§ 4. Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con)
If she will make a statement on the implementation of the Licensing Act 2003. 
§ The Minister for Sport and Tourism (Mr. Richard Caborn)
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that some of the provisions of the Licensing Act 2003 have 6 already commenced. The timetable for full implementation is largely dependent on the date when Parliament approves a draft of the guidance to be made under section 182 of the Act. We hope to table that draft this month, and if it is cleared either in January or early February we shall be on course for full implementation of the Act by the spring of 2005.
§ Mr. McLoughlin
The Minister said in a letter to me last August that he sees the system as a "light touch" one. As he has just acknowledged, the draft guidance has not yet properly been released for the public, yet one can see it on the Department's website where it runs to about 165 pages. It states:This draft, prepared by officials, is being provided to enable stakeholders and officials in Government Departments to consider and comment on the proposed contents.If the Government cannot decide what they want to see in the guidance, how can village halls make the plans necessary to ensure that they abide by the regulations that are being brought in by the Government?
§ Mr. Caborn
I think that the hon. Gentleman ought to know that that is part of a consultation process, not implementation. I can see that he has the information from the website with him. Anybody can see it; as he rightly said we put it out in August and September for wide consultation. Comments on the consultation have been received and the final draft will, I hope, be before the House before the end of this month. Both Houses of Parliament will then be able to comment on the draft, and if it is cleared by early February the full Act will be implemented by spring 2005. The material is part of the consultation that we said would take place and we have held to our word.
§ Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab)
Will my right hon. Friend monitor carefully the impact of the new licensing law on dangerous levels of alcohol consumption? If in the course of time it appears that dangerous levels of alcohol consumption are increasing, will he look again at further reforms?
§ Mr. Caborn
Yes, but it is not just down to the Licensing Act 2003; there is a cross-departmental approach and, I hope, a cross-party approach to the matter. The Prime Minister has set up a unit, led by the Department of Health, to look into the problems of drink. At a political level, my officials are co-operating with the Department of Health and we hope to reduce the level of binge drinking in this country.
§ Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con)
The right hon. Gentleman has heard concerns about the Licensing Act from both sides of the House, but the principal concern for local authorities is the actual cost of its implementation. The Government have reassured councils about the costs, which include running and inspection costs, but it is primarily the set-up costs that most concern people in local authorities. Some have estimated that set-up costs could be as much as £200,000. In the past, the Government have said that there will be full recovery costs, but that has not assuaged councils such as Maidstone borough council, 7 whose deputy chief executive Trevor Gasson wrote to the Department on 9 December:My concern is the extent to which the Government has totally underestimated the costs involved for local authorities in doing this job properly. Moreover, having brought it to the attention of the Secretary of State, the cavalier manner in which my comments have been treated is most disappointing.Will the Minister tell the House whether in fact full recovery costs mean the set-up costs that are of most concern to councils?
§ Mr. Caborn
I am disappointed to hear those comments because we met the Local Government Association just before Christmas. The meeting was led by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire, who is based in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. A range of issues, including licensing, was discussed by people from all parties, as the hon. Lady would accept, and a further meeting with the Department has been requested. The answer to the question is yes—there will be proper cost-reflected pricing. We discussed the set-up costs as well, and we believe that solutions can be found. We will sit down with the LGA—and if the local authority to which the hon. Lady refers approaches a certain party representative on the LGA, I am sure that it will be much better informed than if it approaches the Opposition spokesperson. I say that very genuinely because this is a complex issue. Local authorities and their leaders, including Conservative ones, are in dialogue, and they thanked us for the meeting that took place just before Christmas. That is a lot more than is coming across from the Opposition.
§ Miss Kirkbride
It is precisely because local authorities believe that the Government are not listening that they are approaching hon. Members such as myself, to ensure that we are fully aware of their concerns. The Minister must surely be aware that sensitivity about the council tax has now reached crisis point across the country. My own authority in Worcestershire has increased council tax by some 80 per cent. since Labour was elected in 1997. We need to determine whether this is yet another example of Labour Government stealth tax, so would he like to return to the Dispatch Box and promise hon. Members and their constituents that not a penny piece will be added to the council tax as a result of the implementation of the Licensing Act 2003?
§ Mr. Caborn
It would be impossible to meet the 410 licensing authorities—[Interruption.]The proposition that has just been put to me is that we meet the 410 licensing authorities to discuss the issue with them individually. There are proper ways to carry out discussions with local authorities, and we are discussing this issue with the body that is responsible for local government and to which all parties subscribe: the Local Government Association. As I have said, I will meet Sir Jeremy Beecham and his officers in the very near future.
§ Claire Ward (Watford) (Lab)
Further to my right hon. Friend's reply, may I impress on him the need for certainty in respect of the timetable for implementing the regulations? I have received representations from my local authority, which is in the process of setting its 8 council budgets and wishes to be certain about any impact that may result from this legislation. It therefore needs to be sure about the timing of those implications on the budget.
§ Mr. Caborn
That timetable is laid down very clearly in the Act. As I have said, as soon as both Houses approve the regulations, that kicks off the timetable, which will be six months. The first appointed day will be in July this year and the implementation period will end six months after that in the spring of 2005. The timetable is very clear. Local authorities have some concerns, but if they refer to the Act they will see that the timetable for implementation kicks in as soon as both Houses have agreed to the regulations. That is very clear.
§ Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD)
I suspect that the House will be surprised by the Minister's complacency about the timetable for implementing the Act. He has just told the House that he expects the first named day to be in June or July, so how does he expect the industry and local authorities to prepare in time for that date when, as we have heard, the guidance has not yet been published or approved, when the secondary legislation has not yet been agreed, when no agreement on the fee structure has been reached with local authorities, when we have not seen the draft forms that will be provided to local authorities for the operational plans, when we have not agreed on the set-up fees and, above all, when the Department has agreed that it will drive forward the plans for a central database but has not yet started to do so?
§ Mr. Caborn
I go back to the original question, which concerned the consultation on the regulations that has been under way since August or September, involving dialogue not just with the local authorities but with all those who will be affected by the Act, and we shall come back to the House with their comments. The timetable is clear in the Act and it has been debated ad nauseam in Committee. Rather than the picture painted by the hon. Gentleman, the reality, according to the Local Government Association, is that many local authorities are already preparing to implement the Act. They are obviously far ahead of many hon. Members who represent them.
§ Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that when the new Act is fully implemented licensees will have great responsibility in the running of their premises to ensure that no problems are caused for local residents? Does he further agree that one problem at the moment in many town centres is caused by pubs allowing people to walk out with glasses and beer bottles, who then deposit them here, there and everywhere? If licensees allow that to happen, they may well be frowned upon when it comes to the operation of the new hours.
§ Mr. Caborn
When the new Act comes into operation, the powers of local residents will be much increased. They will be able to be a statutory objector, and the licensing authority—the local authority—will have to take that on board. A number of sanctions can be taken against somebody who is not fulfilling the requirements of the Act, even to the removal of the licence. The residents and local people have more powers now than they had before.