Way open for shady customers to become crooked landlords

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CRIMINALS will be given the green light to open up bars and clubs because proposed new regulations will see police having a lesser role in vetting licensees, a senior police officer has warned.

Under a radical shake-up of Scotland's alcohol licensing laws, police would only be allowed to object to an application if the would-be landlord has "relevant" previous convictions.

At the moment, police are able to inform licensing boards if the applicant is suspected of being involved in criminal activity, for example if he or she is believed to be a drug dealer or has carried out sexual attacks.

Malcolm Dickson, the deputy chief constable at Lothian and Borders Police, yesterday described the vetting system as playing an "important role" which has prevented some criminals from getting a foothold in the pub and club scene.

Mr Dickson, who until last month was the spokesman on liquor licensing for the Association of Police Officers in Scotland, said: "At the moment [when] someone applies for a licence, a vetting check is done on them by the police, as the law requires that an applicant has to be a fit and proper person to hold an licence.

"We will check for criminal convictions, police intelligence and also look at the financial backing for premises, as we don't want pubs and clubs to be fronts for illegal enterprises and money laundering. We have been successful in that and in many cases have prevented that from happening. It is an important role.

"But the bill seems to have limited the police service to only passing comment where there are relevant convictions. That would be firstly in relation to licensing law and secondly in relation to violence and disorder. There is therefore no scope for that broader investigation."

Mr Dickson warned: "The risk is that you could get people who have been strongly suspected of being involved in criminal activities, but never convicted, being granted licences. That criminal activity might range from organised crime, such as drug dealing, to sexual offences. You're putting someone in a fair degree of responsibility when you allow them to run a pub.

"They may not be like social workers or teachers, but you're talking about someone trying to run an operation where there can be lots of young people under the influence of alcohol. The public has to ask itself if it is happy [to have] people running those operations who might be strongly suspected of criminal activities."

He added: "It's always been the case that the criminal fraternity is closely associated to, and conducts a lot of its business in, licensed premises. From time to time, some of them who are more successful than others feel it might be worth their while running those kinds of premises themselves."

Mr Dickson said the Soham murders highlighted the importance of sharing intelligence on criminal suspects.

He said : "The criticism of the police after that was all about not communicating intelligence. It's a very topical issue - how much can you use intelligence to protect the public? I do think there has to be a debate."

He continued: "It's not the case that police should make the judgements on who should run pubs and clubs, just that they should be allowed to properly inform licensing boards."

In 2004, a huge money-laundering and VAT investigation was launched by Customs and Excise across Scotland, during which shops, clubs, bars and homes were raided in simultaneous swoops.

The operations in Glasgow, Dundee and Ayrshire were part of an investigation into organised crime's money-laundering scams, focusing particularly on cash flowing through busy nightclubs and bars. Four people were arrested in Dundee during the investigation.

Paul Waterson, the chief executive of the Scottish Licence Trade Association, echoed Mr Dickson's fears yesterday, warning that the proposals could result in licensing boards unwittingly granting a licence to a serious criminal.

In the past, some of Glasgow's most infamous gangsters, such as Arthur Thompson and Tam "The Licensee" McGraw, have run pubs.

Mr Waterson said: "We could have the ridiculous situation where somebody has a relatively minor relevant conviction and is refused a licence, while somebody who the police know is running a drugs ring could get a licence because the police cannot object. Clearly that's unacceptable."

While diminishing the police's role in vetting new applicants, the bill would extend rights of objection to new applications to members of the public.

The bill, expected to be made law next year, also aims to tackle binge-drinking by banning "irresponsible" cheap drink promotions such as happy hours and two-for-one offers.

Mr Dickson said he welcomed many of the bill's proposals, saying that it will put harm-reduction at the heart of liquor laws for the first time.

Earlier this year a bid to close a notorious legal loophole that allows city centre pubs in Edinburgh to put on lapdancing without permission was thwarted by the Executive. City council chiefs were told that there was no prospect of Edinburgh being able to effectively ban bars from staging strip shows as "ad-hoc" entertainment after a change in the current legislation was ruled out.

Licensing leaders in Edinburgh have been campaigning for tougher powers to deal with the practice since concerns were raised by Lothian and Borders Police almost a year ago.

Police officers have complained about the unchecked growth of lap-dancing bars amid fears some of the venues could be used as a front for blackmail and money laundering. Senior police officers claim the law as it stands allows such establishments to operate with only a drinks licence.

The council complained last year it was effectively powerless to act on lap-dancing in pubs and unveiled plans to pursue a local by-law which would allow it to monitor and enforce restrictions on such premises for the first time.

But the move was put on hold after Executive officials said they were considering allowing lapdancing to come under the control of local councils in a forthcoming shake-up of the Civic Government Scotland Act.

However, the council says it has now been told that such a move will not be included in the planned changes.

An Executive spokeswoman said the bill tried to address concerns raised in the Nicholson Report into Scotland's licensing laws that the term "fit and proper" was too vague, adding that it was considering Mr Dixon's concerns.