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Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the measure does not just affect smaller establishments in North Yorkshire? In Hammersmith and Fulham, our local paper carried the headline, "Booze Chaos", referring to the world-famous River Caféit was designed by Richard Rogers and was where Jamie Oliver learned his tradewhich is struggling with its licence. Its manager described the legislation as "a mass of confusion".
Where can people have a quiet drink once many small guest houses give up their licences? If they have children asleep upstairs, they cannot do so. If they want to go out, they run the risk of coming across the groups of people whose drinking the Government seem keen to encourage. This afternoon, I spoke to Boleyns nightclub on St. Thomas's street in Scarborough. It said that it currently closes at 2 am on a Saturday night but proudly added that, from 24 November, it could keep the bar open until 3 am. The new Opera House casino will soon open for gaming from 10 am until 6 am the following dayplenty of time to lose your shirt or your blouse if you are a granny. The bars will close at 2 am, but the casino confidently told me this afternoon, "We look forward to serving even longer hours after the law is changed."
While I welcome the principle of switching from magistrates courts to locally elected and accountable councillors, I am sad that the law of unintended consequences has once again come into play. Law-abiding responsible drinkers are having their holiday experience disrupted. Small businesses are facing disproportionate costs and bureaucratic burdens, while large pub chains and nightclubs are extending their hours and increasing their profits, resulting in obvious problems on the streets in the early hours. At a time when resorts such as Scarborough are trying to promote a café culture, the Government seem more interested in promoting the growing problems of an alcohol-fuelled yob culture. I support the motion calling for the postponement of the new measures and the extension of the transitional period until the problems that I have outlined have been adequately addressed.
Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con):
I am staggered at the complacency of those Labour Members who seem to think that, as long as people are not making applications for 24-hour licences, everything is fine. The people of St. Albans are desperate for me to bring their concerns to this debate, as they will be badly affected by the Act. St. Albans is a lived-in city, not a desolate, late-night city. It is not a city that shuts up shop when everyone goes home to the suburbs. It has familiar large-name retailers, as well as small cobbled alleys, quaint historic quarters, picturesque conservation areas and lots of pubs. But people also live and sleepor try to sleepin the heart of St. Albans.
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According to the chief licensing officer, St. Albans has more licensed premises per capita than anywhere else in Europe. The sheer number of those premises already causes problems with late-night noise, antisocial behaviour and policing issues. Those adverse effects are not covered in the Act. We are talking not about people bashing each other to bits on the streets, but about general rowdy behaviour that does not constitute an arrestable offence. At the moment, most of that noise and disruption ends at about 1 o'clock, when most of the drinkers disperse, often waking residents as they leave to go home. However, residents now fear that that disruption will carry on deep into the early hours of the morning. Okay, it might not go on for 24 hours, but 4 o'clock in the morning sounds pretty late to someone who has to get up at 6 o'clock.
The chief constable of Hertfordshire, Frank Whiteley, warned the Government that the new laws would be a disaster. Yes, that is another chief constable who is on record as a staunch opponent of the Act, and he says that his views have now hardened. At a recent meeting, he said that, because of the sheer number of licensed premises in St. Albans, he could not police them all. If he were even to try to do so, he would have to take resources from elsewhere. Front-line policing would have to be diverted to deal with licensed premises.
Between April 2004 and March 2005, there were 1,310 incidents of alcohol-related crime and disorder, and 848 alcohol-related arrests, most of which took place on a Saturday night. Seventy per cent. of police officers polled by Alcohol Concern reported that alcohol-related incidents frequently diverted them from tackling other crime. That is certainly true in St. Albans.
Like many other Members, I have spent a Friday night out with a local police inspector. My inspector and I visited a local pub, where we saw a young girl lying in the toilets, drunk and vomiting, at 10 o'clock. This was not because she was short of drinking-up time; she was just drunk. She is a product of our vertical binge-drinking culture. We saw men outside the Water End Barn, which has a later licence, so the drunkenness goes on until later. It takes £60,000 a week and is now licensed until 4 o'clock in the morning. In an attempt to get a slice of that very lucrative pie, other bars are following suit and applying for later licences. The complacency of Labour Members is not shared by the licensees of St. Albans; they all want some of that pie.
I have seen the police operating at first hand, and I know that they are reluctant to arrest a shambling drunk if he is not causing too much trouble. The figure of 848 arrests is therefore the tip of the iceberg. As our inspector pointed out, our cells and accident and emergency units would be overflowing if everybody who was drunk was arrested or sent for treatment. Individual revellers are often noisy, but do not commit an arrestable offence. So nothing much can be done as they clatter down the streets, keeping the people of St. Albans awake.
"Cumulative impact" is a vital factor in a city such as St. Albans, but the local council's licensing policy is far from robust, and "cumulative impact" is not accepted
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when applications are being considered. Each application has to be judged on its own merits. Many city centre residents have joined the Save Our Sleep campaign in an attempt to lobby the council. They are worried about the problems that the evening economy is bringing. They put up a spirited, well informed argument at the meetings, and they are regularly supported by our local police, whosuch is their concernhave taken it upon themselves to alert residents to applications by giving out leaflets to affected homes. But this is all time-consuming for the residents, the police and, most importantly, the council, which has had to put masses of extra resources into dealing with these issues.
At present, we have six committees dealing with licensing. They have granted 400 licences, and still the deluge continues. Before the Act, the former, Labour, Member for St. Albans reckoned that only about 1 per cent. of licensees would apply for longer hours, but the figure is 40 per cent. Just as importantly, many of the premises offer music and entertainment. Some residents who have bought flats above small shops now find themselves above café bars that have turned themselves into late-night music venues.
With so many licensed premises in St. Albans, it will be almost impossible firmly to attribute blame, which is part of residents' problem. They are worried that if they challenge, they will have to pay their costs on appeal. Residents are also worriedthe Government have not tackled thisthat the future sale of their properties may be blighted if they keep being in dispute with local pubs and highlight the nuisance, so some are choosing to stay quiet. Some city centre properties are already blighted and some residents are moving out.
So how is the council coping and interpreting the policy? I believe that it is a shambles in St. Alban's, with brewers being the winners. At a recent licensing meeting, the chair gave her view that the council was "here to compromise". Perhaps that is the mediation to which one Labour Member referred. In this case, compromise means that if one applies to open until 3 in the morning, then quickly changes it to 2 in the morning, the objections of residents to 3 in the morning are deemed not relevant. Local police officers turn up to support residents with anecdotal evidence of rowdy behaviouras I said earlier, they do not arrest everybodybut those views are deemed hearsay if an arrest has not been made, and the council cannot take it into account. St. Albans has also adopted a policy of not defining a vicinity. In theory, that means that anyone can object, but the reality is that the committee is left unsure as to how much weight to give to objections. Again, how will that stand up on appeal?
Worst of all, there is no concept of cumulative impactthe onus is on residents to monitor the licensed premises and then petition for enforcement if they can "show nuisance". It is a topsy-turvy way of dealing with the issue, which has residents and police wringing their hands. Is that what the Secretary of State meant when she assured us that the Act would increase the influence
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and power that residents and their associations would have over licensing? Well, my residents feel impotent. It does not matter what they say or dothe licences are being passed.
The current noise nuisance hotline, which shuts at midnight, will now have to be extended until later. Can the Government honestly assure the council tax payers of St. Albans that all these extra resources will be covered by the fee? When the Secretary of State said that the fees will give local authorities the tools to do the job, did she envisage a 24-hour noise hotline, teams of additional council officers patrolling pubs, more enforcement officers, additional street cleansing and litter collection?
We need to stop before it is too late. We need to tackle the vertical binge drinking culture. If we want our cities to remain homes to families, welcoming to visitors and centres of tourism, we need to stop the binge-drinking culture and this flawed Act. I ask the Secretary of State to resile from her stated position and delay the implementation of the Act. It is folly. The people in St. Albans do not understand why you are not listening to them. Just because it is not causing a problem in your particular constituency
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