HL Deb 19 June 2003 vol 649 cc905-12

2 Clause 3, page 2, line 41, at end insert "or"

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 2. I speak also to Amendments Nos. 3, 4, 46, 47, 48 and 49. It is appropriate that I speak first, before the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, moves Amendment No. 2A.

I assure those on the Benches opposite that their handiwork in pressing amendments on this topic prompted the Government and their key partners, including the industry, the local authorities and the police, to accelerate their work to honour the White Paper commitment to set up a national database for personal licences. Before I make progress, I shall clarify for the benefit of the House the difference between a national database and a central licensing authority, which is what was proposed in the amendments that were carried during the passage of the Bill through the House. The distinction is absolutely critical although it is somewhat technical.

It is important to understand that a national database is not the same as setting up a whole new statutory body—the central licensing authority—which is the effect of the amendments made here. It refers to the development of an electronic system to allow the police, other responsible authorities and licensing authorities to exchange information easily and freely, and for licensees to apply online and facilitate the update of their details—for example, a change of address—thereby reducing bureaucracy. It is very firmly a database and not a new body corporate entrusted with statutory functions.

Once we understand this important distinction, the argument in favour of a central licensing authority tends to evaporate. There are no advantages to be gained in having such an authority to administer personal licences over the scheme provided in the Bill as introduced to this House. All matters pertaining to an individual applicant or licence holder will be with one authority where records are maintained and required to be accessible. The simple fact is that no one—not the industry, nor the police, nor the local authorities—actually wants a central licensing authority or would benefit from one.

It would add bureaucracy, cost and delay for no advantage. Who wants or needs another arm of government to carry out this relatively simple administrative process? The costs of setting up a new arm of government in this way—I understand that the sponsors of this amendment are talking about a body like the DVLA or the Security Industry Authority; I do not accuse them of wanting to set up another Criminal Records Bureau or Child Support Agency—will cost millions and take years to set up. In the mean time, the vast majority of the responsible public will be asking just why they are waiting.

Having said that, there is a great deal of merit in a national database. That is why the Bill provides the framework within which it can be developed. The Government are totally committed to working with partners to set up such a system. We have already met key stakeholders on a number of occasions with a view to producing an initial specification. We shall drive the work forward in parallel with the Bill to ensure that a system is available at the earliest opportunity. We have also facilitated meetings and seminars with the Office of the e-Envoy, and work on a business requirements document—the first step in the process—is well advanced. The business requirements document is being drafted in consultation with all key stakeholders.

We are also taking forward a supporting project with the aim of ensuring that local authorities have the advice and support necessary to enable them to record information in a mutually consistent format. That will in turn facilitate the interchange of information when the central database is up and running.

None of us should be under any misapprehension about the complexity or magnitude of the work involved when we consider that it would need to join up the licensing functions of around 410 authorities. There is still no extant example of a joined-up system of any significance which covers every local authority in England and Wales, although progress is being made across a number of fronts.

Work has started on the central database. We are building on the experience of others in this sector—for example, the local government planning portal and the project to integrate local land and property gazetteers. It is true that the national database will not be up and running before the beginning of the transitional period. That is why we have identified a separate project on data standards that we shall be driving forward in the run up to the first appointed day. The aim of this project will be to ensure that all licensing authorities record the same information in the same way to facilitate migration of data to the new system when it has been put in place. In doing so, we shall be encouraging the full adoption of existing government interoperability and metadata standards.

We have received wholehearted support for this approach. In the mean time, the Bill provides a simple, accessible system that can be up and running from Royal Assent. I am confident that the local system will work well up to the point where the national database can be up and running.

Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 2.—(Lord McIntosh of Haringey.)

2A Lord Redesdale rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 2, leave out "agree" and insert "disagree".

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I received information this morning regarding what appears to be a rather complicated system. I apologise if I get it wrong at any point. I should like to begin by welcoming the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, in his new role. So often in these debates we have talked about the multiple hatting of the noble Lord—depending on the day of the week and the department that he is representing. It is most welcome news that he has now taken on this role. As I have not had a previous opportunity to do so, I should also like to say how much we valued the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, in that role up until this time.

The central licensing authority is an issue that has caused a degree of concern. The Minister has been extremely erudite in arguing his case and in arguing the case for a database. It was telling that he said that it was the work on this side of the House that has made the database a reality in the short term. That is very helpful. However, we have a number of concerns about the way in which the system is being set up. The amendment also reflects the concerns of the Local Government Association, with which I know the Minister has been working. However, it is perhaps on the back of those concerns—because, obviously, local authorities will run the system—that we shall be considering pressing this group of amendments.

The arguments have been expressed at all stages of this Bill. Personal licences lasting up to 10 years will be granted on an individual basis and will have a degree of portability. That is why we hope to set up a system with a degree of conformity as regards everyone who applies for a licence. There could be a degree of difference from authority to authority, especially as the system has not been set up as yet, and is being set up over the medium term. Indeed, to a degree, it will not be in place when the Bill becomes law.

One of our major concerns is cost. This is a deregulating Bill where we believe that the costs will be neutral. The Minister said that it will cost in the region of £10 million to set up a central database. That seems a very large amount of money, although it is a set-up cost and a one-off cost and could be funded from the fees charged for each of the licensees to run the system.

The LGA wishes the system that we propose to be implemented. It may be an expensive system, and we should ask where the costs will fall if they do not fall on the central licensing system. It appears that the costs will fall on the local authorities. The Minister will say that those costs will already be borne to a degree by the local authorities, because people will have to register their interests with local authorities. However, disproportionate cost may fall on some local authorities if a brewery chain is based in one area and wants all its licensees to be registered with a particular authority that it feels that it can work with, for example.

On that basis, and on the advice of the LGA, I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 2, leave out "agree" and insert "disagree". —(Lord Redesdale.)

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, I support the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale. I begin by expressing my appreciation for the time that the Secretary of State and the Minister have given to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, and myself in their efforts to agree on as much as possible with regard to the Bill. Those opportunities have been greatly appreciated.

However, we are disturbed by the response in another place to our amendment, which we achieved in this House with regard to the need for a central licensing authority. It was made clear in another place and again today by the Minister that the Government are honouring a commitment to set up a national database. However, it remains unclear what that actually means, and who will pay, implement and manage that system. It is clear that everyone involved is now deeply concerned about that.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, made clear the reality, which is the huge cost exercise involved in setting up the system. Central government want to shift the licensing system on to local authorities from the magistrates, who, many continue to believe, were carrying out their duties perfectly adequately. Someone has to pay for that shift. Local authorities say that they will not be able to afford the necessary system, and industry is rightly worried that local authorities will look for ways in which to deflect costs on to it.

We are deeply concerned about the importance of filtering applications for personal licences, to assist licensing authorities and the police in ensuring that only legitimate applicants apply for licences and renew their licences wherever they live in the country and no matter how many times they may have moved in a 10-year period in this very flexible and often transient industry.

The Minister made it clear that setting up the database will cost millions of pounds, and that key stakeholders are already involved. I assume that "key stakeholders" means local authorities. There is clearly a lack of trust here, as local authorities are coming to us and saying, "Please press the Government for a central authority". They 1,A, ant something akin to the DVLA or the Security Industry Authority.

We feel that the matter is sufficiently important to hope that the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, will press his amendment.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I have heard what the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, have said about the amendment. I should say straightaway that I appreciate the concerns of local authorities. After all, all the functions have been performed by licensing justices in the past, and it is a very considerable shift for local authorities to be given the responsibility for licensing.

However, that does not mean that one particular element—the organisation of personal licences—should be taken away from local authorities and given to a central licensing authority. All other aspects of the licensing regime set out in the Bill, including the registration, control and administration of premises licences, are to be the responsibility of local authorities. It seems strange that this one particular element is now being queried and that it is proposed to take it away from local authorities.

I understand the concerns of local authorities about entering into new territory and about money. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, queried the cost of a database. I cannot give a precise figure for the cost of the database. A central licensing authority would have its own staff and would be a non-departmental public body or something of that kind—exactly what it would be is not spelt out in the amendments that were passed here. I can give an assurance that the cost of such an authority would be substantially more than the cost of a database.

The supporters of the amendment are asking for an authority performing statutory functions. I can give an idea of the likely cost of such an authority, by analogy. The new Gambling Commission costs, which will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny over the next year, are expected to be from £10 million to £13 million pounds a year. The Security Industry Authority, which was mentioned when the proposals were made earlier this year in this House, incurred £6 million in set-up costs alone last year.

The cost of a central licensing authority, as will the cost of a database, would eventually be passed on to the consumer. I must point out to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, that it is no answer to say that the cost of a central database can be recovered from a licensee, since licensees will put up their prices if their costs increase and the consumer will pay in the end. It really does not matter how the intermediate arrangements are made.

I have already said, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, that there will be a consistency of format in the way in which the personal licence system is set up from the very beginning, so that it can be "migrated"—that is the technical term—to the central database in due course.

The Government are not in the business of setting up new government organisations that are not necessary. We have a provision for a collaborative effort that will do the job perfectly effectively. We have no need to spend that extra money and involve ourselves in the extra bureaucracy. I hope that the House resists the amendment.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his erudite reply. We have gone over the issue of costs on a number of occasions. I was somewhat concerned when the Minister said that the measures would lead to a rise in costs to the licensee and then to the consumer. That implies that the Bill, which is supposed to be cost-neutral, has some in-built problems that will have to be reassessed later.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I used the word "cost-neutral" because there are already substantial costs in the licensing regime through licensing justices. We are saying that a licensing regime through licensing authorities will be cheaper because less complex and bureaucratic than the licensing justices system. However, within that cost will be additional costs that would have to be passed on for a central licensing authority.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, there has been a fundamental disagreement about how those costs will be met and how onerous they would be. We believe that the amendment would benefit licensees throughout the country and make the Bill work more cogently and coherently. Therefore, I beg leave to test the opinion of the House.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara)

My Lords, the original Question was that this House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 2 since when an amendment has been moved to leave out "agree" and insert "disagree". The Question is that this amendment be agreed to.

11.29 a.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 2A) shall be agreed to?

*Their Lordships divided: Contents, 115; Not-Contents, 117.

Division No. 1
Aberdare, L. Henley, L.
Ackner, L. Higgins, L.
Addington, L. Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, L.
Ampthill, L. Howe of Aberavon, L.
Anelay of St Johns, B. Hunt of Wirral, L.
Astor, V. Inge, L.
Astor of Hever, L. James of Holland Park, B.
Avebury, L. Jellicoe, E.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Jenkin of Roding, L.
Biffen, L. Jopling, L.
Blatch, B. Kimball, L.
Bradshaw, L. Laing of Dunphail, L.
Brittan of Spennithorne, L. Livsey of Talgarth, L.
Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, L. Lucas, L.
Buscombe, B. Luke, L.
Campbell of Alloway, L. McColl of Dulwich, L.
Carlile of Berriew, L. MacGregor of Pulham Market, L
Carlisle of Bucklow, L.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Maclennan of Rogart, L.
Chalker of Wallasey, B. McNally, L.
Cockfield, L. Maddock, B.
Coe, L. Mar and Kellie, E.
Cope of Berkeley, L. Miller of Chilthorne Domer, B.
Crathorne, L. Miller of Hendon, B.
Crickhowell, L. Monro of Langholm, L.
Denham, L. Mowbray and Stourton, L.
Dholakia, L. Moynihan, L.
Dixon-Smith, L. Murton of Lindisfarne, L.
Dundee, E. Newby, L.
Eccles of Moulton, B. Northesk, E.
Elles, B. Northover, B.
Falkland, V. O'Cathain, B.
Fookes, B. Oppenheim-Barnes, B.
Fowler, L. Park of Monmouth, B.
Gardner of Parkes, B. Perry of Southwark, B.
Geddes, L. Peyton of Yeovil, L.
Glentoran, L. Phillips of Sudbury, L.
Goodhart, L. Pilkington of Oxenford, L.
Griffiths of Fforestfach, L. Razzall, L.
Harris of Richmond, B. Rennard, L.
Roberts of Conwy, L. Swinfen, L.
Roper, L. [Teller] Thomas of Gwydir, L.
Saatchi, L. Thomas of Walliswood, B.
Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly. Thomson of Monifieth, L.
Seccombe, B. Tope, L.
Selsdon, L. Trefgarne, L.
Sharp of Guildford, B. Trumpington, B.
Sharples, B. Ullswater, V.
Shaw of Northstead, L. Vivian, L.
Wakeham, L.
Shrewsbury, E. Walmsley, B
Shutt of Greetland, L. [Teller] Warnock, B.
Skelmersdale, L. Wigoder, L.
Smith of Clifton, L. Williams of Crosby, B.
Stewartby, L. Williamson of Horton, L.
Strange, B. Willoughby de Broke, L.
Strathclyde, L. Windlesham, L.
Acton, L. Irvine of Lairg, L.
Ahmed, L. Jones, L.
Alli, L. Kilclooney, L.
Andrews, B. King of West Bromwich, L.
Archer of Sandwell, L. Kirkhill, L.
Ashton of Upholland, B. Laming, L.
Bach, L. Lea of Crondall, L.
Bassam of Brighton, L. Lipsey, L.
Berkeley, L. Lockwood, B.
Bernstein of Craigweil, L. Lofthouse of Pontefract, L.
Billingham, B. McCarthy, L.
Blackburn, Bp. Macdonald of Tradeston, L.
Blackstone, B. McIntosh of Haringey, L.
Borrie, L. McIntosh of Hudnall, B.
Bragg, L. Mackenzie of Framwellgate, L.
Brooke of Alverthorpe, L. Mar, C.
Brookman, L. Marsh, L.
Campbell-Savours, L. Masham of Ilton, B.
Carter, L. Mason of Barnsley, L.
Christopher, L. Merlyn-Rees, L.
Clark of Windermere, L. Milner of Leeds, L.
Clarke of Hampstead, L. Morgan, L.
Clinton-Davis, L. Morgan of Huyton, B.
Corbett of Castle Vale, L. Morris of Aberavon, L.
Crawley, B. [Teller] Morris of Manchester, L.
David, B. Murray of Epping Forest, L.
Davies of Oldham, L. [Teller] Nicol, B.
Desai, L. Orme, L.
Dixon, L. Ouseley, L.
Dubs, L. Patel of Blackburn, L.
Elder, L. Peterborough, Bp.
Evans of Parkside, L. Pitkeathley, B.
Evans of Temple Guiting, L. Prys-Davies, L.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B. Puttnam, L.
Faulkner of Worcester, L. Radice, L.
Gale, B. Ramsay of Cartvale, B.
Gavron, L. Richard, L.
Gibson of Market Rasen, B. Rooker, L.
Gordon of Strathblane, L. Sainsbury of Turville, L.
Goudie, B. Sandwich, E.
Gould of Potternewton, B. Scotland of Asthal, B.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Sewel, L.
Grocott, L. Sheldon, L.
Hardy of Wath, L. Simon, V.
Harris of Haringey, L. Stone of Blackheath, L.
Harrison, L. Strabolgi, L.
Haskel, L. Symons of Vernham Dean, B.
Hilton of Eggardon, B. Taylor of Blackburn, L.
Hogg of Cumbernauld, L. Temple-Morris, L.
Hollis of Heigham, B. Thornton, B.
Howarth of Breckland, B. Turner of Camden, B.
Howe of Idlicote, B. Uddin, B.
Hoyle, L. Walpole, L.
Hughes of Woodside, L. Warner, L.
Hunt of Kings Heath, L. Weatherill, L.
Hylton, L. Whitaker, B.
Whitty, L. Williams of Mostyn, L. (Lord President of the Council)
Wilkins, B.
Williams of Elvel, L. Woolmer of Leeds, L.

[*See col. 922]

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

11.39 a.m.