November 24, 2005

UK Drinking Laws Start Peacefully — For Now

By Katherine Baldwin

LONDON -- The introduction of extended drinking hours passed off peacefully across England and Wales but police said on Thursday the biggest test would come at the weekend.

A spokeswoman for London's Scotland Yard said they had seen no increase in alcohol-related violence after new licensing laws came into effect at midnight on Wednesday.

"Most people tend to go out at the end of the week and over the weekend though, not on a Wednesday night, so we'll just have to watch this space and see what happens," she said.

The government has abolished the 11 p.m. closing time observed by most pubs since World War One in a bid to tackle the country's binge drinking problem, where people consume large amounts of alcohol in a short space of time.

Proponents of the new laws, that will allow pubs to serve alcohol in some cases up to 24 hours a day, say it will usher in more civilized drinking habits like those of France or Spain.

The race against the 11 p.m. closing bell encourages Britons to drink excessively while the eviction of boozers from pubs all at the same time spurs the violence and vandalism that plague town centers, they say.

"At last adults in this country are going to be treated like grown-ups and given a little bit of choice about having a social life beyond 11 o'clock," said Mark Hastings, spokesman for the British Beer and Pub Association.

Minister for Culture, Media and Sport Tessa Jowell said the new laws would treat adults like adults while giving police stronger powers to tackle people who caused trouble.

But opponents argue longer opening hours will only increase the puddles of vomit on street corners, the queues at hospital emergency wards or the weekend overcrowding of police cells.

Britain's binge-drinking habits are so ingrained that more access to alcohol will simply mean more drunks, critics say.

The relaxed laws also apply to supermarkets in England and Wales. Scotland already has later opening hours.

With the lifting of the 90-year-old curfew, about 75 percent of pubs in England and Wales are now able to stay open beyond 11 p.m, according to the British Beer and Pub Association.

About 1,000 licenses have been issued to allow alcohol outlets to open around the clock -- of which just over one third are for supermarkets, according to official figures.

But the government says very few premises are expected to open all night, and the overwhelming majority of pubs will shut either at the same time as before or an hour or two later.

New police powers to crackdown on booze-fuelled violence and close troublesome premises go hand-in-hand with the new hours.

The government has forecast a rise in alcohol-associated crime figures because of the police crackdown -- a prediction seized upon by the opposition Conservative Party.

"No matter how many panicked initiatives they announce, it will be the police and the public who will have to deal with the consequences of the government's mistakes," said Theresa May, Conservative spokeswoman on culture, media and sport.