A bit of background
Say what you like about the Labour Government and its nannying tendencies, but it needs to be pointed that Parliament is not the same thing as Government, and the HSC report is a parliamentary report, not a governmental one.Before the Licensing Act of 2003, UK licensing laws were a product of wartime restrictions to prevent munitions workers getting pissed and not turning up to work. Society has changed just a tad since 1918 but licensing laws had not. The spirit behind the Act was to liberalise licensing restrictions for the benefit of everyone, and at the same time crack down on drunken anti-social behaviour, and alcohol abuse generally.Leaving aside the practicalities of implementation, that to me sounds like an extraordinarily enlightened plan – relaxing restrictions on the innocent many, coming down harder on the guilty few. It’s also worth pointing out that it’s a strategy that has worked very well in Australia – a country with similar issues around drink to the UK.The Act was implemented in 2005 – with the introduction of :
- Greater flexibility of licensing hours (with the theoretical possibility of an establishment being able to sell alcohol 24 hours a day)
- the transfer of licensing powers to local authorities (a decision that in principle is hailed even by the HSC and its supporters)
My view on liberalised licensing
This is not scientific, merely observational. Writing Three Sheets to the Wind, I visited 13 countries. Twelve of them had more relaxed licensing regimes than the UK did, and seemed to have more a relaxed drinking culture too. In the one country I visited that was more restricted than Britain (Sweden) I saw drunken behaviour at the border with Denmark that would make Nottingham on a Friday night look like Sunday afternoon tea round at Liam Donaldson’s house.As I say, not scientific, quite possibly correlation rather than causation, but certainly consistent – I could walk into a bar in Belgium at 2am and be served an 8% beer, and everyone in there was chatting pleasantly. On a Friday night out in Madrid that ended at 3am, the only drunk people we saw were an English hen party.Much has been made of the comparison between Britain and ‘continental Europe’, but it wasn’t confined to those countries: I walked into an Irish pub just off Times Square at half past midnight and was served a beer in a pleasant atmosphere.And then there’s Australia, a country that shares much of the UK’s genetic make-up as well as its fondness for drink. For much of the 20th century, it endured pubs closing at 6pm and the ‘six o’ clock swill’, when people drank as fast as they could from when they got out of work until they were thrown out of the pub, and spent the rest of the evening puking, pissing and fighting in the streets.Now Australia has a licensing system whereby pubs can nominate any 2-hour period in 24 when they close, and can open the rest of the day round. They also have effective campaigns against drunk driving, and strictly enforced laws about not serving people who are already drunk. Pubs close when business dries up, and people go home on a night when they feel like it, not when the pubs shut. Anything resembling the six o’ clock swill, which used to happen in every town, every night, is extremely rare.At the very least, this all suggests there is no direct causal link whatsoever between liberalized licensing laws and binge drinking and anti-social behaviour. At best, it does suggest relaxed licensing leads to relaxed drinking – and Prof. Dwight Heath of Brown University in the US has research far more robust than my whistle-stop global tour which suggests this is true.So four-and-a-bit years after the introduction of liberalized licensing laws un the UK, how is it doing?
The HSC and media view on liberalised licensing
I’m taking issue with one paragraph from the report summary:“The DCMS [Department of Culture, Media and Sport] has shown extraordinary naivety in believing the Licensing Act 2003 would bring about ‘civilised cafe culture’. In addition, the Act has failed to enable the local population to exercise adequate control of a licensing and enforcement regime which has been too feeble to deal with the problems it has faced.”The Select Committee ReportThe Guardian (8/1/09) in turn refers to “the failure of the government’s strategy to tackle problem of drink-related violence and deaths”, quotes the HSC report as saying the government response to the ‘rise’ in binge drinking as ranging from “the non-existent to the ineffectual”, and takes as a matter of fact “the failure of the government’s strategy to tackle the escalating problems of drink-related violence and deaths”.On what basis? Well, let’s look at the evidence.
How have things changed since 2005?
- As the HSC report tell us itself, late nights in centres, “the overall volume of crime and disorder had with local variations remained stable”
- Contrary to what the Daily Mail tells us, “pubs stayed open on average only an extra 27 minutes”, and as the 9th post in this series points out, only a tiny fraction of pubs have 24 hour licences
- As the first post points in this series out, alcohol consumption has declined. It’s declined even more rapidly in the on-trade:
- The number of pubs has declined steeply:
Awareness of units
With reference to current awareness campaigns about the dangers of alcohol, the Report states “Unfortunately, these campaigns are poorly funded and ineffective at conveying key messages.”The Select Committee provides no hard data to back up this claim – I’m certain the advertising agencies who created the campaigns have detailed research on this, but of course the HSC doesn’t listen to advertising agencies.The nearest proxy I’ve been able to find in terms of readily available data is stuff on unit awareness. The percentage of people who are aware of alcohol units is high and consistent, and the percentage who have seen alcohol unit labeling is growing:
Cafes versus pubs
The government was guilty of nothing more than a really bad PR spin when they kept referring to a ‘continental style café culture’ on British streets as a result of the act. That such a culture has failed to appear is not down to a failure of licensing reform: it’s down to the fact that we don’t have any continental style cafes. We don’t have town squares where you can sit outside and watch the world go past. We have French style bistros, but they’re more restaurants and they close at 10pm like they always did. The British don’t do cafes; we do pubs. So what’s happened in the pub? Again, on personal experience only, the atmosphere is more relaxed. Our own ‘eleven o’clock swill’ has dissipated, and you don’t see people speed drinking as last orders approaches because if you want to carry on drinking, you can. This is just personal observation of what it’s like inside a pub, but the HSC report uses a great deal of personal observation (but only from people it already agrees with) to draw its conclusions. As I’ve been inside a pub on a Friday night quite regularly since 2005, and they clearly haven’t, I’d argue that in this instance alone my personal observation is more valid than theirs. One of the main aims of licensing reform was to spread the incredible congestion and resultant tension in town centres when everyone was thrown out of the pub together at 11.15. The police confirm that, although they have to patrol the streets for longer, alcohol related problems have dispersed through the night, and are less extreme at this critical time. Critics point out that problems have increased dramatically between 3am and 6am. Yes, but that’s because there are now some people on the streets at that time, whereas there used to be no one on the streets at that time. It’s increased form a very small base.
All the evidence above suggests that Britain’s drink problem – while still undeniable and in need of addressing – is either stable or declining. It takes years to effect a cultural and habitual change around drinking. Nevertheless, since the introduction of relaxed licensing laws (and the commensurate crackdown on problem drinking by police) every useful measure suggests our relationship with alcohol is becoming marginally less problematic. This may be correlation, it may be causation. But which ever one it is, there are no grounds whatsoever to refer to the government’s strategy to tackle alcohol-related problems as “naïve”, a “failure”, “non-existent” or “ineffectual”. To do so implies the authors of the report have been ingesting something far more potent than booze. And yet their warped, hallucinogenic view has become fact in the British media.