06 September 2005

Methodist President writes to Tessa Jowell over alcohol concerns

The Revd Tom Stuckey, President of the Methodist Conference for 2005/6, has written to the Rt Hon Tessa Jowell MP, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, to express concerns about two areas of the Licensing Act. The full text of the letter is below.

Dear Ms Jowell

I am writing on behalf of the Methodist Church to express our concern about the levels of alcohol consumption in this country and the possible consequences of the Licensing Act due to come into effect in November 2005.

We are sympathetic to many of the aims of the Licensing Act, particularly the articulation in the licensing objectives of the need to prevent crime, disorder and public nuisance, and to protect children. We also support the increased powers for police to close down problem venues.

We recognise that, contrary to media reports, the Act is not about the licensing of 24 hour drinking, and have stated from the beginning that staggering closing hours could assist with the prevention of disorder.

However we have become increasingly concerned with two aspects of the Act.

Firstly we are concerned that the Government is pressing ahead with measures that increase the availability of alcohol, especially given the rise in a culture of binge drinking, the increasing costs of chronic and binge drinking to the NHS, and the levels of crime fuelled by alcohol.

Although many people will aspire to a more 'continental' drinking culture, such a culture change will not be brought about by legislative action. Research suggests that excessive drinking is tackled by restricting the availability of alcohol and raising the price of it. We are also aware of the serious concerns that have been expressed by magistrates, the police and senior persons within the NHS regarding the possible negative consequences of elements of the Act on the wider community. We are concerned that the Government is proceeding with legislation that will result in an increase in the availability of alcohol, at a time when alcohol has become increasingly affordable, relative to personal wealth, over the last decade.

Secondly the Government has always claimed that the Act will give local people a far greater say over licensing decisions in their area, through the ability to make representations as interested parties in licensing applications. However we are concerned that there has been insufficient public education, combined with a very short timescale for residents to spot applications and put together a representation. Few people realise that unless representations are received, licence applications are granted, subject to mandatory requirements. The public outcry over the forthcoming implementation of the Licensing Act demonstrates that people are far from feeling empowered by the new legislation.

These two concerns therefore lead us to ask the Government whether it would consider firstly restricting the flexibility of the new opening hours whilst excessive alcohol consumption is of such a concern, and implementing other non- legislative measures to improve our drinking culture, and secondly increasing the real influence that local people will have over the licensing process.

The Methodist Church has long been concerned about the impact of problem drinking and demonstrated its willingness to co-operate with Government where possible. Our representatives met with you and with officials during the passage of the Act through Parliament. We participated in the consultation around the National Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy, and we were encouraged by the comprehensive recommendations which came out of this study. We produced a study guide for members Ð 'One too manyÉ?' - outlining the implications of the Licensing Act and other Government initiatives and suggesting ways members could respond. And in December there will be a Methodist-led conference for churches and individuals working with people who abuse drugs and alcohol.

We hope therefore that you will take seriously our concerns about the Licensing Act.

I look forward to hearing from you

Yours sincerely

The Revd Tom Stuckey

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