I am delighted to have the opportunity to press a little subject about which I have been nagging for some time.
It is my contention that the Government overtax us and, in particular, that they over-regulate our everyday way of life. However, today I am considering rural villages and specifically village halls. The White Paper of April 2000, on which the Licensing Act 2003 is based, sounded quite hopeful. It started with a few interesting points. It stated that the key aims of the proposals were
“to reduce crime and disorder…to encourage tourism…to reduce alcohol misuse…and…to encourage self-sufficient rural communities.”
The White Paper also set out
“proposals for reducing the burden of unnecessary regulation.”
That was too good to be true.
Geographically, I have the largest Surrey constituency. It is predominantly rural, with two market towns and about 32 villages. Under this Government, many of them feel under threat. Although they are not far from major roads, many are reclusive and some even feel remote. All have telephones and electricity except during some storms, when the supply may be disrupted. Not all of them have the internet, and many do not have broadband. Perhaps it is a virtue, but a number are so situated that even mobile phones cannot be used. Most have post offices, village stores, delightful pubs—after the last debate, perhaps we ought to re-emphasise the presence of gastro-pubs—and village halls. Some also have small village sports grounds, such as cricket clubs, bowls clubs and so forth, that have halls attached.
The halls are almost all, if not all, run as charities, and they are used for village functions by the village repertory society and local dancers, and for birthday parties, wedding functions, photographic society showings and so on. Many, if not all, of those events—except perhaps for the children’s parties—provide bars, or at least they used to. Two of the halls are substantial in size, and are sufficiently large to employ caretakers. All of them, including those large halls, are run by a volunteer committee, generally a local residents’ or village association. Most are small and some are tiny. Some are so small that one could fit three on to the floor of this Chamber. Some are close to homes in the village, many are more remote and at least one is up a long narrow lane and in the clearing of a small forest. That is hardly an area where there is going to be a riot.
Not one village hall in my constituency is renowned for crime, disorder or drunkenness. If they are known to the police, it is generally because the policemen and women live in those villages and use the facility as members of the village community. The halls are a functional part of the village communities, which should have welcomed the sweet sound of
“proposals for reducing the burden of unnecessary regulation.”
However, the effect of the wretched 2003 Act on village halls has been a nightmare for the local people who manage them. They volunteer to do so for the sake of the village. They do not expect a bureaucratic nightmare of plans, forms and teachings on legislation. The halls are run on the traditional shoestring, and money is raised for their operation by hiring them out to village groups, which in turn make a tiny profit on nibbles, cakes, wine and so forth sold at their functions. Added to that, on many occasions the Act creates the problem of finding some poor soul who has to agree to be the responsible individual or designated licence holder for the hall. There is the problem, too, of the annual restriction of 12 temporary event notices. As the halls have found, a TEN can be obtained without giving notice to the hall committee, thus depleting that already meagre dozen.
Then there is the cost of notices in the local papers, of licences, of TENs and of plans. Understandably, that cost is substantial for larger halls, but the relative cost for tiny halls is huge. I remind the Minister of a quotation from the website of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport:
“A plan of the premises will have to be submitted with every application for a premises licence. Unless previously agreed with the relevant licensing authority in writing that an alternative scale plan is acceptable to it, the plan should be drawn in standard scale, where 1 millimetre represents 100 millimetres. The plan will need to show:
The boundary of the building, if relevant, and any external and internal walls of the building and, if different, the perimeter of the premises; points of access and exits from the premises, and the location of escape routes if different; where the premises is to be used for more than one licensable activity, the area within the premises used for each activity; fixed structures (including furniture) or similar objects temporarily in a fixed location (but not furniture) which may impact on exits and escape routes; the location and height of any stage or raised area or area relative to the floor; any steps, stairs, elevators or lifts; any room or rooms containing public conveniences; the location of a kitchen, if any, on the premises. The plan may include symbols to illustrate such matters, and a key to explain them.”
That applies even to tiny halls.
I hope that the Minister can picture a small group of perhaps three villagers sitting in a tiny hall, maybe 15 ft by 30 ft, with a loo at one end and a kitchen sink at the other. It has two external doors and even a coat rack. The people running the hall have to follow those regulations, obtaining competent scale drawings at some cost, filling in pages of forms and paying fees, all for a system that is likely to reduce the use of their tiny little village hall. What would happen if they were to change the layout and put the kitchen sink at the end where the loo is and vice versa, or any such tiny thing? Would there be more drawings and more cost?
When the Licensing Act came into force in 2005, I surveyed all my village halls by sending them a questionnaire, and I did so again this year. In 2005, there were vigorous complaints, especially from the smaller halls, about the cost, bureaucracy and time wasted, and the fact that there were not enough TENs. Mostly they asked, “Why?” and “Why us?” Hon. Members, including myself, asked questions in the House, in sessions held by the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and in Westminster Hall. I asked the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell), whether he would receive a small deputation to explain the problems. He agreed, and with a considerable amount of to-ing and fro-ing a time was set, then cancelled. I tried again on several other occasions, but it never happened and he moved on.
The present Minister and others, from the Prime Minister right the way down, have agreed to examine the problem in the past few years. They told us that there will soon be a review, but there is no sign of one so far. Interestingly, my recent survey showed that the changes have not been straightforward, thus confirming my suspicions about bureaucracy and cost. A tiny hall, for example, was given a quote of £766 for a registration certificate and £180 for annual renewal, against the £10 that it previously paid every 10 years. There are fewer functions at the hall because it has only 12 TENs, which cost £21 each. Its representatives have told me that they have restricted the number of hirings and either have to find ways to accommodate alcohol or have to refuse to allow even the odd glass of wine.
If the law is used with a light touch, people happily comply with it. If it is heavy-handed, people find ways around it. They are doing so, and have contrived ways around the legislation to try to keep their halls alive. Alcohol is paid for indirectly, and plans are published, not in the paper, which has to be paid for, but in the free parish magazine, which would probably be seen by more people. As one nameless returnee of the form replied:
“We have our ways, but they are not for publication.”
As I have asked the Minister before, will he consider dramatic changes in his review? Perhaps that means freeing small halls from the requirements of the legislation by specifying a reasonable de minimis size, or freeing the charities that run halls. There could be a safety net so that if there is aggravation or problems the police or local council could bring the hall back into the network. The licensing committee could step in. Will the Minister consider dramatically increasing the number of TENs? Allowing 12 is derisory; there should be 30, 40, 50 or more, even for little halls. In addition, will he—I remember being a Minister and doing this myself—collect a copy of all the forms, sit down quietly with a glass of wine as he is not covered by TENs, go through them, see how unnecessarily complex and wordy they are and consider whether he can reduce their size and complexity? Above all, will he, unlike his predecessor, come out of his inner-city surroundings and meet some of the villagers affected and the people who run the halls, perhaps in the tiny halls themselves, and see what damage the Act is doing to village life and the communities that use them?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) on securing the debate. He may self-deprecatingly refer to himself as having nagged on about it, and he may be good at nagging, but he does it for an honourable reason. I hope that I can deal with some of the things that he raised, and I wish to put on the record the fact that there are genuine issues that we need to continue to examine and, when appropriate, revise.
The things that can affect rural villages and village halls are serious, as they are important parts of our community. It will be helpful if I say at the outset that the Government’s objective is to make life better for people, not otherwise. I take note of the hon. Gentleman’s points, and I will try to deal with some of them. Some will remain outstanding, and I am sure that at the end of the debate there will still be some disagreement, but I am always happy to enter into dialogue. I represent a constituency that can hardly be described as inner city in the London sense, and St. Helens does have some of the problems that he raised. I have also had the opportunity to examine the matter in my former constituency of Witney, where I happened to be for part of this weekend.
While I understand why the hon. Gentleman makes his points, he did not give an entirely balanced picture. It is none the less the picture that he perceives, which is why I want to deal with some of his points. I would of course be happy to come and join him, whether over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, and examine in practice the problems that he has raised. I would also be happy for him to bring to me a delegation of people who have had difficulties with the forms. Without prejudice, I would be happy to sit down and discuss the problems that groups are facing. It is not the wish of the Government to make people’s lives more difficult. The implicit and explicit purpose of the 2003 Act was to modernise and produce a 21st-century system of regulation. I hope that that is what we are doing, but there is more work to be done.
It might help if I remind hon. Members of the objectives for licensing village and community halls. We wanted to introduce a system that encouraged village halls—including the small and tiny ones that the hon. Gentleman referred to—and similar premises to offer a wide range of activities under a single licence, but it had to be balanced with the need to ensure proper protection of the public. Safety, public nuisance, crime and disorder, and the protection of children had to be taken into account.
There was general agreement that the old regime was no longer perfect for village and community halls. They had to apply for separate licences if they wished to allow alcohol sales, music and dancing, or films and plays. Committees had additional form-filling to renew the licences every year or every three years, and separate fees, which could run into many hundreds of pounds, were payable for most of the licences. Furthermore, disproportionate standard conditions that were more suited to a large nightclub than a village hall were often applied. The old system was not perfect.
Sometimes when we have these discussions one could be forgiven for thinking that somehow the Government had departed from a perfect system and produced something completely different that was not workable. The old system did not work, and it was absolutely right that we changed it.
Let me clarify the Government’s current position on temporary event notices, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. He will no doubt be aware that the independent fees review panel under Sir Les Elton said that we should consider a modest change—from 12 to 15—in the TEN limit for village halls. The maximum aggregate number of days would be unchanged at 15. We are still considering the recommendation, but I would be concerned if such a change were to undermine the incentive to obtain full premises licences, which may be more appropriate for those who wish to hold more than 12 events, and which would constitute a more sensible approach for those who wish to hold 20 or 30 such events.
The hon. Gentleman will know that there was no clear consensus when we sought views on the TEN limits in 2005. Village and community halls wanted larger numbers, but residents, the police and local authorities—they, too, are affected by such events taking place—generally did not want an increase above the 12 events allowed by the 2003 Act.
Les Elton encouraged village halls to apply for full premises licences and to reduce their reliance on temporary permissions. His panel, which included a representative from the Commission for Rural Communities, believed that there were clear advantages to doing so in terms of cost, bureaucracy and risk. We have recommended that position since the Licensing Bill was first debated.
Perhaps the Minister could remind me whether a hall that applies for a full licence needs to have a designated, named person. For a tiny hall in a tiny village, such people are not forthcoming. The requirement is not realistic.
If the hon. Gentleman will excuse me for a moment or two, I anticipated his wanting to ask me that question and will be happy to come to that and to the proposals that we intend to pursue.
A 2006 survey by Action with Communities in Rural England suggested that 91 per cent. of halls had a premises licence covering entertainment, but most had not applied for a licence to allow the sale of alcohol. As a result, if they wish to host events that include the sale of alcohol, they have to rely on TENs. Those choosing not to get a licence are constrained by the limits of the TEN system, but that, of course, is their choice.
Let us be clear about this. For most halls, the costs of securing a licence that includes alcohol sales are little different in the long term from the £252 annual cost of 12 temporary events. The total cost of securing such a licence might be in the region of £600, which includes the cost of the licence, advertising and training a personal licence holder. However, for most village halls, the costs in subsequent years should fall to £70 or £180, depending on the size of the venue. The hon. Gentleman made that point, which, obviously, is relevant.
Some hon. Members have made comparisons with the old system, whereby the courts would accept applications, in one batch and for a single £10 fee, for numerous occasional permissions to sell alcohol. That illustrates why the fees paid to magistrates were some £25 million a year short of the costs of administering the licensing system. Part of the purpose of the new regime is to ensure that the fees reflect the cost of licensing so that the general taxpayer is not forced to subsidise the sale of alcohol in this way.
Village halls were previously able to rely on hirers or a local publican to obtain occasional permissions and licences to sell alcohol, and to take the responsibility for events. We believe that it is not unreasonable to expect the committee to take some responsibility for activities in their hall. Under the new regime, if a hall wants to allow more than 12 licensable events a year, it can apply for a premises licence that is held by the committee. In addition, if the licence includes alcohol sales, an individual has to obtain a personal licence and be designated as the premises supervisor. The alternative is to allow no more than 12 events under TENs where the hirer takes responsibility.
We know that one of the barriers to getting alcohol licences has been the reluctance of volunteers to obtain personal licences and to act as designated premises supervisors for village halls. We accept that they would prefer the committee to share collective responsibility for allowing alcohol sales. That is one reason why I agreed to consult on proposals to remove the requirement for village halls to have a personal licence holder. That would help to reduce some of the up-front cost of getting an alcohol licence.
However, there is not universal agreement to the proposal. I say this to the hon. Gentleman because I think that it is important. The police and the local authorities in some locations—not in his constituency, I am sure, but in other locations—say that they have genuine concerns about public nuisance from some activities in some village halls, including, critically, problems associated with under-age alcohol sales, and disturbance and antisocial behaviour from certain private events. I am sure that he understands that.
Residents have objected to some village hall licence applications. That is not to suggest that all village halls are running operations in which there is endless under-age drinking, and mayhem and antisocial behaviour afterwards, but it would be unwise of us not to consider carefully the representations that have been made by the police and others. We want to tackle the problem of under-age drinking, and part of the purpose of the 2003 Act was to enable us better to do so. The hon. Gentleman somewhat traduced the Government at the beginning of his remarks, but I believe that, in true spirit, he recognises that we all want to tackle problems related to the abuse of alcohol.
If the police and others are providing evidence to indicate that we should carefully consider what we may be enabling before we move away from the proposal, there is a proper onus not only on the Government but on Her Majesty’s Opposition not to ignore their representations. As the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, it is sometimes unwise to cherry-pick what one wants and does not want from the police.
I understand where the Minister is coming from, but could I ask him to look at the issue the other way around? Why not have a de minimus level, particularly for rural village halls, whereby application of the change of rules and licensing and so on will apply to village halls if the police or the committee of the local council feel that it is appropriate? In the case of my village halls, I suspect that most of them would never be noticed by either the police or the committee.
The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly fair point. As he knows, there is a consultation, and I am more than happy to encourage his village halls to make representations as part of it. As I said, I would be more than happy to meet him and a delegation to discuss the matter. I genuinely believe that the spirit that the Government want to prevail is one of reason and balance, and it would clearly not be reasonable or balanced if I were to say anything to him other than that I would be more than happy to meet a group of his constituents to talk about the issue. The consultation process matters considerably and it is important that hon. Members make and encourage their constituents to make representations. We need to achieve a balance in the safeguards for those who might be adversely affected, if there were to be any change. I still intend any changes made to be implemented by spring 2008.
The hon. Gentleman referred to bureaucracy. Under our simplification plan that has been published, we will consider making the application forms simpler, which is why I welcome his delegation. We will also examine ways of reducing the costs of advertising in relation to applications and, indeed, we will continue to press to introduce a lighter-touch system for such variations. We will also—I hope that this will please him—consider whether we can apply a complete or partial exemption from licensing where de minimis activities are self-evidently low risk.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the requirements for plans. They were set following consultation with experts in public safety and they exist for good reason. It may be of benefit to remind him that we have clarified that plans do not have to be put together professionally. We are introducing proposals for a light-touch variation process to allow changes to be made to plans while imposing as little burden or cost as possible.
In the next few weeks, we expect to receive the live music forum’s report, which may raise relevant considerations about the impact of this issue on village halls, and we will want to bring those into the consultation. When the independent fees panel considered village and community halls, it also considered whether charities and not-for-profit organisations should benefit from further exemptions or exceptions to fees. The panel took a view on that, but, again, I am open to representations from the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, if they wish to make them.
I am glad that we have had the opportunity to air some of the issues because they are important. I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that our policy is not inflexible, but is one that we wish to improve on, and if we can improve on it, we will. We intend to introduce not a more bureaucratic system, but a less bureaucratic system, and we intend not to introduce a system that encourages alcohol abuse, but to introduce one that discourages alcohol abuse.
We recognise that a balance needs to be struck between those providing entertainment and alcohol and those who live in the communities where that takes place. In the 2003 Act we ensured that the views of local communities, residents and the police play a significant part in determining whether licences are given to village halls or any other licensed premises. That is an important component of the 2003 Act and it has been very successful. Under the legislation, some licences have been withdrawn and suspended, which proves that it is working. I hope that the actions that I have outlined will be recognised as part of a proper, consistent and flexible process of monitoring the 2003 Act and ensuring that it continues to be successful and fit for purpose in 2027 and beyond.