Britons to enjoy 24-hour drinking - or is it just hype?

Related tags Alcoholic beverage Drinking culture Government

The UK government has finally begun the process of changing the
country's draconian licensing laws, a move which politicians claim
could pave the way for all-day drinking. But the industry is
already sending out mixed messages about the changes, and it is
unclear whether the liberalisation will be welcomed or not.

Drinkers in the UK will - for the most part - be delighted to hear that the government's pledge to liberalise the archaic licensing laws should finally be fulfilled this year, but reaction from the UK pub and drinks trade has so far been mixed.

The government has been mulling the idea of allowing what it calls 24-hour opening for some time, but its failure to act on the pledge has left many Britons feeling that it was simply an election gimmick, designed to attract younger voters.

But now, well into its second term of office, the Labour government of Tony Blair has finally decided to act on its pledge, and has set out plans to change the way in which British pubs and bars are licensed.

At present, liquor licences are granted by magistrates, with the standard licensing hours being 11.00 to 23.00. Bars and pubs can apply, again to the magistrates, for extensions to these hours, but on an individual basis.

The draconian opening hours date from the First World War and were designed to prevent munitions workers from coming to work drunk. This has clearly not been a major issue for the best part of a century, and the short opening hours have in turn led to a number of other problems, not least the fact that all the pubs close at the same time, in some cases leading to violence and other disturbances.

It is to prevent this, and to promote a more relaxed attitude to drinking, that the government is proposing to allow pubs and bars to open all day if they want and to hand control of granting licences to local councils, who, it argues, are better placed to judge the needs of local communities.

But these plans - announced just yesterday in the Queen's Speech, the annual declaration of the government's legislative agenda for the coming year - have already been fiercely criticised.

For Stuart Neame, vice chairman of Kent-based brewer Shepherd Neame and deputy chairman of the Independent Family Brewers of Britain said that the plans would mean "turning pubs over to the whims of local politicians"​ and that the 24-hour opening suggestion was "a complete red herring"​.

"These proposals are not about longer opening hours,"​ he said, "they're about government control of Britain's pubs. Pubs will only be able to open longer if they get the local council's approval, which is just the same as now. And outside town centres, few pubs will want to open much longer - licensees don't want it and can't afford it."

He added: "All this talk about longer opening is just hype and spin to divert us from the government's real objective - to subject pubs to tight political control."

While the government maintains that giving local councils the right to decide on licences will better serve the needs of communities, Neame contends that the new system "will mean added cost, bureaucracy and the danger of local councillors playing politics with the livelihoods of pub landlords"​.

Magistrates, he said, were consistent, could not be swayed by political lobbying and generally issued the licences with the minimum of delay - all of which would change under the new system.

Licensees welcome the changes

In contrast to Neame and the IFBB, the British Institute of Innkeeping (BII) has broadly welcomed the government's decision to change the current system, adding that it had been involved in every stage of the lengthy consultation process on licensing.

"While the announcement is a major step forward, there is still a long way to go before the new regime is up and running and the BII will be involved in putting licensees' arguments to ministers on vital issues including cost, consistency, local authority powers and training,"​ the organisation said in a statement.

The BII represents some 15,000 licensees, and broadly supports the relaxation of licensing laws to give publicans more freedom to serve alcohol in a safe environment at a time that suits their customers. "Encouraging staggered closing times will remove the so-called 'flash-points' currently encountered by police at 11 pm. The new system should also encourage best practice, especially through training, and will help weed out the minority of poor operators who give the trade a bad name."

But the support for the changes was not unequivocal. John McNamara, chief executive of the BII, said: "Today's announcement is good news for our members provided checks and balances are put in place to protect licensees from excessive costs and ensure that the new system will benefit both consumers and businesses.

"It is essential that the Institute continues to give licensees a voice within Westminster while discussion progresses on the detail of the bill. We hope the outcome of these discussions will be a new regime that enables publicans to move at last into the 21st century as the modern retailers they are."

McNamara also had an answer to critics of the new proposals. "To those who seek to obstruct this reform I would point to examples throughout the rest of Europe and even closer to home on the Isle of Man, where relaxed licensing has led to a safer drinking environment and a more sensible drinking culture."

Conflicting views

So which industry group do we believe? Neame - whose company also operates a number of pubs across the south east of England - claims that "94 per cent of licensees want magistrates to remain in control of licensing"​ but the BII claims entirely the opposite, although with reservations about the cost of the changes.

While Neame has a point that the licensing laws could be liberalised without a wholesale change to the way in which licences are granted - the opening times of pubs could be extended and magistrates could still have the final word - there is also much to support the decision to hand the whole process over to councils.

After all, they are more likely to act in the best interests of their communities - be that by allowing longer hours or not - and they have an onus to act responsibly or find themselves voted out by disgruntled locals.

That there will be extra costs involved in longer opening hours - not least in terms of pub staff and other fixed costs - the potential for revenue increases is also great. And having fewer drunken people piling onto the streets at the same time each night will also reduce the likelihood of violence.

That different rules will apply in different communities is not a problem in itself, since the requirements of each community are different. Some will welcome longer opening hours, others will not, but that decision is now more likely to be based on the consumer. Some will be happy with the old ways, others will want the changes, and councils are in a much better position to decide what the best licensing choice is for their community.

But with the proposed bill set to go to the House of Lords this week, there are likely to be changes to the substance of the legislation before it is finally passed. And how long the new hours take to come into place once the law has been changed also remains to be seen.

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