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Time for Reform

Proposals for the Modernisation of Our Licensing Laws,
published by The Stationery Office,
available on 0845 023474 or

The long-awaited White Paper on the reform of the licensing laws has been presented to Parliament by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw. The most significant changes proposed are: the lifting of restrictions on opening hours, the transferral of the licensing powers previously exercised by the magistracy to the Local Authority, and the establishment of one category of on-licence. These come within the framework of a complete overhaul of the licensing laws.

The Home Secretary, in his Foreword to the White Paper, draws attentions to both the complexity and antiquity of the present arrangements. He goes on to say that, whilst the law as it stands ties business up in unnecessary red tape and imposes unjustified restrictions on the individual, there "are too few effective sanctions against premises attracting trouble." Mr Straw also says: "The rules governing the admission of children to licensed premises are obscure...The controls on under-age 'off-sales' are inadequate." He points out that at the moment there is little or no accountability to local residents.

Although the White Paper acknowledges that "alcohol and crime have always been linked", it makes no reference to the wider alcohol problems nor to the question of overall consumption. The Home Secretary is, however, at pains, to emphasise the importance of alcohol to the economy: "Most adults take alcoholic drinks...We spend around £25 billion a year on this [sic]." The drinks industry is one of the "biggest areas of employment growth". The proposals in the White Paper seek to find a balance between personal freedom allied to healthy economic growth and the problems which inevitably arise when alcohol is consumed irresponsibly.

Open all hours

The explicit intention of granting "flexible opening times, with the potential for up to 24 hour opening, 7 days a week" is to minimise the public disorder problems perceived to arise from the present fixed times. This move is being taken on the basis of evidence not available to anyone outside government or the alcohol industry. A table included in the summary of proposals shows the number of public order incidents in a "typical metropolitan city centre". The figures indicate that pub closing time is irrelevant, since the same number of incidents occur at eleven o'clock as at four and five o'clock in the afternoon. By far the most difficult time is three in the morning, the time clubs close in London. There is no indication in the White Paper why these figures incline the government to the belief that the "eleven o'clock swill" is the direct cause of public disorder. Nor is there any commitment to collect the necessary data to find out if the desired result is achieved. The industry has long lobbied for flexible and longer opening times, presumably with a view to increased sales.

In its recent opinion poll carried out for the Institute of Alcohol Studies, NOP Solutions found that 59 per cent of the population thought it would be a bad thing to extend drinking hours at night.

Local accountability

It is made clear that extended opening will be "subject to consideration of the impact on local residents." This will in part be achieved by giving local authorities the duty of issuing licences, both those required by premises and the new personal variety. The reasons the government gives for this move are:

  • accountability ("we strongly believe that the licensing authority should be accountable to local residents whose lives are fundamentally affected by the decisions taken").

  • accessibility ("many local residents may be inhibited by court processes, and would be more willing to seek to influence decisions if [these are] in the hands of local councillors")

  • crime and disorder ("local authorities now have a leading statutory role in preventing local crime and disorder, and the link between alcohol and crime persuasively argues for them to have a similar lead on licensing").

The NOP poll found that over 90 per cent of the public think that local residents should have the right to object to late night opening by pubs and clubs.

It is explicitly stated that the drink industry "had...doubts" about councillors sitting as a licensing authority and the White Paper is at pains to allay any thought that the process might be made more difficult. There will be an appeals procedure which, although the government says that "licensing is not a judicial function", will involve a Crown Court judge sitting with two magistrates. A complaint against the granting of a licence will have to be backed up by evidence that a nuisance or disorder will be caused. This will not be easy for a private citizen, especially in the case of new premises. The paper says that "a hearing should take place only following the laying of a reasonable objection relevant to the prescribed purposes of crime and disorder, or public safety or unreasonable public nuisance, with the burden of proof falling on those laying the objection." This presumably will involve many individuals in legal costs if they are to have any good chance of success since both the licensing authority and the brewery or whatever organisation is making the application will have professional legal advisers. It is nowhere explained what an unreasonable public nuisance is or indeed how there can be a reasonable one.

The Premises Licence

It is envisaged that a new premises licence will authorise the sale and supply of alcohol, the provision of public entertainment (including plays and films as well as music and dancing), and the provision of refreshment throughout the night. Any applicant for a new licence will be able to opt out of the provisions which are not relevant to his business. All applications will have to be accompanied by an operating plan which will include "details of the proposed measures to be taken to prevent crime and disorder." The decision whether to grant a licence will be based solely on considerations of crime and disorder, public safety, and "unreasonable" public nuisance. "Licensing authorities should not be able to take into account commercial matters such as the economic demand for a new venue" and so the process should not mirror the planning process. There will be a presumption in favour of granting the licence in the absence of objections.

The premises licence will apply equally to pubs, clubs, cafés, restaurants, bars and the wide variety of places of entertainment which has grown up in recent years. It is perfectly reasonable for parents to be able to take their children or for young people under 18 to go into many of these and the government believes that the present complex arrangements are both outdated and discredited in the eyes of the public. The proposal is that there will be a presumption that people under 18 will be free to enter licensed premises "unless the licence holder has opted out of the facility". Given that children will have this new opportunity, the White Paper addresses the laws relating to age of consumption. The government's intention that "children should normally be allowed to enter licensed premises at the discretion of the personal licence holder will therefore be balanced with a clear prohibition on the consumption of alcohol by those under 18 anywhere on the premises." The one exception will be in the case of children of 16 and 17 who at present may drink "beer, cider, or porter" with a table meal. In the words of the White Paper this "offers opportunities for younger age groups to learn about moderate and sensible consumption in the context of family meals" and the concession will therefore be widened to include wine. There must, however, be "a supervising adult".

Personal Licences

Individuals will now be granted personal licences to insure that "anyone responsible for the sale of alcohol is aware of his or her obligations and is capable of fulfiling them." There will be an accredited professional qualification and its possession would lead automatically to the granting of a licence. "There would be no need," says the White Paper, "for the licensing authority to try to form its own view of applicants' knowledge and character." Furthermore, it will be a commercial decision on the part of the employer as to whether a particular personal licence holder operates a small concern or a complicated, large-scale business.

Personal licence holders will have to give warning of their arrival to the relevant licensing authority which will have the power to endorse his licence should breaches of the law occur.

Talking Tough

It is proposed that there will be a cumulative series of penalties for breaches of licence leading to its loss on the third occasion. The governments's view is that it is "the function of the courts to punish individual offenders and the function of the licensing authority to examine the corporate responsibility for the premises where offences have taken place."

The White Paper repeatedly describes attitude to breaches of licence and the wider crimes of disorder associated with drinking alcohol as "tough".

Throughout the White Paper there is an assumption that the problems associated with alcohol confined to public disorder and nuisance. Many will see the absence of any mention of the health effects of the consumption of alcohol as an omission which weakens the document's impact. This is particularly so at a time when the government is formulating a national alcohol policy (see Alert, no.2, 1999). Some professionals in the field argue that the complete redrafting of the licensing laws should have taken place in the context of that strategy and not as a completely separate exercise based solely on premises of legitimate freedom of choice and economic growth.