Former licensing minister Kim Howells gives his final views on reform to Michelle Perrett.
Kim Howells, the former minister for licensing, is known for his outspoken views. Last month he accused Hollywood actors such as Tom Cruise of lacking the "balls" to fly because of terrorism fears and he has accused gangsta rap music of "corroding sensitivities".
It comes as no surprise, then, that his final views on licensing and the pub industry's responsibilities are equally controversial. They came just before he went off to shake up the Department of Transport following the government's reshuffle.
With the Licensing Bill likely to be passed as law in July, he has called on the trade to work with local authorities to solve the problems related to late-night disorder and ensure the smooth running of the new regime.
He also admits that licensing reform will have some teething problems and these may well lead to some headaches for his successor Lord McIntosh of Haringey.
"None of this is going to be easy," he said. "It's going to take a long time to change the culture of pubs in this country.
"It's no use complaining about the fact that local authorities are trying to crack down on drunkenness. "Local authorities are extremely worried about what's happening in town centres late at night because of drunkenness, people vomiting and urinating on the street. It's turning them into no-go areas for respectable families who might want to go to a restaurant or the cinema or a theatre."
While his views on disorder are controversial he still believes that the new regime can be implemented on time. The Licensing Bill was set to go back to the Lords for consideration of the Commons' amendments as this article was posted and rumours have been circulating that the Lords is ready for a fight and could delay the bill becoming law. But Dr Howells is not unduly concerned.
"You can never tell about the Lords," he said. "It will be interesting to see what it comes back to us on. But I have not heard of any alarming stories."
While the industry still waits for news of licensing fees, he has confirmed that a final decision is pending on how they are calculated.
"We are not far off and it's not been an easy task because of the incredible difference in locations and overheads. We have been looking at ways to calculate the final fee but we are still looking at a range of between £100 to £500 for a one-off premises licence fee and a £50 to £150 inspection fee," he confirmed.
Three main issues are currently of the highest concern for the trade:
- Register of business interests
Under the current system a pub company can register an interest on the licence so that if there are any problems with the way the business is being run it can be involved in finding a solution. Under the new system, pub-owning companies will not be able to register an interest and the tenant will be in full charge of the premises licence.
Kim Howells: "The burden should not fall on tenants. Pub companies themselves want the tenants to be the premises licence holders and to ensure that everything is running properly. But at the same time they want to have everything copied to them and this burden then doubly falls on the tenant. The relationship between the tenant and the pub chain owner is a contractual agreement and is not a matter for the Licensing Bill.
"I am worried about placing additional burdens on tenants as very often they are working on slim margins."
The new system introduces the concept of a designated premises supervisor, so that the person running the business should be easily identifiable to the police and the licensing authority. Trade associations, including the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA), are concerned that the new system will introduce more bureaucracy. They
propose a more streamlined process.
"In the end I could not detect any difference between the two schemes. Our scheme was down to two bits of paper and the BBPA's was down to three.
"The burden of compliance falls on the premises licence holder while the burden for registration falls on the personal licence holder.
"The proposed scheme was shifting the bureaucratic burden from the employer to the employee. I can't see any difference in terms of bureaucracy."
In the case of new developments, the bill allowed objections to the licence to be raised at the point that a full licence is granted. The industry feared that this would act as an enormous disincentive to anyone either developing new licensed premises or undertaking improvements to existing sites. However, in the final debate in the House of Commons last week the industry has gained a reprieve - they will now be able to apply for a full licence.
"We have given residents an opportunity they might not have had in the past to object to certain licences but one of the things we have made clear is that frivolous or repeat objections must be thrown out and reasons have to be given.
"If the planning department of a local council decides to allow 500 houses to be built, knowing that the construction might put in jeopardy the money which has been put into a new pub development, it is quite clear that it would be open to very serious judicial review. The council would have gone back on an agreement it had made to the pub developers.
"We would not expect local authorities to grant provisional statements and then to put them in jeopardy by allowing a subsequent development. It would be illogical."