The report makes a long list of recommendations, notably that planning committees - seen as more coherent and efficient - should assume responsibility for licensing administration.
The Chairman of the Committee, Baroness McIntosh of Pickering, said setting up new licensing committees had been "a mistake and a missed opportunity" given the existing planning system. She also explained how the Committee was "shocked by some of the evidence it received", and descriptions of the use of the Act included being akin to 'something of a lottery', 'lacking formality', and 'indifferent', with some 'scandalous misuses of the powers of elected local councillors'.
In addition to seeking to utilise planning structures for licensing administration, the review recommends an end to as yet unused Early Morning Restriction Orders (EMROs) and replacing the Late Night Levy in its current form. It states fees for licensing should be set locally rather than nationally, whilst the Act should also apply to airports. Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) gets tentative backing pending how Scotland's long running bid unfolds.
A welcome call?
Certainly the Licensing Act has been a hot topic over the last decade, and many roles do not feel it is fit for purpose. The findings of the Committee though have been met with a mixed response so far. Whilst the Institute of Licensing defended the role of licensing committees, it accepted improvements were required particularly in relation to better training.
Jon Foster, author of the Institute of Alcohol Studies' (IAS) extensive 2016 report on the Act, has written a blog post in which he says the problems are "only half diagnosed" by the Lords review. Foster states "the report gives an overly administrative account of the Act, focusing on procedures and formalities, while overlooking problems with how it is applied and decisions made in practice."
In assessing some of the key recommendations, Foster agrees with the rationale behind single committees to operate both licensing and planning decisions, though does not see this as the answer to the problems the Lords identify. He also welcomes the idea of appeals being heard by an equivalent of the planning inspectorate, but highlights this had been suggested by Phil Hadfield in 2007.
The report's recommendation of MUP is described as predictably tentative given the challenges and unknowns over Scotland's pending attempt. On availability, whilst the report highlights the significant shift to off-trade sales and home drinking, Government policy has done little in recognition of this so could have been addressed in further detail within the report. On the issue of how or whether health objectives should be included within the scope of licensing legislation, Foster argues the report gives "a rather one-dimensional argument that omits some of the more positive evidence received on the issue", failing to explore the role for health as responsible authority.
Agreement on the proposal for local authorities to set their own licensing fees is made on the basis that many are subsidising licensing work given national fees have not increased since the Act's introduction. Foster however calls out the report's "business friendly" nature, particularly in regard to suggesting Business Improvement Districts should supersede the Light Night Levy for "seemingly for no reason other than to satisfy the trade’s preference for self-regulation."
Could legislative change be in store?
Licensing legislation undoubtedly constitutes a significant aspect of national alcohol policy levers, also potentially linked to key issues such as pricing and availability. However groups wishing to see firmer Government action across a broader range of areas may see little cause for optimism in the current political climate. Indeed a 2013 'Health First' independent alcohol strategy, produced by a coalition of health organisations from across the UK, stated licensing legislation was "out of date" calling for review and the inclusion of a public health objective, albeit this has not been without its issues in Scotland.
Last year a new crime prevention strategy set out alcohol-related crime objectives, which we suggested signalled the end of a central alcohol policy covering health and other areas previously contained within national strategies. Notably though, one of the three key alcohol strands of the crime prevention strategy was 'equipping the police and local authorities with the right powers'. Clearly the Lords review suggests the Licensing Act is not fit for purpose in this regard, although the IAS report found the existing powers were under-utilised.
The crime prevention strategy's other main alcohol strands though emphasise building local partnerships and intelligence - ambitions which are arguably of limited value without appropriate enforcement options or resources. A committent to publish alcohol-related crime data on police.uk does not appear to have been delivered to date. With regards the number of licensed premises in England and Wales, the most recent figures show a small but steady rise, whilst reviews of premises potentially causing problems have continued to decline, though the reasons behind this are unclear.
As such, it would seem that if any changes to the Licensing Act were to be forthcoming, these would be more likely to continue in the form of "piecemeal amendments" as the Lords review has described. Health groups though may see MUP as the key policy to pursue, particularly given its potential to target cheap off-trade sales. However questions over the suitability of the 2003 Licensing Act are likely to continue as long as it remains in place.