What next for alcohol licensing?

Niall Hassard

After Holyrood’s Health and Sport Committee published a report confirming that it would not be supporting a Labour MSP’s proposed Alcohol Bill, there is now some uncertainty about how the Government will progress from here, given it opposed the Bill.

by Niall Hassard, Licensing Legal Director, TLT LLP

On 13th January 2016 the Health and Sport Committee published its report confirming that it does not support the Alcohol (Licensing, Public Health and Criminal Justice) (Scotland) Bill.

The Alcohol Bill was a Member’s Bill, introduced by Dr. Richard Simpson, MSP, on 1st April 2015. It aimed to introduce further legal restrictions to deal with the abuse of alcohol, proposing to amend, yet again, the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005.

At first blush one might be surprised that the Alcohol Bill, which seeks to add restrictions around the sale and advertising of alcohol, has not found favour, given the Scottish Government’s apparently insatiable appetite for alcohol legislation. The fact it was a Member’s Bill is perhaps significant in explaining why it has failed to progress. By way of explanation a Member’s Bill is put forward by an individual MSP, rather than the Government or its ministers. Dr. Simpson is a Labour MSP so the Alcohol Bill needed cross-party support from the SNP.

In November 2015 the Scottish Government stated that it would not be supporting the Bill. It is this lack of Governmental support that made success of the Alcohol Bill unlikely. The November announcement led to criticism of the Government from some quarters for rejecting the Alcohol Bill, rather than looking to propose amendments and introduce some parts and not others.

Now Holyrood’s Health and Sport Committee, which is the lead cross-party Committee examining the Alcohol Bill (albeit it has an SNP majority), has also rejected the Alcohol Bill.

In its report it stated, “The majority of the Committee believe that the Scottish Government’s forthcoming updated alcohol strategy offers a more effective route to consider changes to alcohol policy” and “a minority of the members believe that the general principles of the Bill should be supported.”

Notwithstanding the rejection, certain parts of the Alcohol Bill are likely to be of interest to the Government. But it remains to be seen whether some of Dr. Simpson’s proposals will be cherry-picked and repackaged as part of the Government’s future plans.

A number of Dr Simpson’s proposals that could have huge repercussions in the convenience sector spilt the Health and Sport Committee. They included:

  • banning multi-pack multi-buys
  • banning high caffeine alcohol drinks
  • bottle marking
  • enhanced community engagement
  • banning alcohol advertising near schools etc
  • drink banning orders; alcohol awareness as a punishment for offenders
  • alcohol education statements.

Some members were in favour of the proposals, whilst others were not convinced about their practical effect. Interestingly, a proposal to prohibit Licensing Boards, or the Government, from implementing a blanket age restriction for off-sales (e.g. over 21s) by way of condition was unanimously rejected. Is this perhaps indicative that MSPs may consider moves to set a higher age restriction for off-sales? One would anticipate that this is a step which will deeply trouble the off-trade.

The fact the Committee backed some proposals but not others suggests we could see certain steps reappear in future Government legislation. But what is abundantly clear is that there is an appetite to continue to legislate on alcohol and pass more restrictive laws.

With yet more regulation seemingly inevitable, licensing practitioners and operators, already swamped by the plethora of alcohol legislation, will unanimously back at least one of the Committee’s calls and urge the Government to consider consolidating the law into one licensing act.