Licensing Act: is it a review or a revamp?

By Peter Coulson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Licences Licensing act License Government

Coulson: trade has no reason to welcome the new Government
Coulson: trade has no reason to welcome the new Government
Peter Coulson asks whether the proposed review of the Licensing Act is actually a complete revamp.

Last week, the new Government announced that it was embarking on a review of the Licensing Act, but not a change of department, as had been predicted.

However, the hand of new Home Secretary Theresa May appears still to be on the tiller as this review is steered to even tougher sanctions against the licensed trade and an increased ability for the police and local councils to overturn errant licences.

It is difficult to comprehend at this stage what could be tougher than we have now: instant closure for serious disorder, two strikes for selling to minors, licence reviews at any time, and fines which have now reached the stratosphere, not to mention the cost of loss of business that a suspended licence brings.

Some of the national papers have already singled out the removal of "24-hour drinking" as the main target. Well, seeing as they got the whole idea of flexible licensing completely wrong in the first place, it is not surprising that their headline writers see this as a likely result of the review.

In fact, there is virtually no 24-hour drinking, and we have a good set of statistics to show that the granting of round-the-clock licences has not led to this at all, with a small minority of pubs and bars gaining that kind of permission and the majority going to hotels and supermarkets.

The idea of doubling maximum fines for underage selling has no realistic impact, seeing as the current level has never been remotely approached in any magistrates' court that I am aware of. It is yet another piece of posturing, which the Tories were always accusing Labour of in their policies — plus ça change!

And I will be intrigued to see what these "stronger powers to remove licences from, or refuse to grant licences to, any premises that are causing problems" will actually mean.

There are already adequate powers to remove licences, as even the police acknowledge. But disproportionate powers to take away licences for less serious activities will run up against strong opposition, not only in the trade, but also in the courts.

The promise in the coalition agenda to allow councils to charge more for late-night licences does indeed smack of the notorious non-starter — alcohol disorder zones. However, the previous Government prevaricated and delayed on the Elton report on fees for licensing, so there has never been any review of fee levels since implementation.

There may well be scope for changes, and local Government is likely to press for higher income anyway, to cover its costs. Higher fees for opening longer would be much simpler and probably more popular with Tory supporters than the convoluted system for ADZs, which frightened most councils to death!

All this goes to show that the licensed trade has no reason to welcome the new Government, as the statistics showed it wanted to, because there is not likely to be any joy in the short term, either legally or financially, and there is the clear possibility of even stronger controls and red tape.

Clearly we have not got much to go on except the basic policy points, and over the next few weeks we may getter a better idea of what this Government actually wants to do about the licensing legislation. This may well involve changes on the entertainment front as well as licensing, although it would appear from what has been said so far that alcohol is in the forefront of their thinking at present.

But I shall still be intrigued to see how much the new culture minister has to do with all this, compared with the big guns at the Home Office.

Related topics Licensing law

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