The Licensing Act 2003 - Culture, Media and Sport Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 164 - 176)



  Chairman: For the final part of this session can I welcome James Lowman, the Chief Executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, and Jeremy Beadles, the Chief Executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association. I know that Nigel Evans wishes to make a short statement and then he is going to commence the questioning.

  Q164  Mr Evans: I am declaring an interest in as much as I own a retail convenience store in Swansea which has an off-licence department in it. James, what have been the benefits of the Licensing Act for the trade and for its customers?

  Mr Lowman: The Act has created more flexibility around local decision-making by local authorities, with case-by-case conditions placed on licences and so on. It has led to opportunities for longer hours, albeit they are pretty rarely taken up in our sector. Most convenience stores open long hours anyway, but very few have taken the opportunity of the Licensing Act 2003 to extend those hours. Customers could then benefit through that greater flexibility and greater opportunities to access the whole of a store rather than, as under the old Act, certain parts of the store being locked up at certain times. The costs are significant for convenience stores. Most of the benefits in terms of reduced costs under the Act have accrued to pubs and clubs and those who have public entertainment licences because they have seen those licensing systems brought into one and that has made a saving for our members. You would not expect any convenience stores to have public entertainment licences and so we have seen a very significant increase in costs from around £30 for three years for the old licence up to a cost of well over £100 a year under the current system, so it has been a massive uplift in cost.

  Q165  Mr Evans: How do you think the enforcement agencies should proceed if they suspect that a retail outlet may be breaching the conditions of its licence?

  Mr Lowman: They should—and the Act provides for it—speak to that premises. They should make sure they have evidence of how the licence is being breached. If the type of breach was, for example, selling to under-age people—and the likely type of breach varies between pubs, clubs and off-licences—then evidence should be gathered. I think the best approach is to work with the retailer to try and improve standards, to try and address any issues around training and so on. If the retailer is not improving, there are opportunities to place conditions on that licence which are appropriate to that specific premises, and then ultimately the local authority can seek revocation of the licence. If someone is irresponsible and not improving and showing no signs of improving, we would entirely support the revocation of a licence in those circumstances.

  Q166  Mr Evans: What about sending in people who are under age?

  Mr Lowman: To buy? As test purchasing?

  Q167  Mr Evans: Yes.

  Mr Lowman: That tends to happen a lot. Local authorities and the police can do that activity either on the basis of trying to gather evidence for a licence review by targeting specific premises or, probably more likely, as part of an authority-wide campaign or a targeted campaign on a certain part of that local authority area to try and gather evidence about under-age purchases that are taking place. It may be based on a licence review or it might be based on other evidence or it might just be pretty much random.

  Q168  Mr Evans: The fact is that there is always this general impression that if people who are under age are drunk or are drinking they have not got their alcohol from a pub, they have got it from an off-licence, or it is somebody over-age going in and getting it for them or youngsters going in themselves and the retailer just selling it to them willy-nilly because they just do not care, they just want to make a sale. What would you say to that accusation?

  Mr Lowman: I do not think that is a widely held perception. All the evidence from test purchasing campaigns shows that the off-trade generally does better than the on-trade in test purchasing. There are different sample sizes and we can argue all day about how those figures have been arrived at. There is certainly no evidence from those campaigns that the off-trade is particularly bad in terms of its likelihood to sell to under-age people. In the real world, in pubs, clubs, large and small shops, specialist off-licences, convenience stores, however you want to categorise them, there are a very, very small number of people who deserve very strong enforcement. The vast majority of people want to try to uphold the law and stay within the law. People make mistakes in all parts of the sector. I cannot say none of ours members has ever sold to someone under age because they have, but I think it is a problem that goes right across the trade and the solutions are improving. Certainly in our sector, while I am absolutely not trying to shift the blame to someone else and say it is not our problem, it clearly is, it is an issue we have been improving on. We look better than other parts of the sector when the test purchase results are published.

  Q169  Mr Evans: As far as your own guidance to your own members is concerned, do you give any guidance about the retail of alcohol? Do you think there is a problem, particularly with smaller enterprises, where there is a high turnover of staff in that there is not sufficient training for staff about the retail of alcohol?

  Mr Lowman: Yes. We promote the Challenge 21 policy and indeed I think over time that will move up in terms of the age limit a person will be challenged at. The purpose behind that is to say that if someone looks under 21 they should be challenged for proof of age to give the retailer and member of staff leeway. Judging whether someone is 18 or is 18 years a day or 17 and 363 days is impossible. You have to give yourself some leeway to make a judgement about that person's age. We are bringing about a cultural change in the trade here through cross-industry effort, including some large retailers as well, where you now are increasingly seeing people who are 19, 20, 21 or even older being challenged for proof of age. That is really important and it is good that that is happening. In terms of training, there is a high turnover of staff. Increasingly professional operators are making sure that people, before they get anywhere near a till, are trained in a number of provisions of the law and management of the business, but this is probably the number one issue. When we talk to retailers about business this is number one because the penalties are very severe and people can and do lose their licences on the basis of making under-age sales.

  Mr Beadles: We provide the secretariat to the Retail of Alcohol Standards Group and that is a pan-industry grouping of large and small business and James is a part and the British Retail Consortium is a part and Challenge 21 is the principle it was based on, but we have moved beyond that and we have shared best practice in terms of training and in the course of the last couple of years we have dramatically changed how we train staff. It was very simple, it was based around "Here is the law. Do not break it." What we have discovered is it is a much more complex issue than that. We have involved a couple of universities in working out why, when you have just trained someone and you send them out into the shop floor, 20 minutes later they sell to an under age person. What makes them do that? They are not bad people on the whole so why do they do it? A lot of it comes down to the psychology of how you assess someone's age and then how you make the challenge. We have discovered that men and women do things very differently in terms of how they assess age and how they make a challenge. We have been working on the training programmes to get them to have a better understanding of how you work out how old someone is and then how you make the challenge in a way that does not lead to confrontation, particularly in the late night environment where that can be a serious problem. We are developing Challenge 21 and some of the industry have already moved towards Challenge 25. We think as an industry we are ready to move to Challenge 25 because enough 21 and 22 year olds have ID cards now that we can move there. The big project and the big work that we have been doing over the last two years is a project called Community Alcohol Partnerships which was trialed in a little place called St Neots in Cambridgeshire where we had some really dramatic impacts by working with local enforcement, local police, trading standards, local health and local education and the parents of the community. It is not just about stopping selling to those under age, it is about tackling under-age drinking, why young people want to drink, where they drink and how you tackle that. The results were very, very impressive, more than we could ever have hoped for. It is now seen as a model of best practice. It has been rolled out to Cambridge city. They are rolling it out into the whole of Cambridgeshire. We are starting it in Reading, in north Yorkshire, in the Isle of Wight and Bath and in the middle of next month we will be announcing a partnership with Kent to roll the Community Alcohol Partnerships into the whole of Kent, so we are taking on an entire county. That is all about getting local people brought in to tackle local problems and getting the local papers involved in recognising where the issues are and that comes down to finding out who the bad eggs are, finding out who are the ones prepared to sell to kids or sell to drunk people and dealing with them because the people who run our shops and stores are part of the community, they do not believe that you should be selling alcohol to kids or to drunk people and they see themselves as the first line of enforcement, not the problem and they want to work in partnership with local police and local trading standards to stop them. Tackling something like proxy sales is incredibly difficult without the support of local police and local trading standards officers because as a shop owner you do not know whether someone has sent their kid in or an adult in to buy the product. Working with trading standards means you can tackle those problems.

  Q170  Chairman: Jeremy, in your submission you concentrated specifically on the attitude taken by local authorities and what you describe as the "excessive burdens" being imposed by some authorities. Where do you think the problem lies? Is it the guidance from DCMS which is insufficient or is it that local authorities are exceeding their powers?

  Mr Beadles: There are elements of both. The majority of local authorities we do not have any issues with and some provide really first class examples. The work that they have done in Cardiff city with the Millennium stadium there has been absolutely superb in terms of how they have built relationships with licensed premises. In some ways I think the guidance is not clear on some issues and some of it is enthusiastic licensing officers sometimes coming up with what they think are good ideas, but actually they provide problems on a local basis and some of it is just how they interpret the guidance. In terms of strengthening the guidance, I think we would like DCMS to look at whether there are some things that could be ruled out as not really appropriate, including requests for wiring maps as part of the licence application or things under the Food Safety Act and things like that. The problem with including that stuff is it is covered in other regulations already, but also if you include it in a licence application and someone has a problem with something that has gone past its sell-by-date then theoretically they could lose their licence for it. That is not what the licence was for in the first place. Certainly we have seen some quite enthusiastic police forces come up with some ideas that on the surface look quite good but when you delve into them they do not necessarily present solutions.

  Q171  Chairman: On the other hand, the convenience stores have argued particularly about the fee structure and the cost of this. You will be aware that as a result of the Elton review fees may have to increase further in order to cover fully local authority costs. What is your reaction to that?

  Mr Lowman: A number of councils are working within the current fee levels and are able to deliver the services they need to deliver on that basis. I think we should be looking at what they are doing and trying to roll that out as best practice. I do not accept that there is necessarily a need for an increase in fees. From our point of view, we already bear a huge proportional part of the fee increases put into the most recent Act. I think any change in fees needs to be more proportionate and needs to have a steeper grading in terms of which fees are applicable for different sizes of premises and different types of premises. There has been mention today about some of the costs associated with applications. There are other things that can be done to reduce the costs, things like changing advertising requirements for local papers and the fact that currently an applicant has to copy their application to seven different agencies. These things are not best regulation, they are not efficient and we should look at some of the reasons why the costs might be as high as they are, both costs borne by the applicant and obviously each of those seven agencies having to process that application.

  Q172  Chairman: Can I just explore with you a couple of these costs which you have identified in your submission? Let us look at lawyer costs. How often does an applicant require professional legal advice?

  Mr Lowman: Almost all new applications are done with legal advice. This is one of the things that has failed to transpire with the new Act. Under the old Act it was £30 for three years, it was less expensive in terms of the statutory costs, but the people getting a licence were having to go to the magistrates' court and so they felt they should have a lawyer present with them. There was a sense that moving to a local authority administered scheme would allow people to cut out those legal costs. The reality of just how important an alcohol licence is to people, the conditions and the approaches to alcohol licence applications that some local authorities have adopted—and there are many excellent local authorities—have made a lot of applicants very cautious about their application and they clearly want that legal support.

  Q173  Chairman: You also mentioned, in terms of the personal licence, a qualification fee of £150. What exactly is that?

  Mr Lowman: That would be for obtaining a British Institute of Innkeeping (BII) qualification. We are in favour of staff being trained and certainly personal licence holders being trained to BII standards, but that cost is borne as part of a new application.

  Q174  Chairman: Presumably it always was the case that you would encourage—

  Mr Lowman: No, it was not. Previously you had to be judged to be a fit and proper person. There is a case for saying that training is a more objective way of judging that than the previous test, but that was not required under the previous Act.

  Q175  Chairman: In terms of relieving the burden, as was indicated earlier, not only do most people say they do not particularly want to have a completely new Licensing Act, I think it is unrealistic to suggest the Government is going to have to make major legislative changes. What would you like to see changed that can be done perhaps through guidance to help your members?

  Mr Lowman: Guidance is the answer. We are not pushing for a new Licensing Act for the reasons you have stated. I think we need guidance which focuses on a number of points. Firstly, the evidence base around conditions being placed on licences, not just the evidence base of things happening in that area or things happening at that premises, but the cause and effects of conditions, ie how will that particular condition improve issues around alcohol harm, under-age drinking, whatever issue is identified in that area that is in line with licensable objectives. What is the cause and effect between conditions and outcomes there? We need to refocus case-by-case. Jeremy has mentioned some examples of local authorities perhaps pushing at the edges of their powers under the Act. One of the very important parts of the Act is that conditions have been placed on licences on a case-by-case basis. If one store in a town has certain problems it does not mean to say that all the stores in towns have the same problems and should be treated in the same way. Too often now we are hearing of examples where local authorities are trying to place standard conditions across all types of premises, ie all shops in an area and that is absolutely against the Act. If that proposal to impose that condition had gone in front of the magistrates' court it is highly unlikely it would get through judicial standards of evidence and cause and effect. It is a very small minority of local authorities who are not interpreting the Act as we think appropriate. We need to make sure that they are only bringing in conditions when the evidence is up to that standard. Just because we are not using the magistrates' court anymore does not mean that the evidence base which affects these people's businesses should be diminished.

  Mr Beadles: I would like to add a real life example to that one because it brings into play a lot of what James was talking about, which is that in Ealing recently local police and local trading standards tried to apply a blanket condition across all shops prohibiting the sale of any beer or cider over five and a half per cent. That might seem like an entirely reasonable condition if what you are seeking to do is to stop shops in a particular area selling strong beer/cider to homeless people. If that is what the aim is it can be seen as an entirely realistic condition, but applying a blanket condition across a whole range of shops actually means that you are requiring them to take off the market most of our premium ciders and beers. Most premium ciders in the UK—and we have a serious heritage and industry—are over five and a half per cent. In seeking to tackle one issue the blanket condition can have a disproportionate effect on those kinds of businesses and if that spreads across the whole country you could have a really damaging impact on a home produced marketplace when actually what you were trying to tackle was something different.

  Q176  Chairman: How do you address that?

  Mr Beadles: It is to do with the guidance but also looking at it on a shop-by-shop basis. If there is a shop that has a serious problem with homelessness and drinkers around the shop area, they are more than happy to have a conversation with the local licensing authority about the rules. They may not have a problem with that at all, but they will probably not want their premium products to go as a result and they would not necessarily want to see it as a blanket condition across everywhere. We represent everyone from very big to very small and very specialist businesses. We would not want to see that kind of condition applying to specialist businesses that make their living through selling these products.

  Chairman: I am sorry but we are going to have to stop there. We were slightly delayed in starting the final session. Thank you both very much for coming.

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