Recently on these pages I commented on the apparent separation of responsibility between alcohol licensing, on the one hand, and public entertainment on the other.
The first has moved back to the Home Office and has clearly resulted in a heavier hand, more enforcement procedures and the forthcoming amendments to the licensing laws, which will tend to be onerous for the trade. The second, however, is still in the hands of the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, in spite of its public safety elements. Certain musical activities may well be deregulated in some way and other onerous conditions made lighter. It seems unlikely that the same progress will occur on alcohol.
All this leads me to a consideration of the 'one size fits all' Licensing Act. If there is anything we have gleaned from the past six years of the operation of the new law, it is that one size clearly does not fit all, and there are many licensees out there struggling with a licensing garment that bulges in all the wrong places and does not cover some important bits either.
Complaints from the licensed trade recently have concentrated on over-regulation, but the truth is that the mass of additional regulations that have been introduced have not been targeted, because they have been applied across the board, in line with the basic idea. A clear example of this is the ludicrous mandatory conditions introduced by the Home Office last year, which included a prohibition of the 'dentist's chair', an almost impenetrable restriction on alcohol promotions, which very few people understand to this day, and a requirement for free tap water.
These apply to everyone, including socially responsible pubs in towns and villages throughout the UK.
Quite frankly, how the pub trade ever managed to survive under the old system without all these special regulations, inspections, enforcement and the like quite astounds me. Have things got very much better? To listen to MPs in the House recently, you would think they had got far worse in the past six years. So one has to ask the basic question: has the new Licensing Act really improved the control of binge drinking or compliance with the laws on serving the under-aged? Or has it involved too many perfectly respectable businesses in complying with a raft of additional restrictions so that the bad few can be brought to book?
I rather think it is the latter, in which case this is certainly time for a re-think on the whole question of licensing regulation. One of the first considerations, it seems to me, is whether we need to re-establish a separation between the on and off-trades and their controls.
There has been much talk of supermarket drinks policies, low-cost selling and the now inevitable pre-loading. Underage sales are a problem in both sectors, but take different forms in each.
It has to be remembered that the consumption of alcohol in itself is not illegal for those under 18 — only its consumption in licensed premises, and even that is not universal.
The message about the social responsibility of pubs is well-rehearsed on these pages and among the trade bodies. But it is not getting across to Government, to judge from the comments of Home Secretary Theresa May and others.
The comment of one reader last week that good pubs were paying the price for high-street night-time disorder is well founded — the new late-night levy will apply across the board, not just to the discotheques. Meanwhile, the off-trade, as direct suppliers and the most aggressive marketeers of alcohol, need special controls that are distinct and separate from pubs. Time for a split?