THE announcement this week of long-overdue liberalisation of the North’s antiquated licensing laws is a rare and welome bit of good news for a hospitality sector that has been ravaged by the lockdown.
In a sweeping list of changes, pubs and clubs will be allowed to serve alcohol for an extra hour almost every weekend – to 2am; cinemas will be allowed to apply for licences to sell alcohol to moviegoers; and, most significantly, archaic Easter licensing restrictions are to be lifted in time for next spring.
The new rules on opening hours and cinemas will come into operation in the autumn, by which time it is hoped that the trajectory of the Covid pandemic will have continued in a generally positive direction. That means that the industry will enjoy more beneficial trading conditions in the vital Christmas season, which will go some way to repairing the huge financial damage wrought by the Covid crisis.
Similarly, the hospitality industry has a duty to ensure that already under-pressure staff do not find themselves under the added strain of being forced to work extra hours, or not being properly remunerated for it
Meanwhile, the relaxing of Easter licensing laws will come into effect in April, ending a preposterous state of affairs whereby restaurants and pubs were forbidden from selling alcohol at key hours over one of our biggest holiday weekends.
Observers of the sometimes glacial pace of legislative change here will have noted that this issue has been under discussion for fully nine years while restaurateurs and publicans looked on with mounting frustration, so it is to be particularly welcomed that Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey has finally succeeded in pushing through legislation that goes a significant way to bringing the North into line with the South and with Great Britain.
With the rules, however, must come responsibility on the part of the licensed trade. There is already significant concern that pubs across the North have bumped up the price of drink to an unacceptable degree after the latest easing of lockdown in an effort to claw back lost revenue. Horror stories abound – some of them likely apocryphal but many absolutely credible – about the price of a round in certain city centre establishments. Imposing an unfair lockdown levy on punters – all of whom have themselves suffered personally and/or financially during lockdown – is to be condemned whenever and wherever it happens.
Similarly, the hospitality industry has a duty to ensure that already under-pressure staff do not find themselves under the added strain of being forced to work extra hours, or not being properly remunerated for it. For along with the extra hour of opening, drinking-up time has been extended from a half-hour to an hour, meaning that customers won’t be leaving establishments until 3am – and as those working in the industry know all too well, there is much work to be done when the last drinker has left.
The changes are good news for the public and for everyone in the industry, but only if employers, staff and the unions work together to face the opportunities – and the challenges – with which they’ve been presented.