EVER since he assumed the licensing brief in 2007, justice minister Kenny MacAskill has often praised the value of the on-trade and the wider drinks industry in Scotland.
The rhetoric was again evident when SLTN was granted an exclusive interview with the minister at St Andrews House to answer questions on the Scottish Government’s latest proposals to change licensing law (see pages 6&7).
SLTN raised several concerns the trade has over the Further Options for Alcohol Licensing consultation, and on all points MacAskill was sympathetic over how it might affect those who run licensed premises.
Unfortunately, it remains to be seen whether it will make any difference in the final analysis.
One of the trade’s biggest fears is the extent to which the health lobby is driving licensing policy. The new consultation includes several proposals generated by Alcohol Focus Scotland (AFS) and Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP); these include whether to make it a statutory requirement for boards to promote the licensing objectives, including the promotion of public health, and to make it incumbent on boards to “gather and assess information on each of the licensing objectives” in preparing their policy statements.
AFS and SHAAP were also behind proposals to extend the duration of licensing policy statements from three to five years (to mirror the period boards sit and allow a new board to bring in its own policy statement) and to limit the period under which policies can be challenged.
The extent to which the health lobby has shaped the new consultation has alarmed licensing lawyers, leading to claims the government is making policy “on the hoof” and responding to the demands of a single interest group (important though its views are).
Responding to these concerns, MacAskill emphasised the importance of the trade and the alcohol industry, but it seems that plays second fiddle to his government’s attempts to deal with the effects of alcohol abuse.
Equally, he did little to assuage fears over the proposal to allow police to request the blanket closure of premises near football grounds before and after games.
The SLTA is concerned the move, sparked by the fall-out of a nasty sequence of Old Firm games two seasons ago, has the scope to punish perfectly well-run pubs that make much of their money on match days. MacAskill, however, was adamant that the police should have powers to take such action, and argued that even though the prospect of regular Celtic-Rangers games has gone for now, there remain other problems around football, for example the behaviour of travelling fans.
Perhaps the most encouraging news came with confirmation that the Scottish Government Alcohol Industry Partnership was making progress on establishing a new National Licensing Forum. Although the trade would have to compete with other interests (including health) to have its voice heard, its presence on such a body might give it a greater say come the next licensing review.
It may also be a relief for operators to hear that the minister does not envisage boards relinquishing control of local decision-making, despite the proposal for them to have regard to a new national policy statement.