Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the amendments are very similar to ones that were moved in Committee, when we had a useful debate. Perhaps there are some points that I failed to make during that debate and I can complete the argument from our point of view. I hope it might be possible to persuade your Lordships that the amendments are not desirable.

It is true that the White Paper originally said:

However, that is not the same as setting up a new statutory body, as these amendments propose. The White Paper referred to the development of an electronic system to allow the police and licensing authorities to exchange information easily and freely. That is still our intention. It is very firmly a database and not a new statutory body.

There is nothing in the Bill to prevent the development of a central database. On the contrary, Clause 8 expressly provides that the Secretary of State can arrange for the duties conferred on licensing authorities with respect to the requirement to keep a register to be discharged by means of one or more central registers. The Government actively support the development, in due course, of a central licensing register.

However, setting up such a register would be a task of considerable practical complexity. It would have to join up the licensing functions of 410 authorities. I do not know of a single joined-up system of any significance that covers every local authority in England and Wales. That is not to say that we are not making progress. The Office of the e-Envoy has published and promoted a number of frameworks for wider integration of electronic systems in the public sector, setting standards for data storage and access. We expect local authorities to comply with that. Indeed, they would have to comply for it to be funded. However, even if the local authorities started to develop a system now, there is no guarantee that it could be up and running in less than several years—one always has to be careful with IT projects, so I shall not be more precise than that. A large proportion of the population and the industry are looking forward to the benefits that the new licensing system will provide.

24 Feb 2003 : Column 65

With the usual provisos, noble Lords opposite have expressed support for the objectives of the Bill. Setting up IT systems is not an adequate excuse for delay.

We have drafted the Bill to allow a simple system, based on effective communication between licensing authorities, which can be up and running from Royal Assent, but also to provide for a central register to be developed in due course when that is possible. I am confident that the local system will work well up to that point. The licence holder will be under a duty to notify the licensing authority of a change of address, as well as other relevant details, such as, in accordance with Clause 130, convictions of relevant or foreign offences. It will not be a case of the licensing authority having to track down the licence holder.

We expect there to be about 155,000 applications for personal licences during the transition period. That works out at an average of about 500 applications per licensing authority. Nearly all of those will be dealt with administratively, so we do not think this is too much of a burden. We expect there to be a turnover of about 6,500 personal licences every year—about 15 per local authority on average. That should be possible too. Our proposal represents no substantive change from the White Paper, on which we consulted. The only difference is that it recognises the complexities of setting up a central database and addresses them in a pragmatic way, without delaying the benefits of the reforms in the Bill.

The same arguments apply to the even grander project of setting up a central licensing authority. In addition to a central database, there would have to be premises, staff, management structures and public money spent on an unnecessary organisation. It would not solve the problem, which the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, addressed, of the ability of the police and the local licensing authority to keep up with licensees if they happen to move around the country.

I have listened to the scenario of people moving. Let us say that someone who was granted a personal licence in Newcastle subsequently moves to Bournemouth. Under the Bill as drafted, if he wishes to renew his personal licence, he must apply to Newcastle. I understand the concerns that the police or the licensing authority in Newcastle might lose touch with the individual over time. However, it is important to consider the clear criteria that the licensing authority would apply when determining an application for renewal.

First, when there have been no convictions for a relevant offence or a foreign offence since the licence was granted or renewed, the licence must be renewed automatically. That will be so in the overwhelming majority of cases. Under those circumstances, the licensing authority in Newcastle is just as capable as issuing the new licence as that in Bournemouth. There is no additional burden on the applicant. We often apply to agencies far removed from where we live when renewing our passport or driving licence.

When such a conviction has occurred, the chief officer of police for that area may give an objection notice to the licensing authority if he or she is satisfied

24 Feb 2003 : Column 66

that, having regard to any conviction of the applicant for a relevant offence or comparable foreign offence, renewing the licence would undermine the crime prevention objective. The licensing authority would hold a hearing to consider the objection notice. That is the point the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, made. I would make two comments about what she said, if she were paying attention. Instead, she is being interrupted by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, whom I am glad to welcome to the Opposition Front Bench. I hope that he stays there, because that would restrict the range of his interventions.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, as Groucho Marx said of joining a club, I would not want to be in a club that would have me on its Front Bench.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, we do not believe that this will lead to any extra burden on the police. All the circumstances of the individual would be readily available to the police in Newcastle. The courts would be under a duty to notify the relevant authority of the details when a personal licence holder was convicted of a relevant offence in accordance with Clause 129. The Bill will make it an offence for personal licence holders not to notify relevant or foreign offences to the relevant licensing authority in accordance with Clause 130. A personal licence holder who is charged with a relevant offence must produce to the court his personal licence or, if that is not practicable, notify the court of its existence and the identity of the relevant licensing authority in accordance with Clause 126. If he fails to comply with that clause without reasonable excuse, he will be committing an offence.

As a result of these provisions, all the paperwork would already be on hand for the Newcastle police who would take broadly the same view of a conviction as those in Bournemouth. In any case, the police in Newcastle would be very accustomed to dealing with the police in many other authorities. That is what they do now, in many cases, under the "fit and proper person" arrangements.

Secondly, it is true that if the individual wishes to attend the hearing in Newcastle, he or she is likely to have to travel. However, we must maintain a sense of perspective here. In the first place, we expect very few cases to require a hearing. Of those that have to be considered in that way, only a proportion are likely to have moved any significant distance. I would not say that the concerns raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, had no foundation, but if so, they are very marginal.

The position we have set out is sensible and pragmatic. It allows for the development of a central register without delaying the commencement of the new arrangements unnecessarily. It does not provide for a central licensing authority, largely because that would require the unnecessary creation of a new statutory body for little added value.

I know that there was scope for clarification of this kind, and I am sorry that I did not give it in full in Committee. The case has not been made for

24 Feb 2003 : Column 67

establishing a new statutory body, a new element of bureaucracy and a new possibility for things to go wrong.

Lord Borrie: My Lords, I wonder whether I could ask the Minister a question.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, as this is Report stage, if the noble Lord has a question that is related to something that I said, he may ask it.

Lord Borrie: My Lords, the Minister may already have answered my question. Who will be the owner of the central register or registers under Clause 8? It looks as though the Secretary of State might be the owner, as the clause says that he will appoint or authorise someone to run it. As everything else is run by the local authorities, however, perhaps they collectively might be the owners.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, it could be either. The idea of a consortium of local authorities is perfectly sensible.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page