Govt stumbles over new licensing hours

How will we remember this 24 November, the day the 11pm curfew was relaxed on pubs serving alcohol? 'D-Day', as the British Beer and Pub Association's Mark Hastings describes it, should have been a cause for quiet satisfaction - the sign of a mature society treating its citizens as adults, granted the liberty to purchase a drink in the small hours.

When initially set out in a white paper, the proposal to allow extension of pub opening hours met little resistance. After all, the 11pm curfew was an outdated relic of the First World War, imposed to ensure the sobriety of munitions factory workers. Moreover, Britain's modern-day binge drinking problem, it was reasonably argued, was being exacerbated by the strict hours of business.

But the run-up to the new licensing laws has been a PR headache for the Government. What was once an uncontentious proposal is now a subject of widespread vilification, thanks to the framing of the debate in much of the media, and to Labour's mixed messages.

On the first point, blanket descriptions of 'round-the-clock' and '24-hour' drinking have taken root - and emphasised overindulgence - even though a minority of premises have applied for late licences, mainly to extend their opening by an hour or two. TV images of Friday-night bedlam under the current system have only served to encourage tabloid scare stories of more alcohol-fuelled 'violence and rape' under the relaxed laws.

On Labour's own messaging, its libertarian approach to licensing sits oddly with more authoritarian moves such as ASBOs. And given the climate of apprehension that now greets the changes, the timing is an unhappy coincidence - coming amid the annual crackdown on drink-driving and graphic Home Office posters spelling out in vomit the £80 on-the-spot fines for drunken yobs.

With opinion polls showing a clear majority against the change, the result has been a failure to sell late-night drinking to the British public.

And a case study of a government that lost control of its message.

Daniel Rogers is away.

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