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Northern Ireland: Liquor Licensing

Volume 684: debated on Thursday 20 July 2006

My honourable friend the Minister of State for Northern Ireland (David Hanson) has made the following Ministerial Statement.

This Statement sets out my plans to reform liquor licensing law in Northern Ireland. The last review of the law governing liquor licensing and registered clubs took place some 10 years ago. Since then the social and economic climate in Northern Ireland has changed and improved immensely. The peace dividend has altered the shape of the tourism and hospitality sectors and of town and city centres. There is great potential for further growth, and liquor licensing law must keep pace with these developments and with modern expectations.

Coupled with that is the need for a more transparent, accountable and better regulated framework for the licensed trade. There are clear anomalies in the current licensing system and a requirement for greater enforcement powers for the Police Service of Northern Ireland to deal with breaches of licensing law.

The consultation on proposed changes to the existing legislation was launched in November 2005. Since then I have had a number of discussions with political representatives and other interested parties. There has been support from both local political parties and the licensed trade for many of my proposals. Concerns have been expressed by politicians and parts of the licensed trade regarding two of the proposed changes. These are the transfer of responsibility for liquor licensing from courts to district councils and the abolition of the “surrender” principle. I welcome the views that have been put and now confirm that my plans for the reform of the law on liquor licensing and registered clubs in Northern Ireland are as follows:

The introduction of six new objectives to underpin licensing policy, legislation and regulation. These are: promotion of public health; promotion of public safety; prevention of crime and disorder; prevention of public nuisance; protection of children from harm; and fair treatment of all stakeholders.

New, more effective enforcement measures, including immediate temporary closure powers for the police, a penalty points system for licensees who break the law and new council liquor licensing officers.

Moving responsibility for granting and renewing licences and certificates of registration from courts to district councils, leading to a more accountable, transparent system.

Replacing the current 12 categories of licences in favour of a dual system of personal and premises licences.

Abolishing the provision which requires an existing licence for a pub or off-licence to be “surrendered” to a court before a new one may be granted. This will be subject to an assessment of the business impact of my proposal which will help to decide how this is addressed in the second stage of reforms. I hope it will be the Northern Ireland Assembly that will consider these matters.

A voluntary proof-of-age scheme and more flexibility to allow under-18s in certified licensed premises and registered clubs when accompanied by responsible adults.

A modest extension of current opening hours for licensed premises and registered clubs, creating scope for opening up to 2 am Monday to Saturday. Sunday opening hours will remain unchanged as will opening hours for off-licences.

Revoking the financial controls and accounts formats for registered clubs, prescribed in the Registration of Clubs (Accounts) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1997, in favour of best practice guidance.

The proposals will give police the powers they need to crack down on irresponsible drinkers and rogue traders and make the licensing system more transparent and accountable, giving communities more information and a louder voice in decision-making.

Allowing licensed premises and registered clubs to apply to the courts to extend their opening hours up to 2 am is the result of careful consideration of the changes in people's social habits and the opportunities available for developing the night time economy. I have listened very carefully to the arguments made by the licensed trade, the police, health interests and others, and balanced the economic and social advantages of extending opening hours with the public interest and public safety. Accordingly, I have decided that opening to 2 am will be available to those licensed premises entitled under existing law to apply for later opening but not to off-licensed premises.

Transferring responsibility for granting liquor licences and club certificates from a court-based system to district councils will create a more accountable system where pubs, off-licences, registered clubs and other licensees will have to explain in detail how their businesses will support the six licensing objectives. There have been concerns expressed about the ability of councils to administer a new liquor licensing system. However, councils already operate a number of regulatory systems including entertainments licensing and street trading, and their range of responsibilities will be greatly enhanced under the Review of Public Administration. The capacity of new councils to undertake these new responsibilities is an issue that is being addressed in the period leading up to the full implementation of the Review of Public Administration. I wish to reassure those concerned that responsibility for liquor licensing will move to councils only once they have built the capacity to administer the new system.

The new system will operate under clear guidelines that will be issued to councils. They will be required to produce a Statement of Licensing Policy that clearly articulates how they plan to control liquor licensing in line with the six licensing objectives. There will be further safeguards. Before councils reach a decision they will have to seek the views of responsible authorities and interested parties such as the Police Service of Northern Ireland, local residents and local businesses. All applications for a licence will be open to objection and a licence may be reviewed, revoked or suspended at any time if there is cause for concern. Those seeking a premises licence will be required to produce an operating plan setting out the nature of the business for approval by councils, and the need for any new licence will have to be clearly demonstrated.

I am replacing the current 12 categories of licence with a dual system of personal and premises licences. This will result in a more robust licensing regime. Personal licences are being introduced for the first time to ensure that those managing licensed premises have accredited qualifications and demonstrate clean backgrounds. This will improve operating standards across the licensed trade and protect against infiltration by those involved in organised crime.

The surrender provision has created anomalies in the licensed trade. At present only pubs and off-licences are required to surrender a licence before being granted a new one. This has capped the overall number of such premises in Northern Ireland, but it has not prevented the growth of alcohol sales in other premises such as large hotels, nor the clustering of pubs and off-licences in particular areas. It is also an artificial barrier to entry to the market and its abolition will create a more equitable commercial environment.

I have listened to the views of local politicians and parts of the licensed trade about the implications of the abolition of surrender. In response to their concerns, I will commission an assessment of the business impact of abolition before making any further decision on the way forward.

I intend to implement some of the proposals as soon as possible. Those relating to enforcement, opening hours, children and registered clubs' accounts should come into effect by Christmas 2007, and draft legislation will be consulted on in Autumn 2006.

With regard to the move to councils, I intend to defer the consideration of this aspect of the legislation, along with some of the other proposals that depend on the new system being operational, to a second, later legislative vehicle. The Review of Public Administration is due for completion in 2009 and the target date for making legislation to transfer responsibility for licensing from courts to district councils and for the introduction of new licensing objectives will be linked to this. This tranche of legislation will also see the abolition of the existing categories of licence and, subject to an impact assessment, the surrender provision. The final decisions on this will, I hope, be taken by a devolved Assembly, should it be successfully restored.

I believe this is a balanced package of measures that weighs up the rights, needs and demands of the various interested parties. They will bring licensing law in Northern Ireland up to date, both to deal more effectively with the alcohol-related problems we currently face and to meet modern day expectations. They will result in a more democratic approach that allows local people to have greater influence in how and where the licensed trade operates. They will promote a safe, welcoming environment in town and city centres where the evening and night-time economy can flourish and will encourage investment, variety and high standards of service in the hospitality, tourism and entertainment sectors.