HUNDREDS of pubs employing thousands of people are at risk of closure as a whole new round of red tape chaos hits Scotland's already struggling licensed trade.

Industry leaders fears tens of thousands of bar managers will now fail to renew their personal licences amid what they describe as a bureaucratic "disaster".

Lawyers, council officials and representatives of Scotland's licensed trade itself have all told The Herald they believe many pubs and clubs will have to shut next year because their staff will not have the paperwork they need to work.

Their concerns come nearly a decade in to a new licensing regime for managers - initially widely welcomed as a way of raising industry standard - which has already brought what insiders call two regulatory "meltdowns".

Some 1200 Scottish pubs closed between 2006 and 2016 and the trade is still reeling from recent tougher drink-drive laws and a round of business rates hikes. Crucially, Scots are drinking less with alcohol consumption down nine per cent since 2009.

Industry experts believe that between 40,000 and 56,000 managers and supervisors have to renew their 10-year licences introduced in 2009 by next summer.

Yet the Scottish Government - which says it wants a smooth renewal process - has still to set out what training licensees need to do to qualify to keep their licence - or even how much they should pay for the document.

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Lawyer and industry trainer Janet Hood said government officials had been urged to move faster for years.

She said: "This is not just a disaster waiting to happen. It is a disaster which has been foretold. I think it is terrifying."

Concerns focus on the sheer logistical and bureaucratic exercise still to be done.

Licensees in Scotland have until May 31 to complete training and make a formal renewal application. A huge batch of licences issued on August 31, 2009, expire on September 1.

Paul Waterson, of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, said: "It's chaos. The deadlines are looming and still we have no guidance on what is happening. Nobody has even designed training courses because they do not know the requirements. It could be too late already."

It will be up to 32 local authorities to handle the licence renewal applications. One council, North Ayrshire, has now broken ranks to call for the whole process to be called off.

Its licensing convener, Ronnie McNicol, said: “We have reached the tipping point – unless the Scottish Government deals with this issue immediately, we will see pubs and other licensed premises across Scotland closing.

“Those worst affected are likely to be small businesses because it often happens that the business is both owned and managed by one person, so if he or she loses a personal licence there might not be an alternative person who can take over the management."

The independent councillor added that it now appeared "almost certain" that many people would lose their licences. Authorities in England and Wales - which previously had identical legislation - have decided to drop the renewal requirement altogether. Mr McNicol believes Scotland should do the same.


Ronnie McNicol

Licensing law expert Jack Cummins said: "A tsunami of 56,000 applications in the run up to the May 31 deadline looks set to swamp licensing boards’ resources. And there’s no safety net. If licences aren’t renewed by August 31 next year, they’ll be lost in a huge bonfire.

“The Scottish Government absolutely must take early measures to ensure that – as under other legislation – the licences continue until a decision has been taken on applications. Otherwise, Scotland’s licensed trade is heading for a mammoth disaster. We can’t let red tape chaos place thousands of jobs at risk.”

A Scottish Government spokesman rejected Mr McNicol's call to adopt English permanent licences. He said: “The personal licence remains a key element of the alcohol licensing regime.

"We are undertaking detailed engagement with stakeholders to firm up and publicise arrangements ahead of the ten year point for personal licences in September 2019.”

Some licensing figures - who lobbied for better training - admitted they would be sorry to see renewals dropped. Personal licences have twice before been embroiled in paperwork snarl-ups. The Scottish Government in 2009 had to introduce legislation to deal with a backlog of people who wanted to be trained and vetted. Confusion over refresher courses in 2014 led to thousands having their licences revoked, say lawyers.

This time round insiders warn of further complications with the Home Office seeking checks on whether applicants have the right to work in the UK.

Glasgow City Council, Scotland's biggest, said it alone had 4000 licensees up for renewal within the year. A spokesman for its licensing board said: A spokesman said the authority was working with "various stakeholders in the licensing system about this issue, including the Scottish find a solution".