Memorandum submitted by Alcohol Concern

 

 

1.1 Alcohol Concern is the national voluntary agency on alcohol misuse. We work to reduce the incidence and costs of alcohol-related harm and to increase the range and quality of services available to people with alcohol-related problems. We provide information and encourage debate on the wide range of public policy issues affected by alcohol; including public health, housing, children and families, crime and licensing. We support specialist and non-specialist service providers in tackling alcohol problems at a local level, whilst also working to influence national alcohol policy.

 

2. Summary

 

2.1 Alcohol Concern does not disagree with the extension of licensing hours per se, but we do have some outstanding reservations about how the reforms operate in practice. Successive reviews demonstrate that neither actual rates of alcohol-related crime and disorder, nor perceptions of disorder have declined since the Act was first implemented. Admittedly, it may be too early to properly evaluate the chances of the Act having a profound impact on night-life in England: 'culture' change is a long term project and we may have to simply have to wait longer to understand fully the implications of the reforms. Nevertheless, we have identified a number of operational problems that presently serve to subvert the [harm reduction] intentions of the Act. These are: public reticence to participate in the licensing process; an unfair cost burden on local authorities, and an appeals procedure that disproportionately favours problem venues. In our view, if they are not addressed the Act is likely to remain only marginal to efforts to reduce alcohol-related crime and disorder.

 

3. Has been any change in levels of public nuisance, numbers of night-time offences or perceptions of public safety since the Act came into force?

 

3.1 The best available evidence about alcohol-related crime and disorder trends comes from four sources. These are, the British Crime Survey, a Home Office survey of 30 police forces (Babb, 2007), a large scale survey of A&E admissions linked to violence (Sivarajasingam et al., 2007) and an in depth case study analysis of five English towns specifically examining the impact of the Act (Home Office, 2008). The British Crime Survey does not reveal any statistically significant changes- violence committed by strangers, by acquaintances and domestic violence all show some small fluctuations as part of broader trends that well predate the 2005 reforms.

 

3.2 The Home Office police survey provides more relevant data. Forces were asked to record crime figures that occurred around licensed premises 12 months before and after the Act's implementation. There seems to have little change in offending rates overall, with a 1% rise in offences between 6:00pm and 6:00 am, though notably there was a 22% rise in the numbers of offences occurring between 3:00am and 6:00am in December 2005, suggesting that with higher numbers of people on the street later than usual, some violent incidents have merely been displaced to later times. It will be important over the long term to check if this represents the beginning of a trend as it has obvious implications for police resources.

 

3.3 The Accident & Emergency survey covered 44,000 admissions across 33 casualty departments in England and Wales. It found a 2% fall in attendances between 2005 and 2006. The decline is probably too small to attribute to the Licensing Act.

 

3.4 The towns (Guildford, Nottingham, Croydon, Birmingham, and Blackpool) featured in the Home Office case study largely confirm the national data trends on violence. In 3 out of 5 of the case studies recorded violent crime increased, though only by small percentages (Home Office, 2008)

 

3.5 Finally, indicators for 'the public safety and 'public nuisance objectives are equally inconclusive. The Road Casualty Report from the Department for Transport shows a 4% fall in the number of serious casualties and fatalities from drink driving accidents. Fatalities have fallen by 7%. Slight injuries also fell by 7% (Dtf, 2007). However, there is no evidence to suggest that these declines are attributable to the Licensing Act.

 

3.6 The best source data on people's perceptions of alcohol-related crime and disorder comes from the British Crime Survey's NTE module. Just over a quarter (26%) of people thought that public drunkenness was an important problem in their area. A large majority (66%) thought that noise caused by drunken people was a problem and 48% complained about fighting as being a problem. However, these figures do not represent a sizeable increase from 2005/6 and suggests that the Act has not substantially improved residents' quality of life.

 

4. Operational problems associated with the Act

 

4.1 Drawing on two surveys of licensing professionals and a DCMS review of funding arrangements Alcohol Concern has identified a number of operational problems that may subvert the intentions of the Act and need urgent attention. These are: public reticence to participate in the licensing process; an unfair cost burden on local authorities, and an appeals procedure that disproportionately favours problem venues.

 

4.2 Public involvement. The main advantage of shifting licensing from magistrates to local authorities was the opportunity it offered for decision making to be made more accountable and transparent, and thus ensure that the needs of the night time economy were balanced against quality of life concerns for local residents. An Alcohol Concern survey carried out in 2006 asked license authorities how they had made the public aware of their rights to make representations. Although a wide range of other methods were identified (local media, leaflets, road shows etc) these were only pursued by a few authorities. It is a matter of some concern that some authorities have missed the opportunity to consult more widely and over relied on website information as a means of consultation (Alcohol Concern 2006).

 

4.3 It was also agreed that people from more socially disadvantaged areas are less likely and, probably less able to make representations or seek reviews because of a lack of resources or confidence. Enfield demonstrated this pattern very clearly with a marked difference in the number of representations between the more and less affluent areas (Alcohol Concern, 2006). Moreover, according to a large scale Middlesex University survey, only 10% of licensing authorities have local pressure groups concerned with licensing issues, further reducing the opportunity for residents to launch appeals or express their concerns in an organised fashion (Foster et al, 2008).

 

4.3 Local authority cost burden. To ensure that larger premises paid more into the system through their licensing fees the government included a 'multiplier' for premises in the highest rateable bands (D and E alone) whose main business was the sale of alcohol. Unfortunately, this means the multiplier is effectively only applied to premises in town and city centres, where rents are higher, thus largely excluding suburban vertical drinking establishments and night clubs. Furthermore, even within urban centres local authorities are often stymied by differing interpretations of the legal definition of when the multiplier should be applied. The result is that only half of all premises liable for the multiplier have had it applied to them (Elton, et al, 2007)

 

4.4 This may help explain why local authorities have reported licensing losses of 97 million for the three years since the Act came into being (Elton, et al, 2007). To date, the government does not cover any shortfalls. This appears to offer a perverse incentive for local authorities to avoid hearings in order to keep costs down and may explain why despite successive Home Office-led test purchasing schemes revealing the existence of a hard core minority of (10-15%) only 0.5% (680) of licensed premises were called up for review (Antoniades et al 2007). Significantly, in authorities with lower costs, there were generally fewer appeals and hearings while authorities with higher costs reported higher numbers of hearings and higher levels of inspection and enforcement action (Elton, et al, 2007).

 

4.5 Slow review procedure. Any responsible authority (the Police, Health and Safety, Trading Standards, Child Protection, the Fire Service and Environmental Protection) or other interested party (local residents and business people) can apply for a review of a license. There is then a 28 day window during which representations from the local community are accepted. Approximately 20 working days after this a committee hearing, normally involving three councillors takes place.

 

4.6 The hearing is fairly formal and it is usual for the license holder to use legal representation. The license holder has 21 days to lodge an appeal with the magistrate's court if they are unhappy with the decision (which can include modifications to the conditions of the license, suspension of the license or revocation of the license). It's important to note that licensing reviews are not fast tracked within the courts system. This means that it can be months before the evidence is actually heard, during all of which time the license holder is permitted to sell alcohol and alleged problems or irregularities cannot be addressed. Unless a statutory maximum time can be established between the lodging of an appeal to the magistrates and its hearing, the review process will continue to be only a limited disincentive to irresponsible practices.

 

5. Recommendations for improvement

 

5.1 In summary, while Alcohol Concern supports the aims of the Licensing Act 2003 to pass control over licensing decisions to local authorities, our review finds a policy dangerously tilted towards the needs of the drinks industry, both in terms of the latitude it allows license holders during the review process, the generosity of the rateable fee system which discourages enforcement activity and the structural disadvantaging of individual residents within the complaints procedure. To redress this we propose a number of key changes, some simply to the guidance issued by the DCMS and some to the Act itself:

 

A maximum time should be stipulated between the lodging of an appeal at the magistrates and its hearing to prevent the process from taking a disproportionately long time, thus allowing an irresponsible license holder to continue trading without penalty.

 

The legal definition of when the multiplier charge can be applied should be extended to include large capacity drinks venues outside city centres as well as within. The legal provisions should also be rewritten to remove any ambiguities, and better guidance provided to local authorities.

 

Work is required to ensure that all sections of the community are empowered to tackle alcohol-related harms by raising awareness of residents' rights to seek reviews and make representations. Particular work is required to facilitate the inclusion of less socially advantaged groups. This should include the development of a nationally delivered leaflet to all residents on how to make representations and seek reviews.

 

In line with the proposal of the Rogers' Review (to make alcohol licensing a national enforcement priority) officials from DCMS, Home Office and secondees from local government and enforcement agencies should focus their attention on building capacity among the nearly thirty local authorities that report they are not confident about their ability to manage the licensing regime (Rogers 2007). Their brief would be to organise training for licensing officials on the full implications of the Licensing Act, import best practice from more successful areas and pilot new initiatives. Drawing on their front line experiences, they would also advise the DCMS and Home Office on the drafting of new guidance documents to accompany legislation and provide clearer advice for local authorities.

 

Bibliography

 

Alcohol Concern (2006) How Local Authorities are implementing the

Licensing Act 2003. London: Alcohol Concern

 

ALG (2005) RESPONSE TO THE CONSULTATION ON FEE LEVELS TO BE ESTABLISHED BY REGULATION UNDER THE LICENSING ACT 2003. London: Association of London Government

 

Antoniades, P., Benedetta, M., & and Pickering, E. (2007) Alcohol, Entertainment and Late Night Refreshment Licensing: DCMS Statistical Bulletin. London: Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS Evidence and Analysis Unit) [Accessed 24th September 2008: http://www.culture.gov.uk/4865.aspx]

 

Baab, P. (2007) Violent crime, disorder and criminal damage since the introduction of the Licensing Act 2003: Home Office On-line Report 16/07 London: Home Office

 

Ellmers M. (2003) 'Review of Scotland's Licensing system: an opportunity for change? Drugs: Education Prevention and Policy, 10, (4): 285-28

Elton, L. (2007) Report of the Independent Fees Review Panel. London: Department of Culture Media and Sport

 

Foster, J., Herring, R., Waller, S., Thom, B. (2008) Implementation of the Licensing

Act 2003: A National Survey. London: Alcohol Education and Research Council.

 

Home Office, (2008) The impact of the Licensing Act 2003 on levels of crime and disorder: an evaluation. London: Home Office.

 

Patton et al (2007) Alcohol: a missed opportunity. A survey of all accident and emergency departments in England. In Emergency Medicine Journal, August 1 2007, Volume 24, Issue 8

 

Sivarajasingam, V., More, S. and Sheperd, J.P. (2007) Violence in England and Wales 2006: an accident and emergency perspective: http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/dentl/resources/Trends_violence_England_

 

 

September 2008