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Baroness Buscombe moved Amendment No. 117:

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 117, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 118.

These amendments relate to the size of licensing committees and seek to provide for greater flexibility and discretion in the deployment of councillors to serve on those committees. As it stands, the Bill imposes a straitjacket on local authorities by providing that all local authorities must have a licensing committee of at least 10 but not more than 15 members of the authority.

Given the widely differing sizes of local authorities, both in terms of population and the number of licensed premises they cover, as well as in the number of members, is it entirely wise to specify such narrow minimum and maximum numbers on the face of the Bill? For example, Ryedale Council, in the parliamentary constituency of my honourable friend John Greenway, has 23 members; Rutland Council, in the parliamentary constituency of my honourable friend Alan Duncan, has 20 members. Both councils will, however, be required to establish licensing committees consisting of at least 10 members, half the size of the authority. Equally, Leeds City Council has 99 members covering the best part of 1 million people, yet its licensing committee will be restricted to a maximum membership of 15 under Clause 6.

I was interested that the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, could not answer my Written Question asking her to list the number of members of each local authority falling within the definition of a licensing authority because the information was,

    "not held centrally and could be obtained only at disproportionate cost".—[Official Report, 4/12/02; col. WA 118.]

If these figures were not available to the Government, how did Ministers arrive at the figure of a minimum of 10 and a maximum of 15 members? Can the Minister say whether there has been any consultation with local authorities on this point?

Particularly in the transitional period, when local authorities in urban areas such as central London will be dealing with hundreds, if not thousands, of applications for replacement licences and variations of existing licences, it is quite impracticable to place limits on the number of local councillors who can be

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members of the licensing committee and therefore able to deal with the applications. While it is recognised that a large number of the initial applications could be dealt with under delegated powers by council officers, there will be a huge number of applications for variations which are likely to be opposed by local residents and responsible authorities. If the number of members allowed to sit on the licensing committee is restricted to 15, especially in the transitional period, then huge backlogs of applications are likely to develop, resulting in the deemed refusal of those applications and placing an unwanted and unnecessary burden on the magistrates' courts which would have to deal with appeals arising from the deemed refusals.

Quite apart from the point about the unnecessary burden on the courts, this would defeat the whole object of the Bill, which is to ensure that licensing decisions are taken by the local authority and not by the courts. A council should be able to select as many members as it chooses to sit on its licensing committee so as to be able to cope with the huge burden which will be placed upon it, particularly in urban areas. I beg to move.

Lord Redesdale: I support these amendments but I have a couple of questions to ask the Minister. The Bill sets out that there should be at least 10 members of a licensing committee but it does not state how many members have to be present for the licensing committee to be quorate. I am not sure whether that figure will be set by the council. As I read the Bill, all 10 members would have to be present for the committee to be quorate. I may be wrong; I seek elucidation on the point.

It is very important not to limit the number of members to 15. Concern has been expressed by many publicans and by a number of pub chains and breweries about moving licensing from the magistrates to local authorities. The issue is one of speed—namely, the timing in terms of holding meetings. Situations may arise such as the death of a licensee; or a licensee may run off with a barmaid—these things tend to happen at weekends, just to cause maximum problems! In such situations applications under the terms of the Bill for a variation of the premises licence would have to be dealt with as quickly as possible so as to cause the least difficulty and financial distress to the premises involved. Therefore, not limiting the number of members of a committee to 15, especially in larger councils, could provide a degree of flexibility in this matter.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: In support of the amendment, it is worth adding that the experience of obtaining public entertainment licences through the local authority—as happens under present legislation—has not always been satisfactory; the response has not always been as quick and flexible as one would like.

I know that a new system will be set up under the Bill, but the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, are very serious. Speed is of the essence. We are talking about only a matter of hours

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before public houses have to re-open with a new licensee in position. The local authority must be in a position to respond very quickly indeed if significant damage is not to be done both to those who provide the licensed premises and to those who use them.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: I reinforce what my noble friend Lady Buscombe said about inner-city councils; and what the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, said about "quoracy", if such a word exists. Westminster City Council has a committee which has in excess of 15 members at the present time, simply because of the problem of quoracy and finding people to sit on particular issues at particular times of day.

Lord Davies of Oldham: If there is one issue that dogs all of us who are concerned with legislation, it is numbers: the size of committees, and what the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, referred to as "quoracy".

These issues have to be resolved on the basis of substantial consultation. I want to reassure the noble Lord, and the noble Baroness—who raised the issue of whether local authorities have been consulted—that over 173 local authorities responded to the consultation on the White Paper; and during the drafting of the Bill we have stayed in close touch with the main local authority associations.

One recognises the necessity for a committee to be broad enough to be properly representative and at the same time to be able to act with considerable speed: as the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, indicated there are anxieties about the problems that occur when a licence needs to considered rapidly, and how adroitly a local authority would respond.

It goes without saying that I have great faith in local authorities, and in the electoral principle generally—I am causing a slight uplifting of eyebrows on the Front Bench opposite, but I am sure that when the noble Baroness hears me complete the sentence and say that I have great faith in democracy, her eyebrows will return to their normal place.

I emphasise the following points. First, it is the case that all members of a licensing committee will have to be present for the committee to be quorate. That is why it cannot be too large. It is also the case that a licensing authority can—as local authorities are adroit at doing—draw up appropriate sub-committees; and in certain emergencies they can even devolve work to officers in order to meet the requirements of particular exigencies.

The powers being vested in local authorities are very important. But local authorities are responsible for many important aspects of our lives, so they have great experience in responding to needs. The consultation extended much wider than local authorities. But, local authorities having been effectively consulted, I think that the range from 10 to 15, which we are adopting, is appropriate. The assurance that local authorities will be able to devolve to sub-committees and officers in particular circumstances gives a necessary flexibility to assuage all anxieties.

Baroness Buscombe: I thank the Minister for his response. I must say immediately that I am not happy

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with it. I am even more concerned on hearing his response to the sensible question by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, on how many members must be present to make a committee quorate. If the whole committee must be present, as a former district councillor I cannot imagine how, if I were a member for Ryedale or Rutland, I could cope with attending potentially many licensing committee sittings.

This inflexible regulation is to go into the Bill, yet so many important provisions will not be included. I do not understand the Government's inflexibility. Councils consulted on the White Paper might have been happy with the idea of that number but I wonder how the question was posed. I suspect that the same councillors who thought that 15—perhaps more than 10, or no more than 15—was about right would give very different answers on seeing the Bill in full now with the implications and the responsibilities that will be placed on them on a potentially daily basis.

We shall have to return to the matter on Report unless the Minister feels able to reconsider it before then. As I said in my opening remarks, it simply will not work, particularly during the transitional period. I can see some councils coming to a standstill, applications being delayed and a backlash against local authorities which will already be struggling to gain the hearts and minds of those who do not believe that the transfer from magistrates to local authorities is a good one. It will become an almost impossible task.

I hear what the Minister says in response to the amendments. I regret the nature and content of that response, but for the moment I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 118 not moved.]

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