Keeping a sense of proportion

By Peter Coulson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Licensing act Licensed trade Government License

Coulson: innocent condemned with guilty
Coulson: innocent condemned with guilty
Alcohol retailing is being slowly demonised, presented as an industry that requires almost a strait-jacket of laws to keep it controlled, says Peter Coulson.

There has always been a deep suspicion of Government consultation exercises on proposed legislation.

The problem is that they tend to come at a late stage in the process, when major changes are unlikely because the policy element has already been decided, and the drafting of the relevant Act has already taken place.

Nowhere was this clearer than with the Licensing Act itself. In the event, just one technical change was made about appeals, and the Government was forced to add the impenetrable and rarely-used section on small-scale musical entertainments. The rest came through virtually unscathed.

So it is with mandatory conditions on premises licences. The Policing and Crime Bill, which introduces the power to make both mandatory and discretionary conditions, has al-ready proceeded through its committee stage on this part, and not a thing has been changed. True, there were probing amendments, but nothing went to the vote. The Home Office seems determined to have its way, as most Governments departments do.

So what will be the result of the almost universal opposition to the concept, not only from the licensed trade but also clearly from local government and the police?

The recent formal response from the Local Government Association spells out why it thinks that current powers are adequate to deal with rogue licensees, and that it will add more bureaucracy to a sector already weighed down with paperwork and administrative problems. So if it doesn't work for them and it doesn't work for us, why is the Government pressing on?

After all, this measure flies in the face of all those basic principles of good regulation that New Labour were so keen on — that conditions and controls should be targeted and proportionate. Universal conditions, quite clearly, are neither of these. They affect the family-run village pub in the same way as the high street destination venue. They introduce what to some people must be quite distasteful ideas that only a small minority of drinkers would ever contemplate.

But more than that — they brand the whole of the licensed trade as socially undesirable and something that needs to be reined in at every level. In spite of some ministers re-gularly mouthing blandishments about what a vital element in

society the pub is, the reality of the legislative programme is that al-cohol retailing — certainly the on-sector — is being slowly demonised, presented as an industry that requires almost a strait-jacket of laws in order to keep it under control. It is painted as Hannibal Lecter in his cell, smiling but dangerous. Do not trust him to control himself!

alcohol obsession

If you think this is exaggeration, just look at what has happened since the 'liberalising' regime of the new Licensing Act came into being — a succession of measures aimed at curbing and controlling the manner in which alcohol is sold and consumed.

The fact that alcohol disorder zones have not been taken up is somewhat irrelevant to the overall picture — no other retail sector would be faced with a measure which is tagged with 'the polluter pays' idea. The actual existence of ADZs in legislation demonstrates the intention to target the on-trade as the source of society's obsession with alcohol and its over-consumption.

The problem is that a change of Government is unlikely to bring much of a policy shift in this area. People are rightly worried about consumption of alcohol by the young, in particular, and the constant drip-feed of messages, together with extremely one-sided and frankly inaccurate television programmes can only fuel the public's view that alcohol retailing has to be firmly controlled.

The fact that the innocent are condemned with the guilty is, in their view, a price worth paying.

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