Reform ­ is it a haven?

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The Isle of Man has had a taste of its own licensing deregulation for almost two years. How is the UK's guinea pig faring? Tony Halstead finds out It...

The Isle of Man has had a taste of its own licensing deregulation for almost two years. How is the UK's guinea pig faring? Tony Halstead finds out It is almost two years since Manx pubs and clubs celebrated the dawn of a new era when deregulation of the island's licensing system came into force. The new laws swept away traditional pub opening hours and abolished a raft of petty bureaucracy and red tape that had held the Isle of Man's trade in a straightjacket for decades. Even now, the island's publicans say the reforms are still bringing major benefits, enabling premises to trade to their potential and foster a more "tourism friendly" image. As the UK mainland's own Licensing Act passes through Parliament, the effects that the Manx legislation has brought to the island's trade are now receiving extra focus. Although the proposals now being scrutinised at Westminster are not a mirror image of the Manx experience, similarities are easy to find. And some of the repercussions of the new island laws will strike a hollow chord with critics of the UK Bill. While the Manx pubs remain under the jurisdiction of the Isle of Man licensing court, licensees are finding plenty of new controls on music and entertainment in a bid to appease a powerful residents' lobby. Music and entertainment regulations are still very much intact and it is an area where police, residents and the licensing court retain a major influence over events. Premises wishing to play music or stage entertainment after midnight must have a separate licence ­ pubs and bars have found plenty to ponder if they seek such a permit. Nonetheless, licensees the length and breadth of the island agree that the end of licensing hours have brought untold benefits. Pubs can choose, literally, what hours they keep. If your bar is busy at midnight, you simply can carry on serving until you feel it's sensible to close. However, the "open all hours" climate has been tempered by balances adopted in other parts of the Act. Police and licensing authorities have major new powers to clamp down on licensees who are caught serving under-age drinkers or run premises where disorder or other problems occur. Licence suspensions are the order of the day, and the trading hours of pubs that transgress can be cut back by the courts. LVA secretary Harry Kewin says the new Act has brought more credits than debits and the trade is generally pleased with the results. "Abolition of licensing hours has brought major benefits and not just because it enables pubs to open until the cows come home," he says. "Most of us keep standard hours and not that many have extended their opening times by much, perhaps the odd hour on Fridays and Saturdays. "The real beauty is that you can keep your bar open if you are still busy at 11pm or even midnight. "It also means that the tedious practice of applying for extensions for special events is a thing of the past," he adds. Sergeant Ken Neale, of the new Alcohol Unit for the Isle of Man Constabulary, says the 11pm "fall-out" onto the streets has now disappeared. "People are not spilling out of the pubs at the same time and it gives us more opportunity to address other issues," he says. "We can now spend more time finding out whether pubs are being well run, whether people are being served under age and whether licensees are in control of disorder problems." The new Act, nevertheless, has its critics within official circles, not least from licensing chairman, the island's high bailiff, Michael Moyle. Moyle recently described the drafting of the Act as a "Friday afternoon shift job". He says some of it is badly worded and prevents the courts from imposing proper sanctions for those guilty of various crime and disorder offences. "It does not allow the full range of penalties for some specific cases of assault and other offences that are carried out," he complains. The Manx alcohol squad A team of five police officers comprise the Isle of Man Constabulary's Alcohol Unit. The unit, formed 18 months ago, is a dedicated body that is responsible for all the island's licensing and alcohol-related issues. The unit adopts a conciliatory rather than a dogmatic role to licensing matters and its boss, Sergeant Ken Neale, believes major progress has been made since its launch. The team liaises with all the island's trade bodies, such as the LVA, the Manx Entertainment & Nightclub Association, and the Off Licence Initiative. "I like to think we are reminiscent of the bobby on the beat," Neale says. "Our officers each have a specific area of the island in which to work and a lot of the job involves talking to licensees, off-licence operators and club owners. "We like to be aware of any problems there may be, so we can nip trouble in the bud before its gets out of hand." Neale says the new Licensing Act has given licensees a range of new freedoms, but it is the responsibility of every publican to run trouble-free premises. "One of the big bonuses is that we do not have to spend time checking on whether pubs and bars are closed on time. "It has freed a lot of resources to ensure premises are maintaining standards in other areas." Neale says the trade viewed the Alcohol Unit with apprehension when it was first launched. "Like anything else new, people did not know what to make of us at first, but I think after 18 months, the Manx licensed trade is happy work with us," he comments. Bike fest tests island's hosts The Isle of Man is gearing up for its event of the year when the famous motorcycle TT (Tourist Trophy) fortnight will put the island's licensing system to the ultimate test. Licensees freely admit that the two weeks can provide them with the equivalent of a quarter of a year's business, but the festival also takes Manx resources to breaking point. More than 40,000 motorcycle enthusiasts will travel across the Irish Sea, many with the intent of drinking the island dry. Hotels, pubs and boarding houses have been fully booked for weeks with many hardened bikers accommodated in camp sites. The Isle of Man's three brewers are already stepping up production for the start of the fortnight, the Whitsuntide bank holiday weekend. Bushy's Brewery will once again run its marquee pub on Douglas promenade where thousands congregate to watch a programme of stunt riding and special events. Brewery boss, Martin Brunnschweiler, says more than 700 people can be housed in the marquee, with hundreds more in the outside areas enjoying a range of music and entertainment. An 80ft-long bar, with 30 separate beer and lager taps, is staffed by 18 pourers at the busiest times and two people are permanently employed to change kegs. He says about 150 11-gallon kegs would be consumed on some days, which "demonstrates the huge volumes going through the marquee". "We need about 50 staff to run the venture successfully and need a pool of 80 people over the two weeks," he says. The event will put a strain on the police, charged with the responsibility of controlling a population nearly double its normal levels. But, amazingly, crime and disorder does not increase appreciably despite the dramatic increase in numbers.

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