Photo by Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images

Calling time on closing times

Pubs should be allowed to stay open longer

Artillery Row

The Lionesses’ loss was made all the more bitter because those watching didn’t even have the consolation of a pint. Despite the government’s boosterism both for pubs and football, not even His Majesty’s Secretaries of State could open the pubs in time. The time between the semi-final match and the finals was too short for a statutory instrument expanding pub hours to be laid before Parliament and considered.

This absurd episode highlights the impotence of the government’s allegedly pro-pub policy. The new alcohol duty rates were announced with a headline of the “Brexit Pubs Guarantee” to keep rates on draught beer lower. The government recently declared that it would extend a scheme for takeaway pints. The Prime Minister, though a teetotaller, is always eager to be seen pulling a pint in a village pub, just to remind us that keeping our local thriving is a matter of national importance. For all these theatrical flourishes, the government continues to impose a pointless legal burden that keeps pubs precarious: the closing time.

Without any principled reason, the law in this country cuts pubs off from lucrative business by imposing the default closing time of 11 p.m. It then imposes substantial regulatory burdens to staying open even an hour longer. Until this is changed, the government’s claims that it is taking action to help pubs are empty words.

Lloyd George thought drink was more damaging than German U-Boats

The public house is an old and distinguished institution. It is a fundamental feature of the British landscape. Rules on pub hours, on the other hand, are a recent and chequered imposition. They arrived in the Victorian era, as a social reform, but were initially quite generous compared to today (a London pub could be open past midnight). Then, in the name of the Defence of the Realm, Lloyd George limited pubs’ hours, forcing them to close both in the afternoon and then again at 9 p.m. The law was ostensibly to keep munitions workers and soldiers on base compus mentus, but in reality was influenced by a Temperance movement that had long sought to reduce the number of pubs. Lloyd George thought drink was more damaging than German U-Boats, and he considered nationalising the entire drink trade to reduce it. He would have pursued this if not for opposition from his cabinet, notably from Asquith, who rightly feared a “universal strike” from working men if Lloyd George stole their booze.

The subsequent history of pub hours reflects a mixture of anti-alcohol moralising and indifferent fiddling. Our system continues to recognisably be (down to the 11 p.m. closing) descended from the Licensing Act 1921 that made Lloyd George’s emergency measures essentially permanent. In 1988, the rules were liberalised, and afternoon drinking became possible. The closing time remained, however, fixed. In 2003, Labour brought in liberalisation that, in theory, allowed 24 hour opening. In practice, aside from hotel bars, very few pubs have been able to obtain later licensing. The system of local licensing committees creates a postcode lottery of red tape that for most drinkers results in a recognisable and fixed closing time of 11 p.m. This is, in large part, because existing pubs have licences already closing at 11 p.m. Expanding those hours is a “full variation” and very difficult to obtain.

The unwieldy 2003 Act system, by which everything from plays to stripping to a coffee at 11:30 p.m., now coexist with pub licensing, is the worst of both worlds. Pub hours are in theory liberalised, but in practice subject to a council stranglehold and NIMBYism. The ability of the government to make policy is limited to special occasions for extended hours. As the Lionesses fiasco demonstrates, this requires that the government remember and then take valuable ministerial and parliamentary time to lay an instrument.

The government already recognises the problem, as nightclubs collapse and pubs struggle. Why not embrace the solution? Amend the 2003 Act to alter all existing licences to a default closing of 1 a.m. with a default opening of 8 a.m. If this is successful, the hours can be further liberalised. With one parliamentary move, pubs gain additional selling hours and can start to make up for the losses of the pandemic. The government gains in alcohol duty. People gain the freedom of drinking in a place fit for conviviality and discussion (unlike a nightclub), in an atmosphere of safety and good lighting ( again, unlike a nightclub).

Those worried about the harms of drinking should embrace the longer hours

The predictable objections to this can be easily dismissed. Local governments worried about the negative externalities of more drinking can (under existing legislation) apply the Late Night Levy, which lets local governments directly benefit from more night time entertainment. The central government can also apply special duty rates to later night drinks, which most tipplers would happily pay in exchange for extra time at the pub. If noise is a concern, additional restrictions could be put on the volume of recorded music (if any) played in pubs after a certain hour. If workers’ rights are a concern, special provisions could be made (analogous to Sunday working) that employees cannot be required to work after 11 p.m. A higher minimum wage could apply to pubs that are open past midnight. Those worried about the harms of drinking should, in fact, embrace the longer hours. Shorter hours forces cramming pints in at an unhealthy pace (most infamously, in Australia’s former pub rules, shown by the Six O’Clock Swill as drinkers rushed to get their fill before 6 p.m. closing). A pub, where staff are required by law to monitor the intoxication of punters, is a safer environment to monitor drinking than drinking at home (where no one will cut the punter off).

It is rare for the interests of individual citizens and of the nation as a whole to be so closely aligned. Not hearing “time” just as the conversation gets interesting is its own reward, but the macroeconomic effects of a boosted pub economy benefit everyone (even non-drinkers). There is also a social benefit to keeping pubs open: as politicians constantly remind us, pubs are the centres of communities and British institutions worth preserving. For a truly lasting legacy, the government should introduce this change, finally removing the stain left by the anti-alcohol classist prejudices of Lloyd George against working-class drinkers. That way, when the Lionesses are next in the final in 2027, we can cheer them on with a pint in hand.

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