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Leader of the House

State Opening

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): Her Majesty the Queen will open the new session of this Parliament on Wednesday 15 November. I plan to announce the date of prorogation as soon as I am able.

Northern Ireland

Liquor Licensing

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): This statement sets out my plans to reform liquor licensing law in Northern Ireland. The last review of the law governing liquor licensing and registered clubs took place some 10 years ago. Since then the social and economic climate in Northern Ireland has changed and improved immensely. The peace dividend has altered the shape of the tourism and hospitality sectors and of town and city centres. There is great potential for further growth, and liquor licensing law must keep pace with these developments and with modern expectations.

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Coupled with that is the need for a more transparent, accountable and better regulated framework for the licensed trade. There are clear anomalies in the current licensing system and a requirement for greater enforcement powers for the Police Service of Northern Ireland to deal with breaches of licensing law.

The consultation on proposed changes to the existing legislation was launched in November 2005. Since then I have had a number of discussions with political representatives and other interested parties. There has been support from both local political parties and the licensed trade for many of my proposals. Concerns have been expressed by politicians and parts of the licensed trade regarding two of the proposed changes. These are the transfer of responsibility for liquor licensing from courts to district councils and the abolition of the ‘surrender’ principle. I welcome the views that have been put and now confirm that my plans for the reform of the law on liquor licensing and registered clubs in Northern Ireland are as follows:

The proposals will give police the powers they need to crack down on irresponsible drinkers and rogue traders and make the licensing system more transparent and accountable, giving communities more information and a louder voice in decision-making.

Allowing licensed premises and registered clubs to apply to the courts to extend their opening hours up to 2.00am is the result of careful consideration of the changes in people’s social habits and the opportunities available for developing the night time economy. I have listened very carefully to the arguments made by the licensed trade, the police, health interests and others, and balanced the economic and social advantages of extending opening hours with the public interest and public safety. Accordingly, I have decided that opening
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to 2.00am will be available to those licensed premises entitled under existing law to apply for later opening but not to off-licensed premises.

Transferring responsibility for granting liquor licences and club certificates from a court-based system to district councils will create a more accountable system where pubs, off-licences, registered clubs and other licensees will have to explain in detail how their businesses will support the six licensing objectives. There have been concerns expressed about the ability of councils to administer a new liquor licensing system. However, councils already operate a number of regulatory systems including entertainments licensing and street trading, and their range of responsibilities will be greatly enhanced under the Review of Public Administration. The capacity of new councils to undertake these new responsibilities is an issue that is being addressed in the period leading up to the full implementation of the Review of Public Administration. I wish to reassure those concerned that responsibility for liquor licensing will only move to councils once they have built the capacity to administer the new system.

The new system will operate under clear guidelines that will be issued to councils. They will be required to produce a statement of licensing policy that clearly articulates how they plan to control liquor licensing in line with the six licensing objectives. There will be further safeguards. Before councils reach a decision they will have to seek the views of responsible authorities and interested parties such as the Police Service of Northern Ireland, local residents and local businesses. All applications for a licence will be open to objection and a licence may be reviewed, revoked or suspended at any time if there is cause for concern. Those seeking a premises licence will be required to produce an operating plan setting out the nature of the business for approval by councils, and the need for any new licence will have to be clearly demonstrated.

I am replacing the current twelve categories of licence with a dual system of personal and premises licences. This will result in a more robust licensing regime. Personal licences are being introduced for the first time to ensure that those managing licensed premises have accredited qualifications and demonstrate clean backgrounds. This will improve operating standards across the licensed trade and protect against infiltration by those involved in organised crime.

The surrender provision has created anomalies in the licensed trade. At present only pubs and off-licences are required to surrender a licence before being granted a new one. This has capped the overall number of such premises in Northern Ireland, but it has not prevented the growth of alcohol sales in other premises such as large hotels, nor the clustering of pubs and off-licences in particular areas. It is also an artificial barrier to entry to the market and its abolition will create a more equitable commercial environment.

I have listened to the views of local politicians and parts of the licensed trade about the implications of the abolition of surrender. In response to their concerns, I will commission an assessment of the business impact of abolition before making any further decision on the way forward.

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I intend to implement some of the proposals as soon as possible. Those relating to enforcement, opening hours, children and registered clubs’ accounts should come into effect by Christmas 2007, and draft legislation will be consulted on in autumn 2006.

With regard to the move to councils, I intend to defer the consideration of this aspect of the legislation, along with some of the other proposals that depend on the new system being operational, to a second, later legislative vehicle. The Review of Public Administration is due for completion in 2009 and the target date for making legislation to transfer responsibility for licensing from courts to district councils and for the introduction of new licensing objectives will be linked to this. This tranche of legislation will also see the abolition of the existing categories of licence and, subject to an impact assessment, the surrender provision. The final decisions on this will hopefully be taken by a devolved Assembly, should it be successfully restored.

I believe this is a balanced package of measures that weighs up the rights, needs and demands of the various interested parties. They will bring licensing law in Northern Ireland up to date, both to deal more effectively with the alcohol-related problems we currently face and to meet modern day expectations. They will result in a more democratic approach that allows local people to have greater influence in how and where the licensed trade operates. They will promote a safe, welcoming environment in town and city centres where the evening and night-time economy can flourish and will encourage investment, variety and high standards of service in the hospitality, tourism and entertainment sectors.

Review of Public Administration

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): I wish to make a statement on progress on the Review of Public Administration (RPA). Implementation of decisions on the review follows statements to this House on 22 November 2005 and 21 March 2006. The outcome of the RPA represents the most comprehensive reform of public administration and services in Northern Ireland in over 30 years.

Implementation of these decisions, which involve radical restructuring of health and social services, education and local government, is now proceeding across a wide range of organisations and services. Robust programme and project management arrangements are in place to deliver implementation. These include a local government taskforce which is making a vital contribution to our new vision for local government. A steering group which is representative of the various sectors is led by the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service and formal arrangements are also in place to consult with trade unions as the implementation programme proceeds.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has tasked me with overseeing implementation of these reforms.

On 8 March 2006, this House was informed of the establishment of a Public Service Commission to
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safeguard the interests of staff affected by decisions on the review and ensure a smooth transition for them to new organisations.

Restructuring of Education and Health and Social Services is to be complete by April 2008. This is to include the establishment of new regional Authorities in each sector and early progress is being achieved towards this with the appointment of a Chief Executive (Designate) of the Health and Social Services Authority. A new Library Authority will also be created by this date. Transformation of health and social services is already well under way. Some 18 Health and Social Services Trusts are to be reduced to five larger trusts by 1 April 2007. Legislation for these is already in place and they will operate in shadow form from 1 August 2006. The chairs of these trusts have been appointed and a competition to appoint the chief executives has just been completed. We intend to appoint a Chief Executive (Designate) of the Education and Skills Authority in the autumn.

Seven pieces of primary legislation are required to implement RPA decisions. One of these is already in operation enabling the appointment of a Local Government Boundaries Commissioner on 1 June 2006 and setting out the procedures to be adopted by the Commissioner in drawing the boundaries of the proposed seven new district council areas. Three of the remaining six pieces of legislation will deal with health and social services, education and local government restructuring. The others will deal respectively with libraries, transfers of functions from central to local government and residual issues in relation to public bodies, including the removal of nomination rights to the boards of such bodies.

I shall keep this House informed of progress as preparation of these legislation proposals to implement this major restructuring programme continues.

Trade and Industry

EU Structural Funds

The Minister for Industry and the Regions (Margaret Hodge): On 28 February 2006, the Department of Trade and Industry published a consultation document on a draft National Strategic Reference Framework for future ED Structural Funds programmes.

The consultation document invited stakeholders to comment on three main issues: the methodology for allocating future competitiveness funding between the UK's regions; the administrative arrangements for delivering future programmes; and the strategy for future spending set out in the draft National Framework.

The Department of Trade and Industry is currently analysing the 320 responses to the consultation, received from stakeholders across the UK. The Government intend to publish a full response to the consultation as soon as possible after the summer recess.

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Government Assets

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Alistair Darling): The Chancellor stated in his Budget 2006 announcement that the Government would be prepared to consider selling part of their stake in British Energy. I confirm that the Government will actively consider a sale of part of their stake in British Energy via a capital markets transaction.

Trade and Industry

Informal Competitiveness Council

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Jim Fitzpatrick): My noble Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Science and Innovation (Lord Sainsbury of Turville) has made the following ministerial statement.

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Insolvency Service

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Jim Fitzpatrick): The Insolvency Service plans to deal with some 72,000 new insolvencies in the year to 31 March 2007 including a significant increase in personal bankruptcies. Its planning assumption for the level of redundancy payments and other, insolvency-related claims is 95,000.

In support of the policy that bankrupts who can make a contribution for the benefit of their creditors should do so, official receivers have been asked to ensure that, as last year, at least 17 per cent. of bankrupts agree or are ordered to make such payments. Action will continue to be taken against bankrupts and company directors in respect of financial misconduct or dishonesty and Companies Investigation Branch, part of the Agency from 1 April 2006, will continue to investigate the affairs of companies in the public interest.

The Service's new financial regime, put in place by the Enterprise Act 2002 will be reviewed in this, its third year and it is likely that new targets relating to unit costs and fees will be agreed as a result. The Service is required to balance its case administration costs and income over the three-year period.

I have also set the Insolvency Service the following targets for the year 2006-07:


Increase the level of user satisfaction index to

90 per cent.

Increase the level of public confidence in the service’s enforcement regime to

60 per cent.

Ensure the average time for concluding disqualification proceedings is no longer than

26 months

Complete internal section 447 investigations

within 90 days of commencement

within 180 days of commencement

60 per cent.

90 per cent.

Reduce the unit cost of redundancy payment processing by 31 March 2007 from the 2005-06 baseline


Process redundancy payment claims for payment within

3 per cent.

3 Weeks

78 per cent.

6 weeks

92 per cent.

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