18 June 2008

A Refreshing Debate?

I've been holding back on discussing the Government's plans to restrict off-sales to over-21s as I've been genuinely in two minds about it. But I've decided to blog my confusion, and see what happens. I give notice that this post isn't thought-out, it's not planned - it's a 'stream of unconsciousness' post. And remember throughout that I can't stand alcohol, and won't touch it. On the few occasions where I've tried it, the stuff has had a vile aftertaste for me, possibly the bitterness of having to put up with so many drunken fuckwits with over the years, and a desire to avoid their example at all costs. And as a TT I have to suggest that something is badly, badly wrong if good times and fun evenings have to be chemically induced. Nevertheless, the fact that I choose not to drink alcohol shouldn't have a bearing on whether I think someone five years younger than me should be able to buy it. So here goes.

Seeing as NUS Scotland have been the most vocal youth group - though I've never thought of NUS as capable of representing students all that well, let alone all young people - I thought I'd cast my mind back to my student politician days.

The problem is, I had about fifty million mandates on various student committees (which, in retrospect, explains the 2:2), and they conflict.

With my SRC hat on, I can see myself at an External Committee meeting, nodding sagely at what the NUS are saying when they say this is an absolutely ridiculous message to send out, that young people somehow are less responsible, so should have a chaperone when they're getting drunk. Particularly when the SNP are suggesting that 16-year-olds should be able to vote.

But on the other hand, I can see myself at a meeting of the Welfare Committee where the emerging consensus (which I'd be a part of) was that drinking too much, whether in one session or just in general, is a very bad thing, and anything that stops young people from getting into the booze habit has to be positive.

With my Union hat on, I can see me reaching a state of almost orgasmic frenzy when looking at the effect this would have on the bars: with no offies to go to, young people would have to go to their local pub for a drink. Publicans of Scotland, unite under the joyous sound of ringing tills!

But then I'd talk to the guy in charge of the shops, who'd be having a fit. There goes a big chunk of shop revenue. That means cuts, and (whisper it) closures.

So with my pompous SRC hat on, it's 1-1. With my money-grabbing Union hat on, it's 1-1. 2-2 on aggregate.

And if you're talking about the responsibility of 16-21 year olds, you're on to an odd debate. The fact is, there are some 16-year-olds who would vote with their head and could probably handle a drink. There are some 21-year-olds who I wouldn't trust with wither a ballot paper or a bottle of booze. Hell, there are some 50-year-olds I wouldn't trust with either. Age limits are fundamentally arbitrary, but there do need to be limits. That means some people just have to be offended, and while members of the NUS (and students at non-affiliated institutions) might be able to drink sensibly, there are enough people in the same age group, spending their evenings in the park with several bottles of Strongbow, making everyone feel uneasy. That's who the measure's aimed at, and the sane kids? Well, they'll get served at a pub easily enough. But should the law-abiding young people be punished as a result of the behaviour of drunken neds?

Meanwhile, the "save young people from themselves" argument that would play so well at a Welfare meeting isn't overly realistic. Remember those kids in the park I mentioned? How many are actually 18? Are any of them actually 18? They're still pissed. And are those cigarette butts around them? How did they get them, when you have to be 18 to buy them? And is that a joint? But wait! Aren't they illegal for everyone? So basically, what we see is that if someone of any age wants to get off their face, they'll find a way. But is that an excuse to just do nothing, and let the problem continue?

Meanwhile, how do the publicans react to their new clientelle? What if they don't come? And what if they all do? This might not get any new trade, or it might end up with an influx of younger drinkers coming in and putting the existing punters off. Is that ringing till really so melodious as it sounded?

And if this does put the local corner shop in jeopardy then you have to ask why and how it's got to a stage that booze purchases in the 18-21 age group are making the difference between viability and closure. If that's what's keeping a shop open, then is it really a shop worth keeping? And can supermarkets absorb the loss of legitimate booze purchases by young people? Of course - their profits tell you that. And will they go to great trouble to enforce the law? Only when its enforcers are watching.

Remember that Tesco in Manchester, that stuck its booze right buy the door for visiting Rangers fans? Remember what they said when they got caught? "We are a responsible retailer and as soon as the Council asked us to move it, we did." Thst overlooks the fact that they waited for the Council to tell them to move it away. And it overlooks the fact that they put the stuff there in the first place. They weren't being responsible until they were caught.

That's why, on balance, I think this move is a bad idea. The consumers and retailers who need to be targeted, the ones who are causing the problems, will sidestep it. Retailers should not be serving under-18s. Some are. They shouldn't be serving the intoxicated. Some are. They shouldn't be letting people buy booze in quantities that go beyond the level at which any self-respecting publican would tell their customer that they've had enough. Some are. And the people in charge of the licenses, and the trading standards people, should be working flat out to take these people down. Some are, but many are not.

Besides, what is this measure for?

Is it to combat binge drinking? Then what about the 21-year-old drinker? Or the drinker of 42? Or 63? (I'm assuming binge drinkers don't reach 84). If it's a health issue, then the plan should be to restrict the sources of alcohol across the board (that means fewer licences all round), and restrict the volume that can be bought (a maximum limit on alcohol purchases, or the minimum price idea that's been floated, or both). Stopping a 19-year-old from going to Threshers won't end the menace of binge drinking.

Or is it to deal with anti-social behaviour? Then what about the thug who isn't drunk? If it's a justice issue, then we need to see dispersal powers being used more effectively: it's not the fact that there are teenagers with booze that's scaring your granny, it's the fact that there are ten of the little bastards there. And where booze is involved, and shouldn't be, then the police should be taking it off them, the shops who let them have it should be punished, third parties who got them the booze should face a tough penalty. Stopping a 20-year-old from getting a carry-out isn't going to stop neds being neds.

I sympathise with the Government: binge-drinking is a problem, anti-social behaviour is a problem, and they are right to try to tackle them. But while they overlap, they mustn't be conflated. The measure is well-intentioned (and those who decry the Government as populist ought to be asked why it's bad for a Government to respond to a popular concern) but self-defeating. I hope they'll reconsider, and think about other ways to proceed.


Jeff said...

Ahh, I do enjoy reading a good stream of consciousness.

Thanks for the thoughts, plenty of new angles of consideration (and I spent more than my fair share of my afternoon 'coffee & muffin break' reading different sides of the argument yesterday).

Would you be at all swayed by the dramatic decrease in vandalism and anti-social behaviour in West Lothian after the 6 week trial of these new rules?

Angry Steve said...

I don't expect that the W. Lothian peace will last. These kids will still want their Bucky or 20/20 in the park - but I expect there's been more of a police presence in the past few weeks, strangely coinciding with this "crackdown" thing.

Jim said...


I understand that the West Lothian trial was strongly supported by a large police presence at the same time. In my view, it is the extra police presence that reduced the anti social behaviour, rather than the trial itself.

On top of that, the ban was only at weekends, leaving the rest of the week for the wee scamps to source and store their booze.

Armadale is also a pretty small place and therefore easier to police. Replicating the success of this on a large scale, on the basis of the increased policing requirements would prove prohibitively expensive with the current resources.

Armadale does not convince me at all.


boxthejack said...

Absolutely agree with Jim. I've long supported the idea of a single age of adulthood, and screwing around with minimum ages to engineer solutions is a way of simply brushing root causes under the carpet.

Enforcing the law as it stands would be a start.

Recent articles have shown just how much harm more-than-moderate drinking does to people's bodies. I think herein lies part of the solution. If all else fails, appeal to our vanity.

Will said...

Jeff, I take note of the good results in Armadale and I have to bear them in mind.

But even then, it comes back to the question of what the proposal is for...

If it's a public health measure, then a fall in ASB and vandalism is connected only very tenuously - a reduction in people's stress levels.

If it's a community safety measure then we have to ask why every 18-21 year old in Armadale should pay the price for the behaviour of a few neds and we have to ask other questions about why the Council didn't use other options already open (as Boxthejack suggests), like imposing and enforcing a ban on street drinking, which would surely have had the same effect.

And Steve and Jim raise good points about the extra Police presence. On the face of it, the West Lothian scheme is positive, but when you ask a few more questions about how the scheme has been operated, what else the Council could have done, and the principle of the move, the shine comes off a little. A strong case, but I'm still not convinced.