MINISTERIAL STATEMENT TO PARLIAMENT
20 JULY 06
Reform of Liquor Licensing
The Minister of State for Northern Ireland (David Hanson): This statement
sets out my plans to reform liquor licensing law in Northern Ireland. The last
review of the law governing liquor licensing and registered clubs took place
some ten years ago. Since then the social and economic climate in Northern
Ireland has changed and improved immensely. The peace dividend has
altered the shape of the tourism and hospitality sectors and of town and city
centres. There is great potential for further growth, and liquor licensing law
must keep pace with these developments and with modern expectations.
Coupled with that is the need for a more transparent, accountable and better
regulated framework for the licensed trade. There are clear anomalies in the
current licensing system and a requirement for greater enforcement powers
for the Police Service of Northern Ireland to deal with breaches of licensing
The consultation on proposed changes to the existing legislation was
launched in November 2005. Since then I have had a number of discussions
with political representatives and other interested parties. There has been
support from both local political parties and the licensed trade for many of my
proposals. Concerns have been expressed by politicians and parts of the
licensed trade regarding two of the proposed changes. These are the transfer
of responsibility for liquor licensing from courts to district councils and the
abolition of the ‘surrender’ principle. I welcome the views that have been put
and now confirm that my plans for the reform of the law on liquor licensing
and registered clubs in Northern Ireland are as follows:
- The introduction of six new objectives to underpin licensing policy,
legislation and regulation. These are - Promotion of public health;
Promotion of public safety; Prevention of crime and disorder;
Prevention of public nuisance; Protection of children from harm; Fair
treatment of all stakeholders.
- New, more effective enforcement measures, including immediate
temporary closure powers for the police, a penalty points system for
licensees who break the law and new council liquor licensing officers.
- Moving responsibility for granting and renewing licences and
certificates of registration from courts to district councils, leading to a
more accountable, transparent system.
- Replacing the current twelve categories of licences in favour of a dual
system of personal and premises licences.
- Abolishing the provision which requires an existing licence for a pub or
off-licence to be “surrendered” to a court before a new one may be
granted. This will be subject to an assessment of the business impact
of my proposal which will help decide how this is addressed in the
second stage of reforms. I hope it will be the Northern Ireland
Assembly that will consider these matters.
- A voluntary proof-of-age scheme and more flexibility to allow under-18s
in certified licensed premises and registered clubs when accompanied
by responsible adults.
- A modest extension of current opening hours for licensed premises and
registered clubs, creating scope for opening up to 2.00am Monday to
Saturday. Sunday opening hours will remain unchanged as will
opening hours for off-licences.
- Revoking the financial controls and accounts formats for registered
clubs, prescribed in the Registration of Clubs (Accounts) Regulations
(Northern Ireland) 1997, in favour of best practice guidance.
The proposals will give police the powers they need to crack down on
irresponsible drinkers and rogue traders and make the licensing system more
transparent and accountable, giving communities more information and a
louder voice in decision-making.
Allowing licensed premises and registered clubs to apply to the courts to
extend their opening hours up to 2.00am is the result of careful consideration
of the changes in people’s social habits and the opportunities available for
developing the night time economy. I have listened very carefully to the
arguments made by the licensed trade, the police, health interests and others,
and balanced the economic and social advantages of extending opening
hours with the public interest and public safety. Accordingly, I have decided
that opening to 2.00am will be available to those licensed premises entitled
under existing law to apply for later opening but not to off-licensed premises.
Transferring responsibility for granting liquor licences and club certificates
from a court-based system to district councils will create a more accountable
system where pubs, off-licences, registered clubs and other licensees will
have to explain in detail how their businesses will support the six licensing
objectives. There have been concerns expressed about the ability of councils
to administer a new liquor licensing system. However, councils already
operate a number of regulatory systems including entertainments licensing
and street trading, and their range of responsibilities will be greatly enhanced
under the Review of Public Administration. The capacity of new councils to
undertake these new responsibilities is an issue that is being addressed in the
period leading up to the full implementation of the Review of Public
Administration. I wish to reassure those concerned that responsibility for liquor
licensing will only move to councils once they have built the capacity to
administer the new system.
The new system will operate under clear guidelines that will be issued to
councils. They will be required to produce a Statement of Licensing Policy that
clearly articulates how they plan to control liquor licensing in line with the six
licensing objectives. There will be further safeguards. Before councils reach
a decision they will have to seek the views of responsible authorities and
interested parties such as the Police Service of Northern Ireland, local
residents and local businesses. All applications for a licence will be open to
objection and a licence may be reviewed, revoked or suspended at any time if
there is cause for concern. Those seeking a premises licence will be required
to produce an operating plan setting out the nature of the business for
approval by councils, and the need for any new licence will have to be clearly
I am replacing the current twelve categories of licence with a dual system of
personal and premises licences. This will result in a more robust licensing
regime. Personal licences are being introduced for the first time to ensure
that those managing licensed premises have accredited qualifications and
demonstrate clean backgrounds. This will improve operating standards
across the licensed trade and protect against infiltration by those involved in
The surrender provision has created anomalies in the licensed trade. At
present only pubs and off-licences are required to surrender a licence before
being granted a new one. This has capped the overall number of such
premises in Northern Ireland, but it has not prevented the growth of alcohol
sales in other premises such as large hotels, nor the clustering of pubs and
off-licences in particular areas. It is also an artificial barrier to entry to the
market and its abolition will create a more equitable commercial environment.
I have listened to the views of local politicians and parts of the licensed trade
about the implications of the abolition of surrender. In response to their
concerns, I will commission an assessment of the business impact of abolition
before making any further decision on the way forward.
I intend to implement some of the proposals as soon as possible. Those
relating to enforcement, opening hours, children and registered clubs’
accounts should come into effect by Christmas 2007, and draft legislation will
be consulted on in Autumn 2006.
With regard to the move to councils, I intend to defer the consideration of this
aspect of the legislation, along with some of the other proposals that depend
on the new system being operational, to a second, later legislative vehicle.
The Review of Public Administration is due for completion in 2009 and the
target date for making legislation to transfer responsibility for licensing from
courts to district councils and for the introduction of new licensing objectives
will be linked to this. This tranche of legislation will also see the abolition of
the existing categories of licence and, subject to an impact assessment, the
surrender provision. The final decisions on this will hopefully be taken by a
devolved Assembly, should it be successfully restored.
I believe this is a balanced package of measures that weighs up the rights,
needs and demands of the various interested parties. They will bring
licensing law in Northern Ireland up to date, both to deal more effectively with
the alcohol-related problems we currently face and to meet modern day
expectations. They will result in a more democratic approach that allows local
people to have greater influence in how and where the licensed trade
operates. They will promote a safe, welcoming environment in town and city
centres where the evening and night-time economy can flourish and will
encourage investment, variety and high standards of service in the hospitality,
tourism and entertainment sectors.