§ Mr. Teddy Taylor
I beg to move Amendment No. 2, in page 2, line 3, after 'council', insert'or of justices of the peace appointed by the council'.This is an important amendment and I hope that the Government will be able to make some concession.
At present we have a situation where licensing courts in Scotland are composed primarily of councillors and justices of the peace. There are several advantages in having justices of the peace as well as councillors. There is always some merit in having people who are net primarily answerable to electors. That is an important factor if one has to make decisions of a semi-judicial nature whether a licence should be granted.
In addition, one of the major and important advantages of having justices of the peace is that it helps achieve a 489 quorum in the licensing court. Any hon. Member who has experience of local government, particularly in Glasgow, and in some other areas as well, will accept that one of the major problems we have at present is getting a quorum for a licensing court. That quorum is often far below the actual membership of the licensing court, as the Minister will be aware.
At present it seems that we are proposing to change over to elected councillors only. One of the problems is that councillors are extremely busy people and spend a great deal of their time attending council meetings and committees and so on. I would suggest that it would be difficult in a city area for the councillors to spare the additional time to attend the licensing board or licensing court. It must also be accepted that the problem will be greater in country areas. While in the Glasgow District Council meetings are held every single day, I am afraid that in some country areas it is the normal parctice to have meetings perhaps once a week or once a fortnight and that often involves long journeys on the part of councillors.
If we are to have a situation where people have to travel 30, 40 or 50 miles to go to a council meeting of either a regional or district council, and there are some people who are members of both, it will impose a great burden on those people if they also have to attend meetings of the licensing board.
The Minister has said that one of the reasons why the Bill has been introduced is to make the procedure more efficient and ensure that injustice is rooted out. I am scared that if we go ahead on the basis of appointing councillors to these boards, the work of the boards will be frustrated simply because it will not be possible to get sufficient councillors to attend the meetings. I hope that the Minister has made some inquiries into this, and that he can give me some indication of the experience of licensing courts in particular areas and the difficulty of getting a quorum.
In my own area there have been many instances when frantic telephone calls have been made to councillors at their businesses and cars have had to be sent simply because arrangements have been made for a very long agenda considering 490 applications for licences and there simply were not sufficient members of the licensing court available.
I suggest that this problem could be overcome by having justices of the peace on the boards—because they are often people who are used to public work—who have perhaps been councillors for many years and have played a great part in public service. In my own area we have two justices of the peace who live not far from me. One of them was a councillor in Glasgow for some time and the other unsuccessfully stood for the council on several occasions. They are people who have not only had experience of public work but are anxious to do some public work. In those circumstances they are ideal people to serve on the licensing board and to do a very good job.
It is difficult to decide what should be the proper balance and whether we should have a 50-50 ratio or a two to one ratio or a ratio of three to one. I would accept that there may well be merit in saying that the majority of the licensing boards should consist of councillors and a smaller number of justices of the peace. A balance of three to two or two to one would perhaps be appropriate.
Can the Bill as drafted cope with the situation when a quorum is not available? It seems to me that nothing can be done without the amendment. A great deal of unnecessary expenditure will be incurred when licensing boards meet, as is the case now with licensing courts. The applicant will have his expensive professional advisers. Many objectors have to take a day off work and travel, often considerable distances. Nothing is more likely to destroy local democracy than objectors having to turn up time after time because a quorum cannot be maintained. The Minister may say that that will not happen, but it happens now, even with justices of the peace on the licensing courts.
Government Amendment No. 87 will create great additional pressure on the boards. According to the Clayson Report, a small number of areas in Scotland are "dry". Amendment No. 87 was a great shock to me, since it proposes within three years to abolish "dry" areas and to create a gold rush of prospective publicans. Many local people will want to object. Is the Minister satisfied that the boards will 491 have enough members to provide the necessary facilities? If the period were five years, the teething troubles might be overcome, but three years is too short.
I thought at first that this amendment and others in my name would not be necessary, but the implications of Amendment No. 87 convince me that they are important, particularly for parts of Glasgow and other "dry" areas. I hope that the Government will admit their error. Without the amendment, nothing can be done if there is not a quorum of elected councillors.
There is no need for me to tell the House of Commons at this hour of the morning about the growing volume of work that councillors have to do. One of the surprises of local government reorganisation has been the number of hours that councillors have to put in. Re-organisation has involved councillors in doing more work of a kind that they did not have to undertake under the previous set-up.
There is a danger that the licensing board system will creak at the seams because it will not be possible regularly to get a quorum. This difficulty could be overcome if we avoided putting undue pressure on the boards early in their existence. I suggest a five-year spell for them to get over the initial difficulties. I am sure that they will be able to cope with their normal work. However, if we put an extra burden on them by having the 16 dry areas coming in within three years, we shall create an intolerable situation.
I hope that the Minister, if he cannot accept my amendment, will accept the justice of the argument—that, if he is prepared to take a gamble, we must remove any special problems which may make the work of the licensing boards more difficult.
The Minister, in a very good speech, suggested that we take a gamble on Sunday licensing. We know that that decision was taken by a majority of the House, but some Members are still apprehensive about it. I suggest that the Minister is taking another gamble by saying that we should have only councillors on the licensing boards. That gamble could result in frustration and time wasting and objectors and applicants coming to meetings which will not take place.
492 If, on the other hand, the Minister were prepared to say "I will have another think about Government Amendment No. 87, perhaps between now and when the Bill goes to the House of Lords" there would be a good argument for saying "We shall give the new licensing boards a chance by having only councillors on them." Unless the Government is prepared to remove the special problem that could arise in three years from now, there will be a need to strengthen the boards by having on them justices of the peace as well as councillors.
I hope that I have convinced the Minister that we need Amendment No. 2 unless the Government are prepared to reconsider their astonishing Amendment No. 87 between now and when the Bill goes to the other place.
§ Mr. Millan
I cannot recommend the House to accept the amendment. This is a matter of principle which was recommended by Clayson and was fully debated in Committee. The principle that we adopted was that members of licensing boards should be local councillors.
If there is a problem in any area in finding a sufficient number of people for a licensing board meeting, that should be dealt with by having the arrangements for a quorum properly expressed in the Bill. Later amendments have been tabled to deal with the quorum.
The Government take the realistic view that a quorum should be effective. That is the way to deal with any difficulties about getting sufficient people to run a meeting of the board. We do not think that we should go back on the established principle, which was fully considered, that it is appropriate, in matters of local importance of this kind that the members of the licensing board should be local councillors. To add justices of the peace would be to offend that principle, and to have those justices of the peace appointed by the local authority. as is suggested in the amendment, would not make sense.
For those reasons. I ask the House to reject the amendment.
§ Mr. Teddy Taylor
I am not convinced by the Secretary of State's argument. He did not deal with my second point at all. 493 I suggested two alternatives. There must either be a reserve of justices of the peace —and I do not suggest that we pack the boards with JPs—or the Minister must be prepared to accept a quite intolerable situation in three years time. At that stage a number of "dry" areas—and there are a number of them—will put in their licence applications. There is a terrific difference between the situation in "dry" areas and that in "wet" areas where the licensing boards just deal with applications as they come in one by one, quarter by quarter at an even rate. But if in three years we shove on top of that an extra work load, special problems will be created.
Would it not be wise—and the Secretary of State accepted my argument because he deliberately avoided answering it—if the right hon. Gentleman acknowledged the problem? He need not accept Amendment No. 2 but he should reconsider moving Amendment No. 87. If he did that it would not be necessary for me to spend time talking on the other amendments in my name. I hope that the Secretary of State will make a small concession.
I asked what will happen if the licensing boards fail to get a quorum and what is the procedure for dealing with that but I received no answer. The Bill does not safeguard that position. What could be done if a quorum were not found three weeks in a row? The answer appears to be "Nothing at all".
If the Secretary of State cannot accept Amendment No. 2, will he answer two specific questions? First, what is the fall-back position if there are repeated failures to achieve a quorum? Secondly, does he not accept that many of the teething troubles would be removed if he reconsidered the provisions in amendment No. 87?
§ Question put, That the amendment be made:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 10, Noes 51.
§ [For Division List No. 286 see col. 613.]
§ Question accordingly negatived.
§ Mr. Harry Ewing
I beg to move Amendment No. 3, in page 2, line 4, at end insert—'( ) Where a district or islands area is divided into licensing divisions, then unless the 494 Secretary of State otherwise directs, not less than one third of the members of the licensing board for a licensing division shall be councillors for a ward or electoral division within the area of the licensing division'.This amendment meets a commitment we gave in Committee. I hope that it will be acceptable to the Opposition.
§ Amendment agreed to.