Published: 02 April 2015
Some of my clients’ premises licences look like a modern version of the Voynich manuscript. This document, for those of you who are not fascinated by the weird and wonderful, is a 15th Century, 240-page medieval book written in an unknown alphabet featuring mysterious pictures of unknown plants, astronomical images and naked women bathing. Its meaning has eluded cryptographers, linguists and mathematicians for decades, including one of the top British codebreakers of World War II who helped crack the German Enigma Code at Bletchley Park. Some of these great minds would have similar difficulties decrypting a premises licence. Let me give you some examples.
There are many public safety and fire-related conditions on licences, often carried over from the old regime from public entertainment licences. Many of these, despite being physically written on the licence, have no effect by virtue of the above Order, which places the responsibility for fire safety squarely on the shoulders of the licensee through his or her fire risk assessment. This can lead to great confusion for operators who have conditions on their licence which may (but probably don’t) apply. Licensing and other authorities often seem unwilling to relinquish their hold on such conditions and will object to their removal, so they just sit there on the licence like uninvited guests at a party whom nobody dares ask to leave. The problem is made worse with regard to capacity figures, which authorities guard particularly jealously. Capacity conditions (rather than those prescribing the material for fire blankets or the thickness of fire doors) often have a direct effect on an operator’s ability to maximise his business. Surely, ten years on from the 2003 Act we should be in a position to know whether a fire- or capacity-related condition on a licence actually applies or not?
Make no mistake, this is generally a good thing for the trade. However, once again some of its deregulatory measures have left the typical premises licence somewhat confusing. For example, entertainment facilities (facilities for dancing or for making music) are no longer licensable and therefore clearly do not need to remain authorised on a licence. However, many Licensing Authorities have not removed these authorisations, which from my personal experience can result in Police Officers accusing licence holders of providing a dance floor beyond the hours stated on the licence, when no such permission is needed in the first place.
Again carried over from the pre-2005 Licensing Regime, many licences still contain conditions restricting the movement and presence of children under the age of 14 from the bar area, or a requirement to serve at least one customary main meal of the day to residents (carried over from old hotel licences) or indeed pre-2005 hours which run completely contrary to the hours stated on the face of the licence. How can a Licensing Authority, in exercising its statutory duty to process a premises licence in a clear and legible manner, allow the hours for the sale of alcohol on Christmas Day to be both, for example, until midnight and until 10:30pm? Again, many of these conditions languish at the back of many-paged premises licences, ignored by all and causing no problem until a particularly officious or new Police or Council Licensing Officer picks up on the discrepancy.
I could not count the number of times that I have asked the Licensing Authority for a copy of a premises licence’s plans only to be told they do not have one. Putting aside of course the fact that my client should have retained one in the first place, the licensed plan is part of the licence and if no one can find it then at some point there is going to be a problem, for example when clients want to build an extension or vary their layout and nobody knows what plans to compare the proposed changes to.
These and other confusing anomalies occasionally cause real problems for operators who should not have to rely upon a decent Licensing Officer turning a blind eye to a condition that for the last ten years nobody had given a second thought to. What can be done about it? Well, no one is expecting Licensing Authorities, whose budgets are already tight, to conduct a line by line clean-up of all the licences in their area, nor do many licensees have the means or legal knowledge to do so themselves. I revert, then, to the age-old call to common sense – if plans are missing, if conditions contradict each other or if they say something that no one in their right mind would ever have agreed to, the correct approach is not to shut the pub down or threaten prosecution but to agree a minor variation to remove the offending words and let them trade as normal in the meantime.
I’m sure Mr Voynich would agree.
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