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22 Oct 2009 : Column 335WH—continued

Moving over to Wantage and Grove, we have the Wantage silver band. It is important in this debate to emphasise that brass bands are not simply a province of the north, and we have our own excellent brass bands in the south, which are campaigning to raise funds for their own homes. If any Members want to see me afterwards and write me a cheque, that would be most welcome. The Didcot arts centre was recently opened by a Conservative council in south Oxfordshire and is fast becoming a very important venue for live music. There is also the unsurpassable Wallingford blues and beer festival, in the east of my constituency on the banks of the River Thames. There is also the very well known Truck music festival, held in Steventon on Europe's largest village green.

We are awash with talented and world-famous musicians: Sandy Shaw, Brian Eno, and Radiohead have their offices in Sutton Courtenay. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford can come and meet them. We also have Whispering Bob Harris and Mark, the keyboard player from Marillion. To cover every base, I should not omit sport: I am the president of Didcot Town football club, so I am well aware of its sporting difficulties, and I am also aware that, as a Member of this House, one should never accept a vice-chairmanship or a vice-presidency; always go for the top.

To pick up on the points that were made about helping the police to deal with violence that is potentially alcohol-related, I was very pleased two weeks ago to
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attend the launch of the Wantage and Grove street pastors organisation. I would not want to give the impression that Wantage and Grove is awash with alcohol-related violence; it certainly is not. However, the street pastors are a community group of local Christians go on to the streets of Wantage and Grove on a Friday night, to help the local community deal with the after-effects of a good Friday night out. [Interruption.] I am delighted to welcome the hon. Member for Selby back to the Chamber and to let him know that if he reads Hansardhe will see some glowing remarks that I made about him while he was absent, dealing with the pressing needs of his constituents.

The Licensing Act 2003, in both its tortuous passage into legislation and its tortuous life since, has been pretty much a complete Horlicks, which is why we have pledged-I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley could support this pledge-to undertake a proper, thorough and strategic review of the Act if we win the election. I am mindful of the danger of saying that, and I am also mindful of the groans as people raise their eyes to the ceiling, given that this Government, who passed the Act after endless consultation, have managed to undertake eight reviews of that legislation in the six years since it was passed into law. Here we are at an historic moment, when the Minister, in just a few minutes, will announce the ninth review of this extraordinary Act.

The Government love reviews-they cannot get up in the morning without reviewing how they got out of bed-and they have actually built into the legislation ongoing reviews. Local authorities now have to review their own licensing policies every three years. If a Minister accidentally fails to call for a review, he can be sure that at least the local authorities are conducting reviews. Consequently, at any time there is sure to be a review of the Licensing Act going on somewhere in this country.

What we have had with the Licensing Act is a huge amount of bureaucratic meddling and typical Labour top-down prescription. The latest Government review, as UK Music has pointed out, is simply a fig leaf. Given the parliamentary timetable and the pressure on that timetable, it is very unlikely that it will be conducted in time for a legislative reform order before the next election; it is just another fobbing-off.

In fact, in support of that assessment, I shall quote someone with a great deal of credibility-none other than Feargal Sharkey, the close friend of my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford. I am tempted to try to deliver the quote in Mr. Sharkey's voice, because my constituency is also the home of Rory Bremner and he has taught me everything I know about how to imitate celebrities, but I will not risk it under your chairmanship, Miss Begg. Feargal Sharkey said:

He might have added, "And a partridge in a pear tree", but he did not-

That is the view of someone whom the Government themselves have appointed as their live music champion. Even he is completely disillusioned with what has been going on.

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As for the changes brought about by the Licensing Act to the availability of live music, before it was passed into law every bar could enjoy the two-in-a-bar rule, so that someone could go to any bar and enjoy music played by one or two musicians. However, 40 per cent. of our bars and clubs no longer have the automatic right to stage live music. Extraordinarily, even private concerts and charity events are covered by this onerous legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford was quite right to point out the astonishing fact that, à la Baroness Scotland, the regulations passed by the Government are now so complicated that even the Government who passed them do not understand them. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport held a live concert by a fantastic band, The Frontiers, on 17 July and it did not even realise that it had to get a licence. Now if that does not sum up the extraordinary position-

Mr. Sutcliffe: It did not need a licence.

Mr. Vaizey: And now the Minister says that it did not need a licence-the situation is becoming even more confusing. What I think he should do is simply hand himself over-

Mr. Sutcliffe: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Vaizey: If the Minister will just let me finish, I was going to say that he should simply hand himself over to the nearest policeman. I must say that if he had represented Ashford, he would have been arrested by now and threatened with life imprisonment.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I want to make it clear that that event at DCMS was a private event and did not need a licence.

Mr. Vaizey: That is clear as mud then, is it not? In fact, if the Minister wants to cite the specific legislation that says that DCMS did not need a licence, I would be grateful if he could cite the specific section in the 2003 Act-

Mr. Sutcliffe: I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Vaizey: Oh, the Minister has to write to me, but he cannot cite the specific section now. That is how clear the legislation is.

There has been a 5 per cent. decrease in the number of venues available for live music. There is also a very serious point to be made about our community centres, by which I mean pubs. Pubs are, as it were, the new post offices, given the threat of closure that they face. In 2006, just two pubs a week were closing but now, in 2009, 52 pubs a week are closing. I know from my own constituency that pub owners struggle to think of events that they can put on, whether it is curry nights or pub quizzes, to attract people to the pub during the week and over the weekend. Live music would be one of those attractions and surely, given the threat to something that has been at the heart of our community for centuries, we could be a little more imaginative in lightening the regulatory burden.

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As for pubs that have managed to secure entertainment licences, 50 per cent. of them now face onerous restrictions, and 80 per cent. of restaurants have not bothered to get a licence because of those restrictions. We therefore welcome the imminent announcement of the ninth review of the highly successful Licensing Act and we look forward to supporting the changes that we hope it will bring about by relaxing the regulation on small venues that want to have live music.

There is a very serious point to be made about lightening overall regulation. It is extraordinary that sport should have escaped some of these regulations-in fact, I am delighted that it has done so. It is very odd that one can watch a live football match in a pub, with hundreds of people cheering and shouting, as they quite rightly should as England progress towards the World cup, and the pub does not need a licence for that. However, if 50 people sit down and watch a couple of people playing guitars in a pub, the pub needs a licence. The word that I have been searching for, as people might have worked out by now, is "anomaly".

As the Olympics approach, it is obviously very important that we have the opportunity to provide outside venues for people to watch the Olympics, as they have done in the past with sporting events such as the European and World cups. However, as the Minister knows, I am a strong supporter of getting the cultural olympiad right. I want London and the whole country to have a fantastic party as well as enjoying excellent sport, and it is important to have a licensing regime that is flexible and easy to understand, so that we can take as much advantage as possible of the opportunity that the Olympics and the cultural olympiad will bring.

I have focused my remarks mainly on live music, but there are a host of other issues that this thoroughly comprehensive Select Committee report has covered in its recommendations. As I have said, we will undertake a thorough and strategic review of the Licensing Act if we win the next election, but let me just cover some of those issues very briefly, because I know that the Minister will want the full hour and 10 minutes left for this debate to make his points about the Act, by which time he may have found the section of the Act that exempts him from prosecution.

We support a national database for licensees. A personal licence-holder can have their license removed, but there is a difficulty because, when a premises licence is revoked, if the licence-holder has not had their own personal licence removed, they can simply move elsewhere and set up shop. We think that a national database would provide consistency and allow serial offenders to be tracked around the country. Personally, I am sympathetic to the controversy that form 696 has generated. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford described some clear and worrying examples of how the form has been-I cannot think of any other word for it-abused. The police must be extremely careful how they use it. I gather that the form has been amended, and that it must be reviewed in conjunction with the Home Office. I hope that our shadow home affairs team will look at that.

I am also extremely sympathetic to the points made in the report about relief for sporting establishments. As I said, I am the president of Didcot Town football club, and I concur with the remarks made by the Chairman of the Select Committee: most sporting clubs
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rely on their bar for much-needed income. Temporary event notices are a legitimate matter for debate. The Select Committee made the fair point that stakeholders give conflicting evidence or arguments on whether to increase or decrease the number of TENs allowed, but personally, I think that a modest increase would be relatively uncontroversial.

Much was made of the Licensing Act's effect on the night-time economy. The hon. Member for Teignbridge concentrated on it in his excellent speech and, as I said, the hon. Member for Selby rowed in strongly behind both Conservative and Liberal Democrat policies on the issue, which is welcome. There are myriad issues that could be considered regarding the perceived increase in alcohol-related violence at night and the concentration of bars and drinking culture in this country, but it seems to me that supermarket pricing of alcohol is a significant factor. It is pretty well known that a lot of teenagers buy cheap alcohol and do what is known as pre-loading, or drinking cheaply before going to more expensive bars and clubs. I believe that it is our policy to raise the duty on alcopops to reduce commensurately the duty on beer. As we know, the high duty on beer is another cost that must be borne by pubs struggling for existence.

It is important to emphasise that we have a strong localist agenda. We support local councils having the opportunity to put together flexible licensing regimes suitable for their area. The hon. Members who have contributed to this debate are right that nobody wants to put licensing back in the hands of magistrates. Everybody recognises that, now that local authorities control licensing, we have an opportunity for local policies suitable for local residents and economies. It is vital that local authorities have the power and flexibility to introduce imaginative policies suitable for the people whom they represent.

4.23 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Begg, and to be here to respond to the excellent report of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. I pay tribute, as colleagues have done, to the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) for his excellent chairing. We will not always agree on the issues raised by the Committee, but he has always treated Ministers reasonably in putting points to us. I was grateful for his broad welcome of many of the measures in the Licensing Act, and I will respond to some of the issues that he raised later in my contribution.

As the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) said, no hon. Members who have spoken, other than my hon. friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), chair of the all-party group on beer, are with us, but I am sure that they will be interested to read in Hansard my responses to the issues that they raised. Each, in their own way, has brought expertise to this debate in terms of commitments to their constituency and the issues that they raised.

I acknowledge the contribution made by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who has his own personal views on how to deal with the issues that he
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faces. I did not agree with him about irresponsible advertising; I shall return to that a little later. As has been said, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) supports live music and is passionate about the issues that face his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Selby has an excellent track record on issues relating to the Licensing Act, and I am grateful to him, perhaps more than most, for killing some of the myths around the Licensing Act relating to binge drinking. Some people have tried to use the Licensing Act as the bearer of bad news for all issues involving problems with drinking. We know that that is not the case, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his work with the sector.

The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) raised different issues relating to the uniqueness of the capital and the problems that it faces with licensing. The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) raised a number of issues to which I ought to respond, but again, he broadly welcomed what occurs in relation to the Licensing Act and the objectives that we have tried to reach. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Selby said that very few parties, if any, will go into the next election saying that they want to move away from the change in licensing hours. The hon. Member for Wantage clearly must have his political rant; that is what he is there for. He is the Opposition spokesperson, so he cannot agree with anything that the Government do for fear of losing his job. However, I recognise some of the points that he raised, and I will try to respond to them in the spirit that he made them.

It is always a great pleasure to be involved in such debates. What strikes me is how many people's lives are affected by the Licensing Act and by Department for Culture, Media and Sport issues. The issues that we face are important to the economy right across sectors, but they are also important to the lives of our constituents. I have listened to the many points raised by hon. Members, and I will try to respond to them.

We should not lose sight of the important impact that the Licensing Act has on our economy. It is vital, particularly in difficult times, not to do anything that damages opportunities within the economy. I am mindful of that and have tried to ensure that colleagues are too as we have talked through the issues. However, although it is important to the economy, it is also important to the enrichment of our lives, whether that involves visiting the pub, watching a ballet performance, attending a village fête or going to a gig. Many licensed premises such as community pubs and village halls play an important role in our communities.

The Act also covers areas where it is important to provide public protection from crime and disorder, public nuisance and so on. The Government believe that it is vital that the sale of alcohol, in particular, is properly regulated. However, there is a fine balance between providing the necessary public protection and safeguarding the rights of the responsible majority. It is particularly right and important to get the legislative balance right in these difficult times when many businesses are struggling, local authorities' resources are being squeezed and individuals are tightening their belts.

That was apparent in the statistics released today that show an increase in the number of premises licences surrendered and lapsed and a decrease in applications
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compared to last year, which may be a result of the recession. However, the industry seems to be responding innovatively, with businesses diversifying what they offer to attract customers, as the hon. Member for Wantage pointed out. The number of temporary event notices increased, and I am pleased to say that so did the number of premises licences with any regulated entertainment. Significantly, today's statistics show that there has been an 11 per cent. increase in premises licences with live music authorisation between 2007 and 2009.

That leads me to perhaps the main issue raised by the Select Committee Chair in relation to live music. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I understand that many people who are passionate about live music are sincere in their view that some small events are being deterred or restricted because of unnecessary regulation. We are therefore minded to consider an exemption from the Licensing Act for live music in small venues with a capacity of less than 100, and we will set out the consultation. My right hon. Friend will write to Cabinet colleagues about the possibility of bringing forward a legislative reform order to deliver such an exemption. As hon. Members know, for that to be successful it must have the support of cross-party Committees in both Houses of Parliament. He believes that this should not be a party political issue, so he will write to his opposite numbers in other parties to try to establish a cross-party consensus. We believe that it is possible to deliver on that.

In establishing the consultation, I understand that local authorities and others have concerns. I acknowledge the point that was made about St. Albans and I was not trying to chide the Select Committee Chairman. I think that Councillor White has an opportunity to help and I am sure he will want to, given that we have expressed our views on the issues that affect St. Albans. I acknowledge that there are concerns about public protection issues such as disorder, public safety and noise nuisance. That is why we have to consult fully on the exemption. We will also seek to create a power to remove an exemption if there are problems at a premises.

We propose to consult on measures to clarify that facilities for making music do not require a licence if they are used to play incidental music, which is already exempt from licensing requirements. For facilities to be separately licensable in such situations would be absurd and was not intended under the 2003 Act. As part of the clarification, the consultation will propose a change to the definition of "entertainment facilities" so that the mere provision of musical instruments, such as a pub piano, is not licensable. We believe that the changes will assist the excellent work of the Musicians Union, local government and the British Beer and Pub Association on the live music working party to ensure that venues take advantage of the incidental music exemption and, where appropriate, the new minor variations procedure.

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