LONDON -- In a land where subways shut after midnight and all-night shopping is rare, a new late-night public service could soon be on tap: the 24-hour pub.
Round-the-clock sales of alcohol in pubs and shops in England and Wales were among proposals unveiled yesterday by a British government determined to rewrite licensing laws, many of which have been on the books since World War I.
Yesterday, the government presented a "white paper" and solicited responses.
Aiming to make pubs more enjoyable -- and safer -- the British appear eager to adopt a drinking atmosphere favored by their continental neighbors. If the proposals become law, the traditional 11 p.m. "last orders" call would be wiped away, with closings spread between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. Some pubs, primarily in bustling cities, would be able to keep their doors open 24 hours. An industry group leader estimated that only about 50 pubs would keep their doors open all hours.
The goal is to do away with the so-called closing-time flash point, when thousands of drinkers leave the pubs. "Fixed closing times encourage binge drinking around last orders," Home Secretary Jack Straw told the House of Commons. "The result is lots of people hitting the streets -- and sometimes each other -- at the same time."
Regulations that make it seem as if dogs enjoy a warmer welcome in pubs than children would also be revised. Those ages 16 and 17, eating a meal with adults, would be able to drink at the pub owner's discretion. The present legal drinking age is 18.
The measures seek to get tough on rowdy pubs, and would enable police to close them immediately. "Habitual drunkards" could be banned from premises for 10 years, up from three, while those convicted of a violent offense in pubs could be banned for life.
Why all the fuss about pubs?
They're a British tradition and big business.
In his foreword to the licensing proposals, Straw stated: "The pub is a crucial focus for community life in cities, towns and villages across the nation." He noted that $40 billion a year is spent on alcohol in Britain and nearly 1 million people work in the pub industry, which is identified as "one of the biggest areas of employment growth."
"For tourists coming to this country, the No. 1 destination is not Buckingham Palace, it's a pub," said Mary Curnock Cook, director of the British Institute of Innkeeping, a trade group.
She said tourists are stunned to find that pubs close so early.
"We are living in a country governed by laws going back to World War I to keep munitions workers from drinking," she said. "It simply doesn't fit with a modern lifestyle."
At the Red Lion, a pub so close to Parliament that voting bells ring in the bar, landlord Raoul de Vaux said he was thrilled with the proposals but cautioned that it would be difficult for pubs to meet the higher overhead costs associated with extended hours.
"Wages will have to go up, and so will the price of beer," said de Vaux, who noted that he was unlikely to extend his hours. "If I can't make my money between 11 a.m. and 11 p.m., I shouldn't be in the business. By the time you work your 12 hours, you want to put your head down and go to sleep."
A prominent campaigner against alcohol abuse cautioned that the proposals would be judged successful only if violent incidents around pubs decline.
Meanwhile, drinkers seemed to enthusiastically support the proposal to extend opening hours.
"By the time you go home after work, wash up and go back out, you only have three hours to ram the beer in," said Peter Moffet, a bricklayer. "Longer hours will give us more time to drink -- and pick up women."
Jean Scougal and Andrea Russell, two grandmothers, agreed that the longer hours would cut down on binge drinking. But they were unsure about making pubs more accessible to children.
"I don't know if we want children in pubs," Scougal said.
"There's smoking and bad language," Russell said. "We should shelter children from that."