The Single Police Force and Licensing


The single Scottish police authority, established under the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012, will come into effect on 1 April 2013. The Police Service of Scotland, as it will be known, will be headed up by Stephen House as its first Chief Constable.

Concern has been expressed that civilian licensing staffing cuts will result from this move. Clairvoyance is necessarily a part of expressing such concerns, and to that end perhaps a “wait and see” motto may be appropriate for how the single police force will affect licensing as well as all the other areas of life.

But in reports of how it will affect licensing, it is all too easy to simplify the police role as that of mere enforcer, that of closing down “problem pubs” and arresting drunks. Their role in licensing is much wider than that. They have a job to do in just about every aspect of licensing application process and without their input the wheels of business and industry would be affected.

I must declare an interest. To read about possible cutbacks of licensing police civilian staff is to read about people I know and speak to on a daily basis. These people work extremely hard and are incredibly helpful. But that personal refrain aside, I wonder just how much the public, business, and the Scottish Government appreciate how integral these officials are to the process of licensing.

If the cutbacks as reported here appear to be correct, then it is not as simple as “problem premises” falling through the cracks. Operations at street-level such as test purchasing may be affected. Operations at street-level may have to be carried out by officers without licensing experience and mistakes may be made through not understanding the system. Many “licensing” police have had special training, even to Specialist Paralegal level.

The hidden issue for business is that we rely on police civilian staff to help us get applications processed. Applications for new licences, transfers of licences, variations and all the rest all have to go the police for a report before a decision will be made by the licensing board. Cuts could mean that these reports may become interminably delayed – and that stops business. Conveyancing deals may collapse because there is no certainty on when a licence can be transferred and settlement dates will pass without conclusion; investment in new build projects may dry up if delays mean that funding cannot be secured with no firm contractual timescales. The delays in certain Board areas are chronic as it is.

The police have a statutory duty to respond and produce certain reports within set timescales – to give but one example, 21 days in relation to a transfer application. They will be in serious danger of missing these statutory obligations if the cutbacks are as reported.

Another interesting aspect to this is how formal reports will be drafted and contexualised. Police reports to the licensing board (eg objecting to an application or making observations) at present come from the individual constabularies and in some cases can be different even within a single constabulary (eg a report at the Edinburgh licensing board may different from a report at the Scottish Borders licensing board – even though both come from Lothian & Borders police). Will that difference remain under a single force or will there require to be a standard “single message” across Scotland? Will a police request to review a licence due to a failed test purchase in Aberdeen be on the same terms as in Galashiels? Is it appropriate for a single police force to have 5 or 6 differing versions of what they consider to be appropriate depending on geography or will there be a central diktat?

We shall have to wait and see.


About Stephen McGowan

Leading Scottish licensing solicitor at TLT LLP.
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