Thursday, 12 September 2013

I knew it was too good to be true...

Well I knew it wouldn't be too long before the current coalition government got back in to the swing of things after their summer break and the diversions of foreign policy and the economic situation lost their ability to stop ministers spouting utter nonsense.

Today, it has been reported the minister responsible for crime prevention, Jeremy Browne, has revealed the government's thinking on the future of Personal Licences having considered its extensive Alcohol Strategy consultation responses. Earlier this year it was mooted the current need to renew Personal Licences every ten years might be scrapped. Now the honourable gentleman is proposing getting rid of Personal Licences altogether.

(For those not in the know, there are two types of licence related to the sale of alcohol in the UK, the aforementioned Personal Licence ensures individuals receive adequate training to enable them to sell alcohol safely and responsibly, the second is the Premises Licence which regulates how venues such as pubs and restaurant and retail outlets such as off-licences and supermarkets are operated).

If you cast your mind back to 2003 when the current Licensing Act came into force there were, and are, four principal Licensing Objectives, to wit (and in the order they are enacted):

1.the prevention of crime and disorder
2.public safety
3.the prevention of public nuisance
4.the protection of children from harm

The minister should take note, the area of government he should be principally concerned with, the prevention of crime, is right up there at number one. Strange then, that his concern should be the 'administrative and financial burden' on businesses which sell alcohol.  This ΓΌber-nuMPty reckons the move could save businesses around £10m a year as the Government finds the personal licence system may not always be the “most targeted and proportionate way to ensure alcohol is sold responsibly, for example, all premises – from the riskiest to the quietest – must comply with the system regardless of whether it is locally appropriate or not”

So with a conservative estimate of some 100,000 premises licensed to sell alcohol the 'saving' might be £100 per business. That's just under two quid a week, hardly a financial burden and not a great amount to worry about 'saving' in the grand scheme of things. I wonder if the minister has considered the "unintended consequences" of his proposals? But what are they? 

Well, I'm glad you've asked. The consultation (into personal licensing) proposes enabling targeted, local alternatives to personal licences through locally applied conditions to premises licences.(At the moment, all alcohol sales must be authorised by a personal licence holder, who must have completed training on the risks alcohol can present if handled irresponsibly. They must also notify licensing authorities if they commit any offence which suggests they may be unsuitable as a manager at licensed premises.)

Browne said that the decision came after "extensive discussions" with the trade, police and local Government during the recent Alcohol Strategy consultation (sic) and he reckons the saving would still allow licensing authorities to keep "a focus on measures to tackle crime and disorder at licensed premises. This consultation is an opportunity for licensing authorities, the licensed trade, police officers and the general public to share their views on this proposal. In particular, the Government is seeking views on whether it would cut costs for businesses and maintain appropriate safeguards against crime and disorder at licensed premises.”

Notwithstanding the continued focus and demonisation on the on-trade I wonder if Mr Browne, has carried out a full cost-benefit analysis? I think the hospitality industry should insist one be carried out on this proposal as the switch, ten years ago, from the old Justice's Licence system to the current licensing regime cost the industry hundreds of millions of pounds to implement. Does the minister think it would cost any less to needlessly re-jig licensing arrangements again?

Going back to his ministerial brief, does the minister think removing the professional qualifications a Personal Licence holder has to hold, the training licensees have to undergo to achieve those qualifications and thence obtain their licence is going to do anything to promote the four licensing objectives? Surely if one is serious about lifting those in the pub trade from "trades (wo)man" status to that of professional practitioners who operate their businesses with the best standards of conduct and adherence to the law, then scrapping the de minimus requirements of the Personal Licence isn't going to improve the situation.

There have long been rumblings from local authorities, who are charged with administering our national alcohol laws, for them to be allowed to set their own local licensing fees as opposed to nationally imposed rates. If this ridiculous proposal comes into effect and licensing is on a local basis with the myriad of regimes this will give birth to then only one logical conclusion can be drawn and that is licensing costs will sky-rocket as cash-strapped councils seek to further "monetise" the licensing process.

And let's not stop there. Under the current regime a Personal Licence holder can pretty well work anywhere in the UK (with a few minor variations in Scotland and Northern Ireland). There is one national qualification, one national set of criteria for obtaining and retaining the Personal Licence, so how would several hundred individual licensing regimes and requirements help keep costs down, let alone protect the licensing objectives? How would this help the labour market? Surely it would lead to less flexibility for individuals and businesses alike. I think Browne's colleagues in the DWP, the Department for Business and Industry, the Treasury, Numbers 10 & 11 might have something to say if he knackers the free flow of qualified licensees around the country. Even Lord Tebbit would be hard-pressed to suggest licensees "get on their bikes" and go where the work is if these barriers to free movement of labour are imposed.

What, pray minister, is your proposal for the role of Designated Premises Supervisor (DPS) on existing Premises Licences? At present the DPS is, what under the old system was the "landlord" or "landlady", the person responsible for ensuring licensing laws are adhered to. A DPS must, for now, hold a current Personal Licence. So who will be responsible under your mad-cap proposals? A new qualification and new licence for the DPS? How will this save businesses money? Local councils will still have to administer some form of licence for those who actually sell the booze, there will still need to be a minimum level of training and there will still need to be an "examining board" to ensure only those who pass the test get a licence. Who will pay for this? Who will pay for the transitional costs? Well my guess is it'll be business and ultimately their respective customers. Will there be a refund for the thousands of Personal Licence holders for not only their licence fees but the training they underwent?

Here's another thought, under the existing arrangements the Premises Licence has been fairly well protected from the short-comings of an individual DPS in the event of a review. What protection will there be for owners such as freeholders and yes, even the dreaded pubcos, who by and large hold the Premises Licences for their pubs and bars? I for one can see the potential for huge costs for owners of licensed premises when licences are lost on the football field of local council politics and local police commissioners' re-election campaigns.

Clearly Mr Browne has not considered the consequences of these proposals, perhaps he never had a wise old grandmother to remind him that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". Equally clear is that "joined up thinking" isn't part of the minister's vocabulary either. For, imperfect as our licensing system might be now, think how completely bollixed it'll be if the hospitality industry and the off-trade have to deal with any number of variations. I can see the likes of Tim Martin having a nervous breakdown as he tries to reconcile disparate licensing regimes to the needs of his national pub empire. And pity the poor local government officers who have to implement any changes, imagine the (wo)man hours that'll go into dismantling the current system and building a new one.

I've maintained for some time this government has a schizophrenic attitude to its Alcohol Strategy and Mr Browne's latest wheeze does nothing to change my view. And to think I was doing so well over the summer, I'd managed to reduce my intake of pills, I'd stripped the padding out of my cell and nursey even had time for a well-deserved break. Back to the drawing board on that one. Thanks a bunch Mr Browne.

Well at least I won't have to change the motto on my coat of arms as it will firmly remain " Nutrix, medicina, nunc!"

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