[ with apologies to Lewis Carroll].
At the last meeting of the West Midlands IOL, an unscheduled item cropped up on the Agenda. One of our members – a solicitor – had a bee in his bonnet about courtesy at Committee meetings. It turned into a full on, impromptu debate, and it clearly struck a nerve: it was the liveliest item of the day.
The bee in question buzzed around the issue of the behaviour of certain Councillors, and, less frequently but just as concerningly, legal advisers, and licensing officers, particularly towards solicitors, barristers and other representatives acting on behalf of clients in front of licensing committees. The anecdotes fell thick and fast; each one more hair – or toe- curling than that last. You will all have your own to add and everyone can recount their favourite example.
My contribution was the time that I regrettably had to inform a Committee that the hearing would have to be aborted because the residents had not complied with procedure ( in a fundamentally important way – and they had not been advised otherwise), which elicited the response from the irate Chair woman:
“Why were we not notified of this before?”.
My response, in regretful but inevitable tone, was that the matter had only been identified when I had been instructed, which was only very shortly before the hearing had commenced. Her retort to this was:
”I find that very hard to believe!”.
I assured her that, as a member of the Bar, I would never lie or mislead the Committee, and her electrifying response to that was:
”I find that very hard to believe as well.”
The room dissolved into various states.
“Good point, well made”, some of you may be thinking, and this was by no means the most shocking incident recounted at our meeting. But there is a serious point lurking behind the understandable sniggering.
My lay client, only yesterday, accompanying me to another committee hearing commented ruefully at its conclusion:
“I just couldn’t do your job. I haven’t got a thick enough skin.”
The point is – it wasn’t in the job description. Why should it be a necessary part of the skill set to be a licensing practitioner that you need the hide of a rhinoceros, and the sensitivity of a brick? Despite outward appearances, most of us don’t. The rudeness; the pomposity; the personal attacks – they are all capable of getting to us – eventually, if not initially. And when it gets to the point that it is regarded as a near inevitability of the job, and part of the expected behaviour in a Committee setting, then something is wrong.
Very rarely does it seem appropriate to challenge this behaviour at the time, because it can only make matters worse, but on one occasion when the comments were so rude, and so personal that I did gently point out that this was probably not the most constructive way to communicate, I was met with a chorus from the rest of the 11 strong Committee –
“Oh; don’t take any notice of X: he’s always like that”,
as though X were some learning challenged child that we should humour but take no notice of. As parties on the receiving end of X’s decision making, as well as his outrageous comments, that was easier said than done.
The interesting part of our debate was that all participants were in agreement; local authority members and private practice members all said the same thing. Rudeness and aggressiveness in the committee is unnecessary and unprofessional, from any quarter. Representatives for clients – or residents, or anyone else – have a job to do, and should do it courteously and professionally. Committee members likewise have a job to do, and represent the face of their authority, not only to the professionals in the room, but also to the licensees and residents, and other members of the public.
One of the strongest concerns that emerged at our meeting was the appalling impression that this type of abrasive or abusive behaviour left on the very constituents that the Councillors were there to serve. The naked displays of megalomania; the breath-taking rudeness or bias that can sometimes be revealed in the course of a licensing hearing may be the first exposure that some of the participants have ever had to their licensing authority, or their local councillors in action. And many of them leave assuming this is standard behaviour; the status quo, and that this is what they could expect to find in any Council dealings, or from any Councillor in the future.
This is not the case, and is deeply unfair and damaging to the many hard-working and responsible Council members and officers who behave in entirely the opposite fashion.
It was of sufficient concern to trigger spontaneously the debate at IOL WM in the first place, and of sufficient concern to take a good chunk of time for everyone to share and cathart. We drew short of offering counselling, but anyone who arrived thinking that they were the only ones who attracted this kind of behaviour left with a sense of solidarity and plenty of food for thought.
So – what is the message? Only the IOL’s constant message – that we are all in this together, and that we are all striving for the same things ultimately: professionalism in licensing; best practice and effective regulation leading to a thriving hospitality industry in harmony with public protection. Idealistic? Possibly. But being nice to one another along the way is not, and it is the least we can do.