Is drink too cheap?

Today for a change I want to write about something I am no expert on – binge drinking. I would like your thoughts on it.

When the government proposed relaxing the licensing hours, they argued that there would be a drop in drunkenness and rowdy behaviour. They said it would end drinking up time in pubs, and avoid too many people all being pushed out on to the streets at the same time on a Friday or Saturday night much the worse for wear. We would naturally transform from a rowdy, drunken late night town centre culture to a sophisticated well behaved European café culture, once people were trusted to drink in public places after midnight.

I did not believe them when they told us this. The latest figures for drunken behaviour – and anecdotal evidence from places I know – tells us this miraculous conversion has not taken place. Instead people seem to have taken advantage of the opportunity to drink more in pubs over longer time periods to do just that.

As always with this government I do not know whether they were incompetent or dishonest when they told us longer hours would cut down on the problems of drink in our towns. It is possible their polling told them late night opening was popular amongst groups they wanted to vote for them, so they decided to relax the laws for straightforward political reasons. They then foolishly invented a “decent” reason for wanting to do it. Alternatively, they might have thought the abolition of closing time could make a difference, as they claimed. This was a view shared with very few other people who looked at the problem.

When I looked at the issue as an MP faced with a choice to make, the freedom lover in me favoured the relaxation of hours, but the representative had to accept that many of my constituents did not want their towns and villages changed by people spilling out of pubs and clubs much later, in the early hours of the morning. There was an understandable fear that the government would be proved wrong, and the problems of rowdy behaviour could extend from the early hours of the night to the later hours of the night as well.

Now the miscalculation has come to light, the government itself is looking around for culprits to blame, and other possible solutions to the underlying problem. Their eyes naturally fasted upon the private sector – they tried to blame the supermarkets for selling alcohol too cheaply. Their surveys – no doubt at our expense – told them people often get well oiled at home on cheap booze before hitting the pubs and clubs. Why not ask the supermarkets to put their prices up?

This suggestion has been handled well by Tesco and others. It was always unfair on the many people who drink in moderation at home, and who like the lower prices the best retailers deliver. The supermarkets pointed out that they were not allowed under Competition Law to get together to put their prices up to deter drinking. If any individual supermarket did, it would simply divert business to the others. So it’s back to the drawing board for the government on that one.

When I went to university I discovered a divided world. One group of my fellow students took to soft drugs, and the rest of us enjoyed the alcohol. The treatment of the two by government was – and remains – different. Drugs were banned by law. Those who took them often enjoyed the fact that they were illegal, as well as the pleasure they thought they brought. I did not experiment with them, because I did not wish to jeopardise a place at university I valued greatly by running the risk of a criminal prosecution. There was no such restraint on alcohol. What soon put me off drinking too much was the sleepless nights, the dehydration and the hangover that followed the social occasion where we were too generous with the liquor. It was easy to resist any social pressure to take drugs, because it had to remain under the radar. It was less easy to resist pressure for heavy drinking, as that was a social activity where there was no good excuse for declining.

In more recent years the pressure to drink excessively to show yourself a good sport or to join in has been changed in one important respect by the successful campaigns to stop drinking and driving. People at dinner parties now accept you need to stay sober if you are going to leave in your car. It is one of the few examples of how legislative change and stricter enforcement of the law can lead to a change in behaviour and attitudes. Prohibition of drugs continues to work for some people and not for others. This government tried a back door way of relaxing the law for cannabis, only to find it needed to reverse its position.

As someone who likes good wine, I have long since come to the conclusion that my pleasure is increased if I drink it in sensible quantities. As I often have to drive, that rations my intake as well as it is safest in my position not to drink at all if I am about to take charge of a car. If others want to drink more in the confines of their own home, that is no business of the government, and they should not be trying to stifle it by higher prices so only the better off can do so. If people want to drink in public places, there does need to be some regulation, as we need to think of the neighbours and the town centre dwellers who will be affected if things get out of control. I don’t think putting the hours of the pubs back to what they were would abolish the problem of drunkenness in towns, but nor can we say the changes to the hours has done what it said on the tin. Controlling drunken and rowdy behaviour will take much more patient work and effort by many who care about society. It is only when many more people get pleasure from other ways of life that they might wish to curb their own drunken excess. If your sense of pleasure is to get plastered once or twice a week, only to have to suffer the after effects that night and the next day, then there is much missing in your life. It means so much of the beauty, excitement and potential in the world has passed you by. It is a mighty task for parents, teachers, friends, relatives and above all for each person themselves. There are limits to what legislators can do. Sermonising and taxing are unlikely to work. Stronger laws will only work with some, and may encourage others to misbehave the more.


  1. wonkotsane
    February 24, 2008

    On the continent kids tend to drink wine with their parents at meal times and this, I think, stops alcohol from being perceived as something special. Here, the British government does what it can to restrict the consumption of alcohol and the older you have to be to drink it and the harder it is to get it, the more kudos youngsters will get from their peers if they manage to get hold of it. Basically, the problem is that the state is treating all young people as irresponsible juveniles.

    I'm not suggesting that children should be able to buy alcohol but the perception of alcohol needs to be changed from being something special and naughty to being just a normal, everyday thing.

  2. Bazman
    February 24, 2008

    The change in hours was inevitable and a good thing.
    Maybe there could be some control on the really cheap drinks like the nasty chemical ciders sold in supermarkets and off-licenses with names like Electric Blue and White lightning. Two liters for less than two pounds. 7.5% + alcohol. To argue that this is drink for people with little money is false. This is modern cheap booze for alcoholics and kids pocket money.
    The European drinks culture might come but not in this generation. What you see is people,especially the young with little money drinking this cheap booze in the home, without the social control of the pub landlord. They then socialise by nursing the three pound plus pint in the pubs and bars. How else do you explain the empty bars and then at a certain time within the hour being full of very drunken young people?
    This has always gone on and I have done this myself in my less well off times and watched middle aged woman pour their own mixers from handbags due to rip off pub prices. The extreme difference in the price in the pubs and supermarkets has made this more common and acceptable though. The night is later and often encouraged by takeaways beig allowed to stay open until five in the morning. No reasons to be drunk on the streets at four is there?
    The brewery's blame higher costs such as hops and malt. No such problems in the supermarket though? Their answer is to increase the supermarket prices. To four pounds a pint?
    A massive clampdown with higher penalties for drunken crime and suppling children is not living in a police state. Education will have limited effect.
    If you are not responsible for your actions when you are drunk, then you are responsible for getting drunk. Alcoholic tramps excluded.

  3. Stuart Fairney
    February 24, 2008

    The government's handling of this rather reminds me of a previous governemnts handling of the so-called "gin craze" first encouraging it then condeming it in a panic when they failed to see the consequences. Do you think anyone in government ever picks up a history book?

  4. David Cooper
    February 24, 2008

    Very well put, and let's not forget the law of unintended consequences as is illustrated in today's Sunday Telegraph. Sixty pubs a month are said to be closing at present – the cited causes are cheap supermarket beer, high taxes and high property prices, but the smoking ban is no doubt just as relevant – and a blanket increase on alcohol taxation supposedly to curb a binge drinking culture is only likely to punish the responsible majority as even more pubs close and a great English tradition slowly goes to the wall.

  5. apl
    February 24, 2008

    Wonkotsane: ¨On the continent ..¨

    Yea, dare I say it, but our luvvie Islington set politicians having had ¨just WONDERFUL times darling¨, at their villa in Florence, or Tuscany wanted to know, why can´t a Briton be more like an Italian? They can´t get it into their rather silly minds that we are a different people.

    My son, who was always encouraged to drink wine responsibly during a meal, tells me his peers prefer cannabis. (sentence deleted – ed)

    The fact it is so freely available, I found rather surprising. What´s more cannabis is, it seems much easier to obtain than alcohol, if you are under 18!

    To me, that rather shows the complete and utter futility of prohibition, but we knew that anyway, as our American friends taught us. Like America under prohibition it has led to more and more oppressive laws. Of course, those who are already prepared to flout the law carry on regardless, the rest of us are increasingly inconvenienced trying to comply with the thicket of regulations.

    I imagine, the whole state apparatus ranged against the illicit drugs pushers has actually been an utter failure. Likewise too, government propaganda, TV programmes encouraging us not to drink or smoke. It is ´tokenism´ at its worst, be seen to be doing something, rather than actually doing something.

    But back to ´binge drinking´, someone said recently, a binge is not what it used to be, it seems that a binge these days is a maximum of twelve hours. In days gone by, a binge would have accounted for much of the weekend and a good part of the beginning of the week too.

    In any case, we know that ASBO´s are a complete and utter failure, ´Tokenism´ again. But the concept has advanced the totatalitarian state another step forward.

    In my opinion, we need to repeal the Human Rights act, a charge of drunken disorderly and being locked up in the cells for forty eight hours, and, since our political elite always look to others to get a half brained idea of how to run the country, perhaps we could look to Singapore, and take a leaf out of their books! Not too many drunken gangs running riot through the streets over there, I think?

    Next, is drink too cheap? Absolutely not, that is a triumph of capitalism.

    When I was seventeen, a pint of dry blackthorn cider used to cost me 48pence, today, in the pub it might cost me £3.00 or so. To be able to buy a gallon in the supermarket at a better price than I could in the pub twenty years ago, is quite an achievement for the commercial sector.

    I would say, part of the problem today is that the pubs were all ´themed´, anyone outside the target age range was discouraged, the breweries went for a specific sector of the market, thus the clientele in a run of the mill public house changed from a cross section of the working population, to a single peer group, thus the social restraint we are told so characterises continental drinking has been stripped away.

    JR: ¨When I went to university I discovered a divided world.¨

    Yes, nearly all of the ministers of labour cabinets of the last ten years were in the other camp!

  6. AMS
    February 24, 2008

    This issue clearly falls into the category of media-led politics creating the cry that "something must be done!". However, I fear that any government initiative would either have no effect whatsoever (no doubt at great public expense) or make matters worse.

    I fail to understand why existing powers cannot be used. All establishments selling alcohol are, by definition, licensed. If a particular area has problems with drunken or rowdy behaviour associated with licensed premises then such licences can be revoked or restricted by the authorities. No-one has an automatic right to a 24-hour licence. There may be a question of strengthening the ability of local authorities to withhold/revoke/restrict licences but I fail to see what the time I want to buy a drink has got to do with the government.

    Indeed, I have never seen what business it is of Whitehall to be concerned with opening hours. Surely this is an issue best suited to be decided at the lowest level of government. If a village wishes to declare itself 'dry' on a Sunday, I see no reason why it may not have the power to do so. Similarly, local authorities are best suited to decide on the desirability and location of late-night/all-night establishments.

    As for the price issue, there is plentiful evidence that enforcing higher retail prices would not enforce public sobriety. Nordic countries have renowned alcohol problems despite decades of eye-watering prices and government retail monopolies. Does anyone serious expect that making alcohol too expensive for young people would have any other effect than to create a vast black market and enrich smugglers. Never mind considering the civil liberties issue of whether the law-abiding majority should suffer because of the behaviour of a small minority.

    One area which may possibly bear examination is 'alcopops' which must surely be utterly disgusting to anyone other than teenagers. Maybe drinks companies should be discouraging from manufacturing and marketing products where the alcolhol is actively and deliberately disguised though legislation in the area would likely be difficult to define (and I always believe that legislation should be the last approach to any issue and not the first, as so beloved of this government).

    As for the behavioural issue. I see the issue as not the availabilty/price of alcohol but the utter lack of respect for/fear of authority amongst many, if not most, young people who have grown up in an era in which it is practically impossible to sanction children. The alcohol issue is a red-herring as can be shown by the fact that this subject is not a concern in other countries. Young people behave badly because they know they can and know they will rarely, if ever, be sanctioned for it. From an early age children are taught that they have 'rights'. No sensible adult would try to discipline another person's child these days as it is literally far too dangerous. It is now a very serious criminal offence for a police office to give a feral kid a 'clip round the ear'. Today's problems with teen-age/young adult bad behaviour is a damning indictment of the teaching profession and 'children's rights' industry and of hand-wringing governments of both parties legislating at the behest of pressure groups rather than on the basis of common sense.

  7. Scary Biscuis
    February 24, 2008

    As a very experienced and, previously, excessive 'social' drinker I think that the problem drinking that has exploded over the last 10 years is relatively easy to solve.

    I realised this when on holiday, following the rugby tour in Australia. A girl, who had attached herself to our group, was refused entry to a bar for being drunk. She wasn't drunk by British standards but she was clearly the worse for wear.

    The funny thing was the law in Australia is virtually identical to that of Britain; the difference is that in Britain it is not enforced.

    Also, the problem of public drunkeness has been getting worse for longer than the time licencing hours have been relaxed. It is therefore illogical to blame them.

    The pertinent deregulation has been undebated by Parliament or the media but has happened nonetheless. It is now effectively legal to be drunk and disorderly and to serve drinks to anybody in this state. You will only be arrested, or even asked to go home, for the very grossest of behaviour, this being a relative term.

    For example, I was in a nice pub in Kensington the other week and a fight broke out, clearly fueled by drink. After a while, however, the combatants were allowed back into the pub to continue drinking and nobody seemed to think this was strange.

    Blaming pub licencing hours is also missing the point for another reason: most binge drinking is now done at home. Unlike when Mr Redwood was a student, young people now don't go out to get drunk; they go out after they have got drunk. It's much cheaper that way.

    Where I live, Windsor, has become a bit of a stag and hen party venue over recent years. They are very welcome in my book. What is not welcome though is that street outside the biggest nightclub apparently needs to be lined with literally hundreds of policeman (at my expense) every weekend from about 10 pm onwards.

    If you're a burglar or worse, it's a great time as you know exactly where the police are at it's not protecting somebody's vulnerable granny in the suburbs.

    It's not as if these police actually achieve anything outside the nightclubs either. At kicking out time the streets are carpeted with drunks, their stomach contents and other effluent. The police just restrict themselves to intervening in fights and the rest of the time just sit gingerly in their vans.

    Alas, the police find themselves interveening in more and more fights, and requiring more manpower because they have completely lost control.

    The laws exist but they are unable to enforce them. Why?

    It is because of Labour's obsession with paperwork. Merely talking to a member of the public requires a copper to fill in a form literally as long as his arm. Heaven forbid he should arrest that person for being drunk because then the paperwork will keep him at his desk for days. A single policeman isn't capable of arresting more than a few people per week because there're simple aren't enough hours in the week for the corresponding paperwork.

    Back at the station the rules are even worse: the police have a greater responsibility to protect people in their cells than they do to protect people sleeping at home in their beds.

    As a result drunk and disorderly behaviour has become effectively legal, despite nobody being in favour of it. It is a classic unintended consequence of excessive government legislation.

    The solution is simply to repeal Labour's criminal justice legislation of the last 10 years. (They had no mandate for it anyway. Unlike with health or education, there was no great clamour for reform in 1997. They didn't go in the 1997 election or any since promising massive extra centralised controls over the police.)

    If these laws could be repealed, the police could again be persuaded to enforce the existing laws on public drunkeness. Nowhere else in the world has such an excessively indulgent, hamstrung attitude to public debauchery; it is a national embarrassment.

    What is needed is not more legislation but less.

  8. Derek
    February 24, 2008

    I think it is generally a myth that alcohol has got cheaper in the supermarkets. I used to work for one of the chains in the fifteen years ago and a 12 can pack of a well known brand of lager would frequently be promoted at a fiver. Since then there's been deflation across most of the grocery sector so it would be hard to argue evil, profiteering, retailers have used low pricing to encourage binge drinking (although, I don't doubt some will try). Most likely the government will make a lot of noise about how it"s fighting binge drinking and enact some new ill-considered law. It doesn't seem to have realised yet that you can't legislate your way out of every moral and social problem.

    I agree with a previous correspondent that it is a foolish mistake to infantilise all young adults. My son was recently unable to purchase a pair of scissors for a school project. I had to go back to the stationery shop with him. The manager said they were unable to sell any knives, blades or solvent based glues to under 18's and it was particularly difficult as most often it was these very products school pupils needed to purchase for GCSE & A-level coursework. I suggested it was overkill and he ought to turn a blind-eye, but he replied that trading standards had previously sent youngsters in undercover.

    I 'm sure this legislation must have fallen on the burgeoning statute book as part of a government 'fighting knife crime' headline grab. However, we now have a situation where a seventeen year old can drive a car and get married, but if they wanted to cut their hair or cook a meal with their, government recommended, five-a-day vegetables they'd have to get their parents to buy the tools required. Is it surprising people don't behave responsibly and does anyone actually ever think these ludicrous laws through?

    If a teenager was about to commit a knife crime, they would hardly buy a pair of scissors from a shop with CCTV when they could just take a knife from the kitchen drawer at home.

    I predict we'll soon all find it much harder and more expensive to buy a bottle of wine to drink with our meal whilst yobbish binge drinking continues unabated.

  9. Bazman
    February 24, 2008

    Smoking at school. It is big and it is clever.
    Lowering the age of drinking in pubs would be a radical experiment. More realistic than some adult telling you that drinking is not cool.
    At least they would be under some sort of supervision and the dangerous period of drinking being 15 to 18 would be less glamorous and the underage ones more obvious.
    A lot of the pubs and bars are little more than over 17 youth clubs anyway. Over 25 really means over 21. Heavy security and supervision would mean the offender getting banned from the pub. Upsetting at any age, but especially for a teenager with closer personal links to their peers.
    Good for society, the drinks industry and the teenagers.

  10. Elizabeth Elliot-Pyl
    February 24, 2008

    It seems to me that the police already have the powers they need to deal with this problem, if only they would use them. Anyone drunk and disorderly should be arrested. Any landlord who serves alchohol to someone the worse for wear should lose their licence. Unfortunately this goes into the government's 'too hard' file. Much easier for them to grab headlines by saying booze is too cheap (which it is NOT) and punish the innocent along with the guilty.
    I just knew that when they had dealt with the smokers, they would move on to the next easy target and so they have.
    Binge drinking has always been a problem amongst the young at weekends. The difference now is that they are allowed to get away with it.

  11. Richard
    February 24, 2008

    What is a 'typical', anti-social binge-drinker ? Where do they congregate as a rule ? Once these questions have been clearly answered, the next step is to get police out on the streets in these areas on a daily basis to enforce the relevant laws relating to drunkeness and the associated problems. Heavy fines should be imposed. After nearly eleven years of New Labour we certainly do have a broken society as a result of their policies.
    Cetainly Brown and his puppet chancellor Darling would love to raise alcohol duty massively in their next Budget and it would be a convenient opportunity for them to announce it was in the nation's interest to help curb binge-drinking.
    The problem of rampant boozing would not disappear once stocks of cheap alcohol were exhausted; the state of this country is a direct result of the Blair/Brown period of mis-rule. Taxing drink more will increase the Exchequor's balance with the Bank of England; it would not diminish binge-drinking.

  12. Matthew Reynolds
    February 24, 2008

    If they raise alcohol duties & use the excuse of public health then all that will happen is that legitimate venders will suffer , bootleggers & Continental sellers of booze will gain and excess drinking will continue unabated . High levels of duty relative to other EU states have not worked and high duties just cost HM Treasury money while not helping public health . People who love fine wine in the privacy of their own home must not be likened to alcopop swilling yobs who make our inner cities so horrid on Friday & Saturday nights . It shows that Labour love to victmise private business for acting in a pro- consumer way while pleasing their own hard left fans by having a go at middle class people . As with Fox hunting Labour do not really care about solving the problem – indulging the stupidity of their hard left supporters is all that matters to them .

  13. Neil Craig
    February 24, 2008

    As society gets ever wealthier we become able to more easily afford things which we evolved to like because they were difficult to obtain back when we were hunter gatherers.

    Fats, sugar, alcohol, probably drugs. We are thus evolved, in an era of plenty, to binge on them.

    Believing that use of the price system is more effective, intrudes on freedom of choice less & is actually profitable I favour taxation over regulation. I would be happy to see alcohol taxes rising perhaps 5% faster than per capita GNP growth for the foreable future on condition that it was matched by equivalent reductions on other taxes.

    I see that excise duty takes £41 billion annually & corporation tax £50 billion & Ireland has shown how much damage the latter does.

  14. Iain
    February 24, 2008

    “I would like your thoughts on it.”

    I am not sure you will like what you hear, for the establishment have been ashamed of our love of a drink for a millennium or more, yet at best their actions to curb it have been shown to be futile, worst their actions have added to the problem.

    For example St Boniface in his letter to Cuthbert Archbishop of Canterbury in the 8th centaury

    ‘In your diocese the vice of drunkenness is too frequent . This is an evil particular to pagans and to our race . Neither the Franks, nor the Gauls, nor the Lombards, nor the Romans, nor the Greeks commit it.’

    Now that could be word for word ( other than the nations have changed their names) what a politician could be heard saying today.

    Then there’s what William of Malmesbury the 12th centaury historian wrote of the Anglo Saxons around the time of the Norman conquest…'Drinking in particular was a universal practice, in occupation they passed entire nights as well as days…They were accustomed to eat till they were surfeit, and drink till they were sick'

    So does this… John of Salisbury wrote around the same time ….'the constant habit of drinking has made the English famous amongst all foreign nations.'

    And it should be noted that drink was seen as so important that it merited some clauses in our founding constitutional document , the Magna Carta, to define the measures for beer and wines.

    Its also worth noting the futility of our politicians actions…like the 1329 proclamation which made Taverns lock their doors at curfew, or the 1606 act of Parliament,( in fact there were 7 acts of Parliament between 1604-6 trying to curb our love of drink) the 1606 act starts ….

    'where as the loathsome sin of drunkenness is of late grown to common use in this realm, being root and foundation of many other enormous sins, as bloodshed, stabbing, murder, swearing, fornication, adultery, to the great dishonour to God and our nation….'

    Now that’s almost word for word what a tabloid or politician would be saying today.

    But more worryingly is what happens when politicians meddling make things worse like in the 17th centaury when during our spat with France they wanted to curb demand of brandy, and curb the power of the brewers, who were brewing beer. So duties on gin were slashed, while the duties on beer were increased, making gin cheaper than beer. With the result that a population one tenth the size of ours was necking ten times more gin, gin double the strength of ours. It was thought that one in four London houses were brewing and selling gin, and so were created the gin palaces.

    Now does that resonate with today and the consequences of Labour’s polices to have 24hour drinking?

    But I suppose there is one up side to this, but not if you are politician, for while the political class has been waging their futile millennium long war against our love of a drink , it could be said they haven’t had time to enact more damaging legislation elsewhere!

    Reply: A great resume of our past in the spirit of this site with its reminders to practising Labour politicians that history did not start in 1997.

  15. Richard
    February 24, 2008

    As a conservative, I believe in small government. The government has no right to regulate the opening times of business wahtsoever. Binge-drinking in this country can only be tackled by a change in attitude towards alcohol, not restricting or easing the laws of pub opening.

  16. Matthew Reynolds
    February 24, 2008

    If they raise alcohol duties & use the excuse of public health then all that will happen is that legitimate venders will suffer , bootleggers & Continental sellers of booze will gain and excess drinking will continue unabated . High levels of duty relative to other EU states have not worked and high duties just cost HM Treasury money while not helping public health . People who love fine wine in the privacy of their own home must not be likened to alcopop swilling yobs who make our inner cities so horrid on Friday & Saturday nights . It shows that Labour love to victmise private business for acting in a pro- consumer way while pleasing their own hard left fans by having a go at middle class people . As with Fox hunting Labour do not really care about solving the problem – indulging the stupidity of their hard left supporters is all that matters to them .

  17. Mike H
    February 24, 2008

    I'm opposed to any attempt to solve this problem by forcing prices higher – either by taxation or by legislation to prevent alcohol being sold as a loss-leader in supermarkets. I also doubt that changing back to a 10.30 or 11.00pm closing time would help. As you imply, what is needed is a cultural shift and a change in the way drunkenness is viewed by society – in much the same way as has largely been achieved towards drink driving. The key to this is the rigorous application of the existing laws in relation to supply of alcohol to minors, being drunk and disorderly in public, etc. In particular, we need to see the widespread withdrawal of licences from the establishments that are persistently causing the problems in town and city centres. My understanding is that there are only a tiny number of licences lost each year. Start to change that, and we have a chance of getting a grip on this problem.

  18. Neil Craig
    February 24, 2008

    Playing with my pocket calculator I find that if we achieved 10% growth, like China, thus allowing us to increase excise duty 15% annually we would be getting the entire current national budget from that source alone in 18 1/2 years.

    And we would have no other taxes 😉

  19. Phil Taylor
    February 24, 2008

    Speaking as a licensee I know the law about not serving intoxicated people and I don't – often to their chagrin. At one recent 21st the parents were angry with me when I stopped serving because I thought that people had had enough.

    Licensed premises are managed premises and we should exploit this. We should allow youngsters to purchase and consume alcohol in a managed environment before we let them take it home.

    Not many people know that 16 and 17 year-olds are allowed to drink wine, beer and cider with a table meal. It would be great if pubs encouraged family eating – and drinking, as a part of the general move to serve more and better food in pubs.

    I would make off sales only available to people over 21. This would allow "Learner" drinkers to drink in managed premises but not to take it home. The additional expense of drinking in pubs would reduce consumption amongst the learners.

    This should be accompanied by effective enforcement of licensees obligations to manage their premises such that they do not serve any one who is already intoxicated.

  20. Simon Lamb
    February 24, 2008

    I chaired numerous licensing hearings for Richmond Council when the changes were introduced in 2005. The key point is that 24 hour drinking was a PR slogan that nobody wanted – certainly not the pubs who would have large opening costs at a time when few would want to consume alcohol. Most applications were received late since publicans wanted to wait to see what their rivals were doing. Nobody wanted to be the pub with the latest opening hours since that would become a magnet for drunks and troublemakers. The upshot is that most pubs simply close an hour later than they did under the old rules ie. after the last buses and trains have left.
    The majority of alcohol is now consumed in non licensed premises (ie. bought from supermarkets and off -licenses). This is a huge change in behaviour in the last 40 years. We need to reverse the trend so that fewer shops have alcohol licenses. Shopkeepers need to observe the law and it needs to be enforced. More shops need to lose their alcohol licence, rather than face modest fines.
    Alcohol producers should change their packaging so that spirits are not available in anything smaller than full 75 cl bottles – anything smaller is going to be attractive to teenagers and those with alcohol problems. Corner shops also tend to serve small bottles and tend to favour high strength, cheap beer.
    Police need to enforce existing public order rules and pubs need to stop serving drunks. Doctors define a 'binge' as consuming the equivalent of 4 pints in one session – which certainly isn't the popular gauge of a drinking binge – so society needs to tighten standards of what is acceptable behaviour.
    We also need to be realistic – heavy drinking has been a feature of English life throughout recorded history and that isn't going to change in the short term. We tend to regard drunkeness as funny, whilst the loss of control is seen is shameful in many European cultures. As Lloyd George said, Britain was fighting 3 enemies – Germany, Austria-Hungary and drink and drink was the worst of the 3.

  21. Steven_L
    February 24, 2008

    I don't think the change in licensing laws has made much difference. Most city centres already had 2pm closing time for bars and nightclubs prior to the shake-up.

    The two big differences it has made to me are firstly, that I can buy alcohol from the supermarket after 11pm. When I used to work a 6pm til 10pm shift in a call centre as a student this made my life a lot easier. Secondly, when Australia were playing cricket at home I could enjoy a drink whilst I watched it in the local casino. Prior to the laws I could only buy drink until 2pm, then had to make do with coffee and coke until kicking out time at 6am.

    The third major change is the establishment of the new local authority licensing bureaucracy. I've seen it first hand. In my experience the very people that lecture licensee's about binge drinking are often to be found completely sauced at 2am on a Saturday morning, still in their work clothes from the afternoon before. The old system, the proverbial rubber stamp at the magistrates courts, must have been much cheaper.

    All in all I'm in favour of flexible licensing hours and do not think that it has led to the kind of carnage that the scaremongering tabloids refer to. In my home town, when every establishment used to call last orders at 11pm, there would be a congregation of hundreds of people near the taxi rank and pizza shop. Fights would break out routinely, they became a spectator sport. In about 1998 the local council allowed late licensing (until 1am, then a year or so later 2am) amid much local opposition on the recommendatin of the police. All the trouble stopped immediately.

  22. Jim Carr
    February 25, 2008

    One the one hand the government pretends that it wants us to be more "European" by introducing 24-hour drinking laws.

    On the other hand it is starting to soften us up, through proclamations by various pressure groups and on-side police chiefs, for increases in alcohol tax.

    John, we come to the real reason for the extension of licensing hours – ultimately to create the climate for public acceptance of taxation that will lead to vastly increased money for government.

    In Sainsbury's the cheapest barely palatable wine is around £3 per bottle.
    Yet in France, I can walk into a supermarket and buy a litre and a half of wine for 75p – wine ten times better tasting and ten times cheaper than that in Sainsbury's.
    And in most of France, outside the large conurbations, you will be lucky to get a "cafe culture" drink after 10pm.

    So much for introducing "European cafe culture" by these drinking laws and increased taxation.
    Follow the money.

  23. steve_roberts
    February 25, 2008

    There were several legal changes put through at once. With 24-hr drinking came also transfer of licensing from magistrates to local authorities, and watering-down of the legislation on landlords who allow drunks to be served. Obviously, making multiple changes is bad engineering; when the new system is worse than the old it is not clear where the problem lies.
    To my eyes, the symptom is disorder in the streets at night. It seems quite obvious this is a result of what people do the pubs and clubs, rather than what they do at home. The extended hours means that instead of going home at eleven or so, they will stay for another drink, and another, etc. Then, if they are less likely to be refused service on the grounds of drunkenness, because the licensees are less in fear of losing their licences, obviously they will be more intoxicated when they finally hit the streets. When these two issues have been sorted out it will be time to consider whether prices are too low, but at the moment, raising prices through tax would just be another squalid raid on the long-suffering taxpayers pocket.

  24. mikestallard
    February 25, 2008

    I want to make three points:
    1. You asked for our views. You listened and made sensible comments. Is this unique for a professional politician?
    2. If all the drinking is done at home, couldn't we do what the Australians do and ban alcohol from all supermarkets? It is only sold there in specialist shops and bars, where you can afford it too.
    3. In Spain (which is on the Continent and therefore allegedly knows how to drink sensibly) I knew one (English) man of 23 with liver failure. He used to drink whole bottles of cognac outside the discos with his friends. In the bars, there are hosts of alcoholics quietly getting sloshed. In the bar at Torrevieja bus station, there was a group of drunken/drugged up twenty somethings who used to void themselves all over the toilets (YUK!) It isn't paradise, you know.

    Reply: I find listening to people teaches me a lot. Thanks for all the comments. I agree with you that too much drink is a problem in places on the continent as well – I was merely setting out the government's sunny view of the Euro cafe culture.

  25. Devil's Kitchen
    February 25, 2008

    Did anyone seriously think that we would immediately switch to this fabled cafe culture overnight? Or even within a couple of years? Or ever…?

    "If your sense of pleasure is to get plastered once or twice a week, only to have to suffer the after effects that night and the next day, then there is much missing in your life."

    Maybe, but it is still my decision if I choose to do so: it is certainly not the place of a politician to tell me how I should choose to live my life. Actually, that applies to all drugs, not just alcohol.


  26. AC
    February 26, 2008

    1) Buy up large warehouses on the edge of town and divide the interior into individual cells using wire mesh providing minimal facilities…
    2) Change the law to allow arrest for suspicion of being drunk and disorderly (to be confirmed by a cheap alcohol level test at the warehouse) to lead to summary conviction without a court appearance…
    3) Lock up those found to be D&D in the warehouse cells for say 72 hours.
    4) Charge the D&D £75 per night for their 'stay' to cover costs, and to provide police and medical supervision of our 'guests'.
    5) With minimal facilities and no change of clothes, most people will think twice about becoming drunk, especially if arrest and detention becomes as automatic as waiting for a bus.
    6) Anyone with severe alcohol problems will come to the attention of the medicos and can be offered detox.

    Make being drunk and disorderly grimy and unpleasant and few people will want to do it on a regular basis. Moderate drinkers, or immoderate drinkers that do not upset the public, not affected.

    Job done.

  27. Nick Kaplan
    February 26, 2008

    I too am a lover of freedom and would, on balance, consider myself a Libertarian. But as Hayek himself argued freedom is something that can only pertain in the correct conditions, i.e. when people take personal responsibility for their actions. The problem in Britain regarding drink is that people simply don’t have a responsible attitude or a European drinking culture and this is why the new licensing laws and opening hours have proved such a disaster. Had Britain had a culture like that of Europe with regards to drink then perhaps the government would have been right to argue for 24 hour licenses. As the preceding evidence has shown, this is clearly not the case and they were clearly mistaken to attempt to introduce such a policy on the basis that it works in Europe. However, the solution is certainly not higher taxation. Just because there are a number of people in society who cannot drink responsibly, it does not mean the rest of us should be forced to pay through the nose if we wish to do so. As usual a one size fits all, let’s punish the many to solve a problem caused by the few, policy is both unjust and impractical (much evidence shows the price of alcohol has little effect on its consumption). What is needed instead is for people just to take some personal responsibility for their actions, to learn to drink responsibly and to act a bit more maturely. This can only be taught in the home and will involve a significant cultural shift. The reasons the Europeans drink responsibly is because they are bought up to do so, here children should be taught by their parents that they can drink and they can enjoy it far more if they drink good stuff in a responsible manner. As with many of our problems today the solution does not involve more government, so often the cause of problems in society, but better family values to establish the conditions necessary for freedom of action to be possible.

  28. John I
    February 27, 2008

    Not only have we always been considered an alcoholic race but also an agressive race.
    Alcohol just brings out the latent aggressiveness more readily.
    If you want to prevent aggression in the UK you'd have to ban the motor car and also our National game. Both aggressive but one fuelled by drink the other by petrol.
    To conclude, alcohol isn't totaly to blame; we should blame the real culprit our genes.

  29. Aethelbald, King of
    February 27, 2008

    Overheard in the office: "A night when you don't get pissed with your mates is a day wasted."

    That, for me is what binge drinking is about. Life for young people is mostly dreary and poorly paid, as I well remember. I binged, and now they binge. As Iain 24 Feb 2008 at 2:40 pm points out, above, it was ever thus in these parts. It's about having a great time with your buddies after a suffocating day's work.

    Now that I can afford a decent wine I have found that I don't much care for it, or for the etiolated company that comes with it. Let me instead have an occasional skinful with my old mates, where skinful = 8 pints of 3.5% proof, say. Then back to someone's for a spliff or three, and talk and laugh until dawn or slumber claims us.

    Note the absence of mayhem in the above scenario. It is important to note that one can enjoy an evening of Brahms and Lizt without becoming violent. The management of drunks should be elevated to the status of the management of football crowds. It's something we might be good at.

  30. SG
    February 27, 2008

    The Government's approach to Licensing has been entirely the wrong way around. They extended opening hours, and then attempted to tackle binge drinking.

    What they should have done, in the first instance, was put in place tough measures to tackle binge drinking, and build them into the Licensing process.

    Only when establishments could demonstrate that they were effectively dealing with binge drinking, could they have their opening hours extended. These extended hours could then be rescinded if they slipped back in their efforts.

    Instead, the Government wrongly assumed that continental-style opening hours would be a shortcut to a continental-style drinking culture.

  31. Brian Pol
    February 28, 2008

    I would like to also say that whilst I disagree with John on many issues (perhaps most!) I enjoy reading his comments and consider him a sensible and principled MP. I've realised that I would vote for him if I had the choice as I am sick and tired of politicians without these qualities, and like someone who I can at least hear distinct views from. He has also been prepared to change his opinions when the facts change (as Keynes advised) rather than to fit in with fashion or opportunist gain.

    This is a really difficult issue and you are right to caution against 'quick fixes' as advocated by ahistorical NuLab. I think that taxation is unfair as it penalises moderate and sensible drinkers. This is a pleasure which should not be banned, though I do wonder about NHS money going to alcoholics (and other addicts), this seems an unfair way of using scarce resources.

    There is no doubt that drinking is widespread across social classes, ages etc. There is no clear pattern to it, but those at the 'bottom of the pile' are more likely to be hanging around on buses and streets when drunk than more professional people who in my experience, are often equally enamoured with booze culture at weekends and after work. Similarly, many subsistence based tribes have been enamoured with drugs of various kinds aas have various elites throughout history. It is not enough to say it is caused by anything simple in a linear matter.

    It is thus a cultural and as pointed out, possibly an evolutionary caused problem (if it even is one?) that will not be 'solved' by simple laws or diktat. Hence, a compromise of clampdown on any drunken crime or severe rowdiness (particularly in residential areas), lack of funding for liver and other alcohol caused disease along with freer opening hours seems a fair compromise for society. (I share John's doubt about the motives of the government in introducing 24 hour drinking which as far as I know is almost non-existent)

  32. Rosemary
    March 2, 2008

    I am exactly your age and I had drugs pushed at me from the age of 17 onwards. what stopped me was the wish not to lose control of myself. As a child we were always offered wines, fortified as well as unfortified. but never spirits – they were forbidden. I never drank at all till i was over 30 and then only with food and in company. I tried the same with my son but alas it did not work. He had inherited the Norse gene and has a real taste for the stuff – beer that is, not wine, as he never accepted that. I am convinced it is in the genes this binge drinking and that only strong social and religious control kept it at bay in the past. After all it was just the same as now in the 18th century.

  33. Simon_C
    March 2, 2008

    I wonder if shutting licence establishments for 48hrs if anyone is found drunk inside them (rather than serving them while drunk) would fix the problem. A few nights with a busy town centre pub closed would soon cause the company to stop drunk people from entering. Which would (eventually) reduce the number of people drinking at home and going out drunk.

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