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Government is no rush to instigate a radical overhaul of the Licensing Act 2003

Ever since the House of Lords Select Committee on the Licensing Act 2003 issued its “Call for Evidence” back in June 2016, as a lawyer who does nothing but alcohol and entertainment licensing, I have retained an avid interest (which peaked the morning I myself gave evidence to this rather daunting and august assembly of twelve Lords of the Realm).  However, I have sensed throughout the last year or so a certain degree of over-expectation from some quarters regarding what the Select Committee would recommend, and what the result of those recommendations would be.

Despite my own experience being thoroughly positive and indeed reading all the evidence sessions which reveal how thoroughly and profoundly the Select Committee went about the task of discovering what was good and bad about the 2003 Act, call me a cynic but I really didn’t expect a very great deal to change.

And now we have the answer, in the Government’s official response entitled “The Licensing Act 2003: Post-Legislative Scrutiny”, published on 6 November 2017.  The Committee Report stated that the Act required a “radical comprehensive overhaul” but the Government in its response states that it “does not intend to be hasty in instigating such an overhaul of the Act”.  There are a significant number of recommendations that the Government agrees will help improve the operation of the Act but we are not going to see a wholesale dismantling and rebuilding of the rather Heath Robinsonesque legislative edifice that has been erected over the last twelve years.

In my view this is for two reasons.  The first is that the 2003 Act to a greater or lesser degree works pretty well.  True, it has many faults but few if any are fatal to operators, given a common-sense interpretation by Authorities and businesses alike.  The second reason is sheer Government time - there is a large elephant in the room and it has a blue flag with 12 gold stars draped over its back.  That’s a big – and very blurry – elephant. Brexit causes problems for legislative change, hence the emphasis on amending the Guidance. The old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” can be tailored to these mid-Brexit times thus: “if it ain’t completely kaput, don’t amend it”.

So, the Government’s considered but firm decision not to add to or amend any of the existing licensing objectives, remove the Late Night Levy or EMROs, merge elements of planning and licensing or commence locally-based licensing fees is perhaps unsurprising. There will be action – amending the Guidance to remove the emphasis on preferring police evidence, more training for police and Councillors, nudging the Agent of Change principle forward in planning policies and principles, to name a few - but where most of the recommendations are being adopted it is through the Guidance or commencing legislation that is already on the statute books.

So evolution rather than revolution. But then, that’s very much the British way.