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Licensed Premises (Children)

Volume 405: debated on Monday 19 May 2003

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What recent discussions she has had with child welfare organisations about children's access to licensed premises. [113830]

In March I convened two meetings with children's organisations, including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Children's Society, and the police, to discuss children's access to licensed premises and the implications of the Licensing Bill. Officials from my Department held a further meeting with the relevant organisations. The outcome of those meetings was an agreed way forward on an issue that everybody regards as sensitive. That is reflected in the Bill as currently drafted, and also in the statutory guidance that will accompany the Bill. In practical and effective form, it achieves a means of protecting children from harm—one of the four key objectives of the Licensing Bill.

Traditionally, many political and social clubs, including Labour clubs in my constituency, welcome families with children on Sundays. I am sure my right hon. Friend knows that some of those clubs are in financial difficulty. Is she aware that the statement that she has just made will be welcomed by those clubs if it means that that tradition is not in jeopardy?

I can assure my hon. Friend that that tradition is not in jeopardy. It would be extraordinarily unlikely that, for any pub or club where there have not been any problems in the past, there would be any greater restriction on the terms of licensing in the future. I hope that he will be reassured by that.

As a modern and socially liberal Tory, may I put it to the right hon. Lady that it is modernisation and social liberalism taken to absurd lengths to suppose that children should be allowed to enter licensed premises entirely unsupervised?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is making a long journey to cross the Floor of the Chamber. He will be welcome on the Government Benches whenever he chooses to join us.

It seems that the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the present situation. Any child of five or over can enter, unsupervised, any licensed premises as long as that child does not go into the bar area. Some of the absurdities of the existing regime that we are seeking to address include, for instance, the circumstance where a young child can go unsupervised into a pub and then be bought by an adult a gin and tonic, a whisky, or anything else that would be unsuitable to be consumed by a young child. Such instances do not happen more often because at present, and in future, admission of children into a pub is at the licensee's discretion.

We have worked hard with children's charities and with the police to develop the right sort of statutory framework that addresses the need for different approaches in different circumstances. There needs to be a different regime to protect children in pubs or clubs in the middle of Soho, as opposed to children who may live next door to a country pub. The regime that we have proposed reflects precisely that discretion and that flexibility.

In the Licensing Bill as it stands, and as the Secretary of State has said, the presumption is in favour of allowing children of any age unaccompanied access to licensed premises unless the licensee is either unwilling or unable to guarantee their protection from harm. Should it not be the other way round?

The hon. Gentleman must understand that in the licence application the licensee must make it clear how he will protect children if they come into his pub or other licensed premises. In the statutory guidance, as I have already stated, we have proposed four different sorts of premises, ranging from those where there should be a presumption by the licensing authority that unsupervised children will not be allowed access, to those where there is an expectation that children will be welcome. It is precisely that sort of flexible approach that will ensure that children are properly protected.