Maybe that’s unfair, and maybe the Government is genuinely seeking ways to reduce operating costs and red tape. But I genuinely can’t remember anyone publicly asking for a review of the system of personal licences.
Help with taxes, yes. Help with business rates, yes. Help with the tenant/pubco relationship, yes. Help with employment and apprenticeships, yes. But not with personal licences.
Of all the things we’d like the Government to consider, this one is quite a long way down the list.
Like the compulsory wearing of car seatbelts or motorcycle helmets, for example, personal licences were unpopular when introduced shambolically in 2005. But just like those pieces of legislation, people have come to accept them and live with them, and even grudgingly accept their benefits.
It has essentially become one of the few coherent, national qualification-based systems available to the pub trade. For many pub industry workers it is the first step on the road to professionalism — a ‘badge’ with sufficient value for some to pay for it out of their own pockets.
If the Government is looking for a quick and easy win — perhaps the follow-up “help for the sector” that the Chancellor hinted at after he abolished the beer duty escalator — I don’t think this is it.
It will surely be counterbalanced by strengthened demands on designated premises supervisors and premises licenses, and these enhancements will be determined independently by local authorities, inevitably leading to national inconsistencies in expected standards.
This has the feel of a scheme that will help the Government more than industry — designed to cut overheads at Whitehall and then sold hard to the trade as a benefit. But it misses the mark.
While we mustn’t appear ungrateful for Government efforts to make life easier for licensees, I’ve not yet spoken to any trade representative that would be unhappy if this proposal was kicked into the long grass, where it can sit with minimum pricing and plain cigarette packaging.
If the Government really wants to help pubs, it must begin by analysing how it can help the on-trade compete more fairly with the off-trade. A lower rate of VAT on pub food and drink would be one such measure (though I am told the Government’s view is hardening against this), and a more equitable system of business rates another (I am informed it is softening on this).
But the abolition of personal licences? Thanks, but no thanks.