Back in February I commented that the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) seemed to be losing the plot on alcohol and entertainment licensing.
It is with regret that I have to confirm this view, in the light of the recently published licensing statistics, which it has allowed to go forward.
How any self-respecting Government department can produce such misleading information without proper explanation defeats me.
In the early days of a new system, it is vital that any published data is put into context. It has signally failed to do this in many key areas, and the problem is that already the new data is being used as if it was an accurate reflection of the changing pattern over the last year.
The Morning Advertiser has consistently reported problems with local authority handling of licence transition and the issuing of licences, which has even lasted into this year. How can one trust the data from some of the councils, when they can hardly cope with the physical exercise of printing and issuing licences?
There is also the question of comparing like with like. Last year's statistics were so flawed and incomplete that they can form no realistic basis for immediate comparison, even if everything, as the statisticians claim, is "scaled up" to 100%. A flawed statistic at 69% is even worse at 100%.
The authors themselves put warnings about comparisons. On page 11 they write: "…there is still a degree of uncertainty with these modelled estimates and they should only be used as a guide to show the general direction of change."
Any hope that this warning would deter commentators and the media from using the headline figures as they stood was quickly dispelled when the Institute of Licensing, which mainly represents local authority licensing officers, issued a news release suggesting that the number of pubs had actually increased, not decreased, as the Community Pubs Report had suggested and many other industry analysts have confirmed.
There is nothing about pubs in the statistics. The key comparisons show an increase of between 4% and 6% in the number of premises licences for alcohol only, which is well within the margin of error, given the problems over collection last year. It can also be accounted for by a number of other factors, including some places being made aware of the need for a licence, detecting unlicensed premises and improving local monitoring of the sale of alcohol.
The section on clubs shows that the number of clubs serving alcohol has actually declined, which is again confirmed by industry reports, but the commentary suggests that there has been a 10% surge in on-sales premises certificates. This is completely misleading and can only represent a statistical blip, rather than a proper indicator.
Another fairly meaningless statistic, given a prime position in the report, is that there has been a 19% surge in the number of personal licences, which are now up to nearly 348,000.
I can confidently predict that this will continue to rise, because it does not represent the number of premises or an increase in licensed activity: a personal licence lasts for 10 years and people are coming into the trade all the time. Those who go out do not immediately surrender their licences, and hold on to them in case they are needed. So there will always be more personal licences around, underlining the comment I made back in February that there should be a central register, which this Government promised, but has failed to deliver.
All in all, a very depressing and frustrating read. Alas, figures like this will come back to haunt us for many months to come.