Sir Norman Bettison: Cut pub opening hours and make it a happier Christmas

THE most popular TV programme broadcast on Christmas Day was EastEnders. I happened to be in the same room while it was on and I could not help noticing that much of the episode was set in The Queen Vic.

The pub was the Christmas Day focal point. I'm sure that in the longer-running soap, Coronation Street, that when Ena Sharples was in residence at The Rover's Return with her milk stout-drinking pals, Martha and Minnie, the snug remained firmly closed on Christmas Day.

This is an example of art reflecting life since the unfettered opening hours created by the Licensing Act of 2003. As a young, single, bobby I volunteered to work on Christmas Day to let colleagues with young families have time off. It was usually a doddle.

In the colder winters, there were burst water pipes in unoccupied buildings which the police, as the emergency service of first and last resort, tried to find key-holders or force entry ourselves to find the stop-cock.

For the most part, nothing much needed our attention. We did our shift and went home to a late turkey dinner and a game of knockout whist with neighbours and family members whom we rarely saw.

I remember that pubs and clubs were allowed to open for only a few hours during Christmas Day, and the same was true of Good Friday. Licensees had to make a choice to open a couple of hours at lunchtime; in the evening before closing at 10.30pm; or not at all. Nightclubs had to close at midnight on Christmas Eve until Boxing Day.

This was part of the reason that there was little for the police to do on Christmas Day. Alcohol consumption was moderated. My gran could still have a Snowball and Uncle Harry his couple of pints of pale ale while playing cards at home. There was the chance to socialise at the pub for a couple of hours, but the focus on this pre-eminent Christian festival was different to the other 364 days of the year.

I know that young people were bored to tears, and that the profits in what we euphemistically call "the night time economy" were deflated, but for one day a year, just 24 hours out of 8,760, it gave us all a quiet day.

More seriously and much more importantly, it meant fewer victims of violence. The simple truth is that alcohol consumed to excess in public places is the common precursor of the majority of assaults, including domestic violence, of sexual offences and victimisation, and of anti-social crimes.

So, my wish for a new ordinance in 2011 is this: could we have just one day in the year when fewer people get hurt and distressed?

One way of securing this is to have just one day when the exposure and access to alcohol is reduced...not prohibited, nor despised, just less prominent. And if that day was December 25, it would allow us to concentrate on burst pipes (84 on Christmas Day this year) and the more serious things that happen in the course of 24 hours.

This wish comes following my visits to many of our police stations the day after Boxing Day, meeting officers who had worked through the holiday weekend, all chipper and world-weary-stoical as experienced Bobbies are, but the story they told me wherever I went was the same – no-one could remember a busier Christmas Day duty.

Bank holiday staffing costs mean that all emergency services try to strike a balance between efficient numbers of staff, but sufficient to manage foreseen risks. The response crews reported a Christmas Day 'detail' that was stretched like never before, more like a normal Saturday in the number of fights at pubs and clubs needing numbers of officers to quell the disturbances.

There were 2,491 incidents deployed to in the 24 hours from 10am Christmas Day, with a peak at around midnight. The majority of the incidents from 2pm to 2am were alcohol-related. There were 152 arrests, over half for alcohol-fuelled crimes.

Almost a quarter of the total was for domestic assaults at the pub or at home afterwards. There were 117 domestic-related disturbances and 21 serious assaults. As Bob Geldof might ask, "Do they know it's Christmas time at all?"

This window into our professional 'Christmas' is often unknown to the majority; those people quietly enjoying their Snowball or Pale Ale or celebrating the spirit of Christmas by attending church, volunteering to work at a homeless shelter or enjoying a family day.

People are still knocking lumps out of each other because they've had too much to drink, and the police (those men and women in uniform who aren't as visible on the beat as they used to be) are run off their feet clearing up the mess – even on Christmas Day.

So, what about it, David Cameron? What about giving the cops a break on just one day each year? Limit the opening times of pubs and clubs so that alcohol is less ubiquitous than it is on the other 364 days of the year. The Licensing Act of 2003 (enacted in 2005) makes binge drinking just as likely on Christmas Day as any other time of the year.

One day is not too much to ask. After all, most of us only have to eat sprouts on that same one day each year, and we certainly don't have bread sauce, mulled wine, or play knockout whist with distant relatives more than once every blue moon! If we do all of these unusual things on December 25, then let's do something really radical on that day to ensure a little more peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind – at least for 24 hours.

Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police