Inside Track by Peter Martin
Pub landlady goes on holiday and the police close her pub. Arrests at Royal Ascot for rowdy behaviour and there's no action against the venue. I suppose that's what they call a proportionate response? It would, of course, be ridiculous to close down Ascot racecourse, particularly with the Royal Family in attendance, because of a few incidences of drink-induced bad behaviour. So why the heavy-handed approach to the pub in Barnsley, closed down by the police simply because the licensee went on holiday to Spain? The reason was South Yorkshire police's interpretation of the Licensing Act, which they believe means a personal licence-holder has to be physically at their premises at all times to supervise the sale of alcohol. Whatever the finer details of the case, it was seen as important enough for Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell to intervene personally and tell South Yorkshire police that they were wrong in their view. She went further by issuing supplementary guidance to the Act on the point. The case spotlights two worrying issues. The first is that pub operators are among those becoming caught up in what seems an escalating political conflict between police chiefs and local authorities on one side and central Government on the other. We've seen it in Nottingham and North Wales, and now South Yorkshire. The second, and more long-running, is that pubs are still seen by many in authority as part of the problem rather than part of the solution when it comes to alcohol misuse and public disorder. You get the feeling that some local councils and police forces would really rather like pubs to go away. Alcohol and its misuse is a major public concern that will only grow in importance. This last week has seen calls in Scotland to raise the legal age for buying alcohol to 21. The Scottish Executive has already decided that alcohol misuse is Scotland's "next big public health issue". It is urging parents not to drink in front of young children and telling pub-goers there should be no pressure to stay in a round. Advisers also want supermarkets to introduce separate alcohol-only aisles, and a ban on children's football shirts sporting brewers' logos is also being considered. Pubs and bars have a central role to play in taking a responsible lead, and judging by the evidence of the early months of the new Licensing Act are increasingly doing just that. The truth is that if you want to control the sale and consumption of alcohol it should be easier to do it on licensed premises. The police and government, of all types, should be encouraging and supporting the licensed trade, rather than increasing pressures on it - or antagonising it by closing pubs in ways that anyone with any sense would know is contrary to the spirit if not someone's interpretation of the law. Would they even have considered it at Ascot races? I doubt it. Peter Martin is founder of the Peach Factory consultancy