‘The UK Licensing Act 10 Years On’
In the UK, the night life entertainment industry is regulated by the Licensing Act (2003), which governs the licensing of premises that sell or supply alcohol, provide live music or entertainment. Given the size of this sector and the complexity of how each bar, pub or club functions individually, regulations and compliance are crucial in keeping operations afloat.
Over the next few pages, Lawyer monthly has had the privilege of speaking with Helen Wilson, Head of Procurement and Legal Contracts at The Deltic Group, the UK’s largest operator of premium late night bars and clubs. Besides detailing her role at The Deltic Group, her leadership in the company’s operations, and the challenges of being the Head of Legal in such a large entertainment group, Helen discusses the establishment, progression, impact and future of the Licensing Act, with some reference to Brexit and the changing landscape of today’s night life culture.
What kind of legal matters do you generally deal with at the Deltic Group?
My remit is far wider now than it’s ever been and the learning curve of 2016 has been a steep one! My initial role with The Deltic Group was as Head of Legal, I am also assuming temporary responsibility (maternity cover) for company secretarial duties, insurance and litigation. Following a restructure, I am now Head of Procurement and Legal Contracts.
The range of legal issues I am grappling with on a daily basis includes contractual matters for the business (which at the time of writing has 59 trading clubs), advice to the shareholders, licensing issues, data protection issues, IP portfolio maintenance and public liability insurance claims. I also have day to day involvement with suppliers (wet and consumables) and manage the tender process with Deltic’s Senior Buyer.
I advise the Board in relation to acquisitions, disposals and deal with company secretarial matters. On a managerial note, I am fully focused on motivating and supporting my team of eight, which currently includes Licensing, Insurance and Litigation and Procurement.
With such a broad range of responsibilities, my days include all manner of occurrences from the intense and pressured negotiations of acquisitions to, on occasions, service delivery standards by our cleaning contractors to analysis of income for AWP machines!
What would you say are the biggest rewards of working in the hospitality & entertainment sector, particularly in your legal role?
Well, never one to be still and always needing a challenge, I particularly enjoy the fact that no one day is the same! I also get a lot of personal satisfaction from supporting our teams around the country. They are hard-working, dedicated and under incredible pressure. Providing supportive, professional and solid legal support enables them to confidently deliver at the sharp end.
How did your previous experiences in law practice prepare you for this legal role?
I always enjoyed the client relationship management side of my previous role and this position at Deltic enables me to get under the skin of the business and put that commerciality into practice. I am a “doer,” and by listening to the needs of the operators of the business, our team is able to find practical solutions in a proactive way. As a transactional lawyer, I am used to juggling a number of balls at the same time and keeping them in the air. That has been essential in this role due to the variety and often urgency of dealing with the authorities on licensing matters or getting contracts over the line.
What goals did you aim for when joining the Group in 2015, and have these now changed? Do you have new professional goals for the Group?
Interestingly, I joined Deltic with no knowledge of the industry to cover a period of maternity leave, so my expectations were initially short term. I was completely unprepared for how much I would learn and how much I would enjoy this vibrant and interesting industry.
I can honestly say that when I used to go out for a social evening with friends, I never stopped to think about what it takes to provide the evening. Do any of us? If we are having a good time, then probably not.
Operating a late night entertainment venue, whether it’s a club, a bar or a multi-experience club, is nothing short of a military operation. It involves many layers of specialist staff, all managing different parts of the operation to provide a high-class and seamless experience.
When dealing with the public there will always be things that don’t go according to plan. That is why we invest so heavily in training our staff, at every level, to ensure they are prepared to respond to everything from a slip or cut right up to the highest level of crisis. Our customer’s experience and welfare is paramount.
The aim is for our customers to go home remembering an exceptional and memorable night, unaware of the efforts being made behind the scenes and able to reminisce with friends the following day.
Can you tell LM a little about the establishment of the UK Licensing Act (2003) and what it replaced at the time?
The Licensing Act 2003 made provision for the regulation of the sale and supply of alcohol, the provision of regulated entertainment and the provision of late night refreshment and for offences relating to alcohol and connected purposes. It combined eight separate licensing regimes into one, also transferring the regulation of the sale of alcohol from licensing justices and magistrates’ courts to local licensing authorities.
The modernisation of the legislation was intended to support a number of key aims which the Government intended to be principle aims for all involved in licensing work including:
- the introduction of better and more proportionate regulation to give business greater freedom and flexibility to meet customers’ expectations;
- the simplification and streamlining of the administrative licensing processes;
- the necessary protection of local residents from disturbance and anti-social behaviour associated with the behaviour of some people visiting places of entertainment;
- greater choice for consumers, including tourists, about where, when and how they spend their leisure time;
- the supporting of more family-friendly premises where younger children can be free to go with the family;
- the promotion, within communities, of a rich culture of live music, dancing and theatre, both in rural areas and in our towns and cities; and
- the regeneration of areas that need the increased investment and employment
The UK Licensing Act (2003) has had a positive impact on the late night economy with many of these objectives being achieved since its introduction. However, the unsavoury behaviour of some customers, together with the irresponsible attitude of a small percentage of operators, has cast late night activities in a less than positive light. As a result, the authorities have used the new legislative powers to make wide sweeping changes across the entire industry.
Can you explain how it initially impacted the Group? What were/are the significant benefits?
The streamlining of the licensing processes was definitely a benefit and provided clarity from the Government about the application and interpretation of the legislation.
To what extent do you believe the Licensing Act, since 2003 to date, has shifted cultural and social change in the UK’s live music and clubbing scene?
Entertainment is intended to be available to all, in all its forms, with the only limits being entirely reasonable ones; licensable activities are only restricted where its provision would be detrimental by undermining the four licensing objectives, each designed to protect the public; protecting children from harm, the prevention of public nuisance, the prevention of crime and disorder and public safety.
We work hard to ensure that we always deliver great nights out with great entertainment whilst meeting our regulatory obligations. However, I don’t feel it’s unfair to say that the emphasis of protecting the license for some operators has taken such a precedent over providing entertainment. As a result, many licensees now won’t work to provide live music or music events because of the inevitable complaints.
Do you believe that some of the Act’s directives have driven challenges within the Group?
I’d say the Act itself hasn’t driven challenges, but the effects of the introduction of the Act, on the late night economy, has certainly created challenges.
The almost complete lack of regulation regarding supermarkets and off-licensed premises, combined with the incredibly cheap prices for off-sales, means the on-licensed premises is being challenged in every way imaginable. The overheads and associated costs of providing high-class, professional establishments with top line entertainment are considerable.
How have you helped overcome these since you joined in 2015?
By educating our staff, whilst providing a legal and licensing support function, which helps them increase their knowledge, understanding and confidence about licensing responsibilities and issues.
Are there any challenges in terms of compliance with the Licensing Act, and what are the consequences of non-compliance?
The consequences of non-compliance can be many, varied and severe, and compliance is a priority at the highest level within the Group.
The consequences to any premises licence holder can include damage to their reputation or financial penalties, but they pale into insignificance when considering the potential cost to any injured party. The costs can be life altering, whether it’s through being a victim or perpetrator of crime or suffering a serious injury or loss. We strive not just to be compliant, but to achieve the highest and most robust level of compliance possible, continually reviewing and looking to improve.
Have there been any other EU or UK legislative developments to impact the way the Group operates in the last few years?
The need for transparency in the supply chain supported by the Modern Slavery Act 2015 means that we needed to analyse our supply chain and prepare a code of conduct that new suppliers will sign up to next year. We purchase goods and services to support the operation of our trading clubs and bars and the provision of late night entertainment. Consumables purchased include drinks, food, marketing materials, ICT equipment and estate services such as cleaning, waste management, fixtures and fittings and security and uniforms.
What do you believe hospitality & entertainment businesses should be considering in light of Brexit?
For us, it’s very much business as usual. While it is too early to identify any potential implications from the UK’s likely exit from the European Union, we are confident in our strategy and will continue to grow the business, plan refurbishments and invest in our venues and people as usual.
As an industry, over the next two years we will need to consider how we mitigate the effect of this and consider alternative solutions to maintain the quality of our offering. It will be interesting to see what the implications will be for data protection.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Do you want to book a booth and have a great, safe night out?