The Licensing Act 2003 could be improved but overall it is “a good bit of legislation”, according to key off-trade representatives who gathered together in Parliament this month to discuss the Act. 

The panel discussed topics with the House of Lords Licensing Act 2003 Committee, exploring whether the Act had been an overall success to date, what the problems with it are, the issue of “pre-loading” and the rise of home deliveries. 

James Lowman, chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, said the fact that the Act had come at a time when consumer habits were already changing, with people drinking less overall but tending to drink more at home. 

He said: “In the off-trade, more people are buying alcohol from convenience stores. The Act has allowed businesses to respond to those changes. I think it could be improved, particularly in the areas of regulating alcohol fraud, but while it isn’t perfect, it has stood the test of time.”

Gill Sherratt, director of Licensing Matters, said from the independent retailing industry’s point of view the Act works and “it is fit for purpose”. 

On the negative side, she explained that local authorities have been given “massive powers to regulate”. 

She said: “I think the main problem with the Act is over-regulation and they over-regulate a lot of the time. That is my issue with it, but as a whole it works.”

Miles Beale, chief executive of the Wine & Spirit Trade Association, added: “Overall, I think it is a very good bit of legislation.”

He pointed to the success of Community Alcohol Partnerships as a good example of how the 2003 Act has benefited society. 

The issue of “pre-loading” – consumers buying alcohol from the off-trade and then drinking excessively before going out – was also discussed, but then dismissed as “not a new concern”. 

Beale said: “I think pre-loading is not well known or understood. I am not saying it doesn’t exist, but I think the publicity around it suggests it is greater than it is.” 

Similarly, Lowman noted that there is naturally an uptick of sales of alcohol through convenience stores in the evenings, “but this is much more driven by the weather and events than anything else”. 

He added: “It is not as glamorous as it seems. Most purchases of alcohol from the off-trade are for drinking while sitting on the sofa in front of the TV. Some drink at home and then go out, but it is the minority of occasions. 

“Drinking before going out has always happened and it is not a new thing.”

Beale noted that supermarkets were in a good place to carry out the Challenge 25 scheme when it came to alcohol deliveries. 

As a final point, the panel was asked to consider Scotland’s Licensing Act, which has an additional objective that aims to protect and improve public health, and whether this should be rolled out across the rest of the UK. 

The unanimous response to this question was that this shouldn’t be an issue for the Licensing Act in England and Wales because any long-term effects on health as a result of alcohol are hard to prove and even harder to link back to any specific premises. 

Beale also noted that over the past five years the consumption of alcohol in Scotland remains higher than in England and Wales, and therefore this objective “doesn’t seem to have had any effect so far”.