HL Deb 09 July 1992 vol 538 cc1343-5

8.23 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (The Earl of Arran) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 2nd June be approved.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, this order, though brief, is highly important to the licensed trade in Northern Ireland. As the essence is in Article 3, I shall confine my comments to that. This article validates liquor licences in which the title, through no fault of the holder, has become flawed. In effect it does three things. First, it validates protection orders where two or more have been granted to the same person. Secondly, it validates subsequent actions on the licence such as renewal or transfer. Thirdly, if the licence is one where a previous holder had died or become bankrupt, it too is validated by the provisions.

Perhaps I may briefly explain the background. The Licensing (Northern Ireland) Order 1990, which consolidated previous licensing law, allows anyone acquiring a liquor retail business to apply to the court for a protection order. This allows him to trade until he is able to apply to the court for transfer of the licence. A protection order lasts for six months but often this has proved insufficient to complete the necessary formalities. In those circumstances, applicants have applied to the courts for further protection orders. Invariably since 1971 the courts have granted these.

However, in December 1989, the Court of Appeal held that, apart from one exempt category, the law did not permit two or more protection orders to be granted to the same person. In that case, which concerned bankruptcy, the licence was declared void. As a result of that decision and a more recent one in which bankruptcy was not involved, there are about 500 licences at similar risk through no fault of the holders themselves.

Your Lordships will appreciate the serious threat this poses to businesses and jobs province-wide. It is hardly surprising that those in the licensed trade now seek urgent remedy. In this they are supported by the legal profession, who through the Law Society of Northern Ireland have made formal representations in the matter. The Government do not propose any substantive change to the existing law since the legal profession and the trade consider that by making some adjustments to past practice problems can be avoided in future.

I hope and trust that I have sufficiently explained the reasons why the order is so essential. In those circumstances, I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 2nd June be approved.—(The Earl of Arran.)

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Earl for explaining the technical nature of this order and the fact that it does not involve a point of principle.

I assume that the 500 or so licensees involved have not suffered any financial loss as a result of the error on the part of the licensing justices in granting two or more protection orders successively to the same person in respect of the same premises. I also assume that the department is satisfied that the clerks to the licensing justices fully appreciate that the practice of issuing two or more protection orders successively must henceforth cease. I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm that both assumptions are well founded.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I should like to raise a limited point in connection with licensing, of which I have given notice to the noble Earl. We all know that there has been a considerable tightening up of licensing legislation which was extremely necessary in view of the number of shebeens, speak-easies and clubs dominated by paramilitary organisations that used to exist in former years. By and large, this process has worked through quite smoothly.

However, it seems that it bears rather harshly particularly on the voluntary community associations which have their own premises and which need the occasional licence to sell drinks in order to accommodate such events as wedding receptions, 21st birthday parties and other local community celebrations. As I understand it, if they wish to have an occasional licence for a day, an evening or any other short period, they have to appear before the magistrate and they probably have to be represented by a solicitor. That is a costly and cumbersome procedure. What I am asking the Government is whether means can be found to simplify that procedure for these extremely bona fide organisations. I am sure that the noble Earl and his advisers will be able to think of methods by which such a simplification and cost reduction could be achieved.

My experience of these matters stems from quite a number of years' association with and knowledge of the Ainsworth Community Association which is located on the interface between the Springfield Road and the Shankhill Road in West Belfast. It has done an extremely good job over a long period of years in keeping the peace, holding the community together and promoting everything that is constructive and worth while. I hope that the noble Earl will give this matter his favourable consideration.

8.30 p.m.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I am grateful for the support given to the order during this short debate. In the Government's view it satisfactorily addresses the protection order difficulty and ensures a speedy reinstatement of title on the affected licences.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, asked for confirmation that when the order takes effect people will not be applying for two protection orders again. I can confirm that, apart from one exempt category which deals with illness or infirmity of the licensee, this will indeed be the case. I can also confirm that there has been no financial loss to the 500 licensees.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asked about a simpler procedure for voluntary organisations seeking to obtain occasional licences. I am grateful to the noble Lord for drawing my attention to problems that organisations are facing and for his suggested solution. I shall see to it that this aspect of the law is examined and I shall advise him of the outcome of this matter as soon as I can.

On Question, Motion agreed to.