Previous Section Index Home Page

19 Mar 2008 : Column 290WH—continued

My hon. Friend is particularly concerned about the control of a lap-dancing establishment in her constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) also raised some important concerns about such establishments. However, as has been said, I cannot comment on individual licensing decisions, and it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the ruling of a magistrates court or to speculate on the possibility of judicial review and its outcome. I understand the frustrations of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham’s constituents, but the matter has not yet been fully
19 Mar 2008 : Column 291WH
resolved. She will know that it is an established and fundamental part of our democratic and legal structure, not to mention human rights law, that there must be scope for independent review of court decisions. That must be the case no matter how much each party might think that it is in the right, and even if it is understandably frustrating to parties when appeals and reviews take time to be considered properly.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hove, whom I met yesterday to discuss the concerns about lap-dancing clubs in her constituency and similar issues that have arisen in other parts of the country. Having reflected on those points and on the matters that have been raised today, I believe that the Licensing Act 2003 is able to control such premises when problems relate to the four licensing objectives. The examples that my hon. Friend gave me yesterday show that the Act has successfully been used in some areas to control lap-dancing premises when there have been problems with the protection of children from harm or with illegal activities being carried on there. The Act can also be used to apply conditions to protect the safety of those working and performing at such premises.

Much can be legitimately done under the Licensing Act to control such premises, but I appreciate that there may be uncertainty among some local authorities, so I am happy to write to chief executives to clarify the position. It is important that we show some consistency and write to them about the position. The 2003 Act cannot, however, prevent such activities taking place because of concerns about public decency and obscenity, or the inappropriateness of that activity for a particular area. Although those may well be important and legitimate concerns, it is not appropriate to consider them under the Act. To do so would mean adding new licensing objectives that would then apply to all 200,000 premises licensed under the Act, and that would not be efficient or proportionate. It is also important to recognise that the Act is not about censorship and does not in itself regulate the content of entertainment. Those are much wider issues that relate to the balance between public sensibilities and freedom of speech and artistic expression.

I should add that the Court of Appeal has previously ruled that certain lewd sexual acts should not in any case be considered as public entertainment, so it is questionable whether entertainment licensing could ever cover all those activities. It is precisely because such exhibitions must be in tune with laws on indecency, obscenity, prostitution and pornography that the lead responsibility lies with the Home Office. If the regulation of those premises is inadequate, it might be that regulation akin to the licensing of sex shops under the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 would be more appropriate, as my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham said. Alternatively, it might be something that planning law could cover.

I cannot make any commitment at this time, as my hon. Friend will understand, but I certainly shall raise those matters with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), and ask him to consider those points in discussion with me and the relevant Communities and Local Government Minister with responsibility for planning policy. My hon. Friend visited Durham, and I shall certainly consider the opportunity to visit, if we
19 Mar 2008 : Column 292WH
have those meetings with ministerial colleagues, to see if we can come up with something positive.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham also cited areas where she felt that the Licensing Act may not operate in the best interests of her constituents. Without commenting on individual cases, it seems to me that in most instances a satisfactory conclusion has been reached. It is important to remember that the Licensing Act brought in an important additional safeguard: it is possible to seek a licence review if problems occur at a premises. I know from going around with the police in Bradford that they have been very happy to be able to deal through the review process with problems that arise once the licence has been approved.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: Some of my constituents have made the following point. They know that the provision exists for a review, but just as it is very onerous for local residents to take an appeal through the magistrates courts, and the higher courts if necessary, they say that as local residents, it is difficult for them to get organised in order to get a review carried out. If the Minister could offer some advice, that would be very helpful.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am grateful for that point. It is certainly not our intention to make the process more difficult for local people; in fact, the Licensing Act’s objective was to make it easier for local people to take a view. That is why it is important to consider other legislation that might be able to assist the process.

One particular concern that has been raised is that the licensing authority has to grant a licence if no relevant representations are made against an application. That provision was fully discussed in Parliament during the passage of the Licensing Act, and I have seen no compelling evidence to warrant changing those arrangements, notwithstanding the examples that we have just discussed. It is difficult to argue that an application should be rejected if no relevant objections have been raised by local people, the police, the fire authority, trading standards, environmental health officers or other responsible authorities. Of course I realise that making representations and following them through can be, as my hon. Friend says, a daunting task to members of the public who are not familiar with the licensing process. but as the Licensing Act evaluation suggests, the new regime is much more accessible to the public, and as our guidance makes clear, there is no reason why a local resident cannot ask someone such as their local councillor or MP to make representations on their behalf.

We have also produced guidance to help local residents to participate in the licensing process, but I am very happy to review that guidance if there are points on which interested parties would appreciate more clarification. I do not want to comment on the performance of individual licensing authorities. Ultimately, the system is deliberately designed to be delegated to locally elected bodies. They have to take difficult decisions, balancing the sometimes conflicting interests of their local communities. A key finding of our evaluation was that some areas use the Licensing Act alongside other interventions much more effectively than other authorities. As a result, we will find ways of helping local authorities and their partners to ensure that they have effective measures in place to identify and tackle problem areas
19 Mar 2008 : Column 293WH
and premises. We have also made the management of the night-time economy a beacon council theme, which will help to identify and disseminate best practice.

I am sure that we all want thriving leisure and night-time economies that bring in visitor revenue and offer all local people a safe, diverse and accessible mix of premises and attractions. Today’s debate has highlighted some tensions, but I hope that I have been able to respond to my hon. Friend with the positive measures that we can introduce.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: Before the Minister finishes his comments, I wonder whether he will say something about giving advice or information to local authorities on best practice, because I fear that one difficult aspect of the Licensing Act is that some local authorities do not have the confidence to use it very well. If they were able to learn from the way it is used effectively in other local authorities and apply those lessons in areas such as Durham, that would be very helpful.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am happy to do what my hon. Friend suggests and give support to local authorities. Through the Local Government Association and the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services, there are opportunities for us to continue to get the message out. As I said, beacon council status can be used, too, which then helps us to disseminate best
19 Mar 2008 : Column 294WH
practice. We continue to look at how we can improve. We are looking at how to improve the application processes and to ensure that we have clear rules about the advertising type of application that my hon. Friend has discussed, but we must get the right balance and make sure that we have the right costs and burdens, so that we do not prevent people from making applications. We must also consider the effects on village halls, charities and so on. When dealing with applications, it is a question of balance.

My hon. Friend talked about “vicinity” being an issue. Last July we were advised that that was not a key element, and that the impacts or the licensable activities were more important. We continue to review what can be done. We have made the right move in delegating the matter to local government, because it is right that local councillors and local government have the right to determine what goes on in their area. It is important that we look at the planning process and its objectives, and I am particularly concerned to hear that in Brighton, six lap-dancing clubs have been established in a very short time. That problem will start to spread throughout the country, so I appreciate my hon. Friend raising the matter today. I will be happy to meet colleagues again to consider what can be done to ensure that local people get what they want in their local area.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Five o’clock.

    Index Home Page