and COLIN BROWN
At a normally unhappy hour for a Sunday, the Home Secretary, Michael Howard will tomorrow slip, 'twixt his cup and lip in his local ale house, a liquid finally made legal by the Licensing (Sunday Hours) Act 1995. Or perhaps, more colloquially, the Praise the Lord, It's Your Round (Sunday Afternoon) Act.
While the "Wee Free" Presbyterian hard-line Sabbatarians of the Scottish Western Isles may again be shouting of sold souls and Faustian pacts, Mr Howard will be the toast of pubs throughout England and Wales as the nation lifts its glasses to the first ever all-day Sunday opening.
Gone are the arid hours between 3pm and the re-opening of local watering holes at 7pm. The quaint English tradition of nipping out for quick one (or three) on a Sunday afternoon now passes into history.
Pubs and registered clubs can now open from 12 noon to 10.30pm; off-licences can also open from 10am until 10.30pm. Even supermarkets will see an end to the Grand Prix-style trolley sprint for the checkouts as the old 3pm drink deadline approached. The new act now allows alcohol sales throughout trading hours.
But the Brewers' and Licensed Retailers' Association doubts the new rules will lead to a huge increase in beer sales. "Pubs will open longer if their customers want it. And we would expect most to open this Sunday if only to test the water especially with the weather being as it is," an association spokesman said.
"I don't think we are looking at hugely increased beer sales. I imagine the effect will be similar to the extension of weekday drinking hours."
Whitbread brewers said it would open all its 1,600 pubs from noon to 10.30pm. Tony Payne, chief executive of the Federation of Licensed Victuallers Associations, said he expected eight out of 10 pubs to open on Sunday. "It may lead to a slight increase in sales and it may help us win back a bit of trade from the supermarkets," Mr Payne said.
North of the border, all-day drinking has been allowed since 1976. Now, as one Scottish civil servant in Whitehall quietly told the Independent yesterday: "Civilisation will finally be welcomed to England this weekend."
A glass of cheer, page 15