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Sad day dawns

24 hour licensing finally became a reality for England and Wales at midnight 24 November 2005, the so-called Second Appointed Day (SAD). Ironically, in view of repeated claims by government ministers that Scotland’s experience proves the case for licensing liberalisation, 24 hour licensing arrived south of the border just at the time it was being ruled against the public interest by the Scottish Parliament.

Secretary of State Tessa Jowell said: “The vast majority of adults drink alcohol. Most people live within walking distance of a pub or bar. Alcohol is part of our national life.

“That's why these new laws are so important. For too long we have allowed a small minority to rule the streets at night and our main recourse has been a national curfew. This was unfair in principle and wrong in practice.

“From today we have got our priorities right. Yobbish behaviour will be cracked down on and adults will be treated like grown ups.

“Getting the national relationship with alcohol right is a massive undertaking. This is only the start, but it's a vital first step.

“The one thing this act isn't about is encouraging 24 hour drinking. Indications are that one half of one percent of licensees have applied for a 24 hour licence and many of them do not intend to use it regularly.”

Home Secretary Charles Clarke said: “We are determined to tackle alcohol related violence and anti-social behaviour in all its forms and crack down on those who encourage it by irresponsible retailing.

“We believe that the Licensing Act will help to reduce alcohol fuelled disorder by providing the police with new tough powers to close down problem bars and increase penalties for premises that sell to underage drinkers, while at the same time ensuring that the law abiding majority can enjoy a drink when they wish.”

Speaking for the British Beer and Pub Association, Mark Hastings also welcomed the new regime, revealing that the system of permitted hours was in fact the sole cause of binge drinking. Speaking on ITV news he said: “In the rest of the world where we have flexible licensing laws we don't have binge drinking. In this country, where we have lived for nearly a hundred years with very rigid licensing laws, we do have binge drinking.”

However, it soon became clear how isolated the Government and its partners in the alcohol industry had become from mainstream opinion. SAD was greeted by saturation media coverage, most of it sceptical or hostile, and a chorus of negative comment from the other political parties, professional groups such as police and doctors, local residents and the public at large.

Public opposition

ITV revealed the results of its opinion poll showing a 2:1 majority against 24 hour licensing, almost exactly the same proportion as had been reported by previous polls beginning in 2000.

Residents’ groups up and down the country expressed their anxieties about the new legislation. Speaking for Open all Hours?, Matthew Bennett said that the Government had wasted the opportunity of tackling the binge drinking culture and that the new legislation would make life worse for town centre residents. He called for early changes to the legislation (see below).

Police concerns

For the police, Commander Chris Allison of the Metropolitan Police warned how extending opening hours in some pubs and clubs could lead to an increase in drink fuelled violence and anti-social behaviour.

John Yates, the Association of Chief Police Officers' (ACPO) expert on sexual offences, warned that the new Act could result in more cases of rape and increased allegations of rape. He said: “Drinking is a real issue. Forget Rohypnol [the date rape drug], the biggest single factor in terms of drugs and rape is alcohol. Men, I suspect, think that they can get away with rape; that they have a one in 20 chance of being convicted. Rapists are clever. They have changed their behaviour, they are targeting nightclubs where young girls have been drinking.”

Lord John Stevens, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, had earlier launched a scathing attack on the new licensing laws saying he could not understand why the Government had introduced them in the face of police opposition. Speaking on BBC Radio Four’s ‘Any Questions’, he stated: “If you need police officers on the street as you will do at three, four, five in the morning, to look after people who are completely drunk, out of their minds, then you are going to have to take police officers away from other duties that they’d be doing during the day.”

The current Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, said that he saw “anyone who wants a drink at four in the morning as a special interest group and those making profits out of it are going to have to pay.”

Fears about overstretched resources were shared by Jan Berry, chair of the Police Federation. She did not believe that extended drinking hours would bring about a change in the binge drinking culture but would require additional police resources. ACPO had previously issued a statement expressing concern “about extending the hours that people can drink given the culture of excessive drinking that already pervades our society. Over the last few years, we have already seen premises being allowed to open later and later. At the same time we have seen a sharp increase in alcohol
fuelled violence and antisocial behaviour…”

Medical fears: ’Licence to Kill’

A range of medical bodies attacked the new Act. For the Royal College of Physicians, Professor Ian Gilmore said: “The Government has ignored expert advice from around the world that the main drivers of alcohol-fuelled damage are price and availability, and so we fear that relaxation of licensing laws will lead to more drunkenness, alcohol-related illness and social order problems. The UK’s millenium-old traditions of binge drinking are not suddenly going to change overnight into continental style moderate consumption. We expect our A&E units will feel the pressure, and the long-term effects will be damaging to the health of our young people.

Recent initiatives from alcohol retailers, such as stopping serving the under-age or drunk, have clearly failed. We call on the Government to put a 1% levy on the drink industry’s £30 billion turnover so that independent research can help provide some real answers to this country’s rising tide of alcohol misuse.”

The British Liver Trust (BLT) warned that the new Act will mean more early deaths from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, and called for an urgent alcohol-related prevention campaign.

“How can licensing laws permitting 24-hour drinking stand shoulder to shoulder with Government initiatives to promote healthy living?’ asked BLT Chief Executive Alison Rogers. ‘This change in the law is causing grave concern among hepatologists and all those working to stem the epidemic in liver disease.”

Professor Roger Williams, the liver specialist who treated footballer George Best in his final illness, said 24-hour drinking reflected a society that was “falling apart”. He said on Sky TV: “I see liver disease all around increasing. I just can’t accept that any measure that results in an increase in alcohol consumption in this country as a whole can be justified.

“I don’t think there is any evidence that lengthening the periods of drinking in this country will lead to less alcohol consumption. It will lead to more. There is only one way of reducing alcohol consumption, that’s increasing the price.’’

The British Association for Emergency Medicine warned that the licensing changes could create even more problems in Accident and Emergency Units which were already operating under extreme pressure.

The Chartered Institute for Environmental Health Officers also warned that the new Act would place a huge strain on them and that public health could suffer. Environmental Health Officers have an important role in operating and monitoring the new legislation and the Institute expressed fears that they are not adequately resourced to carry out their additional responsibilities.

Local taxpayers to subsidise pubs

Council tax will have to rise to pay for the new licensing regime, according to local authorities. A survey by the Local Government Association found that virtually every council reported that, contrary to repeated Government promises, the new licensing fees were insufficient to cover the costs of implementing and administering the new system. The London Borough of Camden, one of whose residents is Tessa Jowell, reported a £1.1 million deficit. The neighbouring Borough of Westminster reported being £3 million in the red, and estimated that in the next financial year the deficit will increase to £4 million. Calculations suggested that, overall, local authorities in England and Wales were facing a £71 million shortfall.

Party political opposition

The opposition parties launched vigorous attacks on the new Act. Commenting on the financial deficit, Conservative Shadow Local Government and Communities Secretary, Caroline Spelman said: “Labour’s reckless new licensing laws are yet another example of expensive burdens imposed on councils by Whitehall, with council tax payers left to foot the bill. With alcohol soon to be plied into the early hours every day, local people have every right to feel extremely angry - their wishes about late night drinking are being ignored, and now they are expected to pay for the consequences of binge drinking.”

Dr Dai Lloyd, Plaid Cymru’s shadow Local Government Minister, broadened the attack. He said: “There are going to be serious financial costs resulting from the new laws. As well as higher costs for the police and NHS in dealing with the aftermath of later opening, we now hear that council tax payers are going to have to pay out for this ill thought out law.”

Dr Dai Lloyd added: “24 hr drinking is going to have major consequences for people in Wales. It is obviously going to lead to more alcohol consumption. This will mean more alcohol related violence and more alcohol related illnesses such as liver cirrhosis.”

24 hour drinking will not increase crime – or will it?

Opposition politicians were particularly incensed by statements by James Purnell, the licensing minister, and Paul Goggins, the Home Office minister, that the crime figures would probably rise after the Act came into force, but who then went on to explain that what they really meant was that, while arrests would increase as a result of greater police activity, the actual level of crime would fall.

This argument did not convince the Liberal Democrat Don Foster, who said: “The Government’s argument that we should expect more alcohol offences only as a result of the new police powers in the Licensing Act doesn’t stack up. All the new powers to be introduced by the Act are to tackle rogue pubs, not individuals. If anything, these powers should reduce, not increase, overall alcohol offence rates. These last minute spurious arguments smack of desperation. Ministers should have swallowed their pride and stopped 24 hour drinking before it was too late.”

The Liberal Democrats also released figures showing what they claimed was a 20 per cent increase in alcohol-related violent crime in the last two years. Don Foster added: “These figures provide further evidence that binge drinking is out of control. International research evidence shows that increasing the availability of alcohol will make matters worse. So it’s clear that the new Licensing Act will lead to a further increase in these figures with yet more people becoming the victims of alcohol-fuelled violence.”

Open all hours?
Residents braced for Government’s ‘broken promises’

The licensing shake-up marked a huge missed opportunity to make a dent in Britain’s alcohol problems, the residents’ campaign group Open All Hours? said in a statement. While the Act could have promoted greater powers for residents and a coherent local approach, it instead promises to create a weak, patchy, reactive system that does little to help those living with the consequences of Britain’s binge drinking culture.

Matthew Bennett, chairman of OAH?, said: “In a climate of massive public and political concern over binge-drinking, this Government had a chance to respond positively and think again about the detail of the way they are changing the licensing laws to ensure that they clearly act in a way that changes British drinking culture for the better - but this is a chance that they have spectacularly failed to take. The promise was to empower residents where they have problems but, in reality, they have simply burdened them with a one-sided system that already shows signs that it isn’t going to work. We are starting to see that even where licensing authorities have turned applications down or placed other restrictions on licensees, magistrates appear to be overturning many of those decisions on appeal or the trade just comes back with another application.”

Based on a combination of their own experiences and the international evidence, OAH? believed that the forthcoming review of the Statutory Guidance to the Licensing Act should make at least three key changes as a matter of urgency:

1. Remove from the Guidance the strong recommendation to councils to grant longer hours as a method of cutting disorder. The evidence for this was extremely tenuous. Instead, emphasis should be placed on tailoring opening hours and activities to achieving the licensing objectives.

2. Make sure residents were not bizarrely excluded from having a say by making sure that anyone with a ‘real and material interest’ can object, rather than restricting the right to be heard to those who live `in the vicinity’ of a particular pub or club.

3. Where there was already evidence of general late night crime and disorder in any area, licensing authorities should be allowed to place limits on later hours across the board until antisocial behaviour in that area had been brought under control.

Matthew Bennett added, “Despite the furore in the media for many months, it is still unclear if the Government has any idea of what sort of late night economy they want to create. While the Government may not want to acknowledge that the problems are continuing, it is crucial that the review of the Guidance recognises the everyday experiences of residents, the police and health professionals throughout Britain and responds much more positively to those concerns.”

Precise estimates vary of the number of pubs which have obtained extra trading hours, but the consensus is around one third.A BBC survey found:
  • 60,326 extensions in hours for selling alcohol – but this figure and the others below were derived from a survey of 301 of the 375 authorities, so the final figure will be higher, probably around 70,000.
  • 1,121 establishments will have 24-hour licences and of these 359 are pubs or clubs. 250 supermarkets have obtained licences to sell alcohol round the clock.
  • South East England has the largest number of approved licences - 10,500.
  • Some 5,200 extensions have been approved in London - but just 14 pubs or clubs can open for 24 hours.
  • More than 150 pubs or clubs in the south and west of England gained 24-hour licences, with just eight in the West Midlands.