Hundreds of Scottish pubs, clubs and restaurants face closure this year as thousands of their workers fail to renew their personal licences.

For months both government officials and independent lawyers have been warning that Scotland’s already embattled licensed trade is “sleepwalking” to a red-tape disaster.

Experts say thousands of jobs are at risk after it emerged just one in 20 managers and workers due to renew their mandatory personal alcohol licences this year had even applied to do so.

Under laws that came into force a decade ago pubs can only open - and shops and restaurants can only serve or sell alcohol - if it has an employee with the right personal licence.

Vast numbers of bar managers and other workers were licensed under that law in 2009 and are now due to update their licences, which involves a short training course.

The Scottish Government, local authorities and licensing lawyers are now increasingly worried that they will fail to meet a deadline to do so by the end of May. Council licensing boards, which handle such licences, fear they may be swamped by a last minute rush.

Community Safety Minister Ash Denham this week issued an appeal to all licensees to hurry up.

She said: “May 31, 2019 is the absolute deadline to submit your renewal application but if you leave it that late you risk losing your licence because the processing of your application may take three months or longer.

Writing in Scottish Licensed Trade News, she added: “If a personal licence holder fails to renew their licence they will not be able to train staff, authorise alcohol sales or apply for occasional licences.

“If the premises manager fails to renew their licence, the premises could lose the right to sell alcohol until a new premises manager with a valid personal licence is named.”

HeraldScotland: MSP Ash Denham: ‘This is power play by decree'

Ash Denham MSP

Councils have written to all licence holders pleading for them to re-apply. The Government, which has been tweeting warnings since October, is considering targeted social media advertising.

One exasperated official told The Herald that there were “questions of personal responsibility” for licensees to consider. If their licence is revoked, they can reapply but this can take months. During that time they cannot work.

Moreover, pubs will have to close if they do not have a licensed designated premises manager, stress insiders. Concerns are highest for for independent businesses with chain pubs and supermarkets, Scotland’s biggest alcohol vendors, understood to be well advanced in the renewal and re-training process.

A Scottish licensing source said: “If you let your driving licence expire then you’d know you’d be screwing up your driving job. Personal licence holders need to wake up to this situation. They could be putting their jobs at risk but also where they work.”

The Herald first reported concerns over the renewal process last summer. That came five years after more than 10,000 people failed to carry out refresher training and had their personal licences revoked.

Jack Cummins, a solicitor and editor of Scottish Licensing Law and Practice, said: “It’s already looking like a re-run of the shambles in 2014 when thousands licences were revoked.

“That should have been a real red flag. But I fear that, despite predictions of carnage on the same scale, thousands of licensed trade workers are sleepwalking towards disaster.

“Small owner-operated businesses in particular are in the danger zone. You can’t trade without a licence-holding premises manager so they could find themselves shutting up shop until they get sorted.”

The Government has so far not shown any official willingness to move the deadline or offer licensees a period of grace. This, say sources, may change.

However, Mr Cummins said: “The lack of a safety net is particularly worrying. It’s just unacceptable that someone applying ahead of the deadline could still lose their licence – and be out of a job – if the application can’t be processed in time. That needs an urgent fix.”

Mr Cummins wants longer term change. He added: “Going forward, personal licence training requires a radical re-think. It’s unnecessarily burdensome, the law is just too complicated and there’s no need for renewals. That requirement was abandoned in England and Wales four years ago and Scotland should follow suit.”

The licensed trade has been hit hard by huge market changes with Scots now drinking less. Industry leaders have blamed the smoking ban, tough drink drive laws, business rate reviews and a new trend for home drinking on their woes. Last summer it was estimated that an average of 18 pubs in Scotland were closing a week.

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Scottish Licensed Trade News found dramatically low levels of renewal applications. Only 26 of Glasgow’s 1473 personal licence holders had done so. In Edinburgh, the figure was 47 out of 910; in Highland, 52 out of 1263; and in South Ayrshire, 25 out of 470.

A Government spokeswoman said: “Conscious of concerns that licences could be lost despite an application for renewal being lodged by the deadline, we are monitoring the situation while reviewing options should there be issues with outstanding applications as the year progresses.”

She added: “We are committed to help facilitate the personal licence renewal process.

“We have accredited a range of training around renewal to streamline the process and are engaging with independent Licensing Boards and other stakeholders to encourage licence holders to undertake training and apply to renew their licences as soon as possible.”

“Conscious of concerns that licences could be lost despite an application for renewal being lodged by the 31 May deadline, we are monitoring the situation while reviewing available options should there be issues with outstanding applications as the year progresses”

A spokesman for Glasgow City Council, which has Scotland’s biggest hospitality industry, said: “Anyone whose personal licence is approaching its expiry must act immediately if they wish to keep the licence.

“We have already written to 1473 personal licence holders to remind them that their licence is close to the end of its ten year duration and to provide information on what to do next.

“We have streamlined our own processes to make renewals as straightforward as possible and we will have sufficient resources to deal with the anticipated number of applications.

“However, the Scottish Government has made clear there will be no extension to accommodate late applications and so there will be a point when licences will have to be revoked.

“If anyone whose job depends on a personal licence then it is fully in their interests to deal with this right away.”