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Alert opinion

Sarah Webb

The UK is signed up to the WHO European Charter on Alcohol which states: “All people have the right to a family, community and working life protected from accidents, violence and other negative consequences of alcohol consumption.” They omitted to say “so long as it doesn’t interfere with business.”

In March it was business as usual. The government finally published an Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy. The following week it published the Guidance to be given in regard to the operation of the new Licensing Act, the one that allows pubs to open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The Strategy, six years in the making, reads more like a Plan for Protecting Alcohol Sales. The Licensing Act is of course a plan for increasing them.

A draft interim version of the Strategy started out looking quite promising. However, it was just a bit too heavy on truth – such as the fact that price and availability are the prime levers that influence consumption, and that overall consumption has to be reduced if harm is to be reduced. The crucial evidence vanished from that first draft, and now the facts about alcohol are mixed in with so much spin that the liquor is hardly detectable – just like an alcopop.

So the message is – keep drinking! Booze sales must not drop because the Treasury needs the money and the influential alcohol industry must not be hindered. In any case, it’s good for you. Tony Blair predictably gave us the Portman Group’s line. This Group is the industry’s public relations mouthpiece, and it has been doing an excellent job. Alcohol is quite safe - unless it is misused of course.

The government spouts convenient Portman Group propaganda while ignoring any genuine evidence which might confirm the uncomfortable truth - that alcohol is a drug which needs careful control. A typical example of Portmanspeak was their assertion that lowering the drink-drive limit would lead to drinking drivers becoming more dangerous than they are already: “I must be well over the limit so I might as well have another…” George Orwell would have been proud.

The Portman Group is currently headed by Jean Coussins, an old chum of the Minister of Culture responsible for doubling drinking time from 12 to 24 hours a day. Tessa Jowell should stroll around towns like Bath at night (see Alert issue 2, 2002) to see what just three extra hours of alcohol availability can do.

Dealing with drunks or ‘binge drinkers’ is costly, messy, occasionally dangerous, and takes up valuable police time. If it is possible to stop them getting drunk in the first place then prevention has to be the more cost-effective approach. A simple measure such as confiscation is useful on the streets and will be a step in the right direction. Another simple measure that has worked for a century is closing pubs at night. But while alcohol remains very cheap, very available, and very big business, there is little hope of a significant reduction in the late night disorder and noise that blights city life, especially if the drinking carries on even further into the night as recommended by Ms Jowell.

However, there are signs that at least some in the government are fearful of what is now going to happen, and at last the newspapers are beginning to tell it how it is. The Daily Telegraph published details of a leaked report by the Metropolitan Police. The headline read; 24-hour drinking ‘will fuel crime’. It is a damning indictment of the government’s ‘strong belief’ that extending drinking hours will reduce disorder.

The Met’s report also cites evidence from Dutch police who have problems with British tourists. Is it true that wherever there are Brits in bars there’s trouble brewing?

Talking of bars, when the Irish relaxed their licensing laws to allow drinking through the night, Temple Bar in Dublin became the ‘Mecca’ for UK stag-and-hen parties. Although they represented less than two per cent of the Dublin tourist market, their all-night drunken behaviour put off 13per cent of visitors – a net loss of £57 million per annum or around £285 million over a five year period. The Irish have tougher licensing laws now but it was a costly lesson. Now the stag-and-hen crowd have places like Bath in their sights.

The Home Office is right to be worried – but they should have listened before. Alcohol Concern, the Institute of Alcohol Studies, the Open All Hours? Campaign, and local authorities such as Westminster City and Camden Councils, have been among those warning the government from the beginning. Alas, the influential Association of Chief Police Officers dithered. Now the Police are blowing the whistle. But, sadly, it’s a bit too late.

Dr Sarah Webb is a Bath City Councillor