You're here: Home / What we do / Alcohol Alert / Issue 3 2002 / At the bar of the house

At the bar of the house

The Licensing Bill, the most significant measure in alcohol policy for almost an hundred years, was announced in the Queen's Speech. Launching the Bill a few days later, appropriately in a London pub, Kim Howells, the Minister responsible for its safe passage onto the statute books made the startling assertion that when it came into force there would be an end to binge drinking and its consequent problems. Dr Howells clearly implied that binge drinking and disorder arising from drunkenness were phenomena which began with the introduction of licensing at the beginning of the last century. This will surprise anyone who knows anything about life in eighteenth century London, for example, or the nature of the mediaeval banquet, to say nothing of those models of moderate drinking, the Vikings, who apparently raped and pillaged fortified by nothing more than a Campari and soda sipped, in the Mediterranean fashion beloved of the Government, over the period of an hour at a pavement café.

What does the Bill actually contain? The intention is to streamline the licensing system for premises selling alcohol and the Bill will abolish fixed opening hours. Alongside this there will be a range of measures intended to reduce anti-social behaviour. According to the Government, the Bill will "minimise public disorder resulting from artificially fixed closing times and encourage a more civilised culture in pubs, bars, and restaurants."

It will be an offence to sell alcohol anywhere to people under 18 and the legal age for pub drinking will remain 18. However, it is proposed to give children free access to licensed premises except in special circumstances.

The Bill brings together six existing acts, which, it is claimed by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, will "potentially deliver savings of £1.97 billion over the first ten years of operation, sweeping away considerable red tape". A whole range of administrative overheads will be removed from businesses as will the need to hold licensing hearings in the "vast majority of cases".

The power to grant alcohol licences will be transferred from the magistracy, which has had responsibility in this area for five hundred years, to local authorities. Local residents, it is said, will be given "a powerful voice" in the licensing process, with the right to make representations to the licensing authority about applications for new licences and to call for a review of existing ones. However, these rights are reserved for those who live in the vicinity of the premises in question: everyone else is excluded. Their representatives, whether councillors or Mps are also specifically excluded for doing so on their behalf. Councillor Susie Kemp, the Chairman of the Local Government Association Public Protection Executive, said:

"deciding from whom, where and when alcohol should be sold is best done by elected councillors who are accountable to their local communities and already responsible for many related functions." Which rather suggests that Councillor Kemp has not full appreciated the limitations, imposed by the Bill and accompanying Guidance, under which local authorities will labour.

In another measure, police, fire, and other emergency and local services will have an input to the applications. Police already have the power to close any licensed premises without notice for up to twenty-four hours.

The Open All Hours? Campaign, sponsored by the IAS and the Civic Trust, which includes local authorities of all political persuasions, has already reported on its findings as to the likely effects of the Bill (see La Lutte Continuera). Two of its recommendations seem already to have been taken up by the Government. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has agreed to look at the implications of the Bill in regard to "urban renaissance". In addition, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has commissioned a study of the problem of noise resulting from the changes brought about by the changes in licensing law. It is interesting that this study of noise is to be conducted by MCM Research Limited led by Peter Marsh. MCM Research appears to work mainly for the alcohol industry in the form of the Portman Group. Marsh appears as an "expert witness" in licensing cases on behalf of the industry and was the principal author of a study commissioned by the Portman Group at the opening of the campaign for the liberalisation of the licensing laws. This particular study was condemned by reviewers, as one which would never have survived the process of peer review imposed on serious academic work. The study is virtually the only piece of "evidence" cited by the government to support its proposals.