Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - December 2007

* Spy in the Pub *

One man’s drunk may be another man’s person simply having a good time

IT’S ALWAYS been part of the law that bar staff must not serve customers who are drunk, and over the years I’ve occasionally seen this put into practice, usually by a quiet word in the ear along the lines of “I’m sorry, I think you’ve had enough already” rather than taking a confrontational approach. Yes, people do sometimes get drunk from visiting pubs and bars, but they do exactly the same in their own and other people’s houses, where there is no legal restraint on consumption. The best way of preventing drunkenness is to encourage people to recognise when they have had enough.

However, in what has the potential to be a major threat to the pub trade, the Home Office have put funding in place for a national campaign, running from November, to plant undercover cops in pubs to catch staff serving drunks. A pilot project has already started in Blackpool after police claimed they had seen drunks being served. Should they witness a punter being served who, in their opinion, is drunk, they have powers to issue £80 on-the-spot fines to staff and call for a review of the pub’s licence.

A big problem, though, is that the authorities are not providing any clear definition of what constitutes being “drunk”. Clearly it can’t be based simply on quantity, because one man may be perfectly capable of drinking ten pints and scarcely appearing merry while another could be staggering around after three. And might such a test be biased against women, who become intoxicated faster by virtue of their smaller internal organs?

It has to be accepted that most people go to pubs to drink alcohol, and alcohol does have an effect on you. By the end of a typical evening, nobody in a local pub apart from Des the designated driver will be stone cold sober or anything like it. If people are simply a bit loud and boisterous, tell a few off-colour jokes, or decide to have a sing-song, then they may be merry but they’re not in the accepted sense of the word “drunk”. They will almost always apologise and tone it down a bit if asked to by the licensee, but some humourless individual not used to pubs could easily take exception to their behaviour.

If someone is obviously staggering about and incapable of coherent speech, then clearly they should not be served. But, short of that, alcoholic drinks are legal products and pubs are selling them for consumption by adults who are old enough to take responsibility for their own actions.

Now it might be argued that these powers are only likely to be used to target circuit bars, and traditional pubs have nothing to fear. But if the powers exist, they can be used, and most locals by the end of the evening have at least a few customers whom some po-faced official could easily decide were drunk. Realistically, only the stuffiest rural dining pubs have no need to worry. It is an especial concern over the festive season when many pubgoers may feel inclined to let their hair down a bit more than normal.

And why should the government once again be targeting pubs when it is becoming abundantly clear that the main causes of alcohol-related problems in society are discounting and lack of adherence to age restrictions in the off-trade?

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