Licensing Bill

I wish to address the issue of undertakings, if I may, as well as the amendments on transitional arrangements that stand in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss).

It might appear curious to many of those watching the debate in the Gallery or on the BBC’s Parliament Channel that there is such cross-party agreement, but I have worked closely with the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) as these issues have affected all of us in our part of central London. Indeed, it is fair to say that probably only the three of us know the boundaries of our constituencies. Many police and many constituents would not know when they had crossed from parts of Camden in Covent Garden to Westminster or that in crossing the Marylebone road they had gone from one side of Westminster to another.

It is important to stress that the amendments on undertakings are not simply a matter of the effect on central London. I am acutely aware of that, although in Committee the Minister often teased me in his pleasant way about how I addressed many comments to the particular and unusual circumstances of the city of Westminster. It is a fact that many of the issues apply to coastal towns across the country. Dare I say it, as he is sitting directly to my right, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) will find that they apply to many licensed premises in his constituency. Seaside towns across the country will equally be affected if the undertakings regime is dismantled in the way that the Government envisage.

There have been difficulties for many of us who served in Committee, particularly those such as me who are of a libertarian bent. I do not necessarily think that there should be strict rules applying to drinking at all hours. If only we lived in a society in which we could rely on individual responsibility and if only people who are happy drinking at all hours in Soho, Covent Garden or any of our seaside towns on warm, summer days such as this could be trusted to behave in a civilised fashion, we would all like a liberalisation and deregulation of all licensing laws. However, we all know, sadly, that we do not live in such an ideal world and there is therefore a necessity to have some framework in place.

I have had some fundamental disagreements, which I referred to on Second Reading. If I am lucky enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I may do so again on Third Reading. However, one can understand that there is a need for some regulatory framework. I probably speak for many Members who represent seats with large licensed alcohol and entertainment industries in saying that we have a schizophrenic approach to them in certain respects. We would like much deregulation in certain areas – indeed, many of us spoke on those matters earlier on Report – while we want strict regulation in others.

In respect of undertakings, I have been impressed by the work done by a number of residents associations in my constituency, in particular the Meard and Dean street residents association, which put forward a detailed paper that the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras alluded to. It is clear that the local Metropolitan police view the undertakings as an important part of any licensing application made by prospective licensees. They are, for want of a better phrase, a gentlemen’s agreement – in these politically correct times, I should perhaps say that they are a ladies’ and gentlemen’s agreement – between the applicant and the licensing justices. They show good will on behalf of the premises that they will be run correctly and responsibly managed.

It is also said that, in the case of multiple operators, any revocation notices served will be effective. The Metropolitan police in the central London area have objected to new applications for transfer on the ground that the applications in themselves constituted a clear attempt to opt out of revocation proceedings. A revocation notice will be withdrawn only when it is shown that the operators have no further financial or business dealings with the new venture that is being applied for.

I agree with the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) that we should be gravely concerned about the fact that if we eliminate the current undertakings regime, we shall lose generations of expertise that have helped to ensure a balance in particular vicinities. It would be sad to lose the long-standing wisdom of magistrates who know and love their areas.

As I know from my constituency, it is feared in central London that if we start with a blank sheet of paper – a new conditions regime – having got rid of all those undertakings, we shall see more than just a lowering of standards. Anyone out on the streets of Soho or Covent Garden at 3 or 4 am on a Saturday or Sunday morning will probably be horrified by the sheer mass of people there, and the antisocial behaviour that takes place. What some describe as late-night licensing is actually early-hours licensing. As I have said here a number of times, the great majority of people who live in Soho and Covent Garden live there not by choice, but because they are social tenants: 70 to 80 per cent. of housing in those areas is social housing. Such vulnerable people require a strict undertakings regime that reflects the history of their area.

I hope that the Minister will think seriously about what I have said,. It is not just special pleading for a small part of central London; it applies to much of the country. I fear that our debate has not been as vociferous as it might have been partly because the real implications of what is being proposed have not become apparent to many Members who represent seaside towns. It is only during a handful of weekends at this time of the year that antisocial behaviour becomes ? sadly – the norm, and for that reason a blind eye may have been turned to many provisions that undermine protection for the local population.

The hon. Member for North Devon rightly focused on residents, but we should go a step further. What gives my part of the country its charm – and I am sure that the same applies to all seaside towns – is the existence of long-standing family businesses such as small wine bars, pubs and restaurants that may have been in the hands of families for several generations. In the event of the downward spiral into an entirely deregulated 24-hour city – for want of a better phrase – there is a risk that only the very large operators will step in. At the time of the next economic upturn, selling out will be an extremely attractive proposition for many long-standing family operators, and only the lowest common denominator will be appealed to.

We central London Members are not appealing to our residential population just on a nimby basis, although it must be said that, come election time, it is the residential rather than the business population that votes. We want businesses to thrive. We want smaller family businesses with a genuine stake in the community to survive. 
Let me say something about the transitional arrangements. I gave the Minister chapter and verse on the arrangements that applied in the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where I was a councillor until 12 months ago.

It was able to brief me. He will be gratified to learn that I have even more statistics to hand from the city of Westminster. They will similarly underline some of the challenges facing Westminster. It is for that relatively straightforward reason that my amendments Nos. 138 to 141 are designed to double to the length of the initial transitional period from two to four months.

It seems evident that government in the broader sense – by which I mean local government as well as central Government – and business need to consider how best to contribute to the costs of the community of late-night entertainment. The night-time economy already puts a major strain on central London’s local infrastructure and public services. That is a recurring theme, and I am sure that all Members with constituencies in central London agree that we lack such an infrastructure in respect of a 24-hour public transport system – apart from buses, where great improvements have been made, but not enough to cater for the vast numbers congregating in central London, particularly at weekends.

Similarly, the police infrastructure is inadequate. Statistics are often bandied around about the number of police available in the west end on an average evening, but it is clear that without enormous investment of resources in that sector, we will not secure sufficient cover for the needs of the residential population and those who are out and about in central London during the night. I am not talking only about the alcohol-fuelled violence and loutish behaviour of a small minority, but about the crush caused by the sheer number of people around at that time of the night and early morning.

In my view – and it conforms to the experience of people who have lived in places such as Soho for many decades – late licensing means that transport, policing and street cleansing services need to be able to respond to the impact created by the thousands of people leaving late-licensed premises. To give some concrete examples from the city of Westminster, 10 new portable urinals have been installed in the west end on Friday and Saturday nights only. These are somewhat gruesome statistics, but during the past year, those urinals collected some 12,000 gallons of urine at a cost of £91,780 per year.

Members who have spent any time in the west end for late-night entertainment, particularly during the summer, will know that we have a night refuse collection service, which collects an average of 110 tonnes of waste each night, seven nights a week. A regular and persistent cleansing, degreasing and flushing service deals with much of the pavement in Oxford street and surrounding areas – it sounds like the Forth bridge. Indeed, in Westminster 4,500 km of streets have to be cleaned in that way. Likewise, evidence shows that the peak time for crime in a place like Westminster is 3 am. An area of the west end covering only 4 per cent. of the city of Westminster generates some 40 per cent. of the crime.

For that reason, above all, we believe that a transitional period of two months is far too short. It was suggested in Committee that we should extend that period to six or even 12 months. I hope that, in attempting to find a compromise for my amendments, my suggestion of four months represents a sensible way forward. I accept that my statistics apply specifically to Westminster.

There is no doubt that late-night entertainment is firmly established in Westminster and throughout the other parts of the west end. Westminster has the UK’s largest 24-hour economy and it should be stated once and for all that the city of Westminster is not opposed to late licences. People are proud of the diverse and vibrant night-time economy in the west end and beyond. However, if it is to continue, it needs to work well and be a well-managed mix of business and community interests.

I have always felt that nothing could be worse for the medium and long-term future of many of these areas than becoming ever more denuded of a residential population. It is interesting to learn that the other part of my constituency, the City of London – has for the first time in 200 years, as demonstrated by the most recent census, had an increase in its population.

Suddenly it has become more desirable to a residential population, and we need to maintain that vibrancy and fluidity by making the area a pleasant place for families to live. That is essential if cities are to become more liveable. It has been part of this Government’s agenda, and I am sure that it will be part of a future Conservative Government’s agenda, to ensure that our cities become much more habitable. We have seen great success stories in places such as Manchester and Liverpool, after decades of what appeared to be an intolerable and inexorable decline. A sensible and balanced licensing policy can play an important part in such regeneration.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): Does my hon. Friend agree that the policies of restricting out-of-town development and the insistence on building mixed economies in the centre of our cities, which were started under the previous Government and continued by this Government, are important to his point? People who live in the centre of cities must be considered alongside the 24-hour people who travel in and out of the centre. That point is even more urgent than it was 20 years ago, when there was a division between the commercial and the residential.

Mr. Field: I could not agree more, and it may have been unfair of me to fail to point out the successes of the previous Conservative Administration in which, of course, my right hon. Friend played a leading role. He hit the nail on the head.

The number of licensed premises in the City of Westminster as a whole has grown to more than 3,000, two thirds of which are located in the small stress area commonly known as the west end. For the last full calendar year, Westminster received some 1,024 applications relating to entertainment licences and night cafe licences, only 14 of which were refused. That is an enormous burden, and moving from the transitional arrangements to an entirely new regime in such a short time will lead to an administrative logjam in Westminster. It will be very difficult to make a smooth transition.

In the past year, 812 applications were made for public entertainment licences and night cafe licences and only a small number were refused. I hope that the Minister will give some thought to how a transitional regime that gives only eight or nine weeks notice can possibly work in the larger London boroughs.

Discussion has taken place at various stages about fees, and I do not wish to reiterate the arguments. However, an extended night-time economy means that local authorities face numerous significant costs and burdens. It is vital that they have the ability to manage their town centres using locally determined strategies in partnership with all stakeholders. Under the Bill, authorities will also have substantial extra administrative costs, to which we have referred. The local authorities believe that any licensing regime must allow councils to recoup the cost of delivering the scheme. It is not seen, and should not be seen, as a money-spinner to allow local councils to make significant sums of money. We went into considerable detail in Committee to explain that no one considers it to be a money-spinner. Indeed, the large costs incurred for some of the highlighted premises – for example, the Royal Albert hall, which pays some £12,000 to £15,000 a year – were something of a loss leader for Westminster city council.

As well as a smooth transition, local authorities wish to ensure that they have the ability to set locally determined fees that reflect local circumstances, but based on Government guidelines indicating applicable costs, instead of relying on centrally prescribed fixed amounts, as currently proposed. The initial start-up costs for the city of Westminster, before it received any applications, would be about £100,000 and the projected fee income – based on an average of £300 in the transition year – would be just under £972,000, or just under £1 million.

That would lead, on the council’s calculation, to a shortfall of £200,000 in administrative costs.

I hope that the Minister can give some guidance on fees. I accept that I have gone slightly beyond the amendments, but the point is a relevant one. I also seek some guidance on the transitional arrangements.