The Government’s approach to the Licensing Act 2003 was to ‘provide greater freedom and flexibility for the hospitality and leisure industry’. It was to allow greater freedom of choice to consumers, balanced by tougher powers for the police, courts and licensing authority to ‘deal with anyone trying to exploit these greater freedoms against the interest of the public in general.’
Eleven years on and the Government have decided it is time to review the extent to which the Act has achieved these objectives. A House of Lords Select Committee was set up in May to investigate its impact and publish a report by 31 March 2017. Recommendations are expected on the current legislation, its implementation and related developments.
The evidence to date
Nine evidence sessions have been conducted to date, involving a host of interested parties, including pub companies, residents’ associations, academics, and public health bodies. On 8 November, senior police chiefs and licensing experts were asked for their views on the effectiveness of the law. To give a feel for the ground covered, some of the noteworthy questions and thoughts are outlined below.
Police and legal sector evidence
First up for questioning were senior police chiefs including Gavin Thomas, Chief Superintendent, Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales; Rachel Kearton, Assistant Chief Constable, National Police Chiefs’ Council; and Alison Hernandez, Police and Crime Commissioner for Devon and Cornwall. The representatives put forward their views on the late night levy, the growth of off-trade and its impact on public life, a fifth ‘public heath’ objective, the issue of training for police, and the strengths and weaknesses of the night time economy.
The second session included Gerald Gouriet QC; and representative solicitors. The witnesses, all of whom have extensive experience of appearing before Licensing Committees and, on appeal, before Magistrates’ courts, were asked for their views on the effectiveness of the Licensing Act 2003, how well licensing committees are carrying out their duties, the overlap between licensing and planning, and the appeal system at Magistrates’ court.
Key policing concerns
The main areas of concern for senior police chiefs included:
- the impact on A&E due to late night drinking
- bar density taking police away from where people live and where domestic abuse is on the up
- the difficulty of imposing the late night levy as many places already contribute towards a levy for business costs and the shift in demand towards to early hours of the morning
During the second session the issues that were raised concerned:
- whether residents are getting a ‘raw deal’
- the difficulty interpreting the Act
- the lack of training for committee members.
The view from the supermarkets
This week it was the supermarket heavyweights turn to take the hot seats. The committee quizzed representatives including Nick Grant, head of legal services at from Sainsbury’s; James Brodhurst-Brown, manager, regulatory affairs and trading law at Waitrose; and Mark Bentley, customer operations director at Ocado.
The general consensus between the supermarket representatives was that they had seen ‘no evidence’ of preloading (a criticism regualry laid at their door) and an increased volume of sales at the weekend was purely due to more people shopping later in the week.
This was clearly a lot to fit into these one-hour sessions. However, what has become clear is that the Select Committee is approaching the whole issue with an open mind and is keen to collate as much evidence as possible from an abundance of sources before submitting recommendations.
For now the licensing world waits for the next instalment of questioning on 29 November 2016 and, more importantly, the Select Committee’s report expected to land in March 2017.
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