Opinion: Coalition’s boozy consultation

Next week, on 8 September, there ends the consultation period for a remarkable set of proposals from the Coalition Government entitled ‘Rebalancing the Licensing Act’.

Drink and the British are a potent and not altogether attractive combination. Drink and politics have been even less attractive. In my own city of St Albans it was routine for the Whigs and the Tories to fight each other in the streets, fired up with generous amounts of election day alcohol (the city later lost its right to have an MP at all because of electoral corruption).

The Liberals famously lost the 1874 General Election because they had introduced a Licensing Act, which among other things gave local authorities the power to restrict opening hours. And shortly before polling day in 2001, mobile phones across the land received the message: ‘Don’t give a XXXX for last orders? Vote Labour’. Two years later we had the 2003 Licensing Act.

In some ways this is a good piece of legislation: it consolidates a muddle and has crucially transferred most powers from unelected magistrates to local authorities. But it has also greatly restricted the powers of local authorities to act for the benefit of their communities.

The presumption is in favour of the applicant, rather than local residents or vulnerable people. The ridiculous temporary event notice (TEN) regime allows licensees in effect to circumvent their licensing conditions whenever a profit can be made.

The Act is generally described as liberalising and as such presents liberals with a difficulty: it certainly frees up the supply of liquor, but it ignores local considerations and local opinions.

Mill as ever is clear: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” So if I want a drink in a commercial premises at 4 o’clock in the morning then that should be my right. Quite so.

But the harm principle requires us to consider the consequences of any freedom of action: if residents are routinely woken up at times when it is reasonable to be asleep, then a liberal must argue that it is right to allow those residents some significant say over whether the premises causing the noise should continue to do so.

And if the current licensing regime is harming children (the average weekly intake of 11-year olds is now 14.6 units – double what it was in 1990) then again action can and should be taken to prevent that harm.

The consultation paper proposes a major increase in the powers of local authorities to decide on whether late night licences are permissible, to determine the cost of those licences, to increase the ability to object and to roll back the TEN regime.
It may not sound liberal. But to those who have suffered since 2003 it may well seem the embodiment of Mill’s concept of freedom. Have your say.

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16 Comments

  • John Richardson 2nd Sep '10 - 10:19am

    the average weekly intake of 11-year olds is now 14.6 units – double what it was in 1990

    The number is for 11 to 15 year olds, not 11 year olds and only includes those who had drunk in the 7 days prior to the survery (“regular drinkers”). Amongst 11 -13 year old regular drinkers the average is 8.3 units and for 14 – 15 year olds it is 14.7 units. Only 3% of 11 year olds drank regularly rising to 41% of 15 year olds. A fall from the previous year. 80% of 11 year olds have never touched a drop. And 46% of 11 – 15 year olds have never touched a drop – UP from 39% in 2003.

    So it seems that whilst the proportion of children who drink is falling significantly the remainder are drinking more. It’s not clear to me if this is due to an actual increase in consumption or if it’s because otherwise light, but regular drinkers, are cutting it out altogether boosting the averages.

    Let’s be careful to establish whether or not there really is a growing problem! Reform of the Licencing Act must not become a platform for anti-alcohol zealots to impose their will on the rest of us.

    http://www.ic.nhs.uk/webfiles/publications/alcoholeng2009/Final%20Format%20draft%202009%20v7.pdf

  • Colin Green 2nd Sep '10 - 10:28am

    This is a nicely written piece with which I agree fully. You explain nicely how restricting the freedoms of the few can in some cases be the more liberal thing to do. Giving the power to grant and revoke late licences to local councils seems to be the right thing to do. I do have to say I am surprised by how high the alcohol consumption figures for 11 year olds is.

  • Nonconformistradical 2nd Sep '10 - 10:34am

    “The presumption is in favour of the applicant, rather than local residents or vulnerable people.”

    And does not seem to impose much responsibility on the applicant to ensure that their activities do not impact on such people.

    I can see no reason why it should EVER be acceptable for drunken people to be shouting and screaming in the street – at any time of the day or night.

    It is difficult to define a residential area. People live above shops. Some of them may do shift work. The resident not getting a decent sleep because of the racket being made outside by some drunken toe-rag might well be the paramedic said toe-rag needs on some other occasion when they get hurt in a drunken fight.

    You can have your drink in a commercial premises at 4 am if you want but don’t EVER come out on to the street afterwards making a row or creating any other kind of nuisance. And if you do then the establishment which sold you more booze than you could manage deserves to be closed down.

  • I hope that I can’t be described as an “anti-alcohol zealot but as one of many with a deep concern that the whole alcohol scene is out of control. The Liberals were the temperance party and the Tory dominated House of Lords in 1910 were attacked as “The Peerage and the Beerage”!. To what extent are we held hostage to brewing interests ? Am I right or wrong in stating that we need to be far more alert to the problems created by alcohol and not shove them to one side as the concerns of “anti-alcohol zealots” ? I could go on but I’ll stop and wait to read the views of others. Do I see a threat where none exists ?

  • We’ve tried having outrageously restrictive licensing laws and we’ve kept trying it. Even the 2003 act made little difference to that. We’ve now got the obscenity of ‘strict’ criminal liability for serving minors with alcohol and the equal obscenity of massively over resourced local authorities going round trying to entrap local businesses which are vital to the community.

    Even if you accept part of the anti-alcohol lobby’s complaints – and let’s face it some of those ‘local residents’ would complain no matter how tiny the level of disturbance – we don’t need more controls. We’ve now been trying the authoritarian route for almost a century. It doesn’t work.

  • John Richardson 2nd Sep '10 - 10:51am

    Like any other activity that represents a risk to the public, it could be licenced. You can apply for your drinking licence when you turn 18 and you must produce it or carry it whenever you purchase or possess alcohol. It’s only a very small number of people that cause problems after drinking and, if we revoke or suspend their licences, I think alcohol fuelled ASB would diminish signficantly. All without resort to harsh society-wide restrictions.

    There’s only so much drinks retailers can do to control individual customers.

  • Colin Green 2nd Sep '10 - 11:02am

    John Richardson

    “You can apply for your drinking licence when you turn 18 and you must produce it or carry it whenever you purchase or possess alcohol”

    That sounds even worse than restrictive licensing laws. I couldn’t entertain making people carry any kind of identity papers.

    Perhaps the root of alcohol fuelled antisocial behaviour is the same as any other antisocial behaviour – a lack of respect for those around you. Restricting the sale of alcohol is then a sticking plaster to mask the real problem.

  • Is there any kind of compulsory education on drinking in the PSE curriculum? I don’t remember having any when I was at school (though drugs were covered quite extensively). Surely it’s better to give kids the means to make more informed decisions than to assume that they’ll all want as much booze as they can get their hands on and criminalise both them and landlords in order to prevent it.

    We ought also to encourage moderate drinking from an early age. Most kids probably learn to drink at house parties when the parents are out and get absolutely ratted each time before they begin drinking more moderately with their parents or in restaurants. Stories you hear of supermarkets and restaurants refusing to serve adults alcohol when there is a minor with them do nothing to encourage the idea that drinking moderately is possible (and, indeed, desirable from a health point of view!)

  • Perhaps a little nitpicking here, BUT:

    This consultation, along with many more in this coalition government, was run over 6 weeks, not the recommended 12 weeks. The Home Office signed up to this along with the other government departments in 2008.

    Perhaps 6-week-long consultations over the summer holidays are a little cheeky, and can’t really be expected to generate the number or quality of submissions that a truly listening government might want to read.

    Is this a deliberate policy to shut the public out? Or is it just a super-rush job to fit in with the governments zeal for legislation. Legislate in haste, repent at leisure?

    http://www.bis.gov.uk/policies/better-regulation/consultation-guidance

  • Chris >– and let’s face it some of those ‘local residents’ would complain no matter how tiny the level of disturbance

    Perhaps. But if you were regularly woken at any time from midnight to 2am (on week nights) by drunken people shouting at each other as they staggered past your house. Or had had your windscreen wipers bent to breaking point as a drunken ‘prank,’ or your front garden used as a toilet, you might be less dismissive. (all of which people I know have to put up with)
    (And I hold my hand up to having been less than considerate, noise-wise, in my student days!).

    That said, if there was a simple answer to problem drinking in this country, it would have be found and implemented decades ago. Or centuries.
    Tho’ the recession seems to be having an effect: pubs closing down all over the place, rather than opening up. What people can afford is clearly a factor.

    As for kids: educate them it ain’t ‘big and clever’ to get plastered every night. Maybe footage from any town/city centre of girls stumbling in the gutter etc might get them to think it’s stupid?

  • Patrick Smith 2nd Sep '10 - 9:11pm

    I believe the `Coalition Government’ will not fail to identify that the rising alcohol consumption is now the number one social problem to solve. The difficulty is the proportionate response to curb the new locus and appetite of legions of young persons from age 11 years upwards, to put their livers at great risk by middle years, from a life of alcohol abuse?

    Don Foster MP Bath was right to state in the run up to the `open all hours’ licensing rule that this was big government at its worst by ignoring the views of local neighbours, whose lives were to be blighted by the avalanche of rowdy weekends and noisy streets at 2 a.m.from all night pubs.

    Many pubs have suffered paraodoxically and not benefited from the 24 hour no curfew on drinking time rule, over the last 5 years but clearly the object of the previous Government getting drinkers to regulate their own drinking intake has not worked in many cities,especially over weekends.

    No Liberal can fail to fall in love with St Albans.It is an fine example of a small City that has in fact lost half of its 80 odd pubs since 1874.In contrast to Walthamstow its patrons have remained relatively prosperous.How to curb excessive alcohol consumption for youth apprenticeships in making poor lifestyle choices for youngsters is a common goal for all City local government.

    I support more local Council Licensing powers and resources so that they can take greater local evidence before making decisions that at present largely rests with oposition to drink extensions from the police.

    There is a debate about `minimum pricing’ but the imposition of higher prices on beerage,porter and cider etc. puts millions into the pockets of the supermarket empires and could result in a switch to spirits that will not be caught in the hype.

    Casual and recreational drinking is the bane of the bloom of youth and has to be targeted.

    It is right that MPs call for parliamentary debate.

    My view is local people and Councils should have greater say and more powers to respond to their own public local alcohol consumption premises issues.

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