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Infantilising drinkers

A government consultation document issued by Theresa May, the Home Secretary on Licensing law reform entitled “Rebalancing the Licensing Act” starts out well enough:

“The Government is committed to challenging the assumption that the only way to change people’s behavior is through adding to rules and regulations. In future, solutions to address alcohol-related problems will be found locally, and by encouraging individuals to take responsibility for their own actions”.

The Licensing Act 2003 was the last time government looked at licensing law. It overturned regulation that had been in place since World War One that had introduced fixed opening hours designed to stop munitions workers getting drunk and the war effort slipping as a consequence. Widely heralded as the start of 24 hour drinking on one hand, and the birth of European cafe culture in Britain on the other, it turned out to be neither.

Prior to 2005 when the 2003 Act was applied, the police and licensing magistrates were solely responsible for granting liquor licences in the UK. As a prospective licensee you were interviewed by the police, so they could gauge the cut of your gib, and you then went to court to be interrogated on your knowledge of the law by magistrates. It was an uncomfortable experience but the assumption was that unless you ‘cocked it up’ you would be granted a license to sell alcohol. The 2003 Act took the police and magistrates out of the picture and new Licensing Authorities were set up by every council.

The consultation document now proposes that rather than power to grant licenses be in one place a whole host of interested authorities should have their say before councils give out a licence. Licensees will have to satisfy the Police, Fire Service, Health & Safety officials, the Planning department, Environmental Health, Child Protection, Trading Standards, The Ambulance Service, Accident and Emergency departments, the local Primary Care Trust and other “interested parties”, who do not have to live in the vicinity of the licensed premises to express an opinion. The presumption that a license will be granted if the normal criteria are met is also eroded.

Pubs are to be scrutinised by any community busy-body and supermarkets are to have minimum pricing foisted upon them, although it is not clear yet how this will work. The license application process will ask applicants to demonstrate how they will mitigate any potential negative impact that they will have on the local community. The presumptions being that if alcohol is involved there will be a negative impact.

If these proposals are implemented it will mean two things. More pub closures, and the further erosion of our ability to decide for ourselves when we’ve had enough.

Most pubs are run by a husband and wife who make a living by working long hours that most of us would baulk at. Many of them will not be thrilled at the prospect of producing ‘potential impact reports’ that satisfy the council. They will also probably not be au fait with justifying their business to every interested party. These proposals will raise costs further as solicitors and representatives will have to be employed to work on their behalf. Costs they can ill-afford.

If applied this is likely to be the swan-song for the independent pub. Soul-less super-pubs, Harvesters, Wetherspoons and All-bar-One outlets are likely to be the only pubs that can afford the extra costs. Further they will take away any individuality or spontaneity out of pub management and customer enjoyment. Maybe this is the point. Sometimes it seems successive governments want to regulate an industry out of existence in the interests of morality, leaving only the bland, most conformist outlets.

The government appears to want to start a new temperance movement. You would think that the country is over-run with unregulated gin palaces a la 1830. Instead the licensed trade is so regulated you are not even allowed to sing along with your favourite song in a pub unless the correct licence is in place. These proposals may take the form of regulating places that sell alcohol but they actually regulate us all as individuals. Making licenses difficult to get is the governments way of saying that we (the customers) are all social misfits who binge drink, get into fights, take the police away from more important work, and use the NHS unethically.

Just like the original temperance movement this government views the public as an immoral mob that needs to be controlled. For all the talk of individual responsibility the government does not trust us to exercise control ourselves. It does it for us through regulation, making illegal any drinking that various agencies decide for us is not responsible. What could the Ambulance Service for instance possibly add to a Licensing Authority meeting. Yes we’ve been called out to that pub it’s clearly full of irresponsible drinkers, close it down.

Any call for regulating the sale of alcohol expresses an underlying view that we need protecting from ourselves. We are children who don’t know when to stop. Maybe because these politicians only enter a normal pub during an election campaign do they have such a low opinion of the rest of us. Closeted in House of Commons bars where their own anti-social behaviour is considered ‘letting-off-steam’ they envisage us in Dickensian dives getting up to all manner of debauchery.

The contempt for the public is palpable. If the government wants us to learn how to drink responsibly then why not lower the age at which you can buy alcohol? Say 16 as an example. Teenagers buy alcohol anyway so it would not lead to the collapse of society. What it would do is teach young drinkers how to drink in an adult environment. They would be initiated into pubs, and drinking, and into the type of behaviour that is acceptable and what isn’t. They would learn their limits and will also push them leading to a few mornings of regret. How are you ever supposed to learn responsible drinking if you’re not allowed to get drunk?

Instead the government treats us all like teenagers. Tony Blair’s admission to having an alcohol problem because he had a whisky before dinner and a couple of glasses of wine afterwards is telling. If that’s having an alcohol problem then what is normal drinking?

Far from encouraging individuals to take personal responsibility for their actions this government is wielding the baton of state interference, it was handed from New Labour, with gusto. If we lose yet more pubs because of unnecessary legislation dreamt up by puritan killjoys our society will be worse for it. More importantly if these proposals are adopted we will all be infantilised further.


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