Scotland in licensing chaos

Scottish retailers have hit out at chaos caused by an overhaul of the licensing system – as the government prepares to bring in even more restrictive legislation on drinks retailing.

Lengthy delays in issuing licences and extra costs have left some businesses unable to trade, and there are now 20% fewer licensed premises in Scotland, according to BII Scotland.

Retailers have slammed the new regime, and some have had complaints from customers since it came into force on September 1.

The new laws say all shops must have a personal licensed premises manager on site when alcohol is sold, and all staff dealing with alcohol have to be retrained. Licensing boards have pledged not to enforce them until November 1, as delays have meant just 30% of licences have been granted so far, said the British Beer & Pub Association.

An Asda spokesman called the personal licence application process “chaotic”, and said there had been delays of up to 15 months.

“This added time, additional cost and uncertainty as we worked hard to provide the legally required two hours of alcohol training to 10,000 colleagues in Scotland before September,” he said.

Asda added that staff in Scotland have “received a raft of complaints from customers, most of whom had no idea the law was about to change”.

“They don’t understand why they can’t buy a bottle of wine at 9am with their weekly shopping. Mums shopping after the school run and carers who shop for a range of clients early in the morning have complained that this is a real inconvenience to them,” the spokesman said.

Smaller retailers have been hit hardest by the changes, according to Janet Hood, head of BII Scotland.

“The worst affected are small businesses in vulnerable rural areas, which have been unable to enter the new regime due to cost and legislative restrictions,” she said.

One manager of an Edinburgh-based independent wine merchant told OLN he could not afford to pay solicitors’ fees to apply for the new licence. “Figures being bandied about were £2,000 for an average business. That might be fine for the multiple outlets, but not for wee guys like us.”

As retailers struggled to come to terms with the new regime, the Scottish government outlined plans for an Alcohol Bill that aims to introduce minimum pricing and ban “irresponsible” promotions in the off-trade. The bill will also force licensing boards to consider raising the legal age to buy alcohol in the off-trade to 21 in all or part of the area they cover, and establish the power to introduce a social responsibility fee for some retailers.

The Scottish Retail Consortium said the government should be taking time to assess the effects of the new licensing regime, “instead of rushing in even more radical changes in the Alcohol Bill”.

The drinks trade and retail bodies have slammed the plans – especially those for a minimum price on alcohol – and argued that they are “unfair and unworkable”. They also argue that minimum pricing is illegal under EU law.

Scotland’s ruling SNP party said a statement by the European Commission “makes clear that the proposal for minimum pricing on alcohol is well within EU law”.

But a spokesman for the Scotch Whisky Association said: “Our legal advice is that it would breach rules in relation to the single market. This hasn’t given the green light to minimum pricing.”