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Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts moved Amendment No. 62:

The noble Lord said: We are dealing now with the definition of "licensing authority", which is given in Clause 3(1). There are seven categories involved, the first of which is,

    "the council of a district in England".

My amendment, which is a probing device, seeks to delete reference to councils of a district in England, while leaving the councils of a county in England, those of a county or county borough, or of a London borough, as licensing authorities.

I understand the reason behind putting in the words "council of a district"—namely local democracy. We are trying to get decisions as close to individual people as possible, and to have as responsive a licensing framework as possible. But this is a very significant step because of the requirement on each licensing authority to produce a statement of licensing policy. That applies, therefore, to every district council.

I do not know how many district councils exist across the country, but I should imagine that they run into the hundreds. As the noble Lord, Lord Davies, said, they will cover a whole range of opinion. We shall, therefore, see hundreds of licensing statements, which will amount to a patchwork quilt of views on licensing. Some people may say that that is an extraordinarily good idea, because that is what we should be trying to achieve with such a quilt. It will show that the process is very responsive. However, the problem with a patchwork quilt is twofold: first, there is always the danger of regulatory arbitrage between local district councils—that is, between those who take a minimalist view or a maximalist view of the provision of alcohol. Secondly, there are those who wish to push

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licensed premises towards the periphery of their area, or hold it at the centre. The result—in terms of the need to keep the licensing statement under review at all times, as provided for in Clause 5(4)—could be considerable regulatory arbitrage.

The second problem, as mentioned, is the possibility that, by having a local statement of licensing policy, we shall arouse expectations that the specified conditions will be enormously responsive. I share the concerns expressed by noble Lords that we may be setting up a system that cannot deliver those expectations. We may be arousing expectations about a system that will be wildly popular to begin with, but wildly unpopular when it proves that our intentions cannot have a practical impact.

A patchwork quilt approach presents the industry with problems. I believe that there is an argument for creating a scale in the establishment of licensing authorities. It would provide a framework which is more comprehensive and more comprehensible to the industry and the general public. We need a clear framework that can be explained to people in the relevant area without arousing too many expectations. If we do not do that, we could undermine people's confidence in the regime we are seeking to create. I beg to move.

7 p.m.

Lord Redesdale: I cannot support the amendment, but I have some sympathy for the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts. It will be difficult, especially for some of the larger pub chains, to write guidance based on all the authorities' specifications.

I thought that the noble Lord was going to raise another point, but he did not, perhaps because an amendment to that effect has not yet been tabled. It is nevertheless a provision that we should consider—extending local accountability down to the ward councillor level. It is currently proposed that ward councillors should not represent their own wards on licensing authorities. The point goes wide of this debate, but we shall probably return to it. Although we support such provision, we also understand that it will be difficult for local councils to fill licensing committees. There will be much debate about how large committees should be and who should sit on them. The issue will be considered at local council level and it should not be underestimated.

The time issue was not raised in the previous debate. However, many bodies have objected to the transfer from the magistracy to local councils—I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, would deal with this point—because many pubs realise that, in some circumstances, such as when the licensee dies, the licence will have to be transferred in a hurry, perhaps over a weekend. The magistrates were able to act reasonably quickly, but local authorities may not be able to do so.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: I strongly oppose the amendment. However, I liked the statement by the

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noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, that the new regime will create "regulatory arbitrage"—and a very good thing, too. However, what he calls "regulatory arbitrage" I call "local variation according to local needs". It is what old-fashioned Liberals call local democracy. I am very suspicious every time I hear a government spokesman—I am surprised to hear it from a member of the Opposition—advancing consistency as the great virtue because in these matters surely the important factor is to be sensitive to local needs which are so different as between at one end, a city centre, and, at the other, a country area.

I echo the points made by my noble friend as regards the framework guidance. If the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, reads it—I am sure that he has it by his bath—he would derive great comfort. It states, as I said on Second Reading,

    "The Guidance . . . is a key mechanism for ensuring consistent application of licensing powers across the country".—[Official Report, 26/11/02; col. 711.]

That worries us. The guidance goes on to say—this appears at col. 712—that the norm,

    "should be for the vast majority of these registrations to be automatic".

The noble Lord should take great comfort from that. The guidance, again I refer to col. 712, would,

    "underline the need for . . . minimum bureaucracy in the process".

That worries some of us.

I come back to the underlying framework. If the guidance is subject to no parliamentary scrutiny, it could become an instrument of severe centralist control of a severely insensitive nature. We shall debate that later. Suffice to say that I—I cannot speak for anyone else—am dead opposed to the amendment.

Baroness Buscombe: I am afraid that I too take a rather different view from my noble friend on this issue. If we are to accept that local authorities are the appropriate bodies to administer licensing policy, we find it hard to envisage that district councils, which are the bodies closest to local communities, should not be involved. I speak as a former district councillor. I would have been rather upset if, as an elected councillor, I was expressly excluded from such matters.

As drafted—I realise that my noble friend tabled this as a probing amendment—the effect of the amendment would be that in any county where there were district councils there would, if the amendment were successful, be no licensing authority at all. Clearly, that cannot have been envisaged by my noble friend.

But the upshot of the acceptance of the amendment, coupled with an amendment to transfer powers to county councils, would be a major burden falling on county councils, a responsibility on them to devise a licensing policy that might have to apply to distant and diverse communities.

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I fear that removing licensing policy from local communities would be counter-productive, arousing suspicions where none need exist. This is a major change in policy that is being proposed where all of us who are involved and who want to see it succeed will have to carry the public with us. That, I think, must involve leaving policy close to local communities with bodies that the public feel are sensitive to local conditions. I see no reason to fear that those bodies will be more obstructive of the liberalised regime that we all wish to see. I do not support my noble friend's amendment.

Lord Davies of Oldham: It will come as no surprise to hear that I found the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, most attractive. It was a response I shall seek to emulate, but with considerably less eloquence.

I have identified the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, as the Scylla and the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, as the Charybdis in this debate in terms of their polarity of view with regard to the licensing regime. The Government intend to sail a safe course between two such positions. Of course we recognise that there must be some consistency with regard to licensing policy. That is why the Secretary of State will issue guidance in order that local authorities will know the parameters within which they must work. The complete devolution of power would be an odd concept in regard to licensing. As I say, guidance will be issued. But, by the same token, we shall not have the regulatory arbitrage from the centre that has been mentioned. Local communities will play their proper role in determining licensing policy locally.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, we recognise the significance of one point that he made. It is important that local authorities should be able to respond quickly to emergency situations. The death of a publican might, for example, put the whole business at risk unless a speedy decision was made on reviewing the licence. Of course, we intend to have procedures, and expect local authorities to have procedures, to meet those emergencies.

Local magistrates are volunteers, too. They put their time at the disposal of the local community and meet their obligations. We are merely saying that this obligation will be fulfilled as responsibly by local authorities as it has been by magistrates in respect of speed and effectiveness with regard to policy. The great advantage is that local authorities are democratically responsible. The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, is right in saying that if we accepted this amendment, we would not have any licensing authorities left at all. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, tabled this amendment with an exploratory, probing intent, such as has governed our discussions so far, so that we could advance the debate further.

We will not have a patchwork quilt with regard to overall licensing policy, but we will have local authorities that are able to be responsive to their local communities and to develop a licensing strategy against that perspective. That is the concept behind the

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Bill. We need to strike a balance, because people in the industry will need some certainties about aspects of the licensing regime, irrespective of where they are in the country. That goes without saying. By the same token, we see enormous value in the ability of local representatives to play their part in the development of a local policy.

I am merely reiterating the speech made by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, which preceded mine. It is crucial to this Bill that the amendment is withdrawn, and I rely on the noble Lord to do so.

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