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Licensing Laws White Paper

3.48 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in another place. The Statement is as follows:

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    and fair and consistent local procedures defined in statutory rules and guidance. Offences against licensing laws will continue to be dealt with by the criminal courts. Local magistrates will therefore continue to have an important part to play in ensuring that licensing laws work properly for the benefit of free and safe communities. The local authorities' licensing decisions will be subject to review by the courts on appeal. Our proposal is for the Crown Court. We recognise that there are other alternatives, magistrates or special tribunals, and we are of course ready to consider representations here as we are on any other issue.

    "In summary, therefore, the White Paper proposals will include: a single integrated scheme for licensing premises which sell alcohol, provide public entertainment or provide late night refreshment. Those will set out operating conditions which will relate to the impact on crime and disorder, public safety and public disturbance. Licence conditions should protect against those threats, but not interfere in other ways with how premises are run; the conditions attached to such licences are to be set locally on the basis of the balance of the operator's requirements, residents' views, and police and fire authority assessments; a new system of personal licences will allow holders to sell or serve alcohol for consumption on or off any premises; and new measures will back up restrictions on underage drinking.

    "To counter and minimise public disorder resulting from fixed closing times, flexible opening hours may be introduced as a condition of the premises' licence, with the potential for some venues--I emphasise "some" venues--to operate up to 24-hour opening seven days a week, subject to consideration of the impact on local residents; there will be tough and uncompromising new powers for the police to deal quickly with violence and disorderly behaviour by closing premises which licence holders have allowed to become the focus of such behaviour; the age for the consumption of alcohol in licensed premises and for its purchase is to remain at 18 with better powers for the enforcement of this provision, while 16 and 17 year-olds will be able to consume beer or wine served with a meal.

    "Children are to be allowed access to any part of suitable licensed premises at the personal licence holder's discretion, but licensing authorities are to have powers to restrict or deny access for children to unsuitable licensed venues; the new personal and premises licences are to be issued by local authorities; an avenue of appeal for parties (including the police and local residents) is to be available to the courts; licences are to be supported by a flexible range of sanctions--including temporary closure and temporary reduction in opening hours--instead of present single all-or-nothing sanction of loss of licence; there are to be new requirements in the wake of the "Marchioness" Thames Safety Inquiry for licensing the sale of alcohol on boats travelling within England and

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    Wales; and there will be new arrangements for non-profit-making clubs--working men's, political, ex-services, sports and social clubs--supplying alcohol to their members, which preserve their special status.

    "This is a radical package of measures which I am convinced strikes an important and necessary balance between the needs of business and the concerns of local residents.

    "The new measures will be good for the police, because they should help them cope with late-night disorder and reduce crime; good for business because they will sweep away red tape and offer them real flexibility; good for consumers--citizens and visitors to this country alike--by creating a safer environment in which they can have greater choice; good for families, by creating more opportunities for them to spend leisure time together without fear of intimidation or disorder and by providing better protection against underage drinking; and good for local residents, who will acquire a bigger say in the licensing process which will be properly accountable to them.

    "In preparing legislation to bring before proposals to Parliament we shall welcome and take account of any suggestions for improving the way in which licensing decisions are dealt with or other aspects of the proposals which are received by the end of July. We shall of course be consulting the Welsh Assembly on the proposals as they may apply to Wales, including whether or not there remains a demand for Sunday opening polls.

    "I commend the proposals to the House".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.57 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement to your Lordships' House and for the opportunity he afforded me for a quick glance at the White Paper. However, I emphasise I have not had time to study it properly. Before reaching firm conclusions, we shall obviously want to study it carefully and discuss it with other interested parties. However, we welcome the general ideas which lie behind the reform of licensing legislation. It is right that it should be thought out.

This is described as a White Paper in traditional terms. However, it sounded pretty "Green" in the way it was described by the Home Secretary and the Minister in that it is still open for ideas to be put forward and for differing views to be expressed before final decisions are made. I welcome that.

I am concerned about the proposal that personal licences should be granted by the local authority, and not by the magistrates, with an appeal from the decision of the local authority to the Crown Court if the licensee or proposed licensee disagrees with the decision of the local authority.

The Home Secretary and the Home Office seem to think that it should be automatic for only one body to grant personal and premises licences and that the only

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decision to be made is whether both licences should be granted by the local authority, the licensing justices or by some new body. I do not think that that is necessarily the right way to go. It may be perfectly acceptable for the personal licence to be granted to the licensee through the licensing justices--the magistrates--but will it be right to allow decisions concerning premises to be under the control of the local authority? No one has suggested that driving licences should be issued by the local authority simply because roads are controlled by that body. I do not believe that there is an automatic link here.

Furthermore, in the system outlined in the White Paper, personal licences will not be the sole responsibility of the local authority. If things go wrong, it will be for the magistrates to decide whether the licence is taken away, either temporarily or permanently, or whether one of the other penalties available is applied. On that point, I think that it is quite right that the magistrates should be able to use a variety of sanctions rather than only taking away a licence. In that sense, magistrates will in any case continue to be involved in personal licences. The split will come between the granting of the licence in the first place and later, if it proves to be necessary, applying sanctions.

The wishes of local residents deserve to be considered here. It is stated that residents will be able to complain to councillors if trouble breaks out in a pub close to them. However, in particular when it is late at night, it is much more effective to complain at once to the police. Officers can then go along and sort out the trouble, or, if necessary, close the pub. In some cases, it is only right that they should do that. Provided that sufficient policemen are available, it is better for them to take responsibility for dealing with these matters, with the supporting powers of the magistrates.

As regards premises licences, I was a little concerned, after a swift reading of the White Paper, to note the proposal that in cases of premises licences to be granted indefinitely by the local authority, there should be a presumption in favour of granting such a licence without a hearing if no one has objected. That licence would then be in force for the life of the business. According to the White Paper, if there is an objection the entire burden of proof will lie with the objectors. The local authority will not need to take a decision after looking at both sides of the case. Where a new or very different licence is to be granted for a premises, that appears to place a heavy burden on the local residents.

Finally, can the Minister clarify the responsibilities for legislation as far as Wales is concerned? In the Statement the Minister said that of course the Secretary of State and the Home Office will consult the Welsh Assembly, but I am not clear where the responsibilities lie as regards Wales. I should be grateful for such clarification.

It will be clear that we have reservations about some aspects of the proposals which will require careful study. However, on the whole we certainly agree that

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it is right to look again at the whole gamut of our licensing laws and to re-examine the restrictions to see how they can be improved for the future.

4.23 p.m.

Lord McNally: My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. When speaking in the House which has given the English language the term, "Drunk as a lord", perhaps we should all declare an interest! After having glanced briefly through the White Paper, perhaps I may also say that the First World War officially comes to an end today. Most noble Lords know that during that war, as a fig-leaf to solve the problem of low munitions production, the Liberal Government of the day brought in licensing laws. Our Chief Whip has quickly covered himself by reminding me that the measures were introduced by a coalition administration!

Like the noble Lord, Lord Cope, I, too, welcome the "Green" tinge indicated by the Minister in the Statement on the White Paper. Although the Minister made a number of claims for the new measures, I believe that we shall have to examine them in detail. For example, will the new measures properly deal with late-night disorder and help to reduce crime? Many other societies seem to cope well with liberal licensing laws, but whether it is our licensing restrictions or something deeper in our national psyche, a certain section of our community, whether at home or abroad, seems to associate drinking not with social pleasure but rather with excessive consumption that leads to aggression. I shall be interested to hear the police assessments of these proposals. The Minister's assurance that these measures will be "good for local residents" will also need further probing.

On a first brief reading, some of the proposals seem sensible. In particular, the cutting out of bureaucracy and of unnecessary costs are all to the good. The Statement gives a welcome recognition of changes in our lifestyles, leisure preferences and, indeed, our disposable incomes. Furthermore, the tone of the document suggests that any idea that people's behaviour can be legislated into conforming to what government deem to be "good" has been abandoned. That is apparent not only in our licensing laws, but also in how we treat gambling and other essentially leisure preferences. Nevertheless, I shall be interested to hear the views of the police on how they see the new proposals working in practice--which may be reflected in the White Paper. I should like also to consider the reactions of bodies such as Alcohol Concern and the Portman Group. The latter is a body financed by the drinks industry to promote greater responsibility as regards alcohol. I should like to see measures that promote a higher level of personal responsibility go hand in hand with these liberalising measures. People need to be informed of the health hazards and social damage that can occur through excessive use of alcohol.

In this country we have a problem with youth drinking which needs to be addressed. Again, although I appreciate that this may be covered in the White Paper, we must confront the growing menace of street

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drinking where groups buy their alcohol in supermarkets and then consume it in public places, often forming rather threatening crowds.

Although the phrase is becoming a little overworked, we need to see "joined-up government" in this area. We need stricter controls over drink driving. It must be remembered that if licensing laws are liberalised, it is likely that people will be leaving establishments where they will have been drinking at times when public transport is no longer available. Measures must be taken to ensure that people have access to adequate public transport during unsocial hours. Recently we have seen reports that taxi drivers are increasingly reluctant to ply for trade late at night. They have little incentive to try to cope with late-night revellers. Problems will arise if more people stay out drinking late at night, but there is less public transport and fewer taxis available to get them home again. That is a problem in the making.

In the main, this sensible clarification and simplification is welcome but we must think ahead to avoid building up social problems. Crime, violence (including domestic violence), child neglect and a variety of driving offences are all related to alcohol abuse. All must be put into the mix. Against that, the proposals will allow the tourist and leisure industries to meet the demands of the British public and visitors from overseas who want to enjoy themselves at times of their choosing rather than when the law dictates. As such, we welcome the Minister's approach and the proposals, but we shall want to study them.

4.10 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I welcome the welcomes. We shall have another opportunity at a later stage to discuss the proposals further. The noble Lords, Lord Cope and Lord McNally, posed some useful questions. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, knocked a bit of a hole in his welcome by suggesting that he is not overly keen on local authorities taking responsibility for the issuing of personal licences. Five-sixths of licensing matters are dealt with by local authorities and it is rather "unjoined up" to separate personal and premises licensing. It would be strange to go part way to solving the problem, but then leave personal licensing with magistrates.

Magistrates have done a tremendous job of managing the licensing process for the sale of alcohol, premises control and so on, but it is time to modernise and move on. The administration of justice is the proper role and responsibility of magistrates. They will continue to have some input when people fall foul of the law, and when acting in support of judges who hear appeals.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope, made an important point about the views of residents, whose position will be greatly strengthened by the proposals. They will be able to make representations, perhaps in person or through a councillor, direct to those councillors who will make the decisions. When your Lordships have had an opportunity to study the White Paper, you will

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see that we make a virtue of that strengthened position. Local accountability is an important part of the new system.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope, referred to objections and objectors. Perhaps we shall have time, with this "greenish" White Paper, to consider the burden of proof and the way in which objections should be considered. The noble Lord asked whether the legislation will apply to Wales; it will. We shall legislate and it will be for the Welsh Assembly to consider the application of that legislation. We have made a clear commitment in the White Paper to continuing consultation. We have a slightly anomalous situation in Wales, where, if things stay as they are, there will have to be a fresh round of polls in 2003. The most sensible arrangement would be a uniform system for England and Wales. We shall need to resolve the issue of polls in 2003. The White Paper will deal with that.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, displayed as usual his fine sense of history, reminding us that your Lordships' House had given us the expression, "Drunk as a lord." I am not sure that many of us fall into that category these days. Being as sober as a judge is the opposite, and judges may play a part in the final determination.

The noble Lord was correct to focus on the concerns of local residents and he asked whether the new scheme will tackle late-night disorder. We think that it will. A telling table in the White Paper, on page 14, traces public order incidents. It is no accident that they shoot up in the hour after closing time, between 11 p.m. and 12 p.m. The number goes higher between midnight and 1 a.m. and higher still between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. Thereafter, incidents tail away. There is a concentration of public disorder associated with the closing times of public houses and clubs. If a more flexible approach to closing hours is taken, it may be that the police will be better able to distribute their manpower and to control public disorder. We believe also that the scheme will discourage binge drinking, which causes particular problems all to rush along at once.

The concerns of local residents will have to be carefully considered. We have consulted the police and other groups and shall continue to do so. Three months will be allowed to consider further views.

The White Paper tries to tackle the thorny issue of off-licence sales and under-age drinking and, by and large, it has got it right. That aspect will no longer be the responsibility of one person, but also of those who sell alcohol at off-licence premises.

Public transport is an important aspect. The problem relates to a sudden rush of people leaving pubs, some the worse for wear, trying to cram into public transport and taxis in particular, thus causing difficulties for operators and drivers in the early hours of the morning. If the numbers of people leaving pubs and clubs is more evenly spread, more taxis will be available and queues will be easier to control. I suspect that the market will determine where transport is available. That is no bad thing. We believe that changes in transportation patterns will follow as the White Paper becomes legislation.

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The proposals take a sensible, flexible and modernising approach to licensing and will make a contribution to joined-up government. We have received welcoming comments from the Local Government Association, innkeeper associations and the Association of Licensed Premises. There are good opportunities to consult further, to perfect an excellent and flexible White Paper. I commend it to your Lordships.

4.18 p.m.

Lord Alexander of Weedon: My Lords, while warmly welcoming the Statement, I want to say a word from the perspective of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation. Over the past few years, we have had to consider candidates for deregulation orders and, with one exception, have accepted individual relaxation of licensing legislation. We long ago reached the view that that form of salami slicing is no longer appropriate. If there is to be a new scheme and further relaxation of the licensing laws, it should take place as part of a general pattern.

I particularly welcome the suggestion that more responsibility should be given to local authorities. In our most recent report on the Government's draft proposal to relax the Sunday dancing and licensing laws, we made that exact suggestion; namely, that local authorities should be given the responsibility, as well as the opportunity, to opt-in to the more relaxed legislation. One factor that influenced us in that view was that, inevitably, local magistrates are not always drawn from the area of the local authority in respect of which the decision has to be taken. Another factor that influenced us was that, as the Minister said, it places the responsibility four square and unambiguously on the local authority to take the decisions for its area.

I also very much welcome the view that the interests of local residents are to be taken into account. There is always a danger that the interests of consumer choice, which are admirable, and those of business, which are very important both to the freedom of business and the economy, might somewhat drown out the voice and anxieties of individual residents. It was reassuring to hear the Minister say that that will not happen.

The Minister may not have had a chance to form a fixed view on this matter, but I should like to ask the following question. Is not this an area of such importance and delicacy that when consultation has taken place any Bill should come forward in draft and be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny? Moreover, with any Bill that comes forward, does the noble Lord agree that the regulatory impact assessment that will have been made should be published for the benefit of any committee and for the House as a whole, which has to consider the legislation?

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