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Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): Will the right hon. Lady also acknowledge that in addition to the many licence applications that are still to come forward, there will be a large number of appeals? Does she think that the magistrates courts will be in a position to deal with them, let alone that the local authorities will be able to deal with the licence applications?
Mrs. May: Indeed; the hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. There are three stages to the problem. Local authority officers must first deal with processing. Then local authority councillor panels might have to meet many times a week over the rest of this month to deal with applications. There could then be a problem for the magistrates courts, which was raised with me when I visited my local magistrates court in Maidenhead a couple of weeks ago. People are worried about what they must do to ensure that the Act is properly implemented.
In a sense, I feel sorry for the Under-Secretary. This was a disaster waiting to happen and it has just been dropped in his lap. Even the Financial Times has documented his annoyance at dealing with the ensuing chaos and the fact that he is becoming fed up with "these ridiculous photo opportunities" that have seen him pictured in every catering magazine from Fast Food & Frying Operator to Masala. I am sure that they are worthy and well-read publications, but even if the Under-Secretary were to appear as the centre spread in Vogue, OK! or The Guardian's media pages, he still could not meet his 6 August deadline for the applications.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (James Purnell): I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for the opportunity to clarify the fact that I was absolutely delighted to give interviews and participate in all those photo opportunities. Although the FT is a very august and respectable paper, for once it got the emphasis slightly wrong.
Of course we accept that applicants, especially commercial businesses, should pay the cost of their licensing applications. However, running such a burdensome, bureaucratic and unnecessarily complex system is introducing additional costs that the industry, let alone voluntary organisations, simply cannot afford to bear.
Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): The Tories have flip-flopped constantly on the Act. They cannot decide whether they want it to be more regulatory or deregulatory. Perhaps the right hon. Lady will clarify their position.
I want the Act to be fair to all pubs, clubs, voluntary organisations, village halls and sports clubs throughout the country, although some are now faced with possible closure as a result of the Government's actions.
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Well, I do not know what sort of tax form he fills in. I took the opportunity to download an application form from the Department's website. It is indeed just a matter of a few boxes97 of them, in fact. Those are just the boxes to be ticked, because another 508 boxes require further information. More than 600 boxes must be completed, yet the Under-Secretary says that the form is simpler than the two pages of application that people had to complete in the past.
James Purnell: To tick all those boxes, an organisation would have to be a venue with a dance floor that would serve alcohol and late food, in addition to putting on dance, showing films and putting on a wrestling match, indoor sports and plays. If an organisation is just converting, the application form is only seven pages, not 21 pages with 500 boxes, as the right hon. Lady suggests.
The application form is not just seven pages, because the form entitled "Application for an existing licence to be converted to a premises licence" is for a conversion application and it is 27 pages long, including the guidance notes. It is all very well for the Minister to say that people do not have to complete every box. They may not wish to apply for everything, but they have to read the form and decide whether to complete it. The point is the time that it takes to fill it in.
Ms Keeley: On effort, I commend to the right hon. Lady one of my two local authorities, Salford, which has got around the problems that she raises by doing the simple things that a local authority should do in such circumstances. It has run workshops, given advice and sent out letters to prompt applications. That is not difficult. [Hon. Members: "It is."] It is not. The key point is to bring local authorities and communities into a dialogue on licences. Talking to
Mrs. May: I accept that some local authorities are running workshops. That is a good idea and is helpful, but if someone is a volunteer running a small village hall committee, he still has to find the time to attend those workshops and to fill in the form, regardless of whether he has been to a local authority workshop or not.
Far from communities having a greater say in what is happening in their area, a publican told me the other day that the village where her pub is located is concerned because the application form, which goes up in the pub's
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window, has to contain the full hours for which she is applying for a licence. As she wants the opportunity to have an extended licence for new year and sometimes to have people in to watch the rugby in the morning, she has applied for a licence from 8 am to 1 or 2 am. Far from feeling that they are being consulted, local villagers are saying, "What's this? Why is the pub going to be open every day from 8 am to 2 am?" It is not, but the way in which the Government have drafted the legislation is causing all those worries.
The system has become so bureaucratic that it is a lawyer's licence to print money. Hon. Members should not take my word for it: ask a lawyereveryone else has to in order to fill in the forms. Peter Lockley of Blythe Liggins solicitors in Leamington Spa says:
"I have personally devoted at least two man weeks to understanding the requirements, attended a training evening and had two meetings with the licensing authority at Mole Valley. I have purchased two HMSO publications on the Regulations and the interpretation costing £24. I have read 30 pages of accompanying notes. I have completed a form 21 pages long, each page seriously complicated and detailed, compared with 2 simple pages previously. We have had to prepare a plan of the hall to scale 1:100 done by volunteers but costing us £120 for computer software to run it. We have by law to advertise our change of licence at a cost of £292".
"have discovered the cost is more than they bring in in fees and we at the Pinder Hall believe we will have to pay well over £1,000 for just eighteen events a year. The Cricket Club say no one told them about it . . . The whole thing is a total fiasco".
That is the point. If even trained professionals like that lawyer are struggling to cope with the system, how on earth are volunteers supposed to cope? The complex nature of the regime is putting at risk the future of our sports clubs and village halls.
The Minister has made a number of statements about the new regime. He has said that it simplifies matters and makes it cheaper for organisations in the long run, and that once completed, organisations will never have to apply again. Indeed, on the "You and Yours" programme on BBC Radio 4 two weeks ago, he said:
My version of never having to apply again is clearly not the same as Ministers'. My "never having to apply" means exactly that. The reality is, however, that organisations will have to renew their licence every year at the cost of between £40 and £225. [Interruption.] Ah! The Minister says that they will not have to fill in the same form. What he said on the Radio 4 programme was:
When is a licence for life not a licence for life? I suggest that it is when it is issued by this Minister. His one-off licence looks a little dodgy to me. Perhaps he has become the Del Boy Trotter of the licensing trade: "Lifetime guarantees but don't expect your money back."
"Hitherto, Clubs have had to apply to a Magistrate's Court for a Club Registration Certificate. This cost is £10, and lasted for ten years. Under the new Act, we have had to pay £250 to apply . . . £230 to advertise our application, and starting next year there is an annual fee of £180. We are constituted on a 'not for profit basis', and exist to serve as a focus and meeting place for the local community. If we finish a financial year and all bills paid and a surplus of only a few hundred pounds in hand, we feel we have done quite well.
We are looking at ways to increase income, such as increasing our membership fees, but we have to recognise that many of our members are pensioners, who are living close to the financial edge themselves."
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