Newquay news again – seems that some venues over summer have been using the ‘loophole’ that allows infrequent striptease entertainment in clubs without an SEV licence. One can only imagine the original legislation allowed this loophole to allow select venues to offer occasional variety, burlesque or other entertainment with nudity in, rather than allow clubs to put on monthly striptease. Why or whether this loophole should be tied up is not particularly clear, though the articles on Newquay allege the whole town is becoming a magnet for stag dos (a recurring theme in this part of the world). From a debate in Westminster Hall today (full Hansard transcript will be posted in due course)
“Mr Gilbert called on licensing minister Jeremy Browne to change legislation as soon as possible, suggesting the inclusion of ‘Temporary Sexual Entertainment’ licences or subjecting one-off events to current SEV rules.
During the debate, he said: “What this debate is about is ensuring consistency in the application of the regulation of sexual entertainment on our high streets. It is about ensuring that performers in sexual entertainment venues, lap dancing clubs, and the patrons of those venues are properly protected and that local communities are involved in the decision-making process about where and when these venues operate.
“The Government has a chance to act early on this issue. The minister need only choose to act on this matter to make a difference.”
In his response, Mr Browne said: “It is possible for ingenious bar owners to use the exemption in a way which gives them more scope to provide regular entertainment of a sexual nature than was envisaged when this legislation was introduced in 2009…[this is] beyond the spirit of the exemptions.
“I am happy to extend to my honourable friend this offer, which is whether he would be interested in meeting with officials for discussions, with me as well, to discuss with him whether the [current] flexibility is subject to abuse and whether there may be some scope for us to make some changes so that the flexibility is exercised within the spirit that parliament expected back in 2009.”
Full Hansard transcript follows:
Tuesday 10 September 2013
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
Sexual Entertainment Licence Exemptions
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Greg Hands.)
Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Howarth. I am grateful to the two other hon. Members who have joined me for this important debate.
I want to say first what the debate is not. This is not a debate that is led by prudish intolerance in relation to sexual entertainment. I have never been to a lap-dancing club, and my view is that real men do not buy women for entertainment, but, as a Liberal, I accept that if adults want to make such choices, that is up to them. The debate is about ensuring consistency in the application of the regulation of sexual entertainment on our high streets. It is about ensuring that performers in and patrons of sexual entertainment venues—lap-dancing clubs—are properly protected and that local communities are involved in the decision-making process about where and when such venues should operate.
The fundamental issue is simple. If a permanent lap-dancing club opens under the licensing regime adopted by the previous Government in the Licensing Act 2003 and the Policing and Crime Act 2009, the community is involved in making the decision and there would be significant safeguards in place for those who work in and visit the establishments. The 2009 Act, however, provides a specific exemption, stating that premises providing sexual entertainment on an infrequent basis—on no more than 11 occasions in a 12-month period—do not require a licence and, therefore, do not need to offer the same level of safeguards to performers and patrons. In Newquay, the exemption has led to lap-dancing nights being offered on that so-called occasional basis in direct competition to a licensed venue, but without any of the obligations that the licensed venue needs to meet.
For many years, I have had the pleasure of working closely with the people and businesses of Newquay to secure a future for the town that is sustainable and successful and to tackle some of the excesses of the night-time economy, which over recent years have blighted the town. To be clear, Newquay is a fantastic town. It sits within a stunning natural environment and has, over the decades, welcomed millions of visitors to enjoy its natural beauty and the entertainment that it has to offer. The town has been through many transformations, from a traditional fishing port and centre for the export of china clay, to being the surfing capital of Britain and a terrific, family-friendly visitor destination. Each time Newquay has reinvented itself, it has breathed new life into the streets and delivered new opportunities for the people who live, work and visit there.
Tourism is now one of the town’s primary industries and attracts a wide variety of visitors. The trade brings in much needed revenue for businesses in the town, which include hotels, bars, pubs, clubs, restaurants, surf
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hire shops, bakeries, designer-clothing outlets and the usual range of excursion and entertainment providers to be found in seaside resorts such as Newquay. Collectively, those businesses employ huge numbers of local people and provide year-round income. Over the past decade or so, however, the town has seen a rise in the number of sexual entertainment venues—or, in the jargon, SEVs— and at one point, Newquay, with a resident population of a little more than 20,000, had five lap-dancing licences in operation. The proliferation of lap-dancing venues within the town centre has been a major concern of local people for a number of years. Clearly, the venues were there to cater for the fivefold increase in population that occurs during the summer months. They have, however, attracted significant antisocial behaviour, as well as more serious crime and disorder.
The previous Government’s 2009 Policing and Crime Act helped to put the community back in control. The town council, Cornwall council, the Devon and Cornwall police, the fire brigade, determined local residents and I have worked effectively together to use the powers under that Act to reduce the number of venues to only one licensed SEV, and to ensure that performers in and patrons of such venues are protected. That has made a huge difference to the atmosphere in the town centre. Five years ago, many people told me that they felt scared to go into the town centre in the evening; families rightly complained about the ubiquity of sexualised images in the main street and on the roads leading to the town’s beaches. Working together, we representatives of the community have been able to address such concerns with great success.
Lap-dancing clubs are regulated by the local authority—in my case, Cornwall council—and they are subject to stringent requirements that protect patrons and performers, while allowing residents and community representatives a voice in the location of the venues. Cornwall council has adopted powers under the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982, as amended by the 2009 Act, in order to regulate sex shops, sex cinemas and sexual entertainment venues. The amended legislation delivers more power to local residents, giving them a much greater say in where SEV licences can be issued. It allows the local community to object to great effect when an application is made, based on whether the location is appropriate. The 2009 Act, however, also allows premises to hold the exact type of sexual entertainment that normally requires an SEV licence without a licence and without safeguards, if it is held less frequently than once a month. My understanding is that the exemption was designed to allow for one-off entertainment events, such as the attendance of a strippergram at a birthday party. Such provision was made with the best intentions, but there is a real risk that it is too broad and open to abuse.
One example concerns a site within Newquay, for which the owner had applied for a licence to become a permanent lap-dancing venue. During the application process, a considerable number of objections from local residents and businesses were received, and Cornwall council refused the licence. The venue in question, however, has now begun to operate sexual entertainment events under the exemption in the Act. This involves not the occasional strippergram but the operation of a full SEV during a whole 24-hour window once a month, with full nudity and none of the protections and safeguards that
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performers and patrons should rightly be able to expect. It cannot be right that, when a venue has been refused a lap-dancing licence by the local authority, following objections from local people and businesses, it can then flout the will of the community and its representatives and go ahead in offering sexual entertainment without any of the protections mentioned.
We are debating the matter today because it raises serious questions about how fair the exemption is for those businesses that comply with the full licensing requirements for SEVs. Such venues comply with a large number of conditions that regulate their business, which I will come to shortly, but the cost is substantial—not only the cost of complying with the regulations imposed by the licensing authority, but the cost of the application itself. What must an SEV licence holder think when a nearby property, which has failed in getting a licence, still proceeds to stage sexual entertainment in direct competition and without the relevant safeguards that the licence holder must fund?
The business environment in Newquay, as in many of our towns and cities, is a competitive one, with significant numbers chasing a limited market, so, logically, were an SEV to be surrounded by a number of highly competitive premises that have one owner, it might well be challenged by more than one of those infrequent, occasional events each month. In such a case, those who have sought to comply with the law would see little point in going through the licensing regime, and perhaps switch to less regular and unregulated sexual entertainment events. I do not wish to be alarmist, but it is not unreasonable to suggest that a town such as Newquay, which saw a surge in lap-dancing venues, but tackled the issue head-on and imposed significant restrictions, could again see a large rise in unregulated sexual entertainment events, all happening in spite of the wishes of the community, Parliament or the local council. That is wrong.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) knows that the regulations covering SEVs are not light touch. They rightly impose stringent conditions for the protection of all those involved in sexual entertainment. Those conditions are stringent because there is so much at risk in sexual entertainment. It is of great concern to me that expansion of unregulated sexual entertainment could put vulnerable people at risk. SEV licences ensure that the impact on the surrounding area is limited.
Some people will always object to SEV licences being issued, regardless of where they are and what measures are put in place to protect the surrounding community, but the licensing regime introduced by the previous Government allows local authorities to introduce significant protection, and the use of occasional or infrequent exemptions within the 2009 Act undermine the previous Government’s intention. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm the present Government’s intention to ensure that venues are properly regulated and managed, and that performers and patrons are properly protected. For example, an SEV licence will explicitly prohibit the soliciting of custom in the street and the general locality including, in Newquay’s case, the whole town. That anti-touting rule ensures that SEVs can operate within communities with minimal impact on other businesses, passing trade and house prices.
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That is particularly important in places such as Newquay that have strived in recent years to become more family-friendly resorts. Local businesses and residents have worked successfully and hard on that. My hon. Friend will be aware of initiatives such as Newquay Safe, which has brought together all stakeholders in the town to tackle anti-social behaviour and to reduce the cost of policing Newquay at the same time as reducing the amount of crime that is reported and recorded there. We have had significant success.
SEV licences require the interior of lap-dancing venues to be hidden from the street so that sexual entertainment events inside can be seen only by patrons and not by passers-by. If that requirement was not in place in places such as Newquay, the entertainment could be seen by anyone, from children on the way to the beach to pensioners on their way to local tea rooms. SEV licences place restrictions on advertising, and it is easy to understand why the regular holding of sexual entertainment events in unlicensed premises within the exemption might lead to images or advertisements that could damage an area’s reputation and put sexualised images in front of part of the population that simply does not want to see them.
Perhaps the most important provision in SEV licences is safeguards for the welfare of performers and patrons, which are exactly what the exemption does not provide. I think we all accept that lap dancing is an unusual and intimate environment, and the availability of alcohol at venues means that there is a significant danger that performers and patrons may find themselves in difficult situations. SEV licences include incredibly strict provisions to place the entertainer in the safest environment possible in the circumstances. That is achieved predominantly through a strict 3-foot rule that performers must remain at least 3 feet from patrons. That is an essential protection that reduces the risk of harassment or abuse of sexual entertainers and reduces the risk for patrons. Should even limited contact be allowed or suggested, the patron is at risk of allegations of a criminal act. With patrons and performers prohibited from touching each other by maintaining the 3-foot rule, there is a clear dividing line that affords safeguards to both parties.
All aspects of sexual entertainment must take place in open, supervised areas or in private in the presence of designated staff and under the umbrella of closed circuit television. SEV licences also require all restrictions to be enforced by designated supervisors or floor-walkers who must be fully trained and in such number to guarantee the safety of those inside the venue. If we are to have lap dancing in our towns and cities, the safeguards are vital to ensure that the experience is entertainment, not exploitation.
Venues operating within the exemptions of the 2009 Act need not adhere to those conditions. My local police superintendent, John Green, said:
“What has caused me concern is, as a consequence of the lack of regulation, the risk of harm and vulnerability issues for those girls at work at such an event.”
Superintendent Green went on to say of the lap-dancing nights that were held in Newquay under the exemption in the 2009 Act:
“Whilst the girls felt able to ‘look after themselves’, the general conduct, if held under the auspices of a SEV, would have breached almost all the conditions.”
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Those real concerns from the local police sit alongside the real concerns from town councillors and Cornwall councillors who have worked to ensure that if we have the industry in our towns and cities, it must be as safe and as properly managed as we can achieve. Sadly, it is conceivable that a sexual entertainer working in an unfamiliar venue that does not afford its patrons and performers the protection of having gone through the licensed SEV process could be subject to a serious sexual assault, and possibly even worse. We should not allow legislation that is easy to change to put any individual in harm’s way in that respect.
What can be done? My hon. Friend the Minister will be pleased to hear that much can be done. The exemption was made in good faith so its removal may seem to be excessive. However, it is entirely conceivable that occasional sexual entertainment events could simply be subject to the same stringent requirements of the sexual entertainment licence process. That would require minimal legislative effort because the existing law allows the relevant national authority to order, amend or repeal the exemption clause without new primary legislation. That is a key point. The Government could deliver that with minimal effort. My hon. Friend need not remove the infrequency clause altogether. He could simply ensure that when it is used it meets the standards of the nearest SEV licence that has been issued by the relevant local authority.
An alternative that Cornwall council’s licensing department has suggested is to look at a mechanism similar to temporary event notices that are in existence under the Licensing Act 2003. That would give the local authority and the police an opportunity to consider and to object when applications were made for venues for one-off or infrequent sexual entertainment. Such a regime could also require premises to meet certain criteria providing adequate protection for performers and patrons. Those who wanted to stage sexual entertainment at occasional venues would have to meet the requirements placed on more permanent venues, ensuring safeguards against sexual assault or false allegations being made. Crucially in that scenario, local authorities could comment on and even refuse an application if they thought it appropriate to do so, or to add further restrictions. That could restore the vital input of local residents when deciding when, where and in what way such events take place in their communities.
The problem is not just in Newquay. In major cities throughout the country the sexual entertainment industry is exploiting this loophole in the legislation and is moving underground. We want to avoid that at all costs. The Government have the opportunity to act early. The Minister could make a significant difference, and the problem could be sorted out long before whole towns are teeming with competing, unlicensed sexual events, before the views of whole communities on whether, where and how such establishments exist are sidelined, and before anyone is put in harm’s way. My request to my hon. Friend is that he undertakes to look at the matter urgently. A small step from the Government could make a significant difference.
Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) on securing
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this debate and on setting out so clearly the current provisions and the particular problems with them that he has found in his constituency. Like him, I have never visited the establishments we are discussing; it will be interesting to hear whether the Minister has.
Lap-dancing clubs are a relatively new phenomenon in the UK, with the first clubs opening in about 1995. It has taken quite some time to refine the regime for controlling their operation. As we have heard in today’s debate, various licensing regimes have not been able to stop the proliferation of lap-dancing clubs, which is now a genuine concern for members of the public.
Although I think we are all agreed that we do not want to ban such establishments, it is quite right that the licensing regime recognises their special nature and the problems that they cause to local communities. It is perfectly understandable that people have concerns about the opening of such establishments in their local areas.
Such establishments are a part of the sex industry, and there are a number of valid reasons why people object to their existence. We have heard today about some of the problems in Newquay. I think all hon. Members would agree that it is vital for communities to have their say if and when applications are made for such clubs to open.
When such clubs first appeared in the UK in about 1995, there was no specialist licensing regime. The opening of sex shops and sex cinemas required specialist licences from the council, which had a range of powers to limit the availability of such establishments. There was also a specialist category of licence for sex encounter establishments, but that legislation applied only to London at the time. In all cases, while councils were responsible for specialist sex licences, magistrates retained powers over alcohol licensing.
That dual licensing approach was ended, as we have heard, by the Licensing Act 2003, which aimed to bring all licences for premises selling alcohol under one regulatory framework, under the direction of the local authority and guided by the four principles of licensing. They are the prevention of crime and disorder; public safety; the prevention of public nuisance; and the protection of children from harm.
While the intentions behind the 2003 Act were good, its application caused problems. There seemed to be widespread confusion as to whether a premises needed to declare adult entertainment as an integral aspect of the application and whether a council could take a position on the opening of such venues in its licensing statement. Several communities found that they could not prevent such premises from opening, and the application of the four basic licensing criteria seemed to vary extensively in relation to the opening of such establishments.
At this point I would particularly like to pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) and of the campaign group Object. They did fantastic work to raise awareness of the operation of the 2003 Act regarding lap-dancing clubs and suggested a way to control such venues.
In government, Labour listened to those concerns. We realised that the 2003 Act had given rise to unforeseen consequences, and we therefore changed the law. Changes to the control of lap-dancing clubs were introduced under the Policing and Crime Act 2009 by the then-Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, and we now have the present regime.
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Under the powers contained in the 2009 Act, councils could decide to designate strip clubs, lap-dancing clubs and other similar establishments as sexual entertainment venues. Those in turn were controlled under the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982, in a way similar to that suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham and supported by groups such as Object.
However, the new powers are adoptive, meaning that councils may adopt them if they choose to do so. If they choose not to, lap-dancing clubs will continue to be licensed by the 2003 Act. It would be helpful if the Minister could set out how many councils have adopted the new approach. It would be interesting to know, given that the legislation was framed to give councils an option of taking that route, whether the vast majority have chosen to do so.
If councils use their discretion and adopt the new powers, both the council and local residents will have a much greater say over the operation of lap-dancing clubs. It will mean that the operation of such clubs will have to be reviewed annually; allow local people to object to the opening of a club if it is deemed inappropriate for the character of an area; and, even without objections, allow a local authority to reject an application on the basis that it is inappropriate given the nature of an area. The powers also allow a local authority to set a limit on the number of lap-dancing clubs in an area; limit the opening of such clubs to specific areas; and impose a wider set of operating conditions than can be imposed under the 2003 Act.
As I have said, it is down to councils to decide whether they want to use those powers. I am pleased to see that a number of Labour councils have been at the forefront of using the powers to ensure that local residents get a say in controlling such nightclubs. In particular, I commend Swansea’s Labour-controlled council, which has conducted an extensive consultation and decided that the maximum number of lap-dancing clubs in its city should be zero, reflecting the wishes of residents. It was interesting to hear about the situation in Newquay, with the five lap-dancing clubs before the change in legislation reduced to one using those provisions.
On the issue of infrequency and the loophole in the legislation, the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay has set out clearly what that means on the ground to local communities. He is not alone in raising those concerns about the exemption. I would like to pay tribute to the Fawcett Society in particular, which has been highlighting that issue over a few months.
I can appreciate hon. Members’ concerns about such venues. Not only is it a concern that such venues can operate outside the normal licensing regime that other establishments have to comply with, and circumvent the controls that councils would place on their operation if they were subject to a licence, but it is understandable that people will have concerns about having lap dancing going on in, say, their local pub. The fact that such premises could be normal pubs for most of the time only makes it even more inappropriate that they are able to host such entertainment once a month.
Labour thinks that the issue needs to be reviewed and would be happy to work with the Government on that. The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay has
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suggested some positive ways of addressing the problem. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us whether local authorities are monitoring and keeping a record of the use of the exemption. Do the Government plan to review the issue?
I look forward to what the Minister says about the matter. I know that the Government are keen to reduce regulation and do not want to see bureaucracy placed in the way of businesses; I have heard the Minister talk at length about that. However, in the present case, is he satisfied that there is sufficient regulation? I know that in recent legislation, the Government have reduced the bureaucracy relating to obtaining temporary event licences. Would he like to pursue that route, as suggested by the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay?
The Minister, who is responsible for all licensing policy, will recall that one of the central commitments of the alcohol strategy was to rebalance the licensing regime in favour of local communities. It seems that the flouting of provisions related to the licensing of lap-dancing clubs needs to be addressed by tilting the balance back to the local community. Indeed, not only was that general claim about giving the community more power contained in the alcohol strategy, but it was followed up by the launch of a consultation that was supposedly intended to
“introduce stronger powers for local areas to control the density of licensed premises”.
Of course, that was before Lynton Crosby seemed to get involved in the whole alcohol debate, so I have a feeling that we might not be hearing much more about the alcohol strategy that the Government are to pursue, but I would be grateful if the Minister could say something about whether he is still committed to the aims that were set out just a few months ago.
Any changes that the Government have made seem to fly in the face of the commitment to give more power back to local communities. I want to raise with the Minister the announcement from the Department for Communities and Local Government, which seems to involve local communities losing their right to object to a change of use under planning law and potentially making the opportunity more available to businesses to set up lap-dancing clubs. As I understand it, they could turn a restaurant into a lap-dancing club without having to go through the normal planning applications. Would the Minister like to comment on whether that is really allowing communities to have their say?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham again, and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), for their work in relation to the “Save our High Streets” campaign, which has been so effective at highlighting the dangers of some of the Government changes, which could make the opening of lap-dancing clubs more likely. Labour is very serious about looking hard at what happened with the Licensing Act 2003 and the changes that were made more recently, and about ensuring that the law actually does what local communities want it to do. As I said, I am very willing to look, with the Minister, at ways in which we could work on a cross-party basis to ensure that that happens.
Could I deal with one other issue? I am referring to the women who work in lap-dancing clubs. Some women choose to become erotic dancers—they make that choice
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themselves—but, like in the rest of the sex industry, there are many people working in this part of it whose choice is not so free. We know that the sex industry is responsible for a great deal of human trafficking and modern-day slavery. The Government have spent a lot of time over the summer talking about the proposed Bill to deal with modern slavery. Any progress in that area would of course be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House, but as always the detail is rather sketchy, particularly about the support for victims. Perhaps the Minister can use this opportunity today to explain how that Bill would fit with the licensing regime, what interface there would be with regard to licensed premises that are found to have women working in them who have not made that choice about entering employment in the sex industry, and how that would fit with any provisions in the modern slavery Bill.
Mr George Howarth (in the Chair): The debate can run until 11 o’clock—that time is available—but in the event that it does not, I will suspend the sitting until 11 o’clock.
The Minister of State, Home Department (Mr Jeremy Browne): Thank you, Mr Howarth, for that cautionary note of introduction. It is a pleasure to be guided by you.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) for the passionate and well-informed way in which he introduced this important debate. I had the opportunity recently to visit him in his constituency in Newquay and to see all the work that he is doing with people in the local community, volunteers, the police, the council and others on behalf of the residents of that town. It was extremely impressive for me, as a Home Office Minister, to see how hands-on my hon. Friend is in ensuring that the views of Newquay residents are well understood and acted on by the authorities in that town.
The subject that we are considering today is very specific, tightly drawn and important, particularly in areas that attract large numbers of visitors. My hon. Friend made the interesting point that the population of Newquay increases, he estimates, from 20,000 to about 100,000 over the summer. Other places in the country, particularly seaside towns, also experience that surge in visitors, which puts particular pressure on local services, and the demands of those visitors, in terms of the entertainment that they are interested in, can change the nature and character of a town during the peak visitor period compared with other times of the year. That has been a point of particular interest for my hon. Friend and, as I have said, he represents the interests of the people of Newquay extremely effectively, both in the House of Commons and in the immediate community when he is discharging his duties in Cornwall.
I want to take this opportunity to set out the legal framework for the licensing of sexual entertainment venues. My hon. Friend will be aware—indeed, he has spoken about this—of the legal framework for the licensing of such venues, which was most recently considered under the Policing and Crime Act 2009, which amended the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982. The 2009 Act inserted into the 1982 Act a new category of sex establishment called a “sexual entertainment
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venue”, which brought the licensing of lap-dancing and pole-dancing clubs and other similar venues under the regime set out in the 1982 Act. A “sexual entertainment venue” is defined as premises at which relevant entertainment is provided, or permitted to be provided, in front of a live audience for the financial gain of the organiser or entertainer. “Relevant entertainment” may take the form of a live performance or live display of nudity and must be
“of such a nature that, ignoring financial gain, it must reasonably be assumed to be provided solely or principally for the purpose of sexually stimulating any member of the audience”.
That is the way in which parliamentary draftsmen and civil servants have sought to define this form of entertainment.
The 2009 Act set out the fact that decisions on licensing applications are best made at local level. We have touched on that during this debate, and I must say to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), who speaks for the official Opposition, that it is our intention to try to empower local communities. I think that it is a difficult for her to criticise the Government for being insufficiently vigilant when it comes to empowering local communities when, at the same time, she constantly criticises us for not taking a more active role in imposing the will of central Government on those local communities and local councils.
Obviously, if we give local councils room for manoeuvre, some flexibility, and the discretion to make judgments about what is in the interests of the area that they serve, they may come to different conclusions. That is the essence of local democracy. If they were all obliged by central Government to do exactly the same, there would be no point in having local elections or local consultation, because there would be one single blueprint imposed by central Government. That is a reasonable political philosophy. People on the left tend to be in favour of standardisation and centralisation, but if someone is liberally inclined, as I am and I believe the Government are, they tend to take the view that people should be given greater discretion over how they live their life and that individuals and individual communities should enjoy a degree of autonomy to make decisions in their own interest. It is not the intention of central Government to steamroller every local council or to say that in every circumstance we know best. We want elected local councillors to make decisions that they think serve their community, listening closely to the people in that community, who elect them.
Local authorities can consider whether granting a licence for a lap-dancing club would be appropriate, having regard to the character of the area and the use to which other premises in the vicinity are put. We believe that that is the right approach. For example, a local authority may decide that it would be inappropriate to grant a licence for a lap-dancing club in a residential area or next door to a school. That remains the Government’s position: local areas are best suited to decide what is appropriate and manageable for their area, taking into account local characteristics and community concerns.
Diana Johnson: I am listening carefully to the Minister. Can he give us any idea of the number of local authorities that have decided to use the enabling provisions to adopt that approach?
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Mr Browne: I do not have the precise numbers for what has been done or not done by each local authority. The decision is for local authorities to make, which brings us back to the point that I made a moment ago: even if I had a list, the Government do not presume to tell local authorities what approach they should take as long as they act within the confines of the law, as drafted and enacted under the previous Government, who took the view that it was right to give local authorities some discretion. One could say that that was rather uncharacteristic, because the previous Government, particularly the previous Prime Minister, tended to manage things tightly from the centre. That is the position however, and this Government are inclined to take the view that local councils should make judgments that they believe to be wise on behalf of the local community. One council may take one approach and another council the opposite approach, but that does not mean that one is right and one is wrong; they might both be right, because the demands of the two different communities may be different.
There is a balance to be struck between licensing conditions that are rigorous and appropriate and imposing unnecessary bureaucratic burdens on legitimate businesses. The hon. Lady criticised me for my belief—and the Government’s belief—that we should not impose unnecessarily onerous burdens on business in a way that makes it less likely that they will create new prosperity and new jobs in their communities. I am pleased that under this Government well over 1 million new private-sector jobs have been created and the economy is beginning to turn a corner, despite the predictions of the official Opposition that at this stage we would have strongly rising unemployment and a flatlining economy. The official Opposition never seem to realise that the reason why the country is getting off its knees and back on its feet economically is because we have not followed their approach in government, which was a very regulatory, very prescriptive, very centralised approach, which—
Mr George Howarth (in the Chair): Order. The Minister is entering into an interesting discourse on the ideological framework behind all of this—I rather think we are heading towards John Stuart Mill—but he should confine his remarks to the matter in hand.
Mr Browne: Thank you for your guidance, Mr Howarth. That is an extremely flattering comparison with someone who is arguably the father of liberalism. I apologise; I was drawn down that path by the hon. Lady’s observations, but no doubt I strayed too far along it.
The Government want to ensure that the licensing conditions are rigorous and appropriate, but not so tightly prescribed that there is no room for flexibility or initiative or to respond to particular local demands. It is right that venues seeking to provide regular and frequent events of such nature are subject to tight and appropriate licensing conditions.
The specific exemptions to which my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay referred apply only, as he said, to those establishments that need not comply with the framework of regulations because they accord with three stipulations. First, there have not been more than 11 occasions on which relevant entertainment has been provided within 12 months.
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In other words, the exemption would not allow an establishment to put on such entertainment on a monthly basis over a year; it would need to be less frequent than that on average. Secondly, no such occasion lasts for more than 24 hours. It seems hard to imagine that an event of that type would last for more than 24 hours, but perhaps that shows a lack of imagination on my part, because that stipulation is in the legislation. Thirdly, no such occasion begins within the period of one month beginning from the end of any previous occasion. A person running such an establishment could not, for example, use their maximum quota of 11 exemptions on 11 consecutive Saturdays in the summer months. That would not be appropriate.
The exemptions are hard to abuse. They are narrow in range and represent intentionally limited circumstances. A venue cannot, for example, hold a regular event—even a monthly event—without falling foul of the regulations.
Stephen Gilbert: I remain grateful for the interest and the enthusiasm the Minister has shown in the debate and on his recent visit to Newquay. An owner may have more than one establishment in a town so, although the infrequency rules that he set out might apply to an owner with an individual establishment, does he accept that an owner with three or four establishments would effectively be able to run as many events as they liked over a period of time such as the summer?
Mr Browne: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention, because he makes an important point, which might not have been considered by Ministers and those drafting the legislation on their behalf in 2009. I shall come on to that point in a moment, because I want to address it head on. Before I do so, however, I shall complete what I was saying before his intervention.
The reason for the narrowly drawn exemptions is because the Government recognise the virtue in flexibility—interestingly, when the legislation was drafted the previous Government recognised this—as we want businesses and local communities to have discretion and room for manoeuvre. Whenever legislation of this type is drawn up, one-off occasions that may not have been envisaged by the House come to light, and it can be frustrating not to have flexibility built into the system for such circumstances. Exemptions were included because it was recognised that not all premises that provide “relevant entertainment” should be classed as sexual entertainment venues. It was argued during the passage of the 2009 Act that premises such as a pub hosting a one-off birthday party at which a strippergram has been booked, for example, should not require regulation in the same manner as lap-dancing clubs that offer entertainment every night, or even every week or month. Most people would recognise that distinction.
Premises that hold infrequent events continue to be regulated under the Licensing Act 2003. Hosting regular sexual entertainment without the relevant licence would represent a significant breach of licensing conditions, so there is a licensing framework, but it is not as prescriptive as that in the 2009 Act. The previous Government and this Government view that as the right balance to strike. However, we now get to the nub of the point made by my hon. Friend in his speech and in his intervention, which is whether it is possible for ingenious bar owners to use the exemptions in a way that gives
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them more scope to provide regular entertainment of a sexual nature than was envisaged by Ministers and Parliament when the legislation was introduced in 2009.
My hon. Friend said that an individual could own four or five venues in one town and put on sexual entertainment evening every Saturday night through the summer season—May to September—at one of the venues, advertising it in the others. The individual could do that within the flexibility afforded to him or her by the 2009 Act, and could make a virtue to holiday makers of the entertainment being offered at the end of their week-long holiday, even promoting it as part of a series of activities across the four or five bars. If other people in the town who were running sexual entertainment evenings or events had straightforwardly registered and complied with the Act but did not seek to operate within the flexibility afforded, competition could be created between them and those complying with the Act but using the exemptions in a way that was not envisaged by Ministers and Parliament.
Perhaps such individuals’ behaviour is not as assiduous and deliberate as I have described, but it goes beyond the spirit of the exemptions. It happens in Newquay and, I suspect, in other parts of the country where large numbers of people go on holiday, particularly young visitors, including groups of young males—or in some cases perhaps not so young. In those places a judgment is made about the market for such entertainment.
I am happy to extend to my hon. Friend the offer of a meeting with officials and, subject to his discussion with them, perhaps a meeting with me as well, not to consider, for the reasons I and others have given, how to scrap the exemption, because we see virtue in flexibility—and there would be a risk of unintended consequences if we removed it altogether—but to discuss whether the flexibility is subject to abuse and there is scope to make changes so that it is exercised in line with the spirit of what Parliament intended when the legislation was enacted in 2009. I want to sound a cautionary note to my hon. Friend, as we need to see how this can best work in practice.
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The Government legislate and seek to introduce regulations the whole time, and there is pressure on the parliamentary timetable, so I cannot make my hon. Friend a specific offer this morning, but I recognise how well informed he is: he has raised a genuine concern, which is shared by many residents in Newquay, and no doubt in other parts of the country. We want a licensing regime that has flexibility but which is not abused. I am not saying that anyone is abusing it by breaking the law—but if they do so they should face the consequences—but that they are abusing it, not so brazenly, in respect of the spirit of the legislation. The safeguards that the previous Government sought to put in place to protect residents no longer have the intended effect.
As I say, I extend the offer, if my hon. Friend would like to accept it, to have such a meeting with officials, to explore a range of areas including whether there is potential for other licensing regimes or changes that the Government might consider to licensing more generally that could apply in these circumstances. We wish to ensure that communities receive the protection that they need and that local councils, acting on their behalf, are able to make decisions that people running sexual entertainment venues are required to respect and abide by, rather than bypass.
I thank you, Mr Howarth, for chairing the debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North for her party’s interest in the issue which, I believe, reflects Parliament’s interest in ensuring that we have the right legislation. Most of all, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay for his assiduous service on behalf of his constituents. We look forward to hearing further representations as he strives so admirably to serve the people of Newquay in his capacity as their Member of Parliament.
Mr George Howarth (in the Chair): The debate has been dispatched with such efficiency that the sitting is now suspended until 11 o’clock.