Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op):
I rise to support the amendment and oppose the motion. The somewhat apocalyptic opening speech by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) did
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not do justice to the real issues in this matter. In contrast, the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) gave a much clearer demonstration of the genuine difficulties and offered a much more constructive approach to dealing with them.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead presented an apocalyptic vision of what local communities would be like after 24 November, with thousands of desperate drinkers milling around the streets looking for a bar that was open and congratulating those publicans who had managed to surmount the bureaucratic obstacles placed in their way by the Government. Similarly, I could imagine the heroes of my local Wednesbury rugby club turning up for after-match celebrations based on sandwiches and diet Coke. Again, according to the hon. Lady, toddlers and mothers would be crying in the street because they could not hold sessions for young people in halls and clubs whose locked doors bore the notice, "Closed Due to Government Bureaucracy".
I do not want to pour scorn on the genuine problems that people have raised, but overstating the case does the argument against the Act little good. I trawled through my memory for complaints that I had received about the legislation and recalled that, when the idea was first mooted 18 months ago, one sports club told me that it was worried that its bar might be priced out of activity. However, since the publication of the fees and the various regulations, I have received no correspondence whatever on the matter.
I have received correspondence from any number of my electors about nuisance from pubs, about antisocial behaviour generated by binge drinking youths and about clubs and publicans who were not prepared to recognise the legitimate concern of their neighbours about noise nuisance. I do not want to stigmatise the whole profession, because some publicans are responsible and are concerned about their locality and operate in a way that is compatible with good relations; none the less, there is substantial concern about the antisocial behaviour that is often associated with drinking.
The Act was passed in July 2003, so, by 24 November, people will have had two years and five months to apply for a licence and to get acquainted with the Act's provisions. The Government have not been passive. The Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell), who is not in the Chamber at present, listed the activities in which he has been involved to promote the legislation and the need to apply for a licence.
Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): It is only fair to point out that, in most local authority areas, the forms and guidance for applying for the new licences have been available only since the beginning of April, not two and a half years as the hon. Gentleman suggested.
No, but the hon. Gentleman overlooks the fact that there was debate with the industry and trade associations long before that. They were involved in drafting the regulations and the form from August 2004 until their publication in January or February 2005. They have had plenty of opportunity to become acquainted with the legislation and to understand the application process before the licences were available.
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David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): When the actions that the Minister spoke about earlier are supplemented locally by a proactive local authority, we can see the results. In my local authority, Brighton and Hove city council, until the beginning of last week, 78 per cent. of the premises expected to apply for a new licence had done so and more did so at the beginning of the weekI declare a non-registerable interest, as I have done before, as my wife is chair of its licensing committee. National action coupled with a proactive local licensing authority, offering support to the trade, can pay off. Does my hon. Friend agree?
When I consulted my local authority, Sandwell metropolitan borough council, it was clear that it saw no problem. It has engaged in a consultation and advisory exercise with people who were affected by the legislation locally. The authority anticipates being able to meet demand for applications from would-be licensees and has said that, if it is necessary for staff to work long, extra hours to get the licences through in time, they will do so. It reflects well on the local authority and emphasises the point made by my hon. Friend. With a proactive Government and a proactive local authority, the difficulties can be overcome.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) mentioned the kebab trade association, and that is an area of concern. In Sandwell, we have 23 kebab sellers, not one of which has as yet applied for the licence. I make a public offer to the Ministerunfortunately he is not in his place, but I am sure that his colleague will convey it to himto come to Sandwell and share a kebab at one of our magnificent local culinary establishments to promote the need to license them. I assure him of a warm welcome.
Mr. Bailey: That is a good point. For a start, they can speak in the Chamber to advertise the issue. I shall certainly ensure that my press release goes out to emphasise the point. When MPs know, after consultation with the local authority, that certain groups of licensees have not yet engaged with the process, they have an obligation to ensure that those people are informed of the need for a licence. We should do everything in our power to promote the new procedure.
I note that the Opposition want to extend the deadline for the submission of applications, but I seriously caution against that. Whatever deadlines are set, some peoplefor a variety of reasonswill not meet them. Penalties accrue if people do not return their tax forms, but some still fail to do so. If we put back the deadlines, the danger is that it will send the wrong messages to people. The Government have already had one of the longest possible consultation periods and extended the deadline already. A further extension would send the message that there is not much pressure on applicants to send in their forms, and that would be counter-productive. Selling alcohol is a serious professional
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responsibility. If people wish to sell alcohol in our local communities but cannotafter the whole process we have been throughget an application in on time, it raises serious questions about whether they should be allowed to do so.
My greatest concern is that, if we postpone the deadlines, we would also postpone all the other aspects of the legislation to deal with drunken and antisocial behaviour, including possible enforced closures and increased fines, which the public want. The Opposition's argument is that, because some difficulties have been experienced with the applications and fees from the licences, the whole raft of benefits from the legislationwhich the majority of the public desperately wantshould be postponed. That is not a credible position.
The Act is deregulatory, which the Opposition say they favour. It is cost-effective and, in the long run, will be simpler for those involved. Above all, it provides much needed associated provisions that would deal with the social problems that plague us day in and day out. I therefore support the Government's position on the legislation.
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey). I am pleased that, in his considered opinion, he thinks that the measure is deregulatory. I invite him to spend some time with Mr. Rodney Tate, chairman of the Swineshead village hall management committee, to whom I shall refer again later, who spent at least a week of his life dealing with the complexities of the 2003 Act, so that he can discuss his view of its deregulatory nature. I am not sure whether that meeting should take place at the village hall or in the kebab shop, but perhaps they could come to an accommodation there.
I shall do my best to be brief, as other hon. Members want to speak and an awful lot has been said already. I wish to tell the Minister that I revert to my usual position, which is that very few items of legislation are wholly bad or wholly good. I put the point to him that I put to the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell): Conservative Members' complaint is that all the evidence suggests that certain aspects of the legislation are defective and possibly highly damaging. What we seek on behalf of our constituents is a review of those items that are most damaging.
I am not persuaded by what the Minister said, when he suggested that, because of his meeting with ACRE this afternoon, the concerns of village halls have been well taken into account during the consultation procedure. Hon. Members with village halls in their constituencies know that those representing village halls have been engaged in an active national campaign for months to draw the attention of the Minister and the Government to their concerns. An eleventh-hour meeting shortly before the Act is implemented is hardly evidence of consultation or good faith.
I was not particularly taken in by that suggestion; nor was I particularly convinced by the fact that the matters in the Minister's remit about which he could take quick
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and urgent decisions were being referred to Sir Les for adjudication. It is unfortunate, of course, that the very mention of Sir Les brings to all our minds the great Sir Les Patterson, as personified by Barry Humphries, who knew so much about the cultural delights of alcohol that he was made the cultural attaché to the Court of St. James's. I know that this Sir Les is not the same one, but I think that he will live in our minds because of that very identification.
I wish to refer briefly to the efforts made by my constituent, Rodney Tate, who has been engaged in long correspondence with both newspapers and others to set out the problems. I pay tribute to him. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), I am picking out one exampleI could pick out many more, as there are 54 parish councils, well over 70 villages and a lot of village halls in my constituency. Rodney's criticisms are shared by a good number of others. I am grateful to Sue Norman of the Bedfordshire Rural Communities Charity, who has also been very active on behalf of village halls, which she loves and promotes. She shares with many others genuine concerns about the legislation's impact.
Rodney has been mentioned before in a previous speech as bringing the House up to date about these concerns. Swineshead is a village with 125 people in the northern part of North-East Bedfordshire. It has no pubthe pub closed about 10 years agoand no shop. An active village hall committee is absolutely vital to the village's well-being. Profits are modest and are used to benefit the village, so the taking away of any profits in extra bureaucracy makes a substantial difference.
Notwithstanding the review that is sent to Sir Les, I ask the Minister to pay urgent and immediate attention to issues that relate to cost in the first instance. The village hall's direct licensing costs this year will increase from £10 per annum to £240. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) mentioned, the annual renewal charge will be £70 for that village hall. Villagers can think of better uses for that hard-raised money than spending it on those extra costs.
The excessive bureaucracy was somewhat dismissed by the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West, but Mr. Tate tells us that he has spent a total of a week on seminars, form filling and correspondence. He draws attention to the fact that thousands of on-licence premises now need to apply for a variation of their new premises licences so that they can retain the extended opening hours over bank holiday weekends that were previously granted by magistrates' block extensions. As the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) said in his good and measured speech, that leads to extra fees, advertisements and notices to official bodies, so there is more bureaucracy to do something that is currently achieved with little fuss.
When the Minister conducts his review, will he consider the different interpretations of the Act by local authorities that is leading to different levels of fees being charged in otherwise similar circumstances? The duties of designated premises supervisors has again been raised because their onerous nature is driving people away from volunteering to do that important social job in their villages.
Additionally, individuals need to be trained to get a personal licence. Mr. Tate tells me that such training costs about £150, but the training needed for the licence
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holder at Swineshead village hall gives him the power to be the licence holder at much bigger premises, such as a town-centre pub. There is no correlation between the two roles, so the licence is being used inappropriately. It is ridiculous to train someone in a village hall in all the techniques required to run a big city-centre pub.