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The Licensing Act

The government is beset by fierce opposition to the concept of twenty-four hour drinking allowed for in the Licensing Act. The medical establishment and the police have late in the day come out against the Act and there has been a vigorous campaign in the press, led by the Daily Mail. Just for good measure, the BBC conducted an opinion poll which showed two thirds of the population believe that the licensing changes will increase antisocial behaviour.

In these circumstances DRINKING RESPONSIBLY: The Government’s Proposals, a consultation arising from the widespread apprehension that the Licensing Act will cause more problems than it solves, was issued jointly by the DCMS, the Home Office, and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Has any government before today been in the humiliating position of having to seek advice to mitigate the problems expected to result from a piece of their legislation yet to come into force? This is accompanied by disingenuous and contradictory statements from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport, Tessa Jowell and the new Home Secretary Charles Clarke. Either they are ignorant of what their own legislation says or they were seeking to defuse the situation by misleading the public. For example, the Act, which came into force on 7th February, specifically forbids local authorities from staggering closing time when granting licences. However, Ms Jowell was able to say on a radio broadcast that the Act “has been grossly misrepresented. It is not and never has been about twenty-four hour drinking, so to talk about flexible opening rather than twenty-four hour drinking is not a U-turn.” No doubt she had forgotten what she had to say in a letter to MPs when the Licensing Bill was introduced: “National ‘permitted hours’ relating to alcohol sales will be abolished with the potential for up to twenty-four hours opening seven days a week, subject to consideration of the impact on local residents and provided that steps are in place to prevent anti-social behaviour and nuisance.” Not to be outdone Charles Clark said, “If you can phase – as the new licensing law gives the power to – the times at which the pubs and clubs close and, say, have one closing at one or two, others at two or three, you have a much easier situation to deal with.”

What the Guidance to the Act actually says:

  • “Licensing authorities should also not seek to engineer ‘staggered closing times’ by setting quotas for particular closing times of 11.00pm, 12 midnight, 1.00am, 2.00am, 3.00 am etc. to specific premises.”

Police against the Act

In the run up to the implementation of the Act, a survey commissioned for ITV1's Tonight with Trevor McDonald revealed, that almost two thirds of police officers are opposed to the Government's plans for 24- hour drinking. Unsurprisingly, they believe it will inevitably lead to an increase in alcohol-fuelled violence.

The survey of rank-and-file officers showed that 62 per cent were not in favour of all-hours licensing, whilst 69 per cent said it would create more alcohol-related disorder.

The research also found that a majority of the general public, doctors and nurses were also opposed to the new licensing laws. Half of the public said they did not support the idea, as did 57 per cent of doctors and 59 per cent of nurses.

The majority of all three groups also agreed that longer drinking hours would cause more alcohol-fuelled violence.

Publicans were the only group of people who took part in the survey who did support round the clock drinking. 75 per cent said they favoured longer opening hours, although 29 per cent admitted that they thought it would cause more alcohol-related violence.

The police officers’ survey was carried out by Jane's Police Review, the public poll by YouGov, the doctors and nurses by Medix UK and the publicans by The Publican trade magazine.

Commander Chris Allison, of the Metropolitan Police, speaking on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO),said, “We believe on the basis of the evidence, (on the) basis of what we see every night of every week, that if you allow people to drink for a longer period of time they will drink more,” he told the Tonight programme. “If they drink more that will lead to more disorder, more violence, more anti-social behaviour and we as the police service will have to deal with it”.

Doctors oppose the Act

The Royal College of Physicians added its considerable weight to the argument against the Act by warning that excessive drinking was the cause of major problems relating to violence and illness. Professor Ian Gilmore of the College said he wanted to add his concerns about the extension of licensing hours to those recently expressed by Sir John Stevens, the outgoing Metropolitan Police Commissioner. Professor Gilmore said that allowing pubs to remain open twenty-four hours a day would add to alcohol-related health problems.

Professor Gilmore said that evidence from abroad also showed that violence would rise. To imagine that Britain could instantly transform its drinking habits to mirror responsible attitudes on the Continent was “fanciful”. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he further said: “We are facing an epidemic of alcohol-related harm and to extend the licensing hours flies in the face of common sense as well as the evidence.”

He added that plans to vary the times that people left pubs were an attempt to manage drunkenness rather than prevent it. Reducing the availability of alcohol and raising its price were the ways to tackle binge drinking.

The Royal College’s warning came after Sir John Stephens said that the move to allow pubs to stay open twenty-four hours a day needed to be slowed down and given more consideration.

The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police said that if forces had to “man-up” the streets when people left pubs at about three in the morning, it would take officers away from other duties.

Steve Green, the Chief Constable of Nottinghamshire and licensing spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers, who wrote about his concerns in Alert last year, said: “If we want twenty-four hours of hell, let’s keep on the way we’re going.”

Colin Drummond, a government adviser and Professor of Addiction Psychiatry at St George’s Medical School in South London, said: “The more a country drinks, the bigger its problems are. All the evidence suggests that in order to reduce the harm caused by alcohol, you have to reduce the availability and increase the price.”

Government’s defence

Richard Caborn, the Culture Minister, attempted to defend the Government’s plans as part of a flexible approach to drinking that reflected changes in society. “Life has changed,” he said. “You don’t just get alcohol now from those licensed premises.” He added that the changes would be brought in alongside moves to reduce alcohol consumption. How hugely extending the hours in which alcohol may be consumed on licensed premises would help achieve this, he did not say. “It is about dealing with the cause and not just the symptoms,” he said. “We will be giving the police and local authorities and other enforcement agencies much more powers to deal with those who act irresponsibly in the licensed trade.” There would also be a big educational programme.

Government ministers in the DCMS have consistently dismissed fears over twenty-four hour drinking, despite leaked memos which showed that former Home Secretary David Blunkett warned it risked worsening violent crime.

The leaked documents also showed that Government reports played down the link between drink and almost 20,000 sexual assaults a year.

Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell insisted: “Pubs are not going to open around the clock. Flexible opening is being introduced because the police said it would help them handle problems more easily.

“One of the things that fuels alcohol-related violence is people drinking up when they know it's near closing time.”

Former Health Secretary Frank Dobson would have none of this. He said that reforms of opening times would not stop the British drinking heavily, adding: “The English - maybe the British - have been binge drinkers since time immemorial. I don't think we'll turn into Tuscany just because the hours have changed.”

Conservative Shadow Home Secretary David Davis, accused ministers of ignoring concerns. He said: “The Government should immediately delay 24-hour opening until it has got a grip on binge drinking.

“It is all very well for the minister to claim she is against 24- hour opening but it is her department that is going ahead with it. The Government's position is chaos and confusion.”

What pubs will do

Two-thirds of pubs and clubs in England and Wales are expected to exploit new licensing laws and stay open into the early hours, leaked Whitehall documents reveal. The government analysis of the impact of 24-hour drinking laws estimates that more than 35,000 pubs will seek to extend their licences beyond eleven o’clock at night.

The document, written by one of Ms Jowell’s top officials at the DCMS, also expects 10,000 new pubs, clubs and off-licences to open every year for the next three years. This indicated the possibility of a 50 per cent rise in the number of pubs and clubs across the country.

The internal projections for the boom in drinking in England and Wales appear in a report marked “restricted-policy, restricted-commercial”. It was written by Andrew Cunningham, head of licensing at the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport, who has played a very active role in promoting the new Licensing Act He has also been severely criticised for being too close to the drinks industry. Former Health Secretary Frank Dobson said: “We need to take a look at the way the drinks industry has burrowed its way into the heart of the Government. And we should look at the role played by Mr Cunningham“. According to the Daily Mail another official pointed out that Andrew Cunningham had “a very aggressive style. No-one from the drinks industry bothers much with Tessa, they go straight to Andrew because that is where the power is.” Cunningham, whilst being obliged to make what has been described as “a grovelling apology” for portraying opponents of the Bill as “nanny-staters”, denied that there has been any discussions off job offers from the industry.

Mr Cunningham’s report says: “We estimate… that about 65 per cent of applications during the transitional period may include a request to vary the hours.” This was confirmed in a survey of more than 30,000 pubs by the British Beer and Pub Association, which found that 50-60 per cent planned to open late, most until two in the morning, which hardly suggests that licensed holders will somehow institute a staggered system of closing, as fondly expected in the Act.

The report further states that there could be up to 10,000 applications for new premises licences and club premises certificates annually. This estimated rise represents an explosion in the number of licensed outlets. This contrasts with the 4,200 increase between 1989 and 2001.

David Davis, who is leading the Tory attack on the measures imposed by the Licensing Act, said: “Contrary to the government’s claims this demonstrates that this law will have a massive impact on the peace and tranquillity of the lives of many hundreds of thousands of British citizens. And far from solving the binge-drinking problem, it will extend it deep into the night.”

Press attacks on the Act

It was The Sunday Times which exposed serious divisions between ministers over the issue. David Blunkett attempts last year to stop the changes because of fears of a surge in alcohol-related crime, were initially overruled but Ms Jowell was eventually forced into a U-turn, announcing measures including compulsory levies on pubs in “alcohol disorder zones” in city centres and pub bans on disorderly drunks after opposition from police, doctors and local councils. Until now the DCMS has opposed any suggestion of the priciple of polluter pays. Almost immediately before the U-turn this line was still being peddled. Culture minister Richard Caborn said he knew of “no plans” for a levy.

Further leaked documents indicate that Andrew Cunningham wrote last year to Carol Sweetenham at No.10’s strategy unit, saying: “If the industry choose voluntarily to provide more for policing, we have no objection whatsoever, but there is a grave risk that opponents will describe the proposal as a compulsory “stealth tax” on the industry.” This statement has a strong echo of the ploy by which Sir Humphrey Appleby in BBC’s Yes Minister prevented his political master taking a course to which he himself was opposed: “That would be a brave decision, Minister.”

Tory Party against the Act

The Government may have stuck to the industry’s line, but at least one major party has promised to abandon the most harmful measures in the Licensing Act. The Conservative Party’s policy shows that it has taken note of the arguments deployed by critics of the Act. They promise to revue the guidelines with a view to giving local councils greater say in licensing matters. As part of that process, the Conservatives would remove the overall presumption in favour of later opening hours. Local circumstances should be fully taken into account before a licence is granted.

The Conservatives also promise to end irresponsible promotions, arguing that this kind of price competition fuels alcohol abuse among young people. To this end, they would allow local councils to attach explicit conditions to licences. They also make the point that the saturation of pubs and clubs in one area often creates disorder hotspots due to the sheer number of inebriated drinkers who can dominate the streets.. The Tories say that they would strengthen the powers of councils to block late licence extensions in such problem areas.

They would also allow parish councils and local councillors to register an objection to the granting of a licence, just as they can with planning applications. At the moment this is not permitted under the new Act.

In an attempt to mitigate the problems of cumulative impact – the proliferation of licensed premises in a particular area – the Government has, with effect from April, changed the use class orders which are part of the planning process. By putting all premises which are primarily concerned with the sale of alcohol into their own class, ministers hope to prevent the “slippage” which occurred before when restaurants, for example, could transform themselves into drinking establishments. Any hope that local residents or authorities might have that this would give them control of the number of licensed premises through the planning process will be lessened by the fact that the new use class of “drinking establishment” applies only to new licence applications.