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Licensing Act 2003

Volume 670: debated on Wednesday 2 March 2005

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asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they propose amending the Licensing Act 2003 to allow those living in the vicinity of licensed premises to make representations with regard to the grant of 24-hour licences so as effectively to protect their amenity.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport
(Lord McIntosh of Haringey)

My Lords, as was explained in the House during the stages of the Licensing Bill, such an amendment is not necessary. From 7 February local residents have been able to make representations to their licensing authority about variations to existing licences and certificates and new applications for premises licences and club premises certificates on grounds relating to the four licensing objectives, including public nuisance.

My Lords, the Minister's reply, for which I thank him, refers to representations made in respect of public nuisance. Do not the Government realise that "public nuisance" is a crime and sets a legal threshold far above the comings and goings of the public in the early hours of the morning to a pub or club? Therefore, in practical terms, is it not the truth that ordinary residents in ordinary locations do not have a leg to stand on in the licensing procedures under the Act?

My Lords, I am in no position to quarrel with what the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, says about a legal application of "public nuisance". But the Government's position has always been that the prevention of public nuisance includes the prevention of—and I shall quote, for reasons that I will make clear—

"the reduction of the living and working amenity and environment of interested parties",
in the vicinity of licensed premises. That quote comes from the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, at the time of the Licensing Bill. As we promised, those words are now in the guidance issued by the Secretary of State in July 2004.

So, whatever else "public nuisance" means, for the purpose of the guidance, it covers the points the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, wants to cover, and local residents are able to make representations.

My Lords, as this Question is about possible amendments to the Act, is there any possibility of making the fees more realistic? I know that there was a debate on this last week, but is the Minister aware that in areas of London such as Soho the council is allowed to charge hundreds of pounds, and the cost of policing and caring for the licensed premises is thousands of pounds? Council tax payers are going to bear a very heavy burden. Is there anything that can be done about that?

My Lords, I am reluctant to burden the House by going over ground which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, says, was debated in the House only last week. The thrust of that debate was that we revised the proposed charges; we increased them significantly. Generally, it is agreed that nearly all local authorities will find that the charges cover their costs. At the same time there were considerable complaints from potential licensees that the charges were too high. There was an attempt to make both those arguments against the Government at the same lime. It did not work very well.

My Lords, will the individual residents associations and local amenity societies be able to make representations to the licensing authority that a particular area should be declared one of cumulative impact? Will the DCMS advise local authorities in conducting the public meetings recommended in Section 2.7 of the guidance to ensure that an opportunity is given to local residents to make submissions on that matter? Will the collection of information which demonstrates cumulative impact as the evidential basis for the decision to have a special policy include crimes of violence against the person and call-outs for ambulances in the vicinity of licensed premises? If so, why cannot it also be used to assess the impact of the Act on crime and disorder, as I have suggested 15 times?

My Lords, those who represent residents will be able to make representations. I do not know whether all local residents associations will fall into that category. I assume that most will. Therefore, they will be able to make representations.

On the detailed points the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, makes about cumulative impact—I did not fully understand his point about ambulances—I do not think that it would be wise for me to seek to interpret the guidance at this Dispatch Box. I refer him back to that guidance, and if he has further questions I shall be happy to answer them.

My Lords, returning to the Question, does the noble Lord agree that the present situation is far from satisfactory, for the reasons given by noble Lords, and that, at least, consideration should be given to whether something should be done about it?

My Lords, I am not at all clear what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, means by "the present situation". Does he mean the existing licensing laws which will be overtaken by the Licensing Act later this year?

My Lords, in that case I have to agree with the noble Lord. We would not otherwise have introduced the Licensing Act.

My Lords, will the Minister not accept that one of the problems with his response to the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, is that guidance notes cannot change the legal meaning of "public nuisance"?

As the Act now stands, there is a lack of clarity. One has to wade through the enormous set of guidance notes to have a clue about what is meant. Regarding "vicinity" and those who might make representations, there is a caveat whereby the initial decision on this issue could be subject to a legal challenge in the courts that could put off local authorities and those locally wanting to make representations. Will the Minister not accept that it would have been wise to accept the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, and fought for by noble Lords during the passage of the Bill, and that,
"unreasonable diminution of living and working amenity and environment of interested parties living in the vicinity of the premises",
would have made a lot more sense than simply making reference to "public nuisance"?

I must say, my Lords, I find that slightly ungrateful, since the words of the noble Baroness's own amendment are found in the guidance.

Not everybody has to wade through the guidance. The important thing is that local licensing authorities have to take account of it, and can be called to account if they do not. That is the protection she wanted when she moved those amendments.