Nick Herbert highlights Licensing Act chaos

Arundel & South Downs MP Nick Herbert has called on the Government to deal with the “chaos” of new regulation affecting shops, village halls and community centres as a result of its new Licensing Act.

The Act transfers responsibility for licensing premises to sell alcohol from magistrates to local authorities.  It was intended to deal with problems such as binge drinking but is having a serious effect on village halls and small shops that sell alcohol.

Intervening in a Commons debate on Tuesday (12 July), Mr Herbert said:  "One village shop in my constituency, which is only just being maintained by the actions of villagers, is having to subscribe a very large sum of money in payment to consultants to help it to fill in forms.  The shop is confronting a permanent problem that will not be addressed by the measures [the Government] is suggesting."

Mr Herbert has also signed a House of Commons Early Day Motion noting "the considerable and burdensome increase in licence fees faced by village halls and community centres as a result of the Licensing Act 2003."

The cost of obtaining a licence has risen dramatically as a result of the Act and, together with fees of hundreds of pounds which they are paying to consultants and solicitors to help prepare the applications, will place many small shops and village halls' finances under severe strain. Advertising a licence variation in the local press is also proving expensive.

Mr Herbert raised his concerns after discussions with local councils and constituents revealed that the process of applying for new licences has descended into chaos.

Local councils are being flooded with applications as the 6 August deadline approaches and other council staff are being diverted away from their normal jobs to deal with the logging and processing of applications.  Some councils in West Sussex are reporting that they have only received about a quarter of the applications that they are expecting.

Volunteers who run village halls and community centres, and shop owners who sell alcohol, are being faced with forms which can take up to eight hours to fill in.  A lack of clarity on the application forms has meant that many of the forms are having to be sent back by councils.  Most village halls and small shops are ill-equipped to deal with many of the requirements that the Act places upon them.  The Motion signed by Mr Herbert "regrets the extra burden of red tape and bureaucracy forced on village hall committees."

Little guidance has been offered by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.  Some local councils have had to take the initiative by producing specialised leaflets and holding workshops and talks to help people get a clearer understanding of what is expected from them.

Following the intervention by Mr Herbert and other MPs in a debate called by Conservative Party on Tuesday (12 July), the Minister responsible (James Purnell) agreed to a meeting with MPs to discuss in particular the situation facing village halls.  However he flatly rejected the MPs' call for an extension in the deadline for licence applications.

Afterwards Mr Herbert said: "The Licensing Act has produced an absurd bureaucracy, placing a totally unnecessary regulatory burden on volunteers who run village halls and community centres and some small shop owners.  The legislation should have been focused on problem pubs and clubs in towns.  Small village shops selling the odd bottle of wine and community events in village halls were not causing a problem."

"Since it was the Government which created this unnecessary mess I will be asking the Minister what steps he will now take to remedy the situation."



Notes for editors

1. Early Day Motion 211, which 111 MPs including Nick Herbert have signed, states:

"That this House notes the considerable and burdensome increase in licence fees faced by village halls and community centres as a result of the Licensing Act 2003; regrets the extra burden of red tape and bureaucracy forced on village hall committees; believes that a maximum of just 12 temporary event notices each year is woefully inadequate for the range and variety of events at the majority of village halls; believes a doubling of such temporary event notices to 24 per annum would give a more realistic and practical figure; further believes that few people in the voluntary sector will take on the onerous responsibilities of personal licences and designated premises supervisors; is concerned therefore that as a result of the Act many village halls and community centres will be forced dramatically to reduce the range of facilities they offer to their communities, to the possible detriment of social cohesion in those communities; recognises the vital role that such centres play in the social life of many communities; and urges the Government to ensure that village halls and community centres are not unfairly and disproportionately affected in these ways."

Christopher N Howarth