Why the police should look at the bigger picture when it comes to closure notices

By Jonathan Smith

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Premises Police

Excessive force? The police action in Skegness was deemed to be over the top
Excessive force? The police action in Skegness was deemed to be over the top
I was in Skegness recently for a family day out and, for us in the landlocked East Midlands, this is our traditional escape to the coast. A trip to ‘Skeg’ is an institution and it is our Blackpool; no ‘kiss me quick’ hats, but a pier, fish and chips, lots of amusement arcades and, of course, lots of bars.

Coincidentally, I was reminded of this trip when I saw a recent headline — “Skegness pubs receive compensation and apology from Lincolnshire police”, about bars the police had ordered to close on the night of the clocks changing from Greenwich Meantime to British Summertime (BST). This move forward at 1am, so that immediately after 1am it becomes 2am, has caught out many operators over the years.

Previously it was enshrined in statute but since 2005, unless there is something specific on your premises licence, you can be caught out by this and lose an hour’s trade. It is no longer an automatic extension.

As I understand it, and my firm did not get involved, the police indicated to two premises that they would have to close because they did not have the benefit of a BST extension on their licence. So, in a rather ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ approach, the premises agreed to close and the customers were asked to leave.

Closure notice threat
I have to say that I find this type of enforcement difficult to understand. Unfortunately it reminds me of the now notorious Home Office-style of enforcement, when a ‘posse’ of Home Office civil servants, their lawyers, police officers and rather embarrassed council licensing officers went around trying to find fault with premises. If one was found (for example, absent notices) then the premises were threatened with a section 19 closure notice and the licensees, in some cases, with criminal prosecution and even arrest if the premises did not close.

The argument was that the premises were technically in breach of their permission, in that a condition of the premises licence was not being complied with while licensable activities were being carried out.

I must say that I thought there had been a move away from this with the blessing of many police forces. There is, in fact, no power simply for the police to close licensed premises and this is perhaps not surprising, as it would surely be an affront to civil liberties if a police officer had this power (even with the rank of inspector) to use simply on a whim. There are a number of police powers in existence to close premises if there is an imminent risk of disorder, and rightly so, but as far as I know these bars in Skegness were conducting well-ordered business.

I suspect that perhaps a section 19 was issued or simply the threat that if the premises did not close there would be a criminal prosecution for conducting licensable activities outside the hours permitted on the licence (in the absence, it was thought, of the BST extension). Under these circumstances most, if not all, licensed premises would agree to close.

I would ask — even if the premises did in fact have the BST extension and the police did not check or were wrongly informed — was this a sensible and proportionate response? Would it not have been better to let the premises wind down naturally in the absence of any problems and then visit the next day and explain the position, invite a variation of the premises licence and even follow this up with a warning letter or formal caution, as the premises licence holder and designated premises supervisor should have been aware of the position.
The bigger picture
All licensing practitioners and many operators have used the ‘gradual dispersal’ argument to persuade licensing committees to extend the hours of a premises licence on variation and indeed this was one of the bedrocks for licensing reform, which led to the Licensing Act 2003. It therefore seems somewhat ironic that the authority responsible for crime and disorder considers it sensible to ignore any type of dispersal policy and simply order what I presume were several hundred disgruntled customers on to the streets of Skegness at the same time.

These are customers who presumably thought they were getting a longer night out and had in fact almost certainly paid for it and now found themselves with their night rudely cut short.

Do the police consider the impact of these measures on the high street, the impact on public transport and local takeaways, and what about other premises that may have been open — would the customers not try to get in there?

Again, I am not condemning the police enforcing breaches of legislation, which they must do as that is their job, but sometimes — leaving aside that in Skegness they got the fact wrong — would it not be better to look more calmly at the bigger picture and take a more considered view of things?

Related topics Licensing law

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