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Mrs. May: If there is a council that is genuinely taking local people's concerns into account, I am pleased to hear it. However, the hon. Lady might wish to go back to her local council and point out that, under the terms of the Act, it can take representations and objections only from people who live in the vicinity of the establishment concerned and that, under the DCMS guidelines, it has to give a definition of what "in the vicinity" means.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD):
Is the right hon. Lady aware that counsel's legal opinion given to Colchester borough council is that elected councillors are not
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permitted to make representations on behalf of their constituents unless they have received a letter from a constituent first?
Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): Is my right hon. Friend aware that parish councils are not statutory consultees under the Licensing Act? Is not that a scandalous omission, since they can best reflect the impact on their communities of a proposed application?
When I referred to the costs incurred by people taking their objections to the magistrates courts, I noticed the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell) sitting with a smile on his face, apparently suggesting that I was wrong. I suggest that he talk to Labour councillors in Newcastle, where two councillors have been left with a £2,100 bill as a result of taking an appeal to the magistrates court. That is the kind of bill that people are facing.
So much for this legislation giving local people more powers. In reality, there are few powers to hold pubs and clubs responsible for rowdy or drunken customers once they are outside the licensed premises, even if the nuisance was caused by the pub having served them the alcohol in the first place. Councils and police cannot use nuisance and noise from outside a licensed premises as grounds for a closure order against a particular venue. Pubs and clubs can only be penalised if they make excessive noise from inside a pub, so licensed premises cannot be held responsible for the antics of their drunken customers leaving in the early hours, ruining the lives of those living nearby in the process. Again, as Commander Chris Allison of the Association of Chief Police Officers has said:
"We cannot just willy-nilly object because as soon as we object to a licence the licensee has a right to appeal and we have to provide evidence linking the premises with disorder. Often the disorder is a half-mile or more away from pubs".
Mr. Evans: Noise is not just car doors slamming, taxis drawing up and the general noise that comes with people leaving a pub very late at night. Many pubs also have beer gardens and people who live in the surrounding area might easily be kept awake until 1 or 2 am. The quality of their lives will be affected.
Mrs. May: That is exactly what this is about: binge drinking and its impact not only on those who indulge in it but on local residents who live around such pubs, whose lives will be made a misery as a result of this Government's legislation.
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab):
The right hon. Lady is right to identify irresponsible licence holders or retailers selling alcohol, but she will also be aware that the Violent Crime
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Reduction Bill contains a provision to deal with them. Can she explain why her party voted against it, as did the Liberals and the nationalists?
Mrs. May: If the powers are there to deal with irresponsible licence holders, I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that if he wants to do something about binge drinking, he vote with us tonight to ensure that this Government do not implement an Act that can only lead to more violence and disorder on our streets.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): To return to what can be considered by a licensing committee, the advice given to one such in my constituency is that, in the absence of police evidence, it cannot consider complaints from people who live in the vicinity of a pub about what has happened. Given that the rural police force is rather stretched in my part of the world, it is unlikely that such evidence will be brought forward by the police.
Mrs. May: Indeed. Of course, given that the police must bring forward evidence that there is disorder related to the pub rather than disorder in the streets, I assume that, effectively, there can be no objections
The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) raised the issue of councillors and their position. We were told that they would have far more powers to tackle nuisance pubs, but, as he says, they cannot lodge an objection in their own right in their capacity as ward councillors. They cannot consider licensing applications from their wards as they might be biased in favour of local residents and, despite having a democratic mandate from local residents, they can object only if they live in the vicinity. In such circumstances, the code of conduct for councillors states that they have a prejudicial interest and should not be allowed even to address the licensing sub-committee, so they cannot speak up, residents are disqualified even if they live close to the pub, and police cannot objecthardly the brave new world of local accountability promised by the Government.
We believe that it is dangerous, indeed reckless, to press ahead with extending licensing hours in this way. It is simply not good enough for the Government to light the blue touch paper and retire to a safe distance. The consequences for our society are too great. Does the Secretary of State really believe that, if pubs are open longersubstantially so in many casespeople will not drink more? If she does, she should speak to David Daly, president of the National Association of Licensed House Managers, who is quoted in a newspaper today as calling these reforms "an absolute cock-up". He represents 3,000 managers of larger chain-owned pubs, and he has said:
The Minister assured us when the Bill was passed that brawls at chucking-out time would end and that staggered closing would be introduced. What the licensing laws do is to impose less, not more, flexibility for local councils in deciding closing times, because the Government's guidance explicitly states that councils are to be discouraged from determining fixed closing hours or introducing staggered closing times. Yet stopping the pinch-point of people leaving at the same time was precisely one of the reasons why the Bill was supposed to have been introduced in the first place.
We have major concerns about the implications of the law in one final area: supermarkets. We have already heard about the problems of teenage drinking. The new laws allow for supermarkets that have planning permission to open 24 hours to sell alcohol during the same period and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport guidance creates a presumption in favour of 24-hour supermarkets having a 24-hour licence for off-sales. We all know the problems caused by many under-age drinkers having access to alcohol as a result of being able to buy it in supermarkets and shops. In effect, we are making it easier for young people to buy alcohol. That does nothing to alleviate the problems of binge and under-age drinking in this country.
We have heard from Ministers previously about those who do not want the changes postponed. They have cited ACPO and the Local Government Association, but they have not cited the growing list, from the judiciary to police officers, from the British Medical Association to the Royal College of Physicians, all of whom warn of the devastating consequences of pressing ahead with the Government's plans. Those are not groups with a political axe to grind
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