You may not have heard of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (Alcohol Limits) (Amendment Bill), but it was a private members Bill introduced in the House of Lords by Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, a Labour peer. The effect of this amendment, had it been introduced, would have been to lower the drink drive limit from 80 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood to 30 milligrams – which is already the drink drive limit in Scotland. In Scotland this change has had a devastating effect on pubs, and particularly pubs in rural areas. The Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA) has stated that the introduction of this measure has been “catastrophic” for pubs, with people who might have stopped-off for a pint on the way home from work now deciding not to do so.
In a debate in the House of Lords on the 11th March a number of comments were made that are worthy of note. Lord Rae, also a labour peer, had this to say:
“The Scottish licensed catering association (sic) has said that the introduction of that measure has been “catastrophic” for the industry. In other words, drinking as a whole has gone down—no one has mentioned that effect of the measure—quite apart from any effect on accidents on the roads. When the prohibition on smoking in public places came in, it reduced the prevalence of heart disease. Heart attacks, for instance, came down measurably as a result of that step. Therefore, small measures such as the one we are discussing will gradually reduce the consumption of alcohol, which, when used excessively, is very harmful, as we all know.”
Now, what is wrong with this statement? Well, just about everything. Firstly, the fact that consumption in pubs has fallen as a result of the change to the drink-drive limit does not prove that alcohol consumption as a whole has fallen. What we know is that there is a long-term trend away from drinking in pubs and bars and towards drinking at home, where the measures that people pour for themselves are generally much larger than they those served in a pub. Lowering the drink-drive limit can only serve to accelerate that trend. Secondly, a measure that is designed to reduce population levels of alcohol consumption shouldn’t be smuggled in as a measure to reduce drink-driving. Thirdly, there is no evidence that the reduction in the limit in Scotland has reduced drink-drive deaths or injuries. Certainly, as the government peer Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon pointed out:
“It is also important to note that the penalties for drink-driving in England and Wales are more severe than in other countries, and despite the majority of these other countries having lower alcohol limits, they do not have a better record on reducing drink-drive casualties. The Government therefore maintain our position that lowering the limit in itself is not going to change people’s behaviour and would not be the best use of resources to improve safety on our roads at this time.”
Well said sir! But Lord Rae then goes on to cite the smoking ban as having directly led to a reduction in the prevalence of heart disease and a measurable reduction in heart attacks; his point being that small changes can have big effects which are a kind of bonus to the effects originally intended. Only one problem, the smoking ban has had absolutely no effect on the prevalence of heart disease or the incidence of heart attacks.
Running up the white flag of surrender, the last word in this debate went to Lord Brooke, the author of the amendment:
“I hope that the many individuals, organisations and members of the public who have supported me — I express my public gratitude to them — and who are in favour of this measure will continue to put pressure on the Government to bring about a change which will be in the best interests of all concerned, other than, perhaps, the drinks and hospitality industry.”
Well perish the thought that we should even consider the interests of the drinks and hospitality industry – after all they just create wealth and jobs and generate taxes so these ill-informed, unelected and unaccountable jobsworths can meddle in things they don’t understand. But then again, it was the Lords that rejected nationalisation of pubs in 1908. Well at least they got one thing right in the last hundred years!