The sound of screeching tyres can be heard again as another government U-turn beckons. Not surprisingly, it is a liberalising measure from which they have decided to back away.
The new licensing laws have been in force for barely a year, having come into force on 24 November 2005. Yet already the Government is backtracking. This is partly the result of an apparent rise in alcohol related diseases since 2002-3, though most of this occurred before the new licensing laws came into effect.
While the government has a duty to consider public health problems, there is no excuse for curbing the freedom of everybody, simply because a few – even a significant few – are unable to control themselves. The same is true of the new gaming laws: the fact that some are unable to control their gambling habits is no reason why others should not be allowed to gamble, or that businesses should not be allowed to cater for responsible gamers.
Indeed, I have argued for some time that it is not the role of government to protect individuals from their own mistakes. Unless people cause harm to others, the government should leave well alone.
Nonetheless, we need to be realistic. The mood of the public is unsympathetic to the sensible gambler or the recreational drinker (unless the latter is attending a dinner party in Islington or enjoying a pint at the village local). Furthermore, there is real concern about public health impact of drinking.
Thus other measures must be considered. I would suggest that a leaf might be taken out of the ASBO book. Rather than re-imposing wartime era licensing laws and limiting the freedom of responsible adults to enjoy themselves as they see fit, the authorities should concentrate on those who are irresponsible and cannot control their own behaviour. Individuals who cause sub-criminal disturbances, including rows outside pubs, urinating and vomiting in the streets, arguments with officers, or who become unable to walk or look after themselves, should be issued with a banning order forbidding them to enter licensed premises. This may be a ban at certain times (after 10pm, on Fridays) or a blanket ban. It should be limited, so that they can ‘serve their sentence’. If breached, it should lead to prosecution .
The alternative is to treat the whole issue of the public consumption of alcohol as though it were a morally corrupt practice over which that a paternalistic government should be allowed to legislate. That would constrain the freedom of sensible, fun-loving people.