U-turn On 24-Hour Drinking

The Government is preparing to make a substantial U-turn over 24-hour drinking by making it harder for pubs to open later in future amid the first signs they realise that the policy went too far too fast.

Tessa Jowell will unveil the latest controversial change to social policy tomorrow by announcing the location of Britain’s first super-casino, which will bring £1 million slot machines into this country for the first time.

But The Times can reveal that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is attempting to curb the development of a 24-hour drinking culture by changing the guidance to councils to spell out that there is “no general presumption in favour of lengthening licensing hours”.

This contrasts with the existing guidance, which urges councils to vary closing times between establishments in the belief that this would curb binge-drinking and alcohol-fuelled violence.

The Tories said last night that the changes were the first admission that the Government’s decision to sweep away the 90-year-old restrictions may have been a mistake. They gave warning that the combination of gambling and round-the-clock drinking could cause problems across the country.

A five-man panel of planning experts has spent more than a year deciding the location of Britain’s first super-casino, which will have a 5,000 square metre gaming area and contain 1,250 unlimited prize jackpot machines. Of the seven bids, Blackpool and Greenwich, home to the Dome, are thought to be the frontrunners, but legal challenges are expected to follow if either of them is picked. At the same time the panel will announce the location of 16 smaller casinos.

Latest figures from Alcohol Concern reveal that 3.8 million people in Britain are addicted to alcohol and there are one million 16 to 24 year-olds who regularly get drunk. On Wednesday, Alcohol Concern and Turning Point are holding a conference in London to discuss whether the changes to the licensing laws have made this worse.

Since the laws were amended in November 2005, 3,000 premises have been given permission to serve alcohol round the clock. Approximately 600 of these were pubs, bars and clubs, 600 more were convenience stores, a quarter were supermarkets and the rest were hotels and other venues. Only 20 per cent of pubs, bars and clubs cannot open after 11pm, while 50 per cent shut by midnight, according to government figures.

Pub operators said they were surprised by Ms Jowell’s move because 90 per cent of pubs and clubs had secured later hours. The change will not apply retrospectively and the new guidence is unlikely to affect existing opening times.

A spokesman for the British Beer and Pub Association said: “Every single pub has got the hours that they already want, so it’s not like the industry is going to be worried. So this change will only affect new licence applications as and when they happen.” Hugo Swire, the shadow Culture Secretary, said: “This is a clear admission from Tessa Jowell that she got it wrong with the new licensing hours. It’s astonishing that she did not solve this by changing the regulations the moment it became clear this problem existed.”

The change follows comments from Hazel Blears, the Labour Party chairman, last month who said that Britons enjoy getting drunk. “I don’t know whether we’ll ever get to be in a European drinking culture, where you go out and have a single glass of wine,” Ms Blears said. “Maybe it’s our Anglo-Saxon mentality.”

The DCMS insists that, under existing rules, each application should be considered by local councils on its merits, but admitted in the consultation document that “some stakeholders feel that the current guidance has a presumption in favour of longer hours”. It called this “unjustified”.

A spokeswoman said: “The guidance has always stated that the objectives of the Act, including the prevention of crime and disorder and public nuisance, are paramount considerations at all times and must be promoted in licensing decisions.”

The spokeswoman said that Ms Jowell initially clarified that there should be no presumption in favour of longer opening hours in a letter to councils in September 2005. However she added that there was no legal requirement for councils to take account of the letter.