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Baroness Blackstone: Licensing fees will be set centrally and fairly. They will be set at a level which will allow licensing authorities to recover the full costs of exercising the licensing functions, including administration, inspection and enforcement. Amendment No. 263 is therefore unnecessary. As to Amendment No. 264, removing the requirement for an annual fee to be paid to a licensing authority would deprive it of the revenue stream necessary to fund its inspection and enforcement activities. For that reason, I cannot agree to that amendment.
Fee levels will be set following full consultation with local authorities and the industry. As the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, said that most of the other amendments are probing amendments, I shall not deal with each of them in turn. I shall attempt to set out for the Committee how the system will work but, before I do so, I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, and the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, that the guidance will not set the fees. The fees will be set by regulation under statutory instrument and noble Lords will therefore be able to debate them when the time comes.
Annual fees that are not paid on time will become debts recoverable by the licensing authorities. Local authorities already have powers to recover debts and we consider that to be an appropriate arrangement. To suspend the licence or club premises certificate where a fee is paid late, or where a licensee or club official forgets to pay, as Amendments Nos. 270 and 334 suggest, would be disproportionate. The livelihoods of many people, not only the licence holders, could be at stake for what may be an administrative oversight.
The exact level of fees is yet to be decided. The Secretary of State is still considering representations on the levels and the figures are not therefore etched in stone. We currently estimate that the one-off fee for a premises licence will be set in bands between £100 and £500, with annual charges for the purpose of providing revenue for the licensing authority set in bands between £50 and £150. These estimates are based on information from local authorities, industry and professional organisations such as the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA).
As the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, said, there is considerable inconsistency at present in the level of fees charged for public entertainment licences, which are set locally, where local charges for similar premises can vary from £50 to £20,000. Many local authorities charge a flat rate fee of, say, £500, and then add a per capita fee. This leads to excessively high charges, with some venuesnight clubs, for examplewhich have a capacity of 2,000 being charged more than £20,000.
The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy estimated that approximately 46,000 public entertainment licences were issued in 2000-01 by local authorities and that the cost of administering these, including inspection and enforcement, was £7.1 million. CIPFA also estimated that the total income for fees charged for these licences was £16 milliona net profit of £8.9 million. Securing income from fees charged for a particular purpose is unlawful and the disparity in the income and expenditure figures is obviously a cause of considerable concern.
Three years ago, the Local Government Association and the Home Office jointly issued a circular to local authorities expressing concern that particularly high fees and associated costs were deterring some organisers from staging entertainment. It also pointed out that it is unlawful to seek to use such fees to raise revenue. I am afraid that the response of some local authorities was simply to increase their fees. Some local authoritiesperhaps a minorityhave not acted responsibly. That is why we have concluded that fees must be controlled centrally.
Local authorities have had their chance and they have failed. The view that some authorities are charging excessive fees is not only ours but is shared by the LGA, as the joint circular shows. We have received many complaints about the current system from those who stage public entertainment. Some of the most vehement complaints have come from touring companies which, by their very nature, perform in many different parts of the country and experience this inconsistency at first hand.
Not surprisingly, given this kind of behaviour, those parts of the industry which currently deal only with licensing justices and not with local authorities have expressed a great deal of concern ever since we announced our intention to unify the licensing systems under local authorities. We need to provide everyone involved with an assurance that local authorities may not use the licensing system as a method of raising revenue for other purposes, as the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, rightly pointed out.
The Committee may be interested to knowthis relates to a question raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Falklandthat there are precedents for licensing fees being set centrally. Under the Cinemas Act 1985, no local authority may charge more than £600 a year for an annual cinema licence.
The noble Viscount also asked about theatres and whether any will be worse off. It will depend. If a theatre is paying only a tiny licence fee, it may be worse off; but, for the most part, many theatres will be better off under this more regulated system than under the current system.
So fees will be set at a level which will allow all licensing authorities to cover their costs. The system will be self-financing and there will be no potential for a deficit which council tax payers will have to pick up.
Lord Redesdale: The Minister's reply was extremely comprehensive. It is one of the most welcome we have received so far during the passage of the Bill. Is it the Government's intention to outlaw the practice of charging for an entertainment licence and then charging per capita for individuals, as has happened in the past?
Baroness Blackstone: When we set out in regulations what is to be charged, it will almost certainly be the case that there cannot be per capita charges because they lead to the hugely excessive charges being made, particularly for public entertainment.
Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: Our new sitting arrangements have the effect that some of us regularly go without our lunch on Thursdays. I shall not add insult to injury by making a long speech at this stage. I am grateful, as the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, was, to the Minister for the comprehensiveness of her reply. However, there were moments when I would not necessarily have given her the same tribute for realism. But that matter is for another day.
The slight problem that I predict is that, although the guidance will be available to us by Report stage, the regulations to set the fees will not necessarily be with us so early. Since the Government make much of the fact that the Bill is a package that strikes a balance between the interests of all concerned, it would be unfortunate if we were asked to make a judgment without having the answer to what is a severe, serious matter from the point of view of local authorities.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, the Land Register for England and Wales has been open to public inspection since December 1990 and anyone may, for a small fee, view the entries on the register. Since 1st April 2000 the register has, where appropriate, included the price paid for a property. The Government believe that the Land Register should be as comprehensive as is practical and as widely available as possible.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that most encouraging Answer. Does she agree that if the Australian system were adopted whereby prices achieved for properties are readily available to the public, for example, on the Internet, we would avoid situations such as arose in the recent landmark Horbury Mews legal case and the data error in the Halifax house price index? That index was launched 20 years ago but seems to have gone very wrong.
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