A small glass of cheer on Sundays

Tomorrow's relaxing of pub hours should be followed by further reform, argues Stephen Locke
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The Independent Online
At last, the all-day Sunday pint - or glass of wine, or gin and tonic - is a reality. Tomorrow, the Licensing (Sunday Hours) Act comes into force, bringing decades of enforced Sunday afternoon teetotalism to an end.

And not before time. We may be able to order another pint as the late afternoon shadows lengthen; we may be able to linger in the beer garden beyond three o'clock, but other aspects of the licensing system still rankle.

A recent Which? survey showed widespread demand for people to be able to enjoy a drink in continental-style cafes, not only pubs and restaurants. People wanted longer opening hours. And most parents thought too few pubs admitted children.

Why, then, has the Government, a self-styled champion of deregulation, made such slow progress on reform? The Home Office considered introducing licences for cafe-style premises two years ago, then came out instead in favour of children's certificates, allowing children under 14 to be admitted to bars, accompanied by an adult, during certain hours.

This is progress of a kind. But having willed at least one desirable end, the Home Office signally failed to will the means. We are still saddled with a system that allows - even encourages - bizarre inconsistencies by the licensing magistrates.

These favoured beings exercise absolute discretion over the granting of licences. The question of who can serve alcohol, where, and whether a licensee can serve drink on or off the premises, lies wholly within the magistrates' gift. They may refuse an application on the grounds of "economic need", whatever that means. And they may dictate conditions as they see fit on the granting of children's certificates. In one licensing area, conditions may range from the installation of low-level urinals to the removal of slot machines. In another, conditions may be minimal.

Here's an illustration. Two pubs - the Furze Bush and the White Hart - lie within the Hampshire border. The Furze Bush last year served more than 5,000 children's meals, and local families know they can enjoy a drink with their children safe in the garden play area. Despite this, the Furze Bush was refused a children's certificate for the bar area leading directly on to the garden. The White Hart had no such problems, because the pub fell under the jurisdiction of a different licensing committee.

Variations in Scotland are even worse than in England and Wales. Only 2 per cent of Edinburgh pubs can welcome children, compared with 39 per cent in Dundee, perhaps not unconnected with the fact that Edinburgh pubs must meet 14 conditions to win a certificate, including thermostatically controlled tap water at 39C. Equally tough conditions can be imposed by magistrates in England and Wales, including the installation of special low-level children's sinks and toilets, the covering of electric sockets, and a ban on happy hours. Conditions on restaurants and hotels, where families already go, are seldom so tough.

By contrast, some licensing boards appear to impose no formal conditions at all. Bath magistrates, for instance, have more respect for the discretion of parents. As a result families in Bath can now choose from 10 pubs that have a certificate.

Next week's Consumer Policy Review, published by the Consumers' Association, cites a delightfully disingenuous Home Office acknowledgement that some licensing committees are setting "what [appear] to be demanding conditions". But the Government has no plans to review the regime.

Tinkering with one obvious anomaly, though welcome, is no substitute for the evident need to review the whole basis of the licensing system, including the concept of "economic need". Extraordinarily, the Government allows this elementary barrier to those wishing to enter the market to persist, when so many other restrictions - in areas ranging from bus services to the supply of spectacles - have been swept away.

Public opinion is clearly a long way ahead of the Government's own willingness to straighten out an antiquated, inconsistent and anti-competitive system. It is time the Government called "time" on our archaic licensing regime.

The writer is director of research and policy at the Consumers' Association.