Blake Morgan responds to the Home Office Alcohol Strategy Consultation

Posted by Jon Wallsgrove on
The Licensing team have made a formal response to the Home Office Consultation on the Government's Alcohol Strategy to introduce minimum pricing and other measures to 'cut alcohol fuelled crime and anti-social behaviour'.

The proposals outlined in the Consultation provide a 'mixed bag' of measures which also include amendments to the Licensing Act 2003 to remove unnecessary red tape. However, the measures that will be the most controversial are the proposals to introduce a minimum price per unit of alcohol and a ban on multi-buy alcohol promotions.

Here is a précis of our submissions in our response to the Consultation:

Minimum pricing

We understand the Government's aim for the introduction of a Minimum Unit Price is to reduce excessive alcohol consumption. However, the measure is a blunt instrument which will have the effect of penalising moderate drinkers as well as those who may drink excessively. The recommended price per unit of 45 pence, or any other amount, will inevitably be arbitrary and will affect different individuals in different ways and we are not persuaded that ultimately it will reduce excessive alcohol consumption by hazardous and harmful drinkers.

We are concerned that the measure is a disproportionate response to the Government's objective and will set a dangerous precedent for restraint of trade which is likely to offend both UK and EU competition laws.

The impact assessment observes the consumption of alcohol is expected to fall by 3.3%. We suggest that those who drink excessively and at whom this measure is targeted will be a very small percentage of that 3.3% and in consequence the health benefits identified will not be as stated but considerably less, perhaps even negligible.

Multi-buy alcohol promotions for the off-trade

There appears to be insufficient reason given on why such a prohibition should be imposed on the off trade and this proposal appears to be based on little or no evidence.

It would be totally unnecessary to ban multi buy promotions if a minimum unit price were introduced; on the assumption of course that a Minimum Unit Price achieves the outcome it is stated it will achieve. Introducing both would be over-regulation and adds unnecessary burden on the retailer without any benefit to the public.

The evidence from Scotland is that a ban on discounting alcohol for multiple purchases has had no effect on reducing the consumption of alcohol. Further there is no evidence to our knowledge which concludes that such a ban effectively targets the minority of people who drink to excess. Greater weight should be given to the fact that the majority of people drink responsibly and this proposal removes a freedom of consumer choice and retailer competition.

A closer analysis of all available evidence is required not just that evidence which supports the outcome. So for example acknowledging the fact that alcohol consumption in the UK has been declining for a number of years and understanding why that is. The impact assessment reports that alcohol was 45% more affordable in 2011 than in 1980 which highlights the overall trend of increasing affordability. If consumption were linked to price this statistic would have seen a corresponding increase in alcohol consumption in the UK over the last 2-3 year at least, which is not the case.

The impact assessment highlights that consumption in the home has increased 45% but outside the home decreased 44% between 1992-2010 and 2001 and 2010 respectively. There is therefore evidence available of an overall reduction in alcohol consumption.

Also, in our view much greater thought should be given to a voluntary agreement with the retailers to reduce the number of units of alcohol available with an emphasis on consumers purchasing lower alcohol by volume % products.

The issue of pre-loading needs further consideration. Pre-loading can mean having one alcoholic drink before going out and much of the research and commentary we have seen does not distinguish the difference between drinking responsibly in the home before going out and those who consume excessive quantities of alcohol before going out. We would question whether there is any real evidence to support the argument that a MUP or a ban on promotions will curb the consumption of alcohol in the home before going out in the evening.

Health as a licensing objective in cumulative impact areas

We do not believe that it is either necessary or appropriate for evidence of alcohol-related health harm to support the introduction of a cumulative impact policy in a licensing authority's area.

The purpose of cumulative impact policies is to enable licensing authorities to apply a higher burden for applicants for new licences (and variations to existing licences) for specific and defined areas in their district. The evidence to support these policies is invariably based on police statistics of crime and disorder in the specific area and its association with the number of licensed premises and the fact that many licensing authorities have already adopted such policies is testimony to the fact that the existing policy approach is effective. Any policy is also capable of review by the authority based on new evidence.

The difficulty in our view with extending the grounds to include evidence of alcohol-related harm is that it would completely remove the 'objectivity' of justification for the policy. It would be extremely difficult and arguably impossible to obtain cogent evidence of alcohol-related health harm which is specific to a defined area and the number of licensed premises. More likely, such evidence if it was obtained is likely to be linked to individual premises in which case the existing enforcement powers of authorities are more than adequate to target any offenders. By its nature, harm to health as a result of alcohol consumption is personal to individuals and its cause cannot be generalised on a group of premises that happen to fall within a particular geographical area.

It also follows that the consequence of imposing a cumulative impact policy based on 'sources of evidence' of alcohol-related health harm would impose an almost impossible burden on an applicant to justify departure from that policy. This would not only be harmful to positive development of licensed premises in the particular area but would also potentially result in no improvement in standards due to the absence of competition.

Measures to remove red tape for responsible businesses

There are a number of proposals in the Consultation to introduce measures aimed at 'freeing up' red tape for businesses and in our response we have given these our broad support and made various recommendations for effective implementation. In summary, these measures are:

  • Introduction of a simplified form of "ancillary sales" permission for businesses where the sale of alcohol is only a small part of their wider activities.
  • Simplified process for notification of licensable activities at occasional community events.
  • Extending the limits for Temporary Event Notices for individual premises.
  • Giving licensing authorities the discretion to provide certain exemptions to businesses providing late night refreshment which is not associated with alcohol-related problems.
  • Removing the requirement to advertise licensing applications in a local newspaper.
  • Removing the prohibition on alcohol sales at motorway service areas.
  • Removing or simplifying the process for renewing personal licences.

We have also proposed an amendment to the Licensing Act to clarify the legal position where premises supervisors are no longer involved at their designated premises. This has given rise to practical difficulties since the Act came into force, particularly where premises supervisors leave their employment for whatever reason at very short notice.

About the Authors

Jon acts for licensed premises across the UK. His unique experience includes working for HM Court service, in local government, as in-house Counsel with two pub companies and in private practice.

Jon Wallsgrove
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023 8085 7224

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Tim is a leading Criminal and Regulatory lawyer, who defends businesses and individuals under investigation by the police and regulatory bodies and when accused of criminal offences.

Tim Williamson
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023 8085 7372

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