Blunkett threatens to ban happy hours to combat binge drinking

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"Happy hours" at pubs and clubs could be banned unless the drinks industry helps curb the rise in alcohol-fuelled violence, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, warned yesterday.

"Happy hours" at pubs and clubs could be banned unless the drinks industry helps curb the rise in alcohol-fuelled violence, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, warned yesterday.

The Government's threat to crack down on city centre licensees offering cheap drinks promotions came as police chiefs said that new laws to allow 24-hour opening could lead to more drunken yobbishness.

Concern is growing among police and ministers at the rise in binge drinking - particularly among young men - which has been blamed for a 14 per cent rise in violent crime.

Mr Blunkett said yesterday that unless licensees behaved responsibly in future, he could introduce laws to outlaw cheap drinks promotions and "happy hours" in places where alcohol-related violence was a problem.

Commenting on cheap drink offers, he said: "I think they are very detrimental when those who are promoting them know very well when it's three [drinks] for 50p within an hour that this will fuel excessive drinking later by young customers who will get themselves into trouble. Young people in particular take three sails to the wind by 8pm.

"I think in a rural setting in circumstances where they do not lead to a whole night of further drinking then there is no harm done.''

The Home Secretary, talking at the Association of Chief Police Officers' (Acpo) annual conference in Birmingham, said that he and Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, were currently discussing with the drinks industry how to curb binge drinking and the issue of promotions and happy hours. Mr Blunkett said: "If they [the industry] refuse to play ball then we will reserve the right to go back to this issue." He confirmed that this could include bringing in legislation to outlaw happy hour and cheap promotions.

The clampdown on excessive drinking follows police figures published in January showing that the number of recorded violent crimes rose by 14 per cent to 289,500 in England and Wales between July and September 2003, compared with the same period in 2002.

This summer the police are to target underage drinking in an attempt to curb the problem of drunken violence. But chief constables questioned yesterday whether new laws to allow pubs to open for 24 hours from summer next year would make the situation worse.

From July 2005 all licensees in England and Wales will be able to apply to local authorities for permission to have all-day drinking.

A crime assessment carried out by 43 police forces in England and Wales, published yesterday, warned that relaxing the opening hours could backfire. The Acpo report said: "The changing licensing laws could lead to an increase in violent offences.''

Many police chiefs are known to be concerned that allowing pubs to close at different times could further stretch their resources while having little or no effect on binge drinkers.

Chris Fox, the president of Acpo, said: "If we are just going to extend the licensing law and provide the same opportunity for a drink and have happy hours, the police are going to have problems keeping up with the demands."

Sara Thornton, Deputy Chief Constable of Thames Valley and the officer responsible for the national crime assessment, added: "At the moment forces are putting a huge amount of effort into Thursday, Friday and Saturday in towns and cities around the country dealing with binge drinking and happy hours. There is a threat that by extending that drinking you will extend [the problem] throughout the night.''