Radical licensing rethink

05 February, 2010

Too many licensed premises, open too late, selling alcohol too cheaply. The Conservatives’ concerns on alcohol retailing are rather more detailed than that, but these, essentially, are the party’s main bones of contention with the current Licensing Act.

Veterans of the drinks trade will know that politicians’ words and actions don’t always go hand in hand – who remembers that John Major’s administration was working on 24-hour licensing long before it became a Labour manifesto pledge? We can’t be sure if a Tory government, should one take over this spring, will take immediate steps to reform drinks retailing. But there are some pledges that will have a seismic effect on the industry if they do become policy.

Raising taxes is an easy win for a newly elected administration faced with a yawning budget deficit. The Tories believe they can use “targeted alcohol taxation” to curb antisocial behaviour. Shadow Chancellor George Osborne’s first Budget could very well treble duty on RTDs, increasing the price of a 27.5cl bottle by 60p. Superstrength beer would also be hit – the party estimates a four-pack of Carlsberg Special Brew would retail for £7.33 instead of £6 if it gets its way. A four-pack of strong cider would be priced at £4.38 instead of £3.64, according to current party policy.

The Conservatives also aim to ban alcohol sold below cost – another policy which takes it away from its traditional free-market territory, and which has raised eyebrows among some activists. Many specialist retailers have long backed such a move, although quite how it can be enforced in practice is open to question.

The Tories have not explained whose job it would be to sift through the complex paper trails created by grocers in their dealings with suppliers, ridden as they are with promotional costs, overriders and the like. Who would blow the whistle? Would retailers have to prove they were selling above cost, or wait to be accused of breaking the rules? The reality of dealing with below-cost sales could be fiendishly complicated – and potentially open to legal challenge.

The Tories have repeatedly attacked 24-hour drinking, even though official stats show that only 4% of premises are allowed to open round the clock. “It’s clear that far from creating a continental-style café culture, as the government predicted, there has been an increase in binge-drinking-related problems on our streets,” says shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling.

Relaxing licensing hours has contributed to alcohol-fuelled violence and dangerous levels of consumption, the party argues – although its figures are selective and frequently contradicted by other data.

Too few prosecutionsThe trade may feel it’s under constant attack from law enforcement agencies, but the Tories argue existing laws to deal with under-age sales and problem drinking are simply not being applied.

“Between 2003 and 2007, only two people were fined more than £250 for refusing to stop drinking alcohol in a designated public place,” they claim. “Only nine people have been prosecuted and just two convicted for selling alcohol to a drunken person since 2004. In 2007 a grand total of 81 Penalty Notices for Disorder were issued for this offence in England and Wales.

“In 2007, just five young people were prosecuted for buying, or attempting to buy, alcohol under-age in England and Wales. A total of 37 teenagers have been prosecuted in four years.

“The number of people found guilty or cautioned for drunkenness offences has dropped from 53,587 in 1998 to 23,533 in 2007 – a drop of 56%.” A Conservative administration may aim to be less lenient, but first its message needs to be heard by police and local authorities.

The Tories call for a “tougher licensing regime”, which will make it harder to gain a licence and a lot easier to lose one.

Grayling says: “We want local councils and police to have a much clearer right of veto over new licence applications and the ability to amend existing licence applications. Under the Licensing Act 2003, there is a fundamental presumption in favour of granting an application to those who sell alcohol, which makes it extremely difficult for local authorities to turn down applications.”?Applicants may also find themselves in the weird position of not merely pledging to act responsibly – but guaranteeing their business will not cause problems at any point in the future. “The burden would be on applicants to show how their proposed licence application or extension would not cause any harm.”?Grayling adds: “Conservatives will give the police stronger powers over licensing applications. If the local force objects to an application while it’s being processed, it will be up to the applicant to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that the police’s assessment of the situation is wrong.

“We will also provide much clearer guidance to magistrates courts about when an appeal against a council decision can and cannot be allowed. We want to ensure the grounds for appeal do not allow an applicant to seek the reversal of a democratic decision without good cause,” he adds.

Community gets more of a say“We will also give councils the power to remove licences from both individuals and premises breaking the law. This will deal with the current problem where people who lose a licence to sell alcohol simply get a colleague or family member to reapply for the same premises.

“We will allow elected and community representatives to make repre­sentations or objections to a licensing application and to initiate a review of a problematic venue,” says Grayling.

The maximum fine for repeated sales of alcohol to children would double, to £20,000.

Twenty-four-hour licences, where they exist, will not necessarily be curtailed, but licensing authorities would be given reworded advice, allowing them to determine closing times with more freedom.

Off-licences opening beyond 10.30pm could be charged a late-night levy to help pay for policing and clean-up costs (the on-trade levy would only apply to venues open after midnight). “We would envisage such an additional charge being based on the size of the premises concerned,” Grayling says.

Are the Tory proposals more party political hype, or an agenda for change? If the polls are correct, we could be finding that out within the next six months.

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