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On the Today programme:
Andrew McNeill, Director of Institute of Alcohol Studies and Rob Taylor, Ass. Chief Const. for Greater Manchester
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Thursday, 3 May, 2001, 08:23 GMT 09:23 UK
Minister calls time on drinking laws
Pub
Ministers want "a more sensible drinking culture"
Drinkers could soon be enjoying 24-hour pub openings under radical changes to alcohol licensing laws proposed by the government.

Calling time on Britain's "outdated" licensing system, under which most premises must stop serving at 11pm, Home Office Minister Mike O'Brien said the reforms would be good for business and consumers.


Eventually we would hope to encourage the more sensible drinking culture seen in some other European countries

Mike O'Brien
Home Office minister
If MPs accept the plans - the result of a year-long consultation process - the power to set opening hours would shift from the courts to local authorities.

The changes would also relax restrictions on the sale of alcohol in bars, restaurants and shops.

New culture

Setting out the government's plans in a pub in central London, Mr O'Brien said the reforms would boost tourism and help tackle the "binge drinking" culture.

He said: "Our licensing laws are outdated, complex and in need of a radical overhaul.

"Reform will provide savings and new opportunities for business, give consumers greater choice, while providing greater safeguards for local residents."

Mr O'Brien also predicted a boost for tourism, by giving visitors to this country "the same sort of service that they get at home".

He said: "Eventually we would hope to encourage the more sensible drinking culture seen in some other European countries.

Mike O'Brien
Mr O'Brien: Closing time ritual an "unwelcome tradition"
"The current ritual of late-night drinkers pouring on to the streets at closing time, with its subsequent crime and disorder problems has been an unwelcome tradition for far too long in our towns and cities."

The minister hoped flexible licensing hours would lead to "a change in our drinking culture", helping to tackle the problem of alcohol-related disorder.

If Labour wins an expected June election, the long-awaited move is likely to be one of the first acts of Prime Minister Tony Blair's second term in office.

Little change

Licensing laws in England and Wales have changed little since 1915, when they were tightened to stop factory workers turning up drunk and harming the war effort.

Under the proposals, first published in a white paper entitled Time for Reform in April 2000, closing times will be varied on police advice to stop rowdy drinkers emptying into the streets simultaneously.

William Hague and a pint
The Conservatives broadly support the changes
Ministers will also champion more family-friendly pubs by loosening restrictions on youngsters entering them.

Although licensees can apply to sell alcohol 24 hours a day, seven days a week, local residents will be able to challenge applications.

Welcomed

The drinks industry and local government leaders welcomed the proposals.

Supporters included:

  • Campaign for Real Ale

  • Brewers and Licensed Retailers' Association

  • Local Government Authority

  • Industry group Business in Sport and Leisure

  • All-party parliamentary leisure industry group

  • Assistant Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police Rob Taylor said the police supported key elements of the white paper.

    "It is the experience of senior police officers in this country that fixed closing times and rigid permitted hours tend to actually create surges in crime and disorder," he said.

    But Andrew McNeil, of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, told BBC News he was concerned about the proposals.

    'Social disruption'

    "The overall impact is likely to be adverse both in relation to crime and order issues, social disruption on the streets, and wider issues to do with health and social functioning."

    Shepherd Neame, which claims to be Britain's oldest brewers, feared the changes could lead to the closure of many traditional country pubs.

    Vice chairman Stuart Neame said the proposals would "hand over our pub heritage... to the whims of local politicians".

    Although broadly supportive of the changes, the Conservatives described them as "a cynical pre-election stunt".

    Shadow home office minister Oliver Heald said: "We support reform, but not the removal of licensing powers from magistrates, the experts in the field."

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    See also:

    02 May 01 | UK Politics
    End near for 'antiquated' pub laws
    21 Jul 98 | UK
    Open all hours
    25 Aug 99 | UK
    Appeal to reform drink laws
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