Pubs and clubs in areas plagued by drink-fuelled rowdiness will be forced to contribute towards extra policing costs under government plans to be announced today.
Ministers hope the move, agreed yesterday after talks chaired by Tony Blair, will help to defuse the gathering storm over proposals to liberalise licensing laws from next month.
Critics have called for the plans to be delayed in case they encourage binge-drinking. They were joined yesterday by Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who warned that all-hours drinking would stretch police resources.
The scale of the opposition has startled ministers, who insist the licensing reform will help to reduce loutish behaviour because drinkers will no longer spill on to the streets at the same time. Mr Blair held talks in Downing Street with Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, and Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, yesterday. They agreed on measures designed to counter public alarm.
The central measure is a levy on bars in areas where there are problems with violence, likely to hit the "mega-pubs" in city centres that will apply for late licences. Brewers had been resisting the move and there are fears that the extra cost could be passed to drinkers.
The levy had been backed by Mr Clarke, but Ms Jowell had been resisting making it compulsory. She is also expected to announce that town halls will be able to charge as much as £500 to process licence applications. Figures of £80 to £200 had been floated previously, but councils have protested that those were too low to cover costs. At a press conference today, Ms Jowell is also expected to announce a crackdown on drinks promotions, such as happy hours. Reflecting complaints from other senior police officers, Sir John, who retires at the end of the month, said: "In the past few years, we have seen an epidemic of binge drinking. There has been a major trend towards drunken, loutish behaviour; assaults on police are up 40 per cent. It's not just London, it's nationwide. I feel now we should just slow down a little on this proposal. Let's have another look at what all-hours drinking could mean." He told the London Evening Standard: "We are arresting more people than before, 30,000 more last year. We have great difficulty finding the cell space for those we arrest. We are now taking people out of London to process them."
David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, called on the Government to delay the changes until binge-drinking was under control. "Sir John Stevens is representing the concerns of thousands of police officers, doctors and members of the public," he said. "Binge drinking and alcohol-related crime have spiralled out of control under Labour and pressing ahead with plans to introduce 24-hour drinking will only make things worse."
But a spokeswoman for Ms Jowell said: "The new laws will give responsible people more choice about how they spend their leisure time and new powers to the police and local residents to crack down on yobbish behaviour, including the power for police to instantly close for 24 hours premises where disorder is occurring or anticipated.''
She added: "The licensing system is creaking under the strain of today's pressure and it can't cope. Pubs throw people on the street at the same time, which leads to violence and disorder. Graduated closing times will help to reduce binge drinking and cut the anti-social behaviour which accompanies it."
The controversy has thrown Tony Blair on the defensive in two successive sessions of Prime Minister's Questions. This week, he insisted only a "very small" number of pubs and clubs would seek 24-hour licences but the system would be given "greater flexibility". He promised greater powers for police and residents to shut regular trouble-spots.
Applications for the first 24-hour licences open on 7 February, ready for the new licences to come into force by November.