Yet more change is on the horizon

Forthcoming Licensing Bill set to bring raft of amendments

• The Bill has yet to be published and could come into force in a year.
• The Bill has yet to be published and could come into force in a year.

THE Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976 was long past its sell-by date.

It had failed to keep pace with the shape of licensed trade developments and society’s attitude to alcohol. The trade and the public were badly served.
It was right and proper that the law should undergo root and branch reform.
Now, alas, we find ourselves in what one of my legal friends aptly described as “an unholy guddle”.
Instead of a complete overhaul that might be “tweaked” from time to time to keep pace with changing retail practices, we have an Act which appears to have been no more than a rough draft.
Since the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 came into force on September 1, 2009, there have been a number of significant, complex amendments effected by the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 and the Alcohol etc. (Scotland) Act 2010.
To confuse matters even more, some of the changes set out in the former have yet to be brought into effect.
Now, in the year ahead, we’re going to see another raft of amendments in a new Licensing Bill, which, by my estimation, is likely to come into force in about a year.
I reckon these are likely to be way beyond simple fine-tuning.
Until the Bill is published, the actual content can only be a matter of guesswork, but there are a number of clear clues.
At the very end of 2012, the Scottish Government issued a consultation on a number of issues, including:
• possible blanket bans on licensed premises in the vicinity of sports grounds;
• a return to the so-called ‘fit and proper person’ test;
• a potential rethink on the law surrounding the sale of alcohol from garage forecourt shops;
• a fresh look at how overprovision should be assessed;
• further controls on internet alcohol sales.
Indications are that closure powers for football pubs – a proposal which, quite properly, the Scottish Licensed Trade Association vowed to fight “tooth and nail” – are unlikely to go forward.
I understand that the ‘fit and proper’ test will not make a comeback as such, but licensing boards will almost certainly be afforded stronger powers to make sure that those seeking or holding a licence are subject to more robust suitability assessments.

I haven’t a clue why existing powers might be considered lacking.

I reckon that the current law on garage licensing – which has turned out to be a complete car wreck – will be ditched and the matter put back squarely into the hands of licensing boards, as it was under the 1976 Act.
Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill has said that the Bill would make overprovision easier to define, but also acknowledged that “regulating the internet is very difficult”.
There might be just one piece of positively good news.
The government has said that it intends to reduce burdens on the trade.
That would certainly be consistent with MacAskill’s position when he was interviewed by SLTN in January 2013.
He said he was “listening” to concerns and that regulation had to be “unburdensome” and not “unduly onerous”, adding: “It’s not just the potential cost of legal bills, it’s the hassle factor that goes with running a business. We have an obligation as a government that when margins are tight we keep [regulation] to a minimum.”
Despite these encouraging statements, I’m anticipating the content of the Bill with a sense of gloom in light of the latest clue from a Scottish Government press release issued during the festive period.
Tucked into a “responsible drinking” message was the promise that the new Bill “would give more powers to local authorities and communities to influence licensing decisions and preserve public order and safety, reduce crime and boost health”.
It’s very hard to imagine what these powers might be.
I simply haven’t the faintest clue why existing powers might be considered lacking and this, in my opinion, is a very worrying indication of what is to come.