Some of these laws are up to 100 years old. Hospitality Ulster, the voice of the NI hospitality sector, says its members are getting increasingly angry at the slow pace of change by its politicians and it has launched a ‘petition of concern’ about the outdated licensing laws. It has also urged the public to contact their Assembly members about the matter.
Northern Ireland’s hospitality industry is a major employer, sustaining 60,000 jobs and contributing £1.1 billion annually to the economy there.
But its future growth is hampered by the lack of a modern legislative framework and especially by the lack of modern licensing laws, claims Hospitality Ulster.
“A real opportunity now exists to drive tourism growth and develop the visitor experience that’s often celebrated by our elected representatives.
“What they fail to mention when making big speeches about how great we are here in Northern Ireland – and the benefits the likes of the Year of Food and Drink will bring – is the fact that they’re not dealing with the legislation that will unlock further growth. In fact, the Year of Food and Drink has been a turning point for the industry in that it’s highlighting how the Assembly has ignored the sector and failed to do anything about the antiquated liquor licensing laws.”
The organisation seeks longer opening hours and the easing of restrictions on Easter trading. It would also like the licensing legislation to permit minors attend functions on licensed premises provided that the bar is closed.
“For years the hospitality sector has been pushing for changes to the outdated liquor licensing laws in Northern Ireland,” explained Hospitality Ulster’s Chief Executive Colin Neill, “We’ve been promised the introduction of a Bill at the Northern Ireland Assembly to make the necessary changes, however the Assembly has failed to bring it forward. This is compounded by the fact that the issues contained within the Bill have been consulted upon for over four years and as time moves on the hospitality sector is being left behind.
“We’re aware that there’s not enough time left in the lifetime of this Assembly but as soon as it returns after the election this issue needs to be a top priority. Much of the work has been done and we know there’s widespread support for the changes that are proposed; we now need the Assembly to stop sitting on its hands and bring the Bill forward.
“We’re a responsible industry,” he continued, “Going out to a pub or restaurant is actually one of the safest places to consume alcohol. The vast majority of the industry shows a high level of care towards its customers and visitors and through the Independent Panel on the Responsible Retailing of Alcohol Code even the marketing of promotions are carefully scrutinised with a strong code of conduct in place to ensure a quality standard is maintained.
“Pre loading, binge-drinking, anti-social behaviour, restrictive Easter opening times and the prosecution of publicans on legal technicalities are only a small sample of the issues that we’re faced with time-and-time-again. It’s a worrying trend that 65% who drink alcohol consume it at home while only 20% do so in a pub and 16% in restaurants, taking it out of the social setting where it’s a safe and regulated environment. Harmful drinking is increasing and the industry is suffering under current law.
“We’re fighting against a downturn in domestic tourism, in a struggling economy mixed with issues relating to the likes of VAT, rates and the National Living Wage. We simply can’t sustain this ongoing anti-business environment. We’re an industry that’s a significant driver of the Northern Ireland economy and pregnant with opportunity as we grow the offer to consumers and tourists. The outmoded current legislation is simply holding us back.”
Hospitality Ulster is therefore calling on the wider sector and public to get in touch with their elected representatives to make sure that they back the Bill in the new Assembly term.