Posted: Thursday, 8 October 2009 @ 09:53
So now we know. Alcohol licensing is to be a political football in the run up to the election, with possible irretrievable damage to the trade to follow. I knew at the time that handing over responsibility for licensing from the magistrates to locally elected politicians was a huge mistake on a Trojan Horse scale. Once empowered the shackles are about to be loosened, and the power surge seen in Oldham will be just the beginning.
Both Labour and the Tories are both committing themselves to strengthening the powers of the licensing committees, and with it the power of local voters. Some may say that is overdue, but the whole point about the new laws introduced in 2005 was that they were designed to strike a balance, protecting commercial interests from over zealous attacks by anbitious local politicians and bureaucrats, and emotional communities, whilst allowing those local communities to call for reviews of Premises Licences. That balance is to be abandoned, with a nightmare scenario for local operators trying to make an honest living. Given the number of pitfalls awaiting them, many carrying criminal liability, it is a wonder that anyone will cherish the opportunity of working in the industry.
The proposals of both main parties are pure madness, ignoring the fact that the current legislation is awash with powers to tackle all the problems of the night time economy. So often all that politicians seem capable of doing is adding yet more laws to an overburdened trade, to grab the headlines in knee jerk reactions to tabloid journalism. They simply do not address the main problem and that is funding of police and local authorities to ensure that the current measures available are used to good effect.
Brown was first out of the blocks, no doubt sensing a Tory onslaught. He is to "ban 24 hour drinking". Complete rubbish. Does he know how many premises have 24 hour licences, and how many use them? Most are hotels and 24 hour supermarkets, not the down town vertical drinking dens. The 24 hour licence is not the problem, and he should know that. And he should know that Licensing Authorities already have sufficient powers to reduce hours where a premises is causing problems. But he is right that often it is difficult to single out one premises from many, so he proposes a power to inflict zonal hours in problem areas. That has proved a disaster in the past, and will not solve the issue. Such a blunt approach will not sort out the good boys from the bad. And he wants to let Licensing Authorities initiate a Review of a Premises Licence. So they will sit in judgment on their own actions! Hardly a just balance.
So what has Cameron in store? Licensing Authorities can veto pub applications, but on what grounds? Perhaps we are going back to question of need? As they can already reject an application if objections are made and they consider that to grant the application would undernmine any one of the Licensing Objectives, why is this necessary? Is it not an unfair interference with commercial interests? And he wants to see the power to restrict opening hours and impose tougher penalties. But again the power to restrict hours already exists if the evidence supports it, and has he looked at the current draconian penalties which could be inflicted for any number of piffling "offences"?
And Cameron intends to impose a huge increase in fees on the trade. Let us not forget that back in 2005 most saw their fees increase by 300% from the previous regime. It seems that this will be a stealth tax, imposed due to an inefficient regime. The magistrates were fair and effective and uncluttered by local government bureaucracy. Bring them back! If I thought that fees would be fed directly into a fully trained, politically unmotivated, Licensing Authority, and Policing, I would support it, but I do not believe for one moment that the funds will reach the deserving parts.
And finally, the Tories want to impose a huge increase in duty on high strength alcohol. This will only hit the vast number of law abiding citizens who enjoy a tipple, particularly pensioners, for the sake of a tiny minority who pre-load before hitting the night life. Again they are not addressing the issues but playing to the headlines. So again, complete rubbish from the Tories.
So is it a case of hiding behind the sofa until after the election? No, the trade must lobby very hard indeed to make sure that whatever changes are introduced are a reasonable response to identified problems. Otherwise the trade will be cast to the wolves.
Licensing law Specialist
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