Time for change

Related tags Licensing boards New licensing regime Scotland

After February 7 a clearer picture of the new licensing regime in England and Wales is beginning to emerge. But the trade in Scotland still has a...

After February 7 a clearer picture of the new licensing regime in England and Wales is beginning to emerge. But the trade in Scotland still has a long road to travel.

Anyone struggling to contend with the realities of licensing reform in England and Wales over the last seven days would do well to spare a brief thought for pubs north of the border. In Scotland, it seems, reform is currently even more of a mess.

Trade expectations in Scotland are now that the "liberalisation of licensing" will descend into chaos as licensing boards fail to cope with the impending documentation, and the Scottish Parliament ignores experts in its reform group.

Licensing reform will be brought before the Scottish Parliament at the end of this month and big changes are expected, such as the abolition of Scotland's system of seven types of licences in favour of a single premises licence.

For the Scots this represents a bit of a problem, since many in the trade feel the current structure works well. The diversity in the licences people apply for reflects the diversity in the marketplace and makes it easier to differentiate between a pub, club or indeed an off-licence. Under the new regime of "one licence fits all", this won't be possible.

Meanwhile, the all too familiar gripe from the licensing boards is that they will have to grapple with the conversion of 20,000 liquor licences. The bulk of the costs of converting the licences, however, will no doubt fall on the Scottish licensees' pockets.

'This won't work'

"We have taken this battle to the government on numerous occasions but to no avail," says Paul Waterson, chief executive of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA). "We don't yet know the finer details but the way the market is at the moment is working. Customers know the difference between a pub and club. Creating a free-for-all on one licence simply will not work.

"For 30 years we have been telling the government that we can't give out licences willy-nilly. It would just create more of the problems they now want to end, such as binge-drinking."

At the Strathclyde Licensed Trade Association Conference in Glasgow earlier this month there was a sound warning from speakers concerned that the vehement criticism aimed at the Scottish Executive has thus far fallen on deaf ears.

"I've spoken with a number of members of the group and what they have to say concerns me greatly," Glasgow Licensing Board's chairman Gordon Macdiarmid told delegates. "It seems political imperatives were set in stone with the result that most matters were not up for free and open discussion. Disillusionment set in as a result, meetings dwindled away and as a result important matters like the role of the liquor licensing standards officers (LLSOs), initially scheduled for discussions, simply were not discussed. Hence my continued fear that the Executive is moving towards a new bill, with no clear idea of how the transitional arrangements can work in practice."

Jack Cummins, a senior licensing partner at law firm Hill Brown also speaking at the conference, added: "Forget the idea that this will be a red-tape cutting exercise which will make life simpler.

"Unless we learn from the emerging problems down south, the trade in Scotland - and licensing boards - face an expensive process, which could easily disintegrate into chaos. The plain fact is that a number of licensing boards are already struggling to cope with the administration of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976."

Self-funding system

The cost for licensees to convert to the new system could quite easily rocket, as Scotland's system - which will be self-funding - will have to accommodate the extra cost of each LLSO, which is a new role. Estimates are that the expense could easily reach £100 for licence holders each year.

"I'm not sure it even needs changing," says William Thomson, licensee at Chamber Lounge Bar in Dundee. "I'm relatively new to the trade and am still getting up to speed - I don't like the idea of having to go through it all again. I'm aware that the change is coming but I doubt whether I'll be prepared for it, my business is chaotic as it is and taking on new reforms will be a challenge."

Perhaps one consolation is that this reform is still some time off and the trade is still part of the consultation process. The Scottish Executive remains convinced that transfers can be made seamlessly and they have said it's not likely to take effect until 2007.

This will please Bernard Douglas, licensee at the Stewart Inn in Stepps, Glasgow, although not a lot else does.

"To be honest I haven't caught up with the licensing issues yet," he says. "I have other more pressing issues to contend with like the decline of business thanks to cheap drinks in supermarkets and the potential smoking ban! I just hope it doesn't mean more paperwork since we've more than enough to deal with in this business as it is."

Scotland's reforms

Following publication of the Nicholson Report into licensing in August 2003, the Scottish Executive launched an industry-wide consultation into the proposed changes last year.

The executive claimed the consultation proved there was a "clear consensus" backing the following reforms north of the border:

  • A clear national licensing framework - with standard national licence conditions for key areas such as no proof, no sale - and the establishment of a national licensing forum
  • The development of standard national licence conditions, for example, for late opening premises and the provision of adult
  • A Scotland-wide approach to addressing irresponsible drinks promotions with national definitions, actions and publicity
  • An opt-in system for licensed premises to allow children entry to pubs and restaurants.

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