Jowell: we got it wrong on 24hr drinking

Campaign mishandled by Labour, admits minister
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Indy Politics

Amid Government alarm over growing opposition to the measure, Ms Jowell blames Labour spin-doctors for undermining the reforms to drinking hours by using a "stupid" slogan to win votes.

Writing exclusively in The Independent on Sunday, Ms Jowell blames " Millbank's marketing whizzes" for turning a change in licensing laws into "an advert for hedonism" by texting to young voters the message, "Don't give a XXXX for last orders? Vote Labour".

Ms Jowell defends her 24- hour drinking policy, but admits that this flippant approach was completely inappropriate. "I thought that was a stupid slogan at the time, and I still do. It portrayed a serious piece of legislation intended to improve quality of life and curb crime as some kind of advert for hedonism. Not the finest hour of Millbank's marketing whizzes."

This is the first time a Cabinet minister has admitted openly that serious errors were made in promoting Labour's policy on extended pub opening hours. It comes as the Department for Culture, Media and Sport faces mounting criticism for pushing ahead with round-the-clock drinking, despite warnings from chief police officers and prominent doctors that it will lead to more binge drinking and yobbish behaviour.

The handling of 24-hour drinking legislation by Ms Jowell's department has angered Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, who is responsible for curbing yobbish behaviour, and the Secretary of State for Health, Patricia Hewitt, whose department bears the cost of treating alcohol-related illnesses and injuries. The two departments are planning a new campaign to warn young people about the dangers of excessive drinking.

It has also caused a war of words between Ms Jowell and her Tory shadow, Theresa May, who wants the legislation scrapped. Mrs May yesterday: " Tessa Jowell is right to say that the slogan was 'stupid'. But it is also stupid to press ahead with licensing laws that will lead to more binge drinking and disorder. Why won't she listen to people up and down the country?"

Ms Jowell makes a direct attack on Mrs May for suggesting other nations, such France and Germany, are "more biologically civilised". She suggests that Mrs May and her supporters should "vow never to consume alcohol in a public place after 11pm for as long as they live". Mrs May would not say yesterday whether she would do so, but her spokesman said: "If Tessa Jowell wants to stop anybody from buying alcohol 24 hours a day, she still has the opportunity."

Government fears about the impact of legislation will be heightened by a report in The Mail on Sunday that the industry has uncovered a loophole which would allow children into late-night pubs bars and clubs. Urbium, owner of the Tiger Tiger chain of late-night super bars, is challenging a ruling by Westminster City Council. The chain, whose directors include Tory leadership contender David Cameron, is seeking the right to let in children under 16 if they are accompanied by adults.

The British obsession with drinking costs the country £20bn a year in terms of work days lost to sickness and the burden to the NHS. Alcohol-related disorder has pushed up violent crime figures and left many town centres no-go zones at weekends. An NHS study published yesterday revealed that the amount children drink in a week has doubled in 15 years.

Ministers argue that the current closing hours are at the root of drink-related violence and that staggering closing hours will curb excessive drinking over a short period.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) and members of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) are urging the Government to delay the reforms, which come into effect at the end of November. They say longer drinking hours will encourage irresponsible behaviour.

The latestfigures show that the majority of the 190,000 pubs, clubs and restaurants that have applied for extended licences are asking for an extra hour during the week and two hours at the weekend. The British Beer and Pub Association says this proves that 24-hour drinking is a "myth". But Acpo saysbars will still call last orders at similar times.

Commander Chris Allison, Acpo's spokesman on licensing, said: "All this will do is create a new normality where most places are open for an extra hour in the week and two at weekends. We are urging the Government to do something first about changing cultural attitudes."

Professor Ian Gilmore, from the RCP, warned of a new culture of " post-drinking" where drinkers buy alcohol at 24-hour supermarkets on their way home from the pub. "The international evidence does not support the view that extended opening hours will reduce binge drinking," he says.

Ms Jowell admits that a minority of drinkers are unable to show a responsible attitude towards alcohol but argues that the current laws are "restrictive and undemocratic", that it "always has been" possible to drink for 24 hours a day and that the British public is " adult enough to decide" for itself.

Additional reporting by Lauren Veevers