Martin Cannon assesses the UK government's decision to review the country's licensing laws and ponders who will it really benefit…

UK MPs from all political parties and persuasions have given a warm welcome to changes in the licensing laws that will bring in all-day opening for pubs and fewer restrictions on the sale of alcohol in retail outlets.

The new legislation, which will not be introduced to Parliament before the next election, will mean that the UK public will enjoy similar freedoms of access to drink that have long been available to MPs and Lords in the Palace of Westminster.

The UK's restrictive licensing laws date back to World War I when drunkenness among munitions workers was seen to be impairing the country's war effort. With the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet threat, manufacture of armaments - along with motor cars, shipping, steel and a host of other industries - have become of such marginal importance to the economy that the Government now feels sufficiently relaxed to liberalise the licensing laws.

The sweeping changes will reach every corner of the UK's labyrinthine drinking laws. The University of Cambridge will lose its right to grant licences to sell wine under a charter dating from 1382 as will the Board of the Green Cloth which regulates licensing arrangements at Buckingham Palace, the home of the Royal Family and previously unknown source of a take-away six-pack. But the unkindest cut comes for the Guild of Vintners of the City of London, whose licensing powers date from 1611 and who, with their loss, will be sorely tried to explain what it is they do.

Swept away too will be the little known right of five-year-olds to drink in pub gardens and that of 14 year-olds to enter pubs to consume cider with meals under parental supervision during months with an 'r' in them.

The root of the changes lies in problems caused by pubs closing at the same time thus depositing large numbers of drinkers on the pavement at 11pm all in search of further entertainment, food or transport. By extending the hours of opening to the small hours with pubs closing at different times, it will rapidly become evident that this search is bootless - all such facilities having long since closed - and the Government expects that revellers, having enjoyed two or three hours of extra drinking, will go peacefully home to their beds. This concept is known as 'staggered closing', for reasons which will become self-evident.

In Ireland, similar moves are afoot with an extra hour and a half being added to the normal evening closing hours. But with closing time generally settled by amicable discussion between landlord and customers and dependent on the number of drinks bought by the latter for the former, the precise impact of this change is difficult to forecast.

One move in Ireland, however, that will certainly reduce drinking is the ending of the 'Holy Hour' between 2pm and 4pm on Sundays when pubs are closed. As the Irish tended to interpret the concept of closing to mean locking the doors, the new legislation will mean that those who wish may, in future, be able to leave before the hour of 4pm.

Back in England, licensing powers, currently held by magistrates' courts, will be transferred to local authorities who will grant licenses both to premises and operators and will closely monitor the suitability of both. Police will be given extra powers, including the ability to order the immediate closure of a pub for 24 hours because of noise or violence. Local residents will be able to demand a review of licences of premises which create a nuisance.

Drinkers who have traditionally sought sanctuary from children within the gloomy confines of the British pub will be disappointed by the new legislation which will operate on a presumption that youngsters are allowed in unless there is a specific provision in the licence to exclude them.

Parents, who to date have been able to fob off their teenage children with beer or cider only with pub meals, will be dismayed to find that the new law will enable their offspring to delve into the wine list as well, so dramatically increasing the cost of the outing.
The overall thrust of the changes is to create greater freedom of choice for both pub operators and their customers. As with previous relaxations, a period of adjustment is anticipated as pubs and clubs adapt to meet the requirements of their local markets.

But in creating greater freedom the law will create harsher penalties for those that abuse the trust, particularly in the sale of alcohol to minors. Pub licences will be treated in a similar way to driving licences with offences being recorded as 'penalty points' which will carry sanctions and, ultimately, option of closure.

Individuals convicted of trouble making will be banned from pubs for up to 10 years, or even life in serious cases. Those who are branded by the courts as habitual drunkards will see the current three year ban from alcohol purchase extended to 10 years. A prospect that may lessen the attractions of a Parliamentary career for some of those who vote in the new legislation.

Martin Cannon