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Licensing: Closing Time

Volume 806: debated on Tuesday 29 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to amend the Licensing Act 2003 to allow local authorities to take action against premises that are not enforcing the 10 pm closing time.

My Lords, in begging leave to ask the Question in my name on the Order Paper, I remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

My Lords, we expect that licensed premises will act responsibly and abide by the new rules on opening hours. We are satisfied that proper enforcement mechanisms are available to the police and local authorities to take action against businesses that fail to comply.

My Lords, as a former council leader, the Minister will know better than most the impact of the universal closing time on our high streets. It is no surprise that the police, the LGA, mayors and leaders are all expressing their concerns, not only about the impact of the return to the bad old days but about their ability to enforce appropriately. Without effective enforcement, they feel like these are the empty threats of the teacher who has already lost control of the class. When and how will this policy be reviewed? Can the Minister commit to meeting soon with the LGA to listen to and act on its genuine concerns regarding the limitations of current legislation and, with their genuine desire to do more and better, councils’ ability to enforce effectively and appropriately?

I depart from the noble Baroness on needing more legislation, or amendment to the current legislation. The Covid-secure guidelines have become legal obligations. Businesses will be fined and could be closed if they breach the rules. I do not see that an amendment to the Licensing Act, which I think she is referring to and would require primary legislation because it departs from the four current pillars, would be appropriate at this time, because we need swift action.

My Lords, in respect of the 10 pm curfew, which is causing so much of a problem for the hospitality sector, have the Government assessed whether the law could be tempered by guidance, giving publicans and restaurant proprietors, who are generally responsible people, a degree of flexibility over drinking and eating-up times, so that dispersal problems might be eased?

My Lords, guidance has been issued and the guidelines have become legal obligations. It should not be difficult to comply, but I can understand that from many people’s point of view these things have happened quickly and that they are ever-changing; such is the pattern of this virus.

My Lords, I declare my various interests and acknowledge that health always comes first. The hospitality industry employs 4 million people and has been one of the hardest hit throughout the pandemic. The British Beer and Pub Association said:

“Make no mistake, a 10 pm curfew will devastate our sector during an already challenging environment for pubs … During the current circumstances every hour of trading is crucial to the survival of pubs—for many this curfew will render their businesses unviable.”

Can the Minister explain on what scientific basis the 10 pm decision was made? I understand that fewer than 5% of new infections come from the hospitality sector, and our trade evidence shows that 10% of drinks are consumed after 10 pm. Will the Government put in place further comprehensive support packages for this sector that really needs help?

My Lords, there is a general acknowledgement that the sector is struggling with an hour of its business being cut. The scientific basis is that the number of infections is going up, and the Government, through their engagement with SAGE, are thinking of the best ways to tackle the virus while keeping the economy going as best they can.

My Lords, I strongly support whatever legal arrangements are in place, but regarding 10 pm breaches, may I suggest that the authorities have powers, which will take a week or two to settle in, not only to fine, clear and close premises, but to require from premises and personal licensees and their dedicated premises supervisors a written assurance on future compliance with the law, and in default to subject them to a form of aggravated breach penalty payment—in other words, an increased fine?

I assure the noble Lord that this system is in place. The fines do go up, from £1,000 to £10,000. It would be an unusual licensee who wished to have several £10,000 fines.

My Lords, I declare my interests as in the register. The people who do the work covered by regulations in these premises, and not just at kicking-out time, are environmental staff on district councils in two-tier areas, yet the powers to enforce and, if necessary, to close down for a period, rest at county level with public health. Should the powers not be aligned with the people who do the work on the ground at district level?

Coming from a county authority, the noble Lord will know that quite often the powers lie at county level regarding planning and other things. It is important that, whether we represent organisations or individuals, everyone plays their part in ensuring that the restrictions can be lifted as swiftly as possible.

My Lords, I refer the House to my relevant interests as set out in the register. While I full support the intent behind the restrictions announced by the Prime Minister, there is a real problem with how this is playing out. Shop workers are at the forefront of dealing with violence, threats and abuse, as people who in many cases have had more than enough to drink seek to buy more alcohol from shops, supermarkets and off-licences. Can the Minister today commit to a proper and urgent review taking account of the additional risks that shop workers face, as the shop workers’ union, USDAW, have called for?

I cannot commit to a review, as the noble Lord will know, but I acknowledge that, whether it is a shop worker or a publican whom people are frustrated at, and whether through the lack of freedom over the last few months or because they have drunk too much, these things are happening in shops. I will certainly take this back and I am very happy to speak to him further about this.

My Lords, I share the scepticism expressed by some previous speakers. The 10 pm closing time is, to my mind, mistaken from an economic and a social perspective. If there is to be a curfew, it should start at 11 pm, to allow two servings in restaurants, clubs and pubs serving food, and to prevent huge crowds spilling out on to our streets and into our off-licences and shops, causing yet more mingling. Can my noble friend the Minister publish the scientific evidence on this measure? What will be the cost? What will the police and the local authorities stop doing instead?

I am sorry to disappoint my noble friend, but SAGE is an independent body and anything it publishes is down to it. On her point about an 11 pm curfew, that is what we had until recently. When making their decisions, the Government strike a balance—I know my noble friend disagrees—between suppression of the virus and trying to keep the economy going to some extent.

My Lords, as the last two speakers intimated, when restaurants and pubs close, consumers dive into other sources for their alcohol. Will the Minister explain why the Government refuse to listen to local authorities, such as the Mayor of Manchester, that want alcohol sales after 9 pm stopped?

I acknowledge all the views of noble Lords who want the curfew later, and I know the Mayor of Manchester wants the curfew earlier, but the Government have to balance the economic effect with the effect of the virus going up.

Sitting suspended.