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Where are we with the House Of Lords’ scrutiny of the Licensing Act 2003 and the Government response?

Sometimes you have to pinch yourself when you see how slowly the wheels of the legislature and legislative scrutiny grind around. It is agony, thinking back to when we went through the run-up to the Licensing Act and its transitional period. I am hoping we don’t have to go through anything like that again. The specialist lawyers made huge recommendations against the introduction of the Licensing Act and the DCMS said we were only saying what we were saying because of self-interest and that we were concerned that our mid- to long-term future was threatened. Well, we can see where that went! It would be fantastic to be able to assess the cost to the industry of the 2003 Act, as compared to what the DCMS proudly predicted. We have one Licensing Authority we deal with regularly who will not accept minor variation applications in identical terms to those readily accepted as minor variation applications by other Licensing Authorities. The cost to the operator is therefore significantly more….just one example of the strange workings of the legislation.

So, it was always going to be interesting to see what was going to happen with the House of Lords’ Select Committee’s report on the Licensing Act. After hours of evidence and a very detailed report…the Government dismissed 90% of its findings out of sight. Admittedly, the Government has huge issues to deal with and the Licensing Act will be nowhere near the top of the pile, but the tone of its response to the House of Lords’ report was particularly dismissive.

It was always worth the wait to see how the Lords would respond, and just before Christmas Baroness McIntosh of Pickering, Chair of the House of Lords’ Select Committee on the Licensing Act 2003, tabled a motion. She highlighted the principal recommendations of the Select Committee’s April 2017 report and the Government’s negative response to the vast majority of those recommendations.

She said: “Applicants, businesses, residents or the lawyers representing them were all critical of the decision-making generally and, in some cases, the denial of basic justice. The Government say in their response that, “we do not intend to take the approach recommended by the Committee at this time”. They believe that it is enough to improve training and provide stronger guidance — which we did recommend — on how licensing committees should be conducted. While better training and guidance may help, they cannot mend the basic flaws of the system. If the Government do not intend to follow our recommendations “at this time”, I ask the Minister to tell us at what time she thinks this would be appropriate.”

Baroness Williams of Trafford responded on behalf of the Government. It was a response which must have frustrated those who had invested so much time and effort in gathering evidence for, and giving evidence to, the Select Committee. She said:

“We accept the important points raised by the Committee on the effectiveness and consistency of implementation of licensing processes and decision-making across local areas. We agree that improvements in practice could be made. Instead of transferring the functions of licensing committees to planning committees, we are focusing on improving training and providing stronger guidance on how licensing hearings should be conducted. There is good practice in many local areas that we will build on and we will work closely with partners—the Institute of Licensing and the Local Government Association (“LGA”), in particular—to assess the training needs for councillors and the police and, where appropriate, to develop specialist training programmes with them”.

I have to say that I don’t recognise many of the significant criticisms raised in the call to evidence before the Select Committee and that, having undertaken recent planning applications, couldn’t see that that, either, is a stronger system.

Having been involved in a number of consultations over the years as a licensing lawyer, I come out of this one with the same feeling: If the Government of the day wants something to happen, it will do whatever it wishes, whatever the result of the consultation.