HC Deb 23 June 2004 vol 422 cc367-90WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Jim Murphy.]

9.30 am
Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)

During the passage of the Licensing Bill in 2003 the Government were relying on a policy that might best be described as a victory for hope over experience: hope that everything will be all right on the night and the next morning, while ignoring the harsh experience that their changes to the law run the risk of everything becoming a nightmare for towns and cities up and down the nation.

Over the past week we have had 10 watch a shameful series of disgraceful, drunken and destructive antics on our television screens, as alcohol-fuelled aggression by English football hooligans has kept the poor Portuguese people off their own streets. Our football hooligans may be a minority, but let us face facts, unpalatable though they be: scenes of this kind are repeated in towns and city centres in England every Friday and Saturday night, making all too many of our town centres no-go zones for the law-abiding majority. Our international disgrace is really a national one.

It is naïve to the point of negligence for the Government to assume that Europeanising British drinking habits will somehow lead to a change in those habits. Where did they get that optimism? It certainly was not from talking to city centre residents, as I shall show later; it certainly was not from talking to police officers, who have not a clue how they will control 24-hour licensing in certain parts of our busy metropolis; and it certainly was not from talking to dedicated local councillors, as the Government learned only a fortnight ago when they lost control of Newcastle upon Tyne after 30 years, because of, to quote the former deputy leader of the Labour council, Don Price,

crime, the pub culture and the over-emphasis on the city as a cheap party municipality".

Unfortunately, the British attitude to alcohol consumption rightly horrifies most civilised folk. There seems to be almost hero worship of boorishness by some parts of the media, with drunkenness and binge drinking being regarded as the acceptable face of celebrity culture. British teenagers across all social classes congregate for long periods in pubs and bars, in sharp contrast to much of Europe and the United States, where, as the Minister will be aware, most states prohibit alcohol consumption under the age of 21. Even the Prime Minister has at last woken up to the problem: as recently as 20 May he told the alcohol industry that binge drinking was fast becoming the new British disease.

In contradiction to the Labour party spin doctors who were trying to entice younger voters before the last election, I do give a XXXX about closing times and opening hours in our pubs, clubs and bars. The commercial interests of the leading players in our alcohol and entertainment industries should not be allowed to run roughshod over the interests of long-standing, hapless city and town centre residents.

In my time on the Standing Committee considering the Licensing Bill it was clear that the all-powerful alcohol industry and its close cousins, the large-scale entertainment operators, were the driving forces behind much of the legislation. The Government might have taken the trouble to ask smaller, family-run, independent operators, who are much more vital to the local community. how they viewed the prospect of 24-hour licensing. Certainly in Soho and Covent Garden, in my constituency, the long-established, family-run restaurants and bars are being driven out by large operatives, who have no stake in the future success of the community. That lies at the heart of the problem.

The Act is not simply about libertarian values, where my sympathies would instinctively lie with deregulation. It is about ensuring that we encourage civilised behaviour and that our city centres remain pleasant, congenial places in which to live: lively, yes; energetic, yes; vibrant, yes; cosmopolitan, yes; but not a haven for loutish, uncouth, antisocial, drunken and yobbish behaviour around the clock.

In a letter to the Home Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales said: In our view the proposed change will not bring about the dividends envisaged…indeed it could have the obverse effect, exacerbating existing difficulties in policing the night time economy. There can be no clearer statement of the fallacy of hope over experience, but the Government insist on pushing on. We have to ask why.

My concern about and interest in the Licensing Act dates back almost two years to when the legislation first came to the other place. I have been inundated with communications from countless local residents groups, amenity societies and constituents with experience of what has happened in their city centres when late-night pub and club culture is allowed to dominate.

Last June, I asked the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope), a question about antisocial behaviour and the Licensing Bill debate that took place at that time. He replied that

we are working across Government to implement a range of programmes to tackle antisocial behaviour, so that on our streets we see new neighbourhood wardens and new community support officers who will be working hard in their areas, with local communities, doing a different job from that of the police, to tackle the kind of problem to which he referred."—[Official Report, 18 June 2003; Vol. 407, c. 338.] The lack of joined-up thinking verges on madness. The Act gives the late-night alcohol industry the green light to dominate chosen local areas without facing rigorous licensing scrutiny, but it also obliges local authorities, which are often the local licensing authorities, to put support officers on the streets to help the police to control any outbreaks of antisocial behaviour.

Who honestly believes that the 24-hour free-for-all will work? At one time, the alcohol industry claimed that problems of uncontrolled and rowdy drunken behaviour were caused by our outdated licensing laws requiring public houses and bars to close at a set time, often before midnight. Unfortunately, the more liberal licensing in Mediterranean countries does not seem to have had a very positive effect on Britons holidaying abroad, where their all-night drunkenness is a reluctantly accepted feature of many continental resorts.

Westminster city council has fought long and hard, alongside local police, to tackle disorder on central London streets. Under its civic renewal strategy, the council has set out its approach of refusing to accept the "lesser" crimes of aggressive begging, fly posting and vandalism in order to cut at the roots of serious crime and the fear of crime, which continue to dominate many of our cities. However, much of that painstaking progress is undermined by the lack of controls on binge drinking and the opening of the floodgates to allow the alcohol and entertainment industries to prompt havoc being wreaked in our town centres.

I sense that the Home Secretary truly believes that the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 is the solution to any problems that arise with the Licensing Act. In response to my question of 10 May, he said that under the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, there is now the ability to close establishments immediately there is a problem."—[Official Report, 10 May 2004; Vol. 421, c. 16.] Well, no city centre resident, elected councillor or police officer believes that that will work in practice. When criminal antisocial behaviour caused by drunkenness takes place on the streets in an area festooned with pubs and clubs, it is impossible to point the finger at any one offending pub or other establishment. In Soho and Covent Garden, for example, there are more than 800 licensed premises in less than 2 square miles. In my opinion, that is one reason why there has been a further delay to the guidelines accompanying the Act, without which the new law cannot operate.

As an inner-city MP, I want to stand up for our city centres as places of thriving residential communities benefiting from the continuity of several generations of residents. Without such continuity, our inner cities will die. One of the things that I have been most proud of in my time as an MP is the way in which the inner cities have thrived and the fact that the population of places such as Soho, Covent Garden and, indeed, the City of London has, for the first time in decades, begun to rise.

Last summer, I asked 4,000 residents in the Marylebone ward of my constituency for their views on the proposed licensing changes. The ward is not, I hasten to add, a hotbed of drunken rowdyism, but there are a substantial number of late-night restaurants, pubs and bars. As with all my surveys, I had a tremendous response, with more than 200 people replying and, and I am pleased to say, a range of views, both for and against. However, the one thing that nearly everyone referred to was the importance of true local involvement.

The breakdown of the survey is as follows. More than 60 per cent. of respondents found the whole idea of extending licensing laws horrifying. Nearly 30 per cent. were in favour, but had concerns about the effect on local residential amenity. A further 10 per cent. made it clear that they were undecided, and one person suggested that there be a 12-month trial of any new law. No one believed that the new licensing arrangements would or could be properly handled unless there was true local involvement.

Many residents in my constituency were concerned that Marylebone's residential and business community would be worsened by the new legislation. I am sure that you will allow me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to relate a few typical comments. One person said that it is vital that the local council and residents have their say. Some said that it is right that Marylebone, as a central London area, should be a vibrant place for tourists, but that runs contrary to the notion of a vibrant local community. Another said that he viewed the whole thing with absolute horror; he thought that there would be noise, street violence, rubbish and lager louts. Others stressed the importance of an increase in night-time policing in line with the extended hours. I could go on; it was certainly a useful exercise in public consultation, and one that could be replicated in many other town and city centres across the UK.

I accept that one ward is not representative of the country. However, I cannot remember the first time that I heard the phrase, "London is made up of a series of villages," and although, like most of us brought up outside the capital, I thought that that was a cliché I must confess that in representing my diverse constituency, I have finally realised that the cliché is true. For example, there are no fewer than 30 active residents associations scattered in the 9 square miles that make up my historic seat. I am convinced that one of the great charms of this part of central London is that so many residents care deeply about the neighbourhoods in which they live. The frenetic activity of many residents associations plays an important part in ensuring that, by and large, we enjoy a high quality of life.

I do not want London to dominate my comments. It is evident that in the growth and renewal of city centres in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and even Sheffield over the past decade, a vibrant and articulate—perhaps overly articulate for local Members of Parliament—residential population has made a difference in improving the quality of life.

My survey was a valuable example of a village in London and properly represents the views of inner-city residents. I shall how turn to another important residents association in my constituency: the south-east Bayswater residents association. That is another area with a rich mix of residential homes alongside licensed premises such as pubs and clubs as well as notable eateries. In a letter to Members of both Houses who met to discuss the Licensing Act guidelines on 26 May, SEBRA made it clear that the Government's assumption that flexible licensing hours will reduce crime, disorder and public nuisance is a myth. It maintains that the risks to residential amenities are high and the best way for them to be minimised is by having effective guidelines that allow local authorities greater discretion for defining their own policies and tailoring them to suit the individual local environment. That is the complete opposite of the Government's policy.

South-east Bayswater residents made a number of strong points, but I shall mention just three. They suggest that licensing authorities should be able to refuse licence applications if there is no effective late-night public transport to get revellers out of the area and back home. On fees, which is becoming an increasingly important part of the problem, they suggest that payments should be set at a level at which full recovery of all costs from the industry associated with drinking hours is guaranteed. The third key point is that there should be a provision whereby local authorities can keep local residents groups informed of all licence applications in their area, to ensure effective and constant consultation and to ward against over-saturation in an area.

Those views are sensible and informed, and they stem from deep-rooted experience, but nobody in government is listening. How will drinkers get home from central London in the early hours? Imagining the consequences fills local residents with dread, especially as only last week the Secretary of State for Transport confirmed that we can expect another 10 years of misery on the underground before we get the significant improvements necessary to enable all-night running at weekends, which many regard as a pre-requisite for 24-hour drinking in central London.

As for the police, according to a letter from the chairman of the Police Federation to Departments, at present a "respite" exists some time after pubs and clubs close and policing levels can therefore be resourced accordingly. In that simple statement, which is amplified by a series of suggestions and constructive considerations in the letter, we hit the nub of the problem. Implementing any new regime without having a strategy to handle its consequences is fundamental to the Government's action on so many fronts.

The issue should not be about spin or headlines today but about implementation of a long-term policy. I ask the Minister: what sort of inner cities should we aspire to in 20 or 30 years? The short-termism of the Government which causes them such difficulty in their policies on Iraq and the European Union is equally evident in licensing. I genuinely believe that, in its heart, the Home Office knows that the policy is a disaster waiting to happen, yet the DCMS blindly insists on driving through the legislation.

Has anyone considered the effect of all-night drinking on the accident and emergency departments of our overstretched hospitals? On the "Panorama" programme of 6 June, the only dreadful thing about the scenes depicted on the streets of Nottingham is that I was not totally shocked by the aggression and the mayhem that was shown and by the problems that arose in the local hospitals. That is standard stuff in Soho and around Victoria station on many nights of the week. The perpetrators end up in police cells and others in hospitals. That effort is paid for by us—the taxpayers.

It seems to be the Government's hope that extending licensing hours will curb that sort of behaviour. Is it possible that there are people in government who really believe that drunken revellers will sit on railway platforms at 3 am and wait quietly for a train for three hours? None of that makes sense. We should all realise that the over-stretched police will bear the brunt of controlling the new legislation.

I have already touched on the prohibitive cost of the policy. The City of London corporation explained to me that there is no clarity in the Government's mind about the fees. Indeed, there seem to be mixed messages from the Government about the extent of the new fee levels that will cover the administration costs of local authorities. I hope that the Minister will be able to explain that in some detail today, or, if necessary, write to me later.

The new fees are to cover entertainment and late-night refreshment house licences, for which, at present, the City of London corporation calculates its own charges and receives approximately £300,000 per annum. Apparently the DCMS's proposed fees are significantly lower than the corporation's present charges. Even allowing for additional fee income for functions currently exercised by licensing justices, we anticipate an overall reduction in income. I accept that that may be a particular London problem, and perhaps the Minister has some notion, of the relative expense in the capital city compared to many of our regional towns. However, using the average fee allowance on the scale suggested by Ministers, the corporation expects to receive about £210,000 in total in the first year of its operations, with the amount falling to about half that figure in years to come.

As the Minister knows, the reduction in fee income comes at a time when local authority licensing functions are set to increase substantially. It seems that, in time, there will be a deficit of £200,000 to £250,000 a year. Ministers have been giving mixed messages about the extent to which the fee levels will cover local authority administration costs. The Minister assured Members of Parliament on Third Reading that fees will be set at a level which permits recovery of the full costs of administration, inspection and enforcement to local authorities".—[Official Report, 2 December 2003; Vol. 415, c. 41W]

That superficially positive message was undermined by his more recent comment in departmental questions. He said:

We have already given an indication and I do not believe that it will prove to be far from the mark."—[Official Report, 24 May 2004; Vol. 421, c. 1294] Since the fee levels suggested by the DCMS would result in significant deficits for London boroughs, I believe that the statement from the Minister is far from satisfactory, but no doubt in his winding-up speech he will be able to clarify the matter. There are two local authorities in my constituency. I believe that Westminster city council, which hosts the largest number of social and late-night establishments in the country, has a right to have its voice heard when facing legislation with such an enormous impact.

From the moment of the Bill's inception there was much enthusiasm for the Government's intention to simplify the complex and outmoded mix of licensing laws, but nobody anticipated that the big players in the entertainment industry would get carte blanche, while many of the responsible, smaller local operators and councils would be left to pick up the pieces and deal with the free-for-all consequences.

Audrey Lewis, the cabinet member responsible for licensing in Westminster city council and a long-term Marylebone resident, has the interests of the Covent Garden and Marylebone residential community at heart. At the beginning of the year, she wrote a five-page letter to the Minister, in which she detailed serious concerns about the draft guidance for the Act. In her opening point, Mrs. Lewis says that the draft guidance cannot be properly understood because the regulations have yet to be published. That remains the case. I am happy to let any hon. Members see a copy of the letter; it sums up the Government's mishandling of the whole matter, which is a triumph of misguided hope over experience.

Any exhortation by politicians to promote more freedom and choice should be tempered by the disappointing failure of so many who eschew responsibility for their actions, which harm both the community and natural environment. I believe that it is absurd to equate residential areas in inner cities with districts where pubs and clubs can proliferate such as those that can be found close to suburban high streets or seaside beach venues. A one-size-fits-all approach, which is what the Act has brought into being, with no local licensing discretion and woefully inadequate resources for public order enforcement, promises to be a disaster in the making. The Government should be profoundly ashamed of it.

9.51 am
Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham) (Con)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on securing the debate and on opening it in such an admirable fashion. Along with our hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), we are veterans of this topic, having last year served on the Standing Committee that scrutinised the Licensing Bill. Perhaps it will come as no surprise to any of us that, almost a year later, we are having a debate on the implementation of the Licensing Act, the ultimate implementation date of which has already been delayed once, if not twice.

I want to raise the concerns of two particular groups among the many who have expressed concern about the Act. The groups on which I shall focus are the local councils—in my case, Fareham borough council—and publicans. I am grateful to Mandy Hovey, the licensing officer from Fareham borough council, and to Martin O'Grady, the chairman of the southern region of the British Institute of Innkeepers, for their comments on the Licensing Act and its implementation. They share concern about the fees that will be charged for the various licences that are covered by the Act. They are worried that the fees will initially be assessed at a very low level, and both recognise that that level is not sustainable. The publicans believe that that will lead, over time, to the relaxation of the cap on fees, but the borough council is concerned that the cap may not be lifted and that, as a consequence, council tax payers will be forced to pick up the bill. Fareham borough council, in its correspondence with me, said that the fees

in no way will cover the costs of issuing the licences to the Local Authorities.

In trying to assess the true cost of licensing, Fareham borough council cites the costs of the door supervisors' licences. That cost is set by the Securities Industry Association, and Hampshire is a pilot for that scheme. One question in the SIA's list of frequently asked questions is on how a cost of £190 can be justified for a three-year licence for a door supervisor. The SIA's response to that is: the SIA is not here to make a profit", just as Fareham borough council is not there to make a profit. The response continues that the costs will cover CRB checks, administration of the licence process, communications…infrastructure—offices and staff, enforcement and compliance and research and development. Some of those costs such as research and development, obviously will not apply to Fareham borough council, but the council sees that level of cost as comparable to the costs that it will incur in operating aspects of the licensing regime. It thinks that the £190 reflects those costs, rather than the £30 that has been suggested as the proposed cost of a Personal licence.

The second issue that the council and the publicans have raised is about the procedures. We have seen the guidance and both Houses have approved it, but there is still concern about the detailed regulations underpinning it—the procedures that will give the council and the publicans some indication of how to proceed with their business. Peter Coulson raised that issue in an article in the Morning Advertiser on 3 June 2004, when he said:

There are a number of procedural matters concerning the way in which new-style licensing authorities will deal with their business and handle applications before them. Given the range of applicants for transition, there are likely to be hearings very early in the process. Councillors need to be trained to handle such applications, but without the published procedures required by the Secretary of State, they are in the dark—and so are potential applicants. Those sorts of concerns are coming across. Publicans say to me that the current system of licensing by magistrates is cheap, efficient and impartial—it is not subject to the political wrangling that may bedevil the formulation by councils of licensing policy and application. Councils want to see credible and robust procedures that will withstand challenge from publicans and the public. When will the Minister publish the detailed regulations to help local authorities frame their own detailed regulations and rules?

I touched on the timetable for implementation. The Library note on the implementation of the Act highlights the fact that the deadlines for the first and second appointed days have already been moved back. There is now concern that the current proposals will lead to an increase in the volume of business for councils in the run-up to Christmas, and it is suggested that the first appointed day should be delayed until January 2005 to make the transition more manageable.

The Minister said in Committee that the Government would consider moving the date to January 2005 if a case were made. What further representations has he received since then arguing in favour of the delay in implementation? Comments were made in Committee about some of the inconsistencies in the Bill and about what will and will not be covered by the Act. Given that the debate is taking place during Euro 2004, it is apposite that one thing not covered by the entertainment provisions is large-screen TVs in pubs. We debated that at length in Committee, and the answers that we received were not satisfactory.

There did not seem to be a consistent basis for excluding large-screen TVs from the licensing requirements but including other forms of entertainment. In the context of Euro 2004, and considering the large numbers of people who gather in city centre pubs to watch the football, were the Government right to exclude large-screen TVs from the entertainment provisions of the Act? Over the coming weeks, we will need to reconsider that decision and think very carefully about bringing that form of entertainment within its scope.

None of the matters that my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster raised come as a surprise to me, given the nature of the debate in Committee. Despite the Bill's long gestation, when it arrived in Committee it was based on fuzzy logic and there was an unclear basis on which to proceed. That explains the slippage in the implementation date and the growing concern about many issues among publicans and those who will have to enforce the Act. They need clearer direction about what happens next. If the Bill had been thought through more fully before it was presented to us, many of those issues could have been resolved much earlier and some of the uncertainties in the minds of licensees and borough councils could have been removed.

9.59 am
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcesters hire) (Con)

I, too, begin by saying how much I enjoyed the opening remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), and, indeed, those of my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban). I will not deal with the issues that they raised. I think that the Minister can guess—from his characteristically good-natured smile I see that he does—the subject that concerns me. Before I raise it, however, I want to ask him one unrelated question: has he received representations from rugby clubs about the implementation of the Act? I draw his attention to early-day motion 1365, and urge him, as a Yorkshire Member, to steer clear of the recommendations of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), which may owe more to the fact that his brother is chief executive of Rotherham rugby union football club than to any serious concern about the issues relating to English rugby. However, that is separate matter. I merely draw it to the Minister's attention.

A number of groups have concerns about the implementation of the Act. My hon. Friends spoke mainly about one of its prime purposes and the implications for alcohol licensing. I am aware that golf clubs are also worried. I do not know much about that, but perhaps the Minister has a response on golf clubs and perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) will discuss it further in his remarks.

Last night, I discovered that farmers' markets are also worried about the Act; I had not realised that before. It may prejudice the ability of our cider, perry and English wine manufacturers to sell their wine at farmers' markets. The Minister will have to give that careful consideration because they undoubtedly add to the colour of farmers' markets. Unless the provisions are expanded to enable them to continue to sell there, we shall lose something important from those markets.

The other group that the Minister knows is affected is the Punch and Judy sector. The ability to carry on performing on the seaside may be prejudiced by the Act, and I hope that he will give some answers to the noble Punch and Judy profession. However, it will come as no surprise to him that I mainly want to discuss circuses, which are in an unenviable situation. I am looking to the Minister for some reassurance about the way in which the Act will be implemented, so that circuses can continue to flourish in the United Kingdom.

I am grateful to the Minister for the constructive meeting that we had with him and representatives of the circus industry last month to discuss some of their detailed concerns. They all appreciate the way in which he listened to them. Their concerns are serious and well founded. I am particularly pleased to address him today because, sadly, when we debated touring circuses and the Licensing Act on 27 April, he was, for good reasons—he had to be at Select Committee—unable to be present. His courteous and charming right hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts responded to the debate. So I am glad to put on the record, in front of the Minister, some of the issues that concern circuses about the Act's implementation.

In essence, we have the law of unintended consequences. I genuinely believe that the Government do not want to punish circuses. There is no agenda at all to do that. They recognise that there is a problem with how the Act has been constructed and are now genuinely engaged in a constructive way to resolve those problems. I do not want to score points; the problems were not meant to arise, but they have. The message that I want to convey is that I hope that the Minister can help the Act to fit the facts, and not the facts to fit the Act.

The primary legislation is on the statute book and the guidance has gone through both Houses. I am worried that that may reduce the Minister's freedom to respond to circuses' genuine concerns. There are problems with the starting date, which my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham raised. That may help, because the more time we have here, the more time we have to sort out this little problem. If the Minister cannot find a solution in the short term—it will be difficult, as I shall explain—he might have to tell local authorities that there will need to be temporary and special transitional arrangements. Perhaps he will ask them to approach circuses gently, because of the huge problems they face.

Circuses have changed enormously over the years—for example, many do not now use animals. On balance, I welcome that, although I would not have a problem with domestic animals. On that point—one that has struck me only recently—I worry about local authorities having to license circuses. Some years ago, my good friend, Gary Smart, grandson of Billy Smart, wanted to bring Billy Smart's circus to Pitchcroft, the race course in the centre of Worcester. The race course is a national hunt course: they jump there and, of course, horses often fall during races and are put down. It is a tragedy, but it happens. The local authority at the time—I will not score any party points, as the party that is currently in control was not in power then—would not allow the circus to perform on Pitchcroft because it used horses. That was bizarre. I worry that some local authorities with those rather old-fashioned and inconsistent attitudes may apply the Act unreasonably. That is not an issue that I have raised with the Minister before.

On the fundamental problems, the Government's original intention was to exclude circuses from the Act. The Home Office put that in writing to representatives of the industry. For some reason—possibly a good one—that changed. However, it meant that circuses did not watch the Bill as it developed and did not make representations at the time. We need to correct that and, sadly, bolt the stable door after the horse has bolted. The other problem is that the Act deals with permanent venues in permanent structures, not with tents that move around the country. I still do not understand how we will deal with that. The Minister is trying to find ways, but it may be a fundamental flaw that we cannot overcome.

I must pick up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham about the inconsistency in the application of the Act. Until he made his speech, I did not realise that large-screen TVs were also excluded, as are fairgrounds. It seems to me that large-screen TVs—particularly, God help us, if England are defeated on Thursday—and fairgrounds are more likely to be scenes of public disorder than circuses, yet circuses are included under the terms of the Act.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con)


Mr. Hoban


Mr. Luff

I have two hon. Friends to choose from. I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire first.

Mr. Moss

My hon. Friend is obviously well versed on the circus environment and has made efforts to find out the detail of what is going on. Does he have any evidence to suggest that there is crime and disorder or public liability associated with circuses? Why was the Home Office happy that they should be exempt and yet the DCMS seemed to have grounds for including them in the legislation?

Mr. Luff

I do not know. Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether the DCMS took a deliberate decision to include circuses. I tend to think that it was accidental. My hon. Friend makes a good point about disorder. There was an article by Philip Johnston in The Daily Telegraph last week, which sadly does not praise hon. Members who have been trying to raise the problem for some time, although that is another point. I suspect that his article derives heavily from my speech of 27 April. He writes: When did you last see a punch-up at a circus, apart from among the clowns? The Government says the laws are also about 'the protection of children from harm'. How is this to be achieved by penalising a traditional art form that gets children away from their computer games and the television and instils a lifelong enjoyment of live performance? That is a powerful point.

Mr. Hoban

My hon. Friend talked about fairgrounds. That topic was discussed in the Standing Committee when I asked the Minister's predecessor whether fairgrounds were included in the Bill because I had a problem with a fair that occupied a field to the south of my constituency. I was advised that there were sufficient existing regulations to govern fairgrounds and so they did not of need to be brought within the Bill's scope. That is another good example of the inconsistencies.

Mr. Luff

I do not know when the decision to include circuses was taken In some senses, it is reasonable, although I repeat that disorder is more likely to be associated with fairgrounds than with circuses. The same argument about existing regulations would apply to circuses. They are already covered by a wide-ranging umbrella of legislation relating to matters such as the health and safety of the audience, the testing of electrical equipment and their relationship with local authorities on their sites to ensure that there are no highways implications. Circuses are not unprotected. I was disappointed that Lord McIntosh said: it would not be right for us to exempt circuses. Imagine what would happen if there were a fire in the circus tent and children were killed."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 June 2004; Vol. 662, c. 242.] But that has nothing to do with alcohol licensing, and circuses are already subject to health and safety checks, in any case.

Circuses are not a against licensing. If the Licensing Bill had been drafted properly, with them in mind, it would have delivered some benefits. The Minister knows the arguments—he heard them from the circus industry last month—and I shall review the three problems. First, we still do not know the cost of the licences. Again, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham made that point. It would be helpful to know what the cost will be. A cost of £500 will become a huge burden, but £100 may be tolerable. Of course, there is also a problem for local authorities. How much will it cost them to issue the licences? We need some guidance on cost soon to enable us to determine whether our concerns are justified.

Secondly, the extra bureaucracy will be considerable. It would have been good if, in developing a licensing regime for circuses the Government had taken the opportunity to tidy up, bring together and simplify existing legislation. In effect, circuses are de facto licensed already because of the panoply of legislation.

Thirdly, the crucial issue of flexibility must be addressed. How fleet of foot will local authorities be when it comes to implementing the Licensing Act 2003 and issuing licences? Circuses often have to change their preferred venue at short notice because of, for example, the weather, such as the rain that we have this morning. If there is a sharp downpour and, suddenly, the field that the circus was planning to use is unusable because it would get bogged down in it, the circus might want to go to another field down the road or in a neighbouring town. It has skilful, fleet-of-foot marketing arrangements and can change venues at short notice, but it would be prevented from doing that if the local authority could not issue a new licence sufficiently quickly. That is very important. The circus may discover that a competitor was in town a day or two earlier and needs to move on. A local authorities follow guidance and implement licensing, they must offer real flexibility to circuses and be able to issue a licence within 24 hours, not within several weeks.

Some 35 tented circuses tour the UK at present. The top four or five will cope with the new regime. They are big circuses that draw big audiences, and they have big management structures behind them. There is no doubt that they will survive. The question mark is over the other 30. If the Act is implemented with a lack of sensitivity—assuming that it is capable of being implemented with sensitivity as far as circuses are concerned—a good number of that 30 will be threatened. The industry believes that all of them will be affected. That may be a pessimistic view, but many will be threatened because they are tiny; they are micro-circuses, run entirely by only six or seven people. Those people market the circus, select the site, put up the big top and do the acts. They do not have time to keep applying for licences. Also, they do not have the money. Such people operate at the margins of economic viability.

I had not realised myself that such circuses may visit up to 80 different venues in a year—not 10, 20 or 30. They do two-night stands—or two-afternoon stands, more typically—and move on. With 80 venues, at a cost of even £100, the circuses would spend £8,000 on licences. The problem is that such circuses are run literally from the back of a caravan with very limited management resources. In fact, the management resource is typically the circus prprietor's wife, who does everything. She will not have time to apply for licences, so they will become a huge practical problem.

I repeat that circuses are not against licensing as long as it delivers genuine benefits. At the meeting with the Minister, a representative of the industry helpfully asked, "Why have the Government not put an obligation on circuses to have public liability insurance?" At present, many smaller circuses on private ground have no public liability insurance. That is an example of how the Government, if they had engaged in dialogue with the circus industry, could have developed a licensing regime for circuses. Such a regime would have brought the benefits of a licensing Act, which the Government want for all entertainment and alcohol-related activities, to circuses in a specific and targeted way.

This is what I really want to say to the Minister: make the Act fit the facts, not the facts fit the Act. We are engaged in a process of dialogue about how the Act will be implemented and how it will area circuses. He has kindly promised the industry another meeting before the summer to discuss the next steps. That is a constructive offer, which we genuinely and deeply appreciate. However, as I said to him at the earlier meeting, I remain pessimistic about making this Act fit the facts of touring circuses. I said that circuses are touring institutions by their very nature, but the Act deals with fixed venues. Perhaps that philosophical problem is too great to bridge.

That is why I seek a light touch on circuses. They are not looking for exemption but for a regulatory regime that suits them and is devised for their circumstances. If such a regime cannot be devised, I hope that the Minister will not rule out the possibility—I am not asking him to say yes or no today—of introducing limited primary legislation, as an amendment to the Act, to develop a different regime and provide licensing that meets the Government's objectives and circuses' needs. That would be an ideal, hand-out Bill from the Government in the ballot for private Members' Bills in the autumn and could be tightly defined. In the meantime, I urge the Minister to ensure that, in implementing the Act, he does not destroy circuses. He is great fun, a good lad and a cheerful soul, and I know that the last thing he would want to do is to reduce the nation's gaiety by destroying circuses.

10.15 am
Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD)

I am delighted to serve under you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and in front of this cheerful soul, the Minister. I am also delighted to follow the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff). I congratulate him not only on raising the important issue of circuses, to which I shall return later, but on managing to squeeze in a reference to the early-day motion in the name of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle). I assure him that I have received assurances that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) has now withdrawn his name from that early-day motion.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on initiating this important debate. He began appropriately by saying that he believed that the Government's attitude was to hope that it would be all right on the night, but that his view, which I share, was that the Government were being extremely over-optimistic.

The hon. Gentleman cited as an example of growing concerns the problems in the Algarve. I am delighted that, in doing so, he pointed out that a minority of the England football fans were involved, but he was right to draw attention to the national disgrace caused by their booze-fuelled fighting and so on. I was slightly surprised, therefore, that he did not mention an example closer to home—some of the appalling antics that we have seen on our television screens recently in "Big Brother". I am deeply concerned that the behaviour on that programme is largely the result of the producers describing it as "Big Brother gets nasty" and making additional quantities of alcohol available to the contestants.

The hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention to the Prime Minister's comments on 20 May, when he told the alcohol industry that binge drinking was fast becoming the new British disease. We must put that in the context of the increase in violent crime in this country: all the evidence suggests that about 50 per cent. of that is alcohol-related.

It was therefore appropriate for the Government to address the issue of binge drinking in conjunction with the development of the Act, but perhaps more important, and sadly coming after it, were their new proposals for a national alcohol harm reduction strategy. Given the concern of the Prime Minister and all of us about these issues, I should be interested to hear the Minister's explanation why, since 1997, no central Department of Health expenditure has been directed towards advertising the dangers of alcohol misuse. Every year we spend about £1.5 million on advertising the dangers of illegal drugs and nearly £18 million on anti-smoking publicity, but to date there has been no centrally funded expenditure on advertising the dangers of alcohol misuse. That issue was picked up in the second Wanless report, which stressed the importance of quality public education campaigns. I was therefore delighted to see in the Government's new strategy on alcohol harm reduction at least a clear set of recommendations centring on the need to provide better information to consumers about the dangers of alcohol misuse. I hope that the Minister will assure us that while he is working on the final details of the Act, he is also in close contact with the Department of Health, because his Department may be able to help it in advertising the dangers of alcohol misuse.

Many issues could be discussed in the debate; we have had opportunities in the past to raise some of them. Since the Act's inception, the police and local authorities have become increasingly worried about alcohol misuse and about the cost of implementing the measure. There are anxieties about the timing of its implementation and worries that, despite everything that the Minister has said on several occasions, it does not give local authorities sufficient powers to apply their local knowledge and their views about how the issue should be tackled. Other hon. Members have given examples relating to concerns about flaws in the Act or in the guidance relating to it.

When, during consideration of the guidance in Committee, we discussed costs, the Minister told us that he is fairly confident that the original fee structure is likely to be the one that the Government will announce. He said in response to a parliamentary question:

I hope to be able to announce the fees in the not too distant future. We have already given an indication and I do not believe that it will prove to be far from the mark."—[Official Report, 24 May 2004; Vol. 421, c. 1294.] It is clear that, despite all the anxieties that have subsequently been expressed, local authorities will not be able to charge fees higher than those in the initial indication. Research carried out by the Local Government Association and others shows that the initial fee structure will be woefully inadequate. Under the present licensing regime, in which local authorities are responsible for entertainment licences, cumulatively they are making a loss of about £7 million. If their responsibilities under the new fee structure are as already indicated, it is clear to me and to many others that there will be a huge loss to local authorities, whose council tax payers will be expected to pick up substantial additional costs. I hope that the Minister will make a clear statement today about the fee structure and say how he will stick to the Government's initial commitment that it would be set at a level that covered all the costs to local authorities. That was the assurance that we were given, but to date it appears that it will not be the case. The Act will put local authorities under huge pressure.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) and I referred in an earlier debate to the situation in Westminster, where councillors predict that in the first two months following the appointed day they will have to examine one application every six minutes, assuming that councillors are prepared to meet seven hours a day for five days a week. Clearly, that is an unrealistic expectation.

Funds for the police will be tight. All the police organisations from which I have received information recognise that the measure will increase the burdens on them because it will require additional officer support, which clearly has financial implications. I hope that the Minister is discussing the matter with his colleagues in the ODPM to ensure that increased funding will be made available to the police to cover their additional costs. The real worry is that if those costs are not covered, despite tho increased flexibility, which many premises will no doubt take advantage of, there will be more problems but the police will not be on hand to deal with them. Equally, local authorities will look at ways to cut costs in other areas. One of the flexibilities allowed in the Act arises from the lack of a requirement for regular inspections of premises. If local authorities lose out from the fee structure, they will reduce the number of inspections of licensed premises, and problems will flow from that.

More generally, I am concerned that local authorities do not have sufficient powers to take account of local circumstances and their local knowledge and views. For example, the Government are rightly concerned about antisocial behaviour that takes place when people are waiting for a bus or a taxi to go home, but local authorities are not allowed to give due consideration or weight to the lack of availability of public transport when deciding on a licence application.

The Government rightly say that local authorities should be able to take into account concerns arising from saturation—too many licensed premises in a particular area. Yet when we analyse the Act and the guidance, it is clear that local authorities can consider cumulative impact only for new licence applications, not for those for a variation or a provisional licence. It will therefore be possible to stop a new pub opening in an area deemed to be saturated, but it will be extremely difficult to say no to a licensed premises that wants to extend its opening hours. Paragraph 3.26 of the guidance makes it char that local authorities are to be discouraged from determining fixed terminal hours in areas of cumulative impact. Even if an authority's local knowledge suggests that it should have that power, it will not have it.

There is another concern about the powers of local authorities in respect of the appeals procedure. Paragraph 10.8 of the guidance makes it clear that magistrates, who will have the appeal functions, will be allowed to disregard of the local authority's licensing policy. That is a real concern to local authorities. The LGA recently wrote: As well as being a recipe for chaos by apparently allowing Magistrates courts to strike down all or part of a local policy when considering an appeal on an individual case, this advice is incorrect as a matter of law. The issue has been raised before, and the Minister's response has been, 'Our lawyers disagree with your lawyers." The only way to resolve the matter is if a local authority takes the Government to court. That is a bizarre approach for he Government to adopt. If there is real concern, we should have ironed out the problems earlier.

Until the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire spoke, I was not going to refer to circuses. However, since I love the following set of quotes, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not mind me adding to his store of information about the confusion in government. I apologise to the Minister because I have shared this with him in the past, but it bears repeating. On 16 March in another place, Lord Redesdale asked Lord McIntosh of Haringey, the Minister for Media and Heritage, would circuses actually need a licence if they did not perform any live music? If they avoided live music, the circus could take place quite happily without regulation. Is that not a bizarre aspect of the Act? Lord McIntosh gave an inordinately helpful reply. I shall quote it particularly for the delectation of the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire, but also for you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. He said: I wish I could answer that simply, but I cannot. Music—incidental, live or whatever—is one of the issues, but there are also questions about whether the activities fall into the category of sports events—for example, those of trapeze artists. It sounds daft to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, and it sounds daft to me."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 March 2004; Vol. 659, c. 126.] I hope that the hon. Gentleman will pick that up.

There is a great deal of confusion in the Act that has not been ironed out. One plea that I have made in the past is for the Minister to be prepared to delay its implementation, so that we have a more sensible start date. I have suggested that the date should, at the earliest, be 5 January next year, and the Minister has indicated a willingness to consider that. I hope that during the intervening period there will be an opportunity to iron out some of the difficulties and disagreements about the Act, and that we will have a clear answer from the Minister.

10.31 am
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con)

I hope that I do not encourage you to tap your pencil, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I shall be as brief as possible. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on initiating the debate. It is only a few weeks since we were debating in Committee the guidance relating to the Act, but a measly hour and a half was simply not sufficient to cover all the ground.

Similar and new issues have beer raised today, which serves only to emphasise the fact that the legislation is in chaos. That message must have got home to Government Back Benchers, because they have been totally absent from any contribution to the debate. I saw the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) come in and thought that the cavalry had arrived. He served on the Standing Committee that considered the Licensing Bill, but he has stayed in his place. It is as obvious to Government Back Benchers as it is to Opposition Members that the legislation is stuck in a morass. Decisions are not being taken, and the implementation is coloured by delay and obfuscation. Progress is at best limited and in the main non-existent.

We were told that once the guidance had been accepted by both Houses, that would trigger the appointed day. Will the Minister confirm that a day has been determined? I suspect that it has not yet. There is a delay in implementing the six-month trigger. When we debated the issue in Committee, the Minister bemoaned the fact that no one had made representations. I suspect that complaints, misgivings and representations from the LGA and councils have since arrived on his desk. Is he cognisant of those complaints and misgivings? Is he considering a delay until January, which the LGA is asking for, for triggering the appointed day? That will mean that the endorsement, if that is the correct word, of the guidance will be put off until an appropriate time six months ahead of a January start date.

I shall raise three issues. The first is the fees, to which the bulk of the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster related. The simplest solution—we spoke about this in Committee—would be to allow local authorities to set fee levels locally. That would ensure that local council tax payers were not burdened with any cross-subsidy of the new regime.

Alternatively, if the Government cannot go down that road, and the signs are that they are resisting it, what about the LGA recommendation that takes the DCMS rateable value system and provides additional risk ratings to premises based on type, capacity and the length of opening? If the DCMS continues down the road on which it has set out, it will effectively create a huge funding gap for local authorities, which will have to be met with tough choices locally not only for those authorities, but for the police.

When we discussed the guidance in Committee, I raised the point that the ODPM and the Home Office will themselves face increasing pressure to assist in financing the consequences of any inadequate fee structure that the Government may set.

The latest information fed back to me from officials in the Minister's Department was that talks are now about consulting on fees. Fees were first promulgated in 2000, and here we are four years later with the Government considering consultation. Where does that leave the local authorities? The expectation was that a decision would be taken soon about where they stood, but if the consultation story is true it will delay things even more. The Minister should come clean about whether consultation on fees was raised at a meeting. I have received accurate reports from officials who say that it was and that it is now being considered.

The second issue is entertainment. The focus on alcohol is one way that the DCMS team has avoided explaining the illogical and anomalous entertainment licensing provisions. For example, the Minister and the Secretary of State say that licensing is necessary to protect children from harm and for public safety. Why then should a children's concert require a licence if it takes place in a school, but not if it takes place in a church? If licensing is to prevent noise, nuisance or possible disorder, why should a piano provided in a bar for a weekly singalong be illegal unless licensed, but a jukebox or a big match broadcast on big screens with powerful amplification be exempt?

Several speakers have mentioned big-screen entertainment, and its position is anomalous. We argued strongly in Committee that the provisions were totally inconsistent, and we predicted situations in which crime and disorder, particularly antisocial behaviour, would get out of hand. Last week, in places as far apart as Boston in Lincolnshire and Croydon in south London, there was mayhem. Yet, premises will continue to offer the same entertainment without requiring a licence. It is quite illogical.

The police initially thought that premises with big-screen entertainment should be licensed, then one policeman changed his mind and wrote to the Government to say that he had had second thoughts and perhaps they did not need licensing, although live music gigs certainly did. The Government ran with that. It required only one policeman for that to be decided, and now we have incredible situations of disorder and antisocial behaviour in Croydon and other places. The cost to the police in manpower and resources was immense, and those situations will continue unless something is done.

Schedule 1, paragraph 4, of the Act says: The Secretary of State may by order amend this Schedule for the purpose of modifying- (a) the descriptions of entertainment specified in paragraph 2, or (b) the descriptions of entertainment specified in paragraph 3, and for this purpose "modify" includes adding, varying or removing any description. The Minister and the Secretary of State could therefore do something about not only live screen entertainment, but circuses. All they have to do is refer to that provision and they can make changes quite quickly. The mechanism is there. I do not know why the Minister and his team do not get on and do something about it.

The third issue that I want to raise is the Government's strategy on alcohol harm reduction. Many of us saw the recent "Panorama", which suggested that the initial report on the reduction strategy had evidence taken out of it. The BBC programme uncovered evidence that a draft version of the strategy included evidence from other countries of the damaging effects of longer opening hours, but those concerns were removed from the final report published in March this year. The Downing Street strategy unit consulted 17 experts when drawing up the interim report that was the basis for the final strategy. It concluded that extending licensing hours would have a severe negative impact. The initial report stated: Restriction on availability reduces consumption and general levels of harm. Relaxing availability increases general harm whether through more outlets (Finland), denser outlets (California) or longer hours (Western Australia). In the final version of the strategy, there was no reference to opening hours. A source cited by The Times as being close to the strategy stated that civil servants

drafted what they thought was a pretty decent strategy only to see it get decimated as it got passed around government departments. So, an initial report on a key Government strategy on alcohol harm reduction winged its way around Departments. The Home Office obviously beefed it up strongly and no doubt the Department of Health had an input. Yet when the report went to the DCMS, it was noted that it ran contrary to the thrust of its Licensing Act, which liberalises opening hours and availability. All the evidence from around the world that would have suggested an alternative strategy was erased from the document.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab)

The hon. Gentleman tempts me to make a contribution. He has already put on record his view that local authorities should be able to charge whatever levels of fee they like, but I am interested in the precise nature of current Conservative party policy. Is it to remove the flexibility that the Act will give licensees? Is it that longer opening hours should not be tried in our towns and city centres? Is it the party's view that that flexibility is not a good thing? I am not quite clear about that. The hon. Gentleman's remarks do not suggest chaos to me; they suggest sniping from the sidelines. Is he suggesting that the principles of the Act should be forgotten and removed?

Mr. Moss

Conservative Members did not propose a licensing Act; the Government did. The country expects the Licensing Act to be sensible and logical, and to do the job that it is designed to do. If evidence from around the world suggests that liberalisation increases crime, disorder and antisocial behaviour, that should have been taken on board earlier rather than later. That is the point that I am trying to make. I think that I have said enough; I want to give the Minister time to respond.

10.44 am
The Minister for Sport and Tourism (Mr. Richard Caborn)

This has bean an interesting debate—yet again. We keep rehearsing these arguments, and I will try to answer some of the specific points after I have laid out exactly where we are coming from. Given that we are trying to remove red tape and to streamline procedures, I am absolutely amazed that we are encountering such resistance, particularly from the official Opposition. I accept that there art some concerns—I would not say serious concerns—that need to be addressed, and we are doing that. We art bringing together six licensing regimes, and we must consider their operation in relation to the very businesses that have just been discussed.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on securing this debate. I know that he is a groat advocate for the private sector and entrepreneurs. I thought that he might be supportive and acknowledge that we are trying to simplify and streamline things for businesses and local authorities by bringing together six licensing regimes. They currently deal with between 1.6 million and 1.8 million applications. We want to reduce that to around 250,000.

Four statutory licensing objectives are laid down in the Act: the prevention of crime and disorder; public safety; the prevention of public nuisance; and the protection of children from harm. Licensing activities relating to those objectives are the sale and retail of alcohol, the regulation of entertainment, to which the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) referred, and the provision of late-night refreshments.

One reason for delaying implementation was to dovetail the Act into the alcohol reduction strategy. My colleagues in the Home Office and the whole of Whitehall have been involved in that, working in tandem. The media, aided and abetted by some hon. Members, have honed in on 24-hour drinking, claiming that the Act is solely about that. It is not. It does not promote 24-hour opening or 24-hour consumption. It will introduce the positive benefit of flexible licensing hours as a means of reducing crime and disorder.

The Act implements in full a manifesto commitment that we made at the last general election. It was included in the part of our manifesto dealing with crime prevention and reduction. We deliver on our promises. We saw licensing as an issue then and we still see it as an issue now. That is why we are dealing with it in this way. Let me set out the new and extended powers that we will give the police, licensing authorities and the courts to tackle crime and disorder, to protect kids and to prevent public nuisance.

The Act increases fines and introduces the potential suspension of personal licences held by people working at particular licensed premises, following conviction for offences of allowing disorderly conduct there. It expands the existing court powers, on application by the police, to close all licensed premises within a specified geographical area for up to 24 hours where disorder is occurring or anticipated. It will also expand the police powers introduced in December 2001 instantly to close down disorderly and excessively noisy pubs, nightclubs, restaurants and hotels for up to 24 hours.

The Act provides that those powers will in future also apply to all entertainment premiss,night cafes and night takeaways licensable under the Act. For the first time, the powers will extend to events held under the authority of temporary event notices such as one-off raves. The Act provides a new mechanism for reviewing licences and club premises certificates when any problems relating to the four statutory licensing objectives arise.

The review arrangements will be backed by an extended range of measures for the licensing authority. It will be able to add new conditions to a licence or certificate, to exclude a licensable activity or qualifying club activity such as supplying alcohol and to remove the designated premises supervisor. Establishing who owns an establishment has been a problem and we believe that we have resolved that in the Act. The licensing authority can suspend the licence or certificate for up to three months, it can reduce the associated trading hours, and it can revoke the licence or withdraw the certificate.

That will move us away from the ineffective practice that characterises the existing regime, where the only options are revocation and non-renewal, so no action is taken unless the problem is so severe that it needs—as it were—nuclear intervention. The Act creates new and effective options for hitting the profits of irresponsible operators and forcing poor operators into line with the best.

I watched "Panorama" with some interest, because the programme, like the previous Conservative Administration's policy, was predicated on the question of need. In the early 1990s, that issue, and the question of powers, was debated by local authorities. The ex-chief constable of Nottinghamshire said that had the powers been available, local authorities would have been able to take the action required. The present chief constable went to court on the question of need—indeed, I have been in local authorities trying to prove that need—but the Conservative Administration removed the provision from the statute book. So, both Administrations have played their part in trying to liberalise the licensing laws and bring them into the 21st century.

The Act provides greater protection for children and young people by making it an offence to allow any person under 16 to be present in a licensed premises used exclusively or primarily for the sale of alcohol, unless they are accompanied by an adult. At present, any child of 14 or over may be present without an accompanying adult in any part of a licensed premises. The Act increases the penalties for selling alcohol to children and makes it possible to forfeit personal licences at first offence and not only, as now, on second conviction. It will, for the first time, make it an offence to sell alcohol to people under the age of 18 anywhere in England and Wales. That will remove a vast array of exemptions; for example, those on river and coastal "booze cruises".

During the summit with the industry a few weeks ago, many pubs and clubs complained bitterly about the fact that young people pick up alcohol from retail outlets such as supermarkets, saying that such outlets are lax. Underage drinkers buy alcohol in those establishments and then go into pubs. We have much to do in supervising licensed and off-licensed premises and supermarkets. We are saying to those supermarkets that if they do not act responsibly and with due care in supervising who purchases alcohol from their premises, their licences could be removed or suspended.

We will, also for the first time, make it an offence to supply alcohol to children in non-profit-making clubs, of which there are 22,000 in England and Wales. That is almost 17 per cent. of all drinking establishments.

Mr. Moss

With all due respect to the Minister, and without wishing to be discourteous, we know all that. Those of us who sat through the proceedings in the Standing Committee and on Report know those things. The debate is about the implementation of the Act. Various questions were raised by my hon. Friends; perhaps the Minister will address some of those questions in the short time available.

Mr. Caborn

I will, but I will not allow the debate to go ahead without explaining the framework in which we are operating.

Mr. Moss

We know it.

Mr. Caborn

The hon. Gentleman may know it, but many people in the Public Gallery or listening to the debate do not know it. It is right for me to put the debate into the context in which we are legislating. For far too long we have been dancing on the head of a pin around one or two issues. I will come to those, and I will answer the questions.

Our starting point is not 24-hour boozing, but an Act that provides tough and uncompromising powers to promote the four statutory licensing objectives. It has been claimed that one policeman came into the Department and we changed the legislation entirely. Let me put it on the record that on 29 April 2004, Rick Naylor, the president of the Police Superintendents Association, said on the "PM" programme on Radio 4: The Superintendents' Association have always been in favour of relaxing licensing laws and bringing them into the twenty-first century, and it is slightly disappointing we can't get this piece of legislation enacted sooner, because I think it will have an effect on violence in the streets. ACPO has made similar statements, but I will not bore hon. Members with those, because they are also on the record. That is a case not of an individual policeman approaching the Department, but a responsible organisation doing so over a period of time.

Another question raised was that of approving the guidance without seeing the regulations. Westminster city council has publicly suggested that the licensing guidance should not have been approved by either House until the associated regulations under the Act had been made by the Secretary of State. That point was also made by several hon. Members during the debate this morning.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met the leader of Westminster city council and representatives of some other London authorities last week. She assured them that we intend to make the drafts of the regulations available for comment by licensing authorities and other stakeholders as soon as possible. I recognise that the regulations are important for planning purposes for licensing authorities and for the industry. The regulations will be in place in good time for the beginning of the transitional period. The Secretary of State also agreed at the meeting to examine the case for starting the transitional period later in 2005, as hon. Members have asked, rather than around the Christmas 2004 and new year 2005 holiday period. We will give sympathetic consideration to that The transitional period will last for nine months, so by autumn 2005 we expect to see changes on the high street and greater protection for the community in connection with all four statutory objectives.

My right hon. Friend also assured the London authorities' representatives that she is examining carefully all the material on fee levels provided by the LGA and the Association of London Government before making any final decisions.

Mr. Luff


Mr. Caborn

I will not give way. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire wanted me to answer the questions, and I will do so.

All stakeholders should be aware that we are not engaged in some kind of bidding exercise. The fees will be set so as to allow the recovery of the full costs of the administration, inspection and enforcement processes associated with the licensing functions and the operation of the new Act. They will go no further than that. Fees have no function as punishment or deterrent. Fines can only be imposed by courts following due process and convictions. Fees are to recover the costs of services provided. I assure hon. Members that the fee arrangements will be robust and fair. They will be fair to local authorities as well as to small businesses and clubs that operate on tight margins. Once the system is in operation, there will be an independent review of the fee levels in the light of experience. We give that commitment and will stand by it.

The Act represents a serious and important opportunity to make our town and city centres more attractive and safer for local people, consumers and tourists. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster raised the point about how we see the modern European city in the 21st century. The Act, together with our alcohol harm reduction strategy, and our policies on gambling and on regeneration of our city centres, will try to address that. Hon. Members were right to say that more people are being attracted back to live in city centres now than has been the case for decades. That is because our cities, in the post-industrial era, are vibrant and developing. We intend to continue to give powers to local authorities, as we have in this Act, so that they can continue to promote the economic and social regeneration of their cities.

Many specific points were raised in the debate about fee levels and particularly about golf clubs. If one refers to the website of the English Golf Union, one will see that it now admits that its previous interpretation was wrong; it has accepted that the treatment of the 19th hole at golf clubs will be no different from that under the previous legislation. However, that has been one of the main arguments advanced by the Opposition over the past weeks. That is unfortunate, but it is indicative of the way in which the Act has been interpreted by some of the press and the Opposition.

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