FLC138, The Reform of Alcohol Licensing in England: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, Sean Gabb, 16th August 2005

Free Life Commentary,
Issue Number 138
16th August 2005

The Reform of Alcohol Licensing in England:
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
by Sean Gabb

Next Monday, the 22nd August 2005, I have been booked to go to Birmingham for a television debate in which I shall put the case for there being no restriction on the hours during which alcohol can be sold in this country. As is always the case, I have no idea how long I shall have to make my case, nor what points I shall be able to raise. So I will now write out in brief what I regard as a libertarian response to the Licensing Act 2003. 

Before the 20th century, there were no restrictions on when and for how long public houses could open in England. Anyone who wanted to sell wine and spirits had to obtain a licence from the local magistrates. The Beer Act 1830, however, effectively deregulated the sale of beer, ale and cider. Anyone who could pay two guineas (£2 2s) could as of right buy a licence; and this fee was later abolished. Restrictions began with the Wine and Beerhouse Act 1869, and were strengthened by the Intoxicating Liquor (Licensing) Act 1872, and by the Licensing Acts 1902 and 1904. These gave magistrates much greater control over the number of licenses granted and over the conduct of licensed premises. 

Controls on how long public houses could open were introduced during the Great War under the Defence of the Realm Act. It was claimed that the working classes were spending too much of their overtime pay on drink, and that restriction was needed for the sake of “national efficiency”. Drinking hours were limited to 12pm to 2:30pm and from 6:30pm to 9:30pm. This limitation was kept in place after the War, and, with a few relaxations, has continued to the present. 

One of the stated aims of the Licensing Act 2003 is to allow public houses – if their owners wish – to remain open all day and all night, or for any shorter period. Though the Act was passed in 2003, some of its provisions have yet to be put into effect, and the reform of opening hours will come into effect next October. It is this potentially unlimited extension of opening hours that has been the most controversial feature of the Act, and is the feature that I shall be discussing next week. 

Now, on libertarian grounds, any relaxation of opening hours is to be welcomed. It is not the business of the State to tell consenting adults where, how and when they should enjoy themselves. If someone wants to walk into a supermarket at three in the morning to buy a bottle of wine, or to go into a bar and buy a pint of beer, that should be his unquestioned right. To deny this right is an act of petty tyranny. 

Of course, there may be attendant circumstances to the exercise of a right that compel some limitation. But these attendant circumstances are always fewer than is claimed. And where the sale of alcohol is concerned, there are none whatever. Consider: 

First, it is claimed that if people can buy alcohol at any time of day, there will be more drinking. This is true. But so what? If people choose to drink themselves paralytic, that is their problem. No doubt, excessive drinking is bad for the health. Again, so what? As said, it is not the business of the State to tell people how to live – that business is to protect life and property from attack and to defend the realm. It does not include protecting people from their own weakness or stupidity. Moreover, it is unlikely that the only barrier to mass drunkenness is the limitation of opening hours. Anyone who claims otherwise will have to work hard to justify his belief in universal adult suffrage. 

Second, it is claimed that if people are drunk more often, there will be more public drunkenness and disorder, and that this is a matter affecting third parties. This is a false argument. Most disorder related to drink is caused by the fact that the public houses all close at the same time, and throw all their drinkers out into the streets. If they could close at different times, or not at all, there might not be any great increase in the total amount of public drunkenness. But that drunkenness would be more evenly distributed, and less likely to result in disorder. Even otherwise, it is both stupid and dangerous to try preventing crimes by trying to regulate the states of mind in which they are committed. We need effective punishments for attacks on life and property and violations of the public order – punishments that take drunkenness into account as a severe aggravating factor. Make the punishments heavy enough, and even the most inebriated will be more inclined to creep home than to pull out a knife. 

Third, it is claimed that even private drunkenness adversely affects the interests of third parties. For example, a married man who drinks all day is hurting his wife and any children. This is true. But such harm does not fall into the category of evils that the State is entitled to prevent. To say otherwise is to grant a principle under which a man could be prevented from leaving a well-paid job to start his own business: after all, that might put his dependants into just as much want as if he were to keep his job but drink away the salary. 

Fourth, it is claimed that people who drink excessively place a greater burden on the National Health Service, and that is the right of other taxpayers to ensure that this burden is minimised. This is one of those claims that is made again and again in radio studios, regardless of how often it has already been answered. I doubt if it is a claim ever made nowadays in good faith. Look at the main heads of the answers. First, let us take the – probably inflated – costing made by the Institute of Alcohol Studies (http://www.ias.org.uk/factsheets/health.pdf), that the health-related cost of excessive drinking is £1.6bn. Balance against this the £12bn in taxes collected on alcohol every year, and we see that drinkers more than pay for any increased burden they place on the National Health Service. Second, if we accept that lifestyle may be regulated for the sake of reducing the health budget, why not ban homosexual acts and rugby and eating Indian food?  These are all associated with illnesses that are expensive to treat. Third, if the answer to this is yes, it would be better to abolish the National Health Service. It was set up, after all, supposedly to keep us healthy – not to make us into slaves. 

Therefore, the arguments against the principle of longer opening hours fail. Though I am not myself much of a drinker, I want to live in a country where adults can go lawfully into a kebab shop at any time of day and by an untaxed bottle of gin. As Dr Magee, the Bishop of Peterborough, said in the debates over the 1872 Licensing Act said, “England free better than England sober”. 

Sadly, in spite of its stated aim, the present Licensing Act is unlikely to take us practically towards such a world. One of its provisions transfers the granting of licences from magistrates to elected councillors. These are more likely to be pressured by the health fascists, and so the effect of the law may be more to limit opening hours than to relax them. If that is not the effect, it will only be because many local councillors are notoriously corrupt, and will take bribes from the big alcohol companies. Either outcome is hardly desirable.

Then there is the increased complexity of the licensing system. The cost of getting a licence has risen, and there has been a great increase in the paperwork needed. The process of applying for conversion and variation of existing licences was supposed to be straightforward. However the Government did not publish the forms until the last minute and then redesigned them. The guidance notes accompanying them are ambiguous, and no guidance has been issued by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on its website.  

Not surprisingly, few present licence holders have applied for renewal within the time required, and we face either a further delay in bringing the relevant provision into effect or the closure of thousands of public houses next October. 

No one should be surprised by the probable effect of the new law. The function of government in New Labour Britain has moved decisively from providing common services to providing jobs, income and status for those in the Establishment and for their various clients. The greater complexity introduced by the present Licensing Act is not a sign of government incompetence. Rather, so far as is opens up new excuses for the employment of officials, and creates advantage for those businesses big enough to buy their way through the regulations, it is a notable success. 

But this takes me beyond my present intention, which is to defend the principle of unlimited opening hours for pubic houses.

© 2005 – 2017, seangabb.

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