Inside track by Peter Coulson
The first indication I received that the new Labour government wanted to make a major change in licensing administration was at a lunch at the House of Commons soon after their first election victory. Sitting next to Alan Meale MP, then both a Labour whip and chairman of the Parliamentary Beer Club, I asked what he thought about licensing reform. "It will go to local authorities," he said, fixing me with a very positive stare, "It’s an obvious and natural choice. There’s no debate." Meale is, of course, a staunch supporter of local democracy, but I sensed that the seemingly firm resolve was not just coming from his grass roots. Even at that early stage he knew that sooner or later the government would overhaul licensing laws. Shortly after that, in July 1998, the Better Regulation Task Force, headed by Christopher Haskins of Northern Foods, produced a report which, ostensibly independent, reflected exactly current government thinking. He only took a page and a quarter to rehearse the arguments for transfer to local councils and came down firmly in favour of that as the key to the future, together with company licences, a portable licence for individuals and possible zoning of city centres for late night entertainment. There was also a case made for a central licensing supervisory body. Licensing was at that time firmly positioned in the Home Office, with the then minister George Howarth promising a review of licensing to take in views from all affected parties. But little did the trade know then that the die was already cast. He was also, incidentally, the only licensing minister so far to be booed at a BII lunch — mainly under the mistaken impression that his government was dragging its heels on the trade’s demands for reform. It strikes me now as bizarre that the licensed trade ever thought that reform was started by any of their heckling, or discussion documents, or that it was really about liberalisation. Certainly, the proposals in the Brewers’ Society’s rather woolly reform booklet, which did nothing to deter the Meale strategy in any way, seemed to fall on deaf ears and were not taken up at all. In a way, that began the steady downward spiral of industry influence over government thinking that now is endemic in the sector. The White Paper — meant to be a discussion document — came out in April 2000 bearing the endorsement of then Home Secretary Jack Straw. It was written in about six months by a high-flying civil servant drafted in to get the reforms done and dusted in record time. It did not work out that way, but the actual composition has to be seen in hindsight as brilliant work, because the document remained almost entirely unscathed during the whole of the consultation period. I can in fact only recall one specific change from the proposals, and that was on appeals. It now seems amazing that the reaction to it from most parts of the licensed trade, and even the national press, was so acquiescent. The ‘liberalisation’ of permitted hours, which formed the principle carrot in front of the stick, was seen as the main justification for allowing the rest of the package to go unmolested. As a result, trade uncertainty over how to react, coupled with a growing intransigence at the Home Office, would see the proposals proceed as the government wanted. A key element was the move to local government. The licensed trade had bad experience of entertainment licensing — transferred from the justices to councils in 1983 — and stories abounded of arbitrary and unreasonable actions by councillors or officials in relation to applications and procedures. These were even acknowledged in the White Paper, and then dismissed in a single sentence. It was clear that the government’s mind was made up. That should not, of course, have prevented the licensed trade from mounting a staunch campaign against the new bureaucratic horror. But it held off, on the strongly-promoted basis that it should not ‘upset the apple-cart’ and lose its cherished dream of deregulated hours. There was an incentive for compliance and agreement by the simple device of inviting selected senior figures in the industry on to a consultative committee, which was then systematically ignored. Then there was the British Institute of Innkeeping’s notorious members’ survey which asked what is known among pollsters as "the Winston Churchill question" — Would you be prepared to give up all those luscious extra hours by objecting to local authority control? Well, what would you have replied? I thought so. The other bombshell event during this period was the sudden post-election move in 2001 of both licensing and gaming from the Home Office to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). So sudden was it that there was not enough room for the transferred officials at the new offices, so a number of them had to stay at Queen Anne’s Gate for a while. It is no secret that in career terms it was seen as a demotion, and very shortly afterwards several of them managed to filter back into different jobs at the Home Office, leaving only core officials to carry through the legislation. When the Bill eventually arrived it was roundly criticised by lawyers for its drafting and lack of cohesion, together with the opportunity for misinterpretation. There was, it should be remembered, no pre-legislative scrutiny by a parliamentary committee: in fact, this major piece of legislation was almost entirely civil service-led. The result in practice is an extremely complex and badly-worded Act that plays into the hands of lawyers and leaves ordinary members of the licensed trade somewhat bemused. Recent events have shown how much the wind can change on an issue. The very scare-mongering on round-the-clock drinking that was so conspicuously lacking at the time of the White Paper suddenly started to emerge towards the end of last year — fully 15 months after the Act had been passed. The trade was unable, as it had been all through, to muster any real PR campaign to bolster the idea that flexibility was in the interests of millions of ordinary drinkers who had long criticised the restrictions of permitted hours. The spotlight fell on binge and under-age drinking and the damage was done. What should the trade have done? Hindsight is a great thing, but I have argued throughout that it should have campaigned vigorously for a far simpler system, with local authorities relying on other powers to control bad elements. It would have been sensible to look at a national licensing system from the outset, with universal rules rather than yet another piecemeal situation with each local authority having its own ‘take’ on the legislation. The changeover, if inevitable, should have been staggered, with councils taking over existing licences first and then variation at a second stage. The licensed trade has significantly lost the initiative and is currently being pilloried from all sides. To a considerable extent that is due to the lack of forward planning of political strategies over the past eight or nine years and the consequent reliance on knee-jerk reactions to events. If there is not yet a plan in place to lobby for changes to the 2003 Act and for clearing up some of the considerable confusion caused by the new legislation, then there should be. Perhaps we can hear about it. Peter Coulson is the editor of Licensing Review and a co-founder of the M&C Report