All-day drinking 'a failure'

Home Office review says law switch has led to upsurge in early morning crime; Up to 16% of people in assessed areas are indulging more than ever, report reveals
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The Independent Online

A long-awaited Home Office review of the impact of 24-hour drinking in England and Wales will concede that the controversial policy has failed to reduce alcohol-fuelled crime or change drinking patterns.

The report, to be released on Tuesday, will reveal that the transition to a southern European-style drinking culture – a key aim of the controversial legislation – has failed to materialise since the Licensing Act was introduced two years ago.

It will also show that there are no "clear signs yet that the abolition of a standard closing time [for pubs and clubs] has significantly reduced problems of crime and disorder".

According to the report, "more flexible pub and club closing hours were intended to avoid the closing-time mêlées, discourage excessive drinking and, in time, encourage a more relaxed, southern European-style drinking culture".

But not only have things failed to improve since licensing laws were relaxed, in many cases they have become worse. Serious violent crime has been displaced, with a steep rise in offences committed between 3am and 6am and, despite the millions spent on police crackdowns on drunken disorder, alcohol-fuelled crime hot spots have become worse.

The report is central to a review of the 2003 Licensing Act ordered by the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, last year, which is expected to be announced by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in the next few days. Mr Brown has sought to distance himself from his predecessor, Tony Blair, and signal a tougher stance on social issues ranging from drinking to the classification of cannabis and the introduction of super-casinos.

Pressure is mounting on the Government to rethink 24-hour licensing, with the release of a report from the British Medical Association last week that highlighted concerns over the soaring numbers of people needing hospital treatment as a result of binge drinking: "There is strong evidence that increased opening hours are associated with increased alcohol consumption and alcohol-related problems."

The Home Office report is expected to put ministers at odds with police chiefs after the publication yesterday of figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showing a rise in drink-related crime since the Act took effect. Monthly figures in the 12 forces that recorded alcohol-related antisocial incidents soared by 46 per cent to 13,500 – a rise that would amount to 180,000 more crimes a year if repeated across England and Wales.

In contrast, Tuesday's Home Office report will say that, overall, crime was reduced by 3 per cent. It says: "It is clear that the chaos feared and predicted by critics of the Licensing Act 2003 has not come about – despite the negative experiences of liberalisation in other countries. On the other hand, neither is there clear evidence that positive benefits have accrued from staggered and better-managed closing times." Officials warn that "in the longer term there may be more marked changes – whether malign or benign – resulting from the overhaul of licensing arrangements".

A survey of 30 police forces in England and Wales for the report will show how drink-related crime between 6pm and 6am has risen by 1 per cent. Crimes between 3am and 6am are up by 22 per cent, with more than 10,000 additional offences in the year after the licensing rules were relaxed, despite a raft of local and national initiatives to tackle binge drinking. Between these times, there was also a 25 per cent rise in serious violent offences, including murder, manslaughter and wounding – accounting for almost 4,000 extra crimes.

The report examines the impact of the Act in Birmingham, Blackpool, Croydon, Guildford and Nottingham. It will show that violent crime rose in Guildford (12 per cent), Birmingham (6 per cent) and Nottingham (3 per cent), and fell in Croydon and Blackpool (16 and 11 per cent). In most areas, up to 16 per cent of people are drinking more than ever.

Researchers say that some crime has been displaced to the early hours of the morning, and "it seems likely that this is a consequence of the extension of licensing hours".

Campaigners accuse the Government of failing to cut alcohol-fuelled problems.

Professor Ian Gilmore, chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance, said: "Crime and disorder have not been reduced and there is no evidence that it has helped matters in accident and emergency departments."

Don Shenker of Alcohol Concern said the legislation was "dangerously tilted towards the needs of the drinks industry", while Andrew McNeill of the Institute of Alcohol Studies said: "The Act has not delivered what the Government promised."

A Home Office spokes-woman said: "We will continue to encourage local authorities and the police to take decisive action to fine premises or remove licences where there is trouble. We have given the police a range of tools and powers to clamp down on licensees and individuals who abuse the laws."

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