Last week was the deadline for responses to the Government's proposals on radical changes to the Licensing Act and I have been looking at several of these over the past week to see what themes emerge.
Not surprisingly, the principal initial criticism has been of the short timescale — just six weeks — for those affected by the changes to raise their objections, especially as this is not merely tinkering with the Act but completely changing certain key elements, with a distinct shift in power and responsibilities for both the police and local authorities.
One of the principal criticisms is that many of the proposals are based on no research or insufficient evidence of a problem that needs to be addressed. Those who deal with licensing on a daily basis are well-positioned to see how the Act works in practice, and it is they who have raised most of the practical objections to what appears in essence to be a paper exercise dreamed up in Whitehall.
Several respondents point out the impractical nature of certain proposals, while
others write about a "sledgehammer" approach in attempting to bring in universal laws to address specific problems.
There is almost universal condemnation of the idea that police evidence should be generally accepted by the licensing authority. It has been pointed out that in many cases detailed analysis of police evidence has thrown up flaws or misplaced assumptions.
There is a very real fear that licensing control will move to the police in several areas, with their representations effectively unchallenged. I should mention here that certain local authority colleagues also have misgivings about this proposal and would not like to see it enshrined in the Act.
There is also condemnation of the suggestion that the magistrates should have their power to determine appeals against local authority decisions constrained in some way, by making the default position a return of the matter to the local authority who took the adverse decision. Although the consultation document talks about human rights safeguards, lawyers in particular are concerned that this effectively removes an important element of independent review of decision-making which, coupled with the proposal to increase police influence, could lead to great unfairness for the trade.
The complete about-turn on temporary event notices has been described as ill-considered and one-sided, with one leading commentator repeatedly pointing out the lack of evidence of abuse of the current and previous systems. The proposal to extend the lead times is seen as directly contrary to what is needed and there is a strong call to leave al these proposals on the sidelines.
What has struck me throughout this process has been the consistency in an almost complete rejection of the majority of the proposals by those who represent the licensed trade. Rarely has there been such harmony — certainly not before the 2003 Act was passed, when trade views differed radically.
This time, the points made by respondent after respondent demonstrate that there are clear logical and practical reasons why many of these suggestions will not work and should not be made law.
Whether or not this chorus of disapproval will carry any weight with the coalition ministers is another matter. The Home Office may not take kindly to the suggestion that it lacks experience in licensing — it only lost the portfolio to the Department for Culture, Media & Sport on a whim of Tony Blair. It piloted the 1964 Licensing Act and all subsequent legislation and drafted the 2003 Act completely.
But its experiments such as Alcohol Disorder Zones and mandatory conditions have shown poor planning and a deaf ear. Let us hope that on this occasion they show more common sense.