Tessa Jowell: I hope Mrs May won't take a tipple after 11pm

Click to follow

During the First World War, Lloyd George was determined to stop munitions workers turning up for their important and delicate jobs drunk from the night before. So he hurriedly introduced a national curfew. And that's the law we live with today. What Government has said to its adult citizens for nearly a century is: "You cannot be trusted to drink alcohol in public after 11pm." And decisions on what alcohol licences were granted were made without involvement from the local community. In short, the current law is both restrictive, undemocratic and, as that CCTV footage so often shows, it simply doesn't work.

So in 2000, the Home Office began a study and public consultation to look at how our licensing laws could be made more sensible. It looked at the experience of countries as far apart as Iceland and New Zealand to see what difference changing licensing laws makes on alcohol consumption and violent crime. It looked at the UK too, and discovered that in major city centres such as Manchester, the police experienced two surges in disorder - 11pm and 2am: chucking-out time for pubs and then clubs.

Tens of thousands of people were coming out on the streets at the same time, looking for taxis and take-aways and, too often, fights. At the same time it was simply impossible to round off an evening out, at, say, a cinema or a theatre, with a pint. So in punishing everyone for the crimes of the minority, we managed to do little to punish one group and deprive the other of its freedom of choice.

That study led to the Licensing Act 2003. It had started to become a political issue when, as part of our election campaign in 2001, young people were texted with that now-infamous message: "Don't give a XXXX for last orders? Vote Labour." I thought that was a stupid slogan at the time, and I still do. It portrayed what is in fact 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. Although it wouldn't fit on a text message, it would be truer to have said: "If you want to drink after 11, we think you're adult enough to decide for yourself. But if you create disorder in any way, we'll come down on you harder than ever before."

The new licensing laws come into effect at the end of November. And alongside the plans for pubs to be able to vary their opening hours and open later if they get a licence to do so, the police have a whole raft of new measures to close down disorderly and noisy pubs and clubs. They can fine people on the spot for disorderly behaviour; they can close down pubs which cause a nuisance; they can take away licences; they will soon be able to declare an area which is persistently disorderly a "alcohol disorder zone", where publicans will have to pay a levy to help cover the cost of extra policing. And, for the first time, pub licences will be handed out by local authorities, not magistrates.

The presence of the ballot box is always a good way of getting a politician's attention and, also for the first time, police and residents will be able to object to a licence for, say, longer hours both before it is granted and afterwards at any time they think it is creating public disorder. There have been one or two high-profile cases of objections already, but you don't have to be Jon Snow or Joan Bakewell to object to a licence; anyone can do it at any time, and if anyone has a problem with their local bar or club, they should do. We've tilted the balance when it comes to deciding on the sale of alcohol in favour of residents and the police.

But "Ah ha" say our critics and the Tories, who only noticed this as a cause very recently. As binge-drinking increases, surely it's simply irresponsible to allow people to drink for longer? The truth is, of course, that it's perfectly possible to drink for 24 hours a day now; it always has been. What the new law does is allow people to drink alcohol in public at a different range of times, with the threat of instant sanction if they misbehave. I'm not naive enough to think that this law will lead instantly to us becoming a nation of street café philosophers, toying with a small glass of cognac into the late hours. Britain's problem with alcohol has deep and complex roots and the solutions will be equally deep and complex. But this change in the law is a necessary if not sufficient part of that solution. For too long, the police have lacked the powers to take immediate action against people who can't handle their drink or don't want to learn to. With the Department of Health's new campaign to educate people about the dangers of alcohol misuse, with decent education from parents and teachers, and a more grown-up attitude towards alcohol from all of us, this is a problem which can be reduced.

So street café philosophising may not become a national pastime, but I despair of those who say that British people are incapable of behaving well when they drink alcohol, so what's the point in trying to change them? Are we really saying that the French, the Germans, the Italians, the Australians and the Scots are somehow biologically more civilised than the English? That's what Theresa May and the Tories seem to believe. As well as damning us all as eternal adolescents, the Tories have tried, judged and hanged this law three months before it even takes effect. The truth is that it's the status quo which is the problem. The status quo that says that it's legal for a five-year-old to drink whisky in a beer garden, but you're breaking the law if you drink beyond a set time if you're an adult. I hope that Theresa May and her fellow bandwagon-jumpers will vow never to consume alcohol in a public place after 11pm for as long as they live. I'd like to see them living up to the principles they have so recently acquired. Given that they don't trust the adult population of Britain, I assume they won't trust themselves.

Tessa Jowell is Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

Alan Watkins is away