Proposed licensing law reforms in North pass key Assembly stage

MLAs debated changes to the legislation into the early hours of Wednesday.
Proposed licensing law reforms in North pass key Assembly stage

By David Young and Rebecca Black, PA

Proposals to reform Northern Ireland’s licensing laws have taken a further step towards becoming law after passing a key Assembly stage.

A marathon sitting of the Assembly during which MLAs considered dozens of amendments to the draft legislation ended in the early hours of Wednesday.

The reforms include the removal of restrictions that currently limit trading hours over the Easter period.

They would also pave the way for certain licensed premises to be able to serve alcohol for an extra hour up to 104 times a year.

This would allow alcohol to be served to 2am at weekends.

Smaller pubs would be able to extend the time for last orders up to 85 times a year.

The current “drinking-up” time of 30 minutes for all licensed premises would be increased to one hour under the Bill, to discourage people from drinking too quickly and to allow more time for gradual departures at the end of the night.

This would see pubs being able to stay open to 3am at weekends.

An amendment from independent MLA Claire Sugden to allow alcohol to be sold in cinemas was also approved.

Ulster powersharing
Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA

In a tweet, Ms Sugden said she was “delighted” that her proposal was backed.

“If this law passes, NI will no longer be the only region of UK & Ire not to offer customers the opp to buy & consume alcohol in cinemas! Who says Independents are no use?!”, she tweeted.

Assembly members were engaged in a lengthy consideration stage of the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Bill late on Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning, with 63 amendments listed for debate.

Other proposed law changes include limits on where supermarkets can promote deals on alcohol sales, in areas around where the products are sold in store.

The Bill would also ban the use of loyalty schemes in off-licences.

The Bill now has only two further stages before it becomes law. That could happen over the summer, with the majority of the law changes introduced in October.

Licensing laws were last updated in the North in the 1990s. A bid to update the legislation was progressing through the Assembly before the collapse of powersharing in 2017 but that Bill was lost when the institutions collapsed.

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey, who has responsibility for the Bill, said it struck a balance between supporting businesses and allowing pubs to modernise and tackling harm caused by alcohol.

“I am pleased to see this has come so far and reform is within reach,” she said.

“We are a step closer to a more modern and flexible licensing system.

“I introduced this Bill as it will deliver a balanced package of reform.

“While supporting the hospitality industry, it is my duty to also be mindful of the negative impact that the harmful consumption of alcohol can cause, to individuals and to whole communities.

“This Bill includes the relevant safeguards to ensure that people are protected from alcohol-related harms.

“I look forward to taking this Bill through its next stages and to deliver on this much anticipated reform.”

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