HL Deb 19 December 2002 vol 642 cc843-7

3.24 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone

rose to move, That the draft regulatory reform order laid before the House on 17th December be approved [6th Report from the Regulatory Reform Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, as we complete our final business before the Christmas and New Year recess begins, the order before noble Lords is, appropriately, the Regulatory Reform (Special Occasions Licensing) Order 2002, which has effect in England and Wales. The order amends the Licensing Act 1964, and puts in place a permanent relaxation of licensing hours on each subsequent New Year's Eve. The order extends licensing hours between 11 p.m. on each New Year's Eve until the start of licensing hours on each New Year's Day. That produces a continuous period of potential opening between 11 a.m. on New Year's Eve until either 10.30 p.m. or 11 p.m. on New Year's Day, depending on which day of the week it falls.

On special occasions such as New Year's Eve, most on-licensed premises normally have to make applications to the magistrates' courts or in London, to the Commissioners of Police for the Metropolis and for the City, for extensions of licensing hours. As differing permissions are given, that produces a wide variation in hours across England and Wales. In addition, as 130,000 on-licensed premises and nonprofit-making members' clubs may be involved, that places a considerable burden on the courts, the police and the hospitality industry. When special exemption orders are granted, public entertainment licences are extended in line with the order made. The cost to the industry can be more than £9 million each year, which is inevitably passed on to the consumer. Although the courts recover their costs through fees, it is a difficult and demanding time.

The order would remove the need to make such applications. Similar one-off orders were made for the eve of the millennium in 1999, for New Year's Eve 2001 and for the Golden Jubilee this year. They have all been successful and greatly appreciated by the industry and the general public.

New Year's Eve last year served as a trial of these hours at an ordinary New Year's Eve. The impact of last year's order was carefully reviewed by the Government in consultation with all police forces, all local authorities, all magistrates' courts and some residents' associations before the latest proposal was taken to public consultation and later brought before Parliament.

Most importantly, the police across the country pointed to the success of last year's order. They found that period to be quieter than an average weekend, and found significant benefits to public order in the avoidance of fixed closing times. The review of that New Year's Eve was published with a consultation document in March this year.

The Government learnt from the experience of New Year's Eve 2001 and the order provides arrangements which were also part of the Golden Jubilee. It is now easier for the police, local residents and local authorities to seek restriction orders on grounds of potential disorder and disturbance. Restriction orders limit the extension of hours for specific premises. However, such orders are rare. Only five were sought in 1999, only two in 2001 and none was sought during the Golden Jubilee. The order also relieves local authorities of their requirement to vary public entertainment licences at these times.

While approving the order, the Regulatory Reform Committee in another place criticised the Government for making it so late, although I am pleased to note that your Lordships' committee did not do so. I can only say that we had given undertakings to both committees that we would review New Year's Eve 2001 before seeking to bring forward a permanent proposal. That meant consulting more than 800 police forces, magistrates' courts, local authorities and residents' associations before we could embark on a public consultation. Only after considering that consultation could we begin the parliamentary proceedings. Indeed, it would have been impossible to complete the order under the terms of the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 before New Year's Eve 2002 without the co-operation of the Select Committees in both Houses. I thank them and their officials.

The House's Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee has recommended that the order can be approved and expressed the view that it provides adequate safeguards for local residents who live close to licensed premises while lifting burdens from the businesses affected.

Finally, noble Lords will perhaps want to know why a permanent order is necessary in view of the fact that the Licensing Bill is already before your Lordships' House. Obviously, the Bill will make no difference to New Year's Eve 2002. But even if the Bill receives Royal Assent by July 2003, at least one year of transition will follow during which permitted licensing hours would still be in place. Accordingly, the order will apply to New Year's Eve 2003, as well as New Year's Eve 2002. After that, everything depends on your Lordships' consideration of the Bill!

I am completely satisfied that the provisions of the order are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulatory reform order laid before the House on 17th December be approved [6th Report from the Regulatory Reform Committee].— (Baroness Blackstone.)

3.30 p.m.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts

My Lords, I am sure that the House is grateful to the Minister for explaining this order, which, as she said, provides for an extension of licensing hours on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. From her speech and from the notes that have been circulated, it is clear that trials of the proposal were held over the New Year's Eves of 1999–2000, 2000–01 and 2001–02, as well as the Golden Jubilee.

As the Minister also said, there appears to have been no increase in disorder—indeed, there has possibly been some decrease. Having read the paperwork, it seems clear that, while some objections were inevitably raised during the consultation phase on extending the order, the overwhelming proportion of the general public—I believe that 90 per cent was the figure given—favoured the automatic extension of licensing hours on this basis in the future.

This is a deregulatory order and, therefore, it instinctively commands our sympathy, particularly when it combines, as I understand it does, the automatic extension of public entertainment licences—subject, obviously, to the local appeal that the noble Baroness mentioned—and the consequent cash savings that will follow.

So far, so good. I do not wish to be accused of being unseasonal, but I should like to raise two or three points. The first is a small one concerning the title—the Regulatory Reform (Special Occasions Licensing) Order. As I understand it, there is only one special occasion and that is New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. As I understand it, a future jubilee or other event of national celebration will not qualify without other regulations being introduced. This Government are very keen on fancy titles, whether they be in relation to consultation or legislation, which promise more than they intend to deliver. Does the noble Baroness agree that this should properly be called the "Regulatory Reform (New Year Licensing) Order"?

When the Minister comes to reply, can she also say a word about how the order affects off-licences? I understand the impact for on-premises licensing, but what about off- premises licensing, about which one or two questions have been raised?

I want to return to the important question of the timing of the order which—dare I say—the noble Baroness slightly slid by in her introductory remarks. We meet on 19th December and, assuming that the order can take effect tomorrow, we are 12 days away from the occasion for which the regulation is designed. That is hardly a long time for licensees, many of whom are small businessmen, to grasp and implement it, let alone for licensing authorities to do the same.

When I read through the papers, I was absolutely astonished to read the proceedings of the Regulatory Reform Committee in another place. This is clearly the second consecutive year in which this problem has occurred. I quote from paragraph 122 on page 33 of the committee's report: We were astonished to find ourselves in the position of having to address precisely the same issues as we were required to address in respect of last year's Special Occasions Order—with the only difference being that the situation was, if anything, worse than it was last year. It is scarcely credible that the Department should have failed to comprehend the consequences of its failure to lay the proposal before Parliament in good time. Yet there was barely any indication, when the proposal was eventually laid before Parliament, that the Department recognised either that there would be serious difficulty in ensuring that the proposed order could pass through the necessary Parliamentary stages in time for implementation this year, or that special measures might again be necessary to ensure that the system of restriction orders could work effectively this year". The subsequent publication gives details of officials earnestly wriggling to get themselves and their Ministers off the hook. The noble Baroness gave a wonderful wriggle as she introduced the order. We must remember that pre-publicity, described as the answer, is hardly adequate. The truth is that of the 70,000 licensed premises in this country, about half are owner-managed. Such people are entrepreneurs and classic small businessmen. I dare say that they are not much in love with regulation and do not have overmuch time, amidst the pressures of running their businesses, to keep in touch with the finer points of administrative change.

The way in which the order has been handled administratively is a fiasco. I hope that the Minister will be honest enough to admit that when she winds up.

I am grateful to the Minister for what she has said about the impact on the order of the Licensing Bill, which we have been discussing. It means that we shall have a limping, half-effective order this year because of the timing, although next year we shall probably have a fully effective order. Thereafter we shall go into the wild blue unknown, depending on what happens with the proceedings on the Licensing Bill.

I look forward to hearing the comments of the noble Baroness. I emphasise that we support the deregulatory aspects of this proposal, although on its administration, as they say in the Eurovision Song Contest, it is awarded "nul point".

Lord Addington

My Lords, I can be a little more enthusiastic than the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. I was under the impression that there would be consultation, so he may have been a little unfair. I agree that consultation should have taken place a while ago, but in Parliament I have given up worrying about what should have been done. As long as matters are conducted in time, I usually say that that is good enough.

This is an old friend. One or two years ago I remember saying that this was a good idea. The whole package covers next year as well as this year, which is sensible if the Licensing Bill is not enacted. When I first picked up the documents I assumed that the Licensing Bill would cover next year. This procedure appears to work and appears to cut down on disturbance. I recommend that we get the Licensing Bill in better shape so that we do not have to worry about such a situation again.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I do not feel particularly strongly about the title of the order. What matters is that it does the job properly. I believe that the reason that it is called the Regulatory Reform (Special Occasions Licensing) Order 2002 is that it is an amending order to last year's order, which was for special occasions because it covered the Golden Jubilee.

The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, asked about off-licences. The order does not affect off-licences.

On timing, I accept that the order is late for which I apologise. The process of policy development and the statutory timetable described by the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 normally requires well over a year. On this occasion we have had the added burden of completing a thorough review of New Year's Eve 2001, which meant that the order had to be completed in the year between last New Year's Eve and this New Year's Eve. I hope that that explains to the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, why we are in this position. That has never been done before.

I am grateful for what the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, and for his welcome of the order. I believe that it has been widely welcomed. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, was not able to be a little more welcoming. I do not believe that it is a limping, half-effective order. It was widely anticipated and the licensing trade knew that it was likely to be passed.

On Question, Motion agreed to.