Licensing Bill: good or bad?

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Related tags: New law, Kim howells, Law

Fears are rising that the new law will be a legal headache.by David Clifton of thePublican.com's legal team of experts from London solicitors Joelson...

Fears are rising that the new law will be a legal headache.

by David Clifton of thePublican.com's legal team of experts from London solicitors Joelson Wilson.

Last month, probably like a number of you, I attended the British Institute of Innkeeping annual lunch. Jolly good it was too.

However, despite exhortations from the principal speaker, John Grogan MP, to "embrace" the new Licensing Act, the mood that I sensed in the audience was mainly one of doom and gloom and fear of what the future will hold.

Also last month, because it's a hard life, I attended a licensing lawyers' dinner. I won't pretend to speak for everyone there, but certainly I heard views expressed by some that the new laws will bring them plenty of new legal work. A far cry from the time of publication of the White Paper when the industry was reassured that legal costs would fall and a number of licensing lawyers were contemplating lining up in the dole queue.

So what has gone wrong? Let's look back at what Jack Straw, then Home Secretary, said in the White Paper.

"We propose a radically new system which carefully balances rights and responsibilities," he said.

Does the Licensing Bill (at least as it stands as I write this before the House of Commons' report stage) achieve a proper balance between the interests of the community on the one hand and industry on the other?

The cynical may argue that any potential balance became skewed as soon as the government extracted by way of advance legislation certain aspects of the White Paper's proposals imposing greater sanctions and penalties on the industry.

To take issue with some of the arguments in favour of the bill...

  • "The (existing) law is complex."

    Is anyone seriously suggesting that the new law will not be? We now have a bill running to 170 pages and the first "rough draft" guidance running to 104 pages - and that document is still incomplete and fails to answer many very important questions about how the new law is intended to work in practice.

We still don't know how long the transitional period will be or what procedures will apply to hearings. Simple, it ain't.

"The (existing) law involves a great deal of unnecessary red tape for business."

Don't the provisions in the bill relating to designated premises supervisors negate the benefit that was going to be derived from the separation of personal and premises licensing and lead to more red tape, not less?

What about the wide range of penalties that will hang over licence holders if they fail to comply precisely with the complex procedures imposed on them by the act?

"Our proposals will provide industry with greater freedom and flexibility to meet the needs of its customers."

Your call. There's still just time to remind Lord McIntosh, the new licensing minister, about the promises Dr Kim Howells made to Ted Tuppen of Enterprise Inns in June of last year.

He promised:

  • Less regulation, not more
  • Local authorities operating within national guidelines
  • A personal licence holder being able to run any pub without further formalities
  • No increase in cost to the average pub.

"Modernising licensing laws should not put unnecessary obstacles in the way of the industry's further development."

What about the fiasco concerning provisional statements (the equivalent of provisional licences currently)?

Giving objectors an opportunity to make late objections after a provisional licence has been granted and when works of construction or alteration have been completed is hardly providing encouragement to major new leisure developments.

Is denying the industry a register of business interests an obstacle or an encouragement to further development of the industry?

"Industry should expect to achieve savings of £1.9bn
during the first 10 years of operation."

Will it? Difficult to say as we still do not know what fees are going to be charged. The latest is still that the government intends to set fees in bands, based on size and location and, in some circumstances, how busy they are. All of which begs the question how, more than three years ago, the government could estimate savings of £1.9bn when it had not decided on the fees that would be charged?

Related topics: Licensing law

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