Quiet start for 24-hour pubs, but weekend will be the key

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The Independent Online

Police reported a low-key start to Britain's drinking reforms yesterday as pubs exercised their new right to open past the traditional 11pm deadline.

Forces around the country said there had been a "quiet" start to the biggest changes to licensing laws in 50 years, with few drinkers venturing out after midnight - perhaps deterred by the cold weather.

Police were expecting more drinkers to take advantage of the extended hours last night. But chief constables believe the biggest test will be this weekend, when bars, pubs and clubs are busiest. Police expect to deploy more officers until they establish whether crime and disorder will increase as a result of the reforms. Sir Ian Blair, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, says resources will be "stretched" by the new law.

According to a BBC survey, more than 60,000 outlets will sell alcohol for longer under the 2003 Licensing Act, which came into force in England and Wales yesterday morning.

Police in London said it had been one of the quietest nights for weeks. In Newcastle and Nottingham, cities known for their vibrant nightlife, many pubs closed at normal time and the streets emptied earlier than usual. Police in Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Cheshire, Lancashire and North Wales reported no immediate impact, but stressed that midweek was not traditionally busy.

Tessa Jowell, the Culture, Media and Sport Secretary, defended the law, saying it gave police "unprecedented powers" to crack down on alcohol-fuelled violence.

Professor Ian Gilmore, from the Royal College of Physicians predicted that the extended hours would cause a 10 per cent rise in alcohol consumption. The law says pubs, bars, clubs, supermarkets and off-licences can open 24 hours a day if they get permission from their local authority.