Booze Britain? Drink-fuelled crime and violence slump after new licensing laws take effect

<b>We were warned:</b> Liberalisation of drink laws would fuel disorder<br/><b>The sober truth:</b> Serious violent crime has fallen 21% - and is down by twice that in some towns - while there are 14% fewer woundings<br/><b>As for drinks firms?</b> They are reporting <u>no</u> windfall profits
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Serious violent crime has fallen by more than a fifth since the licensing laws were liberalised, police figures show.

Major industrial cities, seaside resorts and market towns from the south coast to Cumbria are reporting dramatic falls in alcohol-fuelled assaults and woundings after the country's antiquated drinking laws were overhauled.

The statistics, released today, will confound critics who warned that the Licensing Act, which allowed 24-hour drinking from November, would lead to an upsurge in violence and antisocial behaviour.

The figures cover the Christmas period which was predicted to be the first test of the impact of the new laws.

Leading brewers are also reporting only a modest increase in profits, suggesting the widely forecast drinking free-for-all has not materialised.

The Home Office will announce today that serious violent crime was 21 per cent lower in the final three months of last year than during the same period in 2004. The number of woundings fell by 14 per cent and the total for all violent crime dropped by 11 per cent. James Purnell, the Licensing minister, said: "The predictions that licensing reform would lead to an immediate upsurge in crime haven't been borne out ... It was always our argument that by getting rid of the firm 11pm closing time you would also get rid of a number of flashpoints."

Mark Hastings, spokesman for the British Beer and Pub Association, said the Act was leading to "positive changes" in drinking behaviour. "The doom and gloom merchants who predicted instant mayhem have been proved to be about as accurate as the worst astrologers."

In Bradford, in the five weeks after the Licensing Act came into force, 28 assaults and cases of disorder were reported, compared with 44 in the same period in 2004. West Yorkshire Police said there was a similar pattern across its force area.

A spokesman said: "The impact of [the Act] was vastly overestimated by the media ... it wasn't the police who said there was going to be chaos on the streets."

In Birmingham city centre, 326 instances of antisocial behaviour were recorded in December, 61 fewer than in the same month a year earlier. Police said the staggered closing times brought in by the Act had had a positive impact as revellers were not converging on taxi ranks at the same time.

Violent drink-related assaults in Swansea were down by a fifth over Christmas and the new year. South Wales Police said that the extra opening hours enabled officers to defuse problems before they escalated into violence. The number of assaults in Milton Keynes fell by 16 per cent in the festive period, while Hertfordshire Police reported 11 per cent fewer assaults and a 20 per cent drop in arrests for being drunk and disorderly. Norfolk Police said the period was "relatively trouble-free". Police in the quiet seaside Sussex town of Seaford said: "The Armageddon forecast in some of the national press has not materialised."

The reduction in violence came after a blitz on drunken behaviour by police over the festive period. But it is being viewed as statistically significant by ministers because a similar exercise was conducted in 2004.

The Government is cautious about proclaiming that the country has taken the first step towards a Continental-style café culture. But it is delighted that the figures have confounded critics, including judges, doctors, media columnists and opposition MPs, who warned that a surge in violent crime was inevitable.

The Licensing Act became law on 15 November. It gave all pubs, clubs, restaurants, off-licences and supermarkets the opportunity to apply for new flexible licenses. But only a fraction have applied to open round the clock, with the majority opting for an extra hour or two at weekends.

Millom, Cumbria: 'Closing time is no longer a flashpoint'

The prospect of 3am closing time did not bear thinking about for some residents of Millom, on Cumbria's south-west coast. Plagued by unemployment ever since the ironworks closed in the 1960s, Millom has had its fair share of drink-fuelled fights and this seemed like a recipe for more.

But to the astonishment of those doubters, there is evidence that the new licensing hours have made the town less violent. Arrests for violent crime fell 47 per cent last Christmas against 2004 - a statistic which has been attributed to the Licensing Act. "Chucking-out time used to be a flashpoint [but no] longer," says the local community police constable, Eddy Hope.

The extended hours have been accompanied by the introduction of a pubwatch scheme which means that any drink-induced crime can bring a three or 12-month ban from every establishment from Millom to Broughton in Furness, seven miles away.

"The police have steered us towards being more uncompromising," said Andrew Gardner, proprietor of the Station Hotel, Millom's biggest pub.

At the Knights pub, the landlord, Bill Wright, says he is now rid of his "11 o'clockers", who would order several pints before last orders. "It was anyone's guess what happened when they went off," he says.

The regulars seem happy. "There's no longer a scrum around the bar," says David Arthwaite. "I drink steadily but no more than I did."

Ian Herbert