Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill

Memorandum submitted by Professor Jonathan Shepherd CBE (PR 32)

1. Introduction

I make this submission as chairman of the Safer Capital Partnership violence prevention strategy group, as director of the violence research group which won a 2009 Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Cardiff University for its work on alcohol related violence, and as an NHS consultant who treats hundreds of patients each year with alcohol related injuries and cancers.

2. Summary of submission

As someone with relevant expertise and experience and a special interest in the Government’s Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, and as someone who represents organisations with relevant experience, knowledge and responsibility for reducing alcohol related harm, I submit a specific proposal for an amendment which is designed to strengthen local community influence in the context of appeals by the alcohol industry against the decisions of local licensing committees, and thereby translate community views into action. This proposal is that licensed premises Cumulative Impact (saturation) Policies should have statutory status rather than constitute guidance only. This is directly relevant to the bill before the Committee, which seeks to amend the Licensing Act 2003 to give communities greater say in licensing decisions.

3. Background

Ongoing attempts to reduce alcohol related harm and the wider harm which results from the saturation of city centre streets with licensed premises, have convinced those of us who are responsible for tackling this problem that saturation (cumulative impact) policies need statutory status. This was agreed at a conference in Cardiff on 14th December 2010 which considered new knowledge from an investigation, funded by the Medical Research Council, of interventions designed to reduce alcohol related harm. At present, saturation policies constitute guidance and are not enforceable.

4. Relevance to this Bill

Although a purpose of this bill is to strengthen the authority and effectiveness of local communities with regard to licensing decisions, decisions made by local licensing committees across England and Wales are very frequently overturned on appeal by alcohol retailers, despite carefully formulated and agreed saturation policies pertaining to the premises locations. This is not only harmful for communities and citizens but also demoralising for licensing police officers, local authority officials and all those responsible for dealing with the short and long term effects of the epidemic of alcohol misuse (demonstrated, for example, by the widely publicised costs to public services of dealing with city centre violence and a 12% increase in alcohol related deaths in England and Wales in 2009).

5. An example

5.1 The ease with which Sainsbury's overturned the Cardiff County Council licensing committee's wise decision not to grant permission to extend their St Mary Street off license from 6pm to 11pm was striking, not only to those (like me) who gave evidence at the appeal hearing in the Cardiff magistrates court on 4th November 2010, but also to local agencies and through media reporting, the Cardiff public. A saturation policy was in place but to no avail. There is little point in legislation designed to increase the say of local communities if the licensing decisions which result can be reversed so easily.

5.2 This street has seen the highest incidence of violence according to police and A&E records of any street in the city over the past 10 years. This off license has licensed premises on either side. Tescos and Spa also sell cheap alcohol with what can only be described as irresponsible promotions on the other side of the street. Sainsbury's cider at 21p per unit (a pint for less than 50p), and 6Xbottles of Becks beer at £3.39p were available in the Sainsbury's store in question on the day of the appeal.

5.3 Two hostels for itinerant people are nearby; many of the residents here are trying their best, with expensive professional help, to tackle their alcohol addiction.

5.4 St Mary Street is visited by many tens of thousands of people not only on major event days but on many evenings at the weekend. Many are visitors from outside Cardiff who stay in the city centre throughout the afternoon and evening. The fear of violence prevents many others from visiting St Mary Street. These problems are similar in all our cities; indeed, Cardiff is safer than most.

6. But still the availability of alcohol is increased. The strong links between wide alcohol availability, whether from concentrations of off or on licence premises or both, and harm are well known and Sainsbury's did not challenge the published scientific and clinical evidence presented in relation to this. But the magistrates decided to allow an extension until 9pm. Harm and very significant policing, courts and NHS costs will continue when, for want of an enforceable saturation policy, this could have been reduced.

7. With the supermarkets in mind, the proposals in this bill to rebalance the 2003 Licensing Act make too much of what is described as a "need" to reduce the administrative burden on licensed premises. This burden is nothing like as influential as it should be. In the case outlined above, for example, Sainsbury's appeared only too pleased to field three London lawyers and a strong management team at the appeal and settling the appeal costs appeared to be so much water off a duck's back. The lawyer leading the Sainsbury’s legal team has recently been honoured with an award by Sainsbury’s for applying his knowledge of licensing, "with great energy in Sainsbury's cause."

8. The bill is designed to increase the say of local communities in licensing, including, for example, by including evidence from the health sector. Consistent with this, the Government plans to bring public health functions into local authorities, a most welcome step. But this will be to little avail if the decisions of local licensing committees, informed by this valuable new evidence, are easily and routinely overturned as in the example above.

9. Efforts to reduce alcohol relate harm need to be targeted. This is recognised in the current guidance on cumulative impact and the development of saturation policies, many of which apply in city centres and particular streets where harm sustained in violence and accidents is concentrated. Steps to give legal force to these policies are overdue and this bill provides a welcome opportunity.

Jonathan Shepherd CBE FMedSci, Professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery, Cardiff University, and chairman, violence prevention strategy group, Safer Capital Partnership

January 2011