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Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) for keeping his speech brief and giving me an opportunity to address the House. I have discussed the issue with the Minister on previous occasions because, unlike the constituents of the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey), two categories of people in my area have been inadvertently affected, including small, independent publicans. Much of the Licensing Act 2003 appears to have been drafted to allow major pub-owning groups to comply with the immense additional bureaucracy that, as I have seen for myself, is involved in the initial application. I appreciate that the application may not have to be repeated, but for a publican operating on his own, perhaps with the help of his wifemany of the pubs that are still going in villages in my rural constituency are run in that waythe prospect of having to complete a 77-page application is overwhelming. In a village near Bridgnorth that I shall not name for fear of precipitating problems, the publican is in the throes of deciding whether to carry on, given the challenge of completing the application form, not least the requirement to provide a seating plan of his pub. For what purpose? What on earth has that got to do with having a licence or not having a licence? There may be other health and safety reasons, such as fire regulations, for providing a seating plan showing the position of the chairs, but that has nothing to do with a licence. That is one category about which I am concerned.
As the Minister is present, I want to raise an issue that was touched on by the hon. Member for Caernarfonsmall guest houses. He mentioned bed and breakfasts in his constituency. We have a number of small guest houses in some of the towns in my constituency. I am thinking particularly of Church Stretton, an area that is trying to attract rural tourism. A number of the small houses there might have two or three bedrooms for use as bed-and-breakfast accommodation. They have a licence for the sale of the odd bottle of wine. The Minister said that the legislation would save money for these licence holders. At present a three-year licence costs £30. The licensees now face a tenfold increase in the cost of obtaining a licence. If they are selling only a few bottles of wine a year, I am told they will not bother
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to carry on doing so. So the Act may reduce the services available to the tourists in the area, making it less attractive and reducing economic activity.
My constituent who runs The Studio restaurant in Church Stretton was unfortunate enough to go up a rateable value band as a result of the change in the rateable valuation. As a result, his fee will increase not just by 10 times the current charge, but more like 20 times, from £30 to £730 for no reason whatsoever, other than that his rateable value just tipped him over into band B.
The second category, village halls, has been mentioned by many hon. Members. Rather than quote at length from the raft of examples raised with me by village hall committees, I shall pick up two points to illustrate the financial viability question posed by the legislation and a point about TENs. Brian Wilkes, who is the chairman of the Cleobury North and district village hall committee, tells me that the village hall
"is run entirely by volunteers and last year the income was less than £3,000, with expenses of £3,600. The difference was met by donations and fundraising. We are applying for a new licence under 'grandfather rights', however this would restrict us as we would only be allowed 12 licensed events each year."
The other example comes from Mrs. Mollie Oatley MBE, who is the secretary to the management committee of the Newcastle community centre, which is a thriving centre but has running costs of £10,000 per annum. At present the licence is provided by the village publican, Mr. Tony Burton of the Crown Inn, who runs the community bar and provides the profits as a contribution towards the hall.
Because the committee has to hold so many events in order to meet its costs, the 12 permits allowed under the temporary events notice are insufficient, so the committee is contemplating having a full premises licence to allow 50 licensed events per annum. The problem is that Mr. Burton, as the first point of contact, is not prepared to undertake responsibility for that number of occasions during the year. As a consequence, he is proposing to pull out of the arrangement with the community centre and none of the other trustees are prepared to take it on. The point is a serious one, which I hope the Minister will address in his concluding remarks.
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): The legislation seems to have been with us since the ark. It is now two years and rising, and the Under-Secretary of State is the third Minister who has been sold this hospital pass. The Minister of State should know better than to have delivered it into his hands in the condition in which it arrived.
Flexible hours was never an issue. Twenty-four-hour drinking was never an issue, as the Minister continually asserts, most recently on the "You and Yours" programme only a few Fridays ago. There are real concerns, though, and there is considerable agreement on both sides of the House about what they are. They include binge drinking; the proliferation of drinking establishments in town and city centres; over-regulation; confusing, unintelligible bureaucracy; and
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loading unnecessary expense on sports clubs and community and village halls. Conservative Members are absolutely right to raise those matters in this debate.
The motion is not an attack on the whole Act, only on those parts of it that are not working and unlikely to work in the time scale of implementation. We agree with the Government on the objectivesprotection of children, flexible opening hours, and new powers for local authorities and the police to tackle nuisance and antisocial behaviour, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey).
However, five months into the application phase of the implementation of the Act, we are hearing alarming stories about the lack of applications, spiralling costs, widespread misunderstandings, and simple mistakes arising from the complexities of the system. In his parliamentary answer to me only a few days ago, the Minister estimated that approximately 47,500 applications for premises licenses and club premises certificates under the Act have been madethat represents approximately 25 per cent. of existing licensed premises and registered clubsand said that he would expect 65 per cent. of those applications to involve variations. With variations, of course, come the possibility of objections, local hearings and appeals, and the rest of it. Surprisingly, the Minister went on to say that he had no estimate of the number of applications that will have included regulated entertainment as a licensable activity.
The progress of the Act from July 2003 has been dogged by periods of delay and inactivity, accompanied by a refusal by all DCMS Ministers to revisit the timetable although it has been glaringly obvious that the necessary infrastructure has not been in place early enough to move forward to the next stage. It took a whole year for the Government to finalise the guidance to the Act. That guidance, which was acknowledged by both Houses of Parliament as being fundamental to an understanding of the Act, was published only on 7 July 2004, when councils were obliged to draft, consult and finalise their licensing policies. An Act of 201 clauses and guidance of 178 pages takes some understanding. Add to that the fact that at the time none of the secondary regulations had even been drafted, never mind approved, and if ever there was a recipe for confusion right from the start, that was it.
The application in the transition phase runs to more than 245 pages, and copies of the 26-page form that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) showed to the House have to be sent to eight "responsible authorities" plus the Licensing Authoritynine in total. The number of pages is the same whether or not one wants to change the licence in any way. Thanks to the Government's refusal to grant grandfather rights for the provision of live music under the two-in-a-bar rule and the loss of bank holiday extensions, many businesses will have to fill in 18 pages of the 26-page form that relates to varying the licence. The form is complicated and the process itself is complicated. I have had letters from individuals running clubsexperienced retired business peoplewho say that it took them 200 hours to complete the form satisfactorily to the Licensing Authority's requirements.
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In many cases, the lack of information meant that councils could not release draft policies until September or October, thereby truncating the consultation process and time for consideration. Regulations were finally laid on 13 January to come into force on 7 February, the first appointed day. Even at that stage, the forms on the DCMS website were incorrect and did not conform to the regulations. Corrections had to be made to the forms, which were reissued on 7 February.
It proved difficult, without the forms, the regulations for the required plans, the advertising requirements and other similar details, for businesses and councils to plan ahead. In March, several interested parties, including the Local Government Association, the Local Authorities Coordinators of Local Services, the British Beer and Pub Association, the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, the British Institute of Innkeeping, Business in Sport and Leisure and the Association of Chief Police Officers, wrote to the then Minister to express their concern about the lack of applications to licensing authorities.
Several issues, which caused delays and obstructions in the system, were highlighted. They included a lack of awareness of the new law among existing licence holders, especially small independent businesses, and the late laying of regulations. Many of the problems could have been avoided by postponing the start of the application processthat is, the first appointed day. That would have given more time for everyone to get to grips with the intricacies of the process.
The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) mentioned the due date for annual fees, which are required to be paid on the anniversary of the granting of a licence. That provides no incentive for early applications. Other problems include: the absence of a slip rule in the regulations, which would allow the correction of minor errors rather than mean the rejection of applications; the implications of alterations to licences after the first appointed day, for example, the change of licensee, and the lack of clarity around aspects of the existing law, which the new Act perpetuates. I refer especially to embedded rights and restrictions about which the DCMS and the Local Government Association cannot agree even at this late hour.
Several hon. Members mentioned village halls, including my hon. Friends the Members for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) and for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead. The Under-Secretary's concession of an offer to revisit TENs is tantamount to accepting that the Act has got it wrong. Although it is reassuring to know that he spoke to representatives of ACRE only today, they must have told him what they told us back in spring 2003. ACRE was not offered meetings then, and the Government arrogantly rejected its sensible proposals for practical implementation of the new licensing regime.
We tabled amendments to address the key issues of the number of temporary permissions, the special case for voluntary and non-profit-making organisations, increased costs for licensing and the added administrative burdens for volunteers in village communities. The relevant amendment in Committee was No. 213, which was moved at column 456 of the Official Report of Standing Committee D on Thursday 8 May 2003. The Under-Secretary need look no further
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because ACRE gave us that amendment, which deals exactly with the points raised in the debate. It defines a voluntary organisation and it requested the number of TENs to be increased from five to 24. The Government conceded 12. The Under-Secretary's offer to reassess that is welcome but it is frustrating that that could have been sorted out more than a year ago.
Many hon. Members raised the time scale for implementation, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead, the hon. Member for Bath and the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West. The cut-off date of 6 August for transitional applications is probably set in stone at this late hour. However, the second appointed day is not. We still await the statutory instrument to legitimise the date. Since there is no time, I suggest that, before the House goes into recess, the Under-Secretary must be reserving his option to monitor developments through the recess and well into October. I predict that, if a backlog remains, thereby choking up local authority licensing committees, the statutory instrument will not confirm 24 November but a date that is, as my right hon. Friend requested, well into the new year 2006.
We can well understand the Minister's reluctance to indicate any slippage at this juncture, but if the fears of many of those directly involved are realised, the sheer volume of applications sitting with local authorities and the cases queuing up for appeal hearings will force the Minister to do a major U-turn. As with so many sensible and practical suggestions relating to this legislation, "You heard it here first!"
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