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.
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.
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