Law and Disorder

Home Secretary Theresa May is reportedly planning to introduce a ‘law and order levy’ on pubs which want to open after 11pm.

This is not something I would support. May is attempting to deal with a flawed licensing system with the wrong solution.

Labour’s changes to the licensing laws came as a welcome modernisation. Our out-dated “closing times” had to be done away with. Unlike the Daily Mail rent-a-reaction, I did not foresee rivers of booze and blood flowing down the High Streets of England. Coupled with the new powers given to Local Authorities to deal with troublesome pubs and clubs, Labour seemed to get things right on this.

Unfortunately, in the enthusiasm to introduce 24hr licenses – and remember, very few pubs or clubs actually do open 24hrs – Labour assumed an instant change to a continental drinking culture. Not so, of course, as there would have been the necessary introduction of ‘purchasing quotas’ and a statutory watered-down ale limit to facilitate that sort of change. Britain took to license liberalisation with (mostly) maturity and (some) over-enthusiasm. Hence May looking at this new ‘night-time tax”.

Pubs are struggling to stay open as it is. The smoking ban and cheap supermarket prices have eaten into the pub market share. Now add the change in social behaviour – is “going to the local boozer” such a part of every day life among the young or those on middle incomes? – to see why the publican does not always have a happy lot.

This “law and order levy” would be an unfair tax on publicans. Local authorities, in this time of economic constraint, would not shy from asking all pubs to put money into a “policing pot”. Cash-strapped independent or small holdings would go to the wall; “brand name” pubs would take the hit. Which is more likely to have reason to call out the cops – The Red Lion or a Scream pub on the edge of a student village?

Councils are able to order additional restrictions on licenses, and the extended opening hours policy is a genie not likely to fit back into its bottle. Together publicans, police and Councils should be able to continue working towards tackling what disorder exists without an additional financial burden on tax-payers (generally) or publicans (specifically).

Police reform means democratic accountability…

Summer, 2006. In Lancaster, local Liberal Democrats are helping collect signatures for a petition against Home Office plans to merge police forces in a drive to improve services and drive down costs. Some wag has printed posters warning against the safety dangers of taking “CaLPol”, the unfortunate potential acronym for the new Cumbria & Lancashire police force.

A chubby young man with dreadlocks the colour of damp cobbles takes me to task about this latest LibDem rally. “You’re the only party I could vote for if I felt like it, and you’re sticking up for the police!” he charges. Turns out to be an anarchist, but clearly a wobbly one. Like a member of the Church of England, say, principled while not committed to anything.

Four years later and those plans, long since abandoned along with the succession of Home Secretaries, appear to be back on track. With the Conservatives citing their preferred option for Directly Elected Commissioners – something I support – there seems to be a pressing enthusiasm for cutting the numbers of Constabularies in the name of cost cutting and assisting in major investigations involving serious organised crime and terrorism. “Consolidation”, of course, always means job losses and a growing distance between provider of a service and its customers. The threat of “CaLPol” returning is ever closer; I cannot say the idea of a “super force” stretching from Carlisle to Skelmersdale makes me feel safer or confident of low-level crime will be responded to any quicker than it is today.

My preference for directly elected commissioners is based on being attracted to the idea of accountability at the very top of all police forces. This is not about introducing a layer of party politicians at the top of the local constabulary, indeed nobody has actually suggested the elections take place on party lines. Across the country there are very highly successful examples of police and communities working together to suggest aims and judge police on their performances; I have seen very popular “Police and Communities Together” meetings in church halls and schools across Preston, where the only thing missing in my opinion is an independent figure at the top of the system able to judge the priorities and how they have been met.

There would be a worsening in performance if “super forces” across swathes of England and Wales were merged in the name of cost-cutting. I am, therefore, positioned on the other side of Sir Hugh Orde, who suggests mergers could be acceptable while commissioners would not.

Budget cuts and savings are required across the Home Office, who seem to zone into the “easier” targets whenever cost cuttings are mentioned. The dreadlocked man in Lancaster who disliked my party’s support for the police in general may prefer us now Chris Huhne has spoken out against the Commissioners plan…but if faced with me again would have to jab his finger one more time.