Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s report on the Licensing Act 2003. The Committee held a wide-ranging inquiry into the Act. We had four public evidence sessions and received a wide range of submissions, and I would like to put on record my thanks, and those of Committee members, to our staff and to our legal adviser, Sara John.
The principle of post-legislative scrutiny is a good one, and it would be helpful if more Acts could be looked at two or three years after their implementation to see whether the objectives set out when a Bill was first introduced have been achieved. No one could possibly argue with the objectives of the 2003 Act. The four licensing objectives clearly make common sense and the Act’s intention, which was to streamline the process and make it easier to reduce costs, is one we all supported.
Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I apologise for intervening so early, but having sat on the Bill’s Standing Committee, and as the legislation affects central London, where there are many licensed premises, I must say that we had significant objections to what it was trying to achieve in the first place. We wanted to see streamlining and cost-effectiveness, but our biggest concern at the time was that the legislation had not been properly thought through and that unfortunately it was driven more by the objective of obtaining large moneys for the Labour Government from the large-scale alcohol and entertainment industry.
Miss Anne Begg (in the Chair): Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he is making an intervention, so he should keep it short and make his point briefly.
Mr. Mark Field: I shall, Miss Begg, and I take your point, although I believe there are another 147 minutes to go. My point is that many of us had grave concerns about the legislation, and I am afraid that they have been borne out, as the Committee’s excellent report shows.
Mr. Whittingdale: There are concerns, which I shall move on to. I recognise my hon. Friend’s position, as he represents an area that presents unique challenges for licensing authorities. I was shadow Secretary of State when the Bill was going through Parliament and recall going out with representatives of Westminster city council one night to visit what I believe are called vertical drinking establishments, which pack in many people whose sole purpose there is to drink as much as possible.
I also met local residents who, night after night, had to put up with drunken yobs vomiting on their door steps, and all sorts of other unpleasant behaviour. The challenges in Westminster are probably far greater than those anywhere else, so I fully recognise the concerns raised by my hon. Friend, who has done a good job in speaking up on behalf of his constituents who have to live with that kind of behaviour. I will return to that point shortly.
Still in the spirit of trying to be positive, we found that the Act had in the main achieved many of its objectives, but we identified several areas where we felt it was not working as the Government had intended, or where it could be improved. The Government’s response to our report was full of warm words, which were welcome. They told us how helpful the report had been, that it contained practical and helpful recommendations and that they were pleased to be able to accept, or partially accept, the majority of the 26 recommendations. Upon examination, we found that those were the recommendations in which we had, in essence, agreed with the Government, so perhaps it was not wholly surprising that they agreed with us.
However, there were one or two areas where we had significant differences, and I think that it is true to say that the Government did not accept our recommendations on any of them. Those are the areas on which I wish to concentrate today, because they continue to cause concern. The biggest area of concern relates to live performance.
Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): Clearly, we in the Committee are concerned that the Government have not gone far enough in their response to the report, but will the hon. Gentleman at least welcome the proposal to exempt venues with a capacity for 100 people for live music from having to go through the licensing bureaucracy? That would help pubs, in particular, which used to benefit from the two-in-a-bar exemption, and in fact goes further than that. Will he at least congratulate the Minister on that proposal?
Mr. Whittingdale: Up to a point. The proposal is late and fairly small, and I will speak about it at greater length shortly, although any movement on the part of the Government is clearly welcome. As I said, I was acting in a different capacity when the Bill was going through Parliament, and it was notable that much of the debate then related to the implementation of what the media termed 24-hour drinking. As we all know, very few establishments applied to open for 24 hours.
Nevertheless, there have been concerns about the impact of shifting closing times, and the Committee received some worrying evidence from the police about the effect in inner cities. The Police Federation made a strong case for the view that the period when there was most public disorder and potential for problems had simply shifted from the period between 11 pm and midnight to between 2 am and 3 am. That obviously put much greater strain on the police and meant that their shifts had to be longer, with more overtime. Generally, the measure has not really led to a reduction in the problems they faced, but has simply shifted them to a more inconvenient time both for them and, presumably, for residents in local communities.
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Mr. Mark Field: At the time, much of the publicity about the legislation focused on 24-hour drinking, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that there has not been an explosion in 24-hour drinking and that most licensed premises have not gone down that route, but does he agree that the bigger concern, which has been borne out in the five years since the legislation came into force, relates to the rights of local residents? In areas that may not have had many licensed premises before, residents’ interests have been put in a much more secondary position than under the old regime, when licensees had to go to a magistrates court for licensed premises permission.
Mr. Whittingdale: As I said, I have spoken in the past to the local residents my hon. Friend represents and I recognise that they have particular concerns, which I fully appreciate. It would be worrying if the legislation has made it more difficult for them to register those concerns.
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): The hon. Gentleman mentioned problems in inner-city areas. The problem of shifting the trouble zone applies equally to rural areas and small seaside resorts such as Teignmouth and Dawlish, so it is not just an inner-city problem. The difficulty is that residents are now being disturbed at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, rather than earlier at 1 o’clock.
Mr. Whittingdale: It is probably fair to say that the problem will affect places that have a significant influx of people who do not live locally, which is the case with the west end of London and with seaside resorts, so I recognise the concern in those areas as well.
“London has the highest rates of alcohol-fuelled crime in the country, with more than 80,000 drunken fights, rapes, burglaries and car thefts each year.”
The Committee considered some of the problems of binge drinking. We looked, for instance, at drinks promotions, which I know the Government have been looking at too. I am slightly concerned that many of the initiatives on such issues seem now to be coming from the Home Office. I would be interested to know whether the Minister feels that he is still in control of licensing policy.
We also have a report that the Prime Minister would move to allow councils to suspend licensing in areas where there were particular problems with antisocial behaviour. I would be interested to know what has happened to that proposal—what is its present standing?
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on being such an excellent Chairman of the Select Committee. He touched on drinks promotions. Would he agree that the vast majority of people in this country drink responsibly, and that banning those deals would be a completely over-the-top reaction and yet another triumph for the nanny state?
Mr. Whittingdale: I agree that the majority of people are responsible and enjoy drinking in moderation, and that it would be completely wrong to punish them for
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the irresponsible behaviour of others. As a member of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend will recall the promotions that were of particular concern. Some of those connected with happy hours, and clubs giving free drinks, create an incentive to drink as much as possible in a short space of time. Obviously, there are issues around the retailing of drinks, but I share his view that the Government should not try to ban promotions completely. As he said, the vast majority of people behave responsibly.
The first of the Committee’s main concerns that I want to touch on is the cost of obtaining a licence. We accepted that much had been done to try to reduce the bureaucracy involved and to keep down the cost, and I am glad that since we produced our report, the Government have made one or two further moves that have helped. For instance, I welcomed the Legislative Reform (Minor Variations to Premises Licences and Club Premises Certificates) Order 2009, which means that an applicant does not have to go through the whole process of applying for a new licence if they want to make a small change to their licence. That was clearly sensible. I am also encouraged to see the announcement about online applications, which will obviously simplify the process still further.
Given the impact on them of the costs of the new regime, we had considerable concerns about community sports clubs and non-profit-making clubs. I should declare an interest: I am the vice-president of Maldon cricket club and vice-president of Maldon rugby club—a non-playing vice-president in each case, I am afraid, but I go to the matches and enjoy a pint from the bar in the sports club after the game.
I know from speaking to members of the club how important the income they receive from the bar is in sustaining the club. It is true that sports clubs have never found things easy, but they are having a particularly hard time at present. They are suffering from the economic recession in the same way as any other business, and they have had to put up with increased utility costs, music licence costs and the smoking ban, and the move to the new licensing regime has resulted in a significant increase in their licensing costs.
The Central Council of Physical Recreation gave evidence to the Committee that rang considerable alarm bells about the difficulties that sports clubs face and the danger that many would not actually be able to keep going. The CCPR said that 6,000 sports clubs were at risk as a consequence, at least in part, of the legislation. Surveys that it had conducted showed that most sports clubs fall into bands B and C, which means that the annual cost of renewing their licence is either £180 or £295, whereas previously it had been perhaps £16. Then, of course, they face additional costs for advertising licences and so on.
We very much supported the CCPR’s proposal that sports clubs should be treated differently, one reason being that other establishments that sell alcohol are generally not contributing to a healthy population, whereas sports clubs most certainly are. Their main purpose is to encourage people to get out and play sport, which is something that the Government are keen to encourage, as is the Committee. If we are making it harder for such clubs to survive, that is a matter of concern, so we supported the CCPR’s proposal that just as the Government created the community amateur
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sports club scheme, which gave mandatory rate relief, there should be a similar provision that would mean that clubs are banded on the basis of 20 per cent. of their rateable value. That would cause all, or nearly all sports clubs to move to a lower band and, in doing so, would significantly help them by reducing their licensing costs.
The Government seemed to think that that would in some way subsidise the sale of alcohol. I do not accept that view. The Government recognised that sports clubs had a case for rate relief, and the case for licensing relief is equally strong. I hope that they will continue to consider and, indeed, accept our recommendation in that regard. Equally, we were concerned that non-profit-making clubs should not necessarily be treated in the same way as J.D. Wetherspoon and similar commercial establishments, and that perhaps they could be assessed on their bar area.
Another concern that we identified involved a national database of personal licence holders. Registering personal licence holders is clearly a good thing, but the fact that anybody who loses their licence through some transgression can go to another authority and apply for one without anyone being able to check on them seems to be a flaw. We received evidence from the Association of Chief Police Officers, which stated that the lack of such a database had caused concern to police forces nationally since the introduction of the Licensing Act. The Magistrates Association made similar representations to us and said that there really needed to be some kind of national register of personal licence holders. There is, of course, already a database through the Security Industry Authority for those who operate as doormen at establishments, and we cannot see why there could not be a similar arrangement for personal licence holders.
The Government say that there is not sufficient evidence to support the need for a database, but that is difficult to know. How can one tell the extent to which people may be applying for licences in other areas, having lost their licence in one area? An example given to us was that somebody might have trained in the hospitality industry in one place and applied for a licence from that local authority while undergoing education, then gone to work in a second authority, lost their licence and reapplied in a third. At present, that would be almost impossible to detect.
A concern with which the Government appeared to express some sympathy—I would be grateful if the Minister could update us—is what happens when a personal licence holder dies. At present, there are seven days in which to find a new licence holder for the premises. Obviously, it could be a tragic time, so we felt that seven days was too short and recommended 21. The Government accepted that case and said that they would consult on it, but I would be interested to know when the consultation will take place and whether the Government intend to make a change.
However, the main thing I want to highlight this afternoon is live performances. One of the most controversial aspects of the Bill was the abolition of the so-called two-in-a-bar rule, which previously exempted a venue where there were one or two performers from needing any kind of licence. That was something which, wearing my previous hat, I strongly opposed from the Opposition Front Bench. It was also opposed by the Liberal Democrats and it was fought in the House of
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Lords. The Government were forced to make some small concessions for reasons that were welcome but not quite clear. Morris dancing was exempted from the legislation, unlike any other kind of performance. Morris dancers are the one group that can perform without needing a licence. That has led to speculation about whether, if Metallica played with a morris dancer in the front, they might get around the legislation. I suspect that that is not so. It was a matter of great concern and, at the time, the Government said that they believed that the provision of the Bill would lead to an increase in live music performance, that the Bill certainly would not be damaging to it, and that they would keep an eye on this position.
I can tell the Minister that we have received quite a lot of evidence showing that there has, indeed, been damage to the performance of live music. One problem is that we will never know how many venues previously hosted live music performances by one or two performers but ceased to do so when they were required to apply under the Act, because of course previously they did not need to apply so there is no record of how many were doing so. But probably every hon. Member, including me, knows of pubs in their constituencies that did not want to go through the burden of acquiring an entertainment licence.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I support what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Does he agree that, especially in rural areas such as Montgomeryshire, where live music is part of the tradition of the county, many places that did not regard themselves as formal venues but nevertheless provided a starting point for many new musicians simply will not bother with the bureaucracy? Effectively, this legislation has kicked four or five rungs out of the bottom of performing arts in this country, to the great cost and detriment of our culture.
Mr. Whittingdale: I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is real evidence of that happening, not just in Montgomeryshire but right across the country. As he suggested, those are the places where many bands start. They do not suddenly find themselves playing Wembley stadium; they would normally start off elsewhere. I remember in my teens seeing a band I had never heard of in a pub, playing a song called “Roxanne”. I consider myself fortunate to have seen The Police in an audience of about 150.
“The administrative and financial burden on schools as a result of the...Licensing Act only serves to put so many off. Few have the capacity or resources to jump through all of the hoops that the Act suggests, and this”
“a crying shame on so many levels. Schools want to provide a fantastic wealth of opportunities...and so many young people are inspired by the exposure to cultural activities...The 2003 Act was never intended to create such a burdensome, bureaucratic nightmare for schools”.
Mr. Whittingdale: The hon. Gentleman says that it was. I am glad that my hon. Friend brought that up, because it is an interesting point. It seems that it was licensed, unlike the performance by The Frontiers, a young band from Liverpool, who on Friday 17 July played an engagement in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in Cockspur street, which I understand did not have a licence. As was pointed out, that left the Secretary of State liable to a £20,000 fine or six months imprisonment.
The demonstration was well attended by clowns, stilt-walkers and Punch and Judy men. We heard performances by Rhythms of the City, the Oompah Brass Band and Zambezi Express. Rhubarb and Rainbow the clowns were also present. However, the serious point of that was to reflect the concern right across the spectrum of performing artists about the effect of the Licensing Act. I was given a letter signed on behalf of Equity and the Musicians Union, which represent more than 60,000 performers and other creative workers and support the recommendations of the Select Committee report, particularly on red tape—the process of applying for a licence is too bureaucratic. They also strongly support the suggestion that licensing requirements should be removed for small venues and that the two-in-a-bar rule should be reinstated. I will mention other recommendations later, including on travelling entertainment in circuses.
There is no doubt that the requirement for all forms of live performance to be licensed is having a damaging effect. I understand from the newspapers that the Government have begun to shift on this. It is reported that the Minister will consult on bringing in an exemption for venues with a capacity of less than 100. As I mentioned earlier to my Select Committee colleague, the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly), any movement is welcome. A consultation has been promised for a long time. However, I am not entirely convinced that there needs to be a consultation at all. The evidence is clear. A huge amount of work has been done already, demonstrating that there is a need to relax the law in this area. I am concerned, because apparently it will take three months for the consultation to take place—and then, I am sure, the Department will need to assess it and think about it. The chances of a change happening before a general election seem pretty slim. I hope that the Minister will assure me that I am wrong on that point.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): I will mention what the hon. Gentleman says later, during my speech, but I just want to say that for me, this is about hearing both sides of the debate regarding live music. He has rightly focused on his worry about the impact on live music, but does he not have a view on, and will he say
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something about, the views of local authorities, the Local Authorities Coordinators of Regulatory Services and similar bodies, which have great concerns about our going too far on such issues?
Mr. Whittingdale: I accept that there is concern, although in my view a lot of the worries that local authorities rightly have can be addressed through environmental health legislation, for example. Actually, the practice of local authorities is also giving rise to concern, because even those venues that have taken advantage of the Act and applied for an entertainment licence are finding that the conditions being imposed are in many instances draconian.
I do not know if the Minister is aware of the survey done by the Welwyn Hatfield Live Music Forum on the actions of just one council—St. Albans district council—which, I am afraid to say to the three hon. Members to my left, is a Liberal Democrat-controlled council. The survey showed that, of 85 pubs in the St. Albans district,
“30 have restrictions on the number of musicians who can perform...45 have restrictions on the regularity or frequency of musical performances”
“4 have a restriction on the genres of music which can be performed...1 pub has to display a suitable and conspicuous notice advising the residents of forthcoming live music events”
“1 has a restriction on indoors Morris Dancing”,
I will not mention the full list, but I will just give one example. Clarence park in Clarence road, St. Albans, is subject to a licence with conditions running to more than 2,000 words. The associated event risk-assessment form runs to another three pages. St. Albans district council states, in its licensing policy:
“The policy does not provide for any standard conditions to be imposed to avoid the imposition of disproportionate and burdensome requirements.”
To redress the balance slightly, I thank the Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Clement-Jones, who has introduced a Bill in the House of Lords that seeks to implement the Committee’s recommendations in this area. I hope it is successful.
Since Lord Clement-Jones’ Bill has been mentioned, and given the Minister’s rather belated announcement that the Government will consult on the possibility of exempting venues of up to 100 from a requirement for a live music licence, will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the Select Committee believes that that figure should be up to 200, as mentioned in that Bill? The Minister will not mind my saying—I discussed this with him—that in an earlier conversation with him today when I said that 100 did not go far enough and asked what would
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happen if the consultation, which I agree is not needed, suggested that 200 was a better figure, I then asked what the would Government do. The Minister was gracious enough to say that in such circumstances they would seriously consider 200. That is good news, and we should welcome it.
Mr. Whittingdale: If that is the case, I welcome it, and I hope that the Minister will confirm it in his response. The Select Committee recommended that the appropriate figure was 200, which is what the Musicians Union suggested. The Minister would win many friends if he announced this afternoon that, having listened to us, he will change the figure to 200. [Hon. Members: “Go on.”] We will give him a while.
I want to refer particularly to the problem affecting portable entertainment, especially circuses. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), who is unable to be present but asked me to give his apologies. He has done immense work in support of circuses. Their problem is that it is extremely unclear whether they need to be licensed. Local authorities have different views—some say that they do not need licences, but others require 14 days’ notice and the full licensing process before a circus can perform. Because they move around the country, that causes uncertainty because they are unsure of where they can go without a licence. Equally, if something happens that requires them to move, it renders that almost impossible. Two examples were given to me.
Zippos circus, which I visited in Colchester, had been due to spend four or five days in Windsor when Princess Diana was killed. It rightly thought that that would be inappropriate because people did not want to be seen at a circus in that vicinity, with which she was closely identified, and it wanted to move. Another such occasion was when there was flooding in Sheffield. The circus had to move a long way to somewhere where a licence would not be necessary, because there was no time to apply for one and to undergo the 14-day period required by the legislation. Instead of being able to move to a different part of Sheffield, it had to come to Barnes in London, which was a great deal more expensive.
It was suggested to the Committee that the obvious solution, if the Minister still believes that circuses should be licensed—it is not clear to me why they should be, when fairgrounds, for example, do not have to be, and no problems have been related to circuses—is to have a single licence at the place of origin, rather as a cruise ship obtains a licence from its home port. I know that the Government have considered that, and I hope the Minister will say a little about it.
For one or two other community-type performances—for example, Punch and Judy men, and mummers—the licensing requirement is unnecessary, unjustifiable and should be removed. I hope the Minister will also reconsider that.
Another aspect of the performance of live music has caused concern in the capital. The Minister will be aware that the Metropolitan police require form 696 to be submitted 14 days prior to a performance. The police say that that is a voluntary measure, but many councils make it a condition of a licence, so that it is no longer voluntary. I understand the police’s concern about gang-related violence, but it is difficult to find any evidence to suggest that music in itself leads to violence. There is a
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worrying level of violence, particularly among the young ethnic minority communities in London, and obviously we want to support the police, but there is little evidence of an apparent linkage with music, and the requirement is doing real damage in two ways. It has led to some proposed performances being cancelled because the police have refused to allow them to go ahead.
I am not talking just about small clubs where there may be concern about security or the clientele. The problem is affecting major venues, such as the O2, which is perhaps the most successful music venue in the world at the moment. It has pointed that that it has had real problems as a result of form 696. It says that the administrative cost is £27,000 a year. If that was clearly justifiable, perhaps the O2 could afford to pay it, but it says that because of the 14-day time frame it has had to turn away short-lead events and has been unable to fill empty dates because of the required notice period. It has had to turn away three events as a result. It also said that the requirement to submit a guest list is completely impracticable, because it may change up to 24 hours before an event takes place, and will often say “plus one”.
Most worrying are the occasions on which the police have required events to be cancelled. One was a Project Urban event—a black urban music gig involving major artists, including Tinchy Stryder, who is very successful.
Mr. Whittingdale: My hon. Friend is a great expert in contemporary music, and is as familiar with Tinchy Stryder as I am. Master Stepz was also involved. Those are major performers, but on that occasion the police expressed concern that the combination of those artists and the fact that the promoters were young contributed to the possibility of the event attracting public disorder, so it had to be cancelled.
The second event was the Black Comedy awards, which was not even a music gig. One day before the event, the police said that they had received intelligence that gang members would attend and some of their names were spotted on the guest list. The O2 did not want to risk the police closing the event in the middle, so it decided to postpone it, and the promoter lost £12,000 as a result.
Another event involved Rick Ross, a black rap artist from New York. Form 696 was submitted within the time frame, and the police said that it was a low-risk event, but when the guest list was submitted the day before, it raised concern with the police to the extent that they requested that it cancelled. The O2 resisted, and pointed out that it was the fourth event in six months that had followed a similar trend—that attracting a black crowd raised concerns with the police. The O2 pointed out that it operated a high level of security with random searches on entry, had its own policing and was confident that the event would be secure. Only after intervention by the council leader and the Metropolitan police borough commander was it allowed to take place. It passed off with no problem at all. However, the O2 points out that such things are a having a significant effect on it. If they are affecting the O2 to that extent, they will plainly be affecting many other venues.
The Minister should be concerned about this. I quite accept that the Metropolitan police are not operating these provisions on the grounds of racism, but there is
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no doubt that that they are looking at specific types of music. Originally, as he will know, the form required the identification of the type of music to be performed. That requirement has since been removed, but it is still widely believed that the form is being used to target black music events, and that is causing deep resentment among certain communities. The Minister will be aware of the importance at the present time of not alienating certain minority communities, and the form is a cause of resentment. I therefore hope that he will talk to the police and look seriously at whether it really is necessary to have the form at all. The Select Committee’s view was that the form was unnecessary and unjustified and that it should be abolished.
I want to touch briefly on one other issue that the Committee examined as part of its consideration of the Act. The licensing of lap-dancing clubs has been subject to legislation, and a new category has been created, so lap-dancing clubs can be treated as sex-encounter venues. The Committee’s view was that it was not right that local residents living next door to a normal nightclub or bar should wake up one morning to discover that it had turned into a lap-dancing club and that they could do nothing about it. We felt that there was a case for a separate category that would allow local residents to express a view as to whether a location was appropriate for a lap-dancing club. Equally, a number of the people who gave evidence to us wanted to ban lap-dancing clubs completely, but we were of the view that such clubs are a legitimate and legal form of entertainment, which some people enjoy.
We were concerned about one or two aspects of the new provisions, particularly where owners have invested large sums to establish clubs in locations where there has been no record of disorder. Indeed, the Lap Dancing Association made the point that lap-dancing clubs are probably some of the best policed and secure venues and have less of a record of public disorder than almost any other type of entertainment venue. Nevertheless, they are required, for instance, to renew their licences annually, which makes it difficult for them to have security about their long-term investments. We could not see that annual renewal was necessary, and if there is a problem, there is always the provision allowing local residents, the police and others to make representations about the licence. The automatic annual renewal requirement is, therefore, not necessary.
We also had concerns about the transition to the new regime. We believed that existing clubs should have quite a lengthy period—perhaps five years—before they have to meet the full licensing requirement. Those remain concerns, and I hope that the Minister will briefly touch on them.
As I said, our overall impression was that the Act had achieved a large part of what it was intended to achieve. However, there were real concerns about specific provisions, and the Committee was disappointed that the Government did not seem willing to address them. I hope that the Minister will correct that this afternoon.