Time to take charge in the fight against alcohol-fuelled disorder

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Related tags: Licensees, Criminal justice, Social responsibility

At the moment it seems that not a week goes by without the licensed trade being blamed for something. Whether it is the spurious claims that the...

At the moment it seems that not a week goes by without the licensed trade being blamed for something.

Whether it is the spurious claims that the drinks industry targets its advertising at children, or the more real link between alcohol and violence, the national press is quick to point the finger of blame at pubs and licensees.

There are many reasons for irresponsible drinking and alcohol-fuelled disorder - not the least of which is British culture.

But unfair as blaming licensees might be, the fact remains that unless the pub trade is seen to be acting responsibly, the government will have an excuse to clamp down on licensees.

The Publican Newspaper launched its Setting the Standards campaign last month to encourage best practice among licensees.

Setting the Standards was introduced to make sure licensees know what their responsibilities are as well as to back calls for assistance from government such as a national proof-of-age card or speedy reform of the licensing laws.

The British Institute of Innkeeping (BII) set up its Social Responsibilities Initiative in response to the government's Crime and Disorder strategy which meant local authorities had to identify areas where there were problems.

Home Office MP Mike O'Brien joined a BII conference in north Warwickshire last month to talk about what licensees, the government and local authorities can do to encourage responsibility.

"Although we have to tackle alcohol-fuelled disorder we must also recognise that 90 per cent of people drink alcohol," he said. "They contribute to an industry worth £25bn and the vast majority drink sensibly and do not cause problems."

It has long been accepted by licensees and police that the best way to fight disorder is to stagger closing times. Everyone has visited a town centre at closing time on a Friday or Saturday night and seen what happens when hundreds of young people head home at the same time.

The trade has been concerned about delays to the government's plans for licensing reform particularly when some of the measures in the Time to Reform White Paper were put into the controversial Criminal Justice and Police Bill.

But Mr O'Brien said the government was doing all it could to help licensees tackle the British yob culture.

"The police have shown us that having staggered closing times could help reduce disorder." he said. "And in support of this we included some important issues in the Criminal Justice Bill."

The issues surrounding the question of social responsibility have been in the spotlight recently with the introduction of this Bill.

It has caused concern among trade leaders largely because of its extension of police powers to allow officers to close down a disorderly pub for 24 hours.

"The police must be able to deal with disorder," Mr O'Brien said. "And this Bill will give them important new powers which they will deal with sensibly."

But Mary Curnock Cook, director of the BII, said the Bill was "hastily constructed" and would not have as much effect on disorder as partnerships between licensees, police and authorities.

Measures contained in the Bill to put more responsibility on licensees to check a young person's age, and extend that responsibility to barstaff, have also been criticised.

"The Bill will increase the positive duty of licensees to check ages," Mr O'Brien said. "This may well expose rogue licensees and that's the intention, but those that act responsibly have nothing to fear from these laws, because they're already complying with them."

But the trade is worried that increasing this onus on staff, without giving them the security of a government-backed proof-of-age card, is unfair and unworkable.

Mr O'Brien said he had been involved in a Cabinet committee on proof-of-age cards which concluded they were not viable. "I really don't think ID cards are the answer people see them as," he said.

Ms Curnock Cook said the British attitude to drinking was also to blame and said she doubted these measures alone would tackle the problem.

She said: "It's difficult to ask licensees to take the responsibility for the fact that young people want to go out and get bladdered on a Saturday night."

Maureen Heffernan, the BII's head of external affairs, agreed. She said: "Retailers are crying out for a government approved proof-of-age scheme and the BII supports this."

The problem of bootlegged alcohol is also something licensees want to see addressed. Ms Curnock Cook said: "You can't ignore that this illegal booze is in our community and guess who's buying it? Under-age drinkers."

Industry watchdog The Portman Group has also launched a campaign to encourage consumers to drink sensibly. Research by the group revealed around one million 18 to 24-year-olds regularly drink just to get drunk and so the "If you do do drink, don't do drunk" campaign was launched to highlight the dangers of excessive drinking.

A poster campaign will be backed by radio advertising and targeted at younger drinkers. A trial of the initiative in Manchester proved successful with posters prompting a lot of feedback from pub-goers.

The BII conference, The Publican Newspaper's Setting the Standards campaign and The Portman Group's initiative underline what the trade has been saying for some time - licensees want to be responsible and help the government fight the yob culture that is dogging Britain.

But it is clear the industry cannot do this alone. The Criminal Justice and Police Bill does not approach the problem in the right way and instead of offering support, such as licensing reform or proof-of-age cards, will increase the responsibilities of already overburdened licensees.

It now looks as though the Criminal Justice Bill will be rushed through before the General Election while licensing is put on the back burner - but this is not yet definite and until then the trade must be seen to act.

Related topics: Legislation