Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Harrison: My Lords, I, too, live by the River Thames from Monday to Thursday; namely, in this House. Sometimes when the windows are open in the Library we occasionally hear the raucous noise from the boats on the River Thames. At weekends and during the holidays I live in Chester. The wonderful River Dee and the Shropshire Union Canal flow through it and they are well used by leisure and commercial boats. I support the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, in his request to the Government to ascertain whether those who I understand are the real target of this provision—namely, the disco boats—can be pinpointed. The other leisure boats, often run by small businesses which are integral to the tourism industry in places such as Chester, should not be discomforted by misdirected legislation.

I cannot outline the problem better than the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, and therefore I ask the Government to look kindly on his amendment. Perhaps they could finesse the problem in another way so as to ensure that the thriving industry associated with leisure and pleasure boats is not struck down.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I, too, have sympathy with what has been said and I hope that the Government will take action as proposed by the amendment.

Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, I, too, support the amendment. I declare an interest because I spend my weekends next to the River Thames in a non-tidal waterway below Oxford. I would therefore be spared from the proposal in the amendment. When I first heard of it, I was concerned because my experience is that water is a fantastic conduit for sound. I am sure that the Government have borne that in mind in relation to this part of the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Greenway, has clearly given great thought to the amendment in confining it to smaller boats and waterways and to those who want to conduct their business in a way that does not unduly impact on others or interfere with licensing objectives.

The noble Lord's reference to gliding gently through the countryside is all too tempting a suggestion. We want to do all we can to support tourism. This is tourism generally of a rural nature. It relates to those who are struggling to make a living and do not want to see it compromised by legislation which lacks proportionality. As the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, said, there must be a balance and I believe that the amendment strikes the right balance.

4 Mar 2003 : Column 745

5.30 p.m.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the amendment seeks to amend Clause 170, which is an important clause. Clause 170 provides that an activity is not a licensable activity if it is carried on at particular locations. These include aboard an aircraft, where separate legislation applies, or aboard a railway vehicle engaged on a journey and also aboard a vessel engaged on an international journey, where domestic law does not apply.

As the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, indicated, he seeks to add a new category of exemption for vessels licensed to carry fewer than 100 passengers. The Government do not consider vessels with just under 100 passengers small vessels. The "Marchioness" tragedy gave rise to the vessels clause. The number of people involved in that tragedy was only just over 100. The noble Lord, Lord Greenway, described river journeys in almost idyllic terms, as did others who enjoy the delights of the river. However, I stress that the Government wish to address an important issue here with regard to the necessity for licences.

The Bill provides a simple licensing process for vessels of the kind we are discussing that is not excessively expensive. We should take public safety into account with regard to a vessel on the water. I think that the noble Lord will appreciate why I am reluctant to respond completely positively to his amendment although I recognise the force of his argument.

The laws in regard to the licensing of activities on vessels have always been inadequate. For instance, it is perfectly legal to sell alcohol to children on vessels on a journey and for them to consume it. It cannot be right in the Government's view that the sale of alcohol and other activities aboard vessels—for example, pleasure cruisers—should not be licensed when the risks associated with those activities are at least as great as they are on land. Public safety and prevention of harm to children and of disorder are probably the main considerations. But there will also be questions of public nuisance—to which noble Lords referred—to people who live on the banks of waterways or in houses by the edge of canals and rivers.

Lord Justice Clarke's view, stated in his interim report on the Thames Safety Inquiry, and supported in his final report, was that:

    "If we are to retain liquor licensing laws and require premises to be licensed to sell alcohol, then the reasons that commend themselves to require such premises on land to be licensed seem to me to apply with at least equal force in respect of vessels. Indeed it might be said that safety concerns demand even higher standards for those in charge of serving alcohol on board boats".

Following that inquiry the Deputy Prime Minister made a commitment that the Government would close the loopholes in regard to the sale of alcohol on vessels. The Bill fulfils that commitment and will bring about 600 vessels within the licensing regime. As I believe the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, recognises, the amendment would prevent licensing authorities from taking any measures in respect of the licensing objectives with regard to the protection of children

4 Mar 2003 : Column 746

from harm. That is an important consideration. The noble Lord will recognise that that is one of the golden threads that run through the Bill.

We recognise that this is one of the areas of the Bill that is regulatory rather than deregulatory, but given the overwhelming public interest issues it is necessary to bring vessels within the licensing regime. I emphasise that for smaller vessels the process will be simple and not costly.

I recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, made a persuasive case. The Government will consider whether we could exempt the category of boats—I believe that the noble Lord referred to single-deck boats and to barges—that hold eight to a dozen people. I am sure the noble Lord will recognise that we must be careful in this regard. Some small pubs have capacity for only a small number of people in their bars. We cannot have a situation where a pub that can establish that it has a capacity as small as that of a barge should be exempt because we have accepted the strength of the noble Lord's case in relation to a certain category of vessel. As I say, we shall consider the matter to see what can be done. I hope that with that earnest of intent the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Greenway: My Lords, at the outset I say how grateful I am to noble Lords on all sides of the House and to the noble Baroness who supported the amendment. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Davies, for giving a full and frank reply. I was not aware that under existing rules one can, apparently, supply alcohol to a child on a boat. As far as I am aware, under the MCA rules all passenger carrying boats have a strict alcohol policy maintained by the skipper. I should have thought that there are already plenty of regulations to deal with these matters.

I believe that the safety aspect is also something of a red herring. There are many regulations dealing with safety aspects with regard to the captain and crew. I believe that there is a far lesser possibility of safety problems arising out of alcohol consumption on the kind of boats I described. Nevertheless, any crumb of comfort is better than nothing. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Davies, for saying that he will reconsider aspects of the matter, I hope in consultation with the various trade associations involved in the activity. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Buscombe moved Amendment No. 231:

    Page 94, line 30, after "effect," insert—

"( ) at premises in respect of which a licence under the Gaming Act 1968 is in force and the premises are being used wholly or mainly for the purposes of gaming to which Part 2 of that Act applies,"

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 231, I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 261. At previous stages of the Bill the Government said that they would not remove casino and bingo clubs from the provisions of the Bill. But the reasons the Government gave show that, remarkably,

4 Mar 2003 : Column 747

they have failed to grasp the nature of their own licensing regime over those establishments. Matters cannot be allowed to rest there.

The Government say that the removal of casinos and bingo clubs from the provisions of the Bill would leave magistrates with the responsibility for alcohol licensing in relation to one group of premises when they would no longer have it for another group. But irrespective of the provisions of the Bill, magistrates will retain full control over the conduct and licensing of gaming premises by way of the Gaming Act 1968. Nothing we are debating today will change that position. It is generally accepted that the control and licensing of gaming premises by magistrates works well. I stress again that it must continue until such time as Parliament approves a new gaming Act.

So the effect of the Bill as currently drafted is that gaming premises will have to make an additional and unnecessary licensing application to the local authority. The amendment seeks to avoid that situation which would be a recipe for chaos and confusion. Without the amendment the Bill will create precisely the "ping pong" between local authorities and magistrates' courts that the Government said in Committee they were so anxious to avoid.

I remind your Lordships that the Government stated again in Committee on 13th January that they did not want business to be subject to unnecessary burdens as a result of the Bill. But by imposing the requirements for licensing by the local authority, the Bill has precisely that effect on gaming premises. They would have to make applications to both the local authority and the magistrates whereas all other licensed premises would have only one annual fee to pay.

The costs involved are substantial: the current fee for the renewal of a gaming licence is £7,950 for casinos and £1,450 for bingo clubs. I understand that the additional costs arising from the Bill could amount to as much as £10,000 per establishment. I would be interested in the Government's response to that figure. For one company alone, the additional expenditure could amount to about £1.5 million. That wholly unnecessary burden would remain until such time as the gaming Bill promised by the Government reached the statute book. I would be surprised if the Government were willing to give any undertaking as to when that Bill might appear.

The Government say that the amendment would mean that magistrates would have to acquire a new responsibility in relation to entertainment licensing in gaming establishments. But magistrates have been responsible for entertainment licensing in these premises for almost 35 years. The Government can hardly be unaware of the position, because only five months ago the Department for Culture, Media and Sport issued guidance to magistrates following the decision to allow live entertainment in casinos. Contrary to what has been claimed, the amendment would introduce no new responsibilities for magistrates.

4 Mar 2003 : Column 748

The Government also claim that the amendment would mean that the Bill would not apply to casinos and bingo clubs. That seems to suggest that these clubs would be allowed to make hay until such time as the Government introduced a new gaming Bill. That is not so. The criteria and safeguards set out in the Bill already apply to gaming establishments because they arise from the application of the provisions of the Gaming Act 1968. They have to be considered at each annual renewal of a gaming licence by magistrates.

It is not as if local authorities are actively seeking this new responsibility in any event. We understand that Westminster City Council, in whose territory many of our foremost casinos are situated, has told the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that it is practically impossible to see how local authorities could process applications for gaming premises under this Bill until such time as new criteria are established under a new gaming Act. Such concerns recognise the primacy of gaming legislation in regulating casinos and bingo clubs. It is of course right that gaming legislation should have primacy, because it can impose more stringent requirements than can reasonably be imposed by the general run of licensing legislation.

The amendment would not result in piecemeal provision, as the Government claim. That implies that the amendment anticipates parts of the promised gaming Bill, but it seeks to do quite the opposite. It would maintain what is widely regarded as a satisfactory status quo pending the implementation of a new gaming Act.

We believe that the Bill is a recipe for short-term chaos and unnecessary cost. I beg to move.

5.45 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the amendments would take out of the control of the licensing authorities licensable activities in almost 2,000 bingo clubs and over 120 casinos and transfer them to the magistrates under the Gaming Act 1968. Before these proposals can be properly debated, it is important that the House appreciates the Government's current plans for reform of gambling law.

The responsibility for licensing gambling establishments, such as bingo clubs and casinos, rests at present with the magistrates. An individual company which wishes to run a bingo or casino club must obtain a certificate from the Gaming Board for Great Britain. This confirms that the applicant is fit and proper. The magistrates then decide whether to grant a licence covering the premises on which bingo or casino games are to take place. They must take into account any advice given to them by the board.

Last March, the Government published A Safe Bet for Success which set out proposals for comprehensive reform of gambling. The noble Baroness is right: as I said in Committee, of course I cannot give a firm commitment about when it will be possible to bring a gambling Bill before Parliament. It could be as early as next Session, but obviously we have to wait until the next Queen's Speech before we know.

4 Mar 2003 : Column 749

The amendments try to anticipate parts of that gambling Bill. Once local authorities are responsible for gambling premises in their areas—not just as the licensing authority for alcohol, entertainment and late-night refreshment but for gambling—in principle, it makes sense to envisage a single licensing procedure for casinos and bingo clubs. We envisage that the licensing committees which will be set up under the Bill would in due course be empowered to deal with gambling licensing matters as well. Bingo clubs and casinos would, therefore, be able to make one application to one body. Such a streamlining of the present arrangements could bring about substantial savings for business and also for the police, local residents and others with an interest.

It would be wrong to pre-empt the future reform of gambling licensing through piecemeal provision in advance of full and detailed consideration of what is appropriate for that future position. The amendments are an unsatisfactory short cut to that future position. In the first place, they would leave the magistrates with responsibility for alcohol licensing in relation to one group of premises when they would no longer have it for any other group. So administrative systems and expertise would have to be maintained for that purpose. Indeed, the magistrates would have to acquire a new responsibility in relation to entertainment licensing.

What is worse, the provisions of the Licensing Bill would not apply, so that the criteria and safeguards which we have spent many hours debating would not extend to bingo clubs and casinos. If these amendments were made to the Bill, the provision of licensable activities in those clubs would not benefit from the Bill's inbuilt protections of expert scrutiny and representation but would in effect be at the magistrates' discretion. If that is no longer considered the right licensing approach for all other premises, why should it be so for bingo clubs and casinos?

The exemption that is envisaged also has a number of wider repercussions. A number of the offences set out in Part 7 of the Bill and the closure powers set out in Part 8 apply only to behaviour or activities taking place on premises for which a licensing permission under the Bill has been granted. So the exemption provided would render these offence provisions ineffective. Let me give a few examples: if the amendment were accepted, children under 18 could be permitted to consume alcohol in bingo clubs and casinos without an offence being committed; disorderly conduct could be allowed to develop without an offence occurring; and alcohol could be freely sold to drunks. I do not think that the noble Baroness wants or intends to have such an arrangement.

The noble Baroness asked about the new casino licence fees. I understand that the fee will be £28,915, with renewal at £7,950. The casino currently has to obtain a justices' licence for which it pays extra, and a special hours certificate, for which it also pays extra. Under the Bill, casinos will obtain a premises licence

4 Mar 2003 : Column 750

costing between £100 and £500 and then make a payment of £50 to £150 a year. That seems to be an improvement.

The Government readily acknowledge the case for rationalising licensing responsibilities but believe that this needs to be done properly. Gambling and gaming raise many additional issues which will not be relevant to the licensing activities with which the Bill deals. The right safeguards need to be in place when any attempt at integration is made.

The amendments would lead to a significant vacuum that is unacceptable, and I hope the noble Baroness will agree not to press them.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page