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Alcohol policy - what the public thinks

In what will be a shock to Government ministers, the majority of people say that it would be a bad thing to extend pub opening times at night and reject the concept of continental drinking. These are among the results of a national opinion poll recently conducted by NOP* on behalf of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.

The Government will have to look again at its plans for the reform of licensing regulation, which are expected to be published as a White Paper in the near future but which were leaked to the Daily Telegraph before Christmas. Ministers have made it clear that they are looking to a wide-ranging liberalisation of the present laws and give the impression that they believe that the majority of the British people agree with them. The dramatic results of this opinion poll will force them to re-examine their presuppositions.

Asked whether it would be a good thing or a bad thing to extend drinking hours at night, 59 per cent said that it would be bad, an eighteen point lead over those who thought it would be good. However, and perhaps unsurprisingly, substantial majorities in both men and women who habitually drink beyond the sensible limits (21 units per week for men, 14 for women) thought extended hours were a good thing. There was some regional variation, with Wales and the West showing a huge majority of over thirty points against longer hours. Only in Scotland, Yorkshire, and London was the difference less than ten points. Among men there was a small majority for the idea of extended hours (8 per cent) and among women a huge majority against (42 per cent).

The 41 per cent who thought it would be a good thing to extend drinking hours at night were asked about the days on which there should be later opening times. 45 per cent (that is, 18 per cent of the whole sample) preferred every night, 7 per cent wanted to see an extension on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, 12 per cent on Thursdays, and 11 per cent on Sundays. Unsurprisingly, Friday was favoured by 45 per cent and Saturday by 47 per cent.

All the sample were then asked as to which time they thought closing time should be in residential areas. In this case there was a substantial majority, 64 per cent, in favour of no change. Even among those men who drink beyond the sensible limits, 42 per cent preferred no change to evening hours in residential areas. The picture is a little more complicated when it comes to town and city centre pubs. However, what may surprise ministers is that even there, 44 per cent (33 per cent men and 55 per cent women) would prefer closing time to remain as it is now. A further 12 per cent would want an extension of no more than an hour, giving a total of 56 per cent who prefer town and city centre pubs to be closed down no later than midnight. 27 per cent believed that pubs should be allowed to serve drinks as long as they wanted with no set closing time. Leaving things to the discretion of the landlord, of course, is not necessarily the same thing as wanting pubs to remain open much longer than they do at the moment.

Asked whether, in the case of drinking hours being extended beyond 11 pm, they would take advantage of the later opening hours, 56 per cent said they would not, with a further 11 per cent speculating that they might do so once a year. Only 14 per cent thought they would use the extra drinking time once a week and 7 per cent more than once a week. Within these figures there is a 2 to 1 majority of those who drink beyond the safe limits. It would be ironical if the main beneficiaries of licensing reform turned out to be abusers of alcohol, given that the government is currently preparing its national strategy against alcohol abuse.

In England and Wales there has been some discussion as to where the power to grant licences should lie. The choice is between a continuation of the present system where it is the hands of licensing magistrates or some form of local accountability. The latter could either be a committee of the council or a licensing authority which would consist representatives of local interests, possibly including councillors, magistrates, health authority members, and the like. Whilst most of the questions in the poll had some implication for any community-based approach to licensing, two had specific relevance. Those questioned were asked, "Do you think that people who live in an area should have the right to object to late night opening by pubs and clubs or not?" An overwhelming 92 per cent wanted the right to object. There was no great variation in class, sex, age, or region (except, perhaps, the 18 per cent which separated Scotland on 82 per cent from the north-east on 100 per cent).

Similarly, 90 per cent of the population believe that people should have the right to object if they think that too many pubs and clubs are being opened in the area in which they live. There is even less variation according to class, age, sex, or region for this question.

These very substantial percentages send a strong message to Government that people want to have a greater say in how licences are granted in their own communities.

Ministers past and present have also made the assumption that the British people want to import the continental café into the United Kingdom, removing the restrictions on family use of pubs and making it possible to have a beer or glass of wine in the local fast-food outlet. The results of the opinion poll contradict this notion. People were asked whether they thought that the present law restricting the entry of children under 14 into bars should be kept or that they should be allowed legally into all bars and pubs when accompanied by an adult. 72 per cent believed that the present law should be retained, with very little variation across the categories mentioned. An astonishing 84 per cent said they wanted to retain the present law which bans eating places such as McDonalds selling alcohol. Nor do a sizable majority (75 per cent) of the British public wish to see restaurants allowed to sell alcohol other than with a meal.

There has been no official suggestion that the liberalisation of the licensing laws proposed by ministers should include any change to the legal age for buying alcohol but some time ago the drink industry did begin to make some moves towards a lowering of that age. The controversy over alcopops put a temporary halt to this. This poll shows that such a move would be deeply unpopular, the vast majority of the population believing that the legal drinking age should be kept as it is, and more people wanting it to be raised than lowered. As far as personal drinking was concerned, 83 per cent of those surveyed drank alcohol at least occasionally, 17 per cent did not drink. 18 per cent of men and 7 per cent of women admitted to drinking above the traditional sensible limits (21 units per week for men, 14 for women). However, 38 per cent of men and 16 per cent of women have at some point in their lives worried that they were drinking too much alcohol. In addition almost half the population (47 per cent) know someone personally they would describe as having an alcohol problem.

(* NOP Solutions carried out the survey over 1800 adults aged 15 years and over using a random location sample. The sample was designed to be representative of all adults in Great Britain. Interviewing took place between 6th and 11th January, 2000.