Comment: Holyrood must mind the occasional alcohol licence gap

The Scottish Government is ­seeking views on whether the current fee for an occasional alcohol licence is appropriate, and whether it should impose limits on the number or length of licences holder may obtain.This is in response to concerns that licence holders are using multiple ­occasional licences in order to avoid the cost and scrutiny associated with a ­permanent application.

Pinsent Masons' Frances Ennis urges the Scottish Government to put in place infrastructure to process full applications effectively and in a timely manner. Picture: Contributed

While there must undoubtedly be proper regulation of those attempting to get round more robust scrutiny of an application, that must be in the context of adequate infrastructure being put in place to allow full applications to be processed effectively, and in a timely manner.

An occasional licence is one of two ways in which a premises can become licensed in Scotland. It lasts for 14 days and there is a one-off fee of £10 per application. The cost and process of obtaining an occasional licence is relatively simple compared to that associated with obtaining a full premises licence. There are no automatic public hearings, and no limits on the yearly number of occasional licences for which a non-voluntary organisation may apply.

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By contrast, applicants for premises licences must lodge layout plans conforming to statutory requirements with the licensing board, which are often costly to create. The application is publicly advertised and a public hearing is required. This application carries an upfront cost of up to around £2,000 and an annual fee.

The rationale for an occasional licence is to temporarily licence an area which is usually unlicensed. For example, a hotel marquee or an event-specific area, such as during a food fair at a conference venue, or a temporary bar at the Edinburgh Festival.

In reality some operators lodge multiple licences to run concurrently over months or even years. Because of the high demand on licensing boards and related authorities, this often does not come to light until a significant period of time has elapsed. Where this happens, the latest occasional licence application will be heard and its outcome decided by the licensing board.

While the Scottish Government is right to flag the potential for abuse in the ­system, the demand on licensing boards is such that operators often have to rely on multiple occasional licences to avoid potential gaps in trading. Normally, an operator will apply for a provisional premises licence application, often well in advance of opening date or even construction. If granted, they must then apply for ‘confirmation’ once the premises are ready.

In theory, confirmation is an administrative process but overburdened licensing boards and related authorities are often so inundated with work that they lack the capacity to process confirmation applications in line with client expectations. For operators, the opening of new premises can be a major event, such as a flagship hotel or new restaurant. In these cases it is common for operators to apply for a back-up occasional licence allowing them to trade from opening day, while the main process is resolved.

Scotland’s licensing regime purportedly operates on a cost recovery basis, with licence and other fees covering the costs to the licensing board. It is difficult to understand how the current £10 fee can possibly cover the cost of processing an application for an occasional licence, and it could be argued that this low cost has the potential to incentivise applying for multiple occasional licences over a full premises licence.

There is a clear distinction between using a process designed to be temporary to usurp a more costly or involved permanent one and using it as a “stop gap” while minor issues are ironed out during the permanent licensing process. Any increased fees or limits on the occasional licence regime which emerge from the consultation must bear this distinction in mind and Pinsent Masons’ licensing team has submitted a response to the consultation to reflect our client’s main operational concerns.

- Frances Ennis, licensing expert, Pinsent Masons