Page last updated at 16:53 GMT, Tuesday, 14 October 2008 17:53 UK

Small town bars 'like Wild West'

Binge drinking
Problems with alcohol are being pushed later into the night

Some small market towns are "like the Wild West" in the early hours of the morning because of new licensing laws, a police officers' leader has said.

The culture committee was told 24 hour drinking laws had probably not led to an overall increase in violent crime.

But Simon Reed, vice-chairman of the Police Federation, said one impact of later closing times was to push drink-fuelled violence later into the night.

The government said the "general consensus" was the new system worked.

And it had not led to the increase in crime that some had predicted.

But Mr Reed said the move had led to police resources in small towns becoming "stretched".

He told the committee: "At times, policing is being really stretched, often in the smaller towns more than in the bigger cities.

"My impression of many market towns is they are really like the Wild West on occasion because they are really stripped of resources."

He said police were now having to deal with two closing times rather than one.

'Pre-loading'

"All it's done is push closing time further back. We have got closing times at a number of premises which shut at the previous time of 11 or 11.30 and again the same people for 2 o'clock who are leaving other premises," he said.

There hasn't been the overall increase in crime that some predicted, and most people who enjoy the benefits of extended opening hours do so in a safe and sensible way
DCMS

"All that's happened is we now have two dispersal times and one that goes on until five in the morning."

This meant fewer police officers working during the day time, he told the committee.

Town hall leaders told the committee that many revellers were drinking heavily before going out by "pre-loading" in supermarkets and off-licenses.

They also said there was some way to go before Britain adopted a continental-style cafe culture, one of the original aims of the 2003 Licensing Act.

Chris White, chairman of the Local Government Association Culture Sport and Tourism Board, said "we need to develop a better attitude to alcohol in our society".

He said the country had to get away from the idea that excessive drinking, of the type seen at University freshers' weeks, was a "bit of a laugh".

"It isn't a bit of a laugh and we have all, collectively, got to grow up a little bit in this country, otherwise we are not going to get the cafe culture which I sincerely hope we can try to develop," he told the committee.

Broader look

The committee is investigating the operation of the 2003 Licensing Act, which allowed later opening and handed control of licensing from magistrates to local authorities.

The town hall leaders told the MPs the system was working well, but the public sometimes had unrealistic expectations about the ability of councils to block pubs and bars from opening or remove their licences.

"There is a perception that councils can do more, when they can not," said Geoffrey Theobold, chair of the local authorities coordinators of regulatory services.

Commander Simon O'Brien, of the Association of Chief Police Officers, added his voice to calls for a change in Britain's drinking culture but he warned it might not be possible through government legislation or police action.

"Enforcement is only one part and what I think we need to be doing Our whole view about the consumption of alcohol in this country probably needs a broader look at, and that whole culture change might not come from enforcement but it could come, as we have seen in other areas like smoking, through health and education."

'Tough conditions'

A spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said most of the evidence presented to the select committee had focused on "the positive effects of the Licensing Act, for example the introduction of new powers to close premises or impose tough conditions".

He added: "The general consensus from police and local authorities is that the partnership working ushered in by the Act has brought some very positive results and there have been notable successes in using the Act, together with other tools and powers we have introduced to tackle alcohol related crime and disorder.

"The new legislation has also removed significant admin burdens from police as they are no longer required to attend thousands of licence renewal hearings, thereby releasing potential resources for frontline policing.

"We will continue to monitor the impact of the Act, but it is important to note that there hasn't been the overall increase in crime that some predicted, and most people who enjoy the benefits of extended opening hours do so in a safe and sensible way."




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