The Licensing Act: All change please

Related tags Licensing act License

At the time of writing the new government has just published the document The Coalition: our programme for government. Spanning approximately 30...

At the time of writing the new government has just published the document The Coalition: our programme for government. Spanning approximately 30 pages, it covers the whole gambit of government, including licensing. While rather vague, the document promises to "overhaul the Licensing Act to give local authorities and the police much stronger powers to remove licences, or refuse to grant licences to, any premises that are causing problems".

What a load of rubbish. I say this not because I believe irresponsible operators should be allowed to carry on regardless. Far from it. The majority of publicans do a great job in difficult circumstances and it is in nobody's interest for the actions of a few to undermine the good work of the many.

Ignoring the reality

My objection to the statement is that it is blatantly designed to appeal to the fears of middle England while ignoring the reality. There is no need to overhaul the Licensing Act, the reason being that there are already strong enough powers under the current regime to remove licences from, or refuse to grant licences to, any premises that are causing problems.

The principal mechanism by which premises are closed is via the review procedure. If a premises is causing problems (that is, by failing to uphold one or more of the four licensing objectives - the prevention of crime and disorder, the promotion of public safety, the prevention of public nuisance and the protection of children from harm) a councillor, local resident, or the police may apply to review the licence.

And what does the sub-committee have the power to do? Revoke or suspend the premises licence. So why does the Act have to be overhauled?

Cumbersome or costly?

Perhaps the review procedure is too cumbersome? Hardly. In this day and age when the forms required to obtain something as mundane as a residents' parking permit requires a PhD, by comparison the review form is simple. It is up to the applicant how much evidence to present.

Is the procedure too costly? No it is not. There is no application fee, nor is there power for licensing sub-committees to make a costs award. Hence there can be no threat that a well-funded premises licence holder might deter local residents or statutory authorities from taking action for fear of being at the receiving end of an adverse costs award.

While there can be costs awards made if the decision is appealed, it is still relatively rare for costs awards to be made against councils, local residents or local residents groups, unless they have acted unreasonably.

But what of preventing undesirable premises from opening in the first place? When a premises licence application is made, all it takes is for one statutory authority or local resident to make a representation for the application to have to be considered in front of a licensing sub-committee.

Current provisions

There are numerous other provisions in the Licensing Act and subsequent statutory instruments designed to tackle problem premises, including closures orders and criminal offences. It is just a question of using them properly.

If powers are not being used, the government needs to assess why and to then take the appropriate steps. The last government saw passing

legislation as the answer to everything. What we were left with were poorly drafted Acts which were rushed through Parliament. These then had to be supplemented by Statutory Instruments in order to put the necessary 'meat on the bones' and to iron out the mistakes.

This caused confusion among statutory authorities. There was reluctance to utilise some of the more controversial powers for fear of making mistakes. Who wants to be at the receiving end of a judicial review? Some of the legislation was even ignored altogether - who can forget alcohol disorder zones?

So what should the government do? In my view it should concentrate on ensuring that the existing legislation is understood and used appropriately with consistency. Not a very sexy message and probably not one that would grab the public's attention.

So if I were the Right Honourable Jeremy Hunt what would I do? Call for an overhaul, of course… and maybe ask for stronger powers to be thrown in while I was about it.

Related topics Licensing law

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