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Controlling alcohol-related nuisance and disorder

Combating alcohol-related crime, disorder and nuisance was a major theme in the last Labour government’s national alcohol strategy and remains a priority for the current UK government, which in the contest of planned Licensing Act amendments, declared itself “committed to ensuring that alcohol is no longer the driver of crime and disorder that it has been over the last decade”. The theme carried through to the 2012 alcohol strategy, in which the prime minister’s message was “simple”: “We can’t go on like this. We have to tackle the scourge of violence caused by binge drinking.” It referred to licensing law as one way forward, but also stressed that “a real effort to get to grips with the root cause of the problem ... means coming down hard on cheap alcohol.” A minimum price per unit of alcohol sold in England was to be the solution, one already being pursued in Scotland.

There remains reason for concern, though statistics suggest things have been getting better in recent years. The British Crime survey covering England and Wales records that since peaking at 26% in 2008/09, the proportion of adults who perceive a problem in their local area with people being drunk or rowdy fell to 18% in 2013/14 – still making it one of the most common concerns over anti-social behaviour. Just under 10% of people had actually witnessed such behaviour, also slightly down from just over 10% since first being recorded in 2011/12. However, perceptions of other forms of anti-social behaviour such as vandalism have also become less common in recent years. While the number of alcohol-related (as perceived by the victim) violent crimes has since the early 2000s been falling in the same countries to about 704,000 in 2013/14, still this category accounted for 53% of violent incidents, a proportion which had remained relatively steady over the past ten years, suggesting the downturn in numbers reflected the overall downturn in experienced violence rather than an alcohol-specific trend.

Scotland’s Crime and Justice Survey found that 59% of violent crimes in 2012/13 were thought by the victim to have been committed under the influence of alcohol, down from 63% in 2010/11. In Scotland as in England and Wales, how much of these improvements is due to alcohol-specific public policy initiatives is unclear.

Is pricing alcohol out of crime the answer?

After similar findings for Scotland and England, the latest simulation model for the UK predicted that in Wales a £0.50 unit price for alcohol would reduce the frequency of heavy drinking, and thereby result in 3,684 fewer offences per year.

If not decisively, minimum pricing or a similar price-rising policy had been supported by a review commissioned by the Home Office, which reported that most studies had found an association between higher alcohol taxation/pricing and decreased crime. At first the Home Office itself was unconvinced, arguing that the price-crime relationship “is not straightforward and linear and the evidence base is not able to support a causal relationship.” By the 2012 strategy the doubts had officially been laid to rest and a minimum price was the centrepiece strategy not just for the health-promoting objectives but also for reducing crime and disorder.

Unofficially however, the doubts remained, and by the following year the alcohol strategy’s commitment to a minimum per unit price for England had been abandoned. While not denying it would improve health and reduce crime, the government was not satisfied it would do so “without penalising all those who drink responsibly”. This was always going to be an issue caught precariously between the Conservative party’s ‘tough on crime’ image on the one hand, and on the other, an aversion to the ‘nanny state’ and central control of markets. However, the Scottish government is pressing ahead with implementing the minimum price law passed in June 2012, though this may yet be derailed by arguments that it contravenes European Union law.

Pricing policy and research is dealt with more fully in another hot topic.

Controlling licensed premises and their customers

While tax and unit pricing have been at the forefront of political debate, regulating availability and minimising harm through licensing are also major tactics. Reforms have mainly aimed to give greater powers to curtail disorder related to licensed premises, but moves are also being made which might end in health impact becoming a relevant issue in licensing decisions in the rest of the UK at it is in Scotland. For the great majority of drinkers, at least in England and Wales, little will change as a result of these initiatives, and nor will their drinking change unless they choose to make these changes in response to other influences.

The state of play as at early 2010 was summarised in this Findings analysis and more extensively in its background notes. This hot topic focuses on more recent developments.

Preventing ‘saturation’ licensing

Internationally, research has found that extending the hours during which licensed promises can sell alcohol is associated with more crime and disorder, and that as the concentration of (especially on-licence) alcohol outlets increases, so too does excessive alcohol consumption and related harms, including injuries and violence. However, UK evidence is equivocal or lacking. The Licensing Act 2003 which permitted sales 24 hours a day in England and Wales seemingly did not make things much worse, but as detailed in this Findings analysis, neither did it give local authorities in England and Wales the power to make things much better. Stronger and more immediate enforcement powers in the corresponding act in Scotland which came fully in to force in 2009 are felt to have helped prevent public nuisance and crime and disorder, but this has yet to be confirmed by an evaluation.

Outlet density is a key and explicit feature of the Scottish legislation. Unlike in the rest of the UK, in Scotland licensing boards must refuse an application for a new licence if this would result in too many of the ‘wrong kind’ of drinking venues in an area, regardless of whether objections have been received. Boards are also required to pro-actively identify overprovision (defined as actually or potentially risking licensing law’s health, crime and social objectives) and designate these localities as closed to new licences or licences for premises of a particular description. An evaluation of Scotland’s 2005 licensing act discovered that licensing boards found overprovision difficult to define and measure, and by 2012, only five boards were prepared to declare overprovision a concern. There are, however, signs that since the evaluation was completed, more Scottish licensing boards are getting to grips with and using the over-provision criteria to control availability of alcohol.

England’s equivalent provision is the (unlike in Scotland, optional) power of licensing authorities to formulate cumulative impact policies which identify certain areas where further licensed premises would be likely to have a negative cumulative impact due to a saturation of premises. In 2014 there were 2,018 such areas, but puzzlingly, in these areas 86% of license applications or applications for variations in licenses were still granted – slightly lower than the 91% in other areas, but not enough to convince an alcohol policy monitoring service that this provision is having the intended impact.

New provisions rarely used

Other initiatives in England and Wales include Early Morning Restriction Orders, which give local authorities power to restrict the sale of alcohol in certain areas between 12am and 6am to address problems associated with late-night drinking. Authorities can also introduce a levy on licensed premises opening after midnight to help contribute to the costs they impose on the police. Both had by 2014 rarely been implemented, partly due it is thought to fear of legal challenge from the drinks industry and the expectation that very little revenue would be raised.

Since 2012 licensing authorities in England have themselves been ‘responsible authorities’ under licensing law, meaning they can initiate action for example to oppose new licences or review an existing licence, even if no representations have been received from other bodies. Also extended were existing powers enabling police and/or trading standards officers to ban the sale of alcohol at premises that are persistently selling alcohol to under-18s. Maximum fines were doubled and maximum closure periods extended from two to 14 days. Also in 2012 there was further guidance on powers enabling the police to apply for a fast-track review of the licences of premises associated with serious crime and serious disorder.

A potentially far-reaching innovation made in Scotland was to include prevention of health harm among the objectives which must be considered while making licensing decisions. However, an evaluation of Scotland’s 2005 licensing act found that licensing boards saw this objective as especially problematic, and it was the one that boards and their officers across Scotland were struggling to address. Again, concern over legal challenges was holding back use of this new power, but there was also a more fundamental issue: public health is about the welfare of an entire population, yet licensing boards generally make decisions about individual alcohol outlets.

Introducing a health objective in to licensing is also being considered for England and Wales. What may prove a step towards it was an amendment to licensing law giving local health bodies in England and Wales the power to make representations to licensing authorities about new licence applications and to request reviews of existing licences. From 2012 this meant they could oblige the authority to consider issues such as the impact of new licensed premises on the local NHS (primarily A&E departments and ambulance services) and more generally the safety of the public within the night-time economy.

Though not a licensing provision, an allied power is to designate certain areas at certain times as places where police can stop people drinking in the street, intended to address nuisance and annoyance to other people in the area arising from public drinking. Local byelaws have been used to create similar zones. Limited evidence suggests that generally, and in the UK in particular, they often improve public perceptions of safety, but at the cost of further marginalising the drinkers concerned.

UK research lacking

Powers to curtail the availability of alcohol were among those commended in guidance from Britain’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), which prioritised national policy initiatives making alcohol less affordable, available in fewer outlets for less time, and promoted less visibly. In particular, this national authority wanted public health to be a licensing objective and for licensing law to allow authorities to take into account potential links between local crime and disorder and alcohol-related illnesses and deaths, and the number of alcohol outlets in an area and hours of sale.

Though the international research convinced NICE, the policy prominence of alcohol-related crime and disorder has yet to be matched by UK-based research. What there is (for example, from Cardiff) has found it difficult to securely attribute improvements to interventions. Interventions focused on licensed premises such as training bar staff and improving management can work but are best seen as ways of dealing with ‘hot spots’ rather than achieving population-wide change. The importance of the national legislative environment and of its enforcement is apparent in studies which have found that the ultimate and real possibility of enforcement action is needed to make the most of these initiatives and of wider programmes which add community mobilisation elements. Run the search to see these and other studies in the Effectivness Bank.

Last revised 02 March 2015. First uploaded 01 October 2010

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