ALE Winter 2003/04 No. 312 : Next section

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The Brown Stuff: Licensing Act - A Worrying Time

The new Licensing Act includes changes in the way alcohol licenses and the like are granted. Is this just "a tidying-up exercise", or unnecessary meddling ("modernising", I believe they like to call it) with a system that has functioned perfectly well for centuries?

Ever since the time of Henry VII, the power to grant, refuse and remove licences for keeping an alehouse (and subsequently any other premises on which intoxicating liquor is sold) has rested with justices or magistrates - people appointed to enforce the laws of the land impartially. They have dealt with all the various changes fairly over all the centuries, until now - their powers of licensing are being handed over to local councils.

In Mr Brown's opinion those who will now sit in judgement are not the ideal people. Whilst many have the community at heart, councillors include amongst their ranks those who have failed in their goal of becoming an MP, or are motivated solely by self-interest. These people are often affiliated to a political party, and thus compromised. It is hard for them to be impartial and so cannot make a clear judgement. Even more worryingly, they may seek favour or gain from the judgements they pass. Even if not, all sorts of interest groups will be able to have a say, and elected officials will always have one eye on those with the power to re-elect them, which may unfairly or unjustly influence their views on the merits of a particular licence application.

The present system works well enough, so why change it? Unfortunately it is now too late to do anything about it. We had a system that was good and not corrupt, but I fear it has been swept aside, possibly gone forever, purely because this government cannot resist meddling with - sorry, "modernising" - our ancient institutions. We may well rue this decision for years to come.

Jerry Brown

Editor's note: Licensing in England provides a long and, if you like that sort of thing, quite fascinating aspect of our social history. Not surprisingly, justices and magistrates haven't always been the heroes of the piece, nor have they always been held in the regard that they are now, and many over the centuries have been as venal as the worst of the elected politicians that Jerry depicts.

I can recommend Peter Haydon's Beer and Britannia: An Inebriated History of Britain (Sutton Publishing, 7.99), if you want to find out more about the history of drinking and the ways that successive governments since Saxon times have tried to regulate it - not always successfully.

ALE Winter 2003/04 No. 312 : Next section
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