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Written Statements

Volume 472: debated on Tuesday 4 March 2008

Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 4 March 2008

Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

EU Competitiveness Council

This statement provides a summary of the proceedings of the Competitiveness Council meeting held in Brussels on 25 February 2008.

The Council held an exchange of views on the Lisbon reform package and adopted its key issues paper “Turning Challenges into Opportunities”, with a view to forwarding it to the spring European Council (SEC) in March 2008.

Areas of particular focus were the role of the Competitiveness Council in complementing the national reform programmes by meeting the Community level objectives laid down in the Community Lisbon programme, the broad-based innovation strategy and the improvement of the business environment for SMEs through measures like the small business act initiative, better regulation, simplification and the reduction of administrative burdens.

The UK intervened to support the Council’s view that the integrated guidelines for 2008-10 were still valid and to support an evidence-based approach to the Community level objectives. We acknowledged the central role of the Competitiveness Council in pushing forward the Lisbon agenda but stressed the importance of empowering it to examine the impact of all major EU policies on competitiveness—for example, the climate change and energy package and the need to continue to open markets within the EU and beyond. On innovation, the UK pressed for the involvement of member states in the “lead markets” initiative. Finally, we welcomed Vice-President Verheugen’s statement that the Small Business Act (SBA) initiative should be a combination of measures, not solely legislative, and emphasised the importance of better regulation, common commencement dates, longer consultation periods and exemptions for SMEs.

The Council adopted conclusions on the single market review to be forwarded to the SEC in March 2008. Commissioner McCreevy welcomed the positive endorsement and said the follow-up would focus mainly on improving the policy framework, better regulation, policy tools, market monitoring and partnership working, but also on some policy initiatives like the Small Business Act.

Any other business included a presentation by the Commission of its proposal to reduce the emissions of CO2 from passenger cars and light commercial vehicles which will be discussed at the Environment Council meeting in March 2008. The UK intervened to welcome the proposals but also to highlight its concern about their impact on small and medium sized independent manufacturers and to support calls for further discussion at the Competitiveness Council in May 2008.

Under AOB items, the Council also took note of presentations from the Commission on the defence package, the goods package, the consumer and internal market scoreboards, the European clusters conference and memorandum, a strategic report on better regulation, and the climate energy legislative package.

Culture, Media and Sport

Tackling Alcohol-Related Problems

I am today publishing the evidence gathered so far on the operation of the licensing laws introduced in England and Wales in November 2005, and setting out how we intend to monitor the licensing regime over the next few weeks and months, and the immediate action the Government are taking to tackle alcohol-related problems. Copies of the evaluation report are being placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

This first review of the Licensing Act 2003 reveals a mixed picture.

Its introduction has not led to the widespread problems some feared. Overall, crime and alcohol consumption are down. But alcohol-related violence has increased in the early hours of the morning and some communities have seen a rise in disorder.

Our main conclusion is that people are using the freedoms, but people are not sufficiently using the considerable powers granted by the Act to tackle problems, and that there is a need to rebalance action towards enforcement and crack down on irresponsible behaviour.

Some aspects of the Act have worked well.

Bringing together six previous licensing regimes into a single integrated scheme has resulted in a considerable reduction in red tape—estimated at £99 million per annum—with benefits not just for business, but for the third sector and non-profit making clubs too.

The Act has also delivered new powers and flexibilities enabling local authorities and police to work in partnership to significantly reduce crime and disorder in some areas.

At the same time, millions of people have been able to able to enjoy the convenience of shopping at a time that suits them and socialising in restaurants, bars and cafes beyond 11 pm.

Furthermore, contrary to popular expectations:

The average closing time across all on-licensed premises has increased by only 21 minutes since the Act came into effect;

the overall volume of incidents of crime and disorder has remained stable and not risen; and

alcohol consumption, rather than increasing, has instead fallen over this period.

In total, fewer than 4 per cent. of premises—some 5,100—have licences permitting them to open for up to 24 hours a day—many of which are hotels, stores and supermarkets. Only some 470 pubs, bars and nightclubs have 24-hour licences, but there is no evidence that more than a handful operate on that basis. The British Beer and Pub Association informed a Select Committee recently that there are only two traditional pubs in the entire country that operate for 24 hours.

But beneath these headline facts the picture is much more mixed.

Whilst crimes involving violence may have reduced over the evening and night time period, the evidence also points to increases in offences, including violent crimes, reported between 3 am and 6 am This represents 4 per cent. of night-time offences.

Similarly, whilst there is no clear picture of whether alcohol-related demands on A&E services and alcohol-related admissions have risen, some hospitals have seen a fall in demand, others have reported an increase.

It is also clear that the overall reduction in alcohol-related disorder we wanted to see across the country has not materialised consistently in all areas.

The Government remain determined to address these issues, and the report published today has helped us identify a number of ways we can go further to protect the public, both in terms of using all the flexibilities in the Act to crack down on irresponsible behaviour, including more caution and conditions when issuing licences and the withdrawal of licences in certain areas, but also introducing new initiatives to tackle antisocial behaviour associated with alcohol consumption.

The announcements today contain measures to target those businesses that continue to sell alcohol irresponsibly and cause harm within our communities.

To specifically address the small but unacceptable proportion of violent crimes occurring in the early hours of the morning, we will undertake further comprehensive research into post-midnight drinking patterns and their impact on crime and order, and will not hesitate to take the necessary action through new legislation and enforcement measures to tackle this.

But we will take immediate action now.

First, we will utilise existing powers to identify problem premises. We will make it easier to review premises where local intelligence suggests there is a problem.

Secondly, we will encourage the imposition of tougher sanctions on those found to be breaching their licensing conditions. This includes the stipulation that there be far more instant closures of pubs and clubs in an area where there has been a disorder and indefinite closure by the courts for any breach of licence conditions. We will develop a toolkit for local authorities and police, building on my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary’s recently published “Guide for Dealing with Alcohol-Related Problems”.

Thirdly, we will change the offence of “persistently selling alcohol to a person under 18” from “three strikes” to “two strikes” in three months. This means that any seller who twice sells to under-age drinkers and is caught doing so will immediately lose their licence.

Fourthly, we will support the police and local authorities to identify problem hotspots by ranking geographical areas and concentrations of premises on the basis of the risks they present to crime and disorder, public nuisance and children. This will allow licensing authorities the ability to exercise more caution and conditions when issuing licences, and wholesale withdrawal of licences in these areas, and permit local authorities and police to target enforcement resources more effectively at problem hotspots.

Finally, the message must be clear to all: breach your licensing conditions and you face severe and costly restrictions on your business—with a new “yellow card and red card” alert system, A yellow card will put the problem premises on immediate probation together with tough and uncompromising sanctions, and when the circumstances are right, it will be a straight red card leading to withdrawal of the licence.

To tackle wider antisocial behaviour associated with alcohol consumption, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will bring forward legislation to:

Increase the maximum fine for anyone not obeying an instruction to stop drinking, or to give up their drink in a designated public place from £500 to £2,500;

Make it easier for the police to disperse antisocial drinkers—both adults and children—from any location. If necessary, we will change the law to make this happen;

Extend the use of acceptable behaviour contracts for young people caught drinking in public, to require them and their parents to attend a session with a trained worker; and

In addition, we will be extending the alcohol arrest referral pilots that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced last month, so that under-18s may also benefit from a brief intervention from a trained worker. This will help deal with young people drinking in public who are already involved in criminal activities.

I, together with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, will convene a summit of police and local authorities to explore how we can take these proposals forward.

The report published today is not the end of the story. The measures announced today are only part of the Government’s comprehensive strategy for combating the problems associated with alcohol.

A significant programme of work is underway over the next six months.

We are working with the industry on alcohol advertising, and welcome industry consideration to give much more prominence to clear information about the dangers of alcohol, and to actively support Government campaigns to promote sensible drinking. We will strongly encourage them to press on with trials to test their effectiveness. If we need to, we will consider more restrictions.

Later in the year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families will publish the Government’s action plan on young people and alcohol containing further proposals for reducing drinking by young people specifically.

Later in the spring, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will also set out measures for dealing with the relatively small number of people who continue to think it is acceptable behaviour to drink and drive.

The Department of Health will publish the results of the independent study commissioned from the university of Sheffield to look at the evidence on the relation between alcohol price, promotion and harm and in response will bring forward necessary action. The real cost of alcohol has fallen to historically low levels, and there is already an emerging consensus that more needs to be done to tackle irresponsible promotions and deep discounting that can lead to antisocial behaviour. The Government will begin immediate work with the licensing authorities and retailers, including the development of new codes on responsible sales and promotions which might be considered as a condition of an alcohol licence.

In conclusion, we are prepared to take action wherever the evidence suggests that it is necessary to tackle the problems associated with alcohol.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Heathrow and Gatwick (VIP Facilities)

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and BAA have agreed new arrangements for the use of VIP suites at Heathrow and Gatwick airports.

With effect from 1 April, BAA will operate the VIP suites in terminals 1-5 at Heathrow airport on a commercial basis and for a trial period of 12 months. Similar commercial arrangements will also apply to the VIP suite at Gatwick airport. The FCO’s operational role and significant financial subsidy towards the use of these suites will end on 31 March. This will move the provision of this service onto a commercial basis, which accurately reflects the full economic cost of the VIP suites.

Under the new arrangements, the FCO will continue to pay for state visits and those officially invited as guests of the British Government. All existing users remain eligible to use the VIP suites. Diplomatic missions in London, who account for 90 per cent. of the suites’ use, will still be able to use the VIP suites for other high-level overseas visitors, making the arrangements and payment direct with BAA.

The FCO will continue its operational control of the royal suite at Heathrow and meet the costs for state visits and official guests of the British Government. All other users of the royal suite will be subject to full economic recovery charges, made payable direct to the FCO.

As a result of these changes, the majority of current users of the VIP suites will see an increase to existing fees. The charges are necessary in bringing to an end the longstanding and considerable public subsidy. The FCO and BAA are writing to all current users to explain how the changes will affect them.

Northern Ireland

Independent Monitoring Commission

I have today published and laid before Parliament my third annual report on the operation of the agreement between the British and Irish Governments which established the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC). This report covers the period 18 September 2005 to 17 September 2006.

In line with a commitment made by my predecessor, this report also contains the audited accounts of the IMC for the twelve-month period ending 31 March 2006.

I remain grateful to the Commissioners of the IMC for their valuable contributions over this period, and for their contribution to promoting the transition to a peaceful society and a stable and inclusive devolved Government in Northern Ireland.

Transport

Road Congestion

In a statement to the House on 5 July 2005 the then Secretary of State for Transport announced that we were prepared to ensure that up to £200 million a year would be available from the transport innovation fund to support the development of local packages of measures that combine demand management, including road pricing, and better public transport. He also announced that we would make £18 million of pump-priming development funding available to support scheme development.

So far, 10 areas have benefited from this funding. This has enabled them to analyse their current and emerging congestion issues and consider how demand management could form part of the solution. While we never expected every one of these areas to come forward with formal proposals straight away, I have been greatly encouraged by the work to date and thank those areas who have contributed to the debate. Already proposals have been submitted by Greater Manchester and Cambridgeshire, which we are currently assessing, and I understand that further proposals will be coming forward in the coming year or two.

We want to give more areas the opportunity to benefit from such packages. Therefore I am extending the commitment to make available up to £200 million a year out to 2018-19, in line with our long-term funding profile for transport. To support the development of business cases we shall be inviting authorities to bid for further pump-priming development funding for 2008 and 2009. We shall also make available development funding to areas that have submitted business cases to contribute to continued development during the assessment process and, where appropriate, for preparatory costs incurred after programme entry. Guidance on bidding for this funding is being published today. Copies of the guidance are available from the Department for Transport (DfT) web site and in the Library of the House.

Meanwhile, my officials are working closely with officials from Greater Manchester and Cambridgeshire and we will announce decisions on the proposals as soon as we can. Decisions on congestion TIF business cases will be the responsibility of the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Rosie Winterton).

I am also publishing today to the Library of the House, and on the DfT website, the results of a feasibility study which explores where advanced signalling and traffic management systems could best be used on congested parts of the motorway network, and the associated environmental, safety and enforcement considerations.