Licensing reform delay may mean amendment to existing regulations
Opening hours could be relaxed sooner than expected after the Government's decision to delay the licensing reform package.
Trade leaders hope ministers will decide to honour their pledge to extend pub opening, despite leaving out the wider licensing reform proposals from yesterday's Queen's Speech.
The omission has been blamed on a lack of Parliamentary time and the number of other large bills waiting to go through. But insiders have hinted that it was because of in-fighting within the trade over plans to move licensing control to local authorities.
Responsibility for licensing has moved from the Home Office to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport which may also have contributed to the decision.
The trade is angry at the move to sideline the reform package, but there is now hope that it could mean flexible opening is brought in more quickly, as an amendment to existing regulations, without the need for time-consuming primary legislation.
In the run-up to the General Election, Labour sent out text messages to young voters promising extended opening hours if they voted Labour. Failure to deliver on this promise could be embarrassing for Tony Blair. JD Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin said he was optimistic that the delay could be a lucky break.
He said: "Paradoxically, the decision to shelve licensing reform has actually made it easier to achieve flexible licensing hours. There is a consensus for it, and it can be done through amendments, as an administrative thing, much more quickly."
Brigid Simmons, chief executive of Business in Sport and Leisure, urged the trade to put pressure on ministers to act.
"We would support an extension of hours and we have already called a meeting with Lord Macdonald at the Cabinet Office to discuss the way forward," she said.
But Tony Payne, chief executive of the Federation of Licensed Victuallers Associations, said he feared ministers would wait to see the results of extensions this New Year and for the Queen's Golden Jubilee next year before reviewing their decision.
"We are disappointed by the way the Government has handled this. It has been promising the public 24-hour opening for the last two years and that doesn't look like happening now," he added.
The Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association (BLRA) condemned the decision to delay reform.
"This is the fastest u-turn on record. A scant seven weeks ago, licensing reform was trumpeted as a Government priority. It also featured as a promise during Labour's General Election campaign," said chief executive Rob Hayward. "Now it seems to have been forgotten altogether."
There is also widespread speculation over the identity of the new minister responsible for licensing. Initial suggestions that it could be new sports minister Richard Caborn have now been replaced by rumours that tourism minister Kim Howells will take on the issue.