Drinking and Public Disorder

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Drinking and Public Disorder
A report of research conducted for The Portman Group by MCM Research

Recommendations and proposals

Changes in licensing laws

While we will have much to say about the need for a range of specific initiatives to combat drink-related disorder, we begin with a proposal which has, by necessity, been pre-empted a number of times in this report – in those sections dealing with problems following closing time in our research sites in England, historical perspectives, European comparisons (the Dutch experience in particular) and elsewhere.

We see changes in licensing laws as being essential to long-term solutions and highly advantageous to the effectiveness of more short-term remedies.

Our principal concern is with the present fixed licensing hours which apply to all premises where drink is sold for public consumption. These mean that the majority of pubs all close at 11:00pm, with customers being required to leave the premises at 11:20pm. Pubs with Special Hours Certificates and Public Entertainment Licenses close, in the main, at 12:30am and night clubs and similar establishments close at 2:00am (3:00am in certain parts of London).

As we have seen in Section 5, there are typical peaks for Public Disorder arrests between 11:00pm and 12:00pm and, where there are a significant number of clubs and discotheques, between 2:00am and 3:00am.

There is no doubt in our minds, based on extensive fieldwork in various towns and cities at these times, that disorder is directly related to the sudden increase in density of (mainly) young people in the streets and public areas at these times.

We have noted in Section 3.1 that 47% of all incidents of violence and disorder in pubs occurs in just two hours of the week – between 11:00pm and 12:00am on Fridays and at the same time on Saturdays. Over 50% of all arrests for drink-related crimes and Public Order offences occurs around these times. Further peaks in arrests occur immediately after the closing of night clubs which, again, discharge large numbers of people in a very short period of time.

The peak density immediately following fixed closing times has 5 direct effects on the patterns of activity in town centres:

1 There is a greatly increased probability of conflict between individuals and groups of individuals.

2 There are increased opportunities for acts of self-presentation, ‘showing off’ to peers etc because of the presence of a large, and often encouraging, audience.

3 The task of the police at these times is difficult due to the possibility of minor confrontations with individuals or small groups to develop into more serious disturbances involving hundreds of people.

4 Transportation facilities at these times are often stretched to their limits. Taxi drivers have expressed their reluctance to take fares just after closing times.

5 Fast-food outlets and other refreshments are often overwhelmed at these times. This creates frustration among waiting customers. Some outlets of the major chains – eg MacDonalds, Wimpy etc – now close at 10.30pm because of previous problems at pub closing time.

Fixed closing times are also responsible, at least in part, for particular aspects of drinking styles in British pubs. The amount of drinking increases just prior to leaving, prompted by calls of ‘last orders’. The final drinks are hastily consumed, creating a temporary peak of intoxification.

In other countries we have visited, where licensing hours are generally less restricted, there is a steady decline in the rate of drinking prior to leaving. Customers tend to leave in small groups throughout the evening, causing few problems in the process. We have referred to the recent changes in licensing hours in Holland in Section 21. The success of what they term ‘free’ closing is not in doubt – it has led to a marked reduction in drink-related crimes and public order offences throughout the country. The experience of ‘staggered’ closing in Scotland has also, in the main, had favourable results.

In England and Wales we have seen that modest extensions in licensing hours (from 10.30pm to 11.00pm in some areas, and throughout the afternoon) has not created any significant difficulty for the police or local authorities. Nor has it, as many predicted, increased gross consumption levels. The extended trading hours in Holland have similarly not led to increased drinking

On the basis of this evidence we propose that amendments should be made to the relevant Licensing Acts to permit experimental trials of either extended or deregulated licensing hours in certain local areas. Participation by licensees would be voluntary. Permission to carry out such experimental trials would be granted to local authorities on a number of conditions:

1 Licenses would only be granted to premises which meet certain requirements of existing Public Entertainment Licenses and Special Hours Certificates - eg safety regulations, fire limits etc.

2 There would be regard for the effect of later trading on residents in the immediate vicinity of licensed premises. It would be unlikely that deregulation would be given to pubs and night clubs located in residential areas.

3 The operators of the licensed premises would be required to demonstrate that management, staff and those engaged in a security role had received adequate training in the prevention and control of aggression and disorder.

4 Full cooperation of the police in the areas would be required. They would also be involved in monitoring the effects of the changes over a period of 18 months.

5 Increased vigilance would be required to prevent underage drinking in premises with extended or deregulated hours. A proof of age scheme would be mandatory.

The monitoring of the effects of the changes would be conducted by the relevant police forces in conjunction with independent evaluation commissioned by, for example, the Home Office. Funding for such evaluations may already be available in some cases through the ‘Safer Cities’ groups.

The specific criteria to be considered in such evaluations would be:

1 Changes in reports of, and arrests for, drink-related crimes and public order offences. It would be desirable to obtain such data for a period of six months prior to the introduction of the experimental periods. (Those areas where such data are already collated would be able to proceed immediately.) Qualitative assessments by the police would also be obtained.

2 Observations regarding the density of people in the town centres at various times throughout the night.

3 Reports of late-night noise and disturbances, vandalism etc from residents in the area.

4 Reports from restaurateurs, fast-food operators and other vendors in the areas.

5 Reports from transport operators, taxi drivers etc.

6 Reports from tenants, managers and owners of licensed premises regarding:

a Changes in customer behaviour within the premises, with particular regard to problems previously associated with closing times.

Changes in drinking styles, rates of consumption etc.

c Observations regarding the times and rates at which customers leave the premises.

d Observations regarding the mood of customers leaving the premises.

Our expectations would be that:

1 The peak densities which are presently witnessed in urban centres would be replaced by a more gradual, and orderly, pattern of ‘drifting’ home.

2 There would be significant reductions in reports of drink-related offences and in arrests for such offences.

3 Drunkenness would be reduced due to less ‘hurried’ patterns of consumption.

4 Availability of refreshment and transportation facilities would be increased due to the more evenly spread demand.

5 Reports of nuisance and noise would decrease in direct proportion to the lower densities at a given time.

We do not underestimate the difficulties which will be involved in gaining the necessary support in Parliament for a debate on changes to the licensing laws. It is the case, however, that support for the proposed experimental changes has been expressed by a number of bodies, including police forces and local authorities. We do not envisage that there will be a shortage of towns and cities willing to be engaged in such schemes.

We are also of the opinion that while deregulation of licensing hours will lead to immediate reductions in drink-related disorder, the long-term effects will also be highly beneficial. As we have commented in a number of places in this report, drink-related disorder is strongly related to a traditional, macho culture of drinking behaviour in this country. Elsewhere in Europe (see Sections 17 – 21), excessive consumption and drunkenness are viewed not as manly but as rather childish. The attitudinal differences stem from more general approaches to prohibition and restriction. We see the deregulation of licensing hours in suitable locations as being a significant step towards eroding both this macho style and the problems which arise from relatively high levels of consumption in relatively short periods of time.

Consistency in application of existing licensing laws

There is, currently, wide regional variation in the application of licensing laws by Licensing Justices. This is particularly evident in the approaches taken by benches to licensed premises where incidents of disorder and violence have been known to occur, or where patterns of disorder are common after closing time on such premises. Further variation exists in the approaches taken by local authorities in their granting, or not, of Public Entertainment Licenses. While it is appropriate that local authorities and magistrates should have some flexibility of powers, allowing them to consider potential problems specific to a given area, it seems sensible to establish national guidelines and criteria to be applied by both Licensing Justices and relevant local authority committees.

We therefore recommend:

Consideration should be given, by the Home Office and other relevant government agencies, to establishing clearer guidelines for magistrates and local authorities in the exercise of their powers.

Specific guidance should be given on the requirements and preconditions to be attached to licenses and certificates of premises where the potential for disorder or violence exists or where public disorder outside of the premises can be shown to be related to the manner in those premises have been operated.

Licensing justices and local authorities should be encouraged to be selective in the application of such restrictions, rather than, for example, opposing all Special Hours Certificates without regard to individual operating standards.


It is very evident that the strategies employed by the police in dealing with young people leaving licensed premises have a direct impact on levels of violence and disorder. A number of the large-scale incidents we have investigated have involved direct confrontations between groups of young men and the police. The so-called ‘Banbury Riot’ is a good example of such an incident (see Section 9). In a less dramatic way, minor conflicts between the police and small groups of people leaving pubs and night clubs are regular occurrences. The way such incidents are handled and the ways in which police seek to prevent problems are critical to maintaining public order.

There has been a tendency among some local forces to adopt an essentially ‘reactive’ approach to policing town centres at night. Typically, very few officers are deployed on beats. Instead, their presence is made evident by ‘riot’ vans, containing up to ten officers, parked in prominent positions. Other support units are often on call when required. This strategy, it is claimed, has a deterrent effect and ensures the immediate availability of officers in cases of emergency.

While the approach may have some strategic merits, it also has distinct disadvantages. It does not facilitate, for example, ‘proactive’ policing  which enable excesses of ‘high spirits’ or minor disturbances to be quelled through early and tactful intervention by officers. It also mitigates against routine visits to licensed premises during the evening which allow officers to monitor the mood and behaviour of customers. Changes in policing strategies adopted by the Oxford police in 1988 and 1989, which placed greater emphasis on the preventative role of beat officers, are thought to account, at least in part, for the major reduction in arrests for public disorder offences which was subsequently experienced. (See Sections 10 and 11)

Proactive policing, however, requires a number of essential skills which might, due to the absence of specialist training, be lacking in some officers. Some senior officers, for example, have voiced reservations about the ability of their constables to undertake such a role. In addition, there are strong anti-police attitudes evident in some areas which might lead to unnecessary confrontations arising from even the most skilled proactive approaches.

Accepting these difficulties we nevertheless recommend:

Increased training of police officers in conflict prevention and resolution.

Increased deployment of trained officers in a proactive role in town centres on Friday and Saturday evenings.

Regular, informal visits by police to licensed premises during evening opening hours.

Pub licensees

A number of the major pub retail companies have introduced specialist training for their managers in dealing with potentially violent incidents on their premises. Even so, many managers and tenants of town centre pubs have received little or no training in this area. While many have good ‘intuitive’ skills which enable them to prevent and control disorderly or violent behaviour, some manifestly lack such abilities. (For a more detailed analysis of the nature of pub violence see ‘Conflict and Violence in Pubs’, MCM research 1990)

We have stressed earlier (See Section 3) that there is a direct relationship between what happens inside licensed premises and what occurs subsequently, particularly after closing time. The level of late-night disorder could, therefore, be reduced significantly if steps were taken to prevent the antecedents of such disorder developing earlier in the evening.

It seems reasonable that any company which operates licensed premises with the potential for disorder should ensure that its managers and staff are appropriately selected and adequately trained to deal with such problems. Particular attention should be paid in such training to routines for closing a pub and ensuring that customers leave in an orderly manner.

We recommend:

Licensing justices should consider the experience, qualification and training of licensees when granting licenses for premises where there is a known risk of disorder and violence.

National standards of selection and training for licensees and staff in conflict prevention and management should be established by, for example, the Brewers’ Society, British Institute of Innkeepers and The Portman Group.

Liaison between police and licensees

There is, currently, wide variation in the degree to which cooperative links are established between local police forces and operators of licensed premises. In some areas there is open hostility between the police and licensees. On the other hand, there are many examples around the country of good levels of liaison and cooperation which facilitate the prevention and control of drink-related disorder. Areas where Pubwatch schemes operate successfully, for example, tend to be those where positive attitudes and mutual support have been engendered among both police and publicans. We recommend that:

Local police forces, pub retail companies and trade bodies such as the LVA should consider specific ways in which communication and liaison between licensees and the police could be developed and improved.

New licensees should, as a matter of routine, be invited to meet with local police officers to discuss potential operating difficulties and lines of support.

Retail companies should brief line managers to encourage licensees to establish clear lines of communication with the police and welcome visits by them to their premises during opening hours.

Night clubs and discotheques

While the majority of public disorder offences are committed soon after pub closing time, there is a second peak of problems later in the night as those premises with extended hours close their doors. The points made above concerning the selection and training of managers also apply, therefore, to club operators. In addition there is a major need to establish clear guidelines for the role and activity of door and security staff in these premises. While there are a number of clubs which are skilfully managed and controlled, there are those in which the traditional ‘bouncer’ culture is still very evident.

We recommend:

National standards of selection and training for door and security staff should be established.

Appropriate training should be a precondition for employing a person in the specific role of door supervisor.

A register of all persons employed as door supervisors or in a security role should be maintained by operators and made available for inspection by the police and public.

All door supervisors should wear approved identity cards while performing their duties.

Consideration should be given to a national licensing scheme for such staff.


Lack of late-night transportation in many areas is clearly linked to problems of disorder. Competition for buses or taxis often leads to conflict and frustration. Distinct difficulties also exist for transport operators whose staff are not adequately trained to deal with the problems which might arise at such times. We recommend:

Local authorities and private transport operators should be encouraged to provide additional buses on appropriate routes to ensure an orderly ‘clearing’ of the streets on Friday and Saturday nights.

Operators of licensed premises which eject large numbers of customers at closing time should be invited to participate in discussions regarding special transport facilitates which they may be able to provide. Examples of schemes operating in Holland might serve as appropriate models in this context.

Staff operating such transport should be adequately trained in dealing with problems of conflict, disorder and violence

A ‘late-night’ relaxation of the operating restrictions imposed on private minicab companies might be considered in some areas.

Fast-food and refreshment facilities

A number of fast-food chains have ceased to trade after 10:30 in some areas in order to avoid potential problems when pubs close. Those that do trade after this time often provide poor quality food and are sometimes ineffectively managed. In some cases, people who have left pubs are encouraged to remain in the streets because of the presence of such outlets. On the other hand, the availability of food is clearly required on Friday and Saturday nights. We recommend:

Local authorities should give greater consideration, in applying their planning powers, to standards of merchandise and service offered by fast food outlets.

Pub retail companies and night-club operators should be encouraged to provide food on their premises. Where extended hours licenses require that food (of acceptable quality and at reasonable prices) should be provided, more rigorous enforcement of such requirements should be applied.

Operators of late-night refreshment outlets should be required to train their staff to an acceptable standard in the prevention and control of disorderly behaviour.

Role of the media

We have on file many examples of press reports which present misleading and, in some cases, wholly inaccurate accounts of alleged ‘lager louts’, ‘riots’ and disorderly events. Such reports, in both national and local newspapers, have contributed directly to false impressions regarding the scale of the problems and have clearly increased fears of crime in town and city centres. While sensationalism of this nature is by new means novel - there are many precedents in the reporting of ‘football hooliganism’ and other foci of ‘moral panic’ – it can still contribute to an unwelcome amplification of what, in many cases, are relatively minor problems. Such reporting also reinforces the undesirable tough, macho images which are associated with drinking in the minds of many people.

While we hold no brief for direct controls on the media we recommend:

Newspaper editors should be mindful of the distinction between reporting of disorderly events and editorial comment on those events. The latter should not unduly influence the content and accuracy of the former.

Marketing and advertising

There has been a distinct shift of emphasis in recent years in the promotion of lagers and similar products. The use of macho imagery is much less evident, particularly in television advertising. Despite this, there are a number of adverts which, in a more subtle way, ‘glamorise’ high strength products. To some extent this may be offset by increased marketing of NAB/LAB products, but our interviews with school students show that the more ‘traditional’ messages, which equate the ability to ‘hold’ large amounts of alcohol, remain influential. We recommend:

Further attention should be paid by manufacturers and distributors (of high alcohol lagers in particular) to the potentially undesirable associations which may be made between their products and aggressive behaviour and lifestyles.

Best practices

There are a number of local schemes and initiatives, involving multi-agency approaches to the prevention of drink-related disorder, which provide models for best practice on a more national level. Some of these involve innovative policing and licensing approaches while others encourage a greater degree of participation from licensees, statutory and voluntary agencies, operating companies and members of the public. We perceive a need to exploit these examples more fully in order to develop national guidelines to best practice for adoption by all those groups with a direct interest in the area. We recommend:

Best practice guidelines should be synthesised from existing, local successful schemes and made available to, among others, operating companies, police forces, Licensing Justices, local authority planning departments, probation and social services departments, schools, Chambers of Commerce etc.

Such guidelines would aim to establish a greater consistency of approach while still maintaining a concern for particular parochial issues.