Attempt to stall drinks law

17 November 2005
Attempt to stall drinks law

The new licensing regime descended into yet further chaos this week as a last-ditch attempt to delay its introduction was forced through Parliament.

As Caterer was going to press, the Conservative party's 11th-hour challenge had succeeded in forcing a vote in the House of Commons, which could see the start date postponed until June 2006.

Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Theresa May said that the vote gave MPs a choice between voting in Labour's 24-hour drinking or listening to public opinion.

"MPs have a duty to stop these dangerous plans which will fuel even more violence and antisocial behaviour on the streets of Britain," said May.

The Liberal Democrats said they would support the Tories' attempts to scupper the implementation of the new laws.

Mark Oaten, Lib Dem home affairs spokesman, said the tide of public opinion had turned against 24-hour drinking.

"We must avoid a Christmas crisis of excessive drinking in our streets and town centres. The only responsible course of action is for the Government to delay implementation of the licensing act."

Even if the new laws go ahead - despite the last-minute challenge - thousands of hospitality businesses are likely to be forced to operate illegally from 24 November.

Martin Couchman, deputy chief executive of the British Hospitality Association (BHA), said: "It's a mess. It's been badly done and handled, but there's no point not going ahead with it now."

Couchman added that the BHA predicted that only 20% of hotels and B&Bs in England and Wales would have received their new licences in time.

The British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) estimated similar findings in the pub sector, with 80% of its 35,000 members still waiting for their new alcohol licences.

However, hospitality leaders have welcomed the decision by police and councils to turn a blind eye and not to press charges on those that won't have their new licences in time.

Businesses will instead be allowed to trade under their existing magistrate's licences after 24 November, or under extended hours if they have a letter of confirmation from their council.

A spokesman for the BBPA said: "Many licensees have done all they can, so it would be grossly unfair to prosecute them after the start date. Common sense was needed in this situation and we're glad a light touch has been agreed."

Adrian Fawcett, chief operating officer for Punch Taverns, agreed: "We have been through a lot of pain and effort with the transition to the new regime, but we're now in good shape and from a business point of view we want it to go ahead."

A catalogue of licensing cock-ups

4 October
Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is criticised for providing no details on fees in its consultation paper on licensing.

5 January
Media pressure forces last-minute hike in fees and provokes anger from industry.

7 February DCMS releases licence application forms just a day before the start of transition to the new act, meaning applications are stalled.

6 June Exclusive Caterer research shows only 21% of operators have applied for their new licences.

4 August Survey by Caterer finds most operators don't believe extended opening hours will offset high licensing costs, put at an average of £2,000.

6 August
20,000 existing licensed businesses miss the deadline, due to complexity and red tape. Local councils admit they won't be able to process all applications in time.

5 October
Opposition parties plan to defer the introduction of the new regime through Parliament.

5 November Industry still awaits details on controversial Alcohol Disorder Zone plans.

15 November Vote forced by Tory Party in the Commons in bid to delay licensing regime start until June 2006.

24 November New licensing regime due to start.

By Chris Druce

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