The Licensing Act

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): During the passage of the Licensing Bill in 2003 the Government were relying on a policy that might best be described as a victory for hope over experience: hope that everything will be all right on the night and the next morning, while ignoring the harsh experience that their changes to the law run the risk of everything becoming a nightmare for towns and cities up and down the nation.

Over the past week we have had to watch a shameful series of disgraceful, drunken and destructive antics on our television screens, as alcohol-fuelled aggression by English football hooligans has kept the poor Portuguese people off their own streets. Our football hooligans may be a minority, but let us face facts, unpalatable though they be: scenes of this kind are repeated in towns and city centres in England every Friday and Saturday night, making all too many of our town centres no-go zones for the law-abiding majority. Our international disgrace is really a national one.

It is naive to the point of negligence for the Government to assume that Europeanising British drinking habits will somehow lead to a change in those habits. Where did they get that optimism? It certainly was not from talking to city centre residents, as I shall show later; it certainly was not from talking to police officers, who have not a clue how they will control 24-hour licensing in certain parts of our busy metropolis; and it certainly was not from talking to dedicated local councillors, as the Government learned only a fortnight ago when they lost control of Newcastle upon Tyne after 30 years, because of, to quote the former deputy leader of the Labour council, Don Price, "crime, the pub culture and the over-emphasis on the city as a cheap party municipality".

Unfortunately, the British attitude to alcohol consumption rightly horrifies most civilised folk. There seems to be almost hero worship of boorishness by some parts of the media, with drunkenness and binge drinking being regarded as the acceptable face of celebrity culture. British teenagers across all social classes congregate for long periods in pubs and bars, in sharp contrast to much of Europe and the United States, where, as the Minister will be aware, most states prohibit alcohol consumption under the age of 21. Even the Prime Minister has at last woken up to the problem: as recently as 20 May he told the alcohol industry that binge drinking was fast becoming the new British disease.

In contradiction to the Labour party spin doctors who were trying to entice younger voters before the last election, I do give a XXXX about closing times and opening hours in our pubs, clubs and bars. The commercial interests of the leading players in our alcohol and entertainment industries should not be allowed to run roughshod over the interests of long-standing, hapless city and town centre residents.

In my time on the Standing Committee considering the Licensing Bill it was clear that the all-powerful alcohol industry and its close cousins, the large-scale entertainment operators, were the driving forces behind much of the legislation. The Government might have taken the trouble to ask smaller, family-run, independent operators, who are much more vital to the local community, how they viewed the prospect of 24-hour licensing. Certainly in Soho and Covent Garden, in my constituency, the long-established, family-run restaurants and bars are being driven out by large operatives, who have no stake in the future success of the community. That lies at the heart of the problem.

The Act is not simply about libertarian values, where my sympathies would instinctively lie with deregulation. It is about ensuring that we encourage civilised behaviour and that our city centres remain pleasant, congenial places in which to live: lively, yes; energetic, yes; vibrant, yes; cosmopolitan, yes; but not a haven for loutish, uncouth, antisocial, drunken and yobbish behaviour around the clock.

In a letter to the Home Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales said:

"In our view the proposed change will not bring about the dividends envisaged . . . indeed it could have the obverse effect, exacerbating existing difficulties in policing the night time economy."

There can be no clearer statement of the fallacy of hope over experience, but the Government insist on pushing on. We have to ask why.

My concern about and interest in the Licensing Act dates back almost two years to when the legislation first came to the other place. I have been inundated with communications from countless local residents groups, amenity societies and constituents with experience of what has happened in their city centres when late-night pub and club culture is allowed to dominate.

Last June, I asked the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope), a question about antisocial behaviour and the Licensing Bill debate that took place at that time. He replied that

"we are working across Government to implement a range of programmes to tackle antisocial behaviour, so that on our streets we see new neighbourhood wardens and new community support officers who will be working hard in their areas, with local communities, doing a different job from that of the police, to tackle the kind of problem to which he referred."?[Official Report, 18 June 2003; Vol. 407, c. 338.]

The lack of joined-up thinking verges on madness. The Act gives the late-night alcohol industry the green light to dominate chosen local areas without facing rigorous licensing scrutiny, but it also obliges local authorities, which are often the local licensing authorities, to put support officers on the streets to help the police to control any outbreaks of antisocial behaviour.

Who honestly believes that the 24-hour free-for-all will work? At one time, the alcohol industry claimed that problems of uncontrolled and rowdy drunken behaviour were caused by our outdated licensing laws requiring public houses and bars to close at a set time, often before midnight. Unfortunately, the more liberal licensing in Mediterranean countries does not seem to have had a very positive effect on Britons holidaying abroad, where their all-night drunkenness is a reluctantly accepted feature of many continental resorts. 
Westminster city council has fought long and hard, alongside local police, to tackle disorder on central London streets. Under its civic renewal strategy, the council has set out its approach of refusing to accept the "lesser" crimes of aggressive begging, fly posting and vandalism in order to cut at the roots of serious crime and the fear of crime, which continues to dominate many of our cities. However, much of that painstaking progress is undermined by the lack of controls on binge drinking and the opening of the floodgates to allow the alcohol and entertainment industries to prompt havoc being wreaked in our town centres.

I sense that the Home Secretary truly believes that the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 is the solution to any problems that arise with the Licensing Act. In response to my question of 10 May, he said that "under the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, there is now the ability to close establishments immediately there is a problem."?

Well, no city centre resident, elected councillor or police officer believes that that will work in practice. When criminal antisocial behaviour caused by drunkenness takes place on the streets in an area festooned with pubs and clubs, it is impossible to point the finger at any one offending pub or other establishment. In Soho and Covent Garden, for example, there are more than 800 licensed premises in less than 2 square miles. In my opinion, that is one reason why there has been a further delay to the guidelines accompanying the Act, without which the new law cannot operate.

As an inner-city MP, I want to stand up for our city centres as places of thriving residential communities benefiting from the continuity of several generations of residents. Without such continuity, our inner cities will die. One of the things that I have been most proud of in my time as an MP is the way in which the inner cities have thrived and the fact that the population of places such as Soho, Covent Garden and, indeed, the City of London has, for the first time in decades, begun to rise.

Last summer, I asked 4,000 residents in the Marylebone ward of my constituency for their views on the proposed licensing changes. The ward is not, I hasten to add, a hotbed of drunken rowdyism, but there are a substantial number of late-night restaurants, pubs and bars. As with all my surveys, I had a tremendous response, with more than 200 people replying and, and I am pleased to say, a range of views, both for and against. However, the one thing that nearly everyone referred to was the importance of true local involvement.

The breakdown of the survey is as follows. More than 60 per cent. of respondents found the whole idea of extending licensing laws horrifying. Nearly 30 per cent. were in favour, but had concerns about the effect on local residential amenity. A further 10 per cent. made it clear that they were undecided, and one person suggested that there be a 12-month trial of any new law. No one believed that the new licensing arrangements would or could be properly handled unless there was true local involvement.

Many residents in my constituency were concerned that Marylebone’s residential and business community would be worsened by the new legislation. I am sure that you will allow me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to relate a few typical comments. One person said that it is vital that the local council and residents have their say. Some said that it is right that Marylebone, as a central London area, should be a vibrant place for tourists, but that runs contrary to the notion of a vibrant local community. Another said that he viewed the whole thing with absolute horror; he thought that there would be noise, street violence, rubbish and lager louts. Others stressed the importance of an increase in night-time policing in line with the extended hours. I could go on; it was certainly a useful exercise in public consultation, and one that could be replicated in many other town and city centres across the UK.

I accept that one ward is not representative of the country. However, I cannot remember the first time that I heard the phrase, "London is made up of a series of villages," and although, like most of us brought up outside the capital, I thought that that was a cliché, I must confess that in representing my diverse constituency, I have finally realised that the cliché is true. For example, there are no fewer than 30 active residents associations scattered in the 9 square miles that make up my historic seat. I am convinced that one of the great charms of this part of central London is that so many residents care deeply about the neighbourhoods in which they live. The frenetic activity of many residents associations plays an important part in ensuring that, by and large, we enjoy a high quality of life.

I do not want London to dominate my comments. It is evident that in the growth and renewal of city centres in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and even Sheffield over the past decade, a vibrant and articulate?perhaps overly articulate for local Members of Parliament?residential population has made a difference in improving the quality of life.

My survey was a valuable example of a village in London and properly represents the views of inner-city residents. I shall now turn to another important residents association in my constituency: the south-east Bayswater residents association. That is another area with a rich mix of residential homes alongside licensed premises such as pubs and clubs as well as notable eateries. In a letter to Members of both Houses who met to discuss the Licensing Act guidelines on 26 May, SEBRA made it clear that the Government’s assumption that flexible licensing hours will reduce crime, disorder and public nuisance is a myth. It maintains that the risks to residential amenities are high and the best way for them to be minimised is by having effective guidelines that allow local authorities greater discretion for defining their own policies and tailoring them to suit the individual local environment. That is the complete opposite of the Government’s policy.

South-east Bayswater residents made a number of strong points, but I shall mention just three. They suggest that licensing authorities should be able to refuse licence applications if there is no effective late-night public transport to get revellers out of the area and back home. On fees, which is becoming an increasingly important part of the problem, they suggest that payments should be set at a level at which full recovery of all costs from the industry associated with drinking hours is guaranteed. The third key point is that there should be a provision whereby local authorities can keep local residents groups informed of all licence applications in their area, to ensure effective and constant consultation and to ward against over-saturation in an area.

Those views are sensible and informed, and they stem from deep-rooted experience, but nobody in government is listening. How will drinkers get home from central London in the early hours? Imagining the consequences fills local residents with dread, especially as only last week the Secretary of State for Transport confirmed that we can expect another 10 years of misery on the underground before we get the significant improvements necessary to enable all-night running at weekends, which many regard as a pre-requisite for 24-hour drinking in central London.

As for the police, according to a letter from the chairman of the Police Federation to Departments, at present a "respite" exists some time after pubs and clubs close and policing levels can therefore be resourced accordingly. In that simple statement, which is amplified by a series of suggestions and constructive considerations in the letter, we hit the nub of the problem. Implementing any new regime without having a strategy to handle its consequences is fundamental to the Government’s action on so many fronts.

The issue should not be about spin or headlines today but about implementation of a long-term policy. I ask the Minister: what sort of inner cities should we aspire to in 20 or 30 years? The short-termism of the Government which causes them such difficulty in their policies on Iraq and the European Union is equally evident in licensing. I genuinely believe that, in its heart, the Home Office knows that the policy is a disaster waiting to happen, yet the DCMS blindly insists on driving through the legislation.

Has anyone considered the effect of all-night drinking on the accident and emergency departments of our over-stretched hospitals? On the "Panorama" programme of 6 June, the only dreadful thing about the scenes depicted on the streets of Nottingham is that I was not totally shocked by the aggression and the mayhem that was shown and by the problems that arose in the local hospitals. That is standard stuff in Soho and around Victoria station on many nights of the week. The perpetrators end up in police cells and others in hospitals. That effort is paid for by us?the taxpayers.

It seems to be the Government’s hope that extending licensing hours will curb that sort of behaviour. Is it possible that there are people in government who really believe that drunken revellers will sit on railway platforms at 3 am and wait quietly for a train for three hours? None of that makes sense. We should all realise that the over-stretched police will bear the brunt of controlling the new legislation.

I already touched on the prohibitive cost of the policy. The City of London Corporation explained to me that there is no clarity in the Government’s mind about the fees. Indeed, there seem to be mixed messages from the Government about the extent of the new fee levels that will cover the administration costs of local authorities. I hope that the Minister will be able to explain that in some detail today, or, if necessary, to write to me later. 
The new fees are to cover entertainment and late-night refreshment house licences, for which, at present, the City of London Corporation calculates its own charges and receives approximately £300,000 per annum. Apparently the DCMS’s proposed fees are significantly lower than the corporation’s present charges. Even allowing for additional fee income for functions currently exercised by licensing justices, we anticipate an overall reduction in income. I accept that that may be a particular London problem, and perhaps the Minister has some notion of the relative expense in the capital city compared to many of our regional towns. However, using the average fee allowance on the scale suggested by Ministers, the corporation expects to receive about £210,000 in total in the first year of its operations, with the amount falling to about half that figure in years to come.

As the Minister knows, the reduction in fee income comes at a time when local authority licensing functions are set to increase substantially. It seems that, in time, there will be a deficit of £200,000 to £250,000 a year. Ministers have been giving mixed messages about the extent to which the fee levels will cover local authority administration costs. The Minister assured Members of Parliament on Third Reading that "fees will be set at a level which permits recovery of the full costs of administration, inspection and enforcement to local authorities".?

That superficially positive message was undermined by his more recent comment in departmental questions. He said: "We have already given an indication and I do not believe that it will prove to be far from the mark."?

Since the fee levels suggested by the DCMS would result in significant deficits for London boroughs, I believe that the statement from the Minister is far from satisfactory, but no doubt in his winding-up speech he will be able to clarify the matter. There are two local authorities in my constituency. I believe that Westminster city council, which hosts the largest number of social and late-night establishments in the country, has a right to have its voice heard when facing legislation with such an enormous impact.

From the moment of the Bill’s inception there was much enthusiasm for the Government’s intention to simplify the complex and outmoded mix of licensing laws, but nobody anticipated that the big players in the entertainment industry would get carte blanche, while many of the responsible, smaller local operators and councils would be left to pick up the pieces and deal with the free-for-all consequences.

Audrey Lewis, the cabinet member responsible for licensing in Westminster city council and a long-term Marylebone resident, has the interests of the Covent Garden and Marylebone residential community at heart. At the beginning of the year, she wrote a five-page letter to the Minister, in which she detailed serious concerns about the draft guidance for the Act. In her opening point, Mrs. Lewis says that the draft guidance cannot be properly understood because the regulations have yet to be published. That remains the case. I am happy to let any hon. Members see a copy of the letter; it sums up the Government’s mishandling of the whole matter, which is a triumph of misguided hope over experience.

Any exhortation by politicians to promote more freedom and choice should be tempered by the disappointing failure of so many who eschew responsibility for their actions, which harm both the community and natural environment. I believe that it is absurd to equate residential areas in inner cities with districts where pubs and clubs can proliferate such as those that can be found close to suburban high streets or seaside beach venues. A one-size-fits-all approach, which is what the Act has brought into being, with no local licensing discretion and woefully inadequate resources for public order enforcement, promises to be a disaster in the making. The Government should be profoundly ashamed of it.