Select Committee and Better Regulation Commission both damn DCMS role in new licensing regime

May 2006

Live event industry

A new Select Committee report damns the Department of Culture Media and Sport’s poor management of the introduction of the new Licensing Act 2003 and warns that this must not be repeated when the UK’s new gambling regime is introduced. The cross-party select committee said that pub landlords, councils and residents were put under “unnecessary stress because of late guidance, inconsistent advice and unclear information from the department”. Committee chair Phyllis Starkey said that the “dilatory” approach of Culture Secretary Teresa Jowell’s department was “completely unacceptable” and concluded it “failed to administer the transition period effectively”. The responsible minister is James Purnell MP. Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Hugo Swire MP, added this: “Clearly the Government’s handling of the new licensing laws has been a shambles, and it is local authorities, village halls and community centres who are left to deal with the mess and the bill. Ultimately, council taxpayers will be left paying for the Government’s mistakes. At times, the Department has seemed gripped by inertia and has refused to see the scale of the chaos before them. Most worrying is the admission that some licence applications were granted without being examined, even though the Government promised that residents would have a greater say in opposing rowdy pubs”. Swire further adds “The Home Office released statistics in January which were designed to demonstrate the effectiveness of the Act. The figures were clearly bogus, inappropriate and spun in order to justify the Government’s twenty-four hour drinking proposals. In reality, the new law was presenting local authorities with problems as they became stifled by Government bureaucracy. Furthermore, some licences were granted in a rushed manner, whilst those requiring conversion were not always thoroughly checked. The report thus raises questions about the DCMS’s ability to introduce the new gambling laws”. The Government’s new licensing regimes are causing all sorts of problems elsewhere: whilst the plight of village halls, community centre and small local events seems to be the biggest victim of a poorly thought out Act (in parts). The extraordinary fact that the Secretary of State for Culture Media & Sport had now breached the Act is perhaps an indication of the bizarre functioning of this piece of legislation. Ms Jowell’s and friends rendition of ‘ The Women Are Marching on’ in London’s Hyde Park on International Women’s Day would be classified as live music and therefore regulated entertainment (there was an audience as the press had been invited). No licence had been obtained from Westminster Council and one was needed. Westminster have said they will not prosecute! And the Royal Automobile Association have warned that late night coffee and snacks at petrol station forecourts and service stations could also be a thing of the past despite government campaigns to urge drivers to take a break. Again as the provision of hot snacks between 23.00 and 05.00 needs a premises licence any fuel retailer providing needs to comply with the Act and perhaps most importantly pay the appropriate licence fees which may well deter smaller operators from providing the service. The RAC wants the Government to exempt the forecourts so they can serve tired motorists.

And finally the Government’s introduction of the Act will came under fire from its own watchdog. the Better Regulation Commission, established in January to advise the government on regulatory affairs, says licensees have been hit by unnecessary increases in costs under the new regime. The Commission’s report says the Government made mistakes and calls for amendments to the actRick Haythornthwaite, commission chairman, said the Government was right to reform licensing but added: “Our review has found that mistakes were made during the process. “Some of these mistakes could have been avoided if better regulation procedures had been followed. “The unfortunate irony is that the Licensing Act 2003 was widely expected to be a deregulatory proposal, to slash bureaucracy and deliver big savings for the hospitality and leisure industry. We received representations from businesses complaining it was having the opposite effect.” Main problems include the Application process (the 21-page form is criticized as “overly long and complicated” and having “no allowance for minor errors”) and Additional – and often unexpected – costs and fees. The Government is also criticized for   not providing guidance for councils despite Government having 19 months to prepare for the new regime and a lack of clarity in the guidance , For example there is still uncertainty about whether the DPS (designated premises supervisor) must be on-site when alcohol is served, and what constitutes incidental music (see below). Tim Martin, chairman of JD Wetherspoon, told the Financial Times he was unhappy with the way the act was introduced. He said: “It was handled in a way so as to maximise bureaucracy.” He described the £400m Wetherspoons spent complying with the new legislation as ” wasted money” saying the old system was cheap and effective.


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