Last week saw the publication of the House of Lords Select Committee Review of the Licensing Act 2003 (LA2003). It also saw the CAMRA Members’ Weekend in Bournemouth on Saturday 8th April, at which I was a speaker.
Having read the HoL Review I was struck by how most, if not all, of its proposals for change reflected the fact that the Committee had listened to a wide range of views and was thereby able to arrive at what were, for the most part, a balanced set of recommendations that avoided siding with some of the more swivel-eyed members of the ‘public health’ community, who of course wanted a public health licensing objective. In that regard it contrasts most sharply with the way in which the Chief Medical Officers’ of Health revised drinking guidelines were compiled – by a who’s who of the modern neo-temperance movement.
The call for the government to abandon the Late Night Levy and Early Morning Alcohol Restriction Orders was also very welcome as was their Lordships acceptance of the value of local partnership working – particularly Business Improvement Districts. Council members sitting on local authority licensing committees should be trained, their Lordships said. Here! Here!
I did however find it a little curious that the release of the Review suggested that the committee members found the Licensing Act 2003 to be “fundamentally flawed”. I cannot agree – for the most part I think it works well and I think it is regrettable that modifications to it have rowed back from its original radicalism in order to accommodate those who were horrified at what was perceived back in 2003 as a liberalising Act. The crux of their Lordships’ concern is the view that it was a mistake to create new ‘licensing committees’ of council members when a system of planning committees already exists.
No one could argue with the idea that licensing and planning should work closely together – that is why the local planning department is a ‘responsible authority’ under the LA2003, and must be notified of any new licence application or application for a major variation of an existing licence. But to combine licensing and planning? In the 10 years since the LA2003 came in to force I have never heard that suggestion made. So, a little ‘left field’ it seems to me – not least because the sale of alcohol will continue to have its own laws and regulations and its own legal precedents. The Committee’s recommendation in this regard deserves to be studied carefully, but at first blush this seems a curious proposal.
So we know what the great and the good think of our licensing system, and perhaps by inference of our drinking culture. But what does the ordinary drinker think? Well, on Saturday 8th April I had the privilege of addressing around a thousand CAMRA members at their annual shindig down in Bournemouth. Sometimes the alcohol and society debate seems be conducted between opposing groups consisting of industry players or health lobby fanatics; groups united only by their mutual loathing. The title of my talk ‘The Modern Anti-Alcohol Movement – Temperance Without the Hymns’ does indeed reflect this divide. So I was curious to hear the questions and comments from an audience of informed and influential consumers.
I argued that every society from the most ancient to the most modern has had at least one legally or socially accepted intoxicant – something that changes mood, social interaction or consciousness. Ours of course is beverage alcohol. But the widespread use of intoxicants throughout different societies and historical epochs suggests to me that the need to change your mood or consciousness is a fundamental human need. As such, in a society like ours, access to beverage alcohol within a legal framework becomes nothing less than a human right and must be defended.
Of course no one in the modern, ant-alcohol ‘public health’ community would openly call for the outright legal prohibition of alcohol, they know such suggestions would be ridiculed. But ‘public health’ harbours the same prohibitionist ambition as their clerical forbears, albeit prohibition by stealth. They call for a population-wide reduction in alcohol consumption, but will never tell you to what level. Thus the direction of travel is obvious, but the destination is never mentioned. A bit like Brexit!
I think the drinkers’ voice needs to be heard in this debate. I listened to that voice at CAMRA, down in Bournemouth, and what a passionate voice it was! I was able to announce a new, CAMRA-inspired initiative – the formation of the ‘Drinkers’ Voice’. This organisation, once set up, will articulate the voice of the consumer – the “ordinary drinker” – in the alcohol-society debate. It is time that voice was heard in the public square. Watch this space.