More drinking hours, fewer happy hours: Scotland's answer to its alcohol problem

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The Independent Online

Scots are likely to win the right to drink round the clock in the biggest shake-up of licensing legislation in Britain for nearly 30 years.

Proposals published by the Scottish Executive yesterday could see 24-hour drinking in selected areas while imposing stricter codes of conduct for licensees in an effort to reduce alcohol-related crime and illness. A report by the Sheriff Principal, Gordon Nicholson, proposes a relaxation of opening hours but stricter controls on pub "happy hours" and drink promotions.

"There is an undoubted link between excessive drinking, crime and disorder and public nuisance," said Sheriff Nicholson. In an attempt to curb the anti-social repercussions of binge drinking, the report advises that opening hours could differ between pubs; that children should be allowed access to licensed premises to learn about alcohol and that there should be a "proof of age" identity card to assist landlords in weeding out underage customers.

The Nicholson committee was commissioned by the Scottish Executive and first met in August 2001 to review all aspects of liquor licensing laws in Scotland.

Two years later, the committee has concluded that there should be a new Licensing Act for Scotland to replace current legislation, enacted in 1976. Cathy Jamieson, the Justice Minister, said: "The pubs and clubs we visit today - and the times we visit them - are very different in many respects to the pubs and clubs of the past. They have ... generally changed for the better, but there is a need for the legislative framework to reflect those changes."

Also among proposed changes are the abolition of the present, outdated system of licences, a tougher range of sanctions to be used by local licensing boards and the appointment of Liquor Licensing Standards officers to enforce these. The report says that binge drinking, which is particularly common among men and women under 30, was becoming a serious problem.

Between 1990 and 2000, deaths in Scotland due directly to excessive alcohol use more than doubled - from 13.4 to 31.2 per 100,000 people - and acute hospital admissions associated with the use of alcohol have increased more than fivefold in the past 20 years.

A total of 225,000 people, out of a population of around five million in Scotland, are now defined as "problem drinkers". Malcolm Chisholm, the Health Minister, said yesterday: "There is an increasing trend of excessive and harmful drinking in Scotland which needs to be addressed."

The report also concluded that legislation was needed to curb the strong correlation between alcohol and aggression. Home Office estimates suggest that 40 per cent of violent crime, 78 per cent of assaults and 88 per cent of criminal damage cases are committed under the influence of alcohol, with 19 per cent of all violent incidents happen in or around pubs or clubs.

Ms Jamieson said: "What changes to the law can do is to encourage greater responsibility - greater personal responsibility and greater responsibility for licence holders.It's time to 'call time' on this binge drinking culture and the link between drunkenness and violent disorder."

But not everybody is enamoured by the recommendations which, after a four-month period of public consultation, could become law by the end of next year. Paul Waterson, of the Scottish Licensed Traders Association, said: "Scotland has far too many pubs catering for far too few customers ... There is over-competition and we think this report should have suggested a moratorium on new licences to send out a clear signal that we are trying to do something serious about binge drinking."

HOW THE LAWS COMPARE

ENGLAND AND WALES:

Licensing laws have changed little since 1915, when they were tightened to stop factory workers turning up drunk and harming the war effort. Under proposals going through Parliament, pubs would be allowed to open 24 hours a day.

SCOTLAND:

Strict legislation, which demanded earlier closing times than in England, was not changed until long after the Second World War. Consumers can now drink in pubs between 11am and midnight from Monday to Saturday and from 12.30pm on a Sunday.

IRELAND:

Closing times have reverted to 11.30pm as part of an effort to deal with drink-related anti-social behaviour. Drinks promotions have been outlawed, and drunkenness isa crime both for drinkers and the publicans who help them to reach such a state.