27 Feb 2003 : Column 379

House of Lords

Thursday, 27th February 2003.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Blackburn.

Licensing Bill [HL]

The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now further considered on Report.

Moved, That the Bill be further considered on Report.—(Baroness Blackstone.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Clause 6 [Licensing committees]:

Baroness Buscombe moved Amendment No. 37:

    Page 4, line 7, leave out from "of" to end of line 8 and insert "such members of the authority as the authority shall determine"

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 37, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 41. Amendment No. 37 would remove the restrictions on the number of members of a licensing committee. I spoke to the amendment in Committee, and I was not satisfied with the answer that I received.

Noble Lords will know that there will be an ever-present need for speed and flexibility on the part of local authorities. In large urban areas, local authorities will be hampered from running the system efficiently by the specification that the licensing committee may have no more than 15 members. Backlogs will build up; applications will be delayed; and applicants will become frustrated. In small areas, local authorities may be hard pushed to find 10 members. In Committee, I referred to Ryedale District Council, in the parliamentary constituency of my honourable friend John Greenway. That council has 23 members. Rutland County Council, in the parliamentary constituency of my honourable friend Alan Duncan, has 20 members. The suggestion that a licensing committee may have no more than 15 members seems a little out of kilter.

The provision is a setback to the new system before it has even started. No doubt, the Minister will counter my argument as he did in Committee by talking about sub-committees and the fact that,

    "In certain emergencies they"—

the licensing committee—

    "can even devolve work to officers in order to meet the requirements of particular exigencies".—[Official Report, 19/12/02; col. 835.]

That is a classic case of over-regulation and unnecessary complication. Why not let the local authorities decide how many members there should be on the committee? They will be able to decide on the number that best meets their needs for the amount of business that the committee will handle. The Bill is over-prescriptive.

27 Feb 2003 : Column 380

I turn to Amendment No. 41. On the third day in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, said that, when considering applications for licences, all members of a licensing committee would have to be present for the committee to be quorate. That was a surprising thing for the noble Lord to say. It is apparent from the Bill that it would be difficult for a licensing committee to refuse to grant a premises licence or a personal licence. One could be forgiven for thinking that the purpose of the Bill is to repeal licensing law, albeit that it takes 169 pages to do so. Be that as it may, the Bill makes it far easier to obtain either a premises licence or a personal licence.

The curious thing is that, if all members of a licensing committee must be present for the committee to be quorate—we could think of those in Ryedale, for example—it will be more difficult to obtain a licence. We all know how difficult it is to get a meeting of our colleagues together. Finding a date when all the members of any group can meet is always difficult. Even when a date is found, somebody inevitably cries off for a good or bad reason. The work of government here in Westminster and at local level would come to a grinding halt, if the requirement for a quorum for any committee was set at 100 per cent. Therefore, we resist any suggestion that a quorum should be 100 per cent.

That was the situation before Christmas. However, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, must have had a good Christmas. He was in more charitable mood on the fourth day in Committee. He said:

    "a local authority could not conceivably act in circumstances in which everybody had to be present and correct in order to form a quorum".—[Official Report, 13/1/03; col. 16.]

I like the idea that everyone has to be both present and correct. I wonder what the noble Lord means by being correct, rather than just present. The thrust of what the Minister said was that a 100 per cent quorum was unworkable. It looks as if I am pushing at an open door on that point. That being so, it is appropriate that the licensing committee itself should decide the quorum for meetings. It will be best placed to know how busy it is and where a balance should be struck.

Regulations made by central government cannot take into account the many local variations that would make a quorum figure acceptable in one area but not in another. The quorum for meetings should be decided at local level, rather than by central government. I beg to move.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, we support these entirely sensible amendments and hope that the Government will accept them.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: My Lords, before the Minister replies, I too should like to support my noble friend Lady Buscombe. As I pointed out in Committee, one of the concerns as regards the procedure is that dealings with local authorities over public entertainment licences have not always been as swift, flexible and responsive as people would like. Adding further burdens will make the speed of

27 Feb 2003 : Column 381

response even less flexible. Thus anything that may entrammel the local authority in bureaucracy, including a fixed requirement for people to attend meetings, seems undesirable. We seek as much flexibility as possible for the local authority in order that it will be able to respond quickly to applications.

I understand the Government's wish to see a minimum level of quorum; that is perfectly fair. However, the Bill as drafted is overprescriptive and I therefore support the amendment.

11.15 a.m.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I think that the points are being rather belaboured because of a misconception. Representations made during our earlier discussions and again today suggest that the licensing committee will meet in regular session. The question of quorum would then become much more significant. Let me assure the House that while the licensing committee may wish to meet frequently and is able to do so—that is its business as defined locally—its sole obligatory function as a committee is to make the licensing statement. For that the full licensing committee will have to be present and therefore the question of numbers is significant in that context. However, it is only for that function that the entire committee needs to be in action; it may decide at the local level whether it wants to hold full meetings on other occasions.

For the rest, we envisage a flexible committee structure to meet the requirements for the granting of licences that will be responsive to local pressures, while at the same time the structure will maintain a clear perspective on the responsibilities of the licensing committee itself and on the nature of the surrounding regulations.

I understand fully the points that have been made and recognise the issue of flexibility. That is why I wish to emphasise that most licences will be granted within the framework of a sub-committee structure. The Bill attempts to balance flexibility through a framework based on a sub-committee system that will provide licensing authorities and, by extension, the industry with the tools to process applications quickly and efficiently.

As I remarked earlier in our deliberations, we have sought the views of a wide range of stakeholders, including representatives of local government at all levels, and have concluded that a limit of no fewer than 10 and no more than 50 members will ensure that a licensing committee is not so small as to make decision-making unacceptably slow and not so large as to make its conduct of business unmanageable. We are still of that view. Amendment No. 37 would allow the licensing authority absolute freedom to determine the size of its licensing committee.

It is important to remember that in the majority of cases we expect applications to be processed administratively at the official level, without any need for a hearing. Under the structure, the licensing committee will deal with the policy statement while

27 Feb 2003 : Column 382

sub-committees will deal with those applications raising significant policy issues. Officials will be able to deal with run-of-the-mill licence applications where no significant issue of policy arises. Under those circumstances there will be no need for any member of the licensing committee to be involved if the officers are given the authority to exercise decisions in their own names.

The policy behind the Bill is designed to promote co-operation and collaboration between licensees and the licensing authority. Most issues should be ironed out by the applicant through dialogue with the licensing authority and the responsible authorities, as well as through reference to the statement of licensing policy, before the application is even submitted. Where relevant representations are received and a hearing is required, members of the licensing committee will need to become involved. But I emphasise again that the whole licensing committee does not have to consider and decide on every application; indeed, for the entire licensing committee to be involved would be an unusual occurrence.

The Bill provides that functions of the licensing committee may be delegated to sub-committees comprising three members that may sit in parallel. Thus, for example, for a licensing committee comprising the maximum of 15 members, five sub-committees could sit simultaneously to consider what it is hoped would be the small fraction of applications that cannot be processed administratively at the official level. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, will note that, coincidentally, the sub-committee system framed in the Bill reflects arrangements currently operated by Westminster Council in respect of public entertainment licences. Those arrangements work extremely well.

The licensing committee may delegate any of its functions under the Bill except responsibility for the licensing statement. That is why I have emphasised that the full committee will meet quite rarely. Nevertheless, in order to avoid large and unwieldy committees, we have stipulated a maximum of 15 members. I recognise that, in mentioning Ryedale, the noble Baroness made the important point that local authorities vary greatly in size. A committee of 10 members might constitute half of the total membership of certain small authorities. However, the fact that in the main the full committee need not meet will minimise the pressure put on members, while at the same time ensuring that an adequate pool will be maintained from which to draw a sub-committee, should one be required at short notice.

In addition, and turning to Amendment No. 41 which was also spoken to by the noble Baroness, the Bill gives the Secretary of State power to make regulations setting out, among other matters, the quorum for meetings of the licensing committee and its sub-committees. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, has supported these amendments and on a previous occasion expressed his concern that the Bill does not state how many members had to be present for a licensing committee to be quorate. He was right to point that out; those details do not appear on the face

27 Feb 2003 : Column 383

of the Bill. However, the Secretary of State will be able to set limits through secondary legislation. If the Secretary of State does not make such regulations, then by virtue of Clause 9(3) each licensing committee can choose to regulate its own procedure and that of its sub-committees. So if the Secretary of State does not make regulations, then the responsibility will be devolved to the licensing committee.

I should mention one further point. It will be in everyone's interests to ensure that where hearings are required, they can be dealt with in a timely fashion. As the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, pointed out in Committee, speed is often of the essence. The licensing authority must be in a position to respond quickly on certain occasions. By providing for a system of sub-committees to handle individual applications, and an upper limit on the size of the full licensing committee, we can ensure delivery of those key priorities.

I should also like to remind the House of the assurances I gave in Committee that fair and practical timetables for the processing of applications will be set out in regulations. Those too will be developed through continued consultation with local government, industry and other stakeholders.

I maintain therefore that the Bill strikes the right balance. It allows for up to five sub-committees to meet simultaneously if that is necessary, while limiting the maximum size of the licensing committee to one that is manageable.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page