Licensing Bill: the morning after

The 24-hour drinking debate has descended into the gutter.

Jamie Douglass

Topics Politics

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It has been entertaining to watch the progress of the Licensing Bill. Both the Tories and the House of Lords are against 24-hour drinking because it will, apparently, promote exactly the kind of binge drinking and yobbishness that the government says it will prevent.

Citing the ‘one million violent crimes a year’ of which ‘half…is due to binge drinking’, shadow culture secretary Theresa May has been digging her kitten heels in while the Lords have been fighting to delay the move by seven months (1). Meanwhile the executive are claiming that they ‘want to treat people like adults’ (2) and culture secretary Tessa Jowell has promised that ‘The quid pro quo that this Act creates is also matched by the introduction of draconian new powers for the police to mete out swift and heavy punishment to pubs and drinkers’ (3).

Part of the entertainment has come from the idea of a Labour government wanting to promote individual freedom while irate Tories argue for greater government legislation. An equal part is due to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) declaiming that it is steadfastly against a ‘curfew that punished the responsible majority for the sins of the irresponsible minority’ shortly after voting for control orders. And meanwhile the irritating political ping-pong has flown across the Commons floor, as Theresa and Tessa catfight over violence (There’ll be more! There’ll be less!), how much people will drink (More! Less!), and how much the whole thing will cost (More! Um!).

But the real clincher is that they are both using the same argument to shore up different points. The whole debate has staggered around the spectre of the ‘binge’. This is neither the time nor the place to rubbish the government figures on what constitutes a ‘binge’ (4) – although newspapers claiming that 25 per cent of adults are binging might say more about the definition of binging than adults – but it is telling that both sides want to scare us with images of marauding chavs who are falling over and vomiting while mugging little old ladies.

Whatever your views on the matter, the debate is ridiculous. First off, we already have clubs that serve until 2am, hotels can slosh out the sauce to guests for as long as they can be arsed to keep the bar open, and 24-hour drinking is an option to anyone with the wit to visit an off licence. If this is about drinking, as in the physical consumption of ethanol, then the notion that people will voluntarily pay three times the price for a beer in a standing-room-only cattle market is little short of risible. Especially if the proposals of North Wales police chief Clive Wolfendale are enacted and we get £7 pints (5).

Secondly, the scare tactics are becoming jaded because if you believe government figures, we already drink so much that come 24 November we won’t physically be able to down any more. What’s more, according to the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation: ‘most nights of the week our officers are overwhelmed by a sea of drunken, violent, vomiting yobs…that’s now.’ All of which begs the question, how can it get any worse? There are, after all, a finite number of yobs and a limit to how much you can drink before unconsciousness and death. If we’re already in Hell then there’s not much to threaten us with.

Understandably, people who live near the pubs that will get extended opening hours are nervous. The accrued noise may disturb their sleep, and there are fears that it may Affect House Prices. They also fear the drunken gangs who will leave the pubs at dawn, though why they will be appreciably worse than the drunken gangs who leave at 11 is yet to be detailed. Landlords of small pubs are worried that the big pubs will take their custom, but that’s competition for you.

If this were about repealing repressive laws that date from the First World War it would be justified, but it’s not because there are plenty of ways to get around them. It might be about money (how much of each pint goes in tax again?); or it may be about fulfilling a manifesto promise, or about a genuine desire to give us the freedom to make a choice (stop laughing at the back). It might even be a way to bash the hoi polloi again by making it their fault they’re drunk and fining them £80 (6). It will not turn Britain into continental Europe, and it won’t end alcohol-fuelled violence because the alcohol is – let’s face it – only the fuel.

There are reasons why people drink, which have nothing to do with pubs, and those reasons are not going to go away. But this law is really not that big. All it will mean is that you can get a pint in your local after 11. Well, actually, it won’t, because only 700 of Britain’s 190,000 premises that could apply for 24-hour licenses have done so – but it could (7). One day. But for now it will continue to inspire two people to throw insults across a crowded room, getting progressively more heated – with the mistakes of the past getting dredged up for all to hear – while the portly, ruddy-faced chap who runs the establishment tries to get them to calm down. Sound familiar?

Jamie Douglass is a freelance journalist based in London.

(1) Hansard, 24 October and 14 November

(2) Pub Plans Face Crunch MP’s Vote, BBC News 15 November 2005

(3) Hansard, 24 October

(4) Measure for Measure, by Jamie Douglass

(5) Police Chief Calls for £7 Pint, BBC News, 13 August 2005

(6) Drunks Face Fines of £80, Scotsman, 18 December 2004

(7) Longer pub opening gets go-ahead, 15 November 2005

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Topics Politics


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