|Back to Table of Contents
|Lords Hansard Home Page
As this Bill progresses through the House after Second Reading, I am sure that the usual channels will give it its appropriate "godspeed", it will progress through this House and, in however many days in the next Session, progress through another place. It will then become an Act. We will then discover that Clause 1 has come into effect and the European Communities Act 1972 has been repealed. I should like to ask the promoters of this Bill: what happens 10 years later when the sunset clause comes into effect? Do we then have to go back to Europe and say, "We are terribly sorry, but we have got it all wrong-we are back in", or does Europe have a say in what happens?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, on introducing this debate and agree with the noble Lord, Lord Henley, that we do not really have time tonight to debate this matter fully.
At this particular time, as all speakers have said, constitutional reform is a matter of considerable interest for Parliament and the public. All the major parties
6 July 2009 : Column 532
Last week in the other place, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, reminded us, Members debated the Government's Parliamentary Standards Bill. It very much deals with democratic renewal, which goes hand in hand with constitutional reform. As we were reminded, that Bill is before this House and we will have the opportunity to debate it in detail over the next few weeks.
The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, asked me some questions. I do not have the answer to his question on the statement to the committee made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, some years ago. All I would say is that I worked closely with the noble and learned Lord and was a junior Minister under him for a while. In my opinion, the noble and learned Lord hardly ever did anything wrong. I have to leave the matter on that note. The noble Lord will not be surprised to hear me say that the Government still intend to introduce before the Summer Recess a Bill based on the draft constitutional renewal Bill; so he may not have to wait much longer. I accept that he has been very patient.
As for the priorities regarding the two Bills, I should say that it seemed to be agreed between the parties in another place-whatever else was not agreed-that it was important to introduce legislation quickly to begin to rebuild trust in politics and politicians. It seemed to be agreed that one of the priorities was to create an independent parliamentary standards authority and a commissioner for parliamentary investigations. We will have time later this week to debate these matters further. I cannot resist admiring the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for saying that the Bill was being rushed, because I have been reminded that it was his own party leader, Mr Clegg, who wanted to rewrite the whole British constitution in 100 days. That seems a quick way of doing things-in a recess, too.
The answer to the question asked in the debate is that the Government intend to take forward legislative proposals for constitutional reform presently before the House-but not those set out in the Constitutional Reform Bill. The best that can be said for it is that it is indeed an ambitious Bill.
We take seriously the issue of constitutional reform. We have undertaken a considerable programme of work in this regard under the Prime Minister. For example, we have published the draft legislative programme; created the Youth Citizenship Commission; sponsored the review of citizenship of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith; undertaken a consultation on flag-flying; undertaken a consultation on weekend voting; undertaken a review of electoral systems; issued a White Paper on House of Lords reform; made changes to the arrangements for appointing bishops
6 July 2009 : Column 533
These are only the latest in a long line of reforms stretching back to 1997, which include such significant reforms as devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; modernising your Lordships' House; introducing the Freedom of Information and Human Rights Acts; reforming the role of the Lord Chancellor; and creating the UK Supreme Court. The Prime Minister has further demonstrated his commitment to constitutional reform with the creation of the Democratic Renewal Council, which meets weekly to consider constitutional matters; and by his swift action to bring forward legislation in response to public concerns over MPs' expenses.
We see two areas where proposals in the Bills of the noble Lords, Lord Willoughby de Broke and Lord Tyler, have common ground with the Government's proposals. First, the Government's draft Constitutional Renewal Bill contains proposals for the ratification of treaties that would give a statutory basis for the parliamentary scrutiny of treaties prior to their ratification by the state. Secondly, the Government propose to introduce a draft resolution for debate in the other place that will set out in detail the processes that Parliament should follow in order to approve any commitment of Armed Forces to armed conflict. However, the noble Lord will not be surprised to hear that the Government take a different view from him on the Human Rights Act.
I am sure that the noble Lord will not mind me reminding him that those who inspired and drafted the European Convention on Human Rights, to which the Human Rights Act gives further effect, were British lawyers in the early 1950s-senior Conservatives, in fact. The Government are proud to have introduced the Human Rights Act. We are clear that any attempt to reverse the incorporation of the European Convention would prevent our judges from applying the convention in a way that is specific to the UK. It would also stop us contributing to the development of the interpretation of the European Convention in the international arena.
Repealing the Act would not mean automatically going back to the situation before 1998, when all cases had to be heard in Strasbourg. It would be legally possible to repeal the Human Rights Act and replicate selected provisions in a new Bill. We published a consultation paper in March, setting out proposals for a Bill of rights and responsibilities. This will build on the Human Rights Act, not replace or dilute it. We on these Benches have no intention of resiling from the protections afforded by the European Convention, or from the way in which they are given effect in the UK by the Human Rights Act.
We are also taking forward measures in respect of the working of Parliament. I will not go through them in detail. There have been calls to reduce the number of MPs. The Government agree that we need to keep under review the size of the Commons but we also agree with what my noble friend Lord Grocott said on the matter. It has already been reduced in size since 1997, and it is important to remember that, since 1950, the average number of electors that individual MPs
6 July 2009 : Column 534
There has been much debate on reforms to your Lordships' House. The Government are committed to reforming this House into a substantially or wholly elected second Chamber, and have been working with other parties to that end. We published a White Paper last July that was informed by cross-party talks. Since then, there has been almost a year of wider debate and discussion of the proposals contained in it. In developing more detailed plans for reform, the Government have listened to and reflected on the debate and discussion. This fully considered and comprehensive approach to the issue is one way in which we are attempting to promote and restore trust in politics and our political institutions. We intend to publish proposals for the final stages of Lords reform by the Summer Recess, including a summary of the responses to the White Paper. Our intention is that draft legislation should be introduced and fully in place shortly after the next general election, if it cannot be put through before then.
A great deal of what the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, is concerned with is what is defined as "local matters". We are proud of our achievements in devolving power. We believe that devolution has delivered real benefits to people across the UK, providing the right balance between responsibility, accountability and representation. And we think devolution in England has been significantly advanced by the introduction of local area agreements between local authorities and their partners and central government. Within England the Government believe a regional approach is necessary to analyse and address the causes of economic disparity, to ensure planning and investment decisions are properly integrated, and to co-ordinate issues which sometimes extend beyond the boundaries of even the largest local authority.
We do not believe in a one-size-fits-all approach. We respect the outcome of the November 2004 north-east referendum. Therefore, we have no further plans for directly elected regional bodies. Instead, in November 2008 the Government's response to the review of sub-national economic development and regeneration set out the Government's intention. The Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill announced last December will bring some of the changes into effect.
The Prime Minister has appointed nine dedicated regional Ministers, helping strengthen the authority and viability of government offices as facilitators of partnership working in the regions and localities. In November 2008 the other place agreed to establish eight regional Select Committees, each with nine members, and eight Grand Committees. Those Select Committees have now begun their work. At Budget 2009 we announced that two city region pilots-Manchester and Leeds- would be asked to develop proposals to deliver even stronger integration of planning, housing, transport, regeneration, employment and skills responsibilities.
In conclusion, we feel this more than demonstrates the Government's commitment to constitutional reform. We have a strong record in this regard and I am sure
6 July 2009 : Column 535
"(d) in sub-paragraph (4) the words "shall be presumed to have been so" are omitted"
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: The point of the amendment is to ensure that all licensing conditions are clearly presented for everyone concerned to see. Whether they are standard or specific, we believe that they should appear in the licence so that not only the licensee but members of the public know exactly what are the constraints of the licence. Further, as it is necessary to display the licence, members of the public should be quite clear and should not be presumed to have any specialist knowledge of what an authority has decided in principle. The Bill as drafted leaves the possibility for a licence to be too vague. I beg to move.
Lord Brett: The objective of Amendment 97, which would amend paragraph 13(4) of Schedule 3 to the 1982 Act, seems to be to ensure that the local authority sets out the conditions on the face of the licence. Although I can understand the intention behind the amendment, the Government are not aware of any issues arising from the existing wording that has been used for sex shops, sex cinemas or sex encounter establishments in London since 1982.
As I understand it, where local authorities do not place conditions in the licence, they will in many cases make reference to them in the licence and provide applicants with a copy. We also expect all local authorities to publish standard conditions on the internet. In any event, any person can request a copy of the standard conditions from the local authority, and the local authority must provide a copy of the same on payment of a reasonable fee. However, if the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, is aware of any evidence to show that there is a problem with the current arrangements, we would be happy to consider her amendment further.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: That is very kind of the Minister; I will go away to seek evidence, which will probably be quite hard to find, as this has not yet come into effect. I still think that, as a matter of principle, expecting members of public to search on the internet is not as satisfactory as including the
6 July 2009 : Column 536
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: We believe that it would be inappropriate for local authorities to use a new licensing regime as a revenue-raising vehicle. Instead, licensing fees should cover only the administrative costs of the licensing application to the licensing authority. As Clause 26 stands, local authorities would be able to set the annual cost of the sex encounter venue licence at any rate that they deemed reasonable.
To put that into context, charges for the equivalent sex encounter establishment licence, which provides the blueprint, vary between £300 and £30,000 annually, depending on which local authority you happen to find yourself in. Clearly, the parameters of what is reasonable are very wide. The cost of the licence will be additional to the club's premises licence, which is required for the sale of alcohol. It would at least be useful to hear from the Minister how he imagines that the rate for the licence will be set.
Having said all that, we also believe it to be reasonable that there is freedom for local authorities to have sufficient latitude to reflect their needs in their fees. The Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 states only that an applicant for a licence shall pay a reasonable fee determined by the appropriate authority, so I would be interested to hear the Government's thinking on the fees matter. I beg to move.
Lord Brett: I am delighted to agree with the noble Baroness, as the Government also take the view that the application fee for licensing should not be a profit-making operation or be raising revenue. We do not go as far as the amendment, which says that there should only be an administrative fee. We understand why the noble Baroness has raised the issue and are aware that the matter of fees for sex establishment licences causes some concern among lap-dancing operators.
However, the Government do not believe that this amendment is necessary to protect applicants from undue charges. While "reasonable fees" are not defined in the 1982 Act, direction on how local government should calculate charges is provided elsewhere, in the form of the HM Treasury guidance on fees. That guide makes it clear that fees should reflect the cost of providing the service and should not be used to generate a profit; that is, I believe, the chief concern of the lap-dancing industry.
We are aware that sex establishment licences can vary depending on the local authority area. That, however, reflects the fact that costs can vary from area
6 July 2009 : Column 537
The Government believe that the services directive and the guidance issued by HM Treasury will provide sufficient protection against undue or excessive local authority charges for lap-dancing operators. Obviously, where licence holders have genuine concerns regarding the level of fees charged by local authorities, they will be able to challenge the fee structure by way of a judicial review. I hope that information will help the noble Baroness to consider withdrawing her amendment.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: Amendments 100 and 101 have come as a slight surprise to me. I shall have to move Amendment 100 and hope that the Minister is better prepared for them than me. I beg to move.
Baroness Hanham: Perhaps I might make the contribution that I would have if this had been more formally spoken to, because that might give us an edge on the debate. I support the amendment; the lack of appeal against the refusal of a licence on those two grounds is worrying, especially in the case of a refused renewal. Again, we have touched on this as we have gone through; the failure to renew a licence will mean the abrupt closure of a business, with the accompanying loss of jobs and revenue. To make that decision without the possibility of an appeal would be deeply unfair, and the possibility of such a step happening in the case of the arbitrary quotas highlights our concerns with that aspect of the provisions.
Will there be any objective assessment of the evidence on which the quota is set, or will the authority be able to pluck a number out of thin air or even amend it at will to close down a licence application without having to come up with a good reason?
The power to shut down discussion on the ground of the character of the locality also has the potential to be abused, so surely it would be more productive to see whether the concerns about the layout of the venue could be addressed before rejecting an application. The Minister, in response to a previous amendment,
6 July 2009 : Column 538
Lord Brett: Amendments 100 and 101 deal with the rights of applicants to appeal to a magistrates' court against a decision taken by a local authority to refuse, to grant or to renew a licence for a sex establishment.
Schedule 3 rules out the possibility of an appeal to a magistrates' court where a licence is refused on the grounds that the number of sex establishments in the locality is already equal to or exceeds the number that the local authority considers appropriate, or that the grant or renewal would be inappropriate given the character of the locality. This does not leave the applicant without redress. Instead, such decisions can be challenged in a judicial review.
Parliament obviously took the view that this was the appropriate approach when it passed the 1982 Act. Schedule 3 to that Act is designed specifically to regulate sex establishments. Due to the particular entertainment that such venues provide, the Act recognises the need to equip local authorities with sufficient powers to manage the impact that sex establishments have on local communities. The Act gives local authorities the power to impose limits on the number of sex establishments in a locality or to refuse to grant a licence if they believe this to be necessary to protect the character of the locality.
In making these decisions, the local authority is required to use its discretion and judge what are and are not suitable locations for sex establishments. Given the nature of the judgments which the local authority will be required to make when deciding an application, we consider judicial review to be the appropriate mechanism by which to challenge these decisions because of the margin of appreciation that the court will accord to local authorities when deciding whether the decision ought to be upheld, as opposed simply to substituting its view for that of the local authority.
I appreciate the concerns enunciated by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, in our debates on this and previous amendments about the rights of applicants to appeal in a judicial review decisions taken by local authorities, but I hope that my comments have reassured both her and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, to the extent that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, feels able to withdraw her amendment.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I thank the Minister for his reply, and I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, for speaking so ably to my amendment; I cannot explain where my notes have disappeared to. The Minister's reply was helpful, and I will read it in detail. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
|Back to Table of Contents
|Lords Hansard Home Page