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A licence to interfere in our everyday lives

The Lib-Cons’ proposed reforms to the licensing laws would make them even more authoritarian and killjoy than they already are - no mean feat.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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The Liberal-Conservative coalition government’s proposed licensing reforms were whisked out for a brief consultation in August, which comes to a close this Wednesday (8 September). The anodyne title of the consultation (‘Rebalancing the Licensing Act’) and the rhetoric of ‘empowering communities’ are little more than pretty wrapping: the content is sinister stuff.

Far from empowering communities, the proposed changes would increase the power of local councils, the police and other authorities, who will be removed from necessary checks and balances. Far from rolling back New Labour’s hyper-regulatory regime, the proposed changes would roll it out much further and faster.

After the Licensing Act 2003, New Labour created a network of Licensing Committees, based in each local authority, to issue licenses to sell alcohol to pubs and other premises. This replaced the previous system of licenses issued by local magistrates. In theory, replacing magistrates with local councillors could have been a good thing – except that the Licensing Act set out four ‘licensing objectives’, which meant that the committee started to play a much more interfering role in licensed premises.

The objectives were wide-ranging: 1) the prevention of crime and disorder; 2) improving public safety; 3) the prevention of public nuisance; and 4) the protection of children from harm. In pursuing these aims, Licensing Committees have imposed petty conditions on pubs and bars that have little to do with genuine public order or legality issues. At the Manifesto Club, we have had cases reported to us of pubs asked to install CCTV cameras or CRB-check their staff, put up ‘responsible drinking’ notices, search customers, or install a ‘Think 30’ ID check policy. These same Licensing Committees were responsible for issuing licenses for what the Licensing Act termed ‘regulated entertainment’, covering everything from live music to the mere possession of a piano, not only in licensed premises but in village halls and old people’s homes.

If this current government is committed to civil liberties, as it claims, then the powers of Licensing Committees should be reduced and not massively increased, as this consultation document proposes.

In our view, the problems with the government’s proposals are as follows.

Overturning principles of due process

The Lib-Con consultation document proposed allowing licensing authorities to bring cases for licence removal before themselves. It also suggests reducing the burden of proof required for a licensing authority to remove a pub’s or bar’s licence – and that licensing authorities hear their own appeals, rather than the appeal being heard in a magistrate’s court as it is at present. Finally, it suggests enacting licensing authorities’ decisions as soon as they are made, rather than pending an appeal.

These proposals go against the basic elements of justice: that a person is innocent until proven guilty; that a state authority must have a very good reason before stopping people from doing things; that an appeal is heard by a different authority from the authority that made the original decision. These proposals essentially give licensing authorities unchecked powers to close down, or impose their conditions on, licensed premises, without being subject to due process.

Accepting the police’s word as truth

The consultation document proposes that licensing authorities accept all representations from the police – for example, to close down a bar – unless there is strong evidence to the contrary. This is a big shift from the current situation, where evidence from the police is generally treated with the same weight as evidence from other bodies.

This is a worrying development. The police have a very particular set of interests, which do not marry with those of civic interest groups. The police, if given the choice, would doubtless not have any bars or nightlife at all, since this would mean less crime and rowdiness and a quieter life for them. In Barking and Dagenham, two police officers put in 22 applications for licence review in the course of a single year; there were even local supermarkets on their list. Should their opinion always prevail? No. The police’s views on these matters must always be tested and weighed in courts or by other independent bodies, not only for their truth but also for their reasonableness when countered against other social interests, such as members of the public wanting to be able to buy beer at their supermarket.

Empowering the health police

The consultation document suggests allowing health authorities to bring licence review cases. It also suggests designating ‘health harm’ as the fifth ‘licensing objective’.

Most local health authorities would no doubt be too busy treating patients to get involved in licensing proceedings. But there is an element of the medical establishment which, like the police, has a particular set of interests that are not necessarily the same as the general public’s. Statements from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) and other health bodies show a growing penchant for interfering in people’s liberties for the alleged sake of our health – for example, NICE’s recent call for a minimum alcohol price and for a complete ban on alcohol advertising.

From a pure health perspective, it might be better not to drink at all and to be in bed early every night. However, we do not organise our lives solely around our physical wellbeing, which is why it is better that doctors do not get too involved in politics. Giving health authorities more political powers would encourage the authoritarian strand of the medical establishment. As a licensing objective, it would also give Licensing Committees even more powers to interfere in city nightlife.

Over-penalising premises for under-age serving

The Lib-Con consultation document proposes greater penalties to close, fine and review the licenses of premises found to be serving under-age customers.

The official obsession with preventing all under-age drinking is an impossible and counterproductive errand. As Dolan Cummings showed in his Manifesto Club report, 28 ¾: How Constant Age Checks are Infantilising Adults, the main result of ‘Think 25’ policies has been to force people in their late twenties and thirties to carry their passports to the supermarket. Any tightening of penalties will encourage the constant ID-checking of young adults.

Furthermore, there has been a long-standing practice in Britain of landlords turning a blind eye to 16- or 17-year-old drinkers, so long as they behaved themselves. This arrangement meant that young people tended to be socialised into responsible and adult drinking. A further crackdown on under-age drinking will not stop under-18s getting hold of alcohol: it will just mean that they drink in a more childish and unchecked manner, away from adults and adult institutions. By any account, a local pub is a far better place for a 16- or 17-year-old to encounter alcohol than the corner of a local car park.

Banning cheap booze

The consultation document proposes setting a minimum price on alcohol or banning ‘below cost’ selling.

It is not the government’s business to set a price for alcohol, or for any other product. For a start, ‘below cost’ would be almost impossible to define, since different licensed premises have different ‘costs’. Underlying these policies, though, is an implication that excessive drinking is solely the result of cheap alcohol, and that the only answer is to pinch people’s pockets. In practice, the reasons why people drink to excess owe far more to social and existential factors than to price.

Regulating spontaneous social events

The consultation document proposes increasing the regulation of what are known as ‘temporary events’, with the proposal that holders of temporary events must give longer periods of notice. It also proposes that the police have more time in which to object to applications, and that the number of applications that can be made by one person or in one area are limited.

There is already too much bureaucracy covering applications for ‘temporary events’ – a category that includes carnivals, village fetes, public concerts, beer festivals, and so on. Temporary events are essential and spontaneous parts of community life; it should not be too onerous for members of the public to organise these events, even if they lack expertise in licensing regulation or other forms of local council bureaucracy. The proposal to increase the regulation of temporary events, requiring more procedures, greater notice and more potential for objection from the authorities, would greatly increase the administrative burden and make it harder for local events to go ahead.

And finally…

On the plus-side, the one good thing about the consultation document is that it suggests repealing the so-called ‘mandatory conditions’, which are two bits of law tacked on to the Licensing Act by the New Labour government (one was enacted in April 2010, the other is due to start from 1 October).

The mandatory conditions that entered in April 2010 prohibited ‘irresponsible promotions’, banning everything from prizes of free alcohol, offers of cheap alcohol around sporting events, or provision of free/cheap alcohol through use of promotional flyers. This condition was an inappropriate intervention into pub life. Why shouldn’t a pub be allowed to give alcohol as a prize for a pub quiz, or have ‘2 for 1’ offers? The Happy Hour is a traditional part of pub life. Again, it should not be the business of government to tell pubs and bars how they should promote their products.

The second set of mandatory conditions, which will be introduced on 1 October 2010, will require each licensed premise to have an Age Verification Policy and to request photographic and holographic ID from anybody who appears to be under the age specified in the policy (normally 21 or 25). This condition will lead to yet more young adults being regularly ID-checked, which seems counterproductive for a government that has abolished ID cards.

At the Manifesto Club, we support the repeal of both sets of mandatory conditions – and the binning of the whole Licensing Consultation Document, from its sorry start to its still-worse finish.

Josie Appleton is director of the Manifesto Club, which campaigns against the hyperregulation of everyday life. The club has an established campaign against the overregulation of alcohol, as part of which it submitted a response to the ‘Rebalancing the Licensing Act’ consultation. You can contact Josie {encode=”Josie.Appleton@manifestoclub.com” title=”here”}.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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