Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster: My Lords, I support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil. As I listen to the debate and receive correspondence from outside, I am impressed by the strength of opposition to the change proposed by Her Majesty's Government. I am impressed by the fact that, as the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, has put it, the experience, independence and objectivity of the magistrates—the licensing justices—would be lost. I have heard no clear explanation of the benefits that would accrue from making this change or whether those benefits would outweigh the evident costs which would be incurred as a result. Although, like my noble friend Lady Howe, I shall listen with interest to the Minister's speech, as at present advised, I am minded to support the amendment.

Lord Hooson: My Lords, as I already indicated to my colleagues last week, I have considerable sympathy for the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton. I kept an open mind about the matter until I heard the debate today, and now I am convinced that I should support him.

11 Mar 2003 : Column 1249

I have no experience of licensing at the present time, but in my early days at the Bar I did a great deal of licensing work. I always found that magistrates, whatever their individual political complexion, were pretty well versed and trained in taking a judicial approach on the matters before them. It therefore seems to me that if you are to have a major change—changing the tribunal that decides the licensing in the first instance—it should be left with the magistrates rather than the local authorities, particularly given that voters these days do not show any great enthusiasm for voting in elections for local authorities. We should bear that in mind when we consider a major change of this kind.

Overall, the onus must be on the Government and their supporters, including most of my colleagues on these Benches, to make out a positive case for transferring the authority to the local authority rather than leaving it with the licensing bench. I know there will be a right of appeal in most circumstances, but I do not think that the Government have really made their case.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, bemoaned the fact that we have reached this late stage in the Bill before being able to debate this fundamental issue. It certainly is fundamental, as the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, indicated. If this is not a wrecking amendment, it is pretty close, because it runs counter to the whole thrust of the Bill.

It is not for the Government to put down amendments to their own Bill to clarify matters. Clarifying the Bill is a matter for the Opposition. We were not able to debate these issues in Committee because noble Lords were not in their place to move the Motion and, on the second occasion, being late in the evening, it was thought the debate was unsatisfactory. I had hoped at that stage to deploy the Government's arguments sufficient to persuade the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, that further debate was not necessary, but as he had indicated in his opening speech that, because of the lateness of the hour, we would have a debate on Third Reading, come what may, a certain amount of hot air was wasted on that occasion. But at least we have the chance today to address the Government's case.

Let me make one thing absolutely clear. As I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for saying, the magistrates are not being taken out of the licensing system entirely. If decisions are taken that so affront those affected, they can appeal to the magistrates. They certainly have a role. That is because we all respect the role that they have played in the past in alcohol licensing. I respect all the contributions today that have paid due tribute to their work.

Let me tell the House why the amendment cannot be supported by anybody who is judging the issue intelligently and sensibly. This is not about just one licensing regime—the sale of alcohol, for which magistrates had responsibility in the past; it is about regulating six regimes, five of which are in the purview of local authorities at the moment. Of course magistrates have substantial experience of licensing

11 Mar 2003 : Column 1250

and a proud record of having played their part over many decades. However, that applies only to alcohol licensing. The licensing of cinemas, theatres, night cafes, late-night refreshment and public entertainment—all of which are central to the Bill—are the responsibility of local authorities.

The Government are interested in deregulation. Some noble Lords have said that the industry has anxieties about the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, said that one or two small breweries had reservations about it. The industry has taken the Bill in its totality. They recognise that it is a chance to produce an integrated system of licensing that will cut down red tape significantly—reducing regulation is the purpose of the Bill—and, in doing so, will concentrate all licensing in one regime. The choice is whether it should be under the magistrates, who currently have responsibility in one area, or under the local authorities, who have responsibility for regulation in five of the areas. There are clear reasons, which I shall hope to deploy in due course, why it should be local authorities. Let us not be under any illusion that this is just a transfer of one licensing regime from magistrates to local authorities. That is not so.

Secondly, the amendments would make a wholesale and unjustifiable change to the Bill. Our proposals are straightforward. We believe that we will introduce better and more effective regulation that relates to the needs of the community by investing in local authorities a further licensing area in addition to the five for which they are already responsible.

There is a common misunderstanding about the status of the licensing justices. They do not sit as a magistrates' court. They were established by statute as an administrative committee, elected by the magistrates in the relevant petty sessions area. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Taylor for pointing out the crucial point that magistrates are not bound by the normal rules of evidence and are technically free to receive and consider hearsay evidence and petitions.

I make those points to stress that the role magistrates play is not judicial, but administrative, although in certain circumstances their role will have a quasi-judicial quality. If Parliament had wanted a judicial process from magistrates, it would have given the job to the magistrates' courts, not to the licensing justices.

In our normal court procedures, an adversarial contest takes place. Two or more competing parties put their cases and, from a neutral position, the tribunal decides the case on the merits of the arguments. The licensing process is entirely different. There are competing parties representing different vested interests, but the deciding body's role is not a neutral one, simply deciding an issue between competing parties. The deciding body has to represent the needs of the wider community in decisions on licensing and decides any matter under the law in the wider interests of the community, balancing the competing interests against that wider interest.

11 Mar 2003 : Column 1251

Once it is accepted that licensing is a regulatory and administrative process—not a judicial one—undertaken in the interests of the community, the question arises as to which body should most appropriately represent those interests. As my noble friend Lord Taylor said, licensing justices are accountable only to the magistrates who elect them to the licensing committee and to the higher courts. That cannot be said to provide democratic accountability. I stress democratic accountability, because the administrative processes should be in the hands of democratically elected representatives of the local electorate and regulatory processes should be entrusted to those best placed to undertake the balancing exercise on an informed basis of what is in that wider community interest on licensing decisions.

The Government are not the only ones who have drawn that conclusion about the scope for reducing red tape by consolidating the licensing system and about the principle of accountability. The Better Regulation Task Force, on behalf of the industry, recommended to the Government that the local authorities should have that role in the future.

The noble Lord, Lord Peyton, wondered whether the local authorities recognise the treadmill on which they are going to be placed when they take up the role. Magistrates have followed the same treadmill. The guidance that is to be applied to the local authorities in conducting their licensing role has been directed towards magistrates in their administrative role under the existing system. Nothing is changing there.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, emphasised the strength of the magistrates' position. I greatly appreciate the work that has been done by many colleagues in this House in that role, but it has been limited to one area. As the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, emphasised with the greatest possible clarity, these issues affect the local community. It is entirely right and proper that the local community should have the chance to have the issues decided in their name by a body that is responsible to them.

The basis of the Bill is to reduce red tape and bring six licensing regimes—five of which are currently within the purview of the local authority—into one consolidated licensing procedure. The purpose of the Bill is not to introduce 24-hour drinking; it is to increase flexibility on licensing hours. It is a canard to say that the Bill introduces 24-hour drinking in every pub in the country. The decision on when pubs will be open and how much they use the flexibility afforded by the Bill will be made by the licensees, who will have due regard to the market demand. As we all know, the vast majority of pubs will not stay open into the wee small hours of the morning, because the licensees know that the numbers of people who would visit at those times would make it uneconomic.

The Government's position is clear. This is a regulatory measure aimed at reducing red tape. It is a consolidation measure, vesting the authority with the local authorities on the grounds that I have put forward. That is not in any way to decry the role of the

11 Mar 2003 : Column 1252

magistrates in the past. That is why the magistrates will continue to play the role of the court of appeal against decisions taken by the local authority.

I am pleased that we have had this debate. We ought to have had it on Second Reading or in Committee, many days ago. It is a bit late in the day to be doing it now. I hope that I have clarified the issues sufficiently for the noble Lord to think twice about pressing the issue to a vote.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page