All-day drinking: 550 licences already granted

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The number of pubs, clubs, hotels and shops that will serve alcohol round-the-clock as part of the biggest shake-up of licensing laws for 50 years far exceeds the estimates of the Government and the drinks industry, The Independent has discovered.

A survey of all 351 licensing councils in England and Wales shows that at least 546 licences have been given for 24-hour drinking.

Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers will make a last-ditch attempt in the Lords today to delay the introduction of the 2003 Licensing Act until June 2006, which would cost the pubs industry millions of pounds. The legislation is due to come into force on 24 November.

The Government has repeatedly claimed that licensing reform will lead to "flexible drinking" and not widespread 24-hour boozing.

The minister responsible, James Purnell, said last month that the number of 24-hour drinking establishments would be "a handful" while the British Beer and Pubs Association estimated that only 30 pubs would apply for the licences.

The Independent contacted all 351 licensing authorities - district and borough councils - in England and Wales. Responses were received from 272 - about three-quarters of the total.

Of the 660 applications the councils had received, only 51 were rejected. Sixty-three are pending.

About 160 pubs, 75 clubs and 110 hotels have been given approval to serve alcohol round the clock.

About 200 supermarkets, off-licences and other shops have also been granted permission, alarming medical experts concerned by the prospect of "post-drinking" when clubbers pick up cheap bottles of spirits at 4am or 5am to continue drinking at home.

Britain already has more alcohol-related illness than the Continent and doctors fear that extending the opportunity to drink will cause more injuries from fights and heart and liver disease. Police are concerned about the impact on law and order in town centres.

The Government hopes the introduction of more liberal laws will lead to a more sophisticated, Continental-style of drinking rather than the current 11pm last orders, which date from the need to keep munitions workers sober during the First World War. At present, drinkers spill out on to the streets at the same time and become embroiled in fights over taxis.

The pubs industry believes that many of the 55,000 pubs in England and Wales will only stay open until midnight or 1am at the weekend.

According to The Independent's research, many rural pubs have been granted licences because they are in isolated locations with no neighbours to disturb.

A number of hotels have also been given the go-ahead to serve all morning to the public as well as guests. Some councils had strict opposition to 24-hour drinking and rejected all applications.

Others approved all licences. Dorset is set to become the capital of round-the-clock drinking. Bournemouth approved all 51, 24-hour licences, while West Dorset has granted 82 and Purbeck 32.

Professor Ian Gilmore, the chairman of the Royal College of Physicians' alcohol committee, said 24-hour licences were likely to become more common. "It allows them much greater flexibility. They don't have to have set hours. If there's a rugby match you will be able to stay open until the last person is carried out," he said.

A spokesman for Alcohol Concern said: "What really matters is whether pubs, bars and shops are prepared to step up to the challenge of responsible practice, no matter how long they'll be opening."

Ten times more young people develop cirrhosis of the liver now than in 1970. Deaths from alcohol are up about 20 per cent in five years, according to government figures in August that prompted doctors and politicians to warn that Britain's drinking culture is far more prevalent and lethal than smoking or drugs..

Professor Gilmore said of young drinkers: "The most immediate threat is getting into a fight, getting an unwanted pregnancy or getting raped in an unlicensed cab."