Revisiting The Licensing Act

I shall not attempt to give any more than the briefest history of this wretched legislation, partly because of the time, but also, Mr. Taylor, because I do not wish to try your patience.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) on introducing the debate. As he rightly said, we have all been here before. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), I served on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill. We had a good time talking about the alcohol issues, many of which concern Westminster city council. Many people did not realise the great implications that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire rightly pointed out for the range of village hall-related events. The issue has the makings of an absolutely horrendous mess. In Committee, we gave repeated and persistent warnings that there were great inconsistencies between the proposed liberalisation of alcohol licensing and the Home Office agenda on binge drinking and antisocial behaviour. What the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) referred to as “creative tensions” are, I fear, somewhat more than that.

The legislation as a whole is unrealistic. It has been driven by the large-scale alcohol and entertainment industry. Even in my constituency, in places such as Soho and Covent Garden, one of the interesting things is that many of the smaller, family-run businesses?the bars and restaurants that have been around for 50 or 60 years?are as appalled by the Act as are many of the residential population.

It is impossible for us to Europeanise the drinking habits of people in this country simply by changing the hours of operation. We need only to consider the experience of places such as Scotland and Ireland to realise the impossibility of that goal. I can assume only that the measure was led by the large-scale alcohol and entertainment industry, which rammed it through and probably paid large sums to Government funds. As with the Gambling Act 2005, there was a commitment to try to make radical changes without thinking them through.

We have also seen the undermining of a well-balanced undertakings regime. I have worked closely with the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson), because we share responsibility for part of Covent Garden. In the past, undertakings have been given by a number of pubs, bars and restaurants. That has worked extremely well, but that regime is being swept away and there threatens to be something of a free-for-all that will affect the balance in our neighbourhoods. The issue is not simply one for central London and the hot spots of coastal England; it has an impact throughout the country, along the lines pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire.

The new Minister has an opportunity to wield a new broom. I do not think that he realised when he took on the post how the Act was likely to blow up in his face. He may know that, in the last few weeks, I have tabled questions about the flexibility of the new regime and about how much consultation has taken place. It is clear that, when the transition period began in February 2005, there was an opportunity for consultation with local authorities, licensing authorities and people who required licences. At this stage, I am not aware that many changes or recommendations have been made by the Government in consequence.

My view is that, potentially, we have an absolute mess in the making. I would like there to be a delay of at least eight months to allow licensees adequate time to complete the complex and overly prescriptive application procedure that has been dictated by the new Act. The problem is not simply going to occur on Saturday 6 August; there will be a problem in November. I fear that even local authorities, such as mine in the city of Westminster, that are well organised and used to large-scale and important licensing arrangements will face a massive logjam in the second half of the year. I hope that, even at this late stage, the Government will give serious consideration to delaying implementation to allow for the full implications to be thought through.

The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) rightly suggested that, inevitably in any such process, there will be a queue on the final day. My fear is that it will be a hell of a long queue and will have an impact, particularly in this important area, in the run-up to Christmas which could be little short of disastrous. The Government’s approach to the start date is hopelessly optimistic. One must consider those local authorities that are less well attuned to such matters, which will find themselves in great difficulties.

The Minister probably now appreciates that, with this Act, he has inherited something of a mess. It has been poorly drafted and has an unrealistic timetable. However, I believe that there is still time for him to take action to prevent something that is not only a public relations disaster in the making but has negative implications.

I would like to say much more, but I realise that two other hon. Members wish to make contributions. I thank you for your indulgence, Mr. Taylor, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire for introducing this vital debate at an important time.