Impact Of Licensing Act 2003 On Local Communities

House of Commons

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for this invaluable opportunity. During my 13 years in the House I cannot remember having an Adjournment debate that has attracted more interest in the outside world. That is a measure of the concern that is now felt throughout the land about the Licensing Act 2003.

"In my view, we are in danger of having a wholly disproportionate attitude to the risks we should expect to run as a normal part of life. This is putting pressure on policymaking, not just in government but in regulatory bodies, on local government, public services, in Europe and across parts of the private sector—to act to eliminate risk in a way that is out of all proportion to the potential damage. The result is a plethora of rules, guidelines and responses to 'scandals' of one nature or another that ends up having utterly perverse consequences."

Those are not my words; they are those of the Prime Minister during one of his first major speeches since the general election, at the Institute for Public Policy Research on 26 May. What a relief it was to discover that he is indeed thinking what I have been thinking for a long time. Understandable concern about antisocial behaviour that is fuelled by alcohol in our towns and cities is having "perverse consequences" for local communities. The Prime Minister gave the example of a village in the Cotswolds that had to remove a seesaw with an unblemished safety record because it fell foul of an EU directive on playground equipment for outside use.

The Licensing Act means that villages in every corner of the country, not just in the Cotswolds, will say goodbye to the traditional touring circus, see more village shops go to the wall, watch local sports clubs forgoing much-needed income and lose their village halls, despite no accidents, no antisocial behaviour and nothing worrying having occurred in, outside or even remotely close to them.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): I remind the Chamber that the Prime Minister's example was wrong because there is no EU directive to prevent playgrounds from having what they want.

More pertinently, during my eight years as Member of Parliament for Worthing there has been no complaint to me about drinking in the golf club, in church halls and so on, and I suspect that the same applies elsewhere. The problem arises with young people in licensed premises on high streets, where the regulation does not have a major impact. I am worried about small businesses on which it does have an impact.

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. Interventions should be brief.

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Peter Luff : That intervention may have been slightly longer than you wanted, Mr. Taylor, but it nicely summed up the theme of my speech. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.

I do not argue against the idea of simplifying and rationalising the licensing laws by bringing together the provisions on entertainment and alcohol. I expect that the new provision will make the lives of many larger commercial organisations simpler and make it easier for enforcement authorities to deal with antisocial behaviour, which is often caused by alcohol, especially in major urban areas. However, there has never been a riot at a circus, and circuses do not offer alcohol to their audiences. Village shops do not offer their customers entertainment other than local gossip and have never been the cause of a drunken rampage. Local sports clubs, which often rely on their bars to provide income to support their activities, have never provoked major disorder. The village halls I know that provide venues for both alcohol and entertainment for local people have never caused scenes of carnage or outrage.

To control some imaginary terror, the Act will impose rigid and unworkable bureaucracy on circuses, increased costs on village shops and sports clubs, and unbearable responsibility on the volunteers who care for village halls. On top of that, local authorities are struggling to keep up with the burdens placed on them by the Act and by the way in which the Department has handled its implementation.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): On village halls, does my hon. Friend agree with the correspondents who have written to me from the management committees of Dickleburgh and Morley St. Botolph village halls in my constituency that the Act is confusing and is likely to put some halls out of action? Does not it suggest a lack of understanding by the Government of the problems facing rural areas?

Peter Luff : There is consensus among those of us who are worried about the Act, and my hon. Friend summarised some of the points that I want to make towards the end of my speech about the impact of the Act, particularly on village halls. I entirely agree with what he said.

It would have been good to have had a reply to my letter of 10 March to the Minister who was then responsible for the Act. I raised serious concerns on behalf of Wychavon district council about the publication of application forms, regulations and fees and on communication between the Department and local authorities. In light of the deadline of Saturday 6 August there should be serious concern about the low rate of response for applications to convert existing licences. It seems that there will be a late rush and woe betide anyone who submits their application too late for it to be checked.

Errors mean rejection and the burden and cost of a brand new application, copied with all supporting documentation to seven other regulatory bodies and advertised expensively in local papers. Local authorities that have received a significant number of applications are having to reject many of them because of inaccuracies. That is fine now because there is time to

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put the matter right, but it will be a problem if an application is made too close to the deadline of 6 August. The Department has not done enough to publicise that important date and, as a result, even commercial organisations, never mind the volunteers who run village halls, are cutting it fine.

My first main point concerns circuses. I had a full debate on the subject in this Chamber on 27 April last year. I shall not rehearse all that I said then, but for the benefit of the new Minister I repeat that circuses, which already bear a heavy burden of legislative inspection to protect public safety, are perfectly happy to adapt to a new licensing regime. However, the cost and bureaucratic rigidity of the proposal may make touring with a circus virtually impossible. Local communities, often small villages, for which the only live performing art that ever comes near them is the circus, will lose out and a great British invention will be put in jeopardy.

The root of the problem is that the Government told circuses that they would be exempted from the legislation but broke their word and took no account of the needs of circuses. Fairgrounds were exempted; I have struggled for months to understand the logic in that but cannot begin to do so.

I have had two meetings with representatives of the circus industry and the previous Minister. I was encouraged by what I thought was the growing understanding in the Department, but nothing has happened to address the concerns expressed and, as implementation of the Act draws closer, the situation is getting much worse.

The Minister advocated that local authorities should license land on which circuses could then perform without an additional licence. Leaving aside the fact that many circuses rely on private, not public, land for their sites, that idea seemed worth exploring, but local authorities have taken a different view of the Act. Following a decision by West Berkshire council, all applications by circuses to other councils have been refused. A precedent has been set which other licensing officers, who are lost in a vacuum until new procedures are set, have been only too ready to follow. On Thursday 28 April, the licensing sub-committee of West Berkshire council dealt a potentially fatal blow to the Government's cunning attempt to find a way out of the mess that they had created.

In the words of the circus concerned:

"Two objections to licences for a circus—from the parish council and the fire brigade—were satisfactorily dealt with but the licences were still refused because a plan of the premises was not submitted as required by section 17(3) of the Act and the application did not comply with regulation 23 of the Act (which deals with the nature of plan required)."

The circus told me:

"Our intention is to hold Premises Licences for circus venues without specifying a detailed plan of the circus . . . in the application. In this way, the licence can exist unchanged for the future. Safety authorities have been satisfied with our voluntary condition to supply a detailed plan 28 days in advance of each circus visit.

The West Berkshire sub-committee considers the Act is prescriptive in requiring a detailed plan with the application. As well as the circus tent, the plan must include locations of exits, details of fire safety equipment, furniture, items in fixed locations

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like seating and the circus ring, which is likely to include major props or rigging e.g. safety net, tight-wire etc. The same will apply to many other events where equipment is installed, which might include staging, safety barriers etc.

A licence granted would therefore only be valid as long as nothing in the plan was changed. The layout of any circus is likely to change annually for example when equipment is updated, when a new act installs a major prop, and when new legislation requires it.

The new applications we have so far made have cost an average of £500 each. For a circus visiting 40 venues each season, this is a considerable outlay. While it will be possible to retain the licence and apply for a licence variation to accommodate the changes, the procedure for obtaining a variation is almost as involved as a new application."

That problem is common with village halls. The circus continued:

"If a detailed plan is required, it will not be possible for a local authority to hold a licence. This does not only apply to circuses: every separate event in a local park or any other area will need its own licence for each individual event. Thus the DCMS objective for Local Authorities to license their own land cannot be achieved in the light of this judgement."

I believe that a legal challenge is planned, but I could not obtain up-to-date information and it may even have happened. What a mess the Government have got us into; it is even worse than we predicted. I wrote to the Minister last week asking for a meeting to discuss the specific issue and I hope that he will agree to meet a small delegation from the circus world before we rise for the summer recess. After all, the problem now goes beyond circuses to all activities that take place on local authority land.

In that context it is worth mentioning just how worried are the organisers of local festivals such as the Bromyard gala. The complexity of the rules and how to avoid punitive licence fees of many thousands of pounds for these events are matters that tax the ingenuity of very professional organisers. I think that I am right in saying that if a band plays at the gala from the bandstand but there are no chairs in front of it, that is fine, but if chairs are put there and people listen, it becomes a licensable event. The location of the bandstand in relation to the beer tent is a matter of great importance in determining what licence is required and how much it costs. What a farce.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): As well as the impact of the Licensing Act, is my hon. Friend aware of the impact of the Private Security Industry Act 2001? These Acts create a double whammy for the Coleford music festival in my constituency—a volunteer-run festival—putting a huge burden of cost on it. The future of the event is in jeopardy.

Peter Luff : We see the common theme that is beginning to emerge in the debate: the cost on volunteers' shoulders above all else—I accept that circuses are professional organisations. There is already a very heavy burden on volunteers in the organisation of such events; this additional responsibility for many of them is either financially or organisationally intolerable.

Small village shops are finding life pretty difficult as it is with death by a thousand regulations and Government policy changes, plus unfair competition from the big supermarkets. Benefit changes have hit post offices and many have had to comply with

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demanding disability legislation. The general burden of regulation and stealth taxes—minimum wages, new rules on part-time employment, even the climate change levy—has steadily increased. The next threat is the brilliant scheme of the Office of Fair Trading to allow supermarkets to buy newspapers and magazines direct from the publishers, which could destroy the viability of the local newspaper delivery network in rural England.

It is against that background that the impact of the Licensing Act must be judged; it puts another nail in the village shop's coffin by making it much more expensive to obtain licences to sell alcohol. For example, in order to sell alcohol, the modest Bishampton village store in my constituency now faces an initial bill of £120 and an annual bill of £40 based on its rateable value of £4,200, where it previously had a £30 bill for 3 years: £10 a year. The alcohol sales there generate little, if any, profit; it is more of a service to help villagers and maintain that precious commodity, footfall, for the other things that the shop offers. Now it risks becoming an unaffordable loss leader.

Meanwhile, down the road in Evesham, Tesco, which has a rateable value of £1.2 million, faces an initial bill of only £725 and an annual fee of £225. It has a rateable value some 250 times that of Bishampton's small village shop, but a fee a little more than five times that of the shop. Where is the justice in that? Whatever happened to the Government doctrine of rural-proofing policy?

It is not just village shops that are worried. Westminster city council has told me of its concern for hundreds of smaller, independent traders, and in particular ethnic businesses, shops and restaurants that are still struggling with the process in London.

There was no rural proofing for village halls either, which brings me to the major theme of my speech. They are perhaps most at risk from this Act. The same village hall that has often benefited from large lottery grants in recognition of the benefits that it brings to the community it serves has had its death knell sounded by the Department that oversees the lottery: the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. We must remember how important the village hall is in rural life. Many hon. Members have raised the matter with me in advance of the debate, and I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) for what he said about village halls in his constituency. There is a strong consensus among Members who have village halls in their constituencies about the problems that the Act will cause.

One village hall in my constituency has held about 80 events in the last year of which the new laws would require a licence. Those included dances, dinners, plays by the local drama group and groups sponsored by the county council, garden produce shows, church fêtes, social barbecues, private parties, wedding receptions and charity events raising money for the air ambulance and hospices. Our village hall hosts events for the Mid-Worcestershire Conservative Association, too.

My constituent Roger Ockenden told me:

"Our Parish Plan shows villagers rate in order of importance 1) the village shop; 2) the Village Hall; 3) the village pub."

I hope that No. 4 is the church, but he did not say that. He concludes:

"This new statute will ensure the total breakdown of village life."

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Another of my constituents, Rupert Segar, summed up the situation in a letter:

"The volunteers who help run village halls are unlikely to want to shoulder the burden of responsibility for supervising the premises for the sale of alcohol. The costs in licence fees and training will be extortionate. The limit of 15 days for temporary event notices will squeeze the life out of many rural communities."

He wrote that after attending a meeting 10 days ago in Bishampton hall attended by representatives of a total of 12 village halls from around my constituency. They heard an authoritative explanation of the new law from officers of Wychavon district council, but—and this is no fault of those excellent officers—the audience were more concerned and confused afterwards than they had been before.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): I would like to take the opportunity to explain to the Minister that my constituency has 32 villages, many of which have village halls, and all those halls are having these difficulties. That is in one constituency in Surrey alone; multiply that figure and we can see the size of the problem.

Peter Luff : It is fair to say that of the representatives of the 12 village halls in the room for that meeting, one left after five or 10 minutes because their hall was so small that it was not affected by the Act, but theirs was a particularly small hall. The other 11 were all terrified by what faced them, and I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.

The old system worked well. It was easy to apply for a community premises licence costing only £27, and for a series of occasional licences costing only £10 and valid for up to 12 events. It ain't broke, so why are we fixing it? The more we delved into the process, the more problems we discovered. To start with, apparently, and bizarrely—the Minister may put me right on this—the safety requirements of the new licences are less onerous than those of the old ones because electrical and fire safety certificates no longer have to be produced.

When it comes to licences for alcohol, it is only the sale of alcohol that is controlled. A wedding reception where the booze is free does not need a licence, but one with a cash bar does. In theory, I know which of those is more likely to lead to public disorder: the one where price is not rationing consumption.

The essence of the problem is threefold. First, the cost of the new licensing regime is much higher. An application fee for a typical hall is around £190—it could be much higher for a bigger hall—plus about £60 to add alcohol to the licence, which is waived if the application is received and approved before 6 August. Moreover, for a typical hall—again, it could be much larger—there is an annual fee of around £180. If one wants a variation at a later date, there is the huge cost of advertising and sending all the relevant documentation to seven different public bodies. That advertising has to be expensive advertising in local papers covering a wide area, not affordable, or perhaps even free, advertising in the local parish newsletter or magazine that covers the area the hall actually serves.

Secondly, there is the bureaucratic nightmare. The forms are complicated and the conditions difficult to understand. For the volunteers who run village halls

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that alone is bad enough. In fact, one person at the meeting admitted that she had just thrown the forms away because she could not understand them. She took another set as the meeting ended.

Thirdly, and perhaps most worryingly of all, there is the huge burden of responsibility that must be borne by one person, the designated premises supervisor, if the hall decides to put alcohol on its licence. That one, named person, who must be trained at a cost of at least £100, probably more, and then pay his or her own licence fee too, will bear responsibility for ensuring that the terms of the licence are complied with and will face criminal sanctions if they are not.

With many halls having 30 or 40 licensable events a year, and the busier halls having up to 80, that is an intolerable burden. It is difficult enough to find volunteers to run village halls as it is without that burden; this is now a job that no one in their right mind would volunteer for. What a way to celebrate the year of the volunteer.

Another possibility is to hand over the running of the bar to the local publican, who will supply trained staff and take a good cut of any profits—hardly an attractive option, given the tight budgets with which village hall committees, and all the other people and voluntary groups who use the halls, have to work. Another alternative is to restrict the number of events to 12 over a maximum of 15 days by using temporary event notices. However, that will sharply reduce the rental income of many halls below the level of viability. As Crowle village hall told me:

"The limitation of twelve TENs per calendar year is the key problem in our particular case. We hold some 26 events per annum involving the sale of alcohol. The letting income from these events is a significant part of our total income. We cannot afford to discard this source of income so we must accept the additional cost of the Act and raise our letting rates to cover the increase."

Temporary event notices are needed to modify any term of a new licence, not just to sell alcohol. If, for some reason, one wants a later night for the village pantomime than the standard licence allows, that is one of the 12 TENs gone. If the application goes beyond midnight, that takes two TEN days out of the total allowance of 15, not one, because anything after midnight is counted as a new day.

If someone were to decide not to put alcohol on the new premises licence because they expected to rely on 12 TENs for the events that they organised, what would happen if someone who hired the hall took the TEN for his event? The premises will have lost one of those nights, which will put the holder of the licence in real trouble.

Another constituent, Peter Charlesworth, wrote to me:

"The law is now so expensive, time consuming and complex that really it is not worth the effort for many small organisations to bother to try and fund raise. There will be no profit at the end of the day. The income for both organisation and Hall will suffer . . . If the local publican becomes the licensed premises controller, many of the village functions will be too small to warrant carrying alcohol and employing staff. He will refuse to support the event. The function will then be either illegal or will not happen . . . Many small functions which attract only a few people, to get a TEN, will have administrative costs of nearly £2.00 per head—a lot out of a £4.00 ticket."

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That is the problem for small communities and events. The Government just have not understood it.

It is not just village halls, by the way; I am told that even farmers markets are at risk for similar reasons. It seems that if wine is sold—I am sure that we all want to encourage English wines—those markets will need a full licence, and all the burden of cost, bureaucracy and responsibility that applies to village halls will apply to them too. That reminds me: it is not even clear how the new Act affects the traditional bottle stall at a village fête, another great English tradition that is apparently under threat from unthinking regulation.

There are similar problems for sports clubs. They have faced a raft of expensive legislation, much of which is justified, such as that dealing with child welfare, health and safety, and new electrical requirements—the list goes on. Now they are faced with the Licensing Act. Richard Wood, the chairman of Ombersley cricket club in my constituency, tells me that the club has 120 juniors who play cricket and 80 who play football, with a further 100 senior members for cricket and bowls, and 300-plus social members and parents. The bar is a major source of income for the club and largely funds all the junior activities. In fact, it represents more than half of the total income of the club.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware of the effect on other sporting bodies? Newbury and Crookham golf club in my constituency has estimated that it will cost up to £1,000 to process the licence. That will have a devastating effect on its income.

Peter Luff : I am hugely encouraged, and I am glad that I gave way to my hon. Friend because the figure that he gave is exactly the figure that Ombersley cricket club quoted to me. It says that the licence is so central to its functions that it will have to use professional advice to shape its application. It cannot afford to get it wrong. It reckons that, taking the professional advice and fees together, the cost will be £1,000. To be fair, Richard Wood tells me:

"The bottom line is that the club can afford to pay this money, but it's money that won't then be available for equipment and machinery to support the junior boys and girls playing football and cricket."

For many village halls, the Act could be the kiss of death. For many sports clubs, it is a brutal kick in the teeth.

What is to be done? Of course, few local communities will suffer each of these hammer blows, but every child who loses the opportunity to see traditional live entertainment at a circus will have missed out on something very valuable. Every village shop that is forced to put up the shutters for the last time takes something precious from the community that it served. Every sports club that restricts its activities with young people will cause deep sadness among those who understand the value of encouraging sporting activity, and every village hall that curtails its activities, or even closes, strikes a real blow to the sense of community that makes England's villages what they still are.

"There is usually a seductive logic to any new regulation. There is almost always a case that can be made for each specific instrument. The problem is cumulative. All these good intentions can add up to a large expense, with suffocating effects. Sometimes,

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we need to pause for a moment and think whether we will not do more damage with a hasty response than was done by the problem itself."

Again, those are the words of the Prime Minister in the excellent speech that I began by mentioning. There are solutions, such as new exemptions for circuses, small shops, community-based activities and the charitable trusts that often run village halls. That may take primary legislation, but there is now a hole in the Government's programme because we do not have to ratify the European constitution, so there is time for an emergency Bill. I urge the Minister to pause for a moment and think, to quote the Prime Minister,

"whether we will not do more damage"

to local communities

"with a hasty response than was done by the problem itself."

He must delay the so-called second appointed date, when the legislation goes live—currently expected to be in November—and conduct an urgent review of an Act that deserves to be put out of its misery.

David Taylor (in the Chair): There are five Members who wish to speak. Members should bear it in mind that I intend to call Members to make winding-up speeches at half-past 10, and restrict their comments appropriately.

9.53 am
Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) on securing the debate and on the typical passion and vigour with which he introduced his case. In the few minutes for which I seek the Chamber's attention, I intend to complement what he said by concentrating on pubs and the licensed trade.

I will begin by praising the role of council licensing officers, whom the hon. Gentleman referred to. When I worked in local government some years ago, licensing was relegated to a fairly minor function. I remember that, at Leeds city council, where I worked, it was adjacent to the cemetery section. However, in recent months and years, that has changed. In Selby and York, which are the two councils that I represent, there are two outstanding licensing officers: John Lacy in York and a gentleman by the name of Tim Grogan in Selby, which has caused slight confusion. I know which individual the pubs are most concerned with at the moment and it is not their local MP; it is their licensing officer. Both licensing officers are doing a splendid job. They go around Selby and York, without employing any great bureaucracy, and encourage licence applications to be made.

It is interesting to look at some of the figures in Selby and York. In Selby, of the 400 licensed premises that will need licences, 10 per cent. have passed through the entire system and 75 per cent. of those 40—30 of them—have applied for variations on their licences. On the whole, that has been for the odd extra hour, often at weekends. Ten premises have just converted their licences. There has been no need for any hearings in Selby at this stage. Everything has been done through delegated powers. There is a confidence there that the licence applications will be made and that the deadlines will be met.

In York, rather more than one in seven—107—of the 725 premises have gone through the system. Forty applied for variations and 67 for direct conversions.

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There have been three hearings so far in York. There are one or two cause célèbres, one of which is in my constituency. It will no doubt go to a hearing of the licensing board soon. According to evidence from the parish council, the Charles XII pub, which is in the student area of Heslington, has not been particularly good in its relations with the residents down the years. It has not necessarily adhered to its public entertainment licences and has had people still revelling in the garden after midnight, which is against council regulations.

Given such cases, hon. Members and Ministers can expect that, as with a controversial planning application, there will be local controversy and various factors will need to be weighed at a licensing board. However, from the evidence that I have seen in my local area, it is a misleading characterisation to say that no applications are being made or that licensing boards will not be able to cope with the number of hearings that they will have to hold. Across the swathe of middle England that I represent, people are quietly getting on with implementing the Act. In many cases, there are no objections whatever to variations in hours. As both licensing officers remind me, the councils in Selby and York, like all councils, have strong powers to bear down on pubs that abuse the extra hours that they are granted, and no doubt they will use them. I am encouraged by that.

I am the chair of the all-party beer group. It is a tough job, but someone has to do it and I hope to be re-elected. Incidentally, I hope that we can maintain our status as the largest all-party group. The annual dinner is coming up in July and prior to that we intend to do a survey of local authorities, on an all-party basis, to look at how many applications they are getting and what problems they are encountering.

In terms of both councils and pub companies, there will be little sympathy—certainly in the case of the pub companies—if applications do not go in on time. The pub companies have big resources and they need to get themselves organised, as most of them are, to get their applications in on time. Equally, there will be little sympathy with councils that are over-bureaucratic in their approach to licensing. If they are turning down applications because of minor errors on forms, rather than just making a quick phone call and getting the necessary amendment, people will not sympathise when well known and well run pubs are closed down for a period. There is an onus on both councils and pub companies to make this work, and on the whole they are doing so.

I welcome the Minister to his post. It is good that the licensing function has stayed within the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. As a Back Bencher, I can say that the implementation of the Act has not been without problems. There have been creative tensions between the Home Office and the DCMS and that has led to some of the delays. However, I, for one, am pleased that the function is staying at the DCMS. The Home Office sometimes views the licensed trade purely in terms of antisocial behaviour; the function is in the right place.

There is an onus on both the Department and councils to publicise what is going on. The pub companies and big chains will be all right, but there are also smaller, independent pubs, sports clubs, which have been mentioned, and late-night refreshment houses outside London, which will have to apply for licences for

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the first time. There needs to be an awful lot of publicity and effort over the next few months to generate those licence applications.

There is a related agenda of antisocial behaviour and the various measures that the Home Office is introducing in conjunction with the Act. Some of the measures are very welcome, such as fixed penalty notices for trying to buy alcohol under age or for selling alcohol to people under age, and powers for the police to close down pubs that persistently serve people who are under age. However, I urge Ministers to be careful with the concept of alcohol disorder zones, which was in our little red book—the manifesto. The implementation of that concept requires great care.

An alcohol disorder zone represents a breakdown in the partnership between the police, the licensed trade and councils in an area. With a levy on licensed premises in an area where there are alcohol disorder problems, the zone could be characterised as a business improvement district in reverse. Is it fair that all licensed premises in a particular area, even those with no record of trouble, have to make a payment? Who decides when an alcohol disorder zone is lifted or imposed? Should the decision be made by the bodies that benefit from the extra revenue? One or two of my colleagues have told me that their town wants to be the first to have an alcohol disorder zone. I again urge caution. The zone would not be a badge of pride, as it could attract the wrong sort of people and destroy a town's reputation for its hospitality industry. The measure should be one of last resort; we should not pepper the country with such zones and impose burdens on well run businesses.

There is a quiet revolution taking place throughout middle England. People are applying for extra hours, and on the whole they are getting them and no one is objecting. That is good, because of all the nations of Europe, surely it cannot be just the English and the Welsh who cannot be trusted to have a quiet drink after 11 o'clock at night. The day when people can drink after 11 o'clock will come—hopefully—in November. The date should not be put back. The pub trade is certainly not asking for either the date in August or the date in November to be put back. Indeed, if it were, it would be a very quiet Christmas and new year in terms of pub opening hours, because the previous provisions would no longer apply. It is essential that those provisions of the Act are introduced on time, and there is every reason to have confidence in their being implemented with good consequences. There will be the odd difficulty and the odd local hearing that causes controversy, but that is as it should be. It puts power in the hands of local people, which is where it should be.

10.3 am
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), but I must say to him that it will be a quiet Christmas and new year in many village halls throughout rural England and Wales if we are not careful. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) on securing the debate and on his comments. He covered the ground extremely well. I shall reiterate two areas that he discussed, and I shall mention one other.

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I am no great fan of the Act. When it was introduced I spent quite a lot of time campaigning against it, to the extent that a sort of west country fatwa was declared by the Wurzels, no less, on the then Minister in the Department, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), when he made disparaging comments about folk singers in Somerset. At that time we were concentrating largely on the risks to live music.

I want to discuss the effect of the Act on communities. The Act is having a direct effect on village shops, which stock, as a small part of their business, a few alcoholic beverages. They are sold as a service, more than anything else, to the shop's customers, for which the shop has an off-licence. It is not remotely feasible economically for shops to continue to sell alcoholic beverages under the new licensing regime. It is having a negative effect on villages and on individuals who have to drive to another village or the nearest town to buy drinks, with all the possible dangers that that entails. There is also a danger to the viability of the shop. Those effects are all of very little benefit to the licensing regime, and they run entirely against the principle that we have heard espoused many times in the House of keeping village shops as a viable and visible presence in our villages.

The threat to village halls that the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire mentioned is serious. I have two examples in my constituency. First, the representatives of a substantial village hall, Beckington memorial hall, have written to me. They are extremely concerned because last year they had 27 events with a licensed bar but this year, because of the way in which the temporary events licensing system works, they are restricted to 12 events. That is having a serious effect on the financing of the hall as a centre for village life, and that is replicated in village halls throughout my constituency.

Secondly, at the other extreme, a small village hall, the reading room in Charlton Mackrell, does not serve alcoholic beverages. It is a small reading room that was set up by a beneficent incumbent to provide a place for quiet reading and recreation for the village. It holds Women's Institute meetings, parish council meetings, art classes for some elderly residents and a Christmas panto. Its officers have had to go through all the nonsense of paying a surveyor to provide detailed plans of the building to continue their entertainment. They have had to pay for the cost of licensing, and they will have to pay for the recurrent costs of maintaining the licence.

We are talking about volunteers who run a small premises because they think that it is a vital part of village life. Confronted by two copies of a 21-page form and a further 64 pages of explanatory notes, there comes a point when they say, "Forget it. I'm sorry, but I'm not prepared to spend my life reading explanatory notes rather than doing what I want for the purposes of my village."

My final point is about something that is perhaps unique to Somerset, and something with which many hon. Members may not be familiar. It concerns the Somerset carnival tradition, which has been going for 400 years. The carnival circuit in Somerset is massive, attracting on average 500,000 people a year. The biggest carnival is the Bridgwater carnival, which on its own attracts more than 100,000 people. It is one of the best kept cultural secrets in the country, because people are

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simply not aware of its scale. When I first came to London and saw the lord mayor's show, I thought, "What on earth is this pathetic excuse for a carnival?", compared with Bridgwater carnival and the Somerset circuit.

The carnival circuit is under serious threat from the Act, not because it does not exempt moving vehicles but because carnival comprises not only moving vehicles but walking exhibitors, marching bands and many others for whom it would appear that a licence may be required. The district councils in Somerset have got together this year to try to interpret the law, but they cannot do so. They have taken legal advice, which says that carnival may be all right this year. "May be" is not good enough for the thousands of people throughout Somerset who work all year to prepare the floats. Carnival raises an enormous amount of money, and the licence fee, if required, is £64,000, which will kill carnival stone dead. The councils have asked for guidance from the Department, but it is unable to provide any, other than to say that some carnivals may be exempt but others may not.

It is not worth the risk of being taken to court because of one person's complaint about the carnival for whatever reason. The organisers risk hefty fines of £20,000, prosecution and a prison sentence of up to six months. Of course people are not prepared to take that risk. We could lose an important and vital tradition in my county, and I am not prepared to stand by and let that happen. I hope that the Minister is today able to provide a definitive view on carnivals. If he cannot, it suggests that there is a gap in the law that must be corrected at the earliest opportunity.

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