24-hour headache

17 Jun 05
PHILIP JOHNSTON | Rarely has a piece of legislation generated so much debate, inspired such anxiety and raised so many concerns before it has been fully implemented than the Licensing Act 2003.

Rarely has a piece of legislation generated so much debate, inspired such anxiety and raised so many concerns before it has been fully implemented than the Licensing Act 2003.

It has been dogged by controversy over its apparent liberalisation of drinking at a time when the government wants to reduce alcohol-related violence, and now threatens to sink under the weight of its own red tape.

The introduction of the act has also been characterised by some Whitehall buck-passing and acrobatic flip-flops from those who once supported it but are now its most ardent critics. Perhaps the most unfortunate beneficiary of the post-election reshuffle is James Purnell, one of the more talented and personable members of the Labour front bench, who is now left clutching the poisoned chalice as junior minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which is responsible for licensing. He is in for a fiery baptism.

The genesis of the legislation can be traced back to before the 2001 general election, when licensing was still in the grip of the Home Office. As a reporter at a press conference in a pub given by Mike O’Brien (then the responsible minister), I recall the enthusiasm for what was unambiguously being sold as a deregulatory measure.

The opportunity for 24-hour drinking, about which ministers are now so coy, was put forward as one of its principal attractions. Talk was of inculcating a Continental café culture into Britain, where sophisticated people could choose when to visit a bar or pub, unrestrained by antiquated licensing laws. No longer would they try to pour as much booze down their necks as possible in a mad rush to beat last orders.

Perhaps this will still happen; the Act does not become fully operational until November. But ministers are now making a virtue of the fact that only a few licensed premises are asking for the most flexible opening hours.

Many premises will want to open later than they do now, but the danger is that the problems we currently have around midnight will simply be displaced until 3am, something the police evidently fear. Before he retired earlier this year, Metropolitan police commissioner Sir John Stevens predicted that thousands of binge drinkers would stay up late into the night to exploit the longer hours and cause an enormous headache for his officers, who would be taken off other duties to pacify drunks.

But hang on: in 2001, senior police officers backed the proposals. At the time, a spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers said: ’We believe that relaxation of laws of opening hours will reduce binge drinking.’

The police are not alone in performing a somersault. The leak of Whitehall papers a few months ago showed that David Blunkett, as home secretary, warned the Cabinet that the new Act was ‘a leap in the dark’ that risked worsening violent crime and antisocial behaviour.

As a result of his concerns, much tougher laws were announced in the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, giving police the power to issue on-the-spot notices to remove rowdy drinkers from a location and ban persistent troublemakers from an area for up to two years. Not much continental sophistication about that.

From being the instigator of a measure that enabled Labour to exploit its liberalising opportunities to lure young voters in 2001, the Home Office became an opponent as the 2005 election approached and tackling binge drinking became essential to avoid losing older voters.

Number 10 was similarly inconsistent. Before 2001, the pressure from the centre was to move swiftly towards liberalisation; by 2005 questions were being asked about the lack of ‘joined-up thinking’ between departments.

The brewers, once big cheerleaders for liberalisation, now fear the financial consequences of spin-off laws that could spawn alcohol disorder zones and charge bars and clubs the costs of policing and cleaning up neighbourhoods.

In the middle are the new licensing authorities, the local councils and the licensees, who must cope with the bureaucracy inherent in the initial stages of the regime. The deadline to apply for the new licences is August 6 and thousands have yet to be received. A survey of around half the councils in England and Wales indicated that less than 5% of pubs and bars have returned forms. If there is a last-minute rush, it will hit councils at a time when they are least able to cope, just as staff are going on their annual holidays.

All in all, it is a bit of a mess — and it is likely to get worse before it gets better. It might all have been worth it if, in a few years’ time, the British are as benign in their drinking habits as their continental cousins. But if the aim was to create an Anglo-Saxon café society, the architects are likely to be sadly disappointed.

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