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Lord Redesdale: I rise to support the amendments and to speak to Amendment No. 67, to which my name is attached. The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, outlined some of our problems with spreading personal licensing authorities among the 400 local authorities. The White Paper appeared to contain a sensible solution. Will the Minister explain exactly why the change was made? We see a number of problems with the move to local authorities. There are 400 authorities. Each would have to set up its own computer software to run the system. I realise that they will need to do that with premises licences, but to implement the system for personal licences they will have to design and man the software.

The provision gives the impression that one piece of software would be provided to local authorities. I am not aware of that happening. If local authorities are setting up their own software, there then arises a large question of compatibility, not with other local authority software because they will have to be compatible, but with the police computer software. I do not see how, under this proposal, there will be a linkage between the software used by the local authorities and the police register. All this information will have to be checked with the police in order for licensees to be granted personal licences in the time-scale set out.

There are further problems. It is not an extremely large job for a central register. We have calculated that between 300,000 and 400,000 personal licences would be issued. The original issue of that number of licences is a large job. After that it will be an ongoing process with few applications per week, which could be handled quite easily by a central registry. It will not take a vast amount of computer software. In fact, a scheme such as this could be run on a normal-sized PC.

However, we are very concerned about the costs to local authorities. Software developed to deal with public entertainment licences for some local authorities has cost around 100,000 per authority. If that is to be the case for every local authority—we are

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talking about 40 authorities—that is 40 million being expended. The Minister may shake his head, but it is an issue of considerable concern to local authorities.

I do not understand the reasoning for the change between the White Paper, which everyone thought was workable and understandable, and the present system. I hope very much that the Minister can give a rational explanation and some direct evidence as to the cost involved for local authorities. This is an issue we feel extremely strongly about.

I also ask the Minister what consultation has been undertaken with the local authorities as regards setting up this computer system. Who will pay? Will the financial burden fall on the local authorities, and out of which budget will they meet that expenditure?

Lord Tope: This is the first time I have intervened in Committee. I begin by declaring the interests that I declared at Second Reading. I am a member of the London Assembly, a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority and, perhaps most relevant both to these amendments and to the Bill generally, for nearly 30 years I have represented a town centre ward on a London borough council.

It follows that I have spent most of my political life arguing strongly for the devolution of power to local authorities and to local democracy—indeed, that is the reason I support the principles of the Bill. Therefore, with a certain surprise I find myself rising to support this amendment that will take a proposed power away from local authorities and give it to a central authority. I hope the Minister will bear in mind that I do not do that lightly; I do it because I have very serious concerns about both the burden that will be placed on local authorities and—from long experience I know the answer to my noble friend's question—about who will bear the cost. That is fairly clear. The Minister can no longer say that it is covered in the SSA because we no longer have SSAs, we have FSSs.

My concern is the huge administrative burden. It may be okay if the personal licensee remains in the area and exercises that personal licence within the area of the local authority. As I understand it, the licence can apply throughout the country. The administrative burden is huge for a local authority, particularly for a smaller district council as distinct from a London borough council.

I, too, shall be interested to hear the Minister's answer as to why the Government have departed from what appeared to be their original intention and intend to put this considerable burden on local authorities rather than introduce the more sensible provision of a central licensing authority.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I have listened with great care to everything that has been said. I listened with particular care to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, who has such excellent experience in the area. I listened

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to everyone else as well. But, as an ex-local councillor of a number of years' standing, I am allowed to give some preference to my local authority colleagues.

Baroness Buscombe: I also stood for the local authority.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I did not know that. I am sorry. I should have known. I start by correcting the history. The White Paper did not say anything different from the Bill. It said that local authorities would issue personal licences. In that sense, there has not been any change. That was the subject of consultation.

The first difficulty raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, was the difficulty of keeping in touch as between the licence-holding authority and any changes. That is resolved very easily. The Bill provides that the authority that issues the licence retains responsibility for that licence. So people applying for personal licences to the licensing authority under the aegis of the local district council have an obligation to notify the authority of a conviction for a relevant offence. It will be an offence for them not to do so. The local authority will be required to keep a record of the particulars of the personal licence. Therefore, the personal licence will state that "Graham Tope is authorised by the London Borough of Sutton to sell alcohol in" such and such a place. It will be the London Borough of Sutton which retains the licence.

When the holder applies for renewal of the licence every 10 years, the application will be made to the original licensing authority. There is no question of it being moved to Richmond, Kingston or anywhere else. It will have retained the details of the personal licence. Again, it will be an offence for the personal licence holder not to inform the original licensing authority—the named licensing authority—of a conviction for a relevant offence. Where a court makes a conviction for a relevant offence, it will be under a duty to inform the original licensing authority. So all the details relating to an individual's licence history will be readily available to the licence authority whenever the licence is due to be renewed. There is no advantage in handling this matter centrally. It can perfectly well be done locally.

I have heard it argued that local authorities do not have any experience of issuing personal licences.

Lord Redesdale: I apologise. The Minister seems to be moving on to a separate issue. He says that there would be no advantage in handling the matter centrally. It is not our intention to suggest that personal licences should only be directed centrally. Obviously, there will be a local element. However, all it means is that the administrator in the local authority will need to get on to an Internet access to the central computer. That will cut down on many of our concerns.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: In that case I totally misunderstood the amendment. The amendment, as I understand it, provides for a central licensing

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authority to replace the local authority. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, made that clear when she said that it is only for personal licences rather than premises licences that the amendment is being prepared.

If that is what the amendment intends to say, then my assurances to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, are very simple because the Bill provides for exactly what he wants. The Bill provides in Clause 8, subsections (6) and (7), that there can be a central database if that is what the local authorities want. There can be a system of linking local authority computer systems if that is what they want. Discussions have taken place with the Local Government Association about these systems, but the regime in the Bill works with or without a central register. If that is what the amendment proposed I could just sit down, but since it is not what it seeks, I had better continue with my argument.

My next point is this. I have heard it argued that local authorities do not have experience of issuing personal licences. But they do. Public entertainment licences issued by local authorities are held personally. They involve judgments by the local authority about the fitness of the applicant. Licences for mini-cab drivers, which involve checks on criminal backgrounds, are held locally. So there is nothing new in that.

The question of software then arose. I made it clear that there has been consultation with the Local Government Association about software. There is a possibility of combining software. There is no difficulty in ensuring that unnecessary duplication of methods does not occur. I can see no reason why additional expense should be incurred.

The whole question then arises as to the rights of the licensee. When the police want to object to a potential licensee because he has a conviction, the matter goes before the licensing authority for its final decision. Applicants are entitled to a hearing where, if they wish, they can argue their case against the police. Setting up a central licensing authority would be an expensive and cumbersome procedure because it would have to include arrangements for the authority to act as a tribunal with all the supporting administration for hearings. Local authorities are ready-made administrations. They already exist. Issuing licences is a business they know well. It simply would not be sensible or cost-effective to create a new authority with supporting administration and accommodation. I was surprised, particularly at the noble Lord, Lord Tope, that anybody should wish to have an extra cog in the government wheel with the additional bureaucracy.

The final point concerned cost. Again the noble Lord, Lord Tope, is in error. It is the intention of the system set out in the Bill that the costs bear directly on the licence applicant—the individual who will benefit from the service. It is fully established on the principle of full cost recovery through licence fees. Neither the council tax payer locally nor the taxpayer centrally should be made to pay in that way.

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I hope that I have dealt with all the arguments advanced, whether or not it is intended that the central licensing authority should be in addition to the issue of licences by the local authority.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Redesdale: Perhaps I did not make it plain that I envisaged information being kept by the local authority, though we believe it could be adequately dealt with through a central system.

I was interested in what the noble Lord said on the issue of costs. He raised the point that it would be a self-recovery scheme—a point he made in earlier debates. Does that mean that if one local authority finds it more expensive than another to issue a personal licence, it will be more expensive applying for the licence in one authority than in another?


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