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Licensing Act

4. Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab): What assessment she has made of the impact of the Licensing Act 2003; and if she will make a statement. [20217]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (James Purnell): It will not be possible to assess the impact of the Licensing Act 2003 until after the new regime is fully in force on 24 November. However, the legislation is already having a positive impact as the police, environmental health officers and residents use the opportunity to influence licences. We will conduct a full assessment of the Act after its implementation.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I thank the Minister for his reply, but I am particularly concerned about under-age drinking. I welcome the tough new penalties for selling alcohol to those under 18. There was a particular problem in an area in my constituency called Buckland, where antisocial behaviour was linked with under-age drinking. A partnership was formed between the local Co-op store, the police, the council and residents. On investigation, they found that it was not a case of stores selling alcohol to children, but a case of adults purchasing alcohol on children's behalf. The partnership organised a local awareness campaign, but when the police spoke to parents, they encountered a lax attitude towards children's drinking. Would the Government be prepared to undertake a nationwide awareness campaign?

James Purnell: My hon. Friend has campaigned assiduously in her constituency, and we will certainly consider her suggestion of a national advertising campaign. That would, I think, be the right way in which to educate parents about their responsibilities. It is also important for us to implement the extra powers in the Act, such as the fine to punish those who sell alcohol to under-age drinkers, and the powers in the Violent Crime Reduction Bill which enable us to close for 48 hours premises that persistently sell alcohol to under-age drinkers.

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): A genuine fear in my constituency is that the Licensing Act will increase crime, disorder and antisocial behaviour. The Secretary of State has emphasised the extra powers that the Act will give the police, but the enforcement of the
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law will depend on there being enough police resources. The law is due to be introduced just before Christmas, when resources in the Metropolitan police area in London are likely to be considerably stretched because of the heightened terrorist threat that exists at that time. What representations has the Minister made to his Home Office colleagues with the aim of ensuring that we shall have enough police to deal with the problems that I expect to result from the introduction of the Act?

James Purnell: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We are having discussions with the Home Office and the police about how they can use the extra powers in the Act over Christmas to do exactly as he suggests. The Act is, however, already producing an improvement in licensing conditions. It has led to more people joining Pubwatch. The police are using it as a way of persuading people to sign up to CCTV and pager schemes and to employ extra door staff. The licensing process has tidied up and toughened the regime that operates in pubs, and it will help us to deal with problem pubs that have got away with their practices for too long under the current licensing laws.

Mr. Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton, South-East) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that a much under-reported aspect of the Act is the extent to which it empowers local communities to take action against the noisy and disruptive premises in their midst? Will he tell us the exact difference between the new situation and the old one, in which communities were disempowered from taking action against noisy premises in their neighbourhoods?

James Purnell: It was in response to campaigning by Members of Parliament that we introduced those extra powers. Any Member who has tried to have a pub closed down knows that it is virtually impossible to do so. Only 0.2 per cent. of premises failed to have their licences renewed last year. The Act provides for a review that any resident, the police or the council can use at any time to deal with a problem pub. We believe that the Act will change for ever the incentives provided for landlords, who will now know that if they misbehave or cause disorder on their premises, they will be on probation, that they will be targeted by the police and the council, and that their premises may be closed down.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): We already know that judges, doctors, many senior police officers, officials in the drink industry and the public at large are deeply concerned about the negative impact of the Licensing Act; but what about the Minister himself? When he was personally involved in drafting for the Labour party that infamous text message

did he imagine that, shortly before the 2001 general election, that message would give the impression that under Labour there would be a crackdown on binge drinking, or the impression that under Labour young people would have more time to get drunk?

James Purnell: I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, but he should know better than to believe everything that he reads in The Mail On Sunday. I can clarify that that report was total fantasy and that I had
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absolutely nothing to do with it. I was not working in Millbank; I was campaigning in Stalybridge and Hyde. As the Secretary of State has made clear, we regret that text message, but it had nothing to do with me.

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): In the light of answers given to my hon. Friends the Members for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) and for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden), will the Minister undertake to contact licensing authorities about this issue? There seems to be confusion at that end as to what they will allow residents to do. Four constituents have complained at separate surgeries that Dudley council, my licensing authority, is establishing a 100 m limit concerning the ability to object to licences, renewals or extensions. Will the Minister remove this confusion and give particular consideration to the portfolio holder who wrote to my local paper on Friday, saying that only residents who lived a short distance could—

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I appeal to every Member who asks a supplementary to be brief? It is not only the hon. Lady who was at fault; there were others. I call Anne Main. [Interruption.] Sorry, I forgot about the answer.

James Purnell: It probably was not worth waiting for, Mr. Speaker. [Laughter.] The definition of what constitutes a vicinity is a matter for local authorities, and we have written to them to encourage them to be as flexible as possible. As the Secretary of State said, we will review the guidance, and I encourage my hon. Friend to contribute to that review. We will look at this issue sympathetically.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): Given that the Minister is encouraging the police to participate more and to help residents to oppose inappropriate licensing applications, what is his opinion of the fact that the licensing authority in my constituency did not take into account anecdotal evidence from the police concerning the Blacksmith's Arms and the committing of 15 non-arrestable offences? It appears that the police's word carries no more weight than that of a licensee who says that he can manage the situation.

James Purnell: I obviously cannot comment on an individual case, but my experience across the country is that the police are proving successful in objecting to applications. For example, some premises are being closed down because they have a previous history of drug dealing or of causing disorder. As the hon. Lady knows, under this legislation there will for the first time be a review mechanism, so if the problems occur that she and the police are worried about, they can ask for an immediate review of the licence in question. The powers to deal with the minority of pubs and bars that cause problems are therefore much more stringent under this legislation, and they can be used much more rapidly.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): Will the Minister cast a quick eye over a potential unintended effect of the Act, which is to prevent
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voluntary organisations from holding fairs such as Nantwich fair? It would be very unfortunate if we lost what is a traditional fair because of the cost involved.

James Purnell: I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend or her constituents to discuss this issue. It has been clarified that there is no need for similar events such as the Somerset carnival to be licensed, but I am happy to examine whether the particular example of Nantwich fair is covered by such exemption.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): Alcohol-related deaths have risen by 18 per cent. across the country, and in some places by more than 40 per cent. Does the Minister accept that this figure is likely to rise again under the new Act?

James Purnell: No, I do not. Such problems are occurring under the existing legislation, which contains a loophole whereby hundreds of premises can remain open in all our city centres after 11 o'clock—320 can do so in Manchester, for example—but to exploit that loophole they have to put on dancing and music. If one were to try to design a system that is likely to make alcohol-fuelled violence worse, that would be it. That is why we want to change the system and to have such decisions made locally, on the basis of local circumstances and the advice of the local police.

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