OPINION

A city of sanctuary or dispenser of rough justice to licensed fall guy?

I am a resident of Tivoli Crescent and I attended and spoke at the licensing panel hearing for Tivoli Food and Wine on Monday 9 November.

Eight days later the panel published its decision to revoke the license banning Awarah Shikha from selling alcohol and tobacco on grounds that he used the premises “for the sale and storage of illicit, namely counterfeit and, non-duty paid (smuggled) alcohol”.

This action was met with glee by those in the city who seem to portray themselves as the guardians of morality and good citizenship, yet who simply did not have the full facts.

My own conclusion from the hearing is that the authorities have simply made an example of him. This intention appeared to be signalled in the hearing itself when Councillor Dee Simson, who I hold in very high regard, asked me: “Do you believe and think that we should brush aside the practice of selling illegal alcohol which is a criminal offence? And what message would you think that this sends to other premises in the city?”

There is no dispute whatsoever that he acted wrongly in purchasing what was proven to be smuggled alcohol from an untraceable source. Mr Shikha himself admitted it immediately to the trading standards officer at the time and reiterated it at the hearing. So did I and so did the licensing consultant representing him.

Yet the decision report said: “There was also a tendency on the part of the licence holder to make excuses for his behaviour.”

This is nonsense. With his business in the balance, he certainly put up a defence – who wouldn’t? – but he fully acknowledged his wrongdoing.

So to my call to give him another chance, the chair said: “Everyone uses that argument – ‘We’ll improve. It was a mistake’ – but the selling of illicit alcohol is an offence so it’s quite a serious matter.”

And in reference to my testimony that, as a resident, is necessarily about character rather than the keeping or breaking of the law, the chair said: “Essentially (your statement) is about character reference rather than licensing matters and, of course, the panel is about licensing matters.”

As I said at the hearing, it is easy, in view of these statements by councillors and also the authorities represented, to perceive that the underlying intention was to revoke the licence no matter the circumstances or mitigating factors that would reasonably call for some clemency.

Mr Shikha, though quite fluent in his general understanding of English and in speech, struggles to read – particularly the notoriously legalistic documents that are typical in licensing.

So the copious supply of written information by trading standards would have been effective had it been coupled with some training about licensing and the crucial legal boundaries within which to carry out business.

This is especially relevant for the many shopkeepers such as Mr Shikha who came to Brighton as a refugee from an entirely different culture.

Brighton prides itself on being a “city of sanctuary” that embraces diversity – to foreign nationals as well as British citizens. It is an easy proclamation to make but one that only has meaning if it is actually applied.

I have real misgivings about the position that the panel took at this hearing, albeit perhaps unconsciously.

Awarah Shikha

The authorities are absolutely right to enforce the law for reasons of public safety but that is not all that was at play in this case.

The fact that, as a resident, my testimony was all but dismissed as if character is irrelevant in legal cases is worrying.

In any British court the character of the accused, as well as the behaviour and mitigating circumstances, is always relevant and material. If not, then there is little purpose in a hearing at all.

The law was broken so punishment must ensue, and that’s that. Never mind whether or not, on merit, it was in the public interest to hand out the severest punishment.

I contend that, on balance, it was not in the public interest to revoke Mr Shikah’s licence. He is not a supplier of illegal alcohol and the relatively little that he sold over a period of three years was not found to be harmful.

Because he was unable to provide “traceability” to the authorities so that they could catch and prosecute the real offenders, he is punished instead.

If Mr Shikha is really deserving of this revocation then I have to ask this – and regret I did not notice it at the time of the hearing – why is it that the previous owners of the premises, who are clearly reported to have committed the very same offences multiple times, never had their licence revoked?

In the trading standards officer’s witness statement – not available online – one and a half pages contain a litany of smuggled/counterfeit alcohol found from January 2012 to February 2016.

Moreover, the officer said that the licence changed hands in March 2014, adding: “I can confirm that I already knew the new owner and had discovered illicit alcohol in his previous shop.”

The law, if it is to have any credibility or authority, must surely be applied equally.

In the decision statement by the panel issued last Tuesday (17 November) there are several references to the history of illegal behaviour relating to the premises rather than to Mr Shikha himself.

Residents who shop at Tivoli Food and Wine overwhelmingly support Mr Shikha, who has never hidden the fact that he broke the rules but, unlike the previous owners, has demonstrated diligence in every aspect of his business and literally transformed its reputation.

I don’t envy the responsibilities of the licensing panel members. However, like Mr Shikha they are human and open to error. And on this occasion, they chose to partner with the police and trading standards to make an example out of Mr Shikha. If only they had done that to the previous owners instead.

Mr Shikha will appeal this decision – and so he should.

Christina Summers is a former member of Brighton and Hove City Council.

  1. Nigel Furness Reply

    Oh Christina—surely these comments aren’t worthy of you!
    Ever since you were hoofed out of the ‘Green’ Group of Councillorrs (despite the fact that they apparently wield no whip—YEAH, RIGHT!), for yor “moral guardianship” of going against Party policy on the grounds of your religious beliefs, I have held you in high regard as a champion of free speech. Well NOT any more—I’m afraid you’ve let us both down with this!
    Whatever possessed you to bring the ‘City of Sanctuary’ into this debate? Politics and the Licensing Panel have nothing in common (hence why it consists of ONE councillor from each of the three main parties), so surely you’re not suggesting that we’re a Sanctuary for WOULD-BE CRIMINALS?
    As an ex-Publican I entirely agree with you when you say that licensing documents can be notoriously difficult read BUT, you’ve raised a highly pertinent point by your claim that Mr.Shikha: “Struggles to read” such detail.
    Be this the case, Christina, why don’t you work with me in demanding to know WHO in the Licensing Department recommended granting this man a License in the first place, and maybe Caroline Lucas would be be happy to collaborate with us too?
    Remember the ‘oft-quoted statement fro Magistrates and Judges that: “Ignorance is no justification for breaking the law.”

    • Christina Summers Reply

      I’m not clear on where, in my opinion piece, I’ve said anything to contradict the principle of free speech.

      • Nigel Furness Reply

        Fair point, Christina, I didn’t mean to imply that you’re not a champion of free speech rather that I’m bitterly disappointed in your apparent advocacy of law-breaking.
        Whilst I understand you to be a decent and caring person, I CANNOT support you in this, so please make clear your views on the the remaining points raised in my comment.

  2. Jon Reply

    Buying ninety bottles of prosecco from someone you don’t know is difficult to explain

    • Christina Summers Reply

      How do you mean, Jon? When you start off a business you don’t know your suppliers do you?

      • Nigel Furness Reply

        I’m surprised and disappointed, Christina, that you’ve failed to respond to my polite request for answers to the main thrust of my reply, especially when considering that I DID offer to work with both yourself and Caroline Lucas in order to ensure that VULNERABLE persons would no longer be allowed to find themselves in the invidious position of holding licences to purvey alcohol?
        ME THINKS SHE DOTH PROTEST TOO MUCH!!

  3. Paul Reply

    If he had a personal licence then he would have had to have taken an exam so he clearly would be able to read . If he didn’t have a personal licence then more fool him. If someone had become ill or died through the consumption of counterfeit spirits (which is not unheard of) no doubt he’d be in the criminal courts so he’s lucky that what he bought off the back of a lorry to avoid any duty and make a quick profit wasn’t harmful. This sort of thing happens on every high street and if there’s no deterrent it will continue to happen. He has a right of appeal so the decision is entirely open to judicial scrutiny. It looks to me like the Council Officers are doing a good job to try and deal with such irresponsible actions.

  4. Bradly Reply

    Is there some racism in the background?

  5. Brighton Bloke Reply

    With the greatest respect, it’s not like this was a one off transaction, it carried on over a period of three years. That in itself is not an act of ignorance. Fake goods are simply that, the reason they’re sold for less is due to the value of their content, which in some cases can be very harmful. Mr Shikha is unlikely to have received receipts for these transactions, nor is his likely to have made payments in anything else but cash. He put his customers at risk and broke the law, it’s as simple as that. It has nothing to do with having a new business and knowing which suppliers to use, he did it for financial gain. More to the point, the person making the sales to him is unlikely to have only one product to sell. It amazing me that you can even make a statement such as “has demonstrated diligence in every aspect of his business”

  6. Ren Reply

    Bradly, that’s a very good question, although I can’t imagine for a minute that those involved in this case will ever admit such a thing.

    Brighton Bloke, with respect returned, there was no suggestion this carried on for three years, although it could have. The evidence didn’t seem to suggest that. An item was found shortly after the owner took over. And more recently, he bought dodgy stock from a white van man. Given the character references, and the esteem in which he is obviously held locally, I can understand why the author takes the line she takes. Perhaps a more supportive approach from the authorities this time, coupled with a final warning, might have been a fairer outcome. I appreciate others take a tougher stance, and I can understand why, but I just think in this case we should be able an otherwise respectable shopkeeper should have had a bit of official support rather than have his livelihood placed at risk.

    • Brighton Bloke Reply

      Hi Ren, The author clearly states that “He is not a supplier of illegal alcohol and the relatively little that he sold over a period of three years was not found to be harmful.” The thing is this, he didn’t know what was inside those bottles and whilst he is part of the community, I wonder what the response would be if the liquid had have been harmful, personally, I don’t find that an acceptable risk. What do you think?

  7. Ren Reply

    Hi, I have listened to the webcast and, if I understood it right, the illicit alcohol was tested and found not to be dangerous. It may be there is a difference of opinion about the meaning of a supplier and a dispute about illegal alcohol, but I agree the rules are there to prevent the risk of very real harm from unsafe alcohol. If this were football, I would have said the first concern, about old stock, merited a caution. The latest problems should have meant a yellow card (effectively a final warning). I would also like to think shopkeepers like Mr Shikha would be given some proper support by trading standards. If he offends again, then a red card would be right. As I said, I recognise that others might prefer a firmer approach, but the character references alone make me think it is worth trying to encourage Mr Shikha to do it by the book. I don’t know him, but I use my local corner shop and I can see how hard the owner works and I can tell the profits aren’t all that great. Sorry if I seem too much like a wet liberal. I want the law enforced, of course, especially when our health is at risk, but I also believe we should help, educate and encourage people to do the right thing when we can.

    • Brighton Bloke Reply

      Hi Ren, Ted Bundy was quoted by people that knew him as a charming man…Testing after the fact is a bit like saying close the door after the horse has bolted. Like I said previously, what would the general opinion be if it was contaminated? As for the old stock, it would have been shown on the stock list prior to the ownership transfer, so, in fairness, shouldn’t be an issue, nor should the actions of the previous owner. I don’t disagree with you about a one-off offence, but this was over a period of 3 years and I don’t believe that many really understand the dangers of fake alcohol, people have died. From experience, I can tell you that the Prosecco was not all that he would have been offered and personally, I think T&S should have tested every bottle there including the main spirits as that’s where the largest mark up is, plus loose tobacco. Ignorance is not an excuse, bit like having an affair and saying “Oh, I didn’t think it would bother you” a one night stand may be forgivable, but a three-year affair? Local corner shops have been a haven for cash purchases for years with surprisingly large markups and little declaration. Yes, they are part of the community which supports them, but at the same time, that community shouldn’t be held at risk.

  8. Greens Out Reply

    He broke the law, knowingly.

    He got caught.

    He got punished.

    This is not ‘making an example’ of a person. This is the correct course of action.

  9. Nigel Furness Reply

    And STILL, Christina, you’ve not had the courtesy to respond to my last request so do I take it that you AGREE with my points and if so, when are you (and perhaps Caroline, going to take me up on my kind offer?

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