The Government's review of the 2003 Licensing Act, which liberalised our archaic drinking laws, is admirably straightforward in its conclusions. It finds that, since the law came into effect in November 2005, alcohol consumption has declined and crime has fallen overall. The review does report a spike in disorder between the hours of 3am and 6am, but the predictions from the Act's opponents – that the levels of alcohol-fuelled crime would shoot through the roof – have been exposed as hysterical scaremongering. In any case, most pubs and bars opted to keep their opening hours exactly as they were before the legislation was introduced. The idea of "24-hour drinking" has proved to be a myth in the vast majority of areas.
One might have expected such findings to have been greeted with a sigh of relief. The apparent displacement of violence until later in the night should not, of course, be ignored. But it is worth remembering that police initially supported staggered closing times on the grounds that it would relieve the burden on them at 11pm, when, under the old regime, drinkers were disgorged en masse on to the streets. This is exactly what appears to have happened.
Yet critics of the Act are not giving up. They argue that, since the Act has failed to curb the national binge-drinking habit, it should be scrapped. The logic here is elusive. Though the evidence of the past three years suggests there is no correlation between opening times and binge-drinking rates, still the cry goes out for a return to the old licensing regime. It seems that the Act's critics cherish their opposition to this piece of legislation above their respect for the facts.
But it is crucial to think about this issue with a clear head. No one would deny that Britain has a serious binge-drinking problem. Anyone who visits a town centre on a Friday or Saturday night can see that too many of us cannot handle alcohol sensibly. It is also quite true that alcohol is a major factor behind many assaults and violent crimes. While the hysteria of the right-wing press is counter-productive, a shrug of the shoulders and a reference to Britain's historic bibulousness is not an acceptable response either.
The main problem with alcohol is not its availability but public attitudes towards the amounts that need to be consumed. And the violence associated with alcohol is less a problem with drinking in pubs and clubs, than its increasing consumption on the streets. With this in mind, the Government's new proposals are broadly sensible. Ministers are promising to clamp down on landlords who breach licensing laws and off-licences caught selling alcohol to under-18s.
In other words, ministers are pledging to enforce the present laws. No one should have any objection to that. It is also reasonable for the Government to look into the way some establishments encourage irresponsible drinking through "happy hour" promotions and various other multi-buy offers.
But it would be misleading for ministers to argue that anything other than education is likely to prove a long-term solution to our dysfunctional relationship with alcohol. We require a shift in cultural attitudes to binge-drinking on a scale of that which saw public attitudes towards drink-driving turned on their head in the space of a decade.
Measures to restrict access to alcohol can do only so much. As the continental experience shows, what matters is not the availability of drink, but the desire to consume it in moderation. If the opponents of the liberalisation Act could be persuaded to divert some of their energy into solving that underlying problem, we as a nation might finally begin to sober up.Reuse content