest that some councils and some police forces are pressurising clubs into applying for a premises licence, rather than the club premises certificate. That might make matters easier for local authorities and the police, but it will not be advantageous to clubs. They would be well advised not to take that course and to stick to the premises certificate.
There are some advantages for clubs in the new legislation. One is that they will be able to hold up to 12 special events in which non-members can participate without having to apply each time for a special licence. That will apply to weddings, christenings, birthdays and so forth and is to be welcomed. That was the intention. However, we now find that some local authorities take the view that if "The Dog and Duck" darts team visits the local club for a game of darts, that represents one of those special events. If that happens, all the special events in most clubs will be taken up in the first month, which I am sure is not what the Minister intended. I hope that he will look further into the problem and ensure that local authorities are advised that that is not the intention behind the Act.
In its operation, once up and running, the Act will be an improvement on the legislation that it replaces. It contains many welcome provisions and will make for a more flexible and less bureaucratic system. However, for whatever reason, it is causing initial difficulties and
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could lead to some smaller clubs and organisations losing their rights to trade after 24 November. I realise that that is not what Ministers want or intend and, with a little readjustment and a little rethinking, I am sure that the problems can be overcome.
Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) provided us with a long list of complainants and most of the complaints also apply to my constituency. However, I want to focus on one particular aspectvillage halls. The Prime Minister gave us a glimmer of hope, and the Leader of the House a faint glimmer of hope the next day, but I have to say that, in a Westminster Hall debate, the Minister brushed aside village halls in about five words. He seems to be a little more amenable this evening. I rather hope that we can secure much more rapid progress than he suggested in his opening speech.
As I mentioned in an intervention during the Westminster Hall debate, my constituency has about 32 villages, almost all of which have halls as well as churches that also have halls. I estimate a total of about 50 such halls in my constituency.
I cannot remember receiving so much vitriolic correspondence from so many people as I have received in connection with these halls. I would like to present to the Minister a few extracts from those letters. People from the Leigh village hall, for example, justly proclaimed that the hall was
"a central component of village life, providing the premises in which many activities are pursued. It is managed and maintained by a group of very publicly-spirited villagers, who give considerable time and effort to ensure it is always available as a clean"
Another example is from people associated with the Beare Green village hall. I shall pick out just a few points from a very long letter. The letter explains that the hall has been sustained up to now on the basis of making a tiny profit from each event. It runs a number of events and views a good profit as £100. Presently, six event licences cost £10 in total, but under the new regime, each temporary event notice licence will cost £21, putting the total up to £126, which obliterates more than the profit from one event.
"would like to emphasise that for small, multi-use halls such as ours, which are run entirely by volunteers for a local rural community, this new Act is a nightmare. The paperwork is oppressive whilst the limit of only 12 functions per year at which alcohol can be present is far too small."
I am aware that some of my hon. Friends want to add to my comments, so I shall be prompt. Essentially, under the new regime, people associated with my village halls feel that there is excessive bureaucracy. They have to produce plans, but they are not clear why they are required. Some have felt the need, as mentioned earlier, to consult lawyers and they are also required to produce an operating schedulewhatever that is for these tiny little halls.
Generally, each of these little village halls is run by a small group of people who are bullied and cajoled into serving. No one wants to be the designated licence holder. All the people to whom I have spoken think it ludicrous that the temporary event notice licence has been set at one dozen, and most would like the limit to be three or four dozen. Moreover, all of them feel that the fees are far too high, especially given the minimal profitif anythat the halls make. The House must bear it in mind that most village halls are run for the community, not for profit.
Some positive points have been made in the debate. I hope that the Minister will take them forward, and that he will do so quickly, as village halls that do not break even will close and never open again. I am tempted to suggest that Ministers might consider setting a de minimis level for some of the very small halls. Such halls serve very small communities and are run by a very few people, and they could easily fall below the de minimis level.
In such cases, there is clearly a need for a dramatic reduction in the fees. I hope that the Minister will consider changing the thinking behind the Act slightly and introducing the concept of personal licence holders for temporary events. Under that proposal, the person running an event would apply for a licence, at the previous level of £10. He or she would take responsibility for the event, with the result that the hall would not have to provide a person who would be personally responsible.
Local halls are vital in rural areas such as mine. Surrey is full of such halls, and they are of enormous value. Events such as Guy Fawkes night, Christmas and new year's eve will be on us soon, and the House must remember that local halls also present film evenings, opera sessions and so on. Although he does not come from a rural area, I hope that the Minister will accept that they play a very important role. We must save our village halls but, if it is not changed, this Act will destroy them.
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