Tory bid to sink longer pub hours

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Indy Politics

The Conservatives will seek to scupper the Government's plans for extended pub opening hours today.

They will table a Commons motion to annul the order which brings into full effect the Licensing Act 2003.

Their objective is to force all Labour MPs to go on the record and vote either for or against the new licensing regime, which could see some licensed premises open 24 hours a day.

Last night, ministers suffered a symbolic defeat in the Lords when peers voted to ask the Government to delay by seven months the new regime, which is due to take effect on Thursday of next week.

The motion, passed by 130 to 97, majority 33, is not binding on the Government, and ministers made clear that they had no intention of accepting it.

Shadow culture secretary Theresa May said: "This is yet another humiliating defeat for Labour. It clearly shows the gulf between Tony Blair's Government and public opinion.

"Today, we give every MP a choice. Do they vote to bulldoze through Labour's 24 hour drinking or do they listen to public opinion, senior police officers and their colleagues in the House of Lords?

"MPs have a duty to stop these dangerous plans which will fuel even more violence and anti-social behaviour on the streets of Britain."

Lord Strathclyde, the Tory leader in the Lords, said: "Quite clearly the majority of the House of Lords saw a delay as a sensible approach to a policy which is farcical and irresponsible.

"This sends a firm message back to Tony Blair who, after a disastrous few weeks, now has to show he is able to listen".

But Lord Davies of Oldham, Government culture spokesman, warned that any delay would "produce chaos for the industry and chaos for the consuming public".

Peers were debating the Licensing Act 2003 (Second Appointed Day) Order, which sets November 24 as the the start of the new regime.

Tory and Liberal Democrat peers, in their successful motion, called on the Government to withdraw the Order and to replace it with a new start date of June 30 next year.

They argued that this would "allow more time to address public concerns about the effects of the proposed changes and for arrangements for any required changes to be completed in an orderly manner".

The Licensing Minister James Purnell said on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "We believe that the Act is going to be much better for dealing with the problems which are occurring at the moment under the current Act.

"Today we are launching the strongest ever clampdown on alcohol-fuelled violence and we can only do that because of the new powers in the Act.

"We are actually bringing in the Act because we agree that there is a problem with irresponsible drinking but we needed stronger powers to deal with it.

"The hours we have at the moment, we think, cause binge-drinking because you have this strange situation where most pubs have to close at 11 o'clock, so people end up speed-drinking, and then there's a loophole which allows places to stay open in the centre of towns, but only if they have music and dancing - those are exactly the kinds of places we would be worried about.

"The important thing is to give the police the powers they need and then treat the rest of us like grown-ups."

Mr Purnell said that the 546 pubs and bars understood to have applied for 24-hour opening amounted to a "handful".

"That is about 0.5 per cent of the 200,000 premises," he said. "I do think that is a handful."

Most of the premises requesting 24-hour licences were not intending to open round the clock, but wanted the flexibility to serve alcohol on particular occasions, such as when they were screening live sports from the other side of the world, he said.

Downing Street emphasised that the Act gives the police and local authorities new powers to deal with the problems caused by binge drinking.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "The important thing is that most people who behave most of the time should have the freedom not to be restricted, but those who do misbehave - whether individuals or licensed premises - should know that they are going to face consequences."

Liberal Democrats gave their backing to the Tory move to delay extended opening hours.

Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten said: "The tide of public opinion has turned against 24-hour drinking.

"Judges, doctors and many senior police have repeatedly warned the Government against this course of action. Even the Home Office have launched an advertising campaign to crack down on drunk and disorderly conduct.

"Until binge drinking is under control, increasing the supply of alcohol will have a harmful effect on individuals and communities.

"We must avoid a Christmas crisis of excessive drinking in our streets and town centres. It would be wrong to proceed with this legislation before new laws on alcohol disorder zones are in place.

"The only responsible course of action is for the Government to delay implementation of the Licensing Act."