THE age-old antipathy between the mainstream trade and members clubs has reared its head again, this time in Moray. Not that the issue is ever far from the surface, either in Moray or elsewhere in the country.
The essence of the complaint from ‘regular’ licensed venues in Moray is that some members clubs are competing aggressively for the same commercial custom – despite technically being not for profit organisations.
And they claim the playing field is far from level as a result of the privileges clubs enjoy – from business rates relief and lower licence fees to a reduced requirement to train staff under licensing law.
It has also been said that some clubs are flagrantly breaking the rules under which they’re permitted to admit non-members.
I won’t list them in exhaustive detail here, but such rules, as defined by the licensing 2005 Act, prohibit the sale of alcohol to a person unless he or she is a member or is accompanied by a member, and require details like the non-members’ name, address, date of visit and the member accompanied by them to be kept in a record book.
These conditions, however, don’t apply for the duration of occasional licences, which clubs are entitled to apply for on a limted basis each year.
But what’s annoying mainstream operators, in Moray and indeed elsewhere, is that many clubs are showing scant regard for the rules and throwing their doors open to all and sundry – without worrying about such trifling matters as record books or occasional licences. Some are even advertising their services in local newspapers.
In essence, such clubs are freely trading as commercial businesses without facing the red tape burden.
And it seems boards can’t really do much about it. For example, a spokesman for the board in Moray said any club that breaks the rules on signing in non-members is not breaching a condition of its licence, but its constitution.
As a result, the only redress available is the pursuit of a change in the law, which is ultimately the job of the Scottish Parliament.
As it happens, that might not be such a remote prospect.
In reply to a letter of complaint from a Moray licensee, a civil servant from the Scottish Government’s licensing and charity law team said the matter had been discussed at ministerial level.
In what might just be the clearest sign yet that ministers are prepared to tackle the issue, the civil servant wrote that the government was aware that some clubs “operate in a manner which abuses the licensing system”, and “will be considering what action is necessary to tackle the elements of the issue that we can affect”.
It must be acknowledged that there will be many clubs operating perfectly above board, and indeed will be raising welcome cash for all manner of good causes.
But in my view it is encouraging to see that the government is finally willing to address the abuses of the system which clearly exist.
We’ll just have to see if it ultimately makes good on its word.