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The Lord Bishop of Manchester: I entirely support the points that have been made. The Government have already generously made clear their concerns about using churches, and the provisions are now being looked at again. In the same way, I hope that this issue on village halls and church halls will be shown the same or a greater generosity of spirit. That would enable village life not to die but to live, which we most certainly need.
Lord Borrie: I might feel sympathy with the amendment, but I am not sure that it is necessary. Surely we can all agree with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, but Clause 54 refers to what regulations "may" do in terms of imposing a fee for applications. If the Government are generously disposed towards the amendment in the process of argument here and no doubt elsewhere, when the regulations come to be made they may well do what she wants. Rather than having the provision inflexibly in the Bill, those particular places might in all circumstances be completely exempt.
Lord Avebury: The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, puts his finger on a point that has preoccupied the Committee since we started our proceedings, which is that without the benefit of knowing what is in the regulations, we have to try to put provisions into the main body of the Bill. Those who tabled the amendment need make no apology to the Committee for having put the idea forward. However, they could be satisfied, as he hinted, if the Minister gave an undertaking that when the regulations were published they would contain provisions of the kind asked for in the amendment.
Baroness Blackstone: We already license events at premises of the type covered in the amendment, but the Bill should make the application process simpler. Further, the new system of temporary event notices should make it even easier to organise small community events. I tell the right reverend Prelate that we are already taking action that will help to make the sort of events that enhance village life rather easier.
We license the premises now and have done so for many years because they can be a source of nuisance for local residents when, for instance, discos are put on for young people in the area. They sometimes give rise to issues of crime and disorder and may have implications for public safety and the protection of children from harm.
The Bill continues the current scope of the licensing regime, but should make obtaining a licence easier. The real issue is the level of any licensing fee that is to be paid. As my noble friend Lord Borrie said, the Bill provides for the level of the fee to be set in regulations. It would be a very common occurrence in such Bills for regulation to deal with that sort of detail.
I hope that I can reassure the Committee that we are considering the issue, not only because we want to be popular, although that is always a nice bonus, but because we want to respond to some concerns.
Lord Carlile of Berriew: Does the Minister envisage that the regulations will allow different fees for different types of village halls in different areas? Communities vary a great deal, certainly in the part of rural Wales where I live and which I represented for a number of years in another place. Some village halls cater for minute communities, and raising substantial sums of money simply to pay the fee for such an occasion could well cripple them.
Baroness Blackstone: If the noble Lord had been in his place earlier, he would have heard me set out in great detail what the Government intend to do about fees. I will not repeat all that I said on what the different fees might be. If he hangs on a moment, I might give him the answer for which he hopes.
The Bill provides for the Secretary of State to set a reduced or, indeed, nil fee for categories of premises in the regulations. We are looking at the position of all the premises types covered by the amendment, with a view to trying to minimise the financial burden so far as we can. That may well involve waiving the fee altogether, although various issues obviously need to be considered.
Baroness Buscombe: I thank the Minister for her reply. I was particularly interested in her reference to the possibility of there being a nil fee in certain circumstances. I will suggest a perfect example in which a nil fee could be appropriate. The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, rightly emphasised the fact that there are different types of village halls in different areas, and some are more able to fund their activities than others. We must bear in mind that in many of our villages today, the village hall is all that is left in terms of a place in the community in which people can meet. The fact that so many pubs are closing in villages means that village halls are of paramount importance for sustaining community rural life.
I am grateful to Members of the Committee who supported the amendment, including the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester. I hear exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, said: that perhaps it is not entirely necessary to raise this matter in terms of the amount of the fee, in view of the Minister's response to the previous amendment. However, this helpful debate has shown support among Members of the Committee for the importance of considering different types of premises that will attract a fee. The village hall is a classic and extremely important example of the type of premises that must surely come within that nil fee category. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The amendment probes an interesting point. All applications in the Bill require a fee for which regulations will, we understand, provide. However, there appears to be one exception: that is, applications under Clause 50 for the review of premises licences. Will the Minister explain why that exception has been made?
I believe that the intention of the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, in the amendment was to draw attention to the fact that an exception has been made that might encourage interested parties to call for a review on any pretext. That is only a suggestion; I should not want to accuse anyone of maliciously applying for a review on anything other than a valid basis. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, for drawing our attention to the point. When an exception is made, it is only fair to ask for some illumination of the reasons that lie behind it. The review of an application will result in some expense, and that expense must be met. Is it so unfair to ask those who demanded the review to meet that expense? I am only probing the issue and look forward to the Minister's response. I beg to move.
Baroness Blackstone: As I said earlier, fees will be set at a level that will allow licensing authorities to recover the costs of the licensing functions. However, we would not want fees to be extended to apply to applications for review, as the amendment would provide, because that may act as a disincentive to local residents to apply for a review where they feel that that is necessary on the grounds of the licensing objectives. I hope that that answers the noble Baroness's question. Also, it would not be reasonable to make the responsible authorities that ask for a review pay a fee essentially to fulfil their statutory duties. Applications for review, and any representations made on those applications, would be subject to the same requirements of relevance as other applications under the Bill.
Let me reassure the Committee that fees will be set at a level which will allow all licensing authorities to recover their costs, including the cost of a review. The system will be self-financing and there will be no potential for deficit for council tax payers to pick up. I hope that with that explanation, the amendment will be withdrawn.
The Earl of Onslow: Have I understood the situation correctly? If the local pub down the road applies, I can ask for a review of that licence, however irresponsible that request may be. That need not necessarily be vexatious; that is pretty hard to prove. I could ensure that the pub owner ran to considerable expense to counter a situation that may turn out to be not vexatious but on the verge of being a vexatious objection. Why should he be forced to run to expense without any possibility of getting that back? I ask the Government to consider that. I thought of that point during the Minister's answer and I am trying to be helpful.
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