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Licensing Bill

March 24, 2003

Licensing Bill

My constituency contains the largest number of licensed premises in the UK. Despite all the Government’s rhetoric of empowerment, the Bill is fundamentally centralising. I have a great fear that we are sleepwalking into acceptance of the measures, which will have damaging effects wherever there is a large late-night entertainment and alcohol industry.

Given the way that things turn out, I suspect that I may yet end up serving on the Standing Committee, at which point I will have a chance to conduct a little more scrutiny. I appreciate that time is tight and that many other Members want to speak. I hope that we will be voting against the programme motion, although we will not vote against the Bill’s Second Reading, partly because we hope that the amendments made in the other place will remain in the Bill. Many of those amendments were sensible and reflected the active interest of a number of residents associations in central London.

My constituency contains most of the west end of London, including Soho and a chunk of Covent Garden. I will not claim all of the latter for myself, as I see that the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) is in his place. He has worked very hard for many years with the Covent Garden residents’ association, which I, too, now represent in part. Some deep and meaningful concerns exist in central London. For example, there are 850 licensed premises in Soho and Leicester Square are alone, and we need in part to rein back some of the powers that this very centralising Bill could put in place.

I want to stress to Members who have spent time in Soho – I hope that they were doing the right things, rather than the wrong things – and who perhaps take the view that it is a totally commercial area that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Soho has some 5,000 residents. It is often pointed out that people who buy in Soho – indeed, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) and her husband had a house in a Soho street – know what they are letting themselves in for, and to an extent that is true. As a local councillor, I represented constituents who had homes near a football ground or a pub, but the reality is that in places such as Soho – the same applies in Covent Garden – some 70 per cent. of residents are either social tenants or council tenants. They have no say about where they live, so it is incumbent on all individuals, whether in Parliament or in the local authorities, to do their bit to ensure that the interests of some of the most vulnerable in our society are looked after.

Life in the central London metropolis has a traditional village feel to it and there is no doubt that community values still exist; indeed, Covent Garden and Soho have some 300 to 350 years of history. We should aspire to building up civic society within our cities – this point applies not just to London – and that requires a healthy and growing residential population. We also need to focus on fundamental civilities, rather than on the utter selfishness demonstrated by so many of those who are on our streets in the early hours of the morning. I want us to look back in 50 years’ time on thriving places such as Soho, Covent Garden or even the City of London, and reflect on the fact that they are not totally commercial areas, but remain vibrant places in which to live. Many of my constituents have lived in these parts of London for generations, and they understandably feel threatened at the idea of an industry that goes on not only all day, but all night. Indeed, for the first time in 200 years, the residential population of the City of London – the other part of my constituency – has begun to rise again. At the time of the first census, in 1801, the residential population was about 170,000, and it diminished with every subsequent census, until the most recent one. It is important to encourage such thriving inner-city populations.

There has been a rising tide of antisocial behaviour, particularly in the early hours of Saturday and Sunday mornings, throughout much of central London. As several Members have pointed out, the key issue is saturation and the effect of ambient noise in a particular district, which can be cumulative. Members will perhaps be surprised to learn that Westminster city council provides some 583 late-night licences, 144 of which apply beyond 3 am; of those, 86 apply beyond 4 am. So the idea of binge drinking resulting from a single closing time, and of the so-called benefits of staggered times, do not really hold sway in central London.

It is clear from my discussions with the local police that a great increase in the number of licensed premises, or an extension to opening hours, would lead to a commensurate rise in disorder. The notion that abolishing fixed closing times will somehow transform the drinking culture in this country and end alcohol-fuelled violence is in my view optimistic, to put it mildly. However, we should note the inadequacy of public transport and of policing, especially in London. For example, all the tube trains wind up at barely midnight every night. The bus service has improved beyond recognition in recent years, but it does not provide adequate transport from the centre for the many people who need it in the early hours of Saturday and Sunday. It must in part be the responsibility of the huge entertainment industry, because without improvements in that infrastructure there should be no extension to licensing hours.

Several hon. Members have mentioned the confusion in the Government’s thinking and objectives. How will allowing all-night drinking achieve many of their other, laudable objectives, such as a reduction in alcohol abuse or in general disorder? We will have to discuss that in great detail in Committee to ensure that we get the legislation right, although I was a little depressed to hear the Secretary of State say that some seven of the nine amendments made by the Lords would be overturned here. I hope that serious consideration will be given to the great work done in the other place, and the contributions made by many local residents associations to the amendments made.

The removal of licensing powers from residents will make the system far less flexible and will undermine the deregulation goal. Discretion is the key and I hope that local authorities will retain their eligibility in their own right to object to applications, and will not have to do so only through their environmental health departments. Otherwise, the risk is that the proposed changes will benefit only large operators in the alcohol and entertainment industries, at the expense of some of the smaller, family-owned restaurants, bars and clubs, many of which still exist, even in my constituency. Many of those establishments have a long-term, traditional stake in their community, and I fear that if they are all taken over by larger operators we will see a pandering to the lowest common denominator.