Comment: On trade facing closing time over licence issue

The licensed trade does not have its troubles to seek, and as it contends with the worldwide CO2 shortage that is impacting on sales, Scottish operators face an almighty hangover caused by the legal requirement to renew personal licences that are required for pubs, clubs, hotels and restaurants.

Ferrie says many see personal licence renewal as a further unnecessary layer of red tape. Picture: contributed.
Ferrie says many see personal licence renewal as a further unnecessary layer of red tape. Picture: contributed.

First introduced by the Scottish Government in 2009, a named premises manager must hold a personal licence to sell alcohol in any licensed premises. In Scotland this licence has to be renewed every ten years, unlike in England and Wales where this same requirement was abolished in 2005.

An estimated 40,000 licences are due to expire on 31 August 2019, which may seem a long way off, but a two-stage process means applicants first have to complete a training course prior to lodging their application by 31 May 2019. Scotland’s 32 licensing boards, which are responsible for issuing personal licences, are under pressure with a myriad of other licensing obligations and targets. An additional burden is that all renewals have to be referred to the Home Office for immigration checks.

With the Scottish Government yet to set a fee for licence renewals, there is great uncertainty and genuine concern that a systems back-log will result in thousands of applications missing the deadline, with the knock-on effect that many pubs, clubs and restaurants will be forced to close.

North Ayrshire Licensing Board Convenor Councillor Ronnie McNicol pulled no punches last week when he called on the Scottish Government to follow England’s lead and to abolish the current system, or at least change the legislation to make it more workable.

“Those worst-affected are likely to be small businesses because it often happens that the business is both owned and managed by one person, so if he or she loses a personal licence there might not be an alternative person who can take over the management.”Indeed, the view of many in the licensed trade and licence board members across Scotland is that personal licence renewal is another unnecessary layer of red tape that has been imposed without due regard to how the process can be efficiently implemented and which pays little attention to the views of those most impacted. It remains the case that licensing boards can review licences and suspend or revoke them if an individual does not conduct themselves in accordance with the licensing objectives, or is found guilty of some offence that makes them unsuitable to hold a licence.

To avoid the potential closure of hundreds of premises next year, ideally the Scottish Government should reconsider the need to renew licences every decade, but given Holyrood’s, some would say, single-minded stance on licensing matters, this is unlikely.

As is stands, licensing boards have no discretion to allow licence applications to be considered after the May 2019 deadline, but it is not asking too much of Holyrood to consider an interim fix and to introduce legislation that could give the boards some leeway and so avoid an inevitable log-jam that will surely result in job losses, closures – some of which will be permanent – and a loss of amenity to many communities.

Some companies accept responsibility for organising their employees’ personal licences, while other operators leave it up to the individuals. It would be prudent for pub and restaurant operators to conduct an audit of current staff to establish who needs to go through this licence renewal process and to take speedy steps to ensure measures are in place for training to take place and to meet both deadlines.

Rather than hoping for a shift in attitude by the Scottish Government, operators and individuals who have personal licences really need to start planning now if they are to avoid a deadline doomsday scenario that could mean last orders for many establishments.

Audrey Ferrie, legal director and licensing expert at law firm Pinsent Masons