AS Christmas ‘gifts’ go, it would have been as welcome as an ill-fitting woolly jumper from grandma.
In normal circumstances, licensed operators spend the final days before the festive season welcoming party nights and enjoy the dulcet sound of the till ringing, hopefully bringing in enough revenue to sustain them through the difficult months of January and February.
This time the Scottish Government gave the trade something more to think about.
On December 19, the SNP administration published a new consultation, promising yet more change to the way licensing works in Scotland.
If and when any of the proposals make their way on to the statute books, it will be the third time licensing law has been reformed since the 2005 Act came into effect in the second half of 2009.
And judging by the scope of the proposals, it seems certain that operators will once more have to get to grips with major changes to the way they run their businesses.
Justice minister Kenny MacAskill said the recommendations included in the Further Options for Alcohol Licensing consultation have two broad thrusts: to strengthen the powers of licensing boards, and to improve the effectiveness of the licensing regime.
But much of the content has angered licensing solicitors, who questioned the subjects tackled by the consultation and claimed it amounts to the lobbying wishes of the health sector, police and boards being granted.
There are 21 proposals in the wide-ranging document, many of which look set to cause varying degrees of concern to responsible operators.
Space does not allow a forensic examination here – we’ll have much more on this in the coming weeks – but they include allowing police to close premises in a specific area on a blanket basis before and after a football match (which critics claim is unfair on premises that have no history of trouble), and limiting the period in which licensing policy statements can be challenged.
Other controversial moves include addressing the “uncertainties highlighted by the Brightcrew decision”, the landmark case that essentially said boards should only have regard to the sale of alcohol when implementing licensing policy, and not stray into areas covered by separate legislation, for example health and safety, in reaching decisions. Critics fear the proposals suggested to ‘deal with Brightcrew’ aren’t workable and would give boards carte blanche to interfere in matters beyond their remit. The thorny topic of forecourt licensing has also raised its head again, leading to fears that the right to sell alcohol may finally be removed from this retail arena.
It would be remiss, of course, to ignore the good news. This includes the mooted return of the ‘fit and proper’ test, allowing boards to assess whether someone is suitable to hold a licence, and suggestions to restrict the ability of members’ clubs to trade in the same vein as mainstream licensed premises.
On balance, however, there is very little for the trade to cheer about. It might well be a new year, but it’s the same old story when it comes to politicians and pubs.