Licensing reform

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We take a look at what change licensing reform may bring for licensees.Licensees can be forgiven if they develop split personalities over the next...

We take a look at what change licensing reform may bring for licensees.

Licensees can be forgiven if they develop split personalities over the next year or so.

The pub trade faces the challenge of continuing to observe the existing licensing laws, while at the same time preparing for sweeping legislative changes which will affect every pub in the country.

Our current licensing laws are mainly framed by the 1964 Licensing Act. However, this simple act bought together the various licensing practices in place at the time, without reforming the system to any great degree.

The government has a policy of repealing or updating outdated legislation. For example, the Sunday Observance Act, which outlawed dancing on Sunday and dated back to Puritan times, was suspended in December 2000 in time to allow New Year's Eve celebrations to go ahead.

Much of today's licensing regime has it roots in 19th Century legislation aimed at tackling problems of drunkenness and disorder among the residents of Victorian slums, and the Defence of the Realm Act passed in the First World War, which restricted pub opening hours in order to encourage munitions workers to get to the factory on time.

The government recognised the need to reform this outdated system, and last year published a white paper called Time for Reform: Proposals for the Modernisation of our Licensing Laws. Although not yet confirmed by the government, it is expected that a new licensing act will be announced in the Queen's Speech this November, and the bill will go through Parliament during the 2001/2002 session.

Once the bill becomes law, some changes could be introduced as early as Easter 2003, although MPs may allow a longer time for the more complex aspects of the new licensing regime to come into effect.

What Will Change

The government's proposals are aimed "at striking a balance between offering greater freedom for drinkers while protecting local residents," according to Home Secretary Jack Straw. Among the changes proposed are:

flexible opening hours with the potential for up to 24 hour opening, seven days a week, subject to consideration of the impact on local residents

a single, integrated system for licensing pubs, bars, clubs, restaurants and nightclubs.

licensing to become the total responsibility of local authorities rather than shared between magistrates courts and local authorities as at present.

a system of personal licences, valid for 10 years, allowing holders to sell or serve alcohol. A licensee will be able to transfer his or her licence to a new pub without having to reapply. Since premises will have to be licensed separately, this system is often called 'dual licensing'

measures to combat underage drinking, including a new offence for buying alcohol for someone under 18. Test purchasing, where licensing authorities use underage customers to try and buy alcohol, will be given legal status

new powers for police to close premises which are 'the focus of disorder'

increased access for children to licensed premises, to promote more child- and family-friendly pubs. Licensing authorities will be able to restrict or deny access for children to unsuitable premises.

Not All Good News

While the licensed trade has welcomed the government's recognition of the fact that the licensing system needs updating, there are quite widespread concerns among licensees about the actual effect on their business.

The Publican Newspaper conducts an annual survey of the trade, the Market Report, which analyses licensees views about a range of issues, including, in the 2000 report, the White Paper proposals.

Local Authority Control

Currently, magistrates are responsible for licensing premises and judging the fitness of applicant to hold a license, while local authorities are responsible for aspects such as entertainment licences, food safety, and planning issues.

Certainly, licensing justices have a far from spotless record where the pub trade is concerned. Despite a good practice guide issued by the Magistrates'

Association and the Justices' Clerks' Society, concerns about unnecessary delays and inconsistent decisions are still common.

The government claims a shift to complete local authority responsibility will improve local democracy.

However, many pub operators are concerned that councillors, who rely on residents to elect them, will not always be even-handed. There are also strong fears that the costs of obtaining a license will rise.

In the Market Report 2000, 52 per cent of publicans said licensing should stay with magistrates, with only 14 per cent in favour of a transfer to local authorities.

Almost a third, 32 per cent, said they didn't mind either way. Lessees were the group most opposed to local authority control, with 59 per cent for magistrates, 11 per cent for councillors and 29 per cent did not mind.

In another Publican survey nine out of 10 pub companies said they were against a shift and recently 21 companies, including Wetherspoon, Adnams and Fullers, have got together to collectively lobby the government with their views.

Dual Licensing

Personal licences will allow publicans to move from pub to pub or advance up the career ladder without having to go back each time to the licensing authority. The new licensee will be renewable every 10 years, where currently licences must be renewed every three years.

A premises licence would incorporate the current drinks licence, the PEL, fire certificate and the provision of refreshment throughout the night. The licensing authority would be given guidelines so that any conditions would relate to the impact of the premises on public order and safety.

The Market Report survey found that 68 per cent of publicans said they thought the proposal to split licensing in this way was a good idea with 25 per cent against. Managers, the most likely to change premises reasonably frequently, were the most enthusiastic, with 79 per cent in favour.

Hours

There is some concern within the trade that pubs will be encouraged to open for longer than they want to. While there would be no legal requirement to 'open all hours,' the trade does not want a situation where customers expect pubs to be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The Market Report found that 81 per cent of licensees are, however, in favour of some relaxation of licensing hours. Among the public, there is strong support for licensees to be able to open whenever they like, with demand for more flexible hours on Friday and Saturday nights in particular.

To get a late licence currently, pubs must offer entertainment and food. The new system would remove the requirement for music, which would allow residents to sleep in peace while customers enjoyed a civilised drink. Staggered closing times would help reduce the numbers leaving pubs at one time.

What Now?

Technically, it's 'business as usual' until the new laws come into effect. However, a little forward planning now could pay dividends in two years time. For example, would your customers like to see your opening hours extended? How would they feel about children being admitted for family meals?

The Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association has advised publicans to prepare for the change by maintaining good relations with the local authorities and police, and above all by following good practice.

There has actually been an increase recently in the number of pubs caught serving outside licensing hours, creating fears that some publicans are 'jumping the gun' in advance of the changes. Several publicans have had their licences revoked a result.

Related topics: Licensing law

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