Much sound and fury has been vented this week on the coming into force of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005, designed to moderate our collective alcohol consumption – in itself no bad thing.
Lofty ideals have unfortunately been lost amid a welter of publicity over licensing board delays – or was it really unprepared licensees, or both? – and premises forced to close, all alongside general confusion over what is permitted and what is not by way of offers of alcohol. The Scottish Government made one temporary concession to help timeous applicants for personal licences who have not yet received their papers, but there are other situations where enforcement authorities are being urged to take a commonsense approach in the short term until matters can be regularised.
You might have thought that with an Act passed all of four years ago, we would be a bit better prepared by now. And we should have been. No doubt there are those in the trade who didn't wake up to what was required until a bit too late, but the level of regulation imposed by Government in relation to applications for the new licences has also seemed quite excessive.
However the main criticism of those at the centre must be that after all this time, no one is sure what the law actually means. Is a bartender allowed to ask "Same again?", or not? Is three bottles of wine for £10 an irresponsible promotion, or not? Even people running the training courses now essential for bar staff seem unable to agree on the first question, while the second, and others like it, appear to be left to the interpretation of individual licensing boards. These of course are only instances of the general uncertainty about how the law is intended to operate.
So instead of a progressive new legal code we just have a mess. What a pity the Government did not see fit to continue with the National Licensing Forum, recommended by the Nicholson report and set up at the outset of the preparation process but then disbanded. Surely that would have been the body to come up with some workable guidelines? The whole point of it was to ensure consistency without interfering with local autonomy.
The Scottish Government's legislative programme for the next 12 months, announced yesterday, included a further Alcohol Bill, targeted mainly at the off-licence trade, with provisions such as minimum pricing and more controls on "irresponsible promotions". Let's hope that lessons are learned and new laws implemented in such a way that individuals whose livelihoods depend on getting it right, have a reasonable idea of where they stand.