Methodist President writes to Tessa Jowell over alcohol concerns

The Revd Tom Stuckey, President of the Methodist Conference for2005/6, has written to the Rt Hon Tessa Jowell MP, Secretary ofState for Culture, Media and Sport, to express concerns about twoareas of the Licensing Act. The full text of the letter isbelow.

Dear Ms Jowell

I am writing on behalf of the Methodist Church to express ourconcern about the levels of alcohol consumption in this country andthe possible consequences of the Licensing Act due to come intoeffect in November 2005.

We are sympathetic to many of the aims of the Licensing Act,particularly the articulation in the licensing objectives of theneed to prevent crime, disorder and public nuisance, and to protectchildren. We also support the increased powers for police to closedown problem venues.

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

However we have become increasingly concerned with two aspects ofthe Act.

Firstly we are concerned that the Government is pressing ahead withmeasures that increase the availability of alcohol, especiallygiven the rise in a culture of binge drinking, the increasing costsof chronic and binge drinking to the NHS, and the levels of crimefuelled by alcohol.

Although many people will aspire to a more 'continental' drinkingculture, such a culture change will not be brought about bylegislative action. Research suggests that excessive drinking istackled by restricting the availability of alcohol and raising theprice of it. We are also aware of the serious concerns that havebeen expressed by magistrates, the police and senior persons withinthe NHS regarding the possible negative consequences of elements ofthe Act on the wider community. We are concerned that theGovernment is proceeding with legislation that will result in anincrease in the availability of alcohol, at a time when alcohol hasbecome increasingly affordable, relative to personal wealth, overthe last decade.

Secondly the Government has always claimed that the Act will givelocal people a far greater say over licensing decisions in theirarea, through the ability to make representations as interestedparties in licensing applications. However we are concerned thatthere has been insufficient public education, combined with a veryshort timescale for residents to spot applications and put togethera representation. Few people realise that unless representationsare received, licence applications are granted, subject tomandatory requirements. The public outcry over the forthcomingimplementation of the Licensing Act demonstrates that people arefar from feeling empowered by the new legislation.

These two concerns therefore lead us to ask the Government whetherit would consider firstly restricting the flexibility of the newopening hours whilst excessive alcohol consumption is of such aconcern, and implementing other non- legislative measures toimprove our drinking culture, and secondly increasing the realinfluence that local people will have over the licensingprocess.

The Methodist Church has long been concerned about the impact ofproblem drinking and demonstrated its willingness to co-operatewith Government where possible. Our representatives met with youand with officials during the passage of the Act throughParliament. We participated in the consultation around the NationalAlcohol Harm Reduction Strategy, and we were encouraged by thecomprehensive recommendations which came out of this study. Weproduced a study guide for members Ð 'One too manyÉ?' - outliningthe implications of the Licensing Act and other Governmentinitiatives and suggesting ways members could respond. And inDecember there will be a Methodist-led conference for churches andindividuals working with people who abuse drugs and alcohol.

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

I look forward to hearing from you

Yours sincerely

The Revd Tom Stuckey