The House of Lords Select Committee on the Licensing Act 2003 publishes its report 'The Licensing Act 2003: post-legislative scrutiny'. In the eleven years since the Act has been in force hardly a year has gone by without major piecemeal amendments to the Act. The Lords Committee, set up to scrutinise the Act, has concluded that it is fundamentally flawed and needs a radical overhaul, including the abolition of local authority licensing committees.
The Chairman of the Committee, Baroness McIntosh of Pickering, said:
"It was a mistake and a missed opportunity to set up new licensing committees when the planning system was already available to regulate the use of land for many different purposes. The planning system is well suited to dealing with licensing applications and appeals, and the interests of residents are always taken into account.
"The Committee was shocked by some of the evidence it received on hearings before licensing committees. Their decisions have been described as 'something of a lottery', 'lacking formality', and 'indifferent', with some 'scandalous misuses of the powers of elected local councillors'.
"Pubs, clubs and live music venues are a vital part of our cultural identity. Any decline in our cities’ world-famous night life ought to be prevented and the businesses supported. But the night time economy needs regulating; even in these areas of cities, residents have their rights. The current systems – Early Morning Restriction Orders and Late Night Levies – are not being used because they do not work."
Conclusions and recommendations in the report include:
- The Government made a substantial error in creating new committees for local authorities to deal with licensing. The evidence received about the poor operation of licensing committees was convincing and the committee was extremely concerned by what it heard.
- Planning committees are more effective and reliable, and are well-equipped for making licensing decisions. They should take over the licensing function. Coordination between the licensing and planning systems should begin immediately.
- Licensing appeals should no longer go to magistrates' courts but should, like planning appeals, go to the planning inspectorate.
- The Late Night Levy does not pay for the cost of policing as intended, and in its current form is fundamentally wrong in principle and in practice. Unless amendments already made prove effective, the Late Night Levy should be repealed. So should Early Morning Restriction Orders, which no local authority has yet introduced.
- Fees for licensing should be set locally, not nationally. In doing so, local authorities must bear in mind that there are doubts about the legality of any element of a fee which goes beyond what is needed to process the application.
- There is no justification for the Licensing Act not applying to sales airside at airports.
- The legality of Minimum Unit Pricing is still under consideration by the Supreme Court. If it is found to be lawful and is introduced in Scotland, and is found to be effective in cutting down excessive drinking, England and Wales should follow Scotland's lead.
- Scotland's example should also be followed in helping disabled people to access licensed premises by requiring an application for a premises licence to include a disabled access statement.