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Alcohol Licensing (Coronavirus) (Regulatory Easements) (Amendment) Regulations 2021

Volume 814: debated on Monday 6 September 2021

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Alcohol Licensing (Coronavirus) (Regulatory Easements) (Amendment) Regulations 2021.

Relevant document: 5th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee.

My Lords, these regulations contain modest measures to help to support the hospitality industry’s recovery from the economic impact of closures and restrictions on its operation during the Covid-19 pandemic. The measures will help hospitality businesses to recoup some of the revenue they have lost since March of last year. They will also allow greater flexibility in the way in which licensed premises operate if circumstances change.

Data from trade organisations and other sources show significant financial losses for the hospitality industry as a consequence of the pandemic. Curren Goodden Associates, a data and research company, reports that around 6,000 licensed premises closed in 2020 across Britain. The British Beer and Pub Association has estimated a year-on-year decrease in beer sales of £7.8 billion in 2020. Office for National Statistics data up to the end of May this year showed that payments to suppliers from food and drink businesses remained at around half their pre-pandemic levels.

The statutory instrument contains three measures to help. The first will extend provisions in the Business and Planning Act 2020 to allow for a further year, until 30 September next year, sales of alcohol for consumption off the premises to licensed premises that did not have that permission. This will allow up to 38,000 licensed premises that did not have permission to make off-sales when the Act commenced last year to continue selling alcohol for consumption outdoors, to take away or for home delivery.

The second measure amends the limits prescribed in Section 107 of the Licensing Act 2003 to increase the allowance for temporary event notices that a premises user can give in respect of a premises from 15 to 20 and increases the maximum number of days on which temporary events may be held at such premises from 21 to 26, in each of the calendar years 2022 and 2023. The increase in premises allowances of temporary event notices will enable unlicensed premises to host more revenue-generating events, such as wedding receptions and markets where alcohol is sold, as well as enabling licensed premises to extend hours by way of a temporary event notice to accommodate celebratory occasions.

Finally, the statutory instrument amends existing regulations, the Licensing Act 2003 (Permitted Temporary Activities) (Notices) Regulations 2005, to make consequential amendments to the relevant forms for temporary event notices and counter-notices. All businesses should still comply with the latest government guidance on working safely during the pandemic.

I reassure the Committee that, before this order was laid, Home Office officials consulted the National Police Chiefs’ Council about the effects that the temporary off-sales permission has had thus far. The view of the police then was that it had not caused any increase in crime and disorder.

Alongside the extension of the temporary off-sales permission, the statutory instrument will extend an expedited review process which allows responsible authorities to quickly alter the licensing conditions granted to premises or to remove the permission for sales of alcohol for consumption off the premises. I know that noble Lords will appreciate the impact which the pandemic has had on the hospitality industry, and I hope that the Committee will support these measures to aid its recovery. I commend this order to the House. I beg to move.

I thank the Minister for her cogent introduction to the regulations and for the copious, detailed, helpful Home Office Explanatory Memorandum. I am sure that all of us seek progress for these regulations. It is so good to see my noble friend Lord Coaker in his Front-Bench seat. I recollect his determination, diligence and command of subject in another place. Can the Minister throw any further light on how previous provisions for Covid have fared in Wales? Was there easy acceptance or did her department detect some resistance? How did her department liaise with and consult the Senedd in Cardiff? Speedily, was it? Or was it dilatory? What form did the consultation take? Was it ministerially, face to face? I think not, from paragraph 10 of the Explanatory Memorandum. Was it official to official? Again, paragraph 10 is specific. Why was it not ministerially face to face? Were there problems? Surely the Minister will surely dispel those considerations. Has the department made any assessment of the differences in the reception of and obedience to the previous post-Covid provisions? What was the link between her department and the department of health? How were these links between departments managed?

Finally, the Committee may know that many decades ago there was a referendum in Wales to determine Sunday opening for public houses. Nonconformist opinion rallied negative forces. The referendum was lost and many remained thirsty on Sundays. I hasten to say that Wales is not a land of hypocrisy and whitewash, but in those days in much of Wales every Sunday there was a procession of buses carrying thirsty Welshwomen and Welshmen to borderland English pubs. Several decades later the second referendum was positive, possibly because the chapels were emptying. I remind the Committee that the great Welshman and Prime Minister Lloyd George enacted legislation that impinged strongly on pub opening times, but the World War I war effort was judged to be the better for it.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining these regulations. I am concerned that the information that she gave to the Committee appears to be somewhat out of date. For example, she gave information about the sale of beer until May this year. Looking at the press, the evidence is that the hospitality sector has recovered extremely well in recent months, what with staycations and people enjoying their newfound freedom. I wonder whether she has any more up-to-date information about why these regulations are necessary.

Of the three measures, the last one is consequential in terms of applications for temporary event notices, and the increases to the limits for temporary event notices are only marginal. My major concern, which we have previously discussed, is about on-licence premises being allowed to sell alcohol to take away. When we discussed this previously, I expressed concern about alcohol being sold in open containers, allowing customers to purchase alcohol and then to walk down the street unsupervised, to the annoyance of passers-by and local residents. Of particular concern was if the alcohol was served in containers made of glass which could be broken and used as weapons.

I note that the Minister said that the National Police Chiefs’ Council—presumably consulted earlier this year—said that there was no increase in crime and disorder as a result of the change allowing on-licence premises to sell alcohol to take away. But that was before the recovery in the hospitality sector that we have seen in recent months. Again, I wonder whether there is a growing problem of disorder as a result of the sorts of changes that these regulations are looking to extend.

The Explanatory Memorandum states that the measures are

“intended to assist the recovery of the hospitality industry in response to the coronavirus pandemic.”

To an extent, that is still a problem as far as city centres are concerned. Although noble Lords and our colleagues in the Commons are back, many offices are still not being occupied in city centres. I can understand that there is a continuing problem for the hospitality sector in city centres, but that is not the case in terms of venues where people live.

It is also a little confusing that Westminster Council, for example, has decided not to grant any more pavement licences from the end of this month, and to reopen roads, particularly in Soho. My understanding is that these regulations are an integral part of pavement licences in that, if alcohol is served by an on-licence premises to people sitting either on the pavement or in the road, that counts as off-sales. Therefore, these regulations are integral to pavement licences if the service provided by premises where there are pavement licences is to include the serving of alcohol. It seems confusing that local authorities are not extending pavement licences—presumably they know better about the concerns of local residents, which is why they are not continuing with the process—yet the Government continue to proceed with these regulations.

The other concern I have is that, as I understand it, the reason why on-licence premises were given permission to sell alcohol to take away—they were given off-licences, effectively—was because of social distancing restrictions, which restricted the number of customers who could be served inside the premises. Now, as we know, all legal restrictions on social distancing inside premises have been removed and, therefore, the main reason for these regulations in the first place seems to have gone. Indeed, as we have seen in the media, nightclubs have reopened, and pop festivals and the like are taking place where you are getting significant numbers of people into very small venues. Again, one has to ask why regulations designed to compensate for the fact that you could not accommodate as many people inside premises are continuing when the restrictions on people inside premises are no longer there.

The whole basis of these regulations is to help the hospitality industry, but at the same time as saying that they want to do that, the Government, according to the Vaccines Minister yesterday, are about to introduce compulsory Covid passports or Covid vaccination proof for entry into many types of premises in the hospitality industry. This would seem to contradict what they are trying to do with these regulations.

It is not simply a case of excluding people who have decided not to be vaccinated, nor simply a matter of keeping people safe. In July in the other place, the Government’s Vaccines Minister said that, by the end of that month, those who had been vaccinated overseas would be able to have a discussion with their GP, and if they were satisfied that the vaccinations that they had received were in compliance with UK rules, the information would be uploaded to the NHS system and people could then access their Covid pass via the NHS app.

This is still not possible, so almost daily I am getting emails from people who have been double vaccinated in Australia or Singapore but cannot access the Covid pass—the same pass that the Government apparently will demand that people have, to access the sort of hospitality industry premises that they claim to want to help in the regulations. It is not simply a health issue of ensuring that people are double vaccinated before they can go into venues. These people have been properly vaccinated yet they will not be able to prove through the NHS app that they have been doubly vaccinated, so they will be barred entry to the sort of premises that the Government are intending to enforce Covid passes for by the end of this month, according to the Vaccines Minister yesterday.

Therefore, I have concerns about whether these regulations are necessary. Local authorities seem to be taking a different view, and I am concerned that the apparent proposal to insist on Covid passes for entering many premises within the hospitality industry will have the reverse effect to what the Government are trying to achieve through these regulations.

My Lords, it is good to be here discussing this important SI. I say at the outset that we support the regulations but, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, and my noble friend Lord Jones, there are some questions which quite rightly people will want asked. However, I thank the Minister for a helpful introduction, particularly in trying to answer some of the questions before we had asked them—for example, on the consultation with the national police chiefs.

My noble friend Lord Jones got off to a good start by saying how well I did in the other place—so I thought his was a brilliant speech. e made some important points. It is interesting to look at the history of Wales around the referendum on drinking on a Sunday, some of the implications of that and changes that have taken place over the years. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, is absolutely right: the Explanatory Memorandum talked about all the difficulties that there have been, with 6,000 licensed premises closing and over £7 billion lost, but the point of the regulations was to help. It would be helpful, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, was saying, to ask what the positive outcome of some of that was. How many places would have closed and how much money would have been lost had that not happened?

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, that there clearly is a real problem. You cannot drive around the country without seeing closed restaurants, closed hotels and closed pubs. I am not a statistician but I can see where I live—Cotgrave in Nottinghamshire—that there were two pubs and now there is one, which is working as hard as it can but is facing difficulty. The hospitality industry needs support and help. I accept the point about the need to be positive, particularly as some of the regulations have been relaxed, so what additional benefits are there? That is an important point about why the regulations are necessary and what we say to the public about them. From the evidence of my own eyes as I drive around, I cannot believe that there has not been a disastrous effect. I have a number of questions, as it has made a difference to the industry as a whole.

I turn to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, about crime and disorder as there are questions we need to ask about that. When the SI went through before, my colleagues raised a number of issues which were taken on board, including the cost and the increased workload for local authorities. What assessment has been made of that? What support has been given to the licensing authorities in local authorities to deal with it? Have any problems emerged as a consequence? I will come on to anti-social behaviour and the potential for crime.

On access to toilets, I am bemused by the fact that the availability of public conveniences is shocking across the country. I know everybody blames everybody else. Whoever’s fault it is, it is a real problem. If you look at the night-time economy, there was a problem before and there continues to be a problem with shop doorways being used and so on. The issue has been raised before, and is important. I do not know whether people are embarrassed to talk about it or just assume the worst, but the reality is that we all need a toilet and sometimes a public toilet is not available and perhaps it should be. We raised that as the SI went through before.

The availability of support for smaller breweries is an issue. They provide so much of the local pub scene. Has any work been done to see whether the help for them has been significant?

The Minister answered a question about the National Police Chiefs’ Council. It would be interesting to see whether there are any differences between what it is saying and what local police forces say. The Local Government Association talks about informal discussions with it. I am not sure what the Minister said about what it said, unless I missed it. I notice from the Explanatory Notes that no formal review of the impact of the regulations will take place. I think everything needs to be reviewed. It can be a quick review, but it is important to look at what we have seen and what we can learn from it.

I want to make a suggestion on crime and disorder that I hope the Minister will take on board and find helpful. It may answer the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. Paragraph 23 of the Explanatory Memorandum explicitly says that there may well be an increase in crime and disorder. The Government’s publication in evidence states that we could see an increase in crime and disorder because of pent-up demand for alcohol, that it is possible that it may be at a greater than previous level due to pent-up demand for drinking alcohol in a public house social situation, and that there is considerable uncertainty around the impact given that the current situation is novel and has few comparisons. There is clearly potential for a problem here. That is not to say that the regulations should therefore be imposed but, given that the Government think there is a potentially a problem, the public, the police, local authorities and the sector itself would expect something to be done about it.

However—this is the helpful comment which I hope that the Minister will take on board—the very next paragraph points out that, despite the fact that there are considerable uncertainties, objections can be made to temporary notices and the various licensing activities that can happen; they can be modified or, indeed, rejected, if deemed to be a problem. Specifically, if the police believe that TENs may lead to a disproportionate increase in crime and disorder, they can do something about that. It would be helpful if the Minister could say a little more about what would be possible for local authorities and the police to do if they feel that it is inappropriate for there to be an extension to a licence granted, whether it be about the number of days or about pavements, or whatever. I think that is what people want; people are very sensible about these things, but they want reassurance about what will be done about it, given that the Government themselves think that there may be a problem.

The other aspect that I do not understand, which the Minister may be able to comment on, is whether the public are able to object. The police may be able to object—it says here that they can—and the local authority may be able to object, but what if a group of residents decides that something is inappropriate or unacceptable? Can they object to it? There are a number of issues here around support for local authorities, around consultation and public toilets, and around what powers are available to people if they believe that the pavement cafe or extension is inappropriate or not right, and what the Government are going to do to explain to the public and local communities what powers they have if there is a problem.

I conclude by saying that the Government are right to look to extend the SI. It seems a reasonable and very sensible thing to do, as it has clearly made a difference—but it would also be helpful for the Minister to tell us, if not now then at some point in future, what benefits there have been of the existing legislation that have caused the Government to decide that extending it is worth doing. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I thank noble Lords who have made points during this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, follows in a fine tradition from the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, who always ends his speeches with about 20 questions. He has not disappointed there—and I look forward to further discussions of this nature.

On the first points made by the noble Lord, Lord Jones, he is absolutely right to raise the matter of Wales. The measures cover England and Wales. The department spoke to Wales very early on, although that has not happened recently with the Department of Health and Social Care—but we have regular catch-ups with that department. He asked about Minister-to-Minister engagement, and I do not have an answer on that, but I know that we speak regularly with the devolved authorities and they have been satisfied with the approach that we have taken. I hope that is sufficient for the noble Lord, Lord Jones.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, talked about the additional workloads on local authorities. Absolutely, they do have them—and were this to be on a permanent basis it would require a change in legislation. Of course, because of the very temporary nature of it, that sort of impact has not had to be substantially considered.

On public toilets, I spent my life in local government talking about public toilets. It is something that really interests the public. I am not sure that there has been a decline in the number of public toilets over the past couple of years, but the fact that people are drinking outside certainly means that public toilets have needed to be more accessible for them. I do not know whether it is the same in the noble Lord’s area, but I have found that the attitude of various premises towards people being allowed to use their toilets has been much more sympathetic and empathetic because of the difficulties that we have all faced. I totally agree with him about local breweries. I do not know how many of them have been forced to close, but I am sure that local breweries have benefited from some of the business support that the Government have given.

On whether there has been any difference of opinion between the NPCC and local police forces, the NPCC speaks for everyone as a whole. I am sure that there have been differences of opinion across the 43 local police forces. If I have any information on that, I will give it to the noble Lord. On what happens if the public object, the public are part of the licensing system. The police, the licensing authority and the public all have a say. If the public object—particularly if there is noise nuisance—the licensing authority can revisit its decision.

The noble Lord also asked, on the back of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, why it was necessary at this stage to extend the provisions. Over the year, pubs and licensed premises have really suffered. The last few months have clearly been quite positive in terms of what they have been able to do. On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, about why it is necessary—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

My Lords, if I may continue, picking up where I left off with the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, on why it might be necessary to continue, businesses in particular have a long way to go before they get themselves back on their feet. Particularly for small premises, this extension will give additional capacity that those businesses might need. He made a very good point about how much money would have been lost without the regulation; I do not know whether we have quantified or assessed that, but a lot more businesses would certainly have gone to the wire without our assistance.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, made a point about Westminster council and pavement licences. They are entirely a matter for it. Local authorities must have that say over what happens in their locality. He also made a point about Covid passports. I do not know that anything has been officially decided on that, but he is right that there has been a lot in the press about them. Even so, it is obviously a matter for DHSC, not us, although I know his story of having been vaccinated several times and the problem of having one country accept another country’s vaccines and the other problems that leads to.

I draw noble Lords’ attention to other powers that the police and councils will have. Under Section 76 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, they can issue a closure notice if there are reasonable grounds to consider

“that the use of particular premises has resulted, or … is likely … to result, in nuisance to members of the public”.

In terms of off-sales leading to anti-social behaviour, under Section 76 they can also issue a closure notice if they see fit.

Alongside the extension of the temporary off-sales permission, the statutory instrument—I might have said this already—will extend an expedited review process, which allows the responsible authority quickly to alter the licensing conditions granted to premises or remove the permission for sales of alcohol for consumption off the premises.

I hope I have covered everything noble Lords have asked.

Motion agreed.

Sitting suspended.