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Lord Redesdale: The amendment goes to the heart of the Bill, and I am glad that the noble Baroness said that it was an probing amendment and not one that she would push at this stage. It would wreck the Bill and, perhaps, give us an easier Christmas.
The question of whether responsibility should go to local authorities or magistrates has divided us. My party has always advocated the devolution of powers to local councils. The direction that the Government are taking is the right one. However, that is not to say that the magistrates have not done an excellent job. I welcome the fact that magistrates will be the court of appeal for any decisions. That seems fit and proper.
Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: My noble friend raised an important point of principle that should be debated. In the country at large, it is fair that the Government's view should be on the record as part of the Committee stage of the Bill. There is a hearts and minds job still to be done. Not everyone is, by any means, convinced about the change. There are concerns about the breadth of the change and about the detailClause 177as my noble friend said.
The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of HaringeyI am sorry that he is not in his placeteased me by comparing the brewery of which I am a non-executive director unfavourably with JD Wetherspoon. He should be aware that Wetherspoon's takes a tougher line than my employer does. It thinks that the Bill should be killed; they take a robust view of it. There is a hearts and minds job still to be done. It would be helpful for the Minister to put on record the philosophy. It would ease some of the issues as we go forward to further discussions and when we get to Clause 177.
Lord Williamson of Horton: This is a central part of the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, did well to draw attention to the importance of the issues. We need the maximum clarification, and I support her view that the more we can learn about the nuts and bolts, the better. The fees issue will become more important when we get further on with the discussion and people calculate the fees that, they think, will fall on them. It will be important to get more clarity on those issues.
It is a matter of balance which way to go. I thought about it for a long time, and I did not have an immediate view. On balance, I take the view that the Government have done the right thing in moving to local authorities, for the wider reasons that have been advanced by, for example, the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats. In the longer term, it is right that those with responsibilities for the affairs of our citizens at local level should also be responsible for this part of the regulation of premises and people concerned with the provision of alcohol.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: I echo the commendation given by my noble friend Lord Redesdale to the role and history of the magistracy vis-a-vis licensing, which are wholly honourable and effective. On the democracy issue, I think that it works well in allowing
I make only two brief points, which are not novel. My first is to ensure that impartiality is maintained. For example, the Lord Chancellor strongly advised magistrates who are also councillors not to seek election to licensing panels. Effectively, we are throwing the whole of the council system into the heart of the licensing process in a quasi judicial way. I am interested to know whether the Government have concerns about that aspect of the new regime.
My second point is that there will be a huge amount of extra work for councillors. They will want to do the job effectively and properly. These days they are already burdened with work. Again, it is an issue which gives rise to real concern. Does the Minister have anything to say on the matter?
Lord Cobbold: The purpose of the Bill, as I understand it, is to combine the licensing of premises with the existing responsibilities of licensing authorities. Amendment No. 61 suggests that one should ask what would happen to the existing licensing powers of the licensing authorities. Would they have to be transferred?
Lord Davies of Oldham: I am grateful for the way in which the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, introduced her amendment as a probing amendment. As she reflected, and other noble Lords supported her, this clause goes to the heart of the Bill. Therefore, it would be a wrecking amendment if it were pursued with force. However, as a probing amendment it gives a chance to engage further in the debate we had at Second Reading, and, it is to be hoped, meet the point which the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, suggested. Outside, there are those who still need to be convinced about the wisdom of this move. We recognise that. It would be strange if we introduced a change to the licensing regime, a transfer from an extremely reputable body, the magistratesto whom, rightly, tribute has been paid today for their licensing workwithout explanation. I share in those commendations.
However, we see the advantages of bringing the whole of licensing under one regime. The local authorities do not lack experience as regards licensing and they will have additional functions as a result of this measure. However, we are consolidating under one body with the advantages that I believe the noble Lords, Lord Phillips and Lord Redesdale, reflected. We are transferring to licensing authorities the advantage of local accountability, which is an important role in local life.
I want to emphasise that local government's long experience in other functions relating to licensing, such as planning, have been part of the warp and weft of local life for a long time. The transfer will now create a more transparent and consistent licensing regime. In the Bill we shall ensure that the functions are discharged openly in the public interest. Local authorities have already managed the majority of the
I recognise the strength of the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, in regard to consistency. I am not sure that people who go into a pub which is part of a national chain say, "The reason I come into this pub is because there is national consistency in regard to its licensing". They may go in because there is national consistency in regard to its beer or its food, but I doubt that people go into a chain of pubs in different towns on the basis of, "Thank heavens I am going into a comparable licensing system across the board". That does not happen. So it is not the licensing aspect that is the consistency.
It is necessary that there should be consistency and fairness in regard to licensing. That is where the guidance, for which the Secretary of State is responsible, will play such an important part. The noble Baroness chided us on the grounds that the guidance has still to be completed. I share with her an elastic notion of spring. These days, none of us seems to know what season it is. Certainly, most things in my garden do not know, but I take her point that she is pessimistic and believes that spring can be as late as May. We understand the importance of the guidance and it will be published in due course.
It is of course the case that people have anxieties when transferring from that which is familiar to that which is different. The number of publicans I have met from time to time who have expressed their anxiety about changing national life are absolutely legion. It is not always because they believe that they have a radical standing on the other side of the bar because I am also from time to time prepared to say that not all change is absolutely essential.
We intend to reduce red tape. We shall bring licensing regimes together in the local community and we shall safeguard its interests. Ministers have met with the British beer and pub associations and other trade organisations. They are largely content that the proposals contained in the Bill provide adequate safeguards against local authorities acting unreasonably, a point made at Second Reading and more obliquely today. A local authority's discretion will come into play only where a relevant representation has been made. The local authority will be able to impose conditions on a licence only when it is necessary to promote the licensing objectives.
As has been rightly identified, a local authority will be obliged to publish its policy and will be answerable to the community. Does that mean that local councillors are likely to be overworked, as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, indicated? In my experience, local councillors are resilient people who organise their lives extremely well. They are busy people but sometimes they bemoan the fact that certain functions are taken away from them and they exercise less power than they did in the past. Here is an opportunity for them to play an increasing part in their local communities.
Anxiety was expressed that local authorities will use the fee structure to advantage local taxpayers. That will not be the case. The fees charged will only defray the costs of the licensing system and they will be regulated under guidance. We do not envisage this as a revenue-raising activity for local authorities. We recognise that fees are involved in any licensing system, but the fees imposed will be only those necessary to meet the costs of carrying out the function.
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