Licensing Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Moss: As the Minister said, this is a probing amendment. He has given an assurance that the guidance and regulations relating to the application for a premises licence, which have yet to be set down by the Secretary of State, will cover all angles. There might be grey areas in respect of some activities: for example, people might buy beer in a pub and stray into the car park to drink it, which is when problems arise. If the regulations and guidance made it clear to the applicants that they must include every possible area in their plans, that would address what we were attempting to achieve through the amendment. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Turner: I beg to move amendment No. 491, in

    clause 190, page 104, line 36, at end insert—

    '''protection of children from harm'' includes protection from harm to the aural system caused by excessive noise;'.

My amendment is designed to establish whether the licensing authority has, in protecting children from harm, responsibility for protecting them from the harm caused by exposure to excessive noise such as the sound of particularly noisy band recordings on licensed premises.

The organisation Hearing Concern tells me that the statistics for noise-induced hearing loss are getting worse because of a variety of environmental, occupational and leisure-related factors. Today's 18 to 25-year-olds are putting themselves at three times the risk of hearing loss experienced by those in the same age group just 10 years ago. My amendment does not cover 18 to 25-year-olds, but children—I assume that those over 18 are capable of making decisions for themselves. Hearing Concern says that with the increasing exposure to noise throughout people's lives come acceleration of hearing loss and a population that is increasingly hard of hearing.

Employers are required to take action to assess the level of noise exposure where it is likely to exceed 85 dB, and to review that in the light of circumstances that might alter the noise level. They have a duty to minimise noise exposure where it exceeds the first action level so that it reduces the risk of hearing loss to their employees. It is my contention that children should be at least as well protected from excessive noise as employees.

I can give some indication of what 85 dB means: it is somewhere between a shout, a doorbell or a vacuum cleaner and the point at which a road drill reaches the

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level of discomfort. That seems to be a broad range. A shout, a doorbell and a vacuum cleaner can reach 80 dB; a road drill reaches 90 dB. A football crowd or a concert reaches 110 dB—I do not know whether we are talking about the Allegri string quartet or Steeleye Span—[Interruption.] Steeleye Span was just an example; I cannot help it that is the only noisy group whose name I can remember. The hon. Member for South Dorset is in mocking mood, but I am sure that that example is good enough for most members of the Committee.

My question is simple; will the clause enable licensing authorities, which have a responsibility to protect children, to take account of the damage caused by excessive noise?

10.15 am

Dr. Howells: This is another interesting amendment. I am convinced that in years to come, the generation now aged between 18 and 30 will be seeking the services of expensive lawyers to chase compensation for leisure deafness caused by the technology that allows such massive amplification inside cars and other enclosed spaces. The volume in some cars is extraordinary, and would put Steeleye Span all into their hat.

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East): All around their hat.

Dr. Howells: Yes, ''All around my hat''. Was that their only hit? I cannot remember.

People who were aware of the risks but for whom the lure was too great are now chasing cigarette manufactures and tobacco companies for compensation; it will be interesting to see whether the same happens with noise. I recognise that the amendment is probing, and I shall try to give the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that he seeks.

The amendment would make protecting children from harm include

    ''protection from harm to the aural system caused by excessive noise''.

That is an important issue, and not only for children, although I accept that the risk might be higher for young people. I confirm that the licensing objectives of public safety and the protection of children from harm would provide an opportunity for this issue to be raised. However, we need to keep the risks in proportion, and we should not deny children access to particular forms of cultural entertainment. At previous sittings we discussed the fact that children under the ages of 18, or 14, attend discos that would drive me insane were I to say there too long; but the kids appear to love them.

Research makes it clear that the risk of harm to the aural system depends on the level of noise and the length of exposure. Indeed, the Musicians Union publishes a helpful information sheet, albeit directed at the protection of performers rather than audiences, which makes that very point. Exposure to a symphony orchestra, at about 94 dB, or a rock band at 125 dB, should not necessarily raise a great deal of concern if it is of limited extent and frequency. I hope the hon. Member for Isle of Wight will agree that we need to be sensible about the issue, and not venture too far

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towards the nanny state; I am sure that he is no more fond of that than I am.

We should also bear in mind that every application for a premises licence, club premises certificate, variations and so on, will need to be copied to the responsible authorities, including the Health and Safety Executive and the environmental health authority. If an application raised genuine issues of public safety or the protection of children from excessive noise, we would expect those authorities to make representations to the licensing authority to that effect. The licensing authority would be required to hold a hearing to consider those representations, and it could impose such conditions as were necessary for the promotion of the licensing objectives.

I hope that those reassurances will be sufficient to answer that viable probing amendment, and that the hon. Gentleman will seek leave to withdraw it.

Mr. Turner: I thank the Minister for his answer, and beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 190 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 191 to 197 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 198

Short title, commencement and extent

Dr. Howells: I beg to move amendment No. 32, in

    clause 198, page 108, line 33, leave out subsection (6).

The amendment removes the privilege amendment made when the Bill left another place. I understand from my vast experience of Bills that this procedure must be followed. The Bill places a charge on public funds, in so far as it reflects our intention to exempt village halls, church halls, parish halls and other community buildings, and schools from the fees associated with the aspects of the new licensing regime that relate to regulated entertainment. I do not intend to detain the Committee in further debate of the amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause 198, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedules 6 and 7 agreed to.

Schedule 8

Transitional provision etc.

Mr. Moss: I beg to move amendment No. 265, in

    schedule 8, page 156, line 28, at end insert

    'and the day so specified shall be no earlier than the date on which expires the period of nine months beginning with the date on which section 5 of this Act comes into force.'.

Schedule 8 deals with the transitional arrangements before the superseding of the existing 1964 Act by the new Act. The time limits imposed on the transitional period for instigating the new law could put undue pressure on the licensing authorities to deal with all the necessary conversions of existing licenses. In some cases the process will be very straightforward—a simple conversion, with the licensee seeking nothing additional to the existing arrangements. However, in

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many cases licensees will wish to take advantage of the new opening hours, which may lead to opposition from local residents or other interested parties. In those cases, the granting of a premises licence will not be a single and straightforward issue for the licensing authority to deal with. In particular, licensing authorities operating in areas with a high density of licensed premises may find the time restrictions imposed on them far too onerous. A large number of licensing hearings will take place during the transition period, and it is not reasonable to assume that all those can be completed within the six-month time limit that the Government have determined.

The amendment preserves the six-month period from the date that the law commences, but licensing authorities would be granted a further nine-month period from the date of commencement of clause 5, which deals with the general duties of licensing authorities. That would allow for the licensing authorities to develop licensing policies before putting them into practice, and ease the considerable burdens that they will inevitably face in adopting their new status and acclimatising to their new role.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): I, too, wish to question the transitional arrangements, although I appreciate that they will be of limited importance in many parts of the country. I have spoken a number of times on behalf of my local authority, the city of Westminster, so, to ring the changes, I shall mention a briefing that I received from the licensing department and senior officers of the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea—of which I was a member until last May—and its deputy leader, Mr. Daniel Moylan. They are concerned about the time limits in the schedule, especially the notion of a first appointed day. That would not allow a significant number of licensing authorities, particularly in areas such as central London, enough time to deal properly with the applications that came before them.

Although the problem is specific to one London authority, which is not necessarily typical of the country, I should like to go into some detail about it. The royal borough has approximately 1,200 licensed premises. In February the licensing offices sent a letter to all of them asking, among other things, whether licensees would apply for extended opening hours during the proposed transitional period. Of the 311 responses—that is a high rate; most of us would be happy with a 25 per cent. response to our round robins—some 178, over 60 per cent., indicated that they would apply for additional operating hours. Assuming a similar rate of return from all the licensed premises, there will be some 700 applications to extend opening hours during the transitional period. The royal borough has a large number of well organised and vocal residents' associations that who work vigorously to protect their local environmental amenity. I know what that is like for its Member of Parliament, as the city of Westminster is similar.

Without taking into consideration any of the representations from the responsible authorities defined in the schedule, it is expected that Kensington and Chelsea will receive from residents

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and their representatives up to 600 relevant objections to applications to vary existing licences, all of which will require hearings before the licensing committee. Many of those applications could arrive in a large group during the early stages of the transitional period, leaving the licensing committee with the impossible task of hearing all the contested applications within the permitted two-month period. We have discussed before the period to be prescribed by the Secretary of State within which interested parties and responsible authorities may make representations to the various applications. I believe that the period mentioned in the first draft of the guidance notes was 28 days. If that period were ratified in regulations, the licensing authorities could only have another 28 days to set up licensing hearings. That would be impossible, given the numbers that I have quoted.

Applicants would then have two slightly unpalatable choices—to lodge an immediate appeal with a magistrates court against the deemed refusal, on the basis of the clogged-up system, or to make a further application to vary the premises licence once the transition period had ended. My fear, above all, is that if the new regime is to have credibility among both applicants and residents' associations—and all other interested parties—it will be fatal for it to be undermined by the entire procedure being log-jammed in the way that I have described. I appreciate that we might have to return to the matter on Report, as the Minister has received other representations.

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