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Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): I shall follow your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and try to be brief.

When the debate was called, I anticipated that the Secretary of State and many Labour Members would refer to the position that the Opposition took during the Bill's passage. Since I was the Opposition spokesman at the time, I read my remarks before the debate. At the time, we supported more flexible opening hours. However, even then, we raised some anxieties and we based our support for the measure on the Government's
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argument that longer and more flexible drinking hours might reduce binge drinking, crime, disorder and public nuisance. I pointed out that, even at that time, several people were questioning that assumption and that it was not necessarily the view of several police officers or local authorities.

Nevertheless, the Association of Chief Police Officers recommended supporting the relevant provision in the White Paper, subject to two caveats. First, it was concerned that there may not be sufficient police officers available to deal with problems that might occur later in the evening or the early hours of the morning. Secondly, it echoed the concern of the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) that the consequence of more flexible opening hours might not be different closing times but, because of competition and for other reasons, pubs all closing at the same time but later in the evening. At that time, fewer police officers would be available on the streets. The same problems would therefore arise but with fewer people to deal with them.

Genuine concerns were therefore expressed during the Bill's passage but the Government assured us that the police believed that the measure would contribute to tackling the problems and we supported it on that basis. However, since then, there has been a stream of informed protest from a wide variety of groups.

Several hon. Members have already cited people who have expressed anxiety and I do not intend to repeat their remarks, but let us consider the number of different organisations that have voiced their concerns. From the police, we have ACPO—my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) quoted the ACPO licensing representative—the chief inspector of constabulary; the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner; the Police Federation; and the chief constable of Nottinghamshire. It is plain that many police officers believe that the Act will make things worse.

The judiciary will have the job of enforcing the legislation, and both Her Majesty's Council of Circuit Judges and the Magistrates Association have been vocal in their criticism. In the medical profession, the Royal College of Physicians, the Irish Medical Organisation and, most recently, Professor Lord Winston, who sits on the Government Benches, have all expressed concern about the Act increasing the opportunities to drink and therefore increasing the likelihood of binge drinking, leading to alcohol-related disorder.

After the Bill reached the statute book, we discovered that concerns had been expressed not only outside Government but within Government. The then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), talked about the proposals in the Bill as

that risked "worsening the situation" of violent crime and yobbish behaviour, yet none of that was said when we debated the Bill.

I say to the Secretary of State and to the Minister who will respond to the debate that, at the time of the Bill's passage, we were willing to accept the assurances that the legislation was supported by the police and many others as a means of helping to solve the problem of binge drinking. Now we discover that there is a widespread belief that it will help to make the problem
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worse. We have changed our view on the basis of the fact that expert opinion is almost unanimous in its belief that the Bill poses real dangers. We now believe that the Bill should not be implemented. Having listened to expert opinion, we have demonstrated that we are a responsible Opposition. I just regret that the Government have not taken the same stand. I hope that, even now, the Minister will reflect on that.

In fact, not just expert opinion, but our own experience has led to our change of heart. I suspect that many hon. Members have been out with their local police, and I spent a night out with a police officer in a squad car. We responded to about 12 or 15 incidents. Every one was alcohol related. A lot is said about vertical drinking establishments in inner cities but the problem is now affecting every market town in Britain. Maldon and Burnham in my constituency both have a major problem with hooliganism that is directly related to alcohol. The incidence of such behaviour is another reason why we need to proceed cautiously.

I do not want to repeat the arguments that have already been advanced by the Front-Bench team; instead, I shall discuss two other aspects of the Act that have not been mentioned. First, let us consider its impact on village halls, which are central to many local communities. In my constituency, a new village hall was recently built, which cost £1.5 million. All the money for it was raised by the local community through the sale of land for building. That project did not receive any assistance from the lottery or Government. The village hall is a remarkable achievement, which will be a real asset to the community, but it needs to cover its costs. Those behind the project came to see me and said that the only way they could so was if they were able to rent the hall out for private functions on every Friday and Saturday of the year. At the vast majority of those private functions—parties, wedding receptions and the like— people will want to enjoy themselves and drink, but the village hall is limited to just 12 temporary event notices a year.

I know that the Minister has said that that limit will be considered and that a review is under way, but I hope that he will give at least some indication this evening that that limit will be raised significantly, because many village halls throughout the country will find it difficult to cover their expenses if they are confined to just 12 temporary event notices a year.

The other matter to consider is the effect of the Act on another institution that is central to many local communities—the sports clubs. The Central Council of Physical Recreation, which the Secretary of State cited in support of some of her remarks, has been vocal throughout in pointing out the huge burden and cost that the new provisions will place on thousands of sports clubs. I happen to be vice-president of Maldon cricket club, which, like many other such clubs up and down the country, is staffed largely by volunteers. It manages to muster three or four enthusiastic local teams, but it does a lot more. It provides an opportunity for young people in the community to learn about cricket and runs a quick cricket day for all the local schools. It is a hugely valuable resource.
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I asked the club organisers about the impact of the Licensing Act. They replied that there are two types of cost—financial and time—and went through how they add up. They wrote:

The cost of the licence was £100, plus a £70 annual charge, so the total cost so far has been a minimum of 15 hours spent and £384—and the club has still not yet been told whether it has a licence.

The legislation is having a real effect on thousands of clubs that do an enormous amount for their local communities. They should not be treated in the same way as commercial licensed premises. The CCPR has proposed some sensible ways in which relief could be given to sports clubs—for example, classifying them all in band A. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure me that he will provide the vital help that the clubs need.

9.7 pm

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