Surge In Booze-Related Crime Blamed On Relaxed Pub Hours

The level of alcohol-fuelled crime has soared after the introduction of controversial late-night drinking laws, shocking Home Office figures reveal for the first time.

Data from the latest nationwide police crackdown on binge drinking show the number of arrests for booze-related offences have leapt 86 per cent in just six months, and more than doubled since Christmas 2004.

The statistics mark the first clear evidence that Labour’s heavily criticised round-the-clock drinking reforms have brought with them a sharp rise in crime and disorder – as predicted by a range of experts who backed a Daily Mail campaign last year.

Last night police warned that the worsening trend would not be reversed unless Britain’s deeply ingrained binge drinking culture can be changed.

And they said the true picture of alcohol-fuelled crime was far worse than official figures suggested, as thousands of drunken offenders cannot be arrested on busy nights because of a shortage of officers and police cells.

Opposition critics accused Labour of ‘recklessness’ in unleashing late-night drinking across the country last year without carrying out small-scale pilot studies – ignoring the stark warnings from police chiefs, senior judges and medical experts.

Figures also show a rising proportion of supermarkets being caught selling alcohol to juveniles in ‘sting’ test purchases – underlining doubts over Government pledges that relaxed drinking hours would go hand-in-hand with much tougher action against maverick licensees.

The Home Office report measures the results of the twice-yearly Alcohol Misuse Enforcement Campaign, under which police forces are given millions of pounds to put extra officers in the beat to tackle binge-drinking in the run-up to Christmas and in midsummer.

The number of alcohol-related arrests each day during this summer’s month-long crackdown was 936, compared with 531 in November to December last year – just at the time late-night drinking laws were introduced – and 309 per day during a similar operation a year earlier.

Taking into account slight changes in the number of police areas taking part in each crackdown, the arrests per day in each local unit were 86 per cent higher this summer than before Christmas, and have risen almost 160 per cent since the Christmas 2004 crackdown.

The Government claims alcohol is to blame for around half of all violent crime – which has now risen for five years in a row.

Releasing the report yesterday ministers glossed over the startling rise in alcohol-fuelled arrests and instead blamed pubs, supermarkets and off-licences for what they called ‘disappointing’ results of underage test-purchase operations.

One third of youngsters sent to try to buy alcohol in pubs and clubs were served, while one in five succeeded in buying from shops and off-licences.

The ‘sting’ results marked a reverse of earlier improvements when the crackdowns began two years ago.

During the bitter debate over the late-night drinking laws ministers insisted late-night opening would create a more grown up Mediterranean-style drinking culture.

They also pointed to a range of new powers for police and local authorities, including closing ‘problem’ pubs and tougher fines for serving minors or drunken customers.

Opponents claimed drunken yobs would simply drink more and cause more crime and disorder.

Inspector Glen Smyth, chairman of the Metropolitan Police rank-and-file Police Federation said last night: ‘The trend is worryingly in the wrong direction.

‘It was always likely that licensing reform would see things get worse before they got better.

‘Whether they do now get better remains to be seen. If we can’t change our ingrained drinking culture to a more responsible one, things won’t get better.’

Norman Brennan, a serving police officer and director of the Victims of Crime Trust said: ‘The reality of 24-hour drinking is beginning to hit home, as we knew it would.

‘In some towns and cities drink-related crime is now out of control on Friday and Saturday nights.

‘We don’t have enough cells to put people in. If we arrested every drunk who should be arrested there would be no police on the streets, as they’d all be down at the station filling in forms.

‘If the figures truly reflected the reality of the problem they would be staggeringly high.’

Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, said: ‘These figures show why the Government was wrong to simply unleash 24-hour drinking on our town and city centres. They should have answered our calls to pilot the scheme, so that its consequences could be fully appreciated.’

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport claimed the rise in arrests were ‘a sign that the police are nipping the problem in the bud by arresting people who may well go on to commit more serious violent acts later in the night.’

A spokesman added: ‘Indications from national crime figures are that there has not been an increase in alcohol related crime since the new Act came into effect.’

Under-age customer ‘sting’ operations showed the proportion of supermarkets selling to youngsters had risen slightly across the board from 17 to 18 per cent since last year.

Kwik Save was the worst-performing chain with a 26 per cent failure rate, while Asda was the best on eight per cent.

The worst pub chain was Scottish and Newcastle with a 44 per cent failure rate, while the worst region was Wales where 48 per cent of youngsters were served alcohol in pubs or bars.

Home Office minister Vernon Coaker said he was ‘disappointed’ and demanded ‘real improvements’ from the licensed trade.

Chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association Rob Hayward said: ‘We recognise that more needs to be done. ‘Companies are tackling these issues head-on.’

The Association of Convenience Stores claimed the results were ‘pleasing’, as the failure rate for all off-licences had fallen from 36 to 21 per cent year on year.