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Related tags Alcohol disorder zones License

the trade In the final instalment of the Morning Advertiser's probe into the pub polices of the main political parties, JOHN HARRINGTON speaks to...

the trade

In the final instalment of the Morning Advertiser's probe into the pub polices of the main political parties, JOHN HARRINGTON speaks to Labour MP John Grogan

Second-term Governments are rarely popular, but more venom has been spat in the direction of this administration in the past year or so than anyone imagined back in the blazing summer of 2003, when the trade and Government celebrated in unison as the Licensing Act finally made it to the statute books.

As hosts across the country grapple with their licensing application forms, while contemplating increased fees, smoking bans and alcohol disorder zones, it is a brave man who can put the case for voting Labour on 5 May.

Step forward John Grogan, MP for Selby, chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group, Morning Advertiser columnist and general champion of the trade. Grogan makes it clear that his views are his own, not the official party line.

The central platform of the Licensing Act, the transfer of responsibilities for licensing from magistrates to local authorities, has come in for stiff criticism. How could a group of people take on a role that is completely alien to them, without it descending into chaos? A look at the barmy licensing policies dreamt up by some councils are hardly grounds for optimism, and Labour has no plans to put magistrates back in control.

Grogan says it is "inevitable" that there will be court cases, as pub operators contest decisions of councils. But he believes that this will lead to greater clarity. "There's bound to be [court cases] in the initial part [of transition] to establish some case law. But where councils are way off line with the Act, they will very quickly be advised by officers, as they do in planning."

Another big issue is the late arrival of secondary legislation, which included key details of licensing fees, as well as the vital draft forms for new licences. Licensees were unable to work on their operating schedules, while councils had to formulate their budgets without any knowledge of the fees.

For Grogan, this was not a case of "administrative bungling", but rather reflected the "real tensions" between the Home Office and the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS).

"We had the Home Office possibly regretting ever giving (control of licensing) up, even though they could still deal with crime and so on. Then we had the DCMS, which was committed to the reform. Obviously I know there's a question of pubs getting in their applications and so on [but] I feel a great optimism about it," says Grogan, who insists that the end result of later opening will benefit pubs and customers alike.

Grogan, like most of the trade, is a firm believer in the merits of flexible drinking hours. "I just can't believe that we, of all the people in western Europe, can't be trusted to have a late drink without loud music after 11pm," he says, adding that "flexible drinking can ultimately help reduce binge drinking".

Another area that must be mentioned is fees, which are considerably higher than expected. But Grogan emphasises that Labour is committed to reviewing the levels that have been set.

Labour's manifesto includes a number of tough measures to cut alcohol-related disorder. Most controversially, it says councils and police will be able to designate alcohol disorder zones (ADZs), in which pubs and clubs would have to pay extra cash for additional policing.

This plan has been roundly condemned by the trade as a broad brush approach that will target responsible pubs as well as the rogue minority, and will dissuade responsible drinkers from going to the area. Police and councils have also lodged their objections to ADZs, arguing that it would be terrible public relations for any town.

Grogan says: "I was annoyed when one or two of my colleagues said they couldn't wait for their towns to become alcohol disorder zones. That's the last thing we would want. I think there would be pressure to only use these in the most extreme of circumstances."

The Selby MP shifts the focus onto the industry, saying "it really is up to the trade" whether or not police and councils implement ADZs. Pubs and clubs must re-double their effort to prove that they are taking steps to banish irresponsible drinks promotions, and Grogan laments the fact that the British Beer & Pub Association's long-awaited code of practice has yet to surface.

"That is desperately needed, with a big fanfare, as soon as the new Parliament is up and running. It's desperately needed to start turning the debate. There's a danger [that] if things go wrong, the Government and whoever is in opposition will try to trump each other in cracking down on alcohol related crime." He adds: "If self-regulation can be done right I don't think there will be the need for many alcohol disorder zones."

Labour's tough stance was also evident from its Tackling Violent Crime Bill, which the party intends to introduce within a month of winning the election. This bill, which is spelt out briefly in Labour's manifesto, could see licensees forced to search for guns and knives as a condition of their licences, and it would give police "new powers" to "immediately shut down premises selling alcohol to under-age drinkers".

Trade leaders last week pointed out that these measures don't amount to much more than a re-heating of previous proposals; a pub can already be required to carry out searches as a condition of its public entertainment licence, for example.

The bill would also give police powers to ban troublemakers who have been issued with a fixed penalty notice for disorder from designated areas. Similarly, "drinks banning orders" would allow police to ban anyone from a pub who has committed three offences. A cynic would ask: "Isn't this exactly what pubwatch is for?"

Of the proposed bill, Grogan says: "I would say it is a codification of existing powers, and at election time these things will be trumpeted rather louder than otherwise."

Other areas of concern


Labour's manifesto says it will plough on with the policy from last November's White Paper on Health. This means all pubs "preparing and serving food" will face a total ban, smoking at the bar will be prohibited in all pubs and private member clubs would be free to choose what suits them. But one ray of hope comes from the fact that Peter Hain, leader of the House of Commons, recently suggested that a compromise could be possible, with separate areas for smoking and non-smoking. The claim was later rejected by Labour HQ, but it does suggest that a ban is not quite a done deal. Grogan is confident that there will "almost certainly be amendments". He says the Government might hold off longer than 2008, "but the price would be a complete ban".

PFR: 3/10. At least the decision wouldn't be left at the whim of local authorities, but the Government's compromise solution would be a disaster for most pubs. They would be forced to choose between smoking or food, which would make a mockery of the Government's efforts to encourage pubs to diversify.

Minimum wage

Set to rise to £5.05 (over-21s) and £4.25 for 18-21s in October 2005. One year later this level will increase to £5.35 and £4.45 for over-21s and 18-21s respectively.

PFR: 6/10. It's an honourable policy ­ pub staff need a decent wage ­ but the level can't rise indefinitely and it would be useful to know Labour's plans until 2010.

Business rates

The new level of rateable value (RV) came into force on 1 April, and a number of licensees have complained that for pubs, the level is based on turnover and not profit or size. Many pubs have seen their RV shoot up, although the levels are often cut on appeal. Average increases across all businesses are 17% to 18%, and 22% in London. The MA understands that the Government is considering altering the appeals procedure, which may limit the number of times that someone can object to a rating. It could also limit the grounds for appeal.

PFR: 4/10. Some of the increases in RV have b

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