Minister is word-perfect

By Peter Coulson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Minister, James brokenshire

Coulson: guidance will not be released yet
Coulson: guidance will not be released yet
Descriptions of the late-night proposals of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill as a "dog's breakfast" are apt, says Peter Coulson.

It is likely that licensing minister James Brokenshire will consider last week's committee stage of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill something of a triumph: very few banana-skin moments, lots of unsubstantiated waffle which was not challenged and a completely unscathed licensing section.

With the committee "balanced" at nine to five to the government, that is hardly surprising. What did go to the vote was a foregone conclusion.

Things may be different in the Lords, but at present the government's line is that by juggling the words in the Licensing Act it can give local authorities more "bottle" when it comes to licensing decisions.

Key to this is the general replacement of the word "necessary" with the word "appropriate", which Mr Brokenshire feels is less inhibiting for nervous councils. He claims many are reluctant to impose additional conditions for fear of challenge.

He wants to blunt clever lawyers' ability to find reasons why the conditions chosen are not necessary in the circumstances of the case.

He also resisted the reintroduction of "necessary" in the case of early morning restriction orders (EMROs), preferring to be consistent with his choice of adjective throughout the proposed amendments, whatever the situation.

In this he somewhat defied logic, but then there is little basis of logic in what is being said in support of these proposals.

But the Opposition is for some reason being very polite in the exchanges. When he talks of an evidential base for licensing decisions, it all leads to the idea that an EMRO which curtails existing granted hours for licensees in an area will only be imposed if there is clear factual information on late-night disturbance or disorder, and a conclusion drawn by the council that enforced closing of licensed premises is necessary in these circumstances.

Unclear guidance

No, we are to have "appropriate" there as well. And we will not know until after the legislation has been passed exactly what guidance is to be given to local authorities on how they interpret this. In common with its predecessors, the current government is going to delay the production of the guidance, so there will be little scope for making any challenges to its interpretation of the law.

Bearing in mind that councils must "have regard" to the guidance in reaching their decisions, it plays a vitally important part in this whole process and should not be an afterthought but something that Parliament has an opportunity to discuss at the time.

The late-night proposals were described by one MP as a "dog's breakfast" and that does seem to be an apt description in some ways.

The combination of restricting licences that have caused no trouble at all, simply because the premises are in a particular area, and the imposition of a levy for everyone who opens late in a whole area, including towns and villages where there has been no trouble at all, will cause a good degree of friction locally if it is implemented.

But the language used by Government ministers on this issue is highly selective. They decry those who "persistently" sell alcohol to minors without recognising the difference between a culpable or reckless sale and a mistake.

They talk of drunkenness and violence in the streets as if it was universal and something that requires across-the-board restrictions for all those who hold a licence, regardless of blame.

The words "targeted" and "proportional" have been forgotten in all this. To hear a Government minister speak of deliberate manipulation of the wording of legislation, as if it was something praiseworthy, makes me recognise that we are in an entirely new era, with major struggles ahead.

Related topics: Legislation

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