Pub industry leaders have launched a strong defence of the sector after critics blamed the extension of licensing hours for a rise in alcohol-related crime.
Figures released by the Government last week revealed that about 1,087,000 people were attacked by drunken criminals between December 2005 (one month after liberalisation) and November 2006, a slight rise over the 1,023,000 from the year before.
While alcohol-related crime levels before midnight fell by 1% to just under 320,000 offences, they were up by 2% for the three hours after midnight, to 243,000 offences, and up by 22% between 3am and 6am, to just under 58,000 offences.
David Davis, the shadow home secretary, accused the Government of "recklessly unleashing the Licensing Act] on our towns and communities".
But the pub trade insisted that the figures reflected a general decline in alcohol-related violence as the traditional post-closing time flashpoint was dissipated.
Paul Smith, executive director of the Bar, Entertainment and Dance Association, said that the lower level of crime before midnight indicated that operators were on the right track.
"The main reason for the reduction has been Best Bar None - the national scheme for raising standards in licensed retail," he said. "Staff are better trained in not serving alcohol to drunk customers or minors."
Nick Bish, chief executive of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, said that pubs could not be blamed for people getting drunk. "The availability of drink is 24-hour and universal," he said. "Very few pubs extended their hours."
He added that last year's long, hot summer and the football World Cup had meant that there was always likely to be a rise in alcohol-related crime.
Mark Hastings, of the British Beer & Pub Association, pointed to the net falls in violent offences. In the year from December 2003 to November 2004, he said, there were 1.29 million alcohol-related offences.
"The lurid predictions of vast increases in violence and disorder that preceded the change in our licensing laws have proved to be inaccurate," he said. "In the first year of the new Act, the amount we drank as a nation also fell by 3% - the largest fall for 15 years. What we are seeing are positive signs of progress that can be built on."
By Christopher Walton
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