The government’s response to the Lord’s’ review of the Licensing Act 2003 could arguably be described as one of “thank you but no thank you”. On the one hand, the government recognized the Lords’ report as making an “important contribution” to the possible future of the act; on the other hand, it rejected many of their recommendations.
Developments based on evolution rather than revolution
While the Lords called for a ‘radical comprehensive overhaul’ of an act which is pushing 15 years old, the Government has indicated that it has no intention of rushing into significant change. Instead it focuses on the need to provide clear guidance and effective training regarding the legislation which is already in place. It has also indicated a preference for moving forward in cooperation and partnership with the industry rather than by wielding a legislative stick.
Licensing and planning remain separate
While the Lords had recommended that licensing and planning be managed by a single committee, the government has indicated that they will continue to be kept separate with the existing licensing system being made to work more effectively through better training and improved communication between licensing and planning departments.
Multi-buy to continue as normal
In spite of the Lords’ recommendation that the Westminster government follow the example set by the Scottish regional government and introduce a ban on multi-buy promotions. The government does not appear to believe that this would have enough of an impact to justify the effort required to produce the necessary legislation, although data from Scotland suggests that a ban on multi-buy promotions there caused off-licensed wine sales to drop by a statistically significant 4%. Although there was no specific mention of this in the review, it does seem reasonable to conclude that the government also has no intention of introducing minimum unit pricing as is due to happen in Scotland.
Public health not a licensing objective
Although the Lords’ criticized the “responsibility deal” promoted by the previous government, they stopped short of recommending that public health be made a fifth objective of licensing legislation and the government has made no indication that it intends to go down this path. It simply stated that it was ‘committed to working with public health organisations and professionals, […] to tackle the public health harms associated with excessive alcohol consumption.’ The Local Government Association has expressed its disappointment about this stance and pointed out that including public health as an objective within the act would allow them to restrict the opening of late-night premises if they felt that they posed a particular risk to public health. It does, however, have to be noted that according to ONS figures, Scotland still has the highest rate of alcohol-related deaths in the UK, even though it does include public health as an objective in its licensing legislation.
Bringing licensing legislation into the 21st century
The Institute of Alcohol Studies has previously commented on the fact that current licensing legislation focuses mainly on on-premises drinking (pubs, bars, nightclubs etc) rather than off-license sales, even though data indicates that over the last 8 years, off-license sales have increased by 17% compared to 9% for on-license sales. There has also been the emergence of online sales, which are now believed to account for up to 20% of purchases. These changes all reflect a move away from on-premises drinking and towards home drinking, which poses a new set of challenges for the government. As yet, there is no indication how or indeed if these challenges will be addressed.