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It is interesting to see how localism could be carried forward. In response to the Government's proposal in the Policing and Crime Bill for a mandatory code of practice both nationally and locally, the Conservative-controlled Local Government Association has said that local authorities are already empowered to lead local action against alcohol disorder. I believe that it is Opposition policy-I hope that it will become Government policy-that local authorities should be empowered to initiate action against problem pubs. I understand that at the moment they have to wait for a complaint to be made; local authorities would like to be a little more proactive when they have such difficulties. It would be a more constructive way of dealing with the problem, rather than introducing code upon code. It will be interesting to see how that debate goes in the other place when the Bill returns to us.
I shall make a couple of other observations. I hear what the hon. Member for Shipley says about the importance of personal responsibility, personal freedom and so on, but I believe that there should also be social responsibility, and that applies to private industry as well. Many in the pub trade are as aghast at the £5 drink-all-you-can promotion as are many parliamentarians.
I shall speak a little more supportively of the Opposition Front Bench than did the hon. Member for Shipley. The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) made some interesting suggestions, saying for instance that alcohol should not be sold below cost in supermarkets. It is a question of how it is done, and I would be interested if the idea were to be fleshed out. It is a worthwhile proposal, as is changing the balance of taxation on stronger drinks such as strong cider, doubtless keeping the same tax take but changing the balance. Those proposals are worthy of consideration, and I hope that they will be considered by other parties.
The debate about minimum pricing is not likely to go away, particularly as in Scotland the matter will be progressed over the next year. I believe that there is an absolute determination among the Scottish Executive to bring in minimum pricing. I know that is Liberal Democrat policy, and it is one with which I have some sympathy.
I said that my contribution would be brief. It is not often said in such debates that the pub trade and the night-time economy make an enormous contribution to our economy. They are not merely a source of problems; they are a source of employment and enjoyment and, for many towns and cities, they are a way of advertising themselves and bringing in investment. For example, it is important that all those who come to the London Olympics in 2012 should be able to enjoy the London night-time economy. It would clearly be ridiculous if the whole of London were to shut down at 11 o'clock. That was one of the motivators for the Licensing Act.
Even though political parties will from time to time suggest detailed changes to the Licensing Act, I hope that it will be recognised, as the Committee did, that the Act is a sound piece of legislation. It has enabled citizens and residents to have more of a say on licensing than before. It has also enabled cost savings to be made in the night-time economy and has allowed the development of a wider range of bars, pubs and restaurants than were available in the past. Then, the only way of staying
out after 11 o'clock was to pay a large amount of money to get into a loud nightclub, which one may not have wanted to do.
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): It has been a good debate. The Select Committee's report is excellent, and the presentation given by the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) was well thought out. I hope that the Minister will answer the points raised today both in his summation and later, once the debate is over.
I should point out to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies)-he apologised for having to leave early-that there is a difference between a Liberal and a libertarian. He described himself as a libertarian, but Liberals are not necessarily libertarians. As we heard earlier, Liberals believe in social responsibility and the role of the community. I am not sure whether libertarians always do exactly that.
We have plenty of time, but I shall try not to overextend my contribution. I wish to touch on four matters, the first of which concerns recommendation 2, which deals with sports clubs. I shall not repeat all the strong arguments put earlier. I used to work in architecture, and I worked for a time at a firm that did a lot of work for Wetherspoons. Being responsible for designing its pubs, I would occasionally be brought before the magistrates to explain the licensed areas shown on the plans. The areas were clearly defined by a red line. However, that was not necessarily the area of the premises, because some external areas were not part of the licensed area. That was clearly understood-but not, it has to be said, by all magistrates. However, there was no difficulty in having two zones.
It is practical and easy for sports clubs to have two zones-a red line to define the pub and bar area for which a licence fee should be paid, and a blue line to define the wider area. So doing would reduce the cost to those sports clubs, perhaps helping them to do more of their health-giving activities than the slightly more damaging ones that tend to happen after exercising on the rugby pitch or the cricket field-or, in my case, rowing on the River Thames.
Richard Younger-Ross: The Minister nods, so it cannot have been his double. We were in the Members' Dining Room to listen to Ralph McTell. He played three songs, including the wonderful "Streets of London". That was the latest event, but the previous event that I attended, involving Muse, was slightly bigger.
Although some Members may not have heard of Muse, they are rated the most popular and best live band in the world. They started their tour on the seafront at Teignmouth, their home town, which is where they met and used to play as kids. That concert gave the local authority a difficult problem; it had to license it yet limit the noise, as it was held in a confined area that had residential properties overlooking one side of the Den. If anyone wants to see the beauty of
that occasion, the BBC filmed the concert from a helicopter. Looking at Teignmouth at night, lit up as it was, with the band playing-even I thought it would be a great place for a holiday. I went there this year, and I might go again next year.
Big events such as that mentioned earlier can be worked on, and that provides an answer to the questions raised by hon. Members about the need for local authorities and magistrates. The local authority was able to negotiate in a way that I suspect would not happen in a magistrates court. That is merit in having the local authority engaged in the process.
Although it is accepted that there is an overall increase in the number of venues, the numbers of small venues and small gigs are in decline. The Liberal Democrats are committed to supporting the Select Committee recommendations that the capacity limit that the Government are to consult on should increase to 200, and that we should reinstate the two-in-a-bar rule. That would help in those areas where there is difficulty and decline, and bring clarity where people are afraid of red tape and bureaucracy.
We have already had six years of legislation, eight consultations, two Government research projects, two national review processes and, as mentioned, a Select Committee report. Do we need more consultation on something that has already been well looked into? Why do we have to wait 12 weeks? Will the legislation be changed before the inevitable general election some time next year, whether that is in March, April or May?
We still have form 696. However, as far as I can see, the new proposals will not help hospitals, schools or other buildings capable of holding more than 100 people, which might want to have a small event. We are calling for exemptions for venues with a capacity of up to 200 people, and for schools, hospitals and so on. I do not believe that the new consultation will clear up some of the confusion over minor variations. Recently, the Government have said that there is no connection between the size of audience or the number of performers, and the potential for noise and disorder. There seems to be a contradiction or change in Government policy on that.
The Minister referred to the concerns of local government, and I will address that point in a moment. The Live Music Bill, which has been mentioned by Lord Clement-Jones, creates an exemption for live music in licensed venues that have a capacity of up to 200 people. That exemption is conditional, and a review of a venue that provides live music can be triggered by residential complaints-that ought to answer the concerns of local government and councillors. Should those complaints be upheld, local authorities could then place restrictions on live music in the venue.
Mr. Sutcliffe: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the concerns felt by local government and the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services-LACORS. He has an opportunity to help us because Councillor Chris White, who is a lead member of the Local Government Association on these issues, is a Liberal Democrat. His authority, St. Albans, and its attitude to some of these issues, has been mentioned today. We can get this provision through if we have all-party support. I will be looking for the support of the hon. Gentleman to ensure that people such as Councillor White follow what he suggests.
Richard Younger-Ross: We have listened to our council colleagues very carefully and we have discussed this issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) and I fully endorse the proposal, which is supported by the Liberal Democrat party. Perhaps the easiest route for the Government would be to look at the Bill that is already in preparation, give it their support and bring it through. That might be a quick and easy way to ensure that the legislation is brought in before we have the inevitable event next year.
The Bill would create an unconditional exemption for up to two performers to play unamplified, or minimally amplified, live music in a venue. Performances of live music that is incidental to why people are in a venue, such as a pianist playing in a restaurant, would no longer be caught by the licensing regime. Licences are required for schools, colleges and hospitals to perform concerts and music therapy treatments. The final element of the Bill creates a complete exemption for the live music in those institutions, providing that no alcohol is sold and that no more than 200 people are in attendance. I hope the Minister will look at that and confirm the point made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Bath. If the consultation on a capacity of 100 shows a desire for it to be increased to 200, I hope that the Government will support it.
Mr. Sutcliffe: I am grateful for the opportunity to do that now-I was asked to do it by the Chairman of the Select Committee. Clearly, if the consultation overwhelmingly shows that everybody is happier with the figure of 200, and that will get us through the legislative reform order, we will consider it. We are suggesting the figure of 100, but that is one of the reasons for the consultation.
Richard Younger-Ross: I thank the Minister for that positive response; we will have to wait and see what the consultation shows. I am sure that some of the people listening to the debate will want to ensure that their view that 200 would be the better figure is clearly put to the Minister.
I have one more point on licensing before I move on. Difficulties with the 14-day rule have been mentioned. Other events-not only circuses-have this difficulty if they suddenly find that they need to change venue. Will the Government look at an exceptional circumstances clause to allow local authorities to consider and supply a licence in less than 14 days, even if defining that would be difficult? I remember one organised event where the alcohol sales were arranged by a local establishment. Notices had to be sent to different people at the same time, but one notice went in a day late because there had been some confusion or a delay in the post. The result was a dry event, much to the embarrassment of the publican concerned. Having an exceptional circumstances rule would be wise.
That brings us to the issue of alcohol abuse. As far as I can see, although I agree on a lot of licensing issues with both the Government and the Conservative party, there is one fundamental disagreement-over the idea that rising prices and taxes on alcohol will resolve the issue of alcohol abuse. It will not. If we increase the tax by 10 per cent., for example, on the price of a pint in a pub, 30p will be added to the price and it will cost £3.30. If 10 per cent. is added to the price of a 50p can of lager
in the supermarket, it will become 55p. I do not believe that a 10 per cent. increase-5p or 10p-on a can of lager in a supermarket will have any impact on those sales. Therefore, the Liberal Democrats would propose and support minimum pricing as the way to deter people from buying excess, cheap alcohol.
The hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) made the point that people who buy a bottle of wine during the week might find that the cost of their wine goes up slightly. However, in my view, the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. One of the advantages of minimum pricing is that although it does not make the price even, it levels the differential between the supermarket price and the pub price. The advantage for the supermarkets is that they would make more profit on what they sell. This is not a tax; we are not going to take the money and give it to the Inland Revenue. There would be a minimum price that supermarkets could not go below.
Such a measure would almost certainly damage some producers who produce very cheap, high-alcohol drinks. In my view, that would not be a bad thing. If as a result of this provision, quality is driven up so that people buy something with a fuller flavour or a better quality drink, perhaps they will not want to knock back quite so many as quickly as they do. That is often why people buy very cheap alcohol. It is to get a cheap thrill. The problem with alcohol sales is that people go to the supermarkets and buy cheap spirits, cider or whatever. They tank themselves up at home, or perhaps sat on the seafront, and then go to the pubs, which get the blame for the alcohol sales from the supermarkets. We must consider that as a particular problem and issue.
Let us consider premises with 24-hour licences. In 2008, there were 7,100, and in 2009, 7,400, which is a 4 per cent. increase. There was a 17 per cent. increase in supermarkets wanting 24-hour licences, and a 19 per cent. increase among bars and nightclubs. Interestingly, the largest group that has 24-hour licences, and the group that one would have thought the legislation was designed for-hotels-has seen a 3 per cent. decrease. I am concerned about 24-hour licences in supermarkets. I am not too sure about the justification for them, or the need. Yes, it might be convenient for someone leaving the House of Commons at 11 pm who has forgotten to buy a bottle of wine. Perhaps a little bit more pre-planning and thought would not go amiss, rather than going for the lowest common denominator and taking the easiest option.
The Select Committee says that happy hours and two-for-one promotions are encouraging irresponsible drinking. Although it acknowledges that banning all such deals would be irresponsible, it says that the problem must be addressed. Minimum pricing would help to do that.
Alcohol-related antisocial behaviour is a serious, country-wide problem that has not become any better since such areas were introduced. Do the Government seriously expect us to believe that in all the metropolitan areas in England and Wales, there are only some 45 places where there is a problem? I do not believe that. From time to time, I see a drink problem in my own community, and I am sure most Members know of areas that experience drink problems and drink-related crime and violence on a Friday night.
The Public Health Observatory figures show that more than 860,000 people were admitted to hospital for alcohol-related harm last year. There were more than 80,000 alcohol-related fights, rapes, burglaries and car thefts in London alone. At the 2007 party conference, the Prime Minister said:
"Let me tell the shops that repeatedly sell alcohol to those who are under age - we will take your licences away."
They might be good words, but that is not what is happening. I say to the Minister that under-age alcohol sales are a serious problem that must be tackled. Again, minimum pricing would help to deal with that.
I said that I would not be too long, so let me briefly tackle one other issue, which relates to the licence trade. The Office of Fair Trading report on tied houses has shown that there are no problems. Well, the OFT produces many reports. It produced one on supermarkets that said there were no problems. I think most Members recognise that that OFT report was deeply flawed, and that it is beginning to re-examine some of the issues. We should not view the issue of tied houses from an OFT perspective only; it is broader and more complex than that. I am not doing a broad sweep and saying that all tied houses are problematic, but I believe that a number of them are creating problems in the industry and contributing to the very high turnover of publicans in some areas.
Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): I am grateful for this opportunity to welcome the excellent Select Committee report that we have debated this afternoon, and will continue to debate for some time to come. I also congratulate the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), on the debate. Every time I debate with him, I find out something new about his racy past. Today, we learned that he discovered The Police and its singer Sting in a pub somewhere in Essex.
Mr. Vaizey: Indeed. My hon. Friend is a man who discovered Sting, pogoed to The Undertones and got down with Lemmy from Motörhead. He is about as cool as they come. He puts to shame some of the Conservative MPs who will be joining us in 2010 and who regularly feature in articles bigging up the Conservatives as the new cool political party. Whether he likes it or not, he is clearly as Cameroonian and hip as they come, and perhaps is now an honorary member of the Notting Hill set. He is also a very effective Chairman of the Select Committee, which continues to make an extraordinary impact in areas of policy surrounding culture, media and sport.
We are now without my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who is, perhaps, the antithesis of my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford. He is studiedly anti-cool-a sort of black hole of non-coolness and distinctly out of step with developing Conservative policy, which is perhaps why he is not here. Another hon. Member who is sadly absent is the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), and he really is cool. He takes a close interest in popular contemporary music, as we know from the gossip columns of the newspaper. I can reveal
exclusively-I learned this yesterday from ITV-that he is to appear in the new year in "Celebrity Come Dine With Me", so he continues to make an impact in that area.
I turn now to another hon. Member who has left the debate. Every single Member who has contributed to this debate, apart from the Chairman of the Select Committee, the Front-Bench spokesmen and the Minister, has left this debate. I cast no aspersions on the speech of the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) to which I will return in a minute. We heard from the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), who is a fine contributor on all matters related to culture, media and sport. Sadly, he is to retire at the next election. Halfway through his speech, I thought that he could become a Conservative working peer after the election because of his support for our policy. However, considering that he has supported the policies of all three parties, he would perhaps be better off as a Liberal Democrat working peer. Finally, we heard an excellent contribution from the hon. Member for Teignbridge, who is a fine spokesman on culture, media and sport for the Liberal Democrats.
Opposition Members welcome this debate, and I shall begin by focusing on the importance of live music. Picking up the mantle left by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, who talked in great detail and with affection about his constituency, perhaps I could do the same about my own fine constituency of Wantage. In Faringdon, in the west of the constituency, we have the Faringdon arts festival, which I open every year. It holds a live performance in Faringdon's historic market square with a range of bands whose names I cannot remember. I know, however, that one of the guitarists is a producer on GMTV. The festival has been organised for several years by an excellent local resident, David Reynolds.
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