Alcohol Delivery Laws In The UK – Assessing The Impact


It has been nearly ten years since the introduction of major reforms in UK drinking laws and enough time has passed to begin assessing the effect of the changes. The year 2005 saw the introduction of the Licensing Act (2003), which liberalized opening hours significantly, potentially allowing late-night drinking in many more venues than had been possible before.

Fears and expectations of the new law

Prior to the introduction of the Act by the Labour government it was often quite difficult for licensed premises to serve alcohol past eleven o’clock at night and licence holders either had to have a late-night licence or apply for a temporary extension if they planned serving alcohol past the eleven o’clock cut-off time. The 2003 Act relaxed permitted hours substantially with the result that licensees could potentially serve alcohol around the clock or even to never close at all.

At the time of its introduction the Act was extremely popular with the public. Surveys by the British Market Research Bureau (BMRB) showed that the vast majority of the public were aware of the changes (90 percent) and approximately two thirds of adults aged over 18 (64 percent) thought pubs and bars should be able to open from midnight onwards. Not all were in favour however. Both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats opposed the relaxing of the law and tried unsuccessfully in parliament to prevent the introduction of the law. The then Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis said that it would make the issue of binge-drinking “much, much worse”.

Opponents of changes in the law argued that longer drinking hours would mean an upsurge in alcohol-related public and private disorder. Members of the judiciary criticised the plans with Judge Charles Harris QC saying that a significant proportion of Britons became “pugnacious and bellicose” under the effects of alcohol. However the Labour government, which changed the law, held the view that removing the 23:00 cut-off time would remove the flurry of alcohol consumption that accompanied last orders amid the constraints imposed by drinking up time. This had led to the common sight of sizeable numbers of pub customers spilling out onto the streets at the same time with episodes of violence and disorder common in the surrounding areas and on public transport.

Impact of the changes

When the act was implemented in November 2005 it was thought that as many as two thirds of licensed premises would apply for extended hours, equating to around 190,000 pubs, clubs, hotels and other premises. This led to fears that the country would be awash with alcohol soaked adults and teenagers falling out of bars. However, far fewer applications were actually submitted. According to the most recent Home Office figures, 7,672 premises in England and Wales have 24-hour licenses out of a total number of 33,865, (22.9 percent). Of these a surprisingly small number are bars, pubs and nightclubs; just 918 (12 percent). The largest proportion of 24-hour licenses are held by hotels (45 percent), with 3,295 holding 24-hour licenses. Further analysis of the figures shows that only 481 of these hotels offer late-night drinking to non-guests – the majority that serve in the early hours do so only to guests. After hotels, supermarkets and stores make up the biggest proportion of round-the-clock licenses (28 percent), with 2,082 premises holding these licenses. The change in the licensing laws has also seen the growth of non-traditional providers, such as alcohol delivery companies that take late-night orders online and deliver to customers’ doors.

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It appears that many venues applied for extensions simply to allow the opportunity to serve late without necessarily intending to utilise this on a regular basis. In research conducted in the City of Manchester, one of the UK’s largest urban centres, average trading times following the introduction of the new law increased by just 30 to 45 minutes on weekdays and by 1 hour and 20 minutes at weekends.

One of the aims of the change in drinking laws was to curb binge drinking. In this regard the law has been ineffective with little improvement and in some areas there has been a deterioration in the situation. Indeed, concerns about the issue have led to a Parliamentary investigation into the issue.

Crime prevention minister, Government estimates of the cost of alcohol-related crime put it at around £12billion and some senior police officers have criticised the extended drinking hours, describing it as a failed ‘experiment’ that has caused ‘significant problems’ between 3am and 6am. Humphreys, Eisner and Wiebe have conducted extensive research into the effects of the Licensing Act (2003) and found that it has actually made no difference to the overall level of violence. They examined police records for violence, robbery and total crime for the City of Manchester (population 464,200) between February 2004 and December 2007, assessing the period immediately before and after the introduction of the law. The authors found that, while the overall level of violence did not change, there was evidence that alcohol-related incidents were pushed back to the 3am – 6am period.

Figures from the Home Office have shown a rise in problem areas since the introduction of the act. In March 2007, just over a year after the change, there were 71 problem zones in the UK. By the end of 2013 these had increased to 175. The most common issues were fighting, littering, drug dealing, pick-pocketing and other types of street robberies. In London the effect of alcohol-related crime on public transport was offset by the introduction of a ban on alcohol on Transport for London (TfL) services from June 2008. This covered underground trains, buses, light railway services and trams across the capital and was supported by around 87 percent of service users. It is estimated that the ban cut assaults on Tube staff by 15 percent.

Councils, who took over responsibility for licensing with the changes in the law, were given the power to refuse licenses in areas affected by persistently high rates of alcohol-related crime and disorder. The Cumulative Impact Policies (CIP) target license holders by empowering councils to restrict the number of licensed premises in particular areas. Additionally, councils have also had the option for the last year to charge bars and clubs operating extended hours an Early Morning Restriction Order (EMRO) or Late Night Levy of up to £4,440 per year. To date however, no councils have chosen to apply this measure.

In recent years much of the government’s strategy in relation to alcohol has been focused on introducing minimum pricing per unit of alcohol, rather than on reversing the licensing laws, so it appears likely the changes are here to stay.


This document was prepared on behalf of a one-stop shop for venders, buyers, and individuals seeking information about responsible 24 hour drinking the UK. Download a PDF version of the report here.