UK: Binge-drinking debate moves up a gear
The announcement by the UK government last Friday of new measures to combat binge-drinking has once again put this contentious issue centre-stage. Ben Cooper assesses the immediate reaction to the proposals.
Anyone who believed that the UK drinks industry was getting an easy ride from the government was forced to reappraise their view on Friday when a raft of measures aimed at combating binge-drinking and inner-city alcohol-related public order problems was announced. The measures form part of a consultation document with responses to be submitted by the end of February.
There is little question that the measures represent a toughening of the government's position, and they were strongly criticised by the industry. However, other critics have said the new measures are half-baked, smacking more of damage limitation, both political and social, than of proactive policy-making, which suggests they run the risk of pleasing no-one.
The binge-drinking and related public order issues continue to dog the government. The UK has a relatively bad record in this area in comparison with many of its European counterparts and the problems appear to be getting worse. So with new licensing legislation due to come into force in November effectively allowing pubs to stay open as long they like, the government came under increasing pressure to act to forestall any exacerbation of the problems which the new act might create.
The additional measures announced on Friday include a warning system for pubs which have persistent public order problems. Such pubs will be given eight weeks to get their public house in order before being charged for extra policing. In addition, the cost of licensing is to rise dramatically. The largest city or town centre pub will pay a £1,905 initial application fee and an annual fee of £1,050 to the local authority for a licence extension, compared with the previous £30 every three years which allowed them to serve alcohol until 11pm at night regardless of venue size.
On-the-spot fines are to be introduced for underage drinkers and for those found to be selling alcohol to them. Also, those who have received three on-the-spot fines for drunk and disorderly conduct could face a Drinking Banning Order. These penalties, similar in conception to the UK government's anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs), will bar the drinkers from all pubs in certain areas for a certain period, most likely to be one month. "It is very much built on the idea that it will be a swift punishment," Home Office Minister, Hazel Blears, was quoted as saying. "It will be a salutary lesson for those who like going out to say that you will be barred for the next four weeks."
The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) criticised the government's proposals as poorly targeted, predicting minimal impact on the real problem and serious effects on small businesses. "The government admits that the overwhelming majority of the nation's pubs and bars, regardless of their size, are well run, law abiding establishments with customers who wish to enjoy a social occasion and yet it is penalising everyone for the irresponsible actions of a minority," said Mark Hastings, the BBPA's director of communications
"We will participate fully in the consultation process but at first glance we are not convinced these proposals will tackle the real problem. The introduction of Alcohol Disorder Zones and charges for policing mean that all pubs in an area will have to foot the bill for the irresponsible activities of a few," Hastings continued. "Instead of encouraging effective policing we see pubs being punished regardless of the positive actions they are taking and the responsible way in which they operate."
It is perhaps not surprising that the drinks industry has reacted critically to the proposals. The extension of licensing hours, a policy enthusiastically supported by the Prime Minister, and the generally permissive pro-industry slant taken by the government's Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy published last year clearly gave the impression that this government was prepared to meet the industry more than halfway with regard to self-regulation.
However, while the measures could be interpreted as a message from government to the industry that it can and will get tough where it perceives a need, some academics in the alcohol field have suggested that the proposals announced on Friday stem largely from panic.
"It's a panic response," Andrew McNeill of the Institute of Alcohol Studies told just-drinks. "It's not thought out and it won't work. To describe the proposals as half-baked would be flattering."
McNeill contends that the measures announced on Friday show up the deficiencies in the Licensing Act due to come into force in November, which he believes itself to be seriously flawed. "I don't know of another example of a government introducing measures to mitigate the worst effects of an act that hasn't even come into force yet," McNeill said.
It has also been suggested from several quarters that part of the government's problems with licensing legislation stems from disagreements over the appropriate course of action between three different departments, with differing views and priorities, namely the Home Office, Downing Street and the Department for Media, Culture and Sport. Until this government came into power, licensing legislation had been largely the preserve of the Home Office, in consultation with the Department of Health.
The political response to Friday's announcement was mixed. The opposition Conservative Party has called for the implementation of the November changes to the licensing laws to be delayed. But the third largest party in the UK parliament, the Liberal Democrats, welcomed the proposals, saying it was pleased that the government had "at last stood up" to the drinks industry. Lib. Dem. home affairs spokesman, Mark Oaten, said the government had been slow to act despite a "clear link" between alcohol and violent crime.
However, for some Friday's proposals still fell short in two areas, suggesting that the government is still trying to hold on to its pro-business, pro-self-regulation credentials. First, the government did not move to impose mandatory charging for policing for large city centre pubs, in the same way as football grounds have to pay for crowd policing, as had called for by some. In addition, the measures do not outlaw "irresponsible" promotions such as "happy hours" and "girls drink for free". Once again in this area, the government has decided it is better to opt for self-regulation.
The BBPA was "delighted" that its Point of Sale Promotions Code had been "recognised as a positive weapon in eradicating irresponsible promotions". Meanwhile, the Portman Group, by far the most prominent social aspects industry body, told just-drinks that even though it represented the manufacturers rather than retailers, it would be studying the proposals and would make comments in time for the deadline at the end of February.
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