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10.6 pm

The Minister for Sport (Mr. Richard Caborn): I congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on raising these issues tonight. A few weeks ago, he put a question on the matter to the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), who unfortunately cannot be here this evening. He is in the United States, battling for Britain by arguing that it is a good tourist destination for Americans, and by promoting our hospitality and leisure and tourist industries in this golden jubilee year.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not true that all that my hon. Friend wanted to do was get away from "Wurzelgate". I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman had anything to do with the door-stepping of my hon. Friend when he visited the west country on the Friday after the question was asked. My hon. Friend was confronted with the Wurzels, who presumably got a tremendous amount of free publicity out of the incident. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport told me that she had to attend the folk singing awards to smooth troubled waters, as it were.

Mr. Heath: The Minister might like to know that the Western Daily Press ran a headline stating, "Wurzelgate: the row that is rocking the Commons." It is true, therefore, that his hon. Friend has a certain notoriety.

Mr. Caborn: As I said, my hon. Friend was door-stepped.

Jim Knight: I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) is promoting British folk music while he is in the United States. He would be interested to know that my local paper, the Dorset Echo, has published correspondence from Americans who say how much they look forward to visiting this country to listen to folk music, what nonsense the "two in the bar" rule is, and that they are now fearful of joining in with such music.

Mr. Caborn: I have no doubt that they will enjoy it, and I shall text my hon. Friend across the pond to ensure that he mentions the matter in his speech to the Americans in the next day or so.

I am pleased to reply to this debate because we have a fairly good story to tell. In calling for reform of the public entertainment licensing system, the hon. Gentleman is, as he suggests, pushing at an open door. The Government are firmly committed to reforming and modernising our archaic licensing laws, which have been well described as occasionally just plain daft. As he said, a manifesto commitment was made in that regard. We take it very seriously, and I shall explain how we hope to see it through.

The hon. Gentleman does not have to persuade us that many aspects of our existing laws on public entertainment are at times perverse. As he said in the House in December, it is ridiculous that, in theory, Madonna and

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Michael Jackson could perform together unlicensed in a local pub, while three Somerset folk singers could not. That is why we are firmly committed to the abolition of the two-musician rule, but the issue goes much wider than that. The hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to use that example at Question Time to illustrate how stupid the licensing laws are.

As the hon. Gentleman said, we published the White Paper "Time for Reform" in April 2000. Before setting out our proposals to reform the licensing laws, it pulled no punches about what was wrong with the existing licensing arrangements. It identified the main problems with current public entertainment licensing, and I shall refer to some of the main issues. There is too much scope for inconsistencies in the approaches of different licensing authorities, which cannot be justified by real local differences.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether we can give guidance to local authorities. I do not think that we can, but I take on board the point that he makes, and I shall speak to officials tomorrow to find out whether we can produce some guidance. If that can be done, I will ensure that it is. I shall also consider the issue that he raised about the website. As a matter of interest, I looked at the hon. Gentleman's website, on which he has given the world the text of the speech that he has made this evening. I suppose that that is one way of ensuring that he is well known in his constituency—he does not miss a trick.

The hon. Gentleman suggests that an individual who joins in a singalong with a friend in a pub could be prosecuted under the public entertainment licensing laws and that many law-abiding citizens are breaking the law every day. I am informed that that is not true. The organiser of any public event and the manager of the premises where the event takes place may be prosecuted for breaches of public entertainment licensing law. However, my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) would not have been prosecuted in the case that he explained because people involved in spontaneous outbursts of singing hymns or rugby, football or folk songs may not be prosecuted. So there is obviously a difference of opinion, but I shall not debate that further.

Jim Knight: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way yet again. He and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) were right to raise the guidance issue—I am sure that everyone will be grateful to them if they consider it further—but I recall circumstances in which the police may have been advised to give some things less priority than others. I am told that Belper folk club was recently raided by the police. A three-person group was playing at the club, which is run as an all-member club. The police were allowed into the club as new members to avoid the entertainment licensing laws, but they then pursued the matter further. So police time was used in pursuing a case that involves what everyone would regard as a silly law. Will my right hon. Friend consider whether police authorities could be advised that we all regard that law as silly and that we shall change it in due course? I look forward to his explaining when that will happen, as that would also be helpful.

Mr. Caborn: My hon. Friend makes a sensible suggestion, and I am sure that my officials will take note

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of it. If we can clarify the issue so that police time, which is valuable in keeping our communities safe, is not wasted trying to police silly licensing laws, it would be far better, so he is right to raise that issue.

The second issue raised in the White Paper is that separate licensing systems for theatres, cinemas and music and dancing produce unnecessary complexity when the main purposes of the regulations are essentially the same. Again, we shall consider that issue in new legislation.

Thirdly, the White Paper said that there is too much scope for local licensing authorities to impose disproportionate and burdensome requirements on venues—a point that the hon. Gentleman made. Fourthly, there is duplication of the requirements of fire safety and health and safety regulations. Again, we believe that those requirements can be modernised so that they are more effective. Fifthly, there is the problem that fees are set at the discretion of local authorities, with some evidence of excessive charging. That shows that the operation of the law is very wide and that it can be abused to some extent.

Public entertainment licensing law currently gives the licensing authorities enormously wide discretion, and levels of enforcement vary considerably around the country. Some local authorities are zealous in their application of the law and others are not. The White Paper was about finding solutions to those and other problems across the licensing field.

The White Paper proposed a single, integrated scheme for licensing premises that sell alcohol or provide public entertainment or late-night refreshment, sweeping away a considerable amount of red tape at a stroke, and proposed a new system of personal licences, which will allow holders to sell or serve alcohol for consumption on or off any premises. It also suggested new measures to back up restrictions on underage drinking.

The White Paper proposed a new form of premises licence, which will set out operating conditions relating to the impact on crime and disorder, public safety, and public disturbance. Licence conditions should protect against those threats, but not interfere in other ways with how premises are run. It is proposed that the conditions attached to such licences should be set locally on the basis of striking a balance between the operator's requirements, residents' views, and police and fire authorities' assessments.

To counter and minimise public disorder resulting from fixed closing times, the White Paper proposed that flexible opening hours be introduced as a condition of the premises licence, with the potential for some venues to operate for up to 24 hours and to open seven days a week, but subject to consideration of the impact on local residents. It was suggested that children be allowed access to any part of suitable licensed premises at the personal licence holder's discretion, but that licensing authorities have powers to restrict or deny access for children to unsuitable licensed venues.

It was also proposed that the new personal and premises licences be issued by local authorities, providing greater democratic accountability to the community, and that licences be supported by a flexible range of sanctions, including temporary closure and temporary reduction in opening hours, instead of the present single, all or nothing sanction of loss of licence. That is a radical package of measures, which we remain convinced strikes an

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important and necessary balance between the needs of business, including tourism in rural areas, and the concerns of local residents.

The hon. Gentleman is concerned too about the impact on performers—musicians, singers, dancers and the like. The White Paper proposed the abolition of the two-musician rule because, as he clearly said, any individual playing with modern amplification can easily cause as much disturbance as any four, five or six musicians. Indeed, a single live acoustic guitar amplified by a microphone and boosted through a modern public address system can, as we all know, generate quite extraordinary sound levels.

Live performers have no reason to fear our proposals. We consulted widely on them. The consultation was not limited to the powerful alcohol interests; we included groups representing the interests of folk and jazz musicians. I shall quote one response to the White Paper. It came from the Association of British Jazz Musicians, which said:

In May last year, we confirmed our intention to implement the reforms by means of primary legislation as soon as parliamentary time permits. The hon. Gentleman knows that I cannot anticipate a future Queen's Speech, but I assure him that work on the preparation of the necessary Bill is ongoing. That work includes further detailed consultation with all interested stakeholders. In recent weeks, a draft of the instructions for the Bill was sent to organisations including the Musicians Union and

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the Arts Council. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Arts Council has a working party on licensing reform that includes representatives of musicians and festival organisers.

Like all of us, the hon. Gentleman would like reform to be introduced sooner rather than later. Public entertainment licensing law is enshrined in primary legislation and deals with important issues of public safety and disturbance, so primary legislation is needed to bring about the necessary reform. The House will want to debate those matters very fully indeed, because the law affects all our constituents.

In December, the hon. Gentleman stressed the importance of live music in pubs and inns to the recovery of tourism in rural areas. I entirely agree with what he said then and tonight. Licensing reform will be good for business because it will sweep away a great deal of expensive red tape which no longer serves the purpose of protecting the public, and sometimes deters licensees from staging musical events on their premises. Reform will be good for consumers—citizens and visitors to this country alike—especially families, offering them more choice and safer surroundings in which to eat and drink and watch performers. Finally it will provide a much needed boost for both urban and rural tourism after a difficult and demanding year.

Again, I warmly congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising some important issues tonight. We are singing from the same hymn book, whether licensed or not. I assure him that we take those issues seriously. A reform Bill, if we can persuade the House authorities to introduce one, would serve an extremely useful purpose, and I hope that that can be achieved sooner rather than later.

Question put and agreed to.

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