Scotland needs a policy rethink

OVER the last year we have seen new legislation affecting liquor licensing pass through Parliament – the Criminal Justice and Licensing Act 2010 and the Alcohol etc. (Scotland) Act 2010.

And following the Scottish Parliamentary elections in May, a Minimum Pricing Bill will be introduced this autumn.
There’s plenty of change on the horizon, then, but are we doing enough with the powers that are already to hand?
In 2003, when the Nicholson Committee was looking at liquor licensing, concerns were expressed by the police and others about drunkenness visible in town centres and the link was made with irresponsible promotions in the on-trade.
Legislation created powers to tackle irresponsible practices along with the creation of licensing standards officers to monitor practice.
Much progress has been made. However, as our knowledge base expands and more evidence becomes available, it is clear that street drunkenness was the tip of the iceberg.
Alcohol-related harm is now at record levels, with alcohol deaths nearly tripling since the 1980s and alcohol-related hospital admissions more than quadrupling. The contributory role that alcohol plays in a wide range of adverse social consequences in Scotland – including crime, fire fatalities, violence, child neglect and work-related problems – is increasingly recognised.
The rising tide of alcohol harm combined with changes in drinking behaviour suggests that it is perhaps time to rethink alcohol licensing.
Licensing authorities’ historic focus on on-sales and individual premises was appropriate when drinking was a predominantly pub-centred activity.
However, with two-thirds of alcohol now purchased from off-sales and the home cited in NHS figures as the most common drinking location for all age groups in Scotland (apart from 16 – 24 year olds), it is clear that licensing policy and practice will have to adapt to keep pace with these changes.
Alcohol Focus Scotland and Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems recently published a new licensing policy report – Re-thinking Alcohol Licensing.
The report summarises the findings of an expert workshop which considered how Scotland’s licensing regime could more effectively regulate the availability of alcohol to reduce harm.
The findings were informed by an opinion from Sir Crispin Agnew QC and also a paper by Dr James Nicholls, which provided a historical overview of alcohol licensing in Scotland.
Re-thinking Alcohol Licensing calls on licensing boards to make more effective use of licensing legislation to control the overall availability of alcohol and reduce levels of harm.
The report also calls on the Scottish Government to further regulate the sale of alcohol in off-sales and return licensing to its fundamental purpose of controlling alcohol availability to prevent harm.
It recommends that:
• licensing policy should consider the overall effect of licensed premises on drinking behaviour and levels of alcohol harm in communities, not just the operation of individual licensed premises.
• off-sales hours should be reduced to 10am until 8pm.
• boards should publish detailed information about the number, type and capacity of licensed premises in their area.
• separate alcohol-only checkouts to be introduced in supermarkets.
• licensed premises should be required to provide annual information on the volume of alcohol sold by drink type as a condition of their licence.
• licence fees should be based on the volume of alcohol sold.
Scotland is unique in having a licensing system based on protecting and improving public health, but we need to make sure that this principle is put into practice.
The recommendations in the report would shift the focus away from individual ‘problem’ premises to managing the overall availability of alcohol in the interests of society.
The licensing system exists because there is a consensus that alcohol is not an ordinary commodity and Re-thinking as such, it needs to be carefully regulated.
Licensing laws and practice have been steadily relaxed over the past 30 years, with more licences issued to a wider range of premises and for longer opening hours. This greater availability has been associated with a substantial rise in alcohol consumption and harm.
Over the coming months, AFS will be organising a series of regional meetings across Scotland with boards, licensing forums and alcohol and drug partnerships to discuss the report’s recommendations.
We will be working with colleagues involved in developing licensing policy to discuss how we put the principles of licensing legislation into practice, and putting forward recommendations to government for action to strengthen the public interest in licensing policy and practice.