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Licensing (Town Centres)

Volume 469: debated on Monday 10 December 2007

2. What representations he has received on the effect of the provisions of the Licensing Act 2003 on town centres. (172198)

5. What assessment he has made of the effect of the Licensing Act 2003 on town centres; and if he will make a statement. (172201)

We have received a number of views from local authorities, police, local residents and trade about the impact of the new legislation on town centres. They will inform our evaluation of the 2003 Act, which we expect to complete early in the new year. The report of the 10 scrutiny councils in July 2006 found that the Act had improved partnership working between enforcement agencies in tackling irresponsible retailers. We recently asked the councils for an update on their assessment, and that will form part of our evaluation.

Does the Minister not accept that the Licensing Act has led to an increase in problems resulting from alcohol abuse in many town and city centres—sadly, even in Macclesfield? Recent figures show that 98 per cent. of all applications for licences were granted, and that just 0.4 per cent. of licences have been reviewed. Why is there a presumption in favour of 24-hour licensing for supermarkets, which are the source of so many of the problems?

As the hon. Gentleman well knows, there is no such presumption. Indeed, far from thinking that the Licensing Act has led to these problems, I agree with his leader, who said recently:

“I think licensing reform is a good idea. I have always said so.”

It will be interesting to hear whether Opposition Members agree with their leader on that. I also disagree with the hon. Gentleman that the Act has created these problems. I am sure that, if I had visited Macclesfield with him before the Act came into force, we would have seen the same issues. The truth is that the Act has introduced much tougher powers to deal with them. Indeed, crime in the night economy is down by 5 per cent. overall across the country. Serious wounding is down by 5 per cent. Of course, it is too early to say whether that is a result of the Act; we shall need to examine that in our evaluation and again over time. So far, however, the evidence does not show that the Act has led to an increase in crime—indeed, quite the reverse.

I congratulate my local police and my local Pubwatch scheme in Reading on taking a proactive role in mitigating the worst effects of the Licensing Act. Despite their efforts, however, violent assaults have gone up by 13 per cent. in Reading town centre, and the police are having to use scarce resources to support town centre activities. The intention of the legislation was to create a café culture, but has it not simply added to the existing yob culture?

I note that the hon. Gentleman is disagreeing with his leader, which will not help him to progress to the Front Bench. He has cited his local police. I am happy to quote the police in the constituency of the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), who asked the first question today. When talking recently about closing down a branch of Tesco for selling alcohol to under-age purchasers—which would not have been possible under previous legislation—the chief superintendent of the police force in Bexley said:

“This is another in a long line of successes for the collaborative working that has been such a key feature of the work here in Bexley, especially”—

the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) will like this bit—

“since November 2005, when the new licensing regime came into effect”.

There we have the police saying that the Act has given them more powers to deal with the problems. That is why serious wounding is down by 5 per cent. in the night-time economy.

Has my right hon. Friend’s Department monitored the impact of the legislation on under-18 drinking and, if so, what have been the results?

The results are that it has fallen significantly. Failed test purchases have fallen from about 50 per cent. of cases to about 15 per cent. That is clearly still too much and we will be continuing our efforts, but again the Licensing Act has helped to create a much better collaborative approach between different agencies, which has meant that there has been a fall, although we want to continue to make further progress. It is clearly unacceptable for any licensed premises to be selling to under-age people.

There is much concentration on 24-hour drinking in relation to the 2003 Act, but that Act also introduced new powers for clamping down on under-age drinking and for restricting licences in town centres. Has the Department carried out any analysis of why councils or police authorities are not using the new powers that have been given to them?

The evidence that we have is that most are using the powers. Indeed, I was out with Chris Allison—[Interruption.]—who speaks on this matter in Westminster, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), who is intervening from a sedentary position. Chris Allison was saying what a great job the council and the local police were doing in using the powers given to them and that that has led to a real improvement in partnership working. It is a myth that the Act has led to 24-hour drinking. In fact, new figures show only modest increases in actual opening hours—on average, 20 minutes extra—and the number of 24-hour premises is less than 0.5 per cent. of the overall total.

At the time of the passage of the Licensing Act, the Government dismissed warnings that one of its consequences would be to damage the performance of live music in town centres and elsewhere. The Secretary of State will be aware that Live Music Forum has concluded that the Act is having that effect, so will he now consider making changes to it, as recommended by the forum, to ensure that live music continues to flourish throughout Britain?

The hon. Gentleman was—along with the Leader of the Opposition—a great supporter and advocate of the Licensing Act. We welcome his support, although I notice that we have still not heard from the Opposition whether they are disowning their leader or not. The hon. Gentleman is slightly exaggerating the consequences of the Act that the Live Music Forum found; it said that they had been broadly neutral. Clearly, we would like them to be positive, which is why we are looking positively at the forum’s recommendations with a view to coming forward with proposals shortly. We have also asked Feargal Sharkey to lead on the identification of a network of rehearsal spaces to do exactly that.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this matter was the topical debate only last Thursday? Anybody reading the Hansard of that debate will realise that one of the biggest problems in our drinking culture today is, as the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) pointed out, alcohol that is sold in our supermarkets at much less than the wholesale cost. As seen on TV adverts, bottles of spirits are going for £10 a time. Will my right hon. Friend look at the problem of young people—to use the new phrase—“pre-loading” at supermarkets before they go out to the pubs?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; there is a problem in this country of a minority of people drinking too much. The Government are conducting a review of prices and promotions and we will report on it next year. It is clear that there is no single magic bullet that will solve the problem. The Licensing Act can help by providing tougher measures to deal with irresponsible retailers and pubs and clubs, but we need to act together across the board in tackling the health effects, looking at price and promotions and generally changing the culture around drinking in this country.

As the Secretary of State is keen that hon. Members have views consistent with that of their leader, can he explain why on taking office in July the Prime Minister, together with his spin doctors, had a lot of publicity, particularly in the tabloids, about how he was going to change the Act and stop 24-hour drinking? The Secretary of State has been a great advocate of the Act from the Dispatch Box today. I am slightly confused; I would like him to put me right.

We still do not know whether Conservative Members agree with their leader. I can enlighten the right hon. Gentleman, as the Prime Minister said none of those things. What he said was that we had announced a review in 2004 on the effect of the Act, which was confirmed when I was the Minister responsible for licensing in 2005. That is exactly what we are doing. That review has been under way for a number of years. It was announced in 2004 and it has been continuing. That is exactly the right thing to do with legislation: to look at the effect. The effect has been a 5 per cent. fall in serious wounding offences, and the most authoritative study has shown that admittances to accident and emergency departments are down by 2 per cent. What we know from today’s Question Time is that all Conservative Members seem to disagree with their leader.