§ 3.18 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Baroness Blackstone)
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
I apologise for the state of my voice. If in fact it conks out before the end of my opening speech. I shall ask my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham to take over. My noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey has very kindly agreed to make my winding-up speech.
Citizens of and visitors to this country want greater flexibility to be able to enjoy drink or a meal at a time they choose. More than 90 per cent of men and 85 per cent of women enjoy alcoholic drinks. The vast majority behave responsibly. If they want to go for a drink after watching a film or a play at 11 p.m. they should have that option. This Bill will deliver greater choice for consumers, those with families in particular. It will make our country more attractive to tourists and our great cities better able to compete for international events with cities such as Berlin, Rome and Tokyo. It will also remove perverse influences on 641 drinking culture, such as fixed, artificially early closing times that can lead to problems of violence and binge drinking.
At the same time, we recognise that issues of public disorder and anti-social behaviour have always arisen when large groups of people gather for popular pastimes, especially late at night. The Bill's aim to provide greater choice is tempered by its provision of strengthened protection. Modern laws are required to ensure that people may enjoy their leisure time while being adequately protected, without fear of violence, intimidation or disorder. The Bill provides measures to deliver strengthened public protection and complements other schemes across central Government and the public and private sectors.
The current system for the licensing of alcohol, public entertainment and late-night refreshment in England and Wales is an outdated amalgamation of legislation dating back centuries. It is complex, difficult and contains much unnecessary red tape. The Bill represents the first wholesale reform of the licensing regime for 40 years. It will benefit business across the piece, from restaurants and cafes, traditional pubs and clubs to theatres and cinemas. It will make it easier for operators to provide a wide range of leisure options within a single premises.
The licensing of alcohol sales in England and Wales dates back to the time of Henry III, but the present system was developed in 1828. It was made even more restrictive during the Great War. The law introduced then aimed to keep the workforce productive, while ensuring that we were not all blown to kingdom come when workers showed up drunk in munitions factories. Apart from the introduction of afternoon opening in 1988 and other minor tinkering, the system remains unchanged since then, while society has changed immeasurably. There are now more than 50 statutes impacting on the licensing of alcohol, public entertainment and late-night refreshment. The system is badly in need of streamlining.
The Government have been committed to reform the licensing system since we came to power. The Home Office, then responsible for licensing, undertook a two-year review of the existing regime, consulting a range of stakeholders including local authorities, residents' associations, industry, retailers, magistrates, churches, Members of Parliament, lawyers and private individuals. That culminated in the publication of a White Paper in April 2000. More than 1,200 organisations and individuals responded to the White Paper. The responses showed strong support for the proposed reforms.
The Government's efforts to consult and involve all interested parties in the development of the Bill have continued. Ministers and officials have held numerous meetings with many interested organisations. We have established an advisory group on the Bill that has met many times over recent months and will continue to do so as the secondary legislation and guidance are developed and plans for transition to the new regime put in place.
642 Under the new regime, licensing powers will be transferred from licensing justices to committees of democratically accountable local authorities. We recognise the concerns that some parts of industry have about that reform, and have developed safeguards to address them. Four clear objectives will underpin the new system, ensuring clarity and consistency. They are prevention of crime and disorder; public safety; prevention of public nuisance; and protection of children from harm.
The Bill, informed by the objectives, will enable local authorities to ensure that responsible adults are able to enjoy their leisure time in a safe and pleasant environment, while at the same time providing powers to clamp down on the crime and anti-social behaviour that can blight local communities. The Bill will ensure thorough, professional and expert scrutiny of applications. Expert bodies, such as the police, tire authorities, health and safety and environmental health officers and others, will be statutory consultees on every application for a new licence or variation of existing licences. Those bodies, along with local residents and businesses will be consulted when the licensing authority frames its policy.
Our plans to enable local residents to make representations about any applications for new or varied licences will give them a greater say than ever before in licensing decisions. We have gone further still. Local residents and businesses, as well as expert bodies, will have the power to request that the licensing authority review existing licences where problems arise. Such a review could result in the modification of the licence, its suspension, or, ultimately, revocation.
To ensure a fair balance for the industry, licensing authorities will only be able to impose conditions that are necessary to promote the licensing objectives. Furthermore, the licensing authority's discretion comes into play only in cases where representations are made. Setting fees centrally, as we propose, will also help ensure a level playing field. As an additional safeguard for all those who make representations, all decisions of the licensing authority will be subject to appeal to the magistrates' court.
The Bill will make it easier for licensing authorities to act in the interests of local residents against poorly performing premises, introducing a flexible range of sanctions, including limiting hours or excluding certain activities. At present, the fact that there are only two choices available—to do nothing or to revoke the licence—often results in no action being taken.
The Bill is about modernisation and reform to stimulate a richer range of leisure opportunities for the consumer and provide a regulatory environment within which the industry can thrive. However, the increased freedoms that the new system will deliver are carefully balanced by a corresponding suite of safeguards. The Bill contributes to the Government's overall strategy on alcohol-related disorder and antisocial behaviour. Other tools of the strategy include police powers to issue fixed penalty notices—currently being piloted with some success; the power of local authorities to designate public areas to restrict antisocial drinking; imaginative local initiatives, such as 643 Manchester's "City Centre Safe" scheme; and voluntary codes of practice, for example the Portman Group code of practice on marketing of alcohol to young people, which is dealing effectively with alcopops. Some of that work will be co-ordinated under the aegis of the national alcohol harm reduction strategy, led by the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit and the Department of Health. The work will include an examination of town centre management.
The Bill contains specific measures to clamp down on crime, disorder and anti-social behaviour. The police will have the power to close down immediately and for 24 hours any licensed premises or temporary event that has become the focus of disorder or a source of public nuisance, including noise. Such closure can lead to review, and ultimately, revocation of the licence. In addition, the police will be able to apply to a magistrates' court to close down all licensed premises in a particular area where disorder is occurring or is expected to occur—for example, surrounding a particular football match. It will be possible to prevent the sale of alcohol on specified train services where there is, or is expected to be, disorder, and there will be new requirements in the wake of the Thames Safety Inquiry for licensing boats travelling within England and Wales.
The Bill will also introduce major benefits for business by sweeping away unnecessary red tape. It will amalgamate six existing licensing regimes covering the sale of alcohol, provision of public entertainment and late night refreshment and replace them with a single system of premises licences. Businesses will be able to apply for a single premises licence to cover all the licensable activities that they wish to provide. Because only in cases where representations are made will a hearing be required, unnecessary administrative and legal overheads will be cut back. Unless a particular duration is requested, the new premises licence, until revoked or surrendered, will not be time-limited. Nor will it be subject to renewal every three years, as is currently the case for liquor licences, or annually, as in the case of public entertainment licences.
The Bill will, in what is perhaps the best known of all its proposals, abolish standard drinking hours, increasing the options available to people for how to spend their leisure time and encouraging the development of a more diverse late-night economy. Again, it is not just about liberalisation and consumer choice: the new system represents a vast improvement over the old and will remove some of its unintended adverse effects. For example, under existing legislation, establishments may sell alcohol late at night only if it is ancillary to other activities, usually music and dancing. That has led to the development of a relatively narrow night-time economy, patronised for the most part by the young. Our proposals will improve the diversity of provision, leading, we hope, to a broader demographic profile late at night, with potentially desirable associated benefits. Ending fixed closing times will remove the incentive to drink as much as possible before 11 p.m. and reduce the density 644 of drinkers on the streets, at take-aways and at taxi ranks at peak times, something that, we know, contributes to crime, disorder and nuisance.
It is equally important that people should be safe when they go to a place of public entertainment. Badly run entertainment can be a nuisance, and the Bill provides for modern, light-touch controls here, too. We understand concern about the effect of the abolition of the "two in a bar" rule, under which pubs did not have to obtain a public entertainment licence to put on live music by one or two performers. We are removing that rule because it is anachronistic. It is perfectly possible for a single performer using amplified instruments to generate more noise than, say, a chamber quartet of unamplified musicians. It is unfair on performers and on local residents.
The Bill's provision for a single, integrated licence means that premises wishing to put on live music need not, as is currently the case, apply for a separate permission, often at great cost. Costs can vary across England and Wales by thousands of per cent. In some places, a public entertainment licence can cost as much as £20,000. Instead, a permission to provide entertainment in that way would be an integral part of the premises licence, so there would be no additional cost for live music above the cost of the premises licence itself, regardless of how many musicians are involved. If the industry makes full use of the reforms on offer, there will be a huge increase in the opportunities for musicians to perform.
The new premises licence will make it easier for businesses to develop family-friendly facilities. We will make access to licensed premises by children the default position, in line with the position that many of us would recognise from our experience abroad. It no longer makes sense to ban all children from bar areas. The fact that families must leave children in the car park or at home places obstacles in the way of family entertainment and compounds the mystique around adult drinking. The presence of children in licensed premises may, of itself, have a positive effect on the ambience in those premises.
However, we recognise that safeguards must be put in place to balance this liberalisation. The Bill therefore sets out, as a clear licensing objective: the protection of children from harm. Sensible applicants will set out in their operating schedule how they propose to manage access to the premises by children responsibly. Those controls will form part of the conditions of the licence. Following relevant representations, the licensing authority will also have the power to impose conditions preventing or moderating access by children, where the theme of the venue demands it.
The current law relating to the sale of alcohol to children is confused and confusing and often provides inadequate protection. For example, it is legal to purchase alcohol on behalf of children as young as five years old for consumption in beer gardens. The Bill will clarify the position, making sales of alcohol to under-18s illegal anywhere. Consumption by under-18s will be illegal on all licensed premises and in 645 qualifying clubs, with a single exception: the consumption of beer, wine or cider, purchased by an adult, by 16 or 17 year-olds at a table meal, when accompanied by an adult, will be permitted.
We recognise the value to the community of registered members clubs, such as working men's or political clubs. The country can be rightly proud of the club movement. We also recognise that such clubs are private premises to which access is restricted and where alcohol is not supplied for profit. We intend to protect the special position of such clubs. Although they will have to promote the licensing objectives in the same way as other licensed premises, they will not require the full premises licence. Instead, a club premises certificate will supply the appropriate permissions for qualifying clubs to continue to play their important role in society. The Bill will, however, bring clubs into line with other premises in relation to sales to and consumption by children.
The premises licence will be complemented by a new system of personal licences. Separating the issues associated with the premises from those with individuals authorised to sell alcohol is a critical element of the scheme set out in the Bill. It is designed to deliver greater management flexibility for the industry. The issue of personal licences will be a streamlined administrative process, in most cases. Personal licences, which will have a lifetime of 10 years, will be issued automatically to applicants who are 18 and over, have not been convicted of relevant criminal offences, have not forfeited a licence in the previous five years and possess an accredited licensing qualification.
The Bill will introduce a new system of temporary permissions to enable individuals to hold occasional temporary events that involve licensable activities. Different limits apply, depending on whether a personal licence is held and on how often the premises is used. For personal licence holders—for example, publicans running bars at wedding receptions—the number of occasions that could be covered by those arrangements in any year would be subject to a limit of 50. Those who do not hold personal licences, such as individuals wishing to sell home-made wine at a fate, will be able to do so on no more than five occasions in a calendar year.
Although the system, in keeping with the theme of better regulation that runs through the Bill, is designed with a light touch, safeguards will be put in place to prevent abuse. The arrangements will apply only if the number of attendees is lower than 500. If there are more, a full premises licence will be required. No premises may be used more than five times in one calendar year. The local police will have the chance to object to or modify, by agreement with the premises user, the conditions under which the event is to take place. That will minimise the regulatory burden on small events, while retaining appropriate controls over major events like pop festivals, raves and concerts. Furthermore, small events, such as the village fete, which are often run by charitable organisations to 646 raise funds, are an important part of community life. Reflecting that, the Bill will deregulate the use of alcoholic drinks as prizes in raffles and tombolas.
In keeping with the aim of the Bill, the temporary event system will provide a simple regime for individuals and businesses. In providing a framework of necessary safeguards, we have been alive to the needs of industry, and nowhere more so than in the transitional arrangements. An estimated 180,000 businesses will have their existing rights preserved under the new system. It will be a major project, and a period of transition will be required. All new licences and club premises certificates will come into force on the same day, and the date will be determined by the Secretary of State. That will ensure that no business gains an unfair competitive advantage. We envisage that the transitional period will last 12 months. That should give the new licensing authorities—of which there will be around 400—sufficient time to carry out the necessary work.
The costs of the new system will be recovered by the licensing authorities through the setting of fees at an appropriate level. We are consulting representatives of local authorities and industry on the level of fees. The transitional arrangements will make special provision for existing licensees. Because we recognise the level of expertise of those already in the industry, current holders of justices' licences to sell alcohol will be entitled to a personal licence under the new system without having to possess an additional qualification, provided that they have not been convicted of any relevant offence since their justices' licence was last granted or renewed.
The arrangements for new premises licences have also been designed to make the transition as smooth as possible and avoid creating a climate of uncertainty. Existing licences and conditions will be guaranteed following a simple registration process, subject to consultation with the police in those exceptional cases where their circumstances have changed materially since the last grant or renewal of the licence. Businesses will be encouraged, at the same time, to apply for variations of existing conditions, such as those relating to extended opening hours or the admission of children, to derive maximum benefit from the reforms.
I hope that the modernisation, reforms and safeguards described serve to demonstrate one of the key features of this Bill—that it is a balanced package. We have consulted widely. We have taken a broad range of views into account, and the product is the sensible, pragmatic system I have set out today. We are committed to building a modern, dynamic and competitive society that can stand up against the best in the world. However, we are also about protecting the interests of citizens and consumers. The Licensing Bill will deliver on both counts. I commend it to the House.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Blackstone.)647
§ 3.42 p.m.
§ Baroness Buscombe
My Lords, I would like to begin by offering my sympathy to the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, for the loss of her voice. I hope that she finds it soon.
We support more liberal licensing laws and genuine deregulation. We believe that change in our licensing laws, which date back to the Licensing Act 1964, is long overdue. There has been a significant shift in our culture which, in turn, has led to a shift in consumer demand; for example, late night and, in many cities, 24 hour shopping has become the norm and an enormous increase in flexible working hours has led people to want to enjoy leisure activities outside traditional hours. More people of all ages and walks of life choose to spend more leisure time outside the home and those changes in lifestyle demand more flexibility of provision from the entertainment and leisure industries.
Those in the industry are anxious to provide a service that their customers want. The present system is rigid and puts different forms of activities into completely different compartments; for example, the idea of having a drink before seeing a film and then having supper afterwards in the same premises is alien to our present structure. Many of us would like to have the choice of being able to linger over another glass of wine after 11 p.m. when we have finished our meal in a restaurant. The present law does not allow for that.
We recognise the many problems related to the uniform last orders regime, followed by a mass exodus onto our streets and the resulting fights in the bus queues and at the kebab shop. An analogy would be telling a group of children that they have half an hour within which to eat as many sweets as they can. The result would he a lot of, albeit temporarily, sickly children and a mess for someone else to clear up.
The aim of the Bill is, we understand, to simplify and unify a complex system under one piece of legislation by which licensing may function with maximum efficiency and minimum red tape. However, we fear that, in practice, the new system may lead to higher costs and more regulation rather than the reverse. While we accept the need for change and support the broad thrust of the Bill, we have a number of important concerns—some of which I shall raise today.
We question whether local authorities will be given the necessary powers to manage an altered and extended night time economy. In addition, will there be sufficient safeguards for local residents, particularly in areas where there will be a high concentration of late night drinking establishments? That point brings me to one of the key issues in the Bill; namely, the transfer of responsibility for issuing licences from magistrates' courts to local authorities.
We are not convinced that the case has been made by the Government for that radical change in procedure. We have nothing but praise for the magistrates who give up their time for no reward and their clerks without whom the magistrates' court system could not operate. However, the Government 648 are determined to introduce the change. We have more than a sense that this change is driven by the Government's determination to phase out magistrates altogether. Indeed, outside organisations have told us that they have been briefed by Government officials that that is so.
While we are confident that the local authority, controlled by elected councillors, is well placed to take on that responsibility and, in so doing, represent the interests of their respective communities, we shall want to examine carefully whether that will work well and equitably in practice. Under Clause 5, each licensing authority must publish a licensing statement setting out its policy with respect to its licensing functions. The licensing statement must cover a period of three years. In preparing that licensing statement, the authority must consult with the police, the fire authority and various representatives of the industry in the locality and representatives of residents in its area.
Those residents all have votes. Any local authority ignoring the views of residents one might suppose would do so at its peril. However, there has been widespread fear among local authorities that the guidance described in Clause 177, and to be imposed by the Secretary of State, may fetter their discretion to respond to local concerns. The role of residents and councils will be diminished in the process. Conversely, industry representatives understandably fear that the process will be politicised and the not-in-my-backyard syndrome will work unfairly against local businesses and consumer choice.
In Clause 6 we learn that not more than 15 councillors may make up a licensing committee. Are we to understand that that number is limited even in the case of city councils that will have a huge number of cases to consider? Might that not lead to a licensing system that is inordinately slow and inefficient? Will uniform fees make sense? In addition, we fear that a one year transitional period for implementing the new system is insufficient to manage the process of change.
Two further issues in the Bill stand out as examples of ill consideration on the part of Government. First is the issue of national guidance. It is untenable that the guidance which is to explain the detailed regulations and actual nuts and bolts of implementation, including the functions and powers of licensing authorities, police and magistrates, is not on the face of the Bill and therefore not subject to scrutiny.
The draft guidance was made available only a week ago. Perhaps I may quote an example to highlight my concern. Paragraph 14 claims that the national guidance,would … provide for a proper separation of the planning and licensing regimes to avoid duplication and inefficiency".It appears that it is in the guidance that the issue of "saturation" is to be regulated, an issue that has caused much concern from both local councils and the industry.
Will the Minister indicate today when the crucial guidance is to be published in its final form? We are not content to accept the prospect of regulations 649 introduced by delegated powers covering many of the key implications of the Bill. A governmental fait accompli without proper democratic scrutiny is a depressing, albeit now familiar, prospect.
Our second cause for concern is the management of behaviour on our streets as a result of flexible drinking hours. None of us knows what will happen. We can predict only what will be required to respond to change. I am talking in terms of the likely impact on our public services such as transport, street cleaning, policing and accident and emergency. Will the Minister state today what evidence the Government have to show that our public services will be able to cope without a significant increase in resources?
The Secretary of State, Tessa Jowell, stated in a press release on 15th November this year:The Bill is also good news for the hospitality industry—it should Lad to savings of nearly £2 billion in its first ten years by cutting out red tape.How so? Has there been a cost benefit analysis for this?
I clearly recall the Secretary of State, Tessa Jowell, welcoming the "evidence-based approach" to scrutinising draft legislation made by the Joint Industry Committee on the draft communications Bill. We trust therefore that this approach has been followed by the Secretary of State with regard to licensing reform.
Local communities are rightly concerned by the implications of the change. We also see the complete overhaul of legislation as a leap in the dark by the Government and would therefore welcome some hard evidence to assuage our fears concerning the impact of longer drinking hours or else some mechanism for monitoring the effects of the legislation.
We believe that the Government may turn to the Isle of Man for conclusive evidence that liberalising licensing laws reduces the incidence of anti-social behaviour. Perhaps I should warn the Minister that we have also received helpful research from the Isle of Man and it does not entirely support the claim.
On a more positive note, we approve of the new system that makes a distinction between premises licences and personal licences. However, the principle of splitting the licence is severely undermined by the requirement to name the personal licensee on the premises licence and treating a change of licensee as a variation of the premises licence. This could lead to a considerable and possibly difficult paper chase every time there was a change of manager or tenant.
The White Paper stated that, on taking up responsibility for a business, the licensee should normally simply register with the police and local authority. The introduction of the term "Designated Premises Supervisor" and the consequent bureaucratic convolutions has made this process confusing and unnecessary.
We are also troubled by one of the qualifications for the grant of a personal licence. The licensing authority must not grant a personal licence if the applicant has been convicted of what is called a "relevant offence". There is nothing wrong with that. However, a conviction for a violent offence or an offence under the 650 Theft Act 1968, or an offence under the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981 is to be disregarded if a sentence of imprisonment exceeding 30 months was not imposed. That seems to us surprising. We seriously question whether it is right that someone convicted of a violent offence and sentenced to 18 months, perhaps even for an offence committed on Licensed premises, should be allowed to hold a personal licence.
In addition, the whole proposal to remove discretion, being the current "fit and proper person" test in determining suitability seems a somewhat rash move and is hardly conducive to producing quality personal licensees. We also wonder why no distinction is made in the Bill between an applicant setting out to run an off-licence and one with a busy nightclub in a sensitive area. We believe it would be more sensible to have some form of recognition, at least in the training system, to reflect this.
We would also prefer to see a single, central or national system for granting the personal licence. Given that the personal licence will be valid for 10 years, and given also the fact that people in the trade often move for career advancement, it makes no sense for the relevant authority, the holder of that information, to be where an individual first applied for his or her personal licence. A centralised system would also help prevent abuses such as the personal licence holder applying for a new—clean—personal licence from a different licensing authority or the exceeding of limits on temporary permitted activities by application within different licensing authority areas.
There are, in fact, over 50 separate powers given to or duties imposed on the police. It is unclear in the Bill how the balance between licensing committees (local authorities) and the police as the primary enforcers of the new system will work. Both groups are genuinely concerned about the lack of resources to cope with the extra burden they foresee will be placed upon them with extended opening hours and the effect in terms of crime, disorder and disruption of local communities which this new system will introduce.
I now turn to a concern we have about limits on temporary event notices. The Bill allows for up to five occasional events a year where alcohol is served in places such as village halls without requiring a licence. However, if there have already been five such events in any one year, there are difficulties as regards the sixth. As regards the last event, the person holding the event has to serve a temporary event notice. The licensing authority then serves a counter notice. That counter notice prevents the event being held in the premises. There does not appear to be a right of appeal against the decision to serve a counter notice. This will make life difficult in many villages. Indeed, in my home village of Goring on Thames, we have a tremendously vibrant social community which I fear will be brought to a grinding halt by about February.
On a similar note, it is important to articulate the interests of those who may be subsumed by the greater good of licensing reform. I am referring here to the conditions in the legislation which restrict the performance of live music. We have long campaigned 651 for the abolition of the two-in-a-bar rule—a rule that was brought into law in 1961 as a liberalising measure to allow two musicians to work in a licensed premise without a licence. In our efforts to remove that restriction to only two musicians operating without a licence, we never imagined that the Government would change it to insist that even one would require a licence.
Further, the Bill in its thoroughness appears to necessitate a licence for such harmless activities as church bell ringing, band rehearsals, musical concerts in churches and even carol singing. The wording of the Bill suggests that payment to musicians may be sufficient to trigger licensing. If that is the case, tens of thousands of private wedding receptions, parties and corporate functions would become illegal unless licensed.
We are told at paragraph 20 of the draft guidance that it will recommend that,proper account be taken of the need to promote live music, dancing and theatre for the wider cultural benefit of communities generally".At this stage, I am severely doubtful that this legislation, notwithstanding it has moved from the preserve of the Home Office to the DCMS, will promote these cultural interests.
There are many more issues that we will need to address in Committee; for example, the question of capacity on premises seems ill thought through and needs careful consideration. In addition, some of us are uncomfortable at the prospect of children occupying licensed premises unaccompanied by an adult. Will that really help to develop pubs as centres for family leisure, as promised in the White Paper, if the parents can be absent?
We are also mindful of the prospect of a gaming Bill that we understand will place restrictions upon the number and location of gaming machines in licensed premises, the argument being, we are told, that gambling and children do not mix.
Further, would the Minister also consider the position of casinos and bingo clubs in the Bill? We are aware that the gaming Bill is likely to contain specific statutory criteria governing the licensing of casinos and bingo clubs, including the liquor licensing. This means that the Licensing Bill will be a temporary measure for casinos and bingo clubs, leading to additional costs to cover the short- term as well as uncertainty. Would it not be better expressly to exempt casinos and gambling clubs from this Bill so that they can be dealt with properly in the gaming Bill in the next Session?
Finally, I must express a hope that, in future, repetition will be avoided in the drafting of Bills. Many of the provisions in this Bill are repeated time and time again. For example, the provision that where an authority determines that a representation is frivolous or vexatious it must notify the person who made it aware of the reasons for its determination is repeated nine times. There are many other instances of repetition. The draftsman of the Bill has treated 652 premises licences, club certificates, permitted temporary activities and personal licences as though they were completely different species of authorisation. The Bill makes no attempt at a unified system of authorisation, which results in needless repetition.
The need for reform of the Licensing Act 1964 was recognised as long ago as 1972, when the Erroll report put forward widespread recommendations which were never implemented. In consequence, the current legislation has undergone considerable amendments up to the present day which have now made the Bill as it stands, to some extent, incomprehensible.
I am conscious of the time and welcome the large number of noble Lords who wish to speak in this important debate. I thank all the outside organisations which have been in touch with us and helped us with our thinking so far. There is work to be done and we are determined to do all that we can to ensure that this legislation is both workable and deregulatory, bearing in mind that it could be on the statute book for the next 40 years.
§ 4.1 p.m.
§ Viscount Falkland
My Lords, we on these Benches welcome in general the Bill. It is a bold stroke to remove the responsibility for the regulation of alcohol from the magistrates—who have served us reasonably well over the years—and to hand it to the local authorities, which is the main aspect of the Bill. But, as with all bold strokes, there are always dangers attached. As the Bill progresses, it will be the job of this House and the other place to identify those dangers and to try to come to an agreement with the Government to bring in safeguards where they are needed.
The House will forgive me if I do not go into as much detail as the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. I am supported by a doughty team of eight noble friends, each of whom will deal with different aspects of the Bill. But, having welcomed the Bill, and as old habits die hard, I shall revert to what I did for a number of years when I first came into the House—that is, to warn noble Lords from time to time about the dangers of alcohol based on information garnered from the All-Party Group on Alcohol Misuse, which has been advised in recent years by Alcohol Concern, a government-funded body.
Having said that, perhaps I may refer to one point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. We on these Benches cannot follow her down the road of thinking that there is something sinister about taking away from magistrates the responsibility for licensing in a further attempt to remove magistrates altogether from British life. That is too much of a conspiracy theory for us to support.
Local authorities seem to be better established now—something which is recognised in the Bill—both in their democratic status and accountability and in their ability to deal in general with the areas which concern them in their towns, cities and rural areas and to come up with sensible proposals for alcohol which fit into modern life.
653 We have all been lobbied a good deal and some of the most cautionary notes have been sounded by those who have welcomed the Bill most strongly. Many of us have been to meetings where we have been shown horrific pictures of late night life in our towns and cities, with hand-held video cameras filming youths fighting in minicab queues as the clubs out of which they have come close. I stress clubs, not pubs.
The whole pattern of drinking among young people—where most of the disorder and problems have been identified—takes place not in pubs but later on in restaurants or clubs. Most young people nowadays, when they go out for what is generally known as "a good time", if they come from outside London they tend to go to a pub; they come into London and go to another pub; and then, when they are ready to move on and have something to eat, they go to a restaurant, where a fight may well begin. They then move on to clubs and return whence they came at about lour o'clock or five o'clock in the morning.
So we already have a scenario in Britain that has substantially changed from what it was 10 to 15 years ago. Instead of people "binge drinking", a phrase which seems to have caught on—
§ Lord Evans of Parkside
My Lords, will the noble Viscount make it quite clear that when he refers to "clubs." he is referring to night clubs and not to working men's clubs?
§ Viscount Falkland
My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point. I shall not refer to working men's clubs at all—one of my doughty colleagues will do that. When I refer to clubs, I am talking about the kind of clubs to which young people now go after they have left public houses or restaurants, which the police and other interested bodies have identified as areas of concern because it is often there that disorder, criminal activity and violence originate. It is a problem to which local authorities will have to pay a good deal of attention.
One of the main criticisms of the Bill, which I think we all recognise, is that if you hand over responsibility for regulating alcohol and its use or misuse, you must give the local authorities the means to carry out that responsibility. Each area of responsibility will bring its own problems. I have seen areas outside London—in Kent, for example—where there is a considerable problem late at night when people come out of drinking and eating establishments and cause considerable inconvenience to residents in terms of noise and pollution of the streets.
It seems fashionable nowadays among young people to be quite unabashed about where you defecate or urinate, and even to take off all your clothes. It is a habit which seems peculiar to British youth culture at the moment. People abroad are astonished when they receive some of our younger tourists. Several of my French friends have questioned me about why our young people feel that their bodies should be exposed in such a way. This is the kind of 654 scenario that we have. I am not tarring the whole of British youth with this brush, but a considerable part of it.
A very sensible report by the Open All Hours? campaign generally welcomes the Bill. It states that in key respects the Bill at the moment favours the alcohol and entertainment industry at the expense of the general community, particularly local residents, and may have damaging consequences. As the report points out, it is important to distinguish between the "evening economy", which has been expanding for some years, with good results generally in enlivening and enriching city centres, and what we might call the "late night economy" or the "24-hour economy", which requires local authorities to put in place much more infrastructure. It requires more transport. it requires more policing and, I am afraid, going back to my previous remarks, in some cases it requires a great deal of expense for clearing up.
As we go through the Bill, there may be a problem in deciding what local authorities can charge for the main premises licence and whether it should be a nationally decided or locally decided charge. Some local authorities consider that they will not have the resources to deal with the problems they anticipate—it varies throughout the country—and the Bill does not appear to give local authorities the ability to deal with their problems in their own areas. We shall have to deal with that aspect of the Bill.
The report by the Open All Hours? campaign rightly goes on to say that the Government seem to be under the impression that as a result of these measures we shall arrive at a position similar to that of continental Europe; namely, a café society, with people going to cafés and restaurants and behaving sensibly because they will have the freedom to drink for 24 hours of the day. But as it points out, in this country, culturally among the young—rather as it was with football at one time—drinking is characterised by mass volume vertical drinking: people prefer to stand rather than sit at tables. That, again, is conducive to heavy drinking with the object of getting drunk. It is nothing new; it has been going on in Britain for hundreds of years. It is a cultural feature, whether we like it or not. I do not think that the Government, in introducing this hold legislation, will change that culture overnight.
Many people have wondered about the cumulative impact of the Bill, with more and more licences being granted to establishments that wish to provide entertainment and alcohol. The Government will tell us—indeed, the noble Baroness made this clear in her introductory remarks—that they are not concerned with that; they are concerned only with the licensing aspect. They will tell us that it is up to the local authorities to have their own planning strategy to deal with it. That seems to me to be the wrong way round. I believe that the planning strategy should have come before this Bill, although others may not agree.
655 The cumulative impact will bother many noble Lords during the progress of this Bill. The Government will say that market forces will deal with it. But the trouble will start to appear long before market forces have kicked in to knock out establishments that are not profitable. I see the noble Baroness nodding in agreement. I am gratified to know that I am getting some agreement on what I thought was a rather puritanical speech.
At this juncture, having already driven some people from the Chamber, perhaps I may repeat one or two facts and statistics which are relevant as a background to this legislation. They were provided by Alcohol Concern, in a briefing document headed:The State of the Nation. Britain's True Alcohol Bill".It tells us that a recent survey indicates that over 25 per cent of adults aged between 16 and 74 years of age,are hazardous drinkers with the highest proportion (42%) of these being aged 16 to 24 years. This means that in the last year 1 in 4 people will have experienced loss of memory after a night's drinking, injured themselves or another, or failed to do what was expected of them, such as turning up for work the morning after. … 1 person in 13 is dependent on alcohol in Britain—twice as many as are hooked on all forms of drugs, including prescription drugs"—which may not be generally known but will be well known to your Lordships.
I return finally to what Alcohol Concern has to say about families:An estimated 920,000 children are living in a home where one or both parents misuse alcohol…Between 60% and 70% of men who assault their partners [or wives] do so under the influence of alcohol".So far as concerns young people:A comparative European study of drinking among 15–16 year olds showed that UK figures for alcohol consumption were some of the highest in Europe with 16% having drunk at least 10 times in the previous month"—and so the report continues.
Behind the Bill lie many problems regarding alcohol. I believe—although some of my colleagues would disagree—that the local authorities will be better placed to deal with the matter provided that they are able, at the end of the our parliamentary scrutiny of the Bill and having amended it if necessary, to have the facilities and resources at their disposal to be able to take all these matters into consideration. I am optimistic that that will happen, but I believe that there will be some hiccups. This is a very detailed piece of legislation, although the propositions behind it are simple. The Explanatory Notes run to 79 pages—which is unprecedented in my experience. Clause 177 relates to the guidance that that Government are to issue for use by local authorities in carrying out the Bill's provisions. This is a difficult matter because the guidance precludes a great deal of input by local authorities. So in some ways the Bill is a centralising measure rather than one giving power to the regions. I dare say that noble Lords will take up that point.
656 That said, we welcome the Bill and hope to work together to improve it.