The Licensing Act 2003 went ‘live’ at midnight on the 24th November 2005. Initially it enjoyed cross-party support and even qualified support from ACPO. The only stumbling block to its progress through Parliament was an amendment in the Lords which came to be known as the ‘Morris Dancing exemption’ – their lordships were concerned that traditional English folk dancing might be caught by the new definition of regulated entertainment – and thus Morris Dancing and the like was solemnly exempted from the regulations; everyone kept a straight face. It was in the time-lapse between the Bill passing into law and it coming into effect that we saw the development of what was arguably the most extraordinary moral panic of modern times.
The labelling of the new licensing regime by the Daily Mail as the “twenty-four hour drinking Act” was instrumental in persuading politicians, bishops, police chiefs, newspaper editors, a variety of self-appointed, socially-accredited experts and other assorted ‘right-thinking people’ that this would lead to a binge-drinking epidemic, a crime wave, and in particular an increase in rape and other assaults. And that our hospitals would be flooded with so many casualties that the new Act would “bankrupt the NHS”. Ever since this claim, a crisis isn’t a proper crisis unless it threatens to do that.
In reality we have seen crime and disorder fall, and as a sub-set of that we have seen alcohol-related crime and disorder fall. The other falls – in the overall level of drinking and in problem drinking and teeny drinking have been well documented. I don’t suggest that these improvements have happened because of the new licensing regime, but certainly they don’t support the proposition that the sky would fall in and society as we know it would crumble as a result of licensing reform. Some would argue that we haven’t seen the creation of a continental café-bar culture either – but this was never more than a piece of New Labour spin.
In fact neither the worst fears nor the best hopes attached to this reform were realised. The lesson for politicians is that the expectation that a reform to the way in which we regulate how the retail distribution system handles a product would automatically read-across to a cultural change in terms of how consumers would use that product, was unrealistic. Regulation is only a part of the mix; drinking cultures are much more complex than was supposed.
All of that having been said, I do think that the Licensing Act 2003 has been a qualified success, despite the legislative repentance that followed as a result of the initial moral panic. It was sensible to separate the licensing of persons from the licensing of premises. It was right to enable licensing hours to be responsive to local needs and consumer demand. Getting rid of nationally prescribed ‘permitted hours’ was a welcome departure from the paternalism of the past. Although the trade was initially suspicious of moving licensing from courts to councils – and in the process discovering that they loved magistrates after all – it was broadly a positive move. If there is to be a further reform of the licensing system I would like to see licensing continue to be administered by council licensing authorities, but for contested applications to be heard in the courts with a proper judicial procedure, in the event that objections cannot be mediated away.
The Licensing Act 2003 did enable some welcome changes to the drinking culture, particularly in city centres. Under the Licensing Act 1964 the city centre night-time-economy had become a youth leisure ghetto. If you could only sell alcohol after 11 p.m. if it was ancillary to the combination of music, dancing and the availability of food, in practice this meant nightclubs and late-night bars with a loud disco. The demographic this appealed to was obvious. What is equally obvious is that we all behave better when we are in the company of people older or younger than ourselves. When the new licensing regime swept away these outdated restrictions it enabled the creation of a much more diverse night-time-economy that attracted a much wider demographic. The political and media perception of the city-centre drinking culture is still rooted in mass volume, vertical drinking establishments, but this is not the way the late-night drinking culture has evolved.
The Licensing Act 2003 did ignite a debate about alcohol and society. The nexus of that debate has now moved beyond crime and disorder and into the realm of health impacts. What is lacking in this whole debate is honest statistics. We don’t even have a nationally agreed definition of alcohol-related crime; the number of alcohol-related hospital admissions and the impact of alcohol on A&E departments have been grotesquely exaggerated by a new public health movement that sees alcohol as an “industry of addiction”. The debate about alcohol and society is more polarised than ever before. That is perhaps the worst unintended consequence of the Licensing Act 2003.