Reform is at a critical stage, with the trade being warned it could lose out
In the months since the Government released its Time to Reform White Paper, the pub industry has made its feelings more than clear about licensing control being switched from magistrates to local authorities.
Fearing local authority control could prove costly, inefficient and give too much weight to the views of a few local residents, the trade has lobbied the Government to reconsider its position on that part of the reform plans.
But now it seems the debate has reached a critical point.
On the one hand the Local Government Association (LGA) has warned the trade that too much opposition to the plans could result in there being no reform at all - something most licensees are keen to avoid.
And on the other hand campaigners against the move now say they view the proposals as potentially damaging to the trade and would prefer to see no reform at all than to operate under the new system.
Is this just cutting off their nose to spite their face or is the new system really that unworkable?
Led by Stuart Neame, vice chairman of Kent brewer Shepherd Neame, and JD Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin, opposition is mounting and ministers may decide not to fight the point and drop the reform package.
After all, they have already pushed through the Criminal Justice and Police Bill which addresses one of their main concerns, alcohol-related crime and disorder.
Ian Foulkes, head of public protection for the LGA, told licensees at the Guild of Master Victuallers' conference earlier this month that, as far as the LGA could tell, the reforms came as a package - without the move to local authority control, he warned, there could not be flexible opening hours.
The news came as a surprise to licensees at the conference, but after the initial shock had subsided, the general feeling among the delegates was that flexible opening was too valuable a reform to lose over the control issue.
Mr Foulkes explained that some years ago the Better Regulation Task Force looked at the issue of licensing and reported it should not be a judicial process, but instead was an administrative area and therefore should be controlled by local authorities.
In the White Paper the Home Office acted on that recommendation.
Mr Foulkes explained that control would not be transferred to magistrates. "It will be an entirely new regime," he said. "With entirely new guidelines."
And he stressed to the conference that reform would be as a whole, or not at all.
"It's a package. If the industry wants the flexibility that the reform will bring, it must be through local authorities. It can't be administered through magistrates because that's not how it has been planned."
He added: "This is a once in a generation chance for change and I would hate to see it disappear."
But Mr Neame spoke out last week over his own fears for flexible opening hours.
He said he would prefer the licensing system to stay as it is rather than see the Government's proposed reforms brought in and claims the proposals, unveiled by the Home Office earlier this month, would "do more harm than good".
He fears residents' views would be given too much weight when considering a licence application and claims most pubs, especially in rural and residential areas, would fail to secure additional opening hours.
The Government has proposed a system of dual licences, with one licence for the licensee and one for the premises.
But Mr Neame claims the requirement for licensees to submit an operating plan before extra opening hours are granted will enable authorities to force pubs to pay to upgrade premises in order to meet health and safety, fire and planning regulations. This could lead to more restriction on opening than is currently the case.
He said: "The package on offer is a step backwards from where we are. Licensees have been conned into thinking they have won flexible opening hours but they haven't realised that the proposals do not offer this."
Mr Foulkes dismissed Mr Neame's argument as "just too late".
"There are ways to change things through the parliamentary process but look at the record of this Government. If there is any concern they will either rail road it through like the Criminal Justice Act, or they will drop it - they will put it so far on the back-burner that I'll be in my grave before I see reform. That's the risk you're running," he added.
Mr Foulkes attempted to address some of the concerns the trade has about licensing becoming the responsibility of local authorities.
"I know some of you have had bad experiences with local councils over your public entertainment licences," he said. "That's a badly written law which has never been changed, but the administration of the licensing will all be laid out in the guidelines."
He added the LGA, which is working with the Home Office to write the guidelines, is keen to recruit a trade leader to help put across the industry's views.
And he claimed it would be more efficient as dual licensing could mean licensees rarely, if ever, had to appear before a committee.
"I think in five years we'll be in the situation where 90 per cent of licensees will not have been touched by the licensing process since receiving their personal licences," he said.
Delegates at the conference were surprised by Mr Foulkes' claim that reform would come as a package or not at all, but were generally in agreement that having flexible hours was too important to risk.
Bill Sharp, chairman of the National Parliamentary Committee of licensees, said: "It's a situation where we may well have to change our tack. I have been told there is no possible way it's going to magistrates - we'll just have to be ready.
"I think it's not worth losing reform because of this. Flexible hours are long overdue and we'll have to adapt on the rest."
But Mr Neame has vowed to fight on and, with the bill yet to pass through both Houses for approval, there is still a chance that it could be stopped or amended through objections from MPs or, as is more likely, Lords.
Reaction to the licensing proposals:
- Stuart Neame (far right) of Kent brewer Shepherd Neame claims the proposals as they stand would be a backward step for the trade.
- A group led by Mr Neame and Tim Martin of JD Wetherspoon is campaigning against the move of licensing control to local authorities. The group's alternative bill was unveiled last week.
- Licensees, including Bill Sharp (right), chairman of the National Parliamentary Committee, oppose the move to local authority control but claim continuing to fight against it could jeopardise the whole package.
- The Local Government Association has promised to work with the trade on guidelines to ensure the new system is fair and has warned licensees that continuing to oppose the plans could lead the government to drop reform.