Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill

Memorandum submitted by Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) (PR 26)

Introduction

1. CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale is an independent consumer organisation which campaigns for real ale, pubs and consumer rights. Membership is open to all individuals and our membership is over 120,000.

2. CAMRA strongly supports the Government’s commitment to tackle alcohol related harm, and so we welcome part of the Police Reform & Social Responsibility Bill. However, licensing policy must take account of the vital role of well-run community pubs within our society.

3. The proposals in the Bill are every bit as radical as the 2003 Licensing Act, which took years of consideration before it was passed into law. However, CAMRA, as with many industry stakeholders, had serious concerns about the consultation process for the Bill which at just 6 weeks was half the length recommended in the Government’s own guidelines. The rush to start the consultation meant that some of the initial ideas were ill-thought-through and risked penalising the responsible majority of well-run community pubs.

4. This response focuses just on Part 2 of the Police Reform & Social Responsibility Bill, which relates to licensing.

Welcome elements of the Bill

5. Following consultation, the Government appears to have made the welcome decision to drop or amend many of its initial proposals:

· The proposal to limit the right of appeal against bad licensing decisions has been dropped

· Further increases in licensing fees so they are based on full cost recovery appear to have been dropped

· The proposal to introduce a late night levy on licensed premises will go ahead despite concerns raised by CAMRA, but licensing authorities will be able to apply exemptions or discounts for certain categories of premises, which we propose should include well-run community pubs.

· The Government has also adopted CAMRA’s calls for the late night levy to only apply after midnight.

6. CAMRA welcomes the proposal in the Bill to extend the number of days that temporary event notices can be used in a single year from 15 to 21 days, and to extend the period that individual temporary event notices can be used from 4 to 7 days. These measures will enhance the flexibility of small community events, such as beer festivals, village fetes, farmers’ markets and school events. These additional flexibilities will be counterbalanced by further checks on the use of temporary event notices, such as extending the period in which objections can be made from 2 to 3 days.

7. CAMRA also welcomes the removal of the vicinity requirement for interested parties wishing to make representations on licensing applications. For too long, the right to make representations has been restricted to residents and excluded the wider community and pub customers whose representation in many cases would enable a better decision to be made. There is currently huge variation in how licensing authorities seek to implement the vicinity rule which creates uncertainty that puts individuals and groups off becoming involved in licensing decisions.

Remaining areas of concern

8. However, CAMRA remains concerned about a number of aspects of the Bill. Firstly, licensing authorities are to be designated as responsible authorities, able to object to licensing applications. This change would appear unnecessary as the Licensing Act 2003 has already been amended to designate Councillors as interested parties. Councillors are therefore already fully able to be responsive to local needs and to take action to tackle binge drinking hotspots and irresponsible retailers. This approach also risks a perception of conflict of interest where the licensing authority objects to an application and the same authority is called upon to rule on its own objection. If businesses and communities lose faith in the impartiality of the licensing system they will be more likely to appeal decisions.

9. Health bodies are also to be designated as responsible authorities. CAMRA believes that this would increase the financial and administrative burden on already-stretched health bodies at a time when resources are being cut. Health bodies may be in a position to put forward data and views on problem hotspots but they are unlikely to be in a position to express views on the merits of individual licensing applications. An unintended consequence could therefore be that health bodies would seek to oppose every application within a specific area, failing to distinguish between premises which could potentially pose a health risk and well-run community pubs. This would lead to unnecessary additional hearings, and unnecessary additional costs to local authorities which could undermine the efficiency of the licensing system.

10. The Government is dragging its feet on the vital issue of banning below cost sales in the off-trade, and have failed to include proposals on this despite promising to take action. Alcohol prices in supermarkets can be as much as 6 times lower than alcohol sold in pubs – pubs cannot, and should not compete with this.

11. Between 2000 and 2009 the cost of beer in the off-trade decreased by 4.4%, while the cost of beer in the on-trade increased by 34% in the same period. [1] This divergence in price is driving a shift in consumption between the on-trade and the off-trade - last year 46.4% of all beer sold was sold in the off-trade, compared with just 32.6% in 2000. [2] CAMRA considers that this trend must be reversed; as from a public health, public order and economic perspective, drinking alcohol in the sociable, well-regulated environment of a well-run community pub is preferable to alcohol purchased in the off-trade. Supermarkets must take responsibility for their role in contributing to alcohol harm and irresponsible drinking.

12. The first step in banning the sale of alcohol below cost price is to define what that cost price is. Some have proposed that cost should encompass just duty and VAT. However, this approach would have a negligible impact on the cost of even the cheapest alcohol and so it is necessary to include the cost of production within this analysis. CAMRA supports the Government’s proposal to "specifically define an ‘average cost’". This average cost could be used as a benchmark to assess whether a premises is likely to be selling alcohol below cost.

13. In practice, a ban could be implemented by using the Mandatory Code of Practice to set a licence condition that no sale can be below cost, without specifically defining cost. CAMRA considers that the imposition of a licence condition which bans the sale of alcohol below the price at which it was purchased by the supplier could be an effective means of fulfilling this commitment. Proposals to ban below cost sales of alcohol could and should have been included as part of the Bill.

Conclusion

CAMRA welcomed the Licensing Act 2003 and believes that licensees should be able to open their businesses when they choose subject only to necessary controls and restrictions to protect local residents and the wider community. Several of the proposals in the Police Reform & Social Responsibility Bill risk curtailing these flexibilities to the detriment of businesses and consumers, and CAMRA believes these proposals should be reconsidered.

January 2011


[1] National Statistics – Focus o n Consumer Price Indices June 2 010

[2] BBPA, Statistical Handbook , 2009, p20