HC Deb 16 June 2003 vol 407 cc142-59

Amendments made: No. 120, in page 139, line 27, leave out 'to 133' and insert 'and 132'.

No. 121, in page 139, line 27, at end insert—

' In section 133 (miscellaneous provision about new towns), in subsection (1), omit the following definitions—

  1. (a) "development corporation",
  2. (b) "the 1964 Act".'.—[Dr. Howells.]

Mr. Moss

I beg to move amendment No. 61, in page 146, line 8, at end insert—

'Data Protection Act, 1998 (c. 29)

() In section 35 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (disclosures required by law or made in connection with legal proceedings etc.),after subsection (1) insert—

"(1A) Where the constitution, rules, standing orders, Memorandum, Articles of Association or other governing instrument of any club, society, company or other legal person (not being an individual) contains a provision (hereinafter called a "rule provision") framed to comply with any enactment repealed by the Licensing Act 2003, the exemption afforded by subsection (1) shall continue to apply to that rule provision and anything done under it, notwithstanding the repeal of such enactments.".'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 169, in page 156, line 35 [Schedule 8], at end insert—

'() if the premises currently operate subject to undertakings which have been given to the licensing justices, a copy of those undertakings,'.

No. 4, in page 157, line 24 [Schedule 8], leave out from 'that' to 'converting' in line 25.

No. 138, in page 158, line 8 [Schedule 8], leave out 'two' and insert 'four'.

No. 179, in page 159, line 21 [Schedule 8], at end insert—

'() the purposes embodied in those undertakings of a permanent nature that relate to the licensing objectives which have been offered by the licensee and which attach to the relevant existing licence,'.

No. 180, in page 159, line 24 [Schedule 8], after 'the', insert 'permanent undertakings and'.

No. 170, in page 159, line 25 [Schedule 8], at end insert


() those undertakings which have been given to the licensing justice in respect of the relevant existing licence, or licences, which the licensing authority decides are necessary to promote the licensing objectives.'.

No. 139, in page 160, line 11 [Schedule 8], leave out 'two' and insert 'four'.

No. 47, in page 162, line 13 [Schedule 8], leave out from 'must' to end of line 15 and insert

'grant a premises licence and the preceding provisions of this Schedule shall have effect as if the application were for conversion of an existing justices' licence'.

No. 140, in page 164, line 23 [Schedule 8], leave out 'two' and insert 'four'.

No. 141, in page 165, line 33 [Schedule 8], leave out 'two' and insert 'four'.

10.45 pm
Mr. Moss

The lead amendment, which is to schedule 6, relates to the Data Protection Act 1998. It is our understanding that the data protection commissioner required treasurers or secretaries of clubs, sporting or otherwise, to cease publication of the names and addresses of applicants for membership from computer details. However, we also understand that schedule 7(3) of the Licensing Act 1964 required publication and that section 35(1) of the Data Protection Act 1998 therefore protects publication. It states:

"Personal data are exempt from the non-disclosure provisions where the disclosure is required by or under any enactment, by any rule of law or by the order of a court."

When the 1964 Act is repealed, the requirement for which it provides will no longer apply. Doubtless that means that the protection in section 35 of the 1998 Act will no longer apply. Accordingly, any publication of the applicant's name and address from computer records to comply with a club's constitution will contravene the 1998 Act. What was once legally necessary could become illegal overnight. Club constitutions would have to be altered to take effect on the same day as the repeal. Sadly, most club secretaries will not be surfing the internet for appointed day orders.

Clubs may decide to simplify their rules when the new law is introduced. If they did that, the exemption would no longer apply because the rule provision would no longer be in force. However, they should not be obliged to make such a change and the amendment would allow choice.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

I want to speak to amendments Nos. 169 and 170, which are in my name and that of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), and are supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck). Our constituencies, like many others, are severely affected, if not afflicted, by noise, loutish behaviour, vandalism and intimidation, often late at night as people enter or leave licensed premises. Although it is rather late for a sitting in the Commons nowadays, it may be an hour or two yet before our constituents have their sleep disturbed by the behaviour that I described.

Both amendments refer to undertakings that were previously given to magistrates by licensees to obtain or continue an existing licence. Provided that the undertakings have been complied with, they have given the protection from nuisance that local residents currently enjoy. We believe that if such undertakings disappear, problems and a great deal of nuisance are likely to arise for residents who have grown accustomed to some sort of control over licensed premises.

The amendments would continue the protection. I am told that some Government officials claim that that cannot be done by retaining conditions in the existing licences because, they assert, the undertakings do not have the force of law. However, I have done some checking and I have the Justices' Clerks Society "Good Practice Guide 2002 Edition", which is the most recent edition. From that, it is as plain as a pikestaff that, under the current position, if licensees refuse to continue an undertaking, the magistrates can refuse to grant the licence. The only recourse for the disappointed licensee is to make a new application to the justices.

That seems to me to be pretty close to having the force of law. Whether that is the case or not, my colleagues and I do not see why the existing undertakings cannot be included as a condition in new licences, and amendment No. 170 seeks to include in a new licence the existing provisions. That would not require the new licensing body to include them as a condition, but it would give it the right to consider the matter and to include them if it saw fit. I really cannot see what is wrong with that proposition.

Amendment No. 169 can only be described as even more reasonable and unassertive than amendment No. 170, and it should cause the Government—and the licensees, for that matter—less of a problem. All that it would do would be to require that an application to renew an existing licence should specify on the face of the application the existing undertakings, so that the new licensing body could consider whether it wished to dispense with them, vary them or include them as a condition. That seems to us to be a very moderate request, but if it is not granted, or if the Government cannot find some other way of bringing about the possible continuation of some of the existing undertakings at the discretion of the new licensing body, hundreds of neighbourhoods and tens of thousands of people all over the country who enjoy some protection will see that protection withdrawn. I cannot believe that that is the Government's intention.

Nick Harvey

I endorse the points made by the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and support the amendments to which he spoke, as well as those that stand in my name. The undertakings that have been extracted from licensees by magistrates—particularly in London and other city areas, but in other parts of the country as well—are a vital part of licensing law as it stands. They represent the wisdom and expertise acquired by magistrates in carrying out these tasks over a period of years.

I simply do not believe that those undertakings cannot be continued into the new regime in the manner described by the right hon. Gentleman. They should constitute part of the first application that the licensee makes under the new regime. I know from what Ministers have said previously that they are sympathetic to that objective, but they seem to have convinced themselves that, for some reason, it cannot be done in the simple form that the right hon. Gentleman suggested. It is vital that it should be done. If it is not, we shall be requiring the local authorities that are going to take over this role to reinvent the wheel. They will have to take a crash course, learning all the experiences of every set of premises that magistrates have gathered over a period of years and wisely written into the agreements that they have made with those premises. It will be difficult enough to handle the transition anyway. The local authorities will be taking on a huge task, cranking themselves up to carry out all these new functions. It would make that task very much easier, and afford far more protection for residents living near licensed premises, if the undertakings that had been built up over time were to transfer to the new regime along with the licence.

I welcome the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has looked into the technical arguments and suggested to the House that he believes that the undertakings could and should be carried forward. He is absolutely right, and, as he says, if they are not, there are going to be disgruntled residents all over the place who will view the new legislation from the outset as being unable to provide them with the protection, peace of mind and peaceful enjoyment of their homes and properties that they have had in the past.

That will leave an even bigger challenge for the local authorities that have to struggle to make sense of complicated new legislation. I appeal to Ministers, if on no other basis, to agree to carry those undertakings forward just to give their new legislation and regime as good a start as possible. Otherwise, they will be mired in localised battles and difficulties from the outset in a way that I am sure they do not want.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster)

I wish to address the issue of undertakings, if I may, as well as the amendments on transitional arrangements that stand in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss).

It might appear curious to many of those watching the debate in the Gallery or on the BBC's Parliament Channel that there is such cross-party agreement, but I have worked closely with the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) as these issues have affected all of us in our part of central London. Indeed, it is fair to say that probably only the three of us know the boundaries of our constituencies. Many police and many constituents would not know when they had crossed from parts of Camden in Covent Garden to Westminster or that in crossing the Marylebone road they had gone from one side of Westminster to another.

It is important to stress that the amendments on undertakings are not simply a matter of the effect on central London. I am acutely aware of that, although in Committee the Minister often teased me in his pleasant way about how I addressed many comments to the particular and unusual circumstances of the city of Westminster. It is a fact that many of the issues apply to coastal towns across the country. Dare I say it, as he is sitting directly to my right, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) will find that they apply to many licensed premises in his constituency? Seaside towns across the country will equally be affected if the undertakings regime is dismantled in the way that the Government envisage.

There have been difficulties for many of us who served in Committee, particularly those such as me who are of a libertarian bent. I do not necessarily think that there should be strict rules applying to drinking at all hours. If only we lived in a society in which we could rely on individual responsibility, and if only people who are happy drinking at all hours in Soho, Covent Garden or any of our seaside towns on warm, summer days such as this could be trusted to behave in a civilised fashion, we would all like a liberalisation and deregulation of all licensing laws. However, we all know, sadly, that we do not live in such an ideal world and there is therefore a necessity to have some framework in place.

I have had some fundamental disagreements, which I referred to on Second Reading. If I am lucky enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I may do so again on Third Reading. However, one can understand that there is a need for some regulatory framework. I probably speak for many Members who represent seats with large licensed alcohol and entertainment industries in saying that we have a schizophrenic approach to them in certain respects. We would like much deregulation in certain areas—indeed, many of us spoke on those matters earlier on Report—while we want strict regulation in others.

In respect of undertakings, I have been impressed by the work done by a number of residents associations in my constituency, in particular the Meard and Dean street residents association, which put forward a detailed paper that the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras alluded to. It is clear that the local Metropolitan police view the undertakings as an important part of any licensing application made by prospective licensees. They are, for want of a better phrase, a gentlemen's agreement—in these politically correct times, I should perhaps say that they are a ladies' and gentlemen's agreement—between the applicant and the licensing justices. They show good will on behalf of the premises that they will be run correctly and responsibly managed.

11 pm

It is also said that, in the case of multiple operators, any revocation notices served will be effective. The Metropolitan police in the central London area have objected to new applications for transfer on the ground that the applications in themselves constituted a clear attempt to opt out of revocation proceedings. A revocation notice will be withdrawn only when it is shown that the operators have no further financial or business dealings with the new venture that is being applied for.

I agree with the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) that we should be gravely concerned about the fact that if we eliminate the current undertakings regime, we shall lose generations of expertise that have helped to ensure a balance in particular vicinities. It would be sad to lose the long-standing wisdom of magistrates who know and love their areas.

As I know from my constituency, it is feared in central London that if we start with a blank sheet of paper—a new conditions regime—having got rid of all those undertakings, we shall see more than just a lowering of standards. Anyone out on the streets of Soho or Covent Garden at 3 or 4 am on a Saturday or Sunday morning will probably be horrified by the sheer mass of people there, and the antisocial behaviour that takes place. What some describe as late-night licensing is actually early-hours licensing. As I have said here a number of times, the great majority of people who live in Soho and Covent Garden live there not by choice, but because they are social tenants: 70 to 80 per cent. of housing in those areas is social housing. Such vulnerable people require a strict undertakings regime that reflects the history of their area.

I hope that the Minister will think seriously about what I have said,. It is not just special pleading for a small part of central London; it applies to much of the country. I fear that our debate has not been as vociferous as it might have been partly because the real implications of what is being proposed have not become apparent to many Members who represent seaside towns. It is only during a handful of weekends at this time of the year that antisocial behaviour becomes—sadly—the norm, and for that reason a blind eye may have been turned to many provisions that undermine protection for the local population.

The hon. Member for North Devon rightly focused on residents, but we should go a step further. What gives my part of the country its charm—and I am sure that the same applies to all seaside towns—is the existence of long-standing family businesses such as small wine bars, pubs and restaurants that may have been in the hands of families for several generations. In the event of the downward spiral into an entirely deregulated 24-hour city—for want of a better phrase—there is a risk that only the very large operators will step in. At the time of the next economic upturn, selling out will be an extremely attractive proposition for many long-standing family operators, and only the lowest common denominator will be appealed to.

We central London Members are not appealing to our residential population just on a nimby basis, although it must be said that, come election time, it is the residential rather than the business population that votes. We want businesses to thrive. We want smaller family businesses with a genuine stake in the community to survive.

Let me say something about the transitional arrangements. I gave the Minister chapter and verse on the arrangements that applied in the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where I was a councillor until 12 months ago.

It was able to brief me. He will be gratified to learn that I have even more statistics to hand from the city of Westminster. They will similarly underline some of the challenges facing Westminster. It is for that relatively straightforward reason that my amendments Nos. 138 to 141 are designed to double the length of the initial transitional period from two to four months.

It seems evident that government in the broader sense—by which I mean local government as well as central Government—and business need to consider how best to contribute to the costs of the community of late-night entertainment. The night-time economy already puts a major strain on central London's local infrastructure and public services. That is a recurring theme, and I am sure that all Members with constituencies in central London agree that we lack such an infrastructure in respect of a 24-hour public transport system—apart from buses, where great improvements have been made, but not enough to cater for the vast numbers congregating in central London, particularly at weekends.

Similarly, the police infrastructure is inadequate. Statistics are often bandied around about the number of police available in the west end on an average evening, but it is clear that without enormous investment of resources in that sector we will not secure sufficient cover for the needs of the residential population and those who are out and about in central London during the night. I am not talking only about the alcohol-fuelled violence and loutish behaviour of a small minority, but about the crush caused by the sheer number of people around at that time of the night and early morning.

In my view—and it conforms to the experience of people who have lived in places such as Soho for many decades—late licensing means that transport, policing and street cleansing services need to be able to respond to the impact created by the thousands of people leaving late-licensed premises. To give some concrete examples from the city of Westminster, 10 new portable urinals have been installed in the west end on Friday and Saturday nights only. These are somewhat gruesome statistics, but during the past year, those urinals collected some 12,000 gallons of urine at a cost of £91,780 per year.

Members who have spent any time in the west end for late-night entertainment, particularly during the summer, will know that we have a night refuse collection service, which collects an average of 110 tonnes of waste each night, seven nights a week. A regular and persistent cleansing, degreasing and flushing service deals with much of the pavement in Oxford street and surrounding areas—it sounds like the Forth bridge. Indeed, in Westminster 4,500 km of streets have to be cleaned in that way. Likewise, evidence shows that the peak time for crime in a place such as Westminster is 3 am. An area of the west end covering only 4 per cent. of the city of Westminster generates some 40 per cent. of the crime.

For that reason, above all, we believe that a transitional period of two months is far too short. It was suggested in Committee that we should extend that period to six or even 12 months. I hope that, in attempting to find a compromise for my amendments, my suggestion of four months represents a sensible way forward. I accept that my statistics apply specifically to Westminster.

There is no doubt that late-night entertainment is firmly established in Westminster and throughout the other parts of the west end. Westminster has the UK's largest 24-hour economy and it should be stated once and for all that the city of Westminster is not opposed to late licences. People are proud of the diverse and vibrant night-time economy in the west end and beyond. However, if it is to continue, it needs to work well and be a well-managed mix of business and community interests.

I have always felt that nothing could be worse for the medium and long-term future of many of these areas than becoming ever more denuded of a residential population. It is interesting to learn that the other part of my constituency—the City of London—has for the first time in 200 years, as demonstrated by the most recent census, had an increase in its population.

Suddenly it has become more desirable to a residential population, and we need to maintain that vibrancy and fluidity by making the area a pleasant place for families to live. That is essential if cities are to become more liveable. It has been part of this Government's agenda, and I am sure that it will be part of a future Conservative Government's agenda, to ensure that our cities become much more habitable. We have seen great success stories in places such as Manchester and Liverpool, after decades of what appeared to be an intolerable and inexorable decline. A sensible and balanced licensing policy can play an important part in such regeneration.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the policies of restricting out-of-town development and the insistence on building mixed economies in the centre of our cities, which were started under the previous Government and continued by this Government, are important to his point? People who live in the centre of cities must be considered alongside the 24-hour people who travel in and out of the centre. That point is even more urgent than it was 20 years ago, when there was a division between the commercial and the residential.

Mr. Field

I could not agree more, and it may have been unfair of me to fail to point out the successes of the previous Conservative Administration in which, of course, my right hon. Friend played a leading role. He hit the nail on the head.

The number of licensed premises in the City of Westminster as a whole has grown to more than 3,000, two thirds of which are located in the small stress area commonly known as the west end. For the last full calendar year, Westminster received some 1,024 applications relating to entertainment licences and night café licences, only 14 of which were refused. That is an enormous burden, and moving from the transitional arrangements to an entirely new regime in such a short time will lead to an administrative logjam in Westminster. It will be very difficult to make a smooth transition.

In the past year, 812 applications were made for public entertainment licences and night café licences and only a small number were refused. I hope that the Minister will give some thought to how a transitional regime that gives only eight or nine weeks notice can possibly work in the larger London boroughs.

Discussion has taken place at various stages about fees, and I do not wish to reiterate the arguments. However, an extended night-time economy means that local authorities face numerous significant costs and burdens. It is vital that they have the ability to manage their town centres using locally determined strategies in partnership with all stakeholders. Under the Bill, authorities will also have substantial extra administrative costs, to which we have referred. The local authorities believe that any licensing regime must allow councils to recoup the cost of delivering the scheme. It is not seen, and should not be seen, as a money-spinner to allow local councils to make significant sums of money. We went into considerable detail in Committee to explain that no one considers it to be a money-spinner. Indeed, the large costs incurred for some of the highlighted premises—for example, the Royal Albert hall, which pays some £12,000 to £15,000 a year—were something of a loss leader for Westminster city council.

As well as a smooth transition, local authorities wish to ensure that they have the ability to set locally determined fees that reflect local circumstances, but based on Government guidelines indicating applicable costs, instead of relying on centrally prescribed fixed amounts, as currently proposed. The initial start-up costs for the City of Westminster, before it received any applications, would be about £100,000 and the projected fee income—based on an average of £300 in the transition year—would be just under £972,000, or just under £1 million.

That would lead, on the council's calculation, to a shortfall of £200,000 in administrative costs.

I hope that the Minister can give some guidance on fees. I accept that I have gone slightly beyond the amendments, but the point is a relevant one. I also seek some guidance on the transitional arrangements.

11.15 pm
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

I should normally favour deregulation and greater freedom and choice, but I have been swayed by the arguments this evening and by my reading elsewhere. There is a real problem, and I hope that the Minister listens attentively and sensitively.

The nub of the Bill is summed up in the dilemma posed by the amendments. On the one hand, many of us would like businesses to have greater freedom to provide a wider range of service and choice to their customers. On the other hand, we all represent people who live close to licensed premises, and they have rights as well. They have bought their properties on the basis of a certain licensing regime and a certain pattern of conduct. They will naturally be very upset if that pattern of conduct is changed rapidly and in a direction that is adverse to their interests. I hope that the Minister understands that this is a real issue and that the amendments modestly try to make small improvements for those who live near licensed premises.

I assure the House that my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) is right to say that the provisions apply not only to his own part of London. They could apply to any major urban or metropolitan area, in towns and elsewhere. Conflicts can arise between businesses and licence users and residents. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) rightly reminded us that getting more life into our inner cities has been a bipartisan policy. We all welcome it, but there must be some restriction of antisocial conduct and prevention of antisocial hours from getting out of control or being permitted or encouraged so that the amenity of a city is wrecked for those who live or work in it.

I hope that the Minister will respond positively to the modest suggestion of a longer transition period, albeit still a short one given the complexities in many areas of licensing. A great deal of work remains to be done. I hope that he will also respond sympathetically to the idea of undertakings so that people can be reassured that there will not be sudden lurches in the regime.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) spoke with great knowledge, having participated considerably in the Standing Committee on the Bill. He expressed intimate knowledge of his constituency here in the centre of London.

I rise primarily to support the brief but accurately expressed case of the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). As several speakers have said, this issue is not just for the large cities. It relates to many towns and large villages up and down the country. In my own constituency, there are severe problems with antisocial behaviour resulting from alcohol abuse, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights in the centre of Macclesfield. That makes it extremely unpleasant for those who go there to dine out or to drink modestly and to behave and enjoy themselves. It creates tremendous problems for those who live in the town centre.

Antisocial behaviour is a problem, and the police find it extremely difficult to do anything about it. I hope that the Minister will give rational responses to the many points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster, but I support the case put by the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras for ensuring that the undertakings and conditions applying to existing licences can be carried forward to the new regime.

The Report stage of a Bill offers Back Benchers who were unable to speak on Second Reading or were not members of the Standing Committee their only opportunity to advance the interests of their constituents and constituencies. The Minister has a reputation for sensitivity and for being rational and helpful to Members of Parliament who have experience of the matters that we are discussing, so will he respond positively to the amendments?

Why is it not possible to carry existing undertakings forward into the new regime? That could be simply done. The Government could help the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras to deal with any modest drafting deficiencies in the provisions, or could themselves put them right in due course, if they are unable to do so at present. The amendment is reasonable and it has cross-party support. The House is trying to come to the right decision and I strongly support the amendment for which the right hon. Gentleman so ably argued.

Dr. Howells

It is extremely refreshing to hear the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) and his right hon. and hon. Friends argue the case for residents. If the hon. Gentleman had been in the Chamber earlier this evening, he would have heard me berated from both sides of the House for wanting to retain a bit of regulation covering loud rock bands playing in pubs, and for not giving developers a cast-iron right, as the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) wanted, to open up huge pubs, no matter what might happen to the community. It was wonderful to hear the contribution of the hon. Member for Macclesfield, and I am glad that he made it.

It was interesting to hear the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) say that we need to get people back into our city centres. The right hon. Gentleman is a cultured man, so he will have seen Hogarth's Gin Lane paintings. The problems are not new; they have always been with us. The scale, however, is phenomenal.

In Committee, we talked a great deal about the huge number of people who migrate to our cities on Friday and Saturday nights. As the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) reminded us, nowhere attracts people like the west end of London; it always has, and I hope that it always will. The hon. Gentleman might also have mentioned Manchester, where the police tell me that 150,000 people go in to the centre, many, but not all of them, to drink.

The hon. Member for Macclesfield made an important point about businesses such as high-quality restaurants. When I was in Manchester, I was told that the clientele of such restaurants found the atmosphere on the street rather intimidating. It is not that people set out to be intimidating, but that where there are 150,000 young men and women who might have drunk a bit too much, a person could feel a little insecure late on a Saturday night when they were out with their family enjoying a good meal in a good restaurant. We need to take that into account.

The group of amendments broadly covers some of the issues that will emerge during transition from the old licensing regime to the regime established by the Bill. I am not sure that amendment No. 61, which was moved by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire, would achieve the effect that he intended. It would certainly amend the Data Protection Act 1998 so as to maintain the ability to disclose information under section 35(1), which is otherwise subject to non-disclosure provisions where the disclosure is required by law or made in connection with legal proceedings in respect of certain information pertaining to clubs, companies or other legal persons notwithstanding the repeal of certain provisions in the Licensing Act 1964.

In our view, amendment No. 61 is wholly unnecessary. Section 35(1) of the 1998 Act will continue to apply, and appropriate protections of personal data in the 1998 Act will continue to apply to information and data held by licensing authorities for the purposes of their licensing functions. Maintaining the ability to disclose information as required by law and in the context of legal proceedings is right, in the Government's view.

Clause 180, which will permit the provision of information to other licensing authorities and responsible authorities, is restricted to the purpose of facilitating the exercise of the authority's functions under the Bill. That is as it should be. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire shakes his head, but I had hoped that that would give him some comfort.

It may be sensible for me to deal with amendments Nos. 169, 170, 179 and 180 next, because they also address converted licences and undertakings. Although adopting slightly different approaches, those amendments would require a premises licence to be granted under the conversion provisions in schedule 8, subject to such conditions as reproduced the effect of the undertakings subject to which the existing licence or licences—for example, a justices' licence—had been granted or renewed.

The Bill will provide comprehensively that conditions attached to the existing licences will be reproduced in the new premises licence. In other words, everything that the licensing justices, for example, thought should be legally enforceable and which was within their discretion to impose would be attached as conditions to those existing licences. However, that is slightly different from what was proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, as he has explained.

Undertakings are very different from what I have just described, and it is important to understand what they are. I chose the example of a justices' licence because that is the area of current licensing where undertakings are often mentioned. Indeed, such undertakings most commonly arise in the context of justices' off-licences, such as those held by supermarkets.

Undertakings, which are sometimes sought by licensing justices, have no legal force. For the content of undertakings to have legal force, they must form conditions in existing licences. Undertakings may be considered by the justices when licences are being renewed, and if the undertakings have been broken, it could lead to the renewal of licences being refused. That is a very useful tool, but it is a discretionary practice, and we have discovered that it is carried on only by certain justices. However, any breach of an undertaking cannot of itself lead to a criminal prosecution, as would be the case with licence conditions, and undertakings cannot be enforced.

In essence, such undertakings are entirely voluntary, and as such they do not attach to a licence. Under current legislation, they amount to no more than a personal promise by the applicant for a licence or a renewal. The question therefore is whether such promises should be made mandatory for licence conversion applicants under paragraph 2 of schedule 8, to provide information on such non-legal, personal matters, giving those undertakings new legal status and force, but it should be remembered that they may have existed without legal status or force for a number of years. That presents a difficulty.

Nick Harvey

The Minister says that the undertakings could not be used in prosecuting a licensee, but where such undertakings have been extracted and given, could not the magistrates nevertheless revoke the licence if the undertakings were not adhered to? Although the undertakings cannot be used in criminal prosecutions, they have some bite, as they can be used to take away the licence.

Dr. Howells

As I explained, undertakings are a very useful tool, as things stand—but I shall say why the regime that we propose will be much more useful. However, I take the point of the hon. Gentleman's argument.

I have one key reason, however, for believing that the House should not agree to the proposal. Under the Bill, interested parties in responsible authorities can request the review of any premises licence on a ground relating to the licensing objectives. That provides ample opportunity for residents and others to seek a remedy if a licensee does something, or fails to do something, that was previously the subject of an undertaking that they consider should or should not be happening—provided, of course, that the act or omission is relevant to the licensing objectives. I remind the House that those include the prevention of crime and disorder, public safety, public nuisance and the protection of children from harm. I therefore assure the House that the Bill provides ample protections.

11.30 pm

The Bill also provides more opportunities than there are at present for residents and others to seek a remedy if premises cause a particular problem. There is nothing to be gained in transferring undertakings to premises licences.

Mr. Gummer

Surely the point made by the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) was correct: if the condition that has been there is passed on, all the wisdom that led to that condition can be passed on automatically. There seems no reason why that should not be the case. The difficulty for the House in following the Minister is that we can see that to have both provisions would be sensible, but to leave one out would seem to lose a deal of experience.

Dr. Howells

I am concerned about losing that experience, which we debated a great deal in Committee. I shall try to explain why safeguards exist to ensure that that experience is not lost, and why undertakings—which reflect some of the worries given as illustrations by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster—were agreed, as they cannot be imposed, in the first place.

I missed out a question asked by the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey). A licence cannot be revoked for a breach of undertakings, which exist as agreements. There may be other reasons why a licensee's behaviour, under the present regime, should mean that he loses his licence, but an undertaking cannot be used as a legal means of revoking a licence.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras said that hundreds of neighbourhoods would be affected. He implied that undertakings in respect of pubs, nightclubs and so on are common, but they are not. They are more common in London. He should note that in the good practice guide from which he quoted—to which I shall refer in more detail in a moment—they are associated mostly not with pubs or nightclubs but with supermarkets and off-licences. They are used much more rarely in connection with pubs, and some misinformation may have been disseminated about how widespread the practice is. We do not think that it is that widespread.

Mr. Dobson

The only thing that I know that casts doubt on what I am sure that my hon. Friend says in good faith is that not only does our proposal have the full support of the Metropolitan police but of the Association of Chief Police Officers, which represents police forces in neighbourhoods all over the country. If the practice is not widespread, I cannot see why they supplied the wording, which was duly turned by the Clerks into something more orderly and tabled as the amendment.

Dr. Howells

I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend was told that by the police. We had many discussions about the selective lobbying that we received on the Bill and we frequently found in Committee that lobbying groups had told the Opposition one thing and told us another. I have no doubt that the police and ACPO are getting their retaliation in first. They will press for the hardest possible measures to make their jobs easier.

Mr. Mark Field

It is curious that the Minister draws a distinction between London and other places. Surely the issue is whether undertakings will be relevant, not whether the issue relates to the capital city or throughout the country. The concern is about undertakings, not regionalisation.

Dr. Howells

I made it clear that I was referring specifically to the claim made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras that hundreds and thousands of communities would suffer if undertakings were not incorporated in the Bill in the manner proposed by amendment No. 170.

As the guide published by the Justices' Clerks Society states, undertakings are based on custom and not in any way on the written law, which we are debating today. They are not enforceable in law and rely entirely on the co-operation of the licence holder. That is interesting because if an undertaking is broken under the existing regime—the wonderful system of undertakings—a person might have to wait three years before anything could be done about it. We have addressed that major weakness in the Bill. Under the existing system, action could occur only when renewal proceedings took place. In the meantime, the undertaking would be simply a promise that had been broken. That is why the review arrangements in the Bill are infinitely better and more dependable than the existing system. If a licence holder caused a nuisance or problems of disorder, the matter could be considered at the review of the licence, irrespective of whether it was the subject of an earlier undertaking.

Mr. Dobson

If the advice that my hon. Friend has received is correct, why does the licensing justices' manual say that if a licensee has obtained a licence subject to an undertaking, the licensee may make application at any sessions to be released from the undertaking? If an undertaking has no force, there is no need for a licensee to bother to apply to be relieved of it. The manual also says that if a request is refused, the applicant's only remedy is to make application for a new justices' licence. Clearly those responsible for advising magistrates throughout the country believe that an undertaking does have force.

Dr. Howells

An undertaking clearly does not have legal force. My right hon. Friend asked why anyone would bother to apply to be relieved of an undertaking but I can think of many reasons why a licensed premises or a licence holder might apply for an undertaking to be revoked or modified. For example, a different business might open next door or there might be a proliferation of vertical drinking establishments, which could alter the need for an undertaking. However, an undertaking does not have the force of law.

Mr. Dobson

I understand my hon. Friend's point that circumstances might change to lead the licensee to want to unload an undertaking, but why would anyone bother if an undertaking cannot be enforced? Why would a person go to the bother of returning to a magistrate and risk being turned down?

Dr. Howells

I would like to hear of a case of a licensee going voluntarily to a magistrate and risking being turned down and losing their licence. I bet that such a person is a pretty rare creature. However, I can imagine many situations in which licensees would want to keep sweet with licensing justices and be prepared to play footsie with them if they thought that it would help their next licence application. However, there will not be licensing justices.

There will be a licensing authority instead. For the first time, those hard-pressed residents whom my right hon. Friend mentioned will have the opportunity to ask for a licence to be reviewed. They cannot do that now. The ability to do that is infinitely preferable to some kind of old boys' agreement between a licensee and licensing justices that might sometimes benefit local residents, but is designed for completely different purposes.

Mr. Kevan Jones

There is not only the review but the additional powers in clause 158 that allow senior police officers to close down premises for up to 24 hours on the grounds of public nuisance owing to noise emanating from premises or actual or likely disorder from a licensed premise. The police do not have those powers now and they will help residents.

Dr. Howells

Yes, and if right hon. and hon. Members read the Bill they will see that it greatly strengthens the hand of the police, responsible authorities and local residents when they encounter difficulties not just in London, but all over the country. That is infinitely preferable to the existing situation.

Mr. Dobson

My hon. Friend knows full well that I welcome the bulk of the Bill and the strengthening of the feeble arrangements for protecting the interests of residents and neighbouring businesses. However, I cannot understand the Government's rooted objection to our requirement—the very least that we propose—that when people apply to the new licensing body, they should include in their application a list of the undertakings that apply. I cannot understand why that is unacceptable.

Dr. Howells

I understand my right hon. Friend's argument and know that he supports the Bill. It may well be the case that the conditions imposed on the licence will include many of the features of the undertakings, but I have obviously failed to communicate to him that those undertakings do not have statutory force. The Bill deals precisely with how we might maintain the order in communities such as the one that he represents. We have proposed a much simpler way of doing that. Undertakings are not statutory creatures and cannot be incorporated into the Bill as it stands. I do not accept the amendment to that effect because the regulations that we propose are much stronger, much simpler to understand and give local residents a much better opportunity to object.

Sir Nicholas Winterton

Is the Minister saying that the undertakings to which the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) referred could be translated into conditions that could be part of the new regime? If that is the case, he is going a long way towards reassuring us.

Dr. Howells

I want to be careful in the answer that I give. My impulse is to say, yes, it could happen. It would certainly be up to the licensing authority to insist on conditions in any licence to which it agrees. If it considers that those undertakings—they would have to be defined as something else—are necessary conditions for allowing a licence to be granted then so be it, but that flexibility must be given to the licensing authority because there may be many other considerations and variables that it might want to include in the agreement.

11.45 pm

I turn now to amendments Nos. 138 to 141, in the name of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). Among other things, schedule 8 provides that when an application is made for conversion of existing licences to a premises licence, or for conversion of registration certificates in the case of clubs, and no decision has been taken by the licensing authority after two months, the application will be deemed granted. Similarly, where an application is made to vary such a converted licence or club premises certificate, and no decision has been taken by the licensing authority, it is to be deemed refused two months after it was received.

Essentially, the conversion of existing licences, as a grandfather right, is an entirely administrative process, in which there can be no real excuse for delay. There has to be statutory pressure to resolve those cases, and that pressure is established by the time limit of two months, after which the application must be granted. We cannot allow licensing authorities to spin out transition for ever, and converted licences would only permit that which earlier licensing authorities or licensing justices had permitted in the past. Variations would be automatically deemed refused because no previous licensing authority would have sanctioned that variation in the past, and it is important that it is considered fully and that interested parties and responsible authorities have an opportunity to make representations. Deemed refusal would provoke an appeal and provide for finality.

The amendments would change from two months to four months the period following the lodging of applications for converted premises licences or club premises certificates and variations of those licences and certificates after which the application would be deemed granted or refused if no decision had been taken. Although I completely understand the hon. Gentleman's desire to ease the pressure and burden on licensing authorities, I am concerned that some, although by no means all, would be inclined to delay and inefficiency. We have to make a judgment. I acknowledge the strength of the hon. Gentleman's argument, but there is a terrible rule that says that if the limit is four months, the job will be done in four months, but if the limit is two months, it is a statement of faith from me saying that the job will be done in two months. I shall stick at that shorter period.

I recognise that some larger authorities will have many applications to deal with, but they will of course have a much larger income to deploy in performing that task. The Government have made a promise to the people of this country that we will deliver the reform of licensing law, and we fully intend to do that and to ensure that the transition is completed quickly. None of the new licences will come into force until the transitional period ends, so the benefits of reform will not be seen on our high streets until then. I do not want to encourage delay. Despite the force of the hon. Gentleman's arguments and the examples that he has given us, I hope that, with that explanation, he will not press the amendments.

Mr. Moss

I am grateful for the Minister's response, particularly on amendment No. 61 in my name. I accept his argument that it is probably unnecessary, and I shall seek to withdraw it after I have commented on amendments Nos. 138 to 141, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). The first two deal with the determination of applications and variations in respect of premises licences, and the others deal similar matters relating to clubs.

We have received strong representation from the Local Government Association and certain councils who fear that the two-month transition period allotted in the Bill for determination places too great a burden on them. Obviously we are talking about councils that will have to deal with a large number of licences.

They feel that people who do not get the determination right will go to appeal, as the Minister said, so magistrates courts could quickly become clogged up if things go pear-shaped.

The Minister talked about statutory pressure. We concede that if there is not some pressure in the legislation, everyone will go to the wire. We are not asking, in the Minister's words, for forever. We are asking for an extension of the two-month limit, which we think is reasonable and sensible, given all the work that needs to be done in the transition period to bring about a fundamental shift from licensing justices to the licensing authorities or local authorities. We therefore want to press amendment No. 138 to a vote, but I beg to ask leave to withdraw amendment. No. 61.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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