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Lords: Licensing Act "needs major overhaul"

A cross-party committee of Lords has reached scathing conclusions about the workings of the 2003 Licensing Act, 11 years after it was introduced.

After a 10-month enquiry, and having questioned 65 witnesses as well as receiving substantial written evidence, they concluded that “the Act is fundamentally flawed and needs a major overhaul.” Many of the recommendations echo those from a report produced by IAS on the same issue last year, The Licensing Act (2003): its uses and abuses 10 years on.

The Lords point to key problems within licensing committees, stating that “the Committee was shocked by some of the evidence it received on hearings before licensing committees. Their decisions have been described as “something of a lottery”, “lacking formality”, and “indifferent”, with some “scandalous misuses of the powers of elected local councillors”. They recommend full retraining for all licensing committee members, and merging planning and licensing committees in order to improve standards.

As with IAS’s work on this area, they highlighted the way that licensing had become "too political", with some local authorities "frightened of making a tough decision" in case they faced costly appeals brought by big drinks companies, another key theme highlighted by IAS in relation to licensing.

The Lords committee also gave welcome backing to Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP), if it is found to be effective in Scotland. The Scottish Government legislated for MUP in 2011 but it is yet to be implemented because of legal proceedings led by the Scotch Whisky Association. These are however in their final stages, and Scotland may be able to implement MUP in the near future.

In addition to MUP, Scotland’s licensing system also includes more significant restrictions on the off-trade, including a ban on multi-buy offers and restricted hours, and the Lords recommend copying these in England and Wales, along with allowing local authorities to set their own licensing fees.

These three recommendations were also made in last year’s IAS report, and the peers gave some support to the issue of health and wellbeing with licensing, stating that while they did not think it was appropriate as a licensing objective, it is a necessary and desirable objective for an alcohol strategy.

Jon Foster, author of The Licensing Act (2003): its uses and abuses 10 years on, who gave oral evidence to the Lords committee, said:

“From the start the 2003 Licensing Act was one sided and poorly thought out, which resulted in many of the problems highlighted by the Lords committee in their interesting report.

“The standard of training many licensing committee members receive is often not very good, and at times the in-house legal advice they get is not much better. While some licensing committees do get things right, the standard of decision-making needs to improve in many parts of the country. The Lords suggestion that this could be done by using existing planning committees to apply licensing law is an interesting one that bears consideration.

“Their support for Minimum Unit Pricing is also welcome, as is their recognition that cheap alcohol bought via the off-trade is a real concern. While I think that promotion of health and wellbeing would work as an objective within the Act, the Lords are absolutely right that the promotion of health and wellbeing is a necessary and desirable objective within an alcohol strategy.”

You can watch Committee Chair Baroness McIntosh of Pickering discuss the findings of the report in the video below.