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The Politics of Binge Drinking

beerpumpsThe Labour Government promised that the Licensing Act 2003 would foster a ‘continental-style’ cafe culture and bring an end to binge drinking.

Has it actually worked?

Er……not yet!

Police chiefs think that the changes have simply moved alcohol-related disorder into the early hours of the morning and have increased or, at least, failed to change, levels of drink-fuelled incidents.

Binge drinking has been part of the British ‘culture’ for centuries (as Chaucer’s images of drink and revelry in The Canterbury Tales clearly show and that’s not the earliest reference to binge drinking) but centuries old behaviour like this will take more than a few years to eradicate. It is simply too early for the Licensing Act to be shown to have worked (if you still believe that it is ever going to work) and it will take at least one generation to eradicate the social scourge of binge drinking from the life-style of the young and boisterous (not that it is restricted to the “young”).

David Cameron sets his sights on more short-term goals, namely dealing with the ever-pressing issue of drink-related crime. He has said that the Conservatives plan “serious changes” to the Licensing Act to tackle the problem of drink-related violence: “We need to look at the unbelievable availability of very cheap drink, getting 3 litres of cider for £1.99, at all hours of day and night. We’ve got to do something about this and I’m exploring what we can do to deal with the drink that is fuelling so much of the crime in our country.”

The Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling, goes even further by saying that the licensing regime is a mess which the Tories would “tear up.” New measures would include giving councils the powers to restrict the opening hours of pubs, clubs and off-licences and impose much tougher penalties on pubs that break the rules ….which all sounds rather similar to Mr Brown’s new proposals on the licensing regime.

On 30th September 2009 Gordon Brown – who has never been entirely comfortable with parts of the Licensing Act 2003 introduced under Tony Blair (but has stopped short of overhauling it) – told delegates at the Labour Party Conference about his plans. These would see licensing authorities being able to suspend 24-hour licensing to restrict pubs and clubs that stay open around the clock, if they are believed to be responsible for anti-social behaviour in a part of the community.

These measures seem likely to have only a limited effect. For one thing, much of what Gordon Brown is trumpeting as ‘new reform’ are powers that are already available under the existing licensing laws. For another, there are only 700 hundred pubs, bars and nightclubs that can actually stay open 24 hours. Of those, few do. The council and the police already have a range of powers to deal with problematic venues, including closure orders and review procedures. The Policing and Crime Bill currently before Parliament will add to that by allowing licensing authorities to impose additional conditions on existing licences in a locality where there has been particular nuisance or disorder caused by binge drinkers in that locality. The Bill seeks to introduce a statutory Code of Practice on the supply of alcohol and allows the Secretary of State to prescribe mandatory conditions for all venues holding Premises Licences without exemptions.

Since 31 August 2009, ‘post-conviction’ Drinking Banning Orders were introduced. Police and Councils now have powers under the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 to apply to the courts on a civil basis for DBOs – dubbed ‘alcohol ASBOS’ – that prevent individuals from entering licensed premises if they have already exhibited “criminal or anti-social behaviour linked to consumption of alcohol.” The post-conviction DBO process will require both magistrates and county courts (in appropriate cases) to consider whether to impose a DBO, or to state why they have not done so. We may well be seeing lots of DBOs in the not too distant future.

Finally – how is all of this news being treated by the people at the sharp end, i.e. pubs and other businesses that will be affected by the changes?

In July 2009, pubs were already closing at the rate of 52 per week. Pubs and clubs will not take kindly to further restrictions on their opening hours and even greater control measures.

The smoking ban has already seen profits fall dramatically in the licensed sector and campaigners who want to lift or relax the smoking ban believe that, without a relaxation of smoking laws, hundreds more pubs and clubs may be forced to close due to lost trade from smokers.

Balancing the needs of the actual operators of pubs and clubs against the concerns for health, law and order is not easy, but it seems that the actual commercial effect of these changes on the licensed industry is the last thing on the mind of the Prime Minister or his Heir Apparent. .

One this is certain. The future of the Licensing Act 2003, introduced by the Labour Government, is uncertain and whichever party wins the next general election, it looks like we are set for major changes.

For more insights on the UK Licensing scene follow @Licentious_Law on Twitter.

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