Late closing will reduce crime, say ministers

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The Independent Online
EUROPEANS HAVE always been bemused by our arcane licensing laws whenever they feel like a late lunch or a drink after the theatre. The police, too, have found closing time problematic as they deal with the nightly bouts of drunken violent crime after last orders.

Now ministers are preparing to back plans to allow Britain's pubs to stay open until 3am to combat the effect of drinking on crime rates in city centres.

In the biggest shake-up in the nation's licensing laws this century, councils will be given the freedom to decide their own closing times for pubs and restaurants in non-residential areas.

The proposals, which are backed by business, are understood to have won the support of the Home Office following studies that showed that up to 50 per cent of city-centre arrests were linked to drunkenness after 11pm.

The public-order issue has emerged as a key influence on ministers during government consultation on the plans to overhaul the licensing system.

More continental opening hours are also seen as a crucial part of efforts to make London and other large cities more attractive to foreign business people. A decision will not be made before next summer. The central change would be to allow zoning within a city so that residential areas are protected, while pubs in high streets and city centres can remain open until 3am at weekends and 1 am on weekdays.

Responsibility for setting hours would rest with local licensing boards rather than magistrates' courts, with the proviso that residents' groups would be allowed to object to some applications.

Last month, the Home Office minister, George Howarth, signalled the Government's enthusiasm for reform when he declared that Britain's 140,000 licensed pubs, clubs and restaurants should be allowed to stay open round the clock every New Year's Eve. Most of the ideas that have won over ministers stem from the Better Regulation Taskforce, a government body set up to find ways of slashing red tape for business.

The zoning system operates effectively in Edinburgh and the idea's backers want to bring England and Wales into line with Scotland.

A Home Office source said: "There is a long way to go in consultation but it is clear that the public-order issue is a very good reason to relax the law."

A White Paper on the changes is likely next autumn and ministers want a Bill in the Queen's Speech in 2000. Changes would not come into force until 2001 .

John Grogan, Labour MP for Selby and chairman of the All-Party Commons Liquor Licensing Reform, said he and his supporters would step up the campaign with a series of parliamentary questions in the New Year. "Most people would like to have a drink after going to the cinema, theatre or out for a meal," he said.

"Relaxing the law would have a civilising influence on English attitudes to drink.

"If you remove the pressure to sink three or four pints in the run-up to closing time, then it is obvious you will cut crime caused by drunkenness.

"In many big cities pubs and clubs are already stretching the law to the limit, staying open by offering food and live entertainment. It is time the law caught up with that reality."

Patrick Kerr, of London First, an umbrella group representing the capital's businesses, said the case for reform was overwhelming.

"We are currently not on the same playing field as other European cities. You can drink until 1am in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Madrid and Paris, so why can't we do it in what is supposed to be the Millennial City?"