HC Deb 22 March 1991 vol 188 cc578-80

Order for Second Reading read.

2.18 pm
Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

I beg to move, That the Bill be read a Second time.

In moving this Second Reading, I feel a little like the late great Kenneth Williams in "Just a Minute". He had 10 seconds in which to finish a minute of uninterrupted, non-repetitive and accurate speech in order to receive a bonus point. Given how near we are to the 2.30 pm conclusion to our deliberations today, I can understand how Kenneth Williams felt. I do not expect any bonus points, but I should like to try to persuade hon. Members who may have reservations about the measure—my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) may be one of them—of the importance of the Bill and the necessity for it to be adequately considered in Committee.

Having started its life as a ten-minute Bill last December, the Bill received all-party support—it was carried without dissent—despite the fact that licensing legislation is a particularly sensitive matter. I am as aware as anybody else of the effect of alcohol on crime, occasional disorder in our streets and on more everyday problems for residents in the vicinity of licensed premises. I am aware also of the moralistic and even Quaker overtones that discussion of licensing legislation occasionally evokes, particularly as I come from the originally Quaker city of Birmingham.

As I said in December, the prime purpose, or even the secondary purpose, of the measure is not to relax the licensing legislation. I made it plain that I supported the measures in the Licensing Act 1988, which increased powers for licensing magistrates to revoke a licence when its conditions had plainly been broken, with only 21 days notice instead of going before the next Brewster sessions. I also supported the Government's action because it was taken to make it easier to prosecute under-age drinkers.

As well as having a duty to protect citizens against the excesses of alcohol consumption, we have a duty to our fellow citizens who are applicants for licences, and a duty to consumers. Any fair licensing system should be transparent, objective, not subject to prejudice, open to the extent that reasons for decisions are given to applicants as speedily as possible, and act in a way that is likely to promote competition rather than act against it.

It is an unsatisfactory aspect of present licensing legislation that effectively all power, with the exception of legal appeals which are extremely expensive, is in the hands of an only indirectly elected bench which has total discretion in decisions that are taken. Lord Widgery, when considering the Licensing Act 1964, said that so long as magistrates exercised that total discretion in England—though not in Scotland—honestly, fairly and consistently, they would do so within the law. The present licensing system, which gives total discretion to licensing magistrates, requires reform, as other people have also said. The Birmingham licensing bench, one of the most restrictive in the country according to the Licensing Justices' Clerks Association, said: The time has come for Parliament to instigate a detailed study of the licensing laws with a view to wholesale reform. The Erroll committee was set up by the Government in 1988 to examine licensing reform in this country. In July last year, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department wrote to me saying: We do recognise that there is a good case for wholesale reform and updating of the liquor licensing system. Courage brewers, which may not be thought to have an interest in making the licensing system more competitive, wrote to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in 1989, asking for reform particularly with regard to the removal of the 'need' criterion". Given that the removal of that "need" criterion is the most important aspect of this Bill, we should bear those comments in mind.

CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale Ltd., has also called for the reform of the licensing system. Perhaps most telling of all, the Consumers Association stated in its evidence to the MMC The system of licensing of pubs is antiquated and anti-competitive. It should be reformed so as solely to take regard of the fitness of the applicant and the suitability of the premises. The association emphasised that the criterion of economic need should not weigh with the licensing magistrates.

Nowhere over the past 10 years has the oppressive use of the potential power of the licensing magistrates been more in evidence than in Birmingham. I use the word "oppressive" advisedly. The Birmingham Post has rightly brought to the attention of the people of Birmingham many of the extraordinary decisions of the Birmingham licensing bench. The editor of The Licensing Review, which is an objective magazine on these matters, has said that there is "a great concern" about certain policies adumbrated by the Birmingham licensing bench.

It is sad to note that since the First Reading of the Bill the Birmingham licensing bench, even under its new chairman—the old chairman was voted off last year—has decided that there will not be any review of its licensing policies despite two meetings, the offer of an objective review by the Francis Graves Partnership, the virtual uproar in the city, and the all-party resolutions of Birmingham city council in favour of such a review.

Too often, the present licensing system is arbitrary, insensitive, restrictive and anti-competitive. It is interesting that Cornfield Associates, an expert in this area, stated in its representations to the MMC that it is because the Birmingham licensing bench has used its "economic need" powers in a restrictive way that Birmingham sees a virtual duopoly—an anti-competitive duopoly—between M & B, Bass, and Ansells, Allied, for the off-licence market.

My Bill has four provisions. The first is patent in any democratic society. It seeks to require licensing benches to give their reasons for the refusal of a licence. Anybody who, at a cost of hundreds or even thousands of pounds, seriously seeks a licence for a business enterprise should, if the licence is refused, at least be given the opportunity of knowing why. That is surely not unreasonable.

Although my hon. Friend the Minister wrote to me stating: Many benches are prepared to advise applicants of their reasons for reaching decisions", the Home Office—or the Lord Chancellor—has no power to require them to do so. Indeed, the clerk of my own licensing Bench in north Worcestershire has said exactly the opposite: It is not usual or a requirement that justices should give an explanation or reasons for their decisions. That is scandalous in a democratic country. I hope that any future reformed licensing system in this country adopts the practice in Scotland where it is mandatory to give reasons for the refusal.

The second reform in my Bill is to set a time limit for the consideration of decisions by licensing magistrates. The third reform is to set a time limit on the period for which a licensing justice may chair the licensing justices committee. One justice in Birmingham held the position for 22 years. Although I do not impugn his integrity, I cannot believe that a system can be truly objective and balanced if the same person rules, virtually as a fiefdom, the same city for licensing purposes for 22 years. People are bound to have a prejudiced or jaundiced view of either the licensing justice or potential applicants. It is unhealthy.

My Bill, as in many other licensing justice jurisdictions——

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned

Debate to be resumed upon Monday 25 March.