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Concern that 'yellow card' licensing scheme could add to regulatory burden

8 September 2009

Local authorities have started implementing a new ‘yellow card’ scheme designed to curb binge drinking which licensing lawyers say could increase the regulatory burden on premises.

As part of the government’s pledge to tackle binge drinking, DCMS announced a scheme earlier this year which it said would enable licensing authorities to crack down on problem establishments more effectively.

Under the scheme, a ‘yellow card’ would apply tough licence conditions, with the threat of revocation or ‘red card’ at a further review should the situation fail to improve.

The main object of the scheme is to formalise existing practices of informal discussions between licensing authorities and premises. It is not binding on local licensing authorities, which are free to endorse it or not under their devolved powers.

John Gaunt, senior partner at John Gaunt and Partners, a specialist licensing firm, says that under one plan, in East Dorset, authorities would be actively encouraged not to attempt to solve difficulties through informal discussions with perceived problem premises.

“The preferred course under the proposals would be for the enforcing authority to go immediately to a review of the licence,” he said.

“The fact that some councils may be moving in this direction is yet another example of the apparently unending and increasing regulatory pressure on licensed operators and their premises,” he added.

Marjory Parish, district licensing manager for Mid Devon, said there were already sufficient powers under the Licensing Act and that the yellow card scheme was “a bit gimmicky”.

She said that enforcement authorities usually gave warnings before using their powers.

Parish said that at least seven of the ten licensing authorities in Devon were not using the scheme and had no plans to do so.

“Few are enamoured with these new mandatory conditions,” she added.

John Bean, alcohol-related crime reduction officer at Devon and Cornwall Constabulary, said a yellow card scheme targeting individuals causing alcohol-related trouble had been in force in the Exeter area since November 2005 but that none was considered for licensed premises. “We believe we have sufficient powers as it is under the Licensing Act,” he said.

East Lindsey, in Lincolnshire, has had a yellow card scheme since the beginning of this year. So far, only yellow cards have been issued.

Adrian Twiddy, principal licensing officer, said the scheme worked in tandem with existing powers under the Licensing Act. It has formalised, rather than replaced, the council’s existing proactive approach to problem solving.

“We’re always having informal discussions with licence holders, offering advice and agreeing action plans where necessary,” he said.

In contrast with the informal approach however, involving the licence review team provides more leverage. “It definitely focuses people’s minds.”

But Andy Grimsey, solicitor at Poppleston Allen, said he doubted there would be a large uptake.

“Licensing authorities are being inundated with various types of legislation and proposals, from alcohol disorder zones, new laws under the Policing and Crime Bill, amendments to the Noise Act, and ASBOs. They find it difficult to keep up,” he said.

“Dialogue with operators that are prepared to talk has to be the first step.”

Emma Feeney, associate at Dickinson Dees in Newcastle, commented that only a limited number of local authorities had taken the government’s recommendation on board.

“Licensing authorities already have extensive powers to prosecute and revoke licences, including for selling alcohol to children, so this would most likely apply to a small number of premises not abiding by their licence obligations,” she said.

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