B.C. liquor branch altered charity policy in June

Province announces some changes, but fails to explain delay to inform public of charity wine auction restrictions

Ivan Habel

The B.C. liquor control and licensing branch (LCLB) failed to notify charities of fundamental policy changes that outlaw the auctioning of privately donated liquor, the News has learned.

A May 2012 version of the special occasion licence policy manual reveals significant revisions were made to the sections governing charitable donations and wine auctions in June.

The changes also shed light on why Victoria’s Belfry Theatre was denied a special occasion licence for its wine auction last week, after hosting the event without issue in 2010 and 2011.

In the older manual, section 4.6 stated: “Liquor, including donated liquor, may be auctioned at a licensed special occasion to raise funds for charity.”

The revised manual states: “Only liquor which has been purchased by the SOL holder or liquor which has been donated by a manufacturer or agent, may be auctioned at a licensed special occasion to raise funds for a registered charity.”

An additional revision (section 4.4) states that only a liquor manufacturer or agent can donate alcohol for charity events. The word “only” does not appear in the earlier version.

The changes mean private liquor donations for charity auctions are illegal, unless that liquor is directly purchased from a government liquor store or agent.

The LCLB did not provide comment on why it neglected to issue a policy directive in June, a public action normally taken after significant policy updates.

Energy and mines minister Rich Coleman, who oversees the LCLB, was travelling Thursday and unavailable for comment.

A ministry spokesperson referred to the policy revisions as “housekeeping.”

“The prohibition against auctioning privately donated liquor at special occasion licence events is not the result of recent changes to the special occasion licence manual. The legislation has been in place for many years,” she said in an email.

While the legislation hasn’t changed, the Liquor Control and Licensing Act contains no references to charitable wine auctions, said wine lawyer Mark Hicken.

The unannounced revisions hinge on a longstanding regulation that says a licencee must purchase liquor from a government branch or other authorized channels, he said.

It remains to be seen why the regulation was suddenly applied charity events.

“I think you can interpret those sections so that they do not apply to charities,” Hicken said. “There’s a difference between policy and law. A policy manual is just their interpretation of what they think the law says.”

Hundreds of hospitals, theatres, schools and arts organizations in B.C. now face financial uncertainty with the removal of a key fundraising tool.

“It will have a huge impact,” said Ivan Habel, the Belfry’s general manager. “We’re talking about literally hundreds of thousands of dollars that are raised through these kinds of things.”

On Wednesday, Coleman posted to Twitter that he is “working on it but it won’t happen overnight. It’s nobodies (sic) intention to undermine the work of charities.”

Victoria-Beacon Hill MLA Carole James called for a full review of provincial liquor regulations.

“It’s ridiculous. I’ve been at fundraisers where people have auctioned off bottles of wine that had been donated. This is not unique to the Belfry, this happens all over B.C.,” she said.

The province issued a statement Friday morning saying it will allow the auctioning of gift baskets that contain liquor, but stopped short of committing to legalizing wine-only auctions.

“From time to time, we find outdated liquor policies that may have been relevant at a particular time in history but don’t work today,” Coleman said in a statement. “Our goal is to get rid of these outdated liquor laws that unnecessarily restrict British Columbians and to regulate alcohol responsibly in the process.”

dpalmer@vicnews.com

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