Controversial plans to scrap mandatory advertising of alcohol licence applications in local newspapers, which would cost the industry up to £8million a year, have been roundly condemned by MPs.
In a Commons debate, the Home Office proposals were criticised for not only hitting the cash-strapped industry, but decreasing transparency and hampering government efforts to decrease alcohol-fuelled crime.
The plan comes hard on the heels of earlier government proposals to remove the requirement on councils to advertise planning applications and roadworks in the local press, both of which were eventually dropped.
Opening a debate in Westminster Hall, Sittingbourne and Sheppey MP Gordon Henderson pointed out that with around 11pc of adults in Britain still not able to access the internet, there were still many who relied on their local paper to find out this kind of information.
“How will scrapping the statutory requirement to advertise alcohol licence applications in our local newspapers help ensure that those who sell alcohol are right and proper people to do so?” he asked.
“How will loosening the current regulations ensure that we clamp down on the sale of alcohol to minors? How can the community find out about new licensed premises in their area or, even more importantly, applications for longer licensing hours, if they do not have access to the internet? The answer to that last question is their local newspaper.”
The plans, he said, would essentially mean residents would only find out about such applications if they already knew they were in the pipeline and how to search for them.
“The Newspaper Society estimates that the proposal could cost the already struggling local press industry between £6.2 million and £7.9 million a year,” he added.
“The Leveson report recognised that many local newspapers are no longer financially viable, but local newspapers report on stories such as local politics, occurrences in local courts, local events, local sports and the like, all of which would be thought too parochial to be reported by national or even regional media.
“It might be argued that the proposal would save taxpayers’ money. Fewer people will object to the proposed nightclub because they will not know it is proposed, which will save councils’ time.
“However, that is a rather cynical view, and not what the Government are aiming for. Indeed, the Government profess to want the public to be more involved with local decisions.”
Dartford MP Gareth Johnson (Cons) pointed out that it is businesses, not taxpayers, who fund the notices, meaning there is “no downside” to keeping them in papers.
Kingston-upon-Hull North MP Diana Johnson added that research had found local newspapers reached 67pc of the population, while council websites reached just eight per cent.
She added: “It is important to consider the effect that this measure will have on local newspapers. “The Government’s own impact assessment estimates that it will cost the industry up to £8m in lost revenue. That is a big blow for an industry that is already struggling.
“There remains a huge demand for local newspapers and the unique role that they play in serving our communities. Given those facts, the Minister should rethink implementing a policy that will seriously damage an already struggling industry and that appears to go against everything else that the Government’s alcohol strategy is meant to achieve.”