Better late than never?

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With the government stalling yet again, licensees are still unsure what time their New Year parties must end. Jackie Annett asks why the delay?The...

With the government stalling yet again, licensees are still unsure what time their New Year parties must end. Jackie Annett asks why the delay?

The government has come under heavy fire for yet again failing to guarantee 36-hour opening for pubs this New Year.

While extended opening has not been ruled out completely, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said last month that it could not make any promises that a deregulation order would be passed in time.

In July this year the trade welcomed government assurances that plans for 36-hour opening on New Year's Eve and automatic extensions of public entertainment licences would be in place for this year and all subsequent New Years.

But for the third year in a row the government has failed to push through the legislation in time and this means thousands of licensees will have to hang fire before making plans for New Year party celebrations at their pubs.

The tangle the government has got itself into over this relatively simple issue is not inspiring much confidence in the forthcoming licensing reforms.

Nick Bish of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers said: "They should have and could have done better and it's a pity, but I'm not surprised.

"What's happened is exactly the same as last year. I would advise licensees to apply for extensions through the magistrates in the normal way.

"I think it's because licensing reform is the government's main priority but it still needs to pass this New Year legislation and get it right."

Licensees are again left with little time to arrange New Year parties and entertainment. And amid all the confusion, lawyers are advising publicans to apply for special orders of exemption - just in case extensions for New Year's Eve are not approved in time. Meanwhile, the Magistrates' Association is advising licensing committees to follow the Good Practice Guide and extend opening hours until 12.20am on January 1 2003.

The saga has been ongoing. Year after year licensees have been promised that a deregulation order would be pushed through to allow the relaxation of hours for all future New Year's Eves.

When it wasn't passed last year, a one-off extension was made in the first week of December. This left licensees in a flurry to organise events with only three weeks to go until the big day. Despite the last minute rush, there was hardly any trouble last New Year's Eve, nor was there with the extended hours during the World Cup and Queen's Jubilee - the industry has proved that longer hours don't necessarily spell disaster.

In January this year the National Parliamentary Committee of licensees wrote to the DCMS to lodge its support for extended opening hours. It argued that New Year's Eve was a great success, allowing licensees to opt for a terminal hour that satisfied their customers, and other associations agreed wholeheartedly.

The British Beer and Pub Association said it had not heard of any trouble arising from the extended hours either.

Richard Williams of licensing solicitors Joelson Wilson said: "I think the intention of the government was to have this in place but, probably due to the procedures, it's been substantially delayed."

So again the fate of New Year is hanging in the balance while licensees wait and see. Let's just hope when licensing reform is finally pushed through, this won't happen again.

The story so far...

  • October 2000:​ licensees were urged to appeal against magistrates who told them to shut their doors as early as 10.30pm on New Year's Eve. Because December 31 fell on a Sunday, many magistrates insisted that pubs respected the Sabbath - but others granted extensions until 1am.
  • November 2000:​ licensees lost their battle for a repeat of the 36-hour millennium celebrations - although ministers promised a blanket extension for 2001.
  • March 2001:​ the government did not agree to trade calls for a blanket extension on licensing hours for all future New Years because of Lords' objections.
  • October 2001:​ magistrates were so angry at the government's handling of New Year opening that they strived to approve as many one-off extensions as possible.
  • November 2001:​ the House of Commons Deregulation and Regulatory Reform Committee gave its approval to plans for 36-hour opening over New Year. But the Lords' Deregulation Committee criticised the government's handling of the issue. The committee said the burden on licensees caused by them having to apply for a special order of exemption was "substantial" and could cost the industry £9m. The Magistrates' Association advised its members to grant a minimum extension until 12.30am.
  • January 2002:​ extended opening hours on New Year's Eve were hailed a success by the trade even though many pubs chose to open for just a few extra hours.
  • March 2002:​ it was thought the trade could see a repeat of the delays surrounding New Year's Eve licensing if the government did not act quickly to submit the necessary deregulation order.
  • July 2002:​ the government assured licensees that plans for 36-hour opening on this and every future New Year's Eve were well in hand, allowing pubs to open from 11am on New Year's Eve to 11pm New Year's Day.
  • Oct 2002:​ New Year opening described as "shambolic". Lawyers are advising publicans to apply for special orders of exemption in case extended hours for New Year's Eve aren't passed.

Problems caused by the delay

  • Booking entertainment including DJs
  • Arranging catering
  • Publicising the event
  • Marketing the event to members of the public
  • Arranging how many staff to employ.

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