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Baroness Buscombe: I thank the Minister for her response. As she said, the amendment has some difficult practical implications. We appreciate that it is a difficult matter, and we on these Benches discussed at enormous length what kind of scheme might allow us to see how the new provisions would work. The problem with rejecting the amendment is that, yes, there will be a transitional period, but the law will be passed. It will be enacted and enforced, and it will be too late to draw back the tide if we learn through experience that this is a Bill too far, or that some of the proposals in the Bill go too far. However, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to the other amendments under my name in this group, which all relate to Schedule 8. The schedule sets out the transitional arrangements that will operate immediately after the Act comes into force. Onerous duties will fall on local authorities during this time. Holders of existing liquor licences, public entertainment licences and night cafe licences will be able to apply to the licensing authority, seeking conversion of the existing licence to a new premises licence under the Bill. In theory, that should not cause too much difficulty to licensing authorities in respect of those operators who are content to carry on without altering the conditions of their licence. In those cases, there should be a smooth transition.
A good number of licence holders may want to seek variations to their existing licence, particularly so as to be able to take advantage of the relaxation of the licensing hours. As I said under previous amendments, we on these Benches do not anticipate, after talking to publicans and others, an enormous relaxation in licensing hours. A fair number said that they would probably want to be open for an additional hour or hour and a half. We shall see how that deals with binge drinking. In such cases, the licence holder would have to apply for a variation of the licence in the usual way, as set out in Clause 33. Such applications for variations can be opposed by representations. When relevant representations are made, hearings will have to be held to consider the applications. In areas where there are large numbers of licencesfor example, in inner-city areasand well-organised residents' groups, a large number of licensing hearings will take place during the transition period.
Schedule 8 sets out time limits for dealing with applications during the transitional period. We believe that, as currently drafted, these limits are too onerous for local authorities. Given that we are up against time constraints, I simply urge Members of the Committee to read our amendments in conjunction with the Bill as currently drafted. As they will see, we are looking for an extended time period for the transitional period. In essence, the applicant would still have the six-month period from the commencement date in which to make his application for conversion and variation. With the amendments, however, the licensing authorities would then have a further 18 months after the end of that six-month period in which to deal with the application.
Although one hopes that most applications can be dealt with in that period, there is potentially still scope for there to be such a backlog of hearings that the 18-month target is not achievable. In such circumstances, there is provision in the amendments to enable the licensing authority and the applicant to agree to an extension of the 18-month period. Obviously, if the applicant has become so frustrated that he would rather have the case dealt with by the magistrates, he would have the right to refuse to agree to the extension. I beg to move.
Lord Redesdale: I speak to Amendment No. 461A, to which my name has been added. I support all the amendments in this group, but I especially support Amendment No. 461A. In certain local authorities, there could be difficulties during the short transition period. We have received representations about those difficulties from the Local Government Association, which would like an extension of the transition period. In the case of non-controversial applications, the amendments would allow licensed premises operators to assume that a licence has been renewed rather than require them to wait a further period. In the case of controversial applications, however, the onus would be on the licensing authority to make the applicant aware of the difficulties with licence renewal.
Baroness Blackstone: This group of amendments derives largely from the skilfully put views of a small section of local government. I do recognise, however, that Amendment No. 461A comes from a somewhat different angle. I should therefore like to deal with that amendment first.
In the transition period, an application for the conversion of an existing licence to a premises licence may be accompanied by an application to vary the "new" licence. If the licensing authority fails to determine the application to convert to a basic new licence within two months, the application will automatically be granted. However, the Bill requires that if the licensing authority fails to determine applications for the variation of the converted premises licence within two months of receipt, the application for the variation would be rejected automatically.
Amendment No. 461A would reverse that position and result in the automatic grant of a varied licence where the licensing authority did not meet the two-month deadline. As I said earlier, the default position for the conversion of an existing licence to a basic premises licence is the grant of that licence. Consequently, businesses would largely be able to continue with the range of authorisations they enjoyed under the old systems. This amendment, however, concerns variation where we believe that it is right and proper that interested parties and responsible authorities have the opportunity to make representations and for there to be a hearing.
The overriding factor is the need to protect local residents and to further the licensing objectives. Granting the varied licence by default may expose the public to an unacceptable degree of risk and upset the
The remaining amendments in this group reduce the licensing authority's obligations by introducing extended time limits for processing applications. I shall speak to each of the amendments in turn, so this will take a little time. I should like to say first, however, that the Government have a duty not only to licensing authorities, residents and the industry, but also to the vast majority of ordinary people in this country who want to be treated like adults and are looking forward to the reforms. Indeed, most people think that change is long overdue, and they would not thank us for the further procrastination that would result from these amendments.
Amendment No. 449 would mean that the transitional period could not begin until nine months after Section 5which relates to the development and publication of licensing policyhad come into effect. I sympathise entirely with the intention behind the amendment. It is clear that the licensing authority will have had to develop its licensing policy before determining applications. However, there is no reason why it should take nine months. Nor is there any reason why responsible licensing authorities cannot start as soon as the guidance has been issuedwhich, as a result of developments in Committee, is likely to be earlier than had originally been planned. We expect licensing authorities to have prepared at least draft statements of licensing policy well before the beginning of the transitional period. In the light of that, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, will understand why the Government must resist the amendment.
Amendment No. 453 would lift the two-month time limit on the processing of applications where notification of an objection on the grounds of the crime prevention objective had been given by the police. Again, there is no reason why licensing authorities should need such a relaxation. We expect objections to be raised by the police in only a tiny fraction of cases. As we made clear in an earlier debate, we are committed to ensuring prompt handling of all aspects of the licensing regimewhen it is fully up and runningby setting out time limits in secondary legislation. I think that the mood of the House was one of relief when that commitment was made. Agreeing to this amendment would completely undermine that principle. It would allow the licensing authority to sit on an application indefinitely, which is clearly not right. I therefore hope that the amendment will not be pressed.
Amendments Nos. 454 and 461 would increase the length of the period available to the licensing authority to process applications, from two months from the day of receipt to 24 months from the beginning of the transitional period. Again, there is absolutely no reason why it should take anything like that long to process applications, particularly when the vast majority should be handled administratively with no hearing and no involvement by members of the
Local authorities already handle the processing of large volumes of applications across a range of areas. Some of the licensing functions will be new to licensing authorities, granted, but they do already process some 9,000 permanent and 37,000 temporary public entertainment licences. They are used to this work, and the Government believe that in most cases they should be able to cope.
Amendments Nos. 459 and 463 would allow the licensing authority to agree with an applicant an extension to the period during which an application may be determined. Although admirable at first sight, these amendments would have no other effect than to increase the burden on the licensing authority and applicants alike. Why spend valuable time running after deadline extensionswhich, in many cases, licensees may not want, particularly when they see their competitors benefit before them from the reformswhen the focus should be on processing applications? How would the "agreement" referred to be captured? Would a legal document be required? What if the licensing authority did not deliver by the new deadline? That approach truly is fraught with difficulty for very little, if any, gain. I therefore hope that the amendments will not be pressed.
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