Reducing harm caused by alcohol


Two years on: Are annual functions reports reaching their potential?

In this blog, Aidan Collins, AFS Senior Coordinator, reflects on the new requirement for licensing boards to produce annual functions reports, and asks - two years on - whether the reports are having their intended effect.  

When I first started working in alcohol licensing, one of the most common things that people in the know warned me was “it’s complicated!” How right they were. Not only does licensing involve complex areas of law, and massive amounts of information and data, but it also engages a hugely diverse range of stakeholders and interests. I’m fortunate as my role at AFS means I’ve got access to licensing expertise, and enough time to get my head around the subject matter properly. But how might a lay person trying to understand the system fare, and why does that actually matter anyway?

The simple fact is that we are all affected by the decisions licensing boards make; whether a new supermarket or pub should get a licence, what the licensed hours should be, whether alcohol can be sold at an event, whether children can be permitted access, and so on. All of these decisions have the potential to impact on different people and in different ways. Taken together they also have the potential to significantly impact on the overall life of a community.  As such, to ensure that the licensing system serves the public interest, it needs to be accountable to local communities. This is why it is vital that people can understand what the licensing system is for and what their local licensing board actually does. 

Following campaigning by AFS and others, the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015 introduced a new requirement for licensing boards to produce annual functions reports - a measure specifically intended to help increase levels of transparency within the licensing system. There are a number of matters on which boards must now report, principally relating to the application of their policies and the publication of local licensing data. This year saw the publication of the second ever round of the boards’ annual reports.

AFS reviewed the reports (both in 2017-18, and in 2018-19) to identify what types of information they contain and how boards approached their reporting duties. In particular, we were keen to know the extent to which the reports might serve to fulfil their intended purpose of supporting the public to see how boards conduct their business. You can access the findings of our most recent review here. We found that, while the majority of the reports meet the minimum statutory requirements, and many provide a range of additional information that may be of interest to stakeholders, there is a massive difference between the reports in the depth and breadth of detail provided and the way in which information is presented.

This is likely to affect the extent to which they are meaningful and useful to local stakeholders. Different approaches may be more appropriate to the needs of some people more than others, depending on their role, their reasons for accessing the reports, and their existing levels of knowledge. It is also apparent that several of the reports have not been written with the public in mind. This goes back to my question regarding what it may be like for a lay person trying to understand the licensing system.  Are the functions reports likely to help them?

My personal view is that the majority of the reports are unlikely to engage with and interest the general public. This is because many of them replicate the dry, legalistic and bureaucratic language often found in other areas of the licensing system. I even found myself having to look up Latin! If we are serious about building public trust and supporting community engagement in licensing, then we’ll need to find better and more down-to-earth ways of communicating with people about what the system is for and what it does. There are some examples of good practice in this regard. One of the reports explicitly states it was compiled with a central focus of explaining the work of the relevant boards to local communities. This report uses plain, accessible language and has provided information in clear and concise terms wherever possible. It also includes appendices to explain the role of key stakeholders and their functions, and the report makes use of symbols and imagery to enable navigation and understanding. 

In addition to the general public, the reports should also be of use and interest to other local stakeholders, particularly those with a remit to scrutinise and provide input to the licensing process e.g. health, Police Scotland, licensing standards, and local licensing forums.  I’ve met with a variety of these stakeholders since the reports were first published, and often ask for their views: Was the report useful? Did you provide feedback to the board? Has it been discussed locally? Overall, however, I’m finding that people aren’t generally aware that the reports even exist, or if they are then they haven’t read them. This to me feels like a huge missed opportunity.

Well-considered functions reports provide a vital means for boards to set out their ongoing progress towards achieving the licensing objectives, and how they are adhering to and applying their policies in practice. They also provide a way for boards to inform local stakeholders of the actions and activities that have been undertaken locally, any expected outcomes, and how progress is being measured and tracked. Encouragingly, this approach to the reports is already being adopted by boards in some areas. However, it will also be essential that local stakeholders contribute to this process, and make recommendations to boards regarding any matters arising from the reports.

Of the reports for 2018-19, those that I found most helpful were the ones that highlighted local trends, changes, and developments during the reporting period.  For example, a number of the reports outline key changes made to the local licensing policy in response to evidence gathered by the board. Others describe seeing increases in certain types of licences being applied for, or types of applications being lodged which were incomplete and had to be returned. This type of information is useful as it provides a steer as to particular issues that the board and local stakeholders, such as forums, may want to keep under review.  It also gives a sense of the current and local context, which helps to clarify the reasons for particular decisions or policy positions being adopted by the board.

All being said then, are annual functions reports actually fulfilling their potential?  I’d say yes… and no. The content of the majority of the reports does allow for some scrutiny and analysis of the board’s decision making. Many boards have made efforts to ensure that the reports contain detailed information about their decision making and the local licensed trade environment. This could go far to help increase levels of transparency and accountability in the licensing system, but only if local stakeholders are aware - and make use - of the reports.  Local licensing forums have a key role to play in this regard but so far this does not appear to have transpired.

Nonetheless, given that it’s only been two years, there is a lot of good practice that can be shared and built upon, and reasons to be optimistic about the new reporting requirements. For the potential of the reports to be realised, however, they must be made widely available and publicised, boards will need to consult people about their contents to ensure they meet local needs, and local stakeholders will need to make use of them and provide feedback to boards.  This will enable boards to refine and adapt their approach to the reports, and in turn make them more accessible and useful to the general public. With this in mind, AFS is planning to meet with forums in the new year, and will be encouraging people to make use of reports. This means you can expect to see me soon, to hear your views and learn more about how you are using the reports locally.  

Read the AFS briefing on the Annual Functions Reports 2018-2019.