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Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con):
I wish to give my right hon. Friend a further example not only of a police officer objecting to the current arrangements but of the consequences of doing so. The chief
24 Oct 2005 : Column 92
superintendent in charge of the Isle of Wight police has complained that she cannot provide the resources to police Newport, Ryde and other towns at 3 or 4 am if long licensing hours are approved. The response of licensing officers for the Isle of Wight council was that that was not a valid objection under the law that the Government pushed through.
Mrs. May: My hon. Friend makes an important point and I shall come to the problem of valid objections. That chief constable is not alone in her worries about police resources. Many police forces up and down the country have said that it will be difficult for them, with existing resources, to manage extended licensing hours and the resultant problems.
Mrs. May: I shall give way first to the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey), who has been assiduous in seeking to intervene, and then to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski).
"it still has concerns about binge drinking and the consequences of longer opening hours in some cases. The answer to this is changing the behaviour of customers and proprietors as well as strong licensing regulations."
"Since our first submission to the government in 2000, we have consistently raised genuine concerns over the possible effects of extending the hours during which people can drink given the culture of excessive drinking that already pervades our society."
Daniel Kawczynski: My right hon. Friend said that the Act would adversely affect constituents in towns and cities. I would also like to mention the many people in the rural villages near Shrewsbury in Shropshire. Many senior citizens have come to my surgery to tell me how worried they are about the effect that the legislation will have on village life, with some pubs planning extensions until 4 am. Many senior citizens choose to live in small rural villages so as to have a peaceful, quiet life.
Mrs. May: My hon. Friend is right. People's quality of life will be badly affected when the legislation comes into force, but even at this late stage the Government have an opportunity to think again.
I say to all Labour Members that there is one way to do something about that: they should vote with us tonight to tell the Government not to extend licensing hours, because that will encourage the binge drinking culture.
In previous debates, and during Culture questions today, Labour Members have raised the issue of police powers to tackle the problem. However, I question whether existing powers are being used to tackle under-age drinkers and other problems related to drinking. The number of people found guilty of, or cautioned for, offences of drunkenness has fallen by almost 10,000 since 1997. The number of people under 18 found guilty of, or cautioned for, buying intoxicating liquor has fallen by 81 per cent. since 1997. In 2003, only 53 teenagers were found guilty of, or cautioned for, buying or trying to buy alcohol. I would welcome new powers to deal with the problems of alcohol and young people, and with problem pubs and clubs, but existing powers also need to be used effectively. It is rich of the Government to say that the Act must go ahead because it gives the police extra powers to deal with problem drinking when it will actually exacerbate the problem.
When the legislation came before Parliament, colleagues on both sides of the House were given certain assurances, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) said. Ministers claimed that the new laws would give greater powers and discretion to local councils, and that local residents would have greater powers to deal with rowdy pubs and to shut down those that encouraged violent or antisocial behaviour. We were also assured, time and again, that the new laws would lead to the introduction of what the Prime Minister calls a European-style café culture. Tell that to the Council of Her Majesty's Circuit Judges, which, in its submission to Home Office consultation earlier this year, warned that
"those who routinely see the consequences of drink-fuelled violence in offences of rape, grievous bodily harm and worse on a daily basis, are in no doubt that an escalation of offences of this nature will inevitably be caused by the relaxation of liquor licensing which the Government has now authorised. We regard it as simply wishful thinking to suppose that the introduction of the Licensing Act will bring about the cultural change which Government envisages".
Mrs. Moon: I find it incredible that, at this late stage, the Opposition are objecting to an Act that will expand police powers, give local authorities additional powers to refuse licences and enable tougher action on under-age drinking. More importantly, in January 2005, the current leader of the Conservative party said:
Mrs. May: I would welcome greater powers for local residents to have a say in what happens in their locality but, while the role of the magistrates has been transferred to local councils, the result of the Act in practice is that the new system fails to provide a proper say for local communities.
Let us examine the detail of the Act's implementation. Applications are automatically granted unless an objection is made. However, only certain people are allowed to object. For example, residents can object only if they live in the immediate vicinity of the premises concerned. The definition of "vicinity" is down to the local authority. There are plenty of examples of local authorities that have adopted definitions such as 100 yd or 150 m, which has resulted in people being unable to object to applications for licence extensions until 6 am because they live 150 yd away from the pub or nightclub. They are told that they cannot object because they do not live close enough to it. Those who decide to take their objection to a magistrates court find themselves threatened with legal bills of thousands of pounds because they are responsible not only for the licensee's costs but for the costs of the local authority.
Mrs. Humble: May I express my concern at the right hon. Lady' s lack of faith in local authorities? In Blackpool, the local council has certainly not decided on some arbitrary distance from an establishment. It has allowed anyone in the town to object to a licence application. Those objections then go to the licensing panel, which listens to everyone who has made an objection. It listens to the police and to the local community before reaching an informed decision on behalf of the people it represents. Will she acknowledge the hard work carried out by local councils
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