Christopher Snowdon: The moral panic that proved to be storm in a pint glass

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THIS year will see the 10th anniversary of the Licensing Act. You may remember it as the law that supposedly created “24-hour drinking”. We now take it for granted that in all cities, most market towns and many villages it is possible to have a drink in a pub after 11pm – sometimes long after 11pm – on weekends and on special occasions, if not every night.

There is little political or popular appetite for a return to the rigid closing times of old. None of the parties mentioned the Licensing Act in their election manifesto. It is an accepted fact of life.

If you’d have told somebody this 10 years ago, they might not have believed you. On the eve of the Licensing Act’s introduction, prophecies of doom about “24-hour drinking” were ubiquitous.

The Daily Mail predicted that “unbridled hedonism is precisely what the Licensing Act is about to unleash, with all the ghastly consequences that will follow”.

The Sun told its readers to prepare for the “inevitable swarm of drunken youngsters”.

Scotland Yard predicted “an increase in the number of investigations of drink-related crimes, such as rape, assault, homicide and domestic violence”.

And Professor Ian Gilmore of the Royal College of Physicians warned that “24-hour pub opening will lead to more excess and binge drinking, especially among young people”.

It is no exaggeration to say that it was the conventional wisdom amongst laymen and experts alike that the Licensing Act was a bad thing.  

In reality, what happened? That question is answered in a new paper, Drinking, Fast and Slow, published by the Institute of Economic Affairs this week.

Since the Licensing Act came into force in November 2005, alcohol consumption has declined by 17 per cent and consumption in licensed premises has declined by 26 per cent.

The proportion of young adults who say they drink frequently has fallen by more than two-thirds. Rate of binge-drinking have fallen amongst every age group and rates of teetotalism are now higher amongst 16 to 24-year-olds than amongst pensioners.

In terms of crime, since 2005 there’s been a 48 per cent decline in criminal damage, a nine per cent decline in public order offences, a 44 per cent decline in murder, and a 28 per cent decline in domestic violence.

Despite a rapidly growing population, the number of violent crimes has declined by 35 per cent, according to the British Crime Survey, and by 17 per cent, according to police records.

In terms of health, there have been a number of studies looking at what happened to Accident and Emergency departments before and after the Act. The results are mixed, with one well-publicised study finding an increase in alcohol-related admissions but all the others finding either no change rate or a small decline.

Meanwhile, alcohol-related mortality, which had been rising for years before the Act came in, started to level off in 2005 and has been essentially flat for the last ten years. There’s also been a decline in late night traffic accidents.

In short, every prediction made about the Licensing Act has been proven wrong. Allowing us to drink for longer did not lead us to drink more. What happened instead is that we tend to go out later, stay out later and drink less.

It could be argued that the catastrophe of “24-hour drinking” was averted because the law did not actually lead to pubs being open 24 hours a day, but there was never any realistic prospect of round-the-clock drinking because there is not enough demand to make it worthwhile for a pub to stay open all night.

Only a tiny handful of pubs have 24-hour licences and none them of them are used regularly. On average, opening hours were extended by 27 minutes a day after the Licensing Act came in.

This is not as trivial as it sounds – it amounts to an extra 13 million trading hours a year – but it is a far cry from 24-hour drinking. The fundamental mistake made by critics was to assume that the English have an insatiable appetite for drinking. With hindsight, the fears look like a classic moral panic. Once introduced, the Act had no negative effect on violent crime, alcohol-related illness or binge-drinking, but it did help to diversify the night-time economy and beat the old 11 o’clock rush.

It may not have created a continental café-style drinking culture, but it did move us towards continental licensing hours which treat citizens like adults. As Tony Blair said: “We shouldn’t have to have restrictions that no other city in Europe has, just in order to do something for that tiny minority who abuse alcohol, who go out and fight and cause disturbances.”

The Licensing Act was a moderate reform which made life moderately better for millions of people. Ten years on, let’s raise a glass to deregulation.

Christopher Snowdon is director of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, and author of a new report, Drinking, Fast and Slow: Ten Years of the Licensing Act, which was published this week.