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Britain's Extended Drinking Hours Draw an Angry Buzz

November 25, 2005|Vanora McWalters | Special to The Times

LONDON — For nearly a century, drinkers in Britain's frosted-glass, red-velvet, gin-palace pubs have known exactly when it was time to go home at the end of a night out. At a quarter to 11, a bell would ring as a barman yelled, "Last orders!" followed 15 minutes later by another bell and the call: "Time please, gentlemen."

After that, there was nothing for drinkers to do but to go home, some urged out on the street with stern admonitions to "drink up, sir."

But as of Thursday, the cry of "Time please, gentlemen!" need not be heard again. Under a new, more liberal Licensing Act, Britain's pubs can stay open as late as they want -- with a bit of negotiating with the neighbors.

Britons who know that drinkers across the English Channel can go on sipping red wine until the early hours have been demanding longer pub hours here throughout living memory.

The old legislation was widely mocked as bossily prescriptive for modern times. The complaint has some justification, because the restrictions were originally imposed during World War I to keep the working population steady, on its feet and clocking in at munitions factory jobs.

However, if Prime Minister Tony Blair and Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell thought they were only doing what the voters wanted by giving the public more choice about when to drink, the last few months must have come as a nasty shock. The legislation -- which the government said would decrease alcoholism and drunken violence by stopping binge drinking brought on by the 11 p.m. deadline -- has instead been sharply criticized.

"When Tessa Jowell said in January that she was giving 'power to local authorities to run licensing regimes in their own areas,' she was not telling the truth," wrote columnist Simon Jenkins in the Evening Standard. "It was a smokescreen for a capitulation to the brewers' lobby, one worthy of the Victorian Tory 'beerage.' "

Licensing Minister James Purnell said this week that the new law would be coupled with the "toughest-ever crackdown on alcohol-fueled violence." He said that a rise in the number of arrests for such offenses could be seen as a measure of the success of powers in the Licensing Act.

But the opposition Conservative Party has ridiculed both the government's belief that the new law will encourage responsible, moderate drinking and its parallel announcement of crackdowns on violent drunkenness. Culture spokeswoman, Theresa May, said the logic of the government's plans was "absurd."

"The government has got it the wrong way round," she told BBC on Wednesday. "They should have been doing something about binge drinking before looking at extending the licensing hours."

It was of "great concern," she added, that a "significant number, if not a majority," of premises that would allow for 24-hour drinking were all-night supermarkets and gas stations, which she said were often frequented by underage drinkers. The change "will lead to more disorder," she said, adding that "government ministers have accepted that there will be more crime as a result of these laws."

A study published by the tabloid Daily Star suggested that drinkers would spend $800 million more a year on alcohol under the new law.

Blair's father-in-law, reformed alcoholic Tony Booth, said the law was "wrong, muddle-headed and terribly dangerous."

About 1.2 million violent incidents a year -- nearly half of all violent crime in Britain -- are alcohol-related, police say.

Dr. Ian Gilmore, a liver specialist and chairman of the Royal College of Physicians' alcohol committee, told The Times that 70% of admissions to accident and emergency departments, or A&Es, during weekends were caused by drink.

"We could almost shut our A&Es at 8 p.m. every night if it wasn't for alcohol," he said. "A&E doctors are concerned because they are already like a war zone on weekend evenings and we have not been persuaded that this law will make things any better.

"We have looked carefully at the international evidence," he added, "and experience suggests that if you extend hours you get more crime and disorder and more presentations at A&E."

Noting that alcohol-related liver disease had risen tenfold in Britain over the last decade, Gilmore said, "It seems to defy logic to make alcohol more available when we are seeing increasing levels of harm from it."

The Evening Standard polled readers this week and found that 52% of respondents opposed extending hours and 53% did not intend to drink later than before. But BBC research suggests that one-third of all the pubs, clubs and stores in England and Wales that are licensed to sell alcohol have obtained permission for longer opening hours. The law also applies to Northern Ireland but not to Scotland.

Yet not everyone was against the new law. At the Railway hotel in Blandford Forum in Dorset, southwestern England, 40 regulars at the bar finished up their drinks after last orders Wednesday night and saw in a new way of life in characteristically low-key English style: waiting for midnight, when the law would take effect, with the pub TV turned on and cups of tea in hand.

Only after midnight did the pub start selling alcohol again, reported the Guardian daily, when publican Nigel Jones began pulling pints of the local brew again.

"Turn the nation into alcoholics? It's a load of old bollocks," said one regular.

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