It was only four months ago that a certain Act of Parliament had the mainstream media screaming from the rooftops that Armageddon was approaching. The Licensing Act 2003, which came into effect last November, was going to destroy England and Wales as rivers of alcohol washed our communities away. Now the media interest has waned, we should remember the immense change this Act has brought about and its impact.
Last week, the government was criticised by a committee of MPs over the implementation of the Act. If new regulation is burdensome on business then government should be told and the WSTA is doing exactly that. We already know that the transition was badly managed - the number of businesses who asked us for help makes that patently clear. We also know that the Act is hurting businesses on an ongoing basis, not just the bureaucracy but also the huge increase in fee levels and costs.
Licensees have had to take on huge fee increases in order to pay for local authorities to administer licensing. Some businesses might rightly complain they are not getting good value for the extra costs.
Three months after the Act came into force, plenty of businesses are still waiting for their new-look premise licences to be issued. One national off-licence chain is waiting for 12% of its premises licences to be issued.
The efficiency of administration by councils varies across the country, along with their interpretations of the Act. Conflicting advice and unnecessarily complex application forms are causing major headaches for businesses.
The subject of costs is of continuing relevance, with the Independent Licensing Fees Review Panel due to report this year. Local authorities are already campaigning for the fee levels to be increased further, something the WSTA is lobbying against.
The old licensing system, run by the magistrates, was subsidised by public funds. A justices' licence cost £30 every three years with £30 required to transfer the licence. The new system has to be cost-neutral - the trade now has to pay for the administration. The annual fee is now considerably higher, with the lowest £70 and the highest £350.
One major retailer has told us that the amount it will spend on licensing this year will be over 1000% more - an increase from nearly £40,000 in 2004 to a projected £440,000 in 2006. This does not even include administration, legal costs, training fees and personal licence changes. With such enormous increases, we would all hope to see the regulatory burden being decreased, but this is not necessarily the case.
As an example, the new Act set a limit of only one Designated Premises Supervisor per premises. Previously a store would have at least two people named on the licence to avoid having to change the licence details every time a member of staff moved. Now, with just one person named, the changes will be far more frequent, which of course means additional cost and red tape. The promised land of a light-touch bureaucratic regime has not arrived and we are yet to see any value for money or the huge cost savings promised.
While England and Wales now have a modernised licensing regime, Scotland and Northern Ireland are at different stages of the process. The Licensing (Scotland) Act was passed by the Scottish Parliament in December 2005.
The transition period will commence in early 2008. It is likely that licensing costs will increase and it is also proposed that all permanent staff should receive compulsory training to serve alcohol.
Northern Ireland has just held a public consultation on licensing reform. The proposals followed the themes of England, Wales and Scotland - that the new regime will lower the regulatory burden on business; that there will be a light-touch regime; that businesses will save millions every year.
We await these developments everywhere with bated breath.
>>Jeremy Beadles, chief executive, Wine and Spirit Trade Association, on a costly and bureaucratic change