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Monday, December 14, 1998 Published at 22:38 GMT


Ministers set to call time on licensing laws

Brewers are keen to maximise beer sales by stretching pub opening hours

Europeans have looked on Britain's licensing laws as a quaint anachronism - a legacy of the age of temperance and Victorian values.

But the UK Government is considering plans to bring pubs and bars in England and Wales line with those on the continent.

The changes could mean restaurants, pubs and other licensed premises staying open until 3am.

At present, pubs in England and Wales cannot open before 11am and must "call time" at 11pm, with 20 minutes drinking up time, unless they have received an extension from magistrates for a special function.

On Sundays closing time is 10.30pm, again with time for finishing the drink and leaving.

'Current system is not working'

John Grogan MP: "People can't understand why they can't have a civilised drink after 11 o'clock at night"
Labour MP John Grogan, who is Chairman of the cross-party Liquor Licensing Reform Group, says the current system creates problems.

Mr Grogan, whose constituency is the North Yorkshire town of Selby, says: "People drink far too much in the last half an hour before closing time and then spill out onto the street, all looking for taxis or fast food."

He says it is about time we took a more relaxed, less prurient attitude to drinking. His words are echoed by the brewers and many publicans.

Studies have shown that the move could cut crime by reducing problems of violence and noise associated with closing time. Proponents of the changes say it would encourage people to pace their drinking and they point to the situation in Scotland as evidence.

Drunken thuggery

Statistics being studied by the home office show half of city centre arrests after 11pm are linked to drunkenness.

The previous Conservative government gave the go-ahead for all-day drinking, including Sundays, but stopped short of extending closing time.

Home office minister George Howarth says he wants to "blow away the cobwebs" on Britain's licensing laws and he wants to allow pubs and clubs to stay open around the clock to greet the new millennium.

Decision in the New Year

The home office is currently consulting with the licensed trade and other interested parties - such as the police, ambulance service, environmental health experts and trade unions. Detailed plans for more widespread reform are expected to be announced early in 1999.

The campaign group, Alcohol Concern, said it would support more liberal opening hours if it encouraged people to give up "binge drinking" and drink more sensibly.

But a spokesman said: "It's something that needs very careful consideration. We need to look at the whole picture, not just what's best for pubs."

Opposition to the relaxation of the licensing laws is expected to come from an odd alliance of religious groups and trade unions representing the nation's barmen and barmaids.

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