The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #55211   Message #857846
Posted By: The Shambles
03-Jan-03 - 01:33 PM
Thread Name: PEL: Inner working of Minister's minds?
Subject: RE: PEL: Inner working of Minister's minds?
The licensing bill will increase the problem it is supposed to control.

Martin Kettle
Thursday January 2, 2003
The Guardian

When an individual goes to Alcoholics Anonymous, they are expected to introduce themselves as an alcoholic. That isn't easy, but it is the key breakthrough. So, as a nation, we should also tell it like it is. We are Britain, and we are an alcoholic nation.

We drink too much, too fast and too young, and the consequences are a national menace. It is a menace we happily inflict on others too. Every summer we export it to places like Ibiza and Rhodes. And, increasingly, British stag night drinking is making life a misery for cities such as Dublin and Prague.

By general consent the worst thing you can do to an individual alcoholic is to make it easier for him to get another drink. It is the same for an alcoholic nation. Yet incredibly that is exactly what the government is trying to do, in its 169-page licensing bill, which is being debated in the House of Lords before going to the Commons later this year.

This country's public alcoholism is now so widespread, so openly encouraged and promoted, that it may have become impossible to restrict. Certainly that seems to be the government's view, since the central proposal in its bill is to sweep away many remaining controls. The bill's subtitle innocently claims it is a piece of legislation "to make provision about the sale and supply of alcohol". But a more honest subtitle is that the licensing bill is designed to extend the culture of public drunkenness and all the miserable consequences that flow from it.

Individual drinkers can suffer serious health, crime, work and other personal consequences. These are bad enough. But it is the public realm that suffers most. Excessive noise, mess and disturbance means more work for police, more work for cleaners, and more injuries that need to be treated. All this needs to be paid for by taxpayers. Far from regenerating the night-time economy and culture of town and city centres, alcohol can also have an economically deterrent effect. Anyone who has tried to get a late taxi in a city centre will know that.

That is why this licensing bill is so extraordinary. Most of the public debate has focused on its potentially restrictive effects on live music. But with all due respect to Britain's musicians, it is the reckless approach to public drinking that will be by far the most noticeable consequence of this legislation.

The bill proposes that pubs, clubs and restaurants should be able to be open at any time of the day. The theory is the beguiling belief that 24-hour availability of alcohol will make our drinking habits more sensible. At present, the government argues, the 11pm closing time creates an artificial encouragement for excessive drinking, after which drinkers are expelled on to the streets to create concentrated nuisance and disorder. Under the new laws, lack of legal restraint will lay the conditions in which responsible drinking can at last thrive, ministers say.

To judge by the speech which Baroness Blackstone made in the Lords when introducing the bill in November, the government has succumbed to a fantasy. Too many Tuscan holidays or weekends in Paris may have weakened the baroness's grasp of British realities. She seems to envisage this country becoming a cafe society in which moderation rules and in which folk such as herself will pop into a subdued bar after a performance of La Traviata to discuss the novels of Jose Saramago. "It will make our country more attractive to tourists and our great cities better able to compete for international events," she concluded.

Sadly this will not happen. The idea that foreign tourists expect Birmingham to be like Barcelona is risible. Most tourists are from Europe or the United States. Has Baroness Blackstone ever tried to get a drink in a provincial French town after dark? Such places are normally dead by nine o'clock. Has she ever met any Americans? They have created a culture with even more restrictive drink laws than ours used to be.

What anyone with fewer illusions must know is that the end of licensing hours will simply mean that late nights in British cities will be the same as they are now, only more so. Longer hours will not mean more sensible drinking. Longer hours will just mean more drinking. And more noise. And more fighting. And more accidents.

Don't take my word for it. Take the word of those who have gone down this road already. All-day drinking has been a reality in Scotland since 1976. And what is the reality? A steady rise in alcohol-related illnesses. A growth in binge drinking, especially by women. A steady rise in knife crime in city streets. As Tim Luckhurst put it recently: "Licence-liberated Scotland has not become a shining example of moderation. Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday night resembles the Somme, except that the injuries are more likely to be self-inflicted."

Ireland's experience is just the same. There, pubs can now stay open until 2am and clubs until 4am. The result, wrote Kathryn Holmquist in the Irish Times, is that the violence in the centre of Dublin goes on all night. "Liberalised licensing laws have changed us from a people who got drunk on beer and stumbled home at midnight, to a nation of clubbers taking high-energy drinks with triple vodkas who don't know when to stop."

Don't think that what happened in Glasgow and Dublin won't happen in London and Cardiff too. All their problems are coming our way: alcohol-addicted youngsters, binge drinking, night-time street violence, overcrowded accident and emergency wards. They will come because the pubs and clubs will want the custom; the authorities will want the revenue from the licences; and, most of all, because through advertising the drinks trade has targeted young, high-testosterone drinkers, and accommodated them even when it is supposedly illegal for them to drink.

Supposedly Tony Blair's government is politically risk-averse. Here, though, is a policy which is certain - absolutely certain - to increase the problem it is supposed to control. Who, other than the drinks trade, stands to benefit from this awful irresponsibility? Absolutely no one. But unless peers and MPs can get a grip, it will all be done by a befuddled act of parliament fully worthy of an alcoholic nation.