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Saturday, August 20, 2005

An MP's dilemma

It was inevitable really that those MPs who voted through the 24 hour licensing laws would end up on the wrong end of them. For despite all the spin about empowering communities and enabling democratically elected local Councils to determine applications in accordance with the needs of communities, the reality is that the legislation has left Licensing Committees with very little discretion to turn down applications. Furthermore, the rolling up of a number of licenses for music, alcohol, dancing etc into one super licence has left many establishments with little choice but to apply for permission to carry out activities on their premises that have traditionally not taken place there, even though they have no immediate plans to make any changes to the way that they operate. This has increased anxieties amongst local people.

Thus the explanation of Aberavon Labour MP, Hywel Francis, that he objected to the application by the Morpeth Arms for longer opening hours, because it will "destroy the peaceful character of the locality", even though he voted nine times with the Government during the passage of the controversial Licensing Act through Parliament, does not really stack up. If he had any experience of the way that local Councils have been forced to apply the Act that he supported then he would know that even police objections can prove insufficient. That is because the police have to prove that a particular establishment is responsible for law and disorder problems before their application can be refused. They cannot rely on the general reputation of the area or on non-specific policing issues to support their objection. For all intents and purposes Licensing Committees are acting with one hand tied behind their back and all the talk of accountability is without substance.

Hywel Francis is not the only MP who is desperately trying to pass the buck over this legislation. An article in this week's Glamorgan Gazette by Labour Ogmore MP, Huw Iranca Davies, claims that the new Licensing Act contains 'more powers than ever before for local people to influence alcohol and entertainment licensing decisions'. He believes that 'if many residents are rightly aggrieved at the lack of control by a licence holder they should and can demand action.' He goes on: 'It is now easier for police and residents to seek a review of licences, including limits on hours of opening. And for the first time ever, residents have a statutory right to comment on licensing policies and make representations on licence applications."

Huw is absolutely right of course, residents do have those powers of objection but they are retrospective and only in a very few cases will they prevent a license being granted. Furthermore, if an area becomes unruly because of a concentration of establishments then it is not so easy for police and residents to deal with the issue unless they can prove specific culpability on the part of the establishments they are seeking to curtail. That can be very difficult.

How the new licensing laws impact upon communities has yet to be seen, however the fears of people are very real. It may well be that the worse excesses can be recovered subsequently through evidence-based objections but it does not help when those who imposed the laws upon us seek to lay the blame elsewhere, whilst claiming benefits that are not immediately apparent to those who have to live with their actions.
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