The problem of rising violence is linked to the easier access to alcohol which youth now enjoys.
This was the view expressed by the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Condon, in a recent interview in The Independent. He pointed out that young people have more money and a greater choice of places to drink. Sir Paul also blamed today's drug and rave culture, a view which is also discussed in the newly published report by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Here the comment is made that "deeply felt anxieties about the effects of popular entertainments on the morals of young people have been expressed in Britain (sic) since early Victorian times." Such attitudes, the report suggests, should be seen in their historical context.
The Commissioner said, "Where I think there has been a real increase is violence between young people linked to drink...It is about the relative affluence of young people and their ability to drink and club." The Home Office's chief criminologist concurs with him in blaming the nationwide rise in assaults, at least in part, on the greater number of people who can afford to drink excessively. This is in accord with a Home Office study published in 1990 which showed that crimes ofviolence tend to increase with prosperity, specifically with the enhanced ability of young men to buy beer and visit pubs and clubs. Indeed, the study found that growth in beer consumption was the single most important factor in explaining growth in violence against the person.
Police statistics show an annual growth in crimes of violence every year for the last decade. In Manchester, for example, there was a huge 50 per cent increase in such offences during the last year, and in 1997 they constituted 8 per cent of all crime. In London, against a background of an overall drop in crime, there was a 6 per cent upsurge in violent offences.
Whilst, on the one hand, the Home Office is expressing concern at this trend, it is also reviewing licensing laws with the possibility of introducing new laws to allow all-night drinking by the turn of the century. A variety of interested parties, including representatives of the police, brewers, local authorities, and magistrates has claimed that support is growing for this measure.
One tactic which Sir Paul's own force, the Metropolitan Police, is considering is "naming and shaming" pubs and clubs which have a reputation for violence. One police station in central London is planning to release the names to the press and report pubs with a high incidence of violence to the brewers, presumably on the assumption that they would wish to avoid adverse publicity and consequent loss of custom. Sir Paul believes that such schemes will become common as soon as the new Criminal Justice Act comes into force. This will oblige all police forces and local authorities to take crime reduction into consideration in their strategic decisions.
If the Commissioner and the chief criminologist's views of the situation are correct, then they may come into some degree of conflict with Home Office minister, George Howarth, who is leading the move to modernise licensing laws, or help "blow away the cobwebs in British life" as he puts it. Echoing his Tory predecessors, Mr Howarth said that the current licensing laws "no longer reflect modern leisure activities or the needs of business." He was speaking at a lunch given by the British Institute of Innkeeping whose members welcomed the idea of liberalising the law as it stands at the moment.
"Our first task is to examine the current system and come up with practical proposals for change which will command wide support from both the public and the industry," said Mr Howarth. "Paramount in drawing up proposals will be balancing the rights of business and consumers with residents' rights to be free from disorder and violence, or other kinds of disturbance. This will be a major task and will take time if it is done properly."
Workers in public health question what consumer rights could be better served by the opportunity to drink round the clock. The advantages to the industry are more apparent.
A statement issued by the Home Office said that all licensing issues would be looked at "including what type of licences there should be, who should licence(sic), licence hours and conditions, the process of issuing them and their enforcement." At the present time magistrates grant licences in England and Wales, whereas in Scotland this is done by local councils. In the light of the continued increase in alcohol-related violence, the likely consequences of changes to any part of the licensing laws will also need to be a major consideration.