Friday, April 28, 2006

My name is Britain, and I have a drink problem

The mixed-up licensing bill won't help this country kick its alcohol habit

As most of the football pundits foresaw, not a lot happened on the field in this week's European Cup final. AC Milan and Juventus played out a dull goalless draw over two hours in Manchester on Wednesday evening, before Milan won the penalty shootout. So far, so predictable.

But the interesting thing is that not a lot happened off the field either. Fully 50,000 Italian football supporters made the journey to Manchester this week. They came from two proud rival cities, with honour, glory and passion at stake. It was an explosive mix. Yet when it was all over and the Italians had gone home, Greater Manchester police had recorded not a single incident (and, no, before you say it, they weren't talking about the game) and had made a total of zero arrests. The visitors were a credit to their country, a police spokesman purred.

Imagine if the roles had been reversed. Suppose Manchester United had been playing Leeds United in a final held in Milan (go on, let me dream). Can anyone imagine the Milan police keeping a clean sheet with 50,000 English fans on foreign soil, the way the Manchester police did with the Italians? A credit to their country? No, I don't think so either. So what's the difference? How is it that Italians know how to behave properly in public and we don't? The difference is simple. They don't have an alcohol problem. We do.

If you look at the figures, you will find that the average Italian and the average Briton drinks more or less the same amount of alcohol per head each year - the equivalent of about eight litres of pure alcohol. But that's where the cultures diverge. Italians spread their drinking out. Notoriously, we concentrate ours. And Italy's alcohol consumption is dropping, in line with the pattern in the majority of countries in Europe. In Britain, we are in the minority of countries where alcohol consumption is rising.

Only the most sozzled end of the drinks trade now denies that Britain has a drink problem. Or that the heart of our problem is binge drinking by young people, including by under-age drinkers, in the centre of towns. If you are in any doubt about this, and since it seems set to be a nice warm summer weekend, then take a stroll into the middle of your local town this evening at around 11pm. I'm afraid you won't want to repeat the experience any time soon.

The government recognises that we have a problem. That is why a wide-ranging licensing bill has been working its way through parliament since late last year. With the exception of the communications bill - that's the one that will let Rupert Murdoch acquire even more of the British media than he has got already - it is the most important and detailed piece of law-making that faces MPs when they return to Westminster next week after their spring break.

Interestingly, the two bills have things in common. For one, they both come under the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. More significantly, they both show that New Labour is much more at ease promoting deregulation than promoting regulation. Or, to put it another way, that they are happier doing the bidding of the richest players in the relevant industry than they are defying them.

The two bills have this difference, though. For months before it was put before parliament, the communications bill was subjected to a detailed process of pre-legislative scrutiny. That process - part of the reform legacy of Robin Cook - has at least meant that the key issues have been clearly identified and have been reflected in good drafting. You may disagree with the communications bill, but at least it is technically a professional piece of work.

The reverse is true of the licensing bill. It is hard to think of a more muddle-headed and confused piece of legislation than this bill was when it was first debated in the House of Lords before Christmas. Part of the muddle was caught in the spotlight earlier this year when everyone from pub landlords to the Bishop of London complained that, as drafted, the bill would have been the most effective suppression of live music since the days of Oliver Cromwell. If ever a bill would have benefited from Cook's pre-legislative scrutiny process, it was the licensing bill.

The minister in charge, Kim Howells, has tried hard to disentangle those provisions over the past few months. His pragmatic approach means that the bill today is undoubtedly animprovement on the bill that was launched last year. But even after 17 substantial sessions in standing committee, the fundamental muddle-headedness remains, even if the drafting muddles have been reduced.

At the heart of the bill remains a dangerous delusion. That delusion is the belief that by liberalising our licensing laws we will reduce heavy public drinking and all the attendant problems of public drunkenness in our city centres. Put another way, it is the delusion that an act of parliament can make us behave like Italians.

Ours is not the only country that has tried this route. Ireland too has tried to change from a pub culture to a cafe culture by allowing bars to stay open much later, just as the licensing bill will allow here. The result has not been tapered and regulated drinking, but an explosion in alcohol consumption, nearly 50% up over the past decade. It is a mark of our insularity - our reluctance to draw on any country's experience other than that of the United States - that the spiralling catastrophe of Ireland's licensing liberalisation has had almost no impact on the British government's blinkered belief in deregulation as the answer to everything.

This week, though, the Irish government did something that Britain can no longer afford to ignore. It set itself a six-week target to enact sweeping new measures to reverse the liberalisation of the 1990s. Closing times are to be brought forward. Under-21s are to be required to carry ID. No one under 18 will be allowed in any bar after 8pm. And it will become an offence to serve a drink to anyone who is already drunk.

Ireland's politicians have been forced to act in this way because liberalisation created not cafe culture but a late-night battlefield of drunkenness and its attendant dangers. In particular, it fuelled binge drinking among young people, including under-age drinkers. In Ireland, one in five 12- to 14-year-olds is now a regular drinker. So are two in three 15- to 16-year-old boys and half of girls of the same age. Nearly half of Ireland's 18- to 24-year-old men now engage in "high-risk drinking", as do an amazing two-thirds of Irish women in the same age group.

Yet this is the kind of society which the British government is set upon creating here. It is the kind of Britain that is still implicit in the licensing bill. Like Ireland until recently, Britain is a society in denial about its drinking. When the bill comes back to the Commons for its third reading, MPs have an obligation to learn from what has happened in Dublin this week. We dream of a drinking culture like that of Italy, but the nightmare is that unless we think again we will become a drinking culture like the one Ireland is now struggling to curtail.