Ministers set to call time on last orders

Tony Blair will finally deliver on his promise to young voters to introduce 24-hour drinking in bars and pubs next summer.

Plans to allow licensed premises to sell alcohol around the clock, seven days a week, will be included in this month's Queen's Speech. The proposed new Act will also enable shops and supermarkets to apply for licences permitting them to sell drink throughout the night.

It is hoped that the new, more flexible licensing hours will be in place by next July.

News of the change will come as a relief to those who voted Labour in last year's general election after being promised an end to traditional pub closing times.

In the weeks leading up to the poll, first-time voters were bombarded with text messages, reading: "cdnt give a xxxx 4 lst orders? vote labour on thrsdy 4 xtra time".

Ministers believe a Continental-style approach to licensing will help to promote law and order. They hope it will encourage people to leave pubs in small groups, rather than waiting to be turned out at closing time, thus ending the "binge-drinking" culture fostered by the rush to consume as much alcohol as possible by last orders.

But others argue liberalised licensing laws will lead to an increase in crime. In Camden Town, north London, residents who live cheek by jowl with pubs and clubs blame a late-night culture for a dramatic increase in crime.

Mark Hapgood QC, a leading commercial lawyer, has been mugged near his home three times in three months. "I think 24-hour licensing is a bad idea," he said. "People will come to Camden late at night, and that attracts drug dealers, beggars and prostitutes. Any move to lengthen licensing laws should come with an increase in policing."

At the nearby Dublin Castle in Camden Town, Radio 1's "most important small music venue", where Madness, Travis and Blur cut their teeth, landlord Henry Conlon argued that the pubs in the area kept crime down rather than adding to it. "With longer hours we will lose the lager lout culture," he said. "The bouncers here have caught bag snatchers, moved on drug addicts and stopped people drink-driving. We keep an eye on the area."

While the licensing Bill will offer far more flexibility around the purchase and consumption of alcohol, the new "rights" will be balanced by additional responsibilities.

In particular, tough new measures will be introduced to deal with rogue landlords who permit their premises to become rowdy or violent.

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