Motion to Take Note
My Lords, it was an immense privilege to chair the Committee on the Licensing Act 2003 and it is an equal privilege to be opening today’s debate. I refer to my interests as set out in the register, including membership of a number of all-party groups relevant to the inquiry, such as those on beer, on whisky and on wines and spirits. My husband has worked for many years for international airlines and more recently with the London School of Mediation.
We were extremely fortunate to have had an excellent, knowledgeable clerk, Michael Collon; a specialist adviser, Sarah Clover; and policy analysts, initially Tansy Hutchinson and then Ben Taylor. They were a pleasure to work with and we are very grateful to them. The committee is also indebted to all those witnesses who gave us such valuable written and oral evidence. I had hoped that we might visit various establishments at which alcohol is licensed, such as pubs, clubs and casinos, but sadly, time and resources did not permit. However, I did visit Amsterdam in a personal capacity to meet the night mayor and hear how they manage their night-time economy so successfully. The committee was enjoyable, interesting, disturbing and challenging. It was enjoyable because of its strong team of members who took to their task with great gusto and expertise, and I am glad to see so many noble Lords who were members present today.
What was disturbing was the evidence showing how much was wrong with the Act itself and, even more so, with its operation. It was challenging to formulate recommendations which, if implemented, might help to remedy the situation. The words “if implemented” are of course key. We reported in April. Seven months later we received the Government’s response, aspects of which we welcome, including recommendations which the Government accepted or were prepared to consider. However, there were also major recommendations that the Government rejected. I am glad to see my noble friend Lady Williams of Trafford in her place to answer the points that I and other noble Lords will be making. The committee reached a number of conclusions on which we would like to see government action.
In the 11 years the Licensing Act 2003 has been in force, hardly a year has passed without major amendments to it. Historically, licensing applications were determined by justices of the peace to control the sale of alcohol, a practice which lasted for 500 years until the Licensing Act 2003 transferred this duty to local authorities, acting through licensing committees. We believe it was a mistake and a missed opportunity to set up new licensing committees when the planning system was already available to regulate the use of land for many different purposes. The planning system is well suited to dealing with licensing applications and appeals, in which the interests of residents are always taken into account.
In evidence we received, hearings before licensing committees were described as “something of a lottery”, lacking “formality”, and “indifferent”, with some,
“scandalous misuses of the powers of elected local councillors”.
The committee was told of the deep disconnect between licensing and planning. The two need to be joined up. The planning system works much better because of the greater volume of work and better support from professionals. That is why we recommended that licensing applications should be heard by planning committees. The system of licensing committees had its defenders—the councillors themselves, local authorities and the Government—but also its critics, particularly the users of the system. Applicants, businesses, residents or the lawyers representing them were all critical of the decision-making generally and, in some cases, the denial of basic justice.
The Government say in their response that,
“we do not intend to take the approach recommended by the Committee at this time”.
They believe that it is enough to improve training and provide stronger guidance—which we did recommend —on how licensing committees should be conducted. While better training and guidance may help, they cannot mend the basic flaws of the system. If the Government do not intend to follow our recommendations “at this time”, I ask the Minister to tell us at what time she thinks this would be appropriate.
Our report recommends that appeals from planning committees on licensing matters are heard by planning inspectors, not magistrates, who until 2005 dealt with applications. The committee cannot understand how a magistrate, who is no longer considered by the Government to be the right person to consider a licensing application, should nevertheless be the right person to hear an appeal. Instead of appealing, parties are increasingly seeking judicial review, which of course is costly. I commend to the Minister the committee’s idea that appeals should go to the appropriate court, as for gambling; appeals against the Gambling Commission now go to the First-tier Tribunal and thence on a point of law to the Upper Tribunal.
We heard in evidence that there could be scope for mediation between the parties with a view to aligning the interests of the licensing applicants with the needs of local residents. We welcome the Government’s acceptance of increased mediation. We believe that a full “agent of change” principle should be adopted in both planning and licensing guidance to help protect both licensed premises and local residents from consequences arising from any newly built development in their vicinity.
On occasion disabled people have difficulty accessing licensed premises, sometimes because of lack of access to appropriate facilities owing to the age of the building, and occasionally younger customers are excluded for failing to produce proof of age. Last year the Government rejected a proposal by the Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability that compliance with the Equality Act should be an additional licensing objective. We recommend that the law be amended to require, as in Scotland—I declare an interest as a non-practising Scottish advocate—that an application for a premises licence should be accompanied by a disabled access and facilities statement, putting more of an onus on the applicants to ensure that the premises are disabled-friendly or to explain why not. As the Government say they are sympathetic on the issue of accessibility and point out that the 2017 Conservative manifesto made a commitment to review disabled people’s access to licensed premises, why, when we offer them a cheap, easy and painless way to achieve that, would they not want to seize the opportunity?
On pricing and taxation, the committee urges the Government to look at ways in which taxation and pricing can be used to control excessive consumption, particularly with regard to the health aspects. We welcome the announcement in the Budget of an undertaking to consult on measures to raise the duty on white cider.
The Government are on the record that they will consider the introduction of minimum unit pricing for alcohol, and their response to our report repeats that minimum unit pricing remains under review. In 2012, the Scottish Parliament passed an Act to introduce a minimum unit price. Will the Minister agree that—assuming that MUP is brought into force in Scotland, that Scottish Ministers publish their statutory assessment of MUP and that the assessment demonstrates that the policy is successful—MUP should be introduced in England and Wales without further delay? It is a matter of ongoing debate whether taxation, minimum pricing or minimum unit pricing is the most effective as a tool to encourage responsible drinking.
The committee looked into the exception made for the sale of alcohol airside and portside, with the Licensing Act 2003 being expressly disapplied. Currently, premises airside can be open 24 hours day and can sell alcohol to young people and to drunks. We believe that the increasing incidence of air rage—a 34% increase in one year alone—is fuelled largely by the generally relaxed sale of alcohol at airports once a passenger has passed through customs. Incidents on flights are notorious and particularly alarming given the height, the confined space and the pressure, and such episodes can lead to the diversion of flights, at huge expense. In its evidence, Jet2.com told us that it had to deal with 536 such disruptive incidents in the summer of 2016 alone, more than half of which were reported to have been fuelled by alcohol. Its disruptive-passenger data for 2017 show an increase in incidents of 58% on 2016, and those incidents are year-round, not confined to the summer. We recommend that the 2003 Act should fully apply airside, as it does in other parts of airports, and as it should apply portside at ports and hoverports too. The Government continue to argue that there may be practical problems allowing inspectors to operate airside, although there seem to be no problems allowing access to those selling alcohol airside.
We welcome the Government’s commitment to the safety of passengers and the undertaking to hold a consultation to seek views on how to minimise the impact of disruptive passengers on the travelling public. Yet I would confidently predict the results of any such government consultation: the airlines will favour the application of the Act airside but the airport and retail industry will oppose it. At that stage the Government will have to make up their mind. We have shown a straightforward way to do so now by a simple order lifting the exemption. The Government should do so as a matter of urgency and certainly before flights in the summer of 2018. The Government accept that what they call disruptive events are on the rise, so why would they not want to act now? We further urge the Government to act expeditiously to ensure that Section 141 of the Licensing Act, which makes it an offence to sell or attempt to sell alcohol to a person who is drunk, is properly enforced, thus helping to prevent preloading and reduce the excessive drunkenness and anti-social behaviour often linked with it.
Undoubtedly, the night-time economy and the retail trade are potential growth areas and contribute greatly to urban and rural economies. It is a matter of note that the number of pubs and nightclubs have reduced while the off-trade has expanded. In 1994, 58% of alcohol was sold by the on-trade and 42% by the off-trade. By 2005, when the Act came into force, the position was reversed. Today, 70% of alcohol is sold through off-licences and supermarkets. With lower overheads and high volume of sales, supermarkets can sell high-strength alcohol at very low prices, often leading to the very worst anti-social behaviour and disorder.
Voluntary responsibility deals, local schemes and community partnerships are not enough on their own to tackle the problem. The committee is persuaded that the more sophisticated measures targeted at the off-trade selling alcohol should be followed in England and Wales. We considered the measures in the Alcohol etc. (Scotland) Act 2010. Measures such as banning BOGOFs—buy one, get one free—and restricting promotion and advertising seem to have worked. In any event, transparency and scrutiny of the guidance issued by the Home Office is essential.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister will say in answer to the points I have raised and to hearing all the other speakers who will contribute to the debate. I beg to move.
My Lords, it was a privilege to serve on the committee. I greatly enjoyed the experience and found it very instructive, and there was a very good and productive relationship among the members of the committee. All of that was made possible, largely, by the extremely sympathetic but also efficient way in which the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, presided over our activities.
The subject is not entirely unimportant. A very large number of people are employed by the entertainment industry in this country, if you take pubs, clubs, bars, discos and so forth, and it is an important part of many people’s social lives. We had a lot of evidence, as the noble Baroness has just said, that the strong tendency in the last 10 years has been to move from purchasing alcohol and consuming it in a bar or pub to purchasing it in a supermarket, rather more cheaply, and taking it home—probably to drink it watching a screen and often, I fear rather sadly, alone. The running down of pubs in this country and their replacement by people drinking at home is not necessarily a happy change in our society. However, it is not for us in a free society to tell our fellow citizens how they should conduct their private lives; it is merely our job as legislators to see whether there are any problems which affect the interests of third parties and therefore may need to be dealt with.
On that point, when anybody talks about licensing, you soon find that although the group does not split—we certainly did not split and there were no extremists on our committee—it develops two different tendencies. On one side, there are always those who see themselves first and foremost not so much as protectors of morals—which would have been the case 100 years ago when licensing was being discussed and was a matter of great political controversy, as your Lordships will recall at that time—but certainly as protectors of health, public order and other things. On the other side are the more libertarian-minded people who feel that the entertainment industry is above all meant to make sure people have a nice time or some happy occasions and that regulations should be imposed reluctantly and with a relatively soft touch if at all possible, although obviously serious abuses have to be dealt with and the public protected from malefactors of different kinds.
That tendency duly emerged in our committee, as might have been foreseen. One lively discussion led me to recall that wonderful play of Shakespeare’s, which I think is his most amusing although not his greatest, “Twelfth Night”, and the dialogue between the puritan, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and the bon viveur, Sir Toby Belch. They had a slightly angry discussion on this precise matter, which ends with Sir Toby Belch saying:
“Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”.
I do not think any members of our committee thought there should be no more cakes and ale, and we came to a good consensus on our main recommendations, which the noble Baroness has outlined. Clearly, I do not need to repeat what she said on airports, as there is absolute agreement about that.
She mentioned something very important: we came to the clear decision that we should not add to the criteria for obtaining a licence to run a pub. There has been quite a lot of agitation in the country in favour of a public health criterion, but after considerable debate there was complete consensus that that would not be a good idea; it would be taking regulation rather too far.
The most important recommendation that we came to was that licensing committees should be merged with planning committees. You might think that that was a common-sense proposal; after all, it is pretty ridiculous—we had evidence that this has happened on a number of occasions—for a local authority planning committee to decide that yes, it is a good idea to have a pub in a particular location and give planning consent, while simultaneously the licensing committee says no, it would be a bad idea and it will not give licensing consent. Does the developer have consent to build his pub in those circumstances? No, he does not. Does he perhaps think he has, and does he spend money on that basis when he gets planning consent, assuming that there will not be incoherence within the public authority and that the licensing committee will not say something else? Yes, he could well do. That is an abuse and a bad situation. There is a much greater potential risk of it happening than any actuality but it does happen, and anyway it is simply a bad area of law. Our job, above all, is to make sure that the law is sensible, clear and coherent and has the respect of the public, and none of those causes is well advanced by a mess and muddle of that kind.
I was very disappointed, therefore, that the Government did not accept that recommendation. My strong impression was that their rejection was on the purely bureaucratic basis, which we all know too well, that it was not invented here. The arguments in the Government’s response are purely bureaucratic, such as that one of those committees—I cannot remember which—is set up on a statutory basis and the other on a non-statutory basis. That was not relevant at all to the functional issues at stake; if anything needed to be amended to put both committees on a statutory basis, that could be done with one line in a statutory instrument, so that was not a convincing answer. The Government did not really address that issue in the way that I hoped they would, and the issue remains very much on the table.
The experience persuaded me that a retrospective review of legislation is an excellent idea. When you have something like the Licensing Act, which affects an awful lot of people, after a decade or so—more than a decade has gone by in this case—it is a good idea for Parliament to look systematically at what it has done and whether it is right, and to draw conclusions and report to the public. That is something we should continue to do. It is a good use of our time and the various talents and expertise that this House can bring to bear for the Lords to take on that task from time to time. I hope we continue to do it.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate and to discuss the committee’s report into the effectiveness of the Licensing Act 2003. It was an inquiry that I was pleased to join, and I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, for her chairing of it. As well as having the pleasure of serving on this committee and in this House, I have also been the leader of Bradford Metropolitan District Council and chairman of the LGA.
I know from my experiences in this House and in local government just how important it is to have a licensing system that is fit for purpose. The committee’s report called for a radical overhaul of the Act, and I certainly support the need to revise and improve the legislation. To take the late-night levy as an example, I have been concerned for some time about the targeting of the money raised and the way it is invested. It is important that the police and crime commissioners spend their portion of the money in the areas where it is raised and ensure that it supports the local businesses that are paying the levy. After hearing about the unsatisfactory nature of the levy’s implementation, the committee recommended its abolition. Two police support officers paid for by the levy whose duty hours ended as the late-night levy period began were just one example of the unsatisfactory practices that we heard about.
Another area of concern was the statutory requirement that at least 70% of the funds from the late-night levy must be allocated to the police while 30% or less was being retained for the local council. No limitations exist on how the police can spend the money, but strong limitations are placed on local councils. The levy has not been widely adopted by councils—in fact, by only eight in total—and some that joined have scrapped the scheme and left.
The LGA does, however, make the case for the effectiveness of late-night levies in some circumstances and in some areas, as councils can utilise the levy to bring forward new ideas and innovative ways of working that cannot otherwise be funded. Business improvement districts are an alternative which some councils prefer. It is surely appropriate to allow local government the flexibility to decide which schemes are best for its area. If the levy is to continue, it is important that the Policing and Crime Act gives councils the power to define specific areas for the levy to apply to.
One of the committee’s recommendations that attracted a lot of attention was the proposal, as we have heard from the chairman, to merge the licensing and planning systems. I know that the Local Government Association is opposed to this, as councils see licensing and planning as fundamentally different. From the work done by the committee, it is clear that there needs to be much improvement in the licensing system.
The Government have said that rather than merge licensing and planning, they will look at how co-ordination between licensing and planning committees can be improved. That is at least a start, as I know that councils are exploring how to join up licensing and planning policies to help shape local areas and their economies.
While there are differences of opinion about the scale of change needed to modernise the Act, there is general recognition that we need to look at how fees are set. The Local Government Association has raised concerns that the Licensing Act is significantly underfunded as a result of fees being set nationally in 2005 when the Act was first introduced. According to the Local Government Association survey, this means that local government subsidises this work by £10.3 million each year.
The report concluded that it would be logical for licensing fees to be set locally. The Local Government Association is also calling on the Government to localise licensing fees. That would allow councils to respond to the individual needs of their communities more effectively. It would ensure the long-term sustainable funding of licensing across the country. I would like the Government to consider this carefully. If they are not in a position to localise fees, I ask the Minister to look at the LGA’s proposal that the Government should uprate the existing nationally set fees from their 2005 level and redress this funding imbalance.
I finish by saying how pleased I am to have had the opportunity to serve on the committee and to speak in the debate. It is an important debate, as licensing affects so many aspects of our daily lives and our local economies. It is also important that the Government continue to work with this House, councils, businesses and other interested parties to ensure that we have a licensing system fit for the challenges ahead.
My Lords, I too was a member of the committee and was very pleased to serve on it. I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, on securing this debate and for chairing an excellent committee. I also pay tribute to the staff who supported us, led by Michael Collon, with our specialist adviser Sarah Clover.
I have only three points to make. First, this was a good report, and the Government’s response is disappointing and defensive. It says, in summary, “Everything is fine; please leave us alone”. That is the message.
The second point, as noble Lords have already said, is that the proposal was to experiment with the combination of licensing and planning. It was a bold and interesting idea, and it is a great pity to see it rejected out of hand.
But my main point is one raised both by the noble Lord, Lord Davies, and by the chairman of the committee, on almost the last of our recommendations—and it is so blindingly obvious. The committee was literally astonished to find that airports were entirely exempt from the Licensing Act. I do not think that anybody who has passed through them would necessarily grasp that. As a former police officer, I am surprised that I never grasped that they were completely exempt. To follow on the noble Lord’s comments on “Twelfth Night”, normally in the debate led by Sir Toby Belch between virtue and cakes and ale, I am on the side of cakes and ale, but the idea that people can just go into an airport at seven o’clock in the morning and drink themselves stupid before they get on to a plane seems entirely astonishing. We have all seen it—seen the groups of people standing around with lagers and wine and then getting on to the plane. And we know that air rage incidents, as the chair of the committee has said, are rising.
The Home Office arguments against extending the Licensing Act to airports are simply fatuous. The argument is, apparently, that it would be difficult to arrange for licensing officers to go in airside. As the noble Baroness said, the people supplying the drink can go airside, so why cannot the licensing officers? That means that the offence of selling drink to someone who is already drunk does not exist in an airport—of all the places you could think of where you would want that power to exist, it is in an airport before somebody gets on a plane. We need licensing officers to be able to enter airside. That is not difficult. We need the powers of the Act to be enforceable airside. That is not difficult.
Above all, we need to protect passengers from being joined in the cabin by people who are already drunk. That is desperately important. Flying at 30,000 feet in a metal tube with somebody who has gone mad with drink is a pretty awful experience, I should imagine. You end up enduring it when you are going to Zanzibar, which is pretty difficult—or, of course, you fall out of the sky, because it really has gone wrong.
I do not understand the Home Office’s position on this, and I think I speak for almost all the members of the committee in saying that nobody understood what was stopping people doing this. If, for instance, it is about the airlines wanting to keep their business lounges in a different place, that is quite possible, because nobody sells alcohol in the business lounges. With respect, you are also dealing with a slightly different population. If that is the problem, forget it—just deal with the idea that people can get “tanked up” before they get on the plane. Sooner or later, we will end up with people dying because somebody has got so drunk and so violent on a plane that the plane gets into real difficulties.
I would really ask the Minister to make this happen. It requires only a simple amendment to Section 173 of the Licensing Act 2003 to extend licensing to airports. We have said that we do not want to see it extended to railways, for instance; we can see the reasons for that. But it is not right about airports. This is a disaster waiting to happen, and people will die as a result.
My Lords, I, too, would like to congratulate my noble friend on chairing the committee and so ably opening the debate. I cannot usefully add to the report or the Government’s response, or to my noble friend’s opening remarks, but I shall make three points.
The first is similar to the one that the noble Lord, Lord Davies, made a few minutes ago on scrutiny committees, which are relatively new but important animals in your Lordships’ House. I served on the pre-legislative scrutiny committee—I can only say that this early in the evening—on the 2005 Gambling Bill, as it then was. Gambling was a subject in which I had, and retain, some interests. It was a very big Bill and the committee, which was a committee of both Houses, sat for almost a year. It had some extremely controversial areas in it, but the Bill was very much sought by the industry—it had been pushing government for some time for a new regulatory Bill. The committee recommended quite a lot of changes, most of them technical, and advised the Government that they needed to amend their philosophy. The Government took absolutely no notice of that, although they took notice of some of the technical changes that the committee suggested. The result has been what I think could be regarded as a bad Bill becoming a bad Act. In recent weeks, noble Lords will have heard noises about fixed-odds betting terminals and the problems there, about the excessive gambling advertising that resulted from that Act, and about the considerable concerns raised about children gambling. It is difficult not to conclude that it was a bad Act.
So it was very interesting for me to come and sit on the post-legislative scrutiny committee on another Licensing Act, in this case for alcohol, in which I had no particular interest. I make that point about interest and no interest. It is important on these Select Committees to have a few members who know the subject pretty well, but it is also true that it needs one or two members of the committee who do not know the subject very well and come to it with a fresh mind.
Any report is obviously going to focus on those bits that do not work in a Bill. My noble friend in opening the debate, and other speakers, as well as the report itself, have concentrated on the bits that we thought did not work, particularly on the recommendations that we made that the Government have rejected, which is always disappointing for a committee. But if one stands back from the Act, this is not to say that it is a good or a bad Act, but it is a successful Act, in that it does what it set out to do—what it says on the tin—and fulfils its objectives. That in itself is a good thing. What is not such a good thing is to take the trouble to have a Select Committee, to take evidence and write a report, taking quite a lot of trouble on it, and then the Government can only be bothered to reply seven months later. I think that Cabinet Office rules say that the departments should respond to Select Committees within two months. “Justice delayed is justice denied”, but government delayed is bad government. Whether on this or any other subject, the Government need to pay attention. It is a combination of how government works on a daily basis and how Parliament operates that makes for good government. When the two do not work hand in glove, people get bad government—and to that we need to pay attention.
If we were to look at the process, I would say that on pre-legislative scrutiny the jury is out, but like the noble Lord, Lord Davies, I think that the post-legislative scrutiny was a successful process. If any of the powers that be in your Lordships’ House are listening—and I do not blame them if they are not—I would say that this is a process that we should continue and develop, and I think that it is good for Parliament and for government.
The major point that I would like to make is on the dog that did not bark in the night—that is, health. As we have heard, health is not an objective of the Act. Therefore, technically, it was not within our remit. But it was the elephant in the room, and not to have discussed it would have been ridiculous. The whole reason for licensing is because alcohol can cause crime and disorder and also causes health and social problems; if that were not so, we would not bother to have a licensing regime, period. Having discussed this at length—and the committee wrestled with it for a bit, rightly—we came to the conclusion that it is right that health is not an objective in this Act, and nor should it be. Although it is the overall objective of the strategy of licensing, this is a licensing and not a health Act—so it was right that we left that out.
I make two final points, relating to that health point. When the 2003 Act was born and bred, the major focus, as has already been said in the debate, was on the on-trade, the licensed trade: pubs, clubs, et cetera. There is absolutely no doubt now that, if there is a social problem—and indeed there is, as we all know—and a health problem, it is mostly related to the off-trade. It is the sale of cheap alcohol in shops and supermarkets that causes the bulk of the problem. It is in this direction that the Government and future Governments should focus their attention if we are to resolve some of the health and social issues that result from excessive drinking, and I urge the Government to do so. At the same time, I hope that they do not completely reject, as they have to date, minimum unit pricing. I hope that they look at it and keep an open mind and that, if it is successful in Scotland, they think carefully about how it might be extended to England and Wales.
My Lords, I first draw attention to my interests as set out in the register and to my membership of the all-party groups for beer and for wine and spirits. I too express my appreciation to the chair of the committee for all her hard work and relentless scrutiny of the issues raised, and my thanks to our clerk, Michael Collon, and most of all—for me—to our specialist adviser, Sarah Clover. Not only was her knowledge of the Licensing Act truly encyclopaedic, but she knew what was happening and how the Act was being implemented up and down the country. It was that reality—not government assumptions about what might be happening—that shaped our report, and which the Government must do more to acknowledge and respond to.
The Government’s view of the Act is that, broadly speaking, it is working well as part of a coherent national and local strategy—they would say that, wouldn’t they? Those who responded to our call for evidence; the innumerable amendments, changes and additions in nine Acts of Parliament; secondary legislation; and the Section 182 guidance to licensing law and practice all suggest otherwise. This should not surprise anyone because, as our chair reminded us, the 2003 Licensing Act brought about a major change, with licensing responsibilities moving from local magistrates to local authorities. This placed a heavy burden on councils and we should not be surprised that some were able to cope with their responsibilities better than others.
The burden is not evenly distributed. Inevitably, it is councils in metropolitan areas and across major cities that carry the heaviest load. Licensing fees are set nationally, as we have heard, and it is in these busy licensing areas where fees do not meet costs and are subsidised from other parts of the council budget. This is inequitable but, unfortunately, the Government have told us that they have no plans to change the way licensing fees are set. This is a shame, and I support the suggestions of the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, on how this needs to change, because there should not be these subsidies from other parts of council budgets.
The biggest issue that was repeatedly raised was inconsistency, with people talking about the wide variation in the quality of local licensing operations. While some licensing committees are undoubtedly efficient and effective, we had innumerable examples of deviation from Home Office guidelines, of improper procedures being adopted and of inappropriate behaviour during sessions. While there are training requirements for councillors, they do not seem to have improved performance in some localities or brought about more consistency. I welcome the Government’s acknowledging the pressing need for improvement in this area, although I was puzzled by references to an LGA handbook for licensing committees, which I had not heard of or ever seen. As I recall, it was not mentioned to us when we took evidence from the LGA—but if it is a new innovation then I welcome it.
For local councillors who are not cabinet members in their authorities, licensing and planning are their major functions. When we looked at licensing and planning, we could not help but contrast the rather permissive licensing landscape with the much more coherent planning process, which is more clearly defined and more closely observed and understood by those involved. The planning process does not vary noticeably from one part of the country to another in the way licensing appears to, according to the practitioners we listened to. Local people also have much greater understanding of what they need to do to express concerns and objections about planning. As we have already heard this afternoon, the committee agreed that a more radical solution was required—the transfer of licensing to planning committees.
I am not surprised that the Government have backed away from this recommendation; I have to say that the local authority leaders I have spoken to are not keen on the idea either, and nor is the LGA. I am encouraged, however, that the Government are willing to consider the proposal as the start of a debate and that they acknowledge that licensing and planning should work more closely together than they clearly have been doing. Importantly, local residents, who are often well versed in appealing planning decisions, should be helped to gain a greater understanding of licensing processes and how they can most effectively get involved in them and express their concerns.
I find it strange that, on the one hand, the Government are happy to tolerate considerable diversity in licensing across the country and yet, when it comes to the night-time economy, they are extremely prescriptive. As we have heard, since 2003 there has been a considerable expansion of late-night drinking and entertainment venues in our major towns and cities across the country, which has placed great burdens on the police and councils, although the evidence we looked at suggested no resulting increase in violence or major disorder. None the less, the effects of the night-time economy’s expansion need to be managed and controlled and a balance sought between the interests of residents and businesses. The committee took a close look at early-morning restriction orders—none have been implemented as yet—and late-night levies, so far adopted by only seven or eight local authorities out of 350.
These very prescriptive national approaches to dealing with local nuisance and disorder compare very unfavourably with the much more flexible and proportionate initiatives, as the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, mentioned, such as business improvement district schemes and the promotion of responsible drinking through the Best Bar None and Purple Flag initiatives. Yet the Government insist on continuing with their late-night levy scheme, rather than working with local authorities in a constructive partnership on initiatives that work, which is rather unfortunate. I hope the Government’s revisions to the late-night levies work but, sooner or later, they will have to recognise that their approach is too inflexible to achieve the objectives they are seeking and change tack in that area.
I conclude by mentioning two areas where the committee wanted to see more decisive government action. Both arise from the off-sales trade, which is where the biggest change has taken place since 2003, as we have heard. The problems of preloading and street drinking of super-strength alcohol have arisen because 70% of alcohol is now sold through off-trade. The Government are very reluctant to deal with the consequences. The committee heard about super-strength three-litre bottles of white cider that could be bought for £3.50—15p per unit—and about high-strength beers being sold very cheaply, often by small food retailers who rely increasingly on these sales for their profits.
New duty bands are being considered for higher-strength alcohol, but the Government must look at what else they can do to tackle the growing volume of alcohol being sold cheaply at supermarkets and corner grocery shops. Since we finished our inquiry, the Scottish Government were finally given the legal go-ahead to introduce minimum unit pricing for alcohol. The Government say that they will watch this. I think the committee would have welcomed a more positive response of intent to proceed in this direction from the Government, given the tremendous health hazards posed by the level of cheap alcohol available.
Finally, as we have heard, the committee wanted to see a more vigorous government response to licensing air-side in airports. We know that commercial outlets make a lot of their revenue at airports from alcohol sales, but the consequence is drunken passengers staggering on to planes and a rise in air rage. The Government have talked of developing a new UK aviation strategy and of looking at this problem within that context. Let us hope that, among all the talk, there might sooner rather than later be some action.
My Lords, it was extremely interesting to be a member of the committee which undertook this scrutiny of the Licensing Act and I thank the chair, the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, the clerk and the specialist adviser to the committee for their leadership and support in the work we undertook. It was a great pleasure to work with so many other noble Lords and I thank them for initiating me with humour and patience in equal measure into Lords’ committee work, of which this was my first experience.
The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, has outlined the scope of the review and the subsequent recommendations, as have other noble Lords, so I will not rehearse these issues further. Rather, I wish to focus on one element of our inquiry: the availability of alcohol. It was a theme to which our inquiry returned on several occasions and on which we collated a significant amount of evidence. How much the availability of alcohol had been influenced by the passage of the 2003 Act was a key line of inquiry.
One of the primary foci of the Act in relation to licensing objectives is “the protection of children”, with particular reference to the granting of licences for the retail sale and consumption of alcohol. The Act made it illegal for people under the age of 18 to purchase alcohol, and, more importantly, made it an offence to sell alcohol to children anywhere in England and Wales. This objective seems to have been very successfully achieved and indicates that part of the Act is working well. However, purchasing may be increasingly difficult to monitor given the changing nature of shopping—from physical retail outlets to online purchasing. In some instances, you can order alcohol via an internet retailer using a simple app and have it delivered within an hour. If the retailer who sold the alcohol subcontracts delivery to another party, it is very difficult for the authorities to monitor whether it is received by a responsible adult or a child. This issue is noted in paragraph 60 of the report, where the point is made that, while recognising that an increasing proportion of alcohol is sold online, we were unable to get separate figures for this emerging market, even from substantial supermarket retailers. We urge the Government to keep this issue under review to protect children from receiving, and possibly consuming, large amounts of alcohol without adult supervision.
The evidence we took on alcohol consumption from a range of stakeholders clearly indicated a fall in consumption over the last decade. However, it was also clear that the liberal approach, resulting in alcohol being freely available 24 hours a day, seven days a week in many areas, may be fuelling the increase in alcohol-related hospital admissions and deaths in England. The report outlines these issues in depth, and not only the associated costs to the NHS but the very real long-term misery suffered by people who abuse alcohol, and the effects on their families and friends. The committee therefore reached a view that it is indeed inarguable that an increase in the price of alcohol would decrease consumption further, particularly in high-risk groups. Indeed, the report from Public Health England of December 2016, to which our report refers, concludes:
“Implementing an MUP is a highly targeted measure which ensures any resulting price increases are passed on to the consumer, improving the health of the heaviest drinkers who experience the greatest amount of harm. MUP would have a negligible impact on moderate drinkers and the price of alcohol sold in pubs, bars and restaurants”.
On Recommendation 3 of our report, assuming MUP is brought into force in Scotland and is successful, it is recommended that MUP be introduced in England and Wales, as other noble Lords have said. I welcome the Government’s saying that they will consider this issue once the evidence is available. However, how long will we wait? At what point will the Government conclude that the evidence is sufficiently sound either way to make a decision?
The Scottish model has estimated that if a minimum unit price of 50p were introduced in the first year, there would be 58 fewer alcohol-related deaths and 1,299 fewer alcohol-related hospital admissions in the first year. So will we watch and wait for a year, see whether this success is achieved, and then adopt a minimum unit price in 2019? The consultation document, Improving Scotland’s Health: Minimum Unit Pricing of Alcohol, also acknowledges that it may take 20 years for all the benefits of the policy to be realised. The Scottish Government must report to their Parliament on the impact of the MUP within five years. I welcome the Chancellor’s proposal, announced in the Budget, to look at additional taxation on very cheap alcohol products, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Henig, has just referred, and I believe this will have beneficial results. However, many experts who gave evidence to our committee said that the adoption of MUP would have a positive effect on the nation’s health and save the NHS money.
I therefore conclude with two questions for the Minister. First, how will the Government maintain their responsibility to protect children if the latter receive and potentially consume alcohol purchased via the internet and delivered by third parties? Secondly, what period do the Government believe would be appropriate within which to judge the success or otherwise of the introduction of MUP in Scotland? If, in year one, there is the expected fall in alcohol-related deaths and hospital admissions, will we act then? Or are we to wait for five or even 20 years until we judge the evidence to be sufficiently strong to act in England and Wales, while Scotland improves its health?
My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering on securing this debate and I thank her and her committee for using their inquiry as an opportunity to look at an issue of huge importance to the UK’s more than 11 million disabled people—disability access, in this case to pubs and other licensed premises. Equal access is a fundamental tenet of disability equality, so I welcome the committee’s pragmatic consideration of how we can make practical progress on the issue, almost a quarter of a century after the then Conservative Government introduced their landmark disability rights legislation, the Disability Discrimination Act, or DDA, and the duty to make reasonable adjustments.
Twenty-two years is an awfully long time to wait for a pint. Sadly, it is no laughing matter because, if the Government’s response to the committee’s recommendation is anything to go by, disabled people could still be waiting in another three years’ time, when the DDA turns 25. To put that in the context of yesterday’s debate, had the Burns report’s recommendations been implemented in 1995—the same year as the DDA became an Act—a person could have been ennobled, served in your Lordships’ House for 15 years, retired seven years ago and yet still be waiting to be able to get into their local pub! So to say that the Government’s response to Recommendation 25 of this report is inadequate, particularly their intention to hold yet another consultation with disabled people, is, I am afraid, to be charitably polite.
Of course, I welcome the manifesto commitment, which the response highlights, to review and amend regulations relating to disabled people’s access. I helped write it. I most definitely did not help write the response to this recommendation, which I fear is a carefully worded, sensitively put, insult. In contrast to the manifesto, it is a feeble fig leaf for yet more of the same— more inaction. What worries me most is that we seem rapidly to be getting to the point where my party is in danger of effectively disowning its own DDA. How can I say that? Sadly, all too easily, because, had we pursued such a passive approach to tackling disability discrimination 20 or so years ago, there would never have been a DDA. It simply would not have reached the statute book, and the Conservatives would not have been able to claim the credit for having accepted that, in the case of disability rights, change does not just happen by accident. It requires government action. In its absence, we are instead going backwards.
Why am I banging on about disability equality for the fourth time in as many weeks? The reason is simple: this matters, and more than some would care to imagine. Our commitment to equality says so much about us, about the kind of society we want to be and about the kind of party which my party, the Conservative Party, wants people to see us as.
Disability is the last preserve of prejudice. No longer, thank God, do we believe that we can treat people less equally because they are women, of BAME heritage or members of the LGBT community, or perhaps all three. But we still treat disabled people less equally, and as a matter of policy and of attitude. How else could the Equalities Minister—the Minister charged with promoting equality—have believed that she could somehow get away with compromising the Government and my party by colluding in getting rid of the disability commissioner? How else could the Equalities Minister have believed that she could do this without consulting No. 10, which oversees public appointments, or the then Minister for Disabled People, or disabled people themselves or—heaven forbid—the disabled person who only accepted her offer to join the board of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission because he thought he was being appointed to the position for which he had applied and been interviewed: that of disability commissioner?
As noble Lords will know, I have withdrawn my acceptance of that offer, which was made under false pretences. The irony is that I was misled only because I am disabled. I am not important but the position is, because it gave disabled people the last powerful voice, in the form of a designated champion, that we had. Justine Greening, the Equalities Minister, would never have presumed she could act in such an underhand, disdainful way were I black or gay. Had she done so, her career would already be in the past tense. Her involvement in getting rid of the position of disability commissioner has brought discredit upon the Government. It has also, undeservedly, brought dishonour upon my party. I fear her actions and the Government’s inadequate response to this committee’s particular recommendation on disabled access are regrettably all part of a narrative which, bizarrely, we are helping our opponents to construct. The message to disabled people might as well be “What do they know? What do we care?” That is not a message any party can afford to give, and especially not my party, if the Prime Minister’s pledge to build a country that works for everyone is to command credibility.
In conclusion, to restore their honour and to reclaim their credibility on disability rights the Government need urgently to rethink their attitude to disability equality. That is why I reiterate my request that the Prime Minister start that process by dissociating the Government from the decision to abolish the position of disability commissioner and by ensuring the release of all the relevant communications without delay.
My Lords, I join others in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, on securing the time for the debate and on the work she has done, and I thank all others who were associated with producing the report.
I take the opportunity to wish all my colleagues, the noble Baroness and the staff of the House—and in particular Hansard reporters—a joyful Christmas. I mention the Hansard reporters as I am not doing my set piece because so many of my points have already been covered, so this will be off the cuff. I wish everybody a joyful Christmas and a happy new year, and that we may look forward to great progress being made in dealing with the problems that face us in the coming year.
Rather like the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, I had never previously served on a Select Committee on post-legislative scrutiny. I was attracted to join this one as I thought it was not just about seeing whether the original objective of an Act had been achieved—the objectives of this Act have been achieved; it was about liberalising the sale of alcohol and, by God, it has certainly done that in great spades—but looking at whether other consequences have arisen en route that were not foreseen when the original Act was devised in quite different circumstances. There have been changes; the Government realised fairly early in the 2005 to 2010 Parliament that they needed to do something about what was happening with the night-time economy and the disorder that was arising, so a variety of pieces of legislation were put through.
The coalition Government came into power in 2010 and saw that there were other consequential problems—notably also about excess drinking—in many respects related not to the Act but to cheap booze. They came up in 2011 with a quite outstanding strategy devised by David Cameron, which was to tackle some of those fundamental topics. Regrettably, as with so many of Mr Cameron’s policies, it never saw the light of day. Indeed, within two years the now Prime Minister, Mrs May, who was then Home Secretary, delivered a judgment on many of those recommendations Cameron had made, and said that we do not need to take a hammer to sort out some issues—although she certainly took a sledgehammer to deal with some of the recommendations. The Government virtually abandoned MUP—yes, it is under review, but it was virtually dropped, and a whole range of other issues was set to one side. Instead, they opted for an attempt to work with the industry and the health representatives on a collegiate basis whereby legislation would not be required but we would effect a change. We would try to reduce the volume of alcohol consumed by the country and, in turn, we would hope that we might get an improvement in the deteriorating state of health. All the evidence that was amassed at the time seemed to indicate that the health service was carrying a great and growing burden, much of which was attributable to excess abuse of alcohol.
The responsibility deal worked for a period and then was set to one side. Why? It was primarily because the Chancellor of the day, Mr Osborne, decided to drive a coach and horses through the principal recommendation to try to reduce the volume of alcohol by freezing the amount of tax and excise duty on alcohol. The reality is that pricing works. If you increase the price of petrol, people drive less. If you increase the price of alcohol, people drink less. Ask the drinks industry what it does; it spends all its time lobbying for a reduction in taxes and in the price of alcohol. It achieved it under George Osborne, and recently in this last Budget with Mr Hammond. Yes, he is having a look at white cider—he has taken 18 months to consult on that and there is no guarantee that there will be any change—but he has frozen all the other duties. I recently asked the Government what the consequences of that are. Did they do a risk assessment for the NHS of how many poor people they will deal with and the cost of that? The Treasury has come back saying that it did no risk assessment whatever.
What we have before us now is a diversity of approaches to dealing with alcohol, all coming from different angles. I caused the committee some difficulty because to a degree I went outside the terms of reference—for which I apologise—but, given my time over again, I would continue down the same line because I believe there is a need to bring this all together in some way and for there to be a constructive approach from the different parties. One party is the Treasury. I sought to persuade my colleagues to take evidence from the Treasury about its interest in this topic.
I come to the response that the Minister sent the committee. She will be happy to hear that, in contrast to some of my contributions to our previous debates on alcohol, I am quite pleased with the response. When she gave us her first piece of evidence at the start of the committee, she barely mentioned health and the problems that existed then. It was only by delving down into the detail that we saw the extent to which health was a big factor that needed to be addressed. This time round, certainly in the preamble, the Minister has given quite extensive coverage of the wider problems relating to health, as well as the social problems, with violence in families and so on, and she agrees that something should be done about them.
However, the response says that the Act is not a suitable mechanism for solving all those problems, and, to a degree, the committee agreed, although I am at variance with it on that. The Minister says that she has to bring all the partners together to see how to move forward but that these are not necessarily issues relating to the Act. Can she tell me, first, who the partners are that she believes are involved in the development or otherwise of an approach to alcohol? She has said in response to recent Written Questions that there will not be a strategy on alcohol. So who are the partners and how do we bring them together, and how quickly will that be done? The matter is now urgent. We have a health service desperate for extra funding and desperate to reduce its burdens, yet here we have a Chancellor putting extra burdens on the NHS while giving it extra money. We need to try to stop people going to hospitals in the first instance, and one way of doing that is to look at alcohol—particularly the cost of alcohol—and the way it is now being marketed. It has shifted from being sold in pubs to being sold by supermarkets and off-licences, as the noble Baroness has demonstrated. Action is needed on that front too, so we need business to be involved as well.
I would be grateful if the Minister could find a sensible approach that brings people together. I hope we will find a way forward that starts to solve the new problems that were never envisaged when the Act was first introduced.
My Lords, it was an honour to serve on the Licensing Act Select Committee under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering. I refer to my various interests as set out in the register—in particular, as the CEO of the Association of Conservative Clubs and, more recently, as the chairman of Best Bar None, a Home Office-backed scheme that works with licensing stakeholders to promote responsible alcohol consumption and higher professional licensing standards.
The Select Committee’s report was widely regarded by the industry and applauded in the licensing media as both fair and relevant. Today, I would like to limit my contribution to a total of four topics raised within our report where I consider that the Home Office response could have been more positive, but I shall do so as promptly as possible due to the restrictions of time.
I think it would be useful to underline that the Licensing Act is the legislative backbone of the hospitality industry, which is the third-largest private sector employer. Three million jobs are directly supported through “hospitality UK”—that is, 9% of all UK employees. If we take out from that figure the statistics relating solely to eating and drinking, our pubs, clubs, bars and restaurants generate £63 billion turnover each year, returning a third of that in taxes and funding vital public services. In fact, one in three of all new jobs created last year were created by the eating and drinking industry.
Turning to my first point, I believe that the late-night levy effectively remains a form of additional taxation on some businesses which operate during the evenings and night time. The fact that since its creation in 2011 only nine of the 350 local authorities in England and Wales have introduced a late-night levy, while 13 others have issued consultations on it but have not subsequently introduced it, makes me really wonder why the levy has been kept, particularly as councils are obliged to spend their 30% late-night levy share on tackling alcohol-related services connected to the management of the night-time economy, whereas the police have no obligation to spend their 70% on any such measures but can in fact spend it on anything of their choosing. This simply does not seem fair to me.
I wish to make the point that the contribution made by the night-time economy and licensed trade generally already helps to pay for the police and other public services either directly or indirectly through tax, business rates and high-street spend. I would also like to point out that much of the alcohol consumed during the evening, or preloaded before the evening, is purchased from the off-trade supermarkets and convenience stores, which contribute little or nothing to counterbalance the effects of late-night drinking, despite the fact that more alcohol is now purchased through the off-trade than the on-trade sector, with possibly one-fifth of all alcohol off-sales now being purchased online. It is astonishing to me that there is not more parity between on-trade and off-trade in terms of regulatory responsibilities and liability. I do not believe that the current late-night levy, even with the suggested amendments, will achieve this. Generally, I believe that we should be wary of adding financial burdens to on-trade premises when night-time economy premises are very often day-time premises as well—hurt them in one respect and you hurt them in every respect.
That leads on to my second point, which concerns a further form of indirect—and, in my view, unfair—taxation of the licensed on-trade by way of the additional fee paid to councils known as the “multiplier”. This increased annual fee is charged to reflect the fact that consumption of alcohol will take place on the premises. The multiplier effectively doubles or triples the fee paid depending on the rate band. Therefore, for example, the Dog and Duck pub located across the road from a 24-hour supermarket pays, in most cases, a significantly higher annual fee to the council just to maintain its premises licence, even though it is selling a fraction of the amount of alcohol. In our report, we recommend that the fee multiplier should at the very least be extended to supermarkets, but my own view is that, following the case of Hemming, which is also referred to in our report, doubt has been cast over the legality of the fee multiplier as it is currently enforced. It will be interesting to see whether in the future there is a legal challenge on whether the multiplier is in fact lawful.
My third point concerns early morning restriction orders, or EMROs, which were introduced following the repeal of the even less popular alcohol disorder zones. For some reason, EMROs continue to be defended by the claim that aspects of the processes that were identified as problematic have now been addressed. Given that more than two years have passed since these problematic processes have been addressed, with no greater enthusiasm for them, I maintain that EMROs are a draconian measure, fundamentally in opposition to the liberalising spirit of the Licensing Act, impossible to implement and unworkable in practice. As with the late-night levy, I consider that business-led partnership approaches are much more effective. Can the Minister please give these issues some further consideration?
The final point that I would like to make—it is one which stuck out like a sore thumb from the evidence we heard—is that the current appeals system is not working as it should in an industry that is so important to the UK economy. I was pleased that the Government agreed that this too was an area that needed to be addressed, although it would seem that they do not wish to go quite so far as our report recommended. In my view, the beneficial elements of our recommended changes to the current appeals system were: having an expert decision-maker experienced in the field; flexibility and choice of procedure, not necessarily a full re-hearing but possibly an appeal on the papers where appropriate; a dedicated tribunal not competing with a criminal list of cases to get through; decisions as precedents; and time efficiency.
Clearly, however, the best way in which to avoid the need for any appeal is to ensure that councillors sitting on the licensing sub-committees are adequately trained in the subject of licensing. If a person wants to run a pub then they must be trained and qualified to hold a personal licence. The same does not apply for the person granting the premises licence to the property. To me, this seems counterintuitive. It is a matter which could be very easily resolved without having to create something from scratch or break the bank, since there is a lot of expertise in this field which could be harnessed and training already in place that could be adapted.
The Licensing Act 2003 was created before Google, Facebook or online shopping, and is increasingly looking like a cheque book in an online world, with too much emphasis and regulatory liability on the on-trade compared with the off-trade. Whatever the final outcome of our report on the Licensing Act, I hope that our conclusions will at least be a reference point in future years when the subject of licensing is debated. I also hope that it will create a better understanding between those who are tasked with enforcing the Act and those who are obligated to operate under it.
My Lords, I too served on the Select Committee and wish to thank the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, for both chairing the committee and securing this debate. I also thank the excellent staff and advisers who served us so well and the other members of the committee, from whom I learned a great deal.
Our task was a difficult one, which was made more complicated by the large number of amendments that have been made to the legislation since it came into force. Indeed, further amendments were being debated as the committee was sitting. We also had to consider many other changes such as the one raised by the noble Lords, Lord Mancroft and Lord Smith, and the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins—namely the changes to the way that alcohol is now consumed, with the closure of thousands of pubs and the significant growth of off-trade and online purchasing. All this made it difficult to assess the impact of the legislation.
This difficulty is illustrated by the statistics. Alcohol-related violent crime has decreased but—as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, so powerfully described—alcohol-related illness has increased. Nevertheless, the committee made some powerful suggestions for future action. The Government’s much-delayed response was somewhat disappointing—it was certainly a mixture of disappointing and defensive, as the noble Lord, Lord Blair, put it. I hope that, as a result of today’s debate, the Government will at least be prepared to reconsider their response to some of our recommendations. Nobody can claim that all is well and no further action is needed. The worrying health statistics alone should give us cause for concern.
We should also be concerned by many other issues, including the failure of current legislation to apply airside and port side, the consequences of which were described by the noble Lord, Lord Blair, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh; and the inadequacy of resources to police and enforce existing legislation. Surely if our proposal to localise licence fee-setting is not to be accepted, the Minister should at least accept the well argued for need for a flat-rate increase. We should also be concerned about the absence of a useful national database of, for example, personal licence holders.
We should be especially concerned by the significant dissatisfaction we found with the licensing application and appeals processes. The licensing application procedures were variously described to us as “a lottery” and “a pantomime”. We heard of “standards falling far short”; “meek and mild” legal advisers; responsible bodies not engaging effectively, and often not at all; a lack of transparency, with decisions being made “behind closed doors”; and inadequate councillor training. We heard all too frequently of the lack of co-ordination between licensing and planning. We concluded that there would be considerable merit in the licensing application procedures mirroring those for planning applications, which, as we heard, include professionally qualified officers; a requirement for officials to proactively gather and analyse the views of interested people; and the preparation of a wide-ranging pre-meeting report offering detailed analysis, professional judgment and legal advice. We argue that, combined with improved training, that should all be part of the licensing procedures. Better still, as so eloquently argued by the noble Lord, Lord Davies, planning and licensing should be combined.
Although the Government have rejected that proposal, I welcome their recognition of the need for improved training, for greater synergies between planning and licensing, and for stronger guidance on how licensing hearings should be conducted. I hope that in her winding-up speech the Minister will provide details of the action to be taken and the timescales involved. Will she also do the same for licensing appeals, given the Government’s acceptance of the committee’s concerns about those procedures?
Of course, what emerges will lead to changes not to legislation but to guidance. So it is particularly disappointing that the Government have so easily dismissed the committee’s call for a return to consultation on and parliamentary scrutiny of draft guidance. The Government argue:
“The guidance is updated to reflect legislative changes; as these are factual changes it is not necessary to carry out a formal consultation”.
But this argument simply does not bear scrutiny. In their response to the committee’s report, the Government said that,
“there are a significant number of recommendations”—
at least 12 by my count—
“that the Government agrees will help improve the operation of the Act, for example clarifying points of practice for licensing committees by amending the statutory guidance”.
These are not simply “factual” or resulting from “legislative changes”, but rather—because, after all, this is what guidance is for—they will reflect and interpret legislation, improving, as the Government put it, the operation of the Act.
My noble friend Lady Grender, for instance, will wish to scrutinise the changes to guidance in respect of simultaneous temporary event notices given for adjacent plots of land. Like the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, I was deeply disappointed by the Government’s rejection of our pragmatic proposals on disabled access, and I know that my noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester, who is keen to see more licensed premises engage with the problems of access for people with disabilities, will wish to scrutinise any changes that arise following the now promised further consultation. Where the Government offer new interpretations of legislation, there should be consultation and parliamentary scrutiny. I hope that the Minister will agree to look again at this decision.
In passing, since some of our recommendations are to be affected by changes to the LGA handbook, I ask for details of this mysterious publication and the status it has or will have.
The committee’s report covered numerous other issues, but I finish by touching on just one. Despite the undoubted benefits of my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones’s Live Music Act, in which I played a small part in the other place, live music venues and other licensed premises still face significant challenges with, for example, 35% of music venues closing in the last decade. The committee considered one measure that could help: the introduction of a full “agent of change” principle into planning and licensing law. It has already been introduced for permitted developments, such as the change of an empty office building to residential use. But with music venues facing closure as a result of planning decisions, the committee proposed the introduction of the agent of change principle for all new developments. Since the Government’s consultation on such an approach ended over eight months ago, will the Minister update the House on progress? Will she tell us whether she supports the Bill from John Spellar MP—it has cross-party support—which seeks to put a full agent of change principle on a statutory footing?
Members of the committee and other noble Lords have raised important points and posed numerous questions for the Minister. Like them, I look forward to her response. I again thank the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, for chairing the committee and securing today’s debate. I end by echoing the Christmas greetings of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, to one and all.
My Lords, I first draw the attention of the House to my entry in the register of interests; in particular, I am a councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham and a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I should also mention that I am a member of the Campaign for Real Ale and vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group. I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and the members of her Select Committee for the excellent report they have produced and the detailed work they undertook to consider and report on the Licensing Act 2003.
As the noble Baroness said, it is disappointing that the Government took so long to respond to the report, but at least they have responded to it before we had a debate today. That is progress. As we have heard in this debate, the Licensing Act 2003 changed the law governing the sale of alcohol. I agree very much that, in moderation, alcohol can enhance community cohesion, bring people together and is enjoyable with family and friends. But in excess it can have a devastating effect for the individuals drinking, for their family and friends and for the community more widely.
We have all seen reports in the media of the effects of drinking to excess. There is a clear link between drinking to excess and violent crime and general anti-social behaviour. I agree with the general thrust of the report that the Act needs to be reviewed and overhauled. It has been in force for 11 years and piecemeal amendments do not enable a comprehensive look to be taken at licensing, alcohol consumption, what the trends are, what is good, what has worked and what has not worked so well.
I note that the Government do not intend to be “hasty” in instigating such an overhaul, which is a word sometimes used when responding to reports and reviews. I am always sceptical when I hear from the Government such phrases as “keeping matters under review”, or “will deal with it in due course”. I am very much in favour of the Government introducing, reviewing and updating legislation on the back of evidence and careful policy consideration, and with the benefit of pre-legislative or post-legislative scrutiny reviews, which we have here, as my noble friend Lord Davies of Stamford and the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, mentioned. It is a better way to legislate, and we have two recent examples from this House of how to do it and how not to do it.
The Modern Slavery Act was a comprehensive, world-class piece of legislation, tackling a real problem and getting it right. It became law after detailed consideration in this House and excellent pre-legislative scrutiny. Then there is the Housing and Planning Act 2016, which must rate as one of the worst pieces of legislation put on the statute book by a Government in recent times. Largely, the provisions contained in the Act—all devised on the back of an envelope from the Policy Exchange—have been formally dropped or quietly forgotten about.
I remember when I became a councillor, many years ago, to get permission to sell alcohol you had to appear in front of the licensing magistrates, as we have heard—a specific group of magistrates who had received specific training. But that all changed with this Act and these matters became the responsibility of the local authority. The new system has generally worked well, but it is a lot of work for councillors, in my experience.
One of the recommendations that I am not convinced about, although other noble Lords are, is the trial merging of planning and licensing committees. I serve on the planning committee of Lewisham Council and it is a significant time commitment. In Lewisham, every member of the authority has the option of serving on either the planning committee or the licensing committee. The licensing committee undertakes a significant amount of work and meets regularly. Members of both committees take their responsibilities seriously and receive training. I am not convinced, from what I have seen of this proposal, that it would enhance that, but I accept that it is different in other places, as I have heard from other noble Lords this evening. I very much agree with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton.
The proposal from the committee was not to merge the two systems but to experiment with merging the two systems. That is a significant difference and worth considering. A complete change would, I agree, be inappropriate, but the proposal is to experiment in limited areas with that change.
I thank the noble Lord for that clarification. I am always happy to experiment and we could look at that, but in my experience, from what I have seen so far as a councillor in my own authority, the current system works well. In other places that may not be the case.
As I was saying, I agree very much with the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, about the setting of fees locally. We had a similar debate about planning fees and my noble friend Lady Henig made the same point in her remarks. What is important is that whoever deals with these matters receives good-quality training that is refreshed at regular intervals. The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Hindhead, and other noble Lords made that point. Training is important and it should be refreshed regularly.
As to where the appeal goes, I am not opposed to looking at some other body rather than the magistrates’ court where they go at present. Expertise and knowing the local area are important, as is being properly trained, as I said. I would not want to see the appeal process being too remote. One benefit of local magistrates is that they are drawn from the local community.
The 2003 Act was never going to deal with the problems around excessive drinking and all the problems associated with alcohol misuse. There have been many benefits to the liberalising of the law. Many cities have developed thriving night-time offerings that have become an important part of the local economy, and that is to be welcomed. The noble Baroness, Lady Watkins of Tavistock, made the important point about the risks of selling alcohol to young people or them buying it online. I am well aware that the police and trading standards officers have initiatives whereby they send police cadets into off-licences and other premises selling alcohol to see whether they will be served, but that cannot be done when alcohol is bought online.
There are, though, serious problems with alcohol misuse and the link between alcohol misuse and violence is there for all to see. I have been spending a few weeks completing the Police Force Parliamentary Scheme and I am very grateful for the time the Metropolitan Police has given me and for showing me different aspects of its work. One of the most distressing things was my visit to the domestic violence unit at Greenwich, where a really professional group of officers do an excellent job and make a real difference. But it is distressing to be briefed on the real horror of domestic violence and then see the role that alcohol played in many, but not all, of the incidents the police had to deal with.
As part of the same scheme, I was present when a very drunk man was being violent on the streets and was arrested by police officers. He told them he had swallowed a bottle of pills, so the officers had to call for an ambulance. He was assessed at the scene and taken to A&E with the police officers. They had to remain with him while he was seen because he was very aggressive and violent and could have hurt himself or been a danger to others there. Of course, the officers were then unable to assist other colleagues if any other problems happened later that day. These are all serious problems related to alcohol misuse. It is all down to excessive drinking.
My noble friend Lord Davies of Stamford referred to how important the hospitality industry is to our economy, as did the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Hindhead. That leads on to the issue of off-sales and the reversal in terms of the amount of alcohol sold in premises licensed for alcohol to be consumed on those premises and alcohol sold through off-licences and supermarkets.
There is a very real problem with supermarkets, which can, using economies of scale, buy huge quantities of high-strength alcohol, usually lager, and sell it very cheaply. My noble friend Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe raised the importance of tax as a determining factor in the amount of alcohol sold. When noble Lords next go into their local supermarket, I suspect they will not get far before being met by a large beer mountain or maybe, at this time of year, a prosecco or sparkling wine mountain right next to it. These are issues that we need to deal with. My noble friend Lady Henig made a point about the growing problem of super-strength alcohol being sold in supermarkets and corner shops.
While there are some very good local voluntary schemes in place to deal with specific problems, we should look to other jurisdictions to see how they deal with the issue. I note that the committee made reference to and recommended the introduction of legislation based on that presently in force in Scotland, with amendments to the guidance presently in force in England in the meantime.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, that a disability access statement for the premises is something the Government should quickly seek to introduce. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, that holding another consultation is inadequate, but it is an unfortunate problem that we often experience across various parts of government. I have lost count of the number of consultation reviews that were introduced for mandatory electrical safety checks, despite the Government announcing from the Dispatch Box that they were going to introduce them.
Introducing this new legislation and guidance is very sensible. While people want to enjoy themselves, the massive change to more drinking at home cannot be a good thing, both for the reasons I highlighted earlier and the effect on our pubs, which are closing at a rate of nearly 25 a week—despite the valiant efforts of Pub is The Hub, CAMRA and other campaigns. The closure of such community assets is regrettable. I know that the Government see the value of local pubs. The Localism Act introduced the assets of community value scheme, but CAMRA does not recommend that members seek to list pubs any more because there have been unintended consequences as banks and financial institutions do not like the charge held over the premises. There have also been problems with landlords raising finance for pub improvements because they see the charge listed there. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, is looking at this matter; I have raised it with him previously.
When your pub is gone, it is gone and it is not coming back, despite the boom in new breweries selling a number of fantastic products. The issue of the late-night levy was addressed by the committee; I concur with the thrust of the report that business improvement districts, or something similar, should be explored and that the late-night levy should probably be abolished at an appropriate point. The committee also looked at live music; I think the Live Music Act 2012 has been very welcome, making a positive contribution to the live music scene with proportionate deregulation. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, deserves much credit for skilfully taking that Bill through your Lordships’ House. I agree with the committee that the Act is probably working broadly as intended.
I agree with the recommendations of the committee’s report on the need for some form of licensing on the airside of airports and, similarly, on the portside of ports. I totally agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Blair, in this respect and hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, will take those concerns back to her department. I have been at airports early in the morning and seen people sitting there, drinking pints of high-strength lager at 8 am. It is just ridiculous. We need to deal with that. Getting on to a plane in a poor condition is just not good enough. We need to be careful and proportionate, but there are issues here that need to be carefully considered.
In conclusion, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, for instigating this excellent debate, which has provided a number of important issues to be responded to by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford.
My Lords, I begin by congratulating my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering on securing this important debate. I thank all noble Lords who have spoken for their varied and thoughtful contributions. I also thank the committee for its thorough and detailed scrutiny of the Licensing Act 2003 and for the very comprehensive report it produced.
This debate is important for many reasons. First, the costs of alcohol-related harm are estimated at some £21 billion each year. Crime survey data show that in around 40% of all violent incidents, the victim believed the perpetrator to be under the influence of alcohol, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, pointed out. He also mentioned the pernicious effect of alcohol in exacerbating incidents of domestic violence, which the Government are very keen to deal with. Alcohol-related hospital admissions and the incidence of certain alcohol-related health conditions have all increased; although alcohol-related death rates have remained relatively stable in recent years, the rate in 2015 was still higher than that observed in 1994. However, as was pointed out by both the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and my noble friend Lord Smith, the production and sale of alcohol is important for the UK. Pubs are woven into the fabric of our nation and continue to be places where we meet our family and friends. The continued success of our alcohol and pub industry is definitely in everyone’s interest.
The committee made a total of 73 recommendations and conclusions in its report. The Government did not accept all of those recommendations outright. However, the committee highlighted a number of important issues that need to be addressed to ensure that the Licensing Act remains effective. Although we may not have accepted all the committee’s recommendations, the Government are committed to address many of the issues that the committee highlighted. I want to focus my response to this debate on how the Government are responding to the issues raised by noble Lords.
Many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering, talked about planning and licensing, as well as the experimental merger of local authority licensing committees and sub-committees with planning committees, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Blair. We have not accepted that recommendation; interestingly, the views of noble Lords in the House from the local government perspective perhaps indicate why. Although the basic structures of the two regimes are similar, they have fundamentally different purposes. It is for local authorities to determine how they organise committees to deliver their statutory functions and meet the needs of their communities. The legislation already allows that where a matter relates to a licensing function and to another function of the local authority—planning, for example—the matter may be referred to either committee. This allows for the licensing committee to discharge functions other than licensing matters and, vice versa, for a planning committee to discharge a licensing function.
However, we accept the important points raised by the committee on the effectiveness and consistency of implementation of licensing processes and decision-making across local areas. We agree that improvements in practice could be made. Instead of transferring the functions of licensing committees to planning committees, we are focusing on improving training and providing stronger guidance on how licensing hearings should be conducted. There is good practice in many local areas that we will build on and we will work closely with partners—the Institute of Licensing and the Local Government Association, in particular—to assess the training needs for councillors and the police and, where appropriate, to develop specialist training programmes with partners. My noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering said that licensing appeals should not be heard by local magistrates. We have noted the committee’s comments on the appeals process. We do not intend to change the system at present; however, we accept the committee’s findings that the licensing appeals system could be approved and we are aware that some local areas find the system unwieldly and prone to delay. We will explore with partners whether there is good practice in the existing regime and similar regimes that might offer some ideas for consideration.
My noble friends Lady McIntosh of Pickering and Lord Shinkwin talked about disabled access. The Government are sympathetic to the issues that have been raised on disabled access and the problems with ensuring that business and service providers comply with the requirements of the Equality Act 2010. Many of us choose to socialise in licensed premises; they are therefore an important part of our daily lives. Too many of those venues are difficult for disabled people to access. However, we agree with the committee that adding to the licensing objectives is not the answer. The Act and the licensing objectives must be used to address issues that apply to the licensable activities, and are therefore unique to licensed premises. The Act should not be used to control other aspects of licensed premises; that would be outside the scope of the licensing regime and contrary to the principles of better regulation. We will consult disabled peoples’ organisations to better understand the extent of the problem from the perspective of people with a broad range of disabilities. We will work with the National Association of Licensing and Enforcement Officers and representatives of the licensing trade to explore what practical measures can be taken. We hope that this will result in significant improvements for disabled people without the need for additional regulations.
The noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, and many noble Lords who have spoken in the debate talked about minimum unit pricing, or MUP. Since the publication of the committee’s report the UK Supreme Court has found in favour of the Scottish Government regarding the introduction of a minimum unit price for alcohol. The committee recommended that, should MUP be found to be effective in Scotland, it should be introduced in England and Wales. Our position remains as detailed in our response to the committee. MUP remains under review pending the impact of its introduction in Scotland and the Government will consider the evidence of its impact once it is available.
The noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, also talked about timescales. Interestingly, the Scottish Government are required to report on the impact of their legislation after five years. It is possible that evidence will begin to emerge before then. As I said, we intend to keep this issue under close review.
Wales has taken the decision to proceed with introducing a minimum unit price, but it is not entirely free to implement it without the authority of the UK Government. Will it be required to wait until the Scottish review has been completed?
The noble Lord will know that this is not a devolved matter. That is the rationale behind Wales not being able to move on this, but when the Scottish Government review the impact of their legislation I am sure the UK Government will note it with great interest. That is all I will say on that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, mentioned that HM Treasury committed to introduce a new higher duty band on cider between 6.9% and 7.5% alcohol by volume from 2019. This targeted measure will tackle high-strength white cider to encourage reformulation to lower alcohol levels and to discourage consumption to help reduce the harm associated with these drinks.
Quite a few noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady McIntosh and the noble Lords, Lord Blair and Lord Kennedy, talked about consumption of alcohol at airports. Like the noble Lord, Lord Blair, I was unaware of the airside rules regarding alcohol. We are all aware of them now. The Government share the committee’s view that everyone should be able to enjoy a safe and disruption-free environment when travelling. There are tough penalties in place for being drunk and disruptive on an aircraft, including imprisonment for up to two years or an unlimited fine. Pilots already have the power to deny boarding or to force passengers off the plane if they are drunk and the safety of the aircraft or its passengers is threatened—I am sure we have all seen incidents where that has happened.
Although the number of disruptive events remains small compared with the total passenger numbers, occurrences seem to be on the rise. The Government believe further engagement with airports and airlines is required to consider the full effects of the committee’s recommendation. As part of this work, the Government will issue a call for evidence on the committee’s specific recommendation to assess carefully the practicalities and resources required to implement the Act in these environments, as well as the impact that extending the Act will have on businesses. This call for evidence will be published in the new year.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh also talked about sales to drunks. While the number of people prosecuted for selling alcohol to a drunk is low, it provides a useful tool by which the police and enforcement bodies can remind licensees of their obligations under the 2003 Act. Several areas in our local alcohol action area programme are looking at ways to improve how this is enforced. We are supporting them to identify good practice.
My noble friend also referred to the Alcohol etc. (Scotland) Act 2010, which included a ban on multipack pricing, BOGOF, as she pointed out, or any other offer including free alcohol. It restricts advertising on drinks promotions to designated areas in off-licence premises and requires that all premises introduce a Challenge 25 policy as standard. Research published to date on the impact of the provisions suggest that these restrictions have had a limited impact on the amount of alcohol sold by the off-trade and the manner in which it is sold. Although the research cited by the committee conducted by NHS Health Scotland and the University of Glasgow suggests that the legislation was associated with a decrease in off-trade sales of wine in Scotland in 2013, other studies have shown little or no impact. The Public Health England evidence review also concluded that bans on price promotions are not as effective and are quite easily circumvented.
My noble friends Lady Eaton and Lord Smith of Hindhead talked about the late-night levy, which obviously enables local authorities to collect a financial contribution from businesses that profit from selling alcohol late at night and for the funds that are raised to be used for late-night policing and other costs associated with the night-time economy. Changes introduced by this year’s Policing and Crime Act will improve the late-night levy and aim to increase its use by making it more flexible, fairer to business and more transparent.
I think my noble friends also mentioned the 70:30 split. The guidance on the levy states that there is no bar to a local agreement between the licensing authority and the PCC to vary that split by allocating all or some of the PCC’s share of the revenue back to local authority initiatives. We therefore consider that the split is appropriate. We do not have plans to change it. The Government understand that the levy is also not suitable for all areas. We support areas that decide to introduce other schemes, such as BIDs, which my noble friend mentioned. Councils can offer a levy discount to premises involved in BIDs.
My noble friend Lady Eaton also talked about licensing fees. Recent Budgets have offered business rate relief to pubs following the recent revaluation of business rates. A move to locally set licensing fees or an increase in the centrally set fees at this stage would undermine the assistance that the rate relief has given licensees. The Government therefore considered that now is not the time to make changes to licensing fees, but the policy will be reconsidered in due course.
On health aspects, the committee did not recommend introducing health as a licensing objective. We are broadly in agreement with that position. However, public health teams have an important role to play in the licensing system. That is why they have a statutory role as responsible authorities under the 2003 Act. My noble friend Lord Mancroft also talked about the health aspect of alcohol. Directors of public health in England and local health boards in Wales have been responsible authorities under the Licensing Act 2003 since 2012. As responsible authorities, health bodies are automatically notified of new licensing applications and can make representations based on existing licensing objectives. Licensing authorities can take into account health data where it links to existing licensing objectives such as hospital or ambulance data relating to alcohol-related incidents or injuries. We are encouraging A&E departments to share their data with community safety partnerships through the “information sharing to tackle violence” programme.
The noble Baroness, Lady Henig, and the noble Lord, Lord Foster, were intrigued by the LGA handbook. The LGA is currently writing its licensing handbook. It will be a valuable guidance document for those working in the licensing regime on a day-to-day basis, and it fulfils a role that the statutory Section 182 guidance cannot.
The noble Baroness, Lady Watkins of Tavistock, talked about online sales. It is illegal to supply alcohol to children via any medium. Under the mandatory conditions of the Licensing Act, all licensed premises are required to have an age verification policy in place. Where alcohol is sold online, licence holders need to make sure that age checks are done at the point of delivery to ensure that alcohol is not sold to under-18s. It is therefore the responsibility of the person serving or delivering the alcohol to ensure that age verification has taken place and that photo ID has been checked if a person appears to be less than 18 years of age.
The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, talked about the alcohol strategy or lack thereof, as he put it. We are delivering on our commitments in the modern crime prevention strategy to improve local intelligence, establish effective partnerships and equip police and local authorities with the right powers to take effective action. The second phase of our local alcohol action area programme focuses on local action and demonstrates our commitment to work with industry, police, local authorities and other partners to tackle alcohol-related harms. I think it was the noble Lord who asked who the partners were. They are diverse and include the police, local authorities, children’s and adult services, health partners and licensing bodies such as the Institute of Licensing—that is to name just a few of those with whom we are engaged. The Government keep alcohol policy, including the need for a cross-government strategy, under review.
My noble friend Lord Smith of Hindhead talked about the multiplier. The fee multiplier is applied to premises which predominantly or solely sell alcohol in high volumes. These are often referred to as vertical drinking bars and make up a very small percentage of premises subject to a licensing fee. The high fee reflects the high volumes of alcohol sold in the night-time economy.
The noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, asked about the timelines for training. We have begun initial discussions with a number of partners to develop this work and will continue to drive it forward next year. On the Private Member’s Bill and the agent of change principle, I will write to him.
I hope that I have given a fairly comprehensive response to the debate. I thank my noble friend and the committee once again.
My Lords, I take this opportunity to thank all who have contributed to the debate and my noble friend the Minister for responding. Clearly, this is a subject to which we will return, and the committee will once again wish to record its disappointment that many of our recommendations have not been snatched up, including the need for urgency on the MUP and the need to look at reducing the number of retail offers, which I believe the evidence will show compellingly have worked in Scotland. As emerged from contributions from the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Hindhead, and others this evening, the committee is not persuaded of the effectiveness of late-night levies or early-morning restriction orders. I am delighted that the Government will look more closely at BIDs as an alternative in this regard.
I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Blair, is proved wrong and that we will not see more serious incidences of air rage. I take note of what my noble friend said regarding existing rights for pilots to expel someone from an aircraft who is plain drunk. There is increasing evidence this year that passengers are drinking duty-free before they even board an aircraft. That is causing enormous concern and needs to be watched. Our primary concern is passengers, but I do not believe that crew, many of whom are quite young in some carriers, should be placed in a difficult situation in this regard.
I yield to no one in my admiration for the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, and his campaigning zeal on the health aspects, closely followed by the noble Baronesses, Lady Watkins and Lady Henig—there was a bit of competition on the committee in that regard. We just need to find another mechanism to use rather than the licensing aspect.
I echo the disappointment of the noble Lord, Lord Foster, at the resources being put out to enforcement. The noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, talked about funding for local authorities. Although the committee no longer meets, I am sure we will seek to use other mechanisms such as questions to keep the matter under review.
I wish all of you, including the staff of the House, a merry Christmas, mindful of those who will have to work, including in the health service and the Armed Forces, during the Christmas period and beyond.