This reform of licensing hours is overdue. It should not be diluted

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To be forced to retreat from one liberal reform - on gambling - because of a media-led outcry may be regarded as a misfortune. To be forced to retreat from two looks very much like carelessness - or rank incompetence. Yet what did we see yesterday, but a trio of ministers brandishing new weapons against drink-related street disorder? When the new law on flexible drinking hours comes into force in two weeks' time, it will be accompanied by provisions for designating "alcohol disorder zones" and imposing "drinking banning orders" to deal with rowdy premises or people.

To be forced to retreat from one liberal reform - on gambling - because of a media-led outcry may be regarded as a misfortune. To be forced to retreat from two looks very much like carelessness - or rank incompetence. Yet what did we see yesterday, but a trio of ministers brandishing new weapons against drink-related street disorder? When the new law on flexible drinking hours comes into force in two weeks' time, it will be accompanied by provisions for designating "alcohol disorder zones" and imposing "drinking banning orders" to deal with rowdy premises or people.

It could have been worse. Advance reports suggested that the Government planned to levy a fee on pubs, clubs or whole districts to pay for additional policing in places where the nightlife was likely to prove troublesome. What it has actually announced is a "yellow card" system that will give landlords time to put their houses in order before they, or the district, are liable for the new payments.

That the new provisions are not as sweeping as feared, however, is no recommendation. They are quite simply a last-minute fudge designed to placate the maximum number of interests. Ministers clearly hope that they will be limited enough not to alienate the drinks industry, the pubs, the clubs and their clientele, while being sufficiently tough to keep at bay the senior police officers, the law and order lobby and the temperance brigade. Especially they must hope that they will silence those sections of the right-wing press that have whipped up the hue and cry against any reform of the law.

For the Government to have to rush out new measures to salvage its legislation at this late stage, however, smacks of desperation. It also sends a highly confused message about its thinking. One purpose of relaxing the licensing hours in the first place was to stagger the closing times and end the situation where everyone spills out into the streets the worse for wear at the same hour of the night. The idea was to encourage a Continental type of café culture, reduce bingeing on alcohol and make the streets safer late at night.

Rather than press home this message, with positive examples from the liberalisation of drinking hours in Scotland, however, the Government allowed itself to be forced on to the defensive. Licensing flexibility was presented by the Daily Mail and others as certain to lead to a 24-hour free-for-all. Longer hours, they argued, would only intensify Britain's collective alcohol problem; huge numbers of additional police would be needed. Those who supported more civilised drinking hours were dismissed as being in the pocket of the drinks industry - or deluded.

It is easy to forget that when the law to extend licensing hours was passed two years ago, it was welcomed as the overdue modernisation of hopelessly obsolete regulations. This is still the case, and the fact that there are some trouble-spots and some reprehensible behaviour does not mean that there should be no reform. It is sad to see a government which so prided itself on its ability to persuade, come so close to losing its nerve.

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