Labour MPs rebel on plans for round-the-clock drinking

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Tony Blair was facing a growing Labour backlash last night against plans to allow pubs and clubs to open around the clock.

Tony Blair was facing a growing Labour backlash last night against plans to allow pubs and clubs to open around the clock.

As senior backbenchers lined up to denounce the liberalisation, police chiefs appealed to Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, for extra resources to deal with the impact of 24-hour opening.

Under the new Licensing Act, bar owners will be allowed, from next month, to apply for extended licences, which would come into effect in November.

But with an election expected in less than four months, Labour MPs questioned the wisdom of pressing ahead with the scheme, which is being opposed by the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. Some cabinet ministers are understood privately to share their reservations.

Although the Government insisted yesterday that it would not bow to pressure to delay the move, Frank Field, a former minister, said: "My guess is that the Government will, quite properly, do a rethink well before the election".

David Winnick, the Labour MP for Walsall North, said: "All the evidence shows the hooliganism in our streets is largely caused by excessive drinking. For the life of me, I can't see how the situation would be improved by 24-hour opening."

Donald Anderson, chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said: "There has to be a correlation between the levels of consumption of alcohol and its availability. I believe we should proceed with caution."

Kate Hoey, the former sports minister, said: "We should have had pilots in one or two town centres to see how it worked." David Hinchliffe, the chairman of the Commons Health Select Committee, said he was uneasy about the implications of the liberalisation but agreed about pilot schemes.

Mr Clarke told Radio 4's Today programme that he met chief constables on Wednesday and some had raised fears their manpower could be stretched, particularly at weekends. The chief constables said it was "reasonable and fair" that they should get more resources, possibly from the drinks industry. Mr Clarke said: "There are some chief constables, by no means all, who think the 24-hour change is not the right change to make."

But the Home Secretary said the changes would ease the problems in town centres when all the pubs and clubs closed at the same time and hundreds of drinkers congregated on the streets. He added: "The central political point is, should we allow the activities of 5 per cent of the country to stop the 95 per cent who want to have a civilised kind of life as exists in continental Europe? Should we allow them to dominate and stop a change most people want?"

Tony Blair's official spokesman said: "We're committed to the timetable for the legislation and the content of it."

The Tories now oppose the liberalisation after initially voting for it and believe it will be a strong campaigning theme for them during the election.

* The number of girls taken to hospital with mental and behavioural problems caused by alcohol has risen sharply, says a report in the British Medical Journal. Between 1996-97 and 2002-03 it rose by 24 per cent in the under-14s and by 9 per cent among those 15 to 24.

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