HL Deb 10 February 2003 vol 644 cc462-4

2.51 p.m.

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government:

What were the value and the terms of reference of the contract awarded to MCM Research by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the problems of noise and disorder arising out of the Licensing Bill; and whether there are any links between the company and the alcohol industry.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the cost of the contract will not exceed £50,000. The aims are to provide best practice guidance to address potential noise from pubs and clubs and to support local authorities and the licensed trade both under the current licensing rules and those proposed in the Licensing Bill. MCM Research Ltd has had clients from drinks and entertainment organisations and was appointed by competitive tendering, partly as a result of its knowledge in this area.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, can MCM Research be seen as fully independent by the residents who will be affected by the Licensing Bill in view of the fact that the vast majority of its clients are from the alcohol industry? The company has appeared frequently at licensing applications, defending the proposition that ambient noise should not be taken into consideration in deciding those applications.

Further, when will the report be published? Surely, its findings will be relevant to the Licensing Bill, Will there be opportunities for challenging the findings in view of the fact that many local communities will be seriously affected by all-night noise that is not up to the threshold in the tests for the licensing considerations?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as to the independence of the organisation, it has a great range of clients, by no means all of whom are in any way related to food or entertainment. It achieved the award of the contract in competition with several others. As with any independent research organisation, it will have clients that people will query, but nevertheless I believe that it will produce an independent report.

The report is not yet complete, but it will be completed in time to deal with the operation rather than the principles of the Licensing Bill.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, was the contract awarded because the department expected the Licensing Bill to give rise to noise and disorder, as the wording of the Question suggests? If so, is this the only known case of a government legislating to condone inebriation?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I hesitate to say that the Government in any context condone inebriation. However, we recognise the realities of life. Even under current licensing laws, excessive noise occasionally emerges from licensed premises. Therefore, we want to consider the current situation and whether the Licensing Bill, and the way in which it is operated, will make any significant difference. That is why we awarded the contract.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, does the Minister agree that disorder is already rife in country market towns every Friday and Saturday evening? Can he expect an objective report from MCM? It is a big problem. With the Courts Bill reducing the number of magistrates' courts, the Government are cooking up a big problem for themselves in the countryside.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, your Lordships debated the terms of the Licensing Bill at some length in Committee. Clearly, there is disorder in several parts of the country under existing rules. It is generally concentrated round about chucking out time. Part of the operation of the Licensing Bill will be to ensure that there is not a concentration of people coming out of licensed premises. Part of the effect of the transfer of responsibility will be to ensure that local authorities take account of the views of residents in areas where there are licensed premises.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, given what the Minister has just said, would it not have made sense for the research to be carried out before we set about scrutinising the Licensing Bill?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we are at the stage with the Licensing Bill where we have established the principles, which are still before Parliament. The way in which they are operated, and the guidance that individual local authorities will need, should be informed by the research that is coming out. That is why the focus of the research is best practice guidance to the trade and to local authority enforcers.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, as the Government have given an assurance that the guidance will be available by Report stage, can we be certain that the research will have been completed by Report stage as well?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the best practice guidance will not be available until we have considered the outcome of the report. It is at that stage that the research becomes appropriate. I shall not give further commitment as to what further information will be available on Report, over and above what my colleagues have given in the process of the Licensing Bill.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, will the research being undertaken include taking views from magistrates? It is currently the magistrates who give licences, but in the new Bill it will be taken away from them. I would like clarification on that point.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the conduct of the research will include talking to local authorities, magistrates and police, as well as the trade and residents organisations.

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, will the report be focused entirely on the late-night drinking that we are seeing, or will it take into account that we are moving into a 24-hour economy of which it is simply the vanguard? Noise will be a problem, regardless of drinking, because everything will be going on for 24 hours a day.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the remit of the £50,000 research contract is unlikely to go quite as wide as the change in social mores to which the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, refers. However, it will consider all aspects relating to changes in licensing laws, including liquor and entertainment licensing.