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Amended licensing laws catch operators unawares

19 March 2010 by
Amended licensing laws catch operators unawares

Blink and you would have missed the news this week that the House of Lords has approved a set of amendments to licensing law that will affect every single pub, restaurant and hotel selling alcohol throughout the country.

The motion to approve five "mandatory conditions" - additions to the Licensing Act 2003 - was passed by the Lords on Monday evening. With it comes a set of new regulations designed to crack down on alcohol-related crime, nuisance and disorder, all of which is targeted directly at the on-trade, which the Government regards as contributing to the problem of alcohol-related violence, and a crime bill of £8b to £13b a year in England and Wales.

The first of the five conditions - and probably the most significant as far as pubs are concerned - is an effective ban on "irresponsible" drinks promotions. Labour peer Lord Brett said that this would aim to stamp out promotions like £10 "all you can drink" offers and "speed drinking competitions".

The condition on irresponsible promotions - along with two others forcing owners of licensed operators to provide free tap water and a ban on dispensing alcohol "directly into the mouth of another" - comes into force on 6 April.

Meanwhile, a further two conditions - one to ensure that smaller measures of alcohol including 125ml glasses of wine are available, and a new requirement to ask drinkers who appear to be under 18 to provide photo ID - will be introduced on 1 October 2010.

But what worries licensing experts is the conditions' lack of clarity. Their drafting, described by Liberal Democrat Baroness Hamwee as "poor", is starting to look like it might prove a rich seam of business for lawyers.

But time to prepare legal advice for pubs, restaurants, hotels and bars on their alcohol policy, given that the Government still hasn't issued any guidance on how to interpret the legislation, is short.

"There is huge uncertainty in the trade as to the meaning [of the conditions], particularly when it comes to promotions," said Lisa Sharkey, a partner at law firm Poppleston Allen.

"These conditions are going to apply to every type of premise, from your little corner boozer to the Ritz hotel. I have already got a client requesting me to go through their alcohol social responsibility policy and advise them if they are compliant. But without the guidance I am a bit blind."

For example, how do you treat that beery country pub staple, the yard of ale? Lord Brett said it would be a responsible promotion "if the yard of ale is to be drunk in the time determined by the recipient or purchaser of it". But he added: "If they race to get it down their neck as quickly as possible, that we think is irresponsible". Which presumably means that you can still enjoy a yard of ale as long as you haul it around the pub with you, supping it slowly.

Meanwhile, World Cup drinks promotions could also be affected because offers like a free pint every time your team scores could also be banned.

Then there is the question of whether or not offering a friend your beer or wine to taste counts as "dispensing alcohol into the mouth of another" or if restaurants will be obliged to offer a 125ml serving of every single wine they stock - a headache for the majority that sell several wines by the bottle only.

Sharkey said that on those last two points in particular, she expected common sense to prevail. But there is still significant uncertainty until the guidance is published.

Despite that, the Government is already encouraging local authorities to wield their new-found powers.

"Local authority enforcers should be making the most of the powers available to them. That is why we have a large training programme in place to ensure that police and licensing authorities are fully aware of the powers they have and how to use them," Lord Brett said on Monday.

The Government plans to run a series of two-day alcohol enforcement training seminars with magistrates, court officials and police officers.

Whether individual operators are as prepared for the new laws as the authorities are when they come into force on 6 April remains to be seen.

MORE ON THE WAY?

Although the Government has only introduced five mandatory conditions, it has the power to bring in nine in total. Other conditions that the Government and the Conservatives have been considering include mandatory training for bar staff and minimum alcohol pricing.

THE NEW CONDITIONS


In force on 6 April 2010

Condition 1 Ban on "irresponsible" trade promotions

Condition 2 No alcohol to be dispensed into the mouth of another

Condition 3 Free tap water for every customer


In force on 1 October 2010

Condition 4 Drinkers who look under 18 to be asked for photo ID

Condition 5 Ensure smaller measures are available: 1/2 pint for beer, lager and cider; 25ml or 35ml for spirits; 125ml for wine

By Neil Gerrard
Join the debate on Table Talk - what effect will the amendments have on your business?

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