Standing Committee B
Tuesday 1 May 2001
[Mr. Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]
The Chairman: I bid the Committee a good morning. I have read the Hansard of our previous sittingwith considerable interest, I must say. I am sure that it heralds excellent progress at our sittings today.
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I beg to move amendment No. 50, in page 8, line 33, at end insert
`and may consider any complaints made to the Authority by members of the public against the licensee.'.
I wish you, Mr. Winterton, and all colleagues here assembled a happy Mayday. It used to be an innocent day of pleasure, I understand, but politicians have clearly taken over too much.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): In the light of the hon. Gentleman's practices on previous Committees on which we have served, will he tell us of the innocent pleasures on which he has spent his time on Mayday during the past 20 years or so?
The Chairman: Order. Before the hon. Gentleman replies, may I welcome the most charming Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department? I am sure that she will add considerably to our debate today.
Mr. Hughes: I join in your welcome to the Parliamentary Secretary, Mr. Wintertona Mayday bonus. The only thing I remember as being specifically a Mayday event was the rather establishment event at a universityof which I was not a memberof getting up early in the morning to walk to a bridge and listen to a choir singing on the top of a tower, which I gather still happens in some city up the A40 on Mayday mornings.
The amendment is simple. It concerns the licensing provisions of the Bill and would write a complaints procedure into subsection (2), formally registering that it should be a duty on the licensing authority to consider any complaints made to it by members of the public. At the equivalent stage in the House of Lords, my noble Friend Lord Thomas of Gresford raised the issue of the lack of a complaints procedure for the public against licensed or approved persons or companies. Similar amendments were moved on Third Reading.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I am slightly uncertain about the scope of the amendment. Under its terms, would the licensee be entitled to know the identity of the complainant?
Mr. Hughes: That is a proper question, but the amendment does not itself answer it. A proper complaints procedure should allow a complaint to be made, for the person who made it to be known to the person complained againstthe licenseeand for the licensee to be able to rebut that claim before any decision is taken. I should certainly be unhappy with a procedure that did not allow disclosure of the information. I can envisage circumstances in which the authority might rule that it would be better that an individual was not known by name, but the nature of the evidence should certainly be known.
The clause deals with the modification or revocation of licences and licence conditions, and the criteria for making decisions about them. The amendment would add a complaints procedure as well. The Committee should consider briefly whether we want to include it in the Bill or whether we should be satisfied with assurances in the record of the debate. That was the response given by the Minister in the House of Lords, and it was perfectly reasonable in that context.
I understand that the Government's view is that there must be an established and effective complaints procedure. We believe that it would be better to include it in the Bill but not to include the detail about it. What goes in a Bill and what does not is one of those issues that we debate often. The Bill is not huge, and the clause is certainly not overly long. I ask the Minister and his Department to consider again whether the Bill should provide for a complaints procedure as well as for the licensing authority and the criteria for granting and modifying licences. People who read the Bill would easily understand, without having to look elsewhere, that there is a procedure for complaints. The provision could be added and the detail introduced later. I hope that I have been clear and relatively brief.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I join in welcoming you back to the Chair for our proceedings this morning, Mr. Winterton, and welcome all members of the Committee.
If the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) presses his very sensible amendment to a vote, my hon. Friends and I will support him, because we think that it would be useful to include the provision in the Bill. It is not necessary for me to take up any more of the Committee's time.
Mr. Clarke: As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said, there is no serious point of substance between us on the issue. The Government agree that the effective discharge of the authority's duties to licence only fit and proper persons will inevitably mean that it will need to establish an effective complaints procedure. The authority will need to be able to listen to and, if necessary, investigate complaints that are made against anyone seeking a new licence or a licence renewal. It follows that the authority must also have that facility when considering whether to modify or revoke a licence. Indeed, complaints made by members of the public are likely to be a prime motivating factor for such revocation or modification procedures.
We have discussed on several occasions the authority's general duties to keep under review the industry, the operation of the licensing system and the legislation. It will need to keep its ear close to the ground to know exactly what is happening, and complaints will be an important contribution to the authority's discharge of those responsibilities.
For all the reasons that have been given by me and by the hon. Gentleman, the Government will build a complaints procedure into our planning for the establishment of the authority. However, for reasons that he himself has argued on numerous occasions, we do not believe that it is necessary to amend the legislation. It is better to have less legislation rather than more, and it is not necessary to add the power to the Bill. As he said, our debate parallels the debate in the other place, but I hope that the assurances that I have given will allow him to withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Hughes: I am grateful for the support of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) and for the Minister's general acceptance of my points.
I am conscious that there are not serried ranks of Opposition Members here, although they are being significantly and qualitatively supplemented as I speak. I was none the less minded, because this is important and I am trying to be selective about when votes are forced, to ask the Committee to divide on this matter. I am now fully persuaded by the arrival of the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), because I hope that he will support the amendment. As the Minister knows, I believe that where matters are alterable on a regular basis, they should not be on the face of the Bill. That is common sense. Here the statement that there ought to be a power to consider complaints would not need to be altered. That is a statement that would stand. It is only the procedure that would be subject to variation.
Question put, That the amendment be made:
The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 11.
Division No. 4]
Bercow, Mr. John
Hawkins, Mr. Nick
Hughes, Mr. Simon
Lilley, Mr. Peter
Clarke, Mr. Charles
George, Mr. Bruce
Hall, Mr. Mike
Miller, Mr. Andrew
Pickthall, Mr. Colin
Stewart, Mr. Ian
Thomas, Mr. Gareth R.
Turner, Mr. Neil
Winterton, Ms Rosie
Question accordingly negatived.
Mr. Hughes: I beg to move amendment No. 51, in page 8, line 36, at end insert
`(4) The Authority may refuse to renew, revoke or suspend a licence if it has reasonable grounds for being satisfied that the licensee
(a) has supplied information in or in connection with the application for the licence or its renewal that was knowingly false or misleading;
(b) has contravened any provision of this Act or regulations thereunder; or
(c) is no longer a fit and proper person to provide a security service.'.
Again, I concede, this a matter that has been aired before. It is in the nature of a two-Chamber Parliament that matters aired in one place sometimes gain credibility and persuasiveness as they move to another. That also gives the Government the chance to think again. A disciplined system as outlined in the amendment is needed to ensure that those who supply wrong information and are caught later can be dealt with and have their licence revoked. I am sure that many people will test the system and try to get through it and then be found not to be who they claim to be or not to have disclosed previous convictions.
Things also come to light that call into question someone's fitness or propriety to do a job. We need a clear procedure and I should like to give a practical example from a parallel walk of life that may ring some bells with hon. Members. Coincidentally, a court hearing only last week at Tower Bridge magistrates court in my constituency concerned a market stall licence holder's appeal against the local authority's withdrawal of his licence. The authority meets in committee to deal with market traders' licences and it came to the view that he was not a fit and proper person to hold one.
The man came to my surgery as a local business person, and I agreed to look into the case. I saw the committee papers, and it was not a party political matter: members of both my party and the Labour party sat on the committee. In the end, I took the view that his case had sufficient merit to be supported. Previous allegations against him had resulted in court proceedings, but they were dismissed and he was found not guilty of the charges. The controversial aspect was whether those matters could be prayed in aid in the argument about whether he was a fit and proper person to hold a licence. A further issue was whether the conduct of his father, the previous trader, could be regarded as relevant.
My view was that those matters had been dealt with and settled. The trader was in danger of losing his livelihood as a result of matters that had arisen since the disposal of the allegations. Before the court proceedings, however, the committee had seen the chronology of his time as a market trader and all those matters listed in gory detail. My view is that the committee would have taken them into account. Its view would have been coloured, and its decision may well have been influenced. In any event, the local authority decided to withdraw the licence, but the magistrates court upheld the appeal.
The question is what makes a fit and proper person, and the answer is relatively subjective. Breaches of regulations here and there, which may not of themselves be serious, may be added to a view taken by the authority's officers. In this case, the comparable authority is the local council.
I tabled the amendment because a procedure is needed to regulate renewal, failure or refusal to renew, revocation or suspension. People need to know that procedure and the ground rules, and it is better to have something setting out the fact that such a procedure exists. The other reason is that there must be a procedure whereby anyone who thinks that there is cause for a licence to be revoked or suspended knows how to feed in that information. He or she may want to do that privately at the beginning by saying, ``Look, I'm very unhappy about this. I've no idea whether you've had other complaints, but if this conduct is not a one-off, I don't want this person to have a licence.'' For example, there may be allegations of racist or sexist behaviour, and minor incidents might be cumulatively important.
If Ministers give assurances only to the Committee, which is a perfectly proper way of responding to the amendment, what assurance can we have that the Security Industry Authority will, by its procedures and regulations, implement the will of Parliament and the expressed concern of both Houses? What is the procedure for hon. Members to see the secondary legislation, which may not be regulations, but in a lesser form, such as guidance or rules, when the SIA is set up and starts to get its act together.