Thursday 15 December 2016


It may have escaped your attention, but Alcohol Concern (AC) and Alcohol Research UK (ARUK), the UK’s two leading anti-alcohol sock puppet charities, are to merge. This merger has consequences for the way in which anti-alcohol advocacy will be conducted going forward, but first, a little bit of history:

Alcohol Concern and the International Order of Good Templars
The International Order of Good Templars, or ‘IOGT International’ as they now refer to themselves, was the most zealous of the clutch of anti-alcohol groups that sprang up in the 1850s. Despite the repeal of Prohibition in America in 1933, it remained in existence as a hard-line anti-alcohol sect until the 1970s, when its leader Derek Rutherford, recognising that campaigning for the outright prohibition of alcohol was a lost cause, moved IOGT to an apparently softer line of campaigning to reduce alcohol-related harms. Initially, in the UK, IOGT worked with the National Council on Alcoholism, which later evolved into the anti-alcohol advocacy group Alcohol Concern (AC).

The two groups parted company in 1982 after a row with the new chairman who said he had no time for “a bunch of Methodist teetotallers.” IOGT walked out and Rutherford, along with Andrew McNeill set up the Institute of Alcohol studies as an alcohol research organisation. So, whilst the National Council on Alcoholism and IOGT parted company, the legacy organisations they spawned have their roots deeply embedded in historical temperance.

Alcohol Research UK (ARUK)
ARUK is another organisation with its roots in historical temperance. Indeed, today 70% of its income is derived from returns on an investment fund that arose out of the Licensing Act 1904! The government of Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour established the ‘Licensing Compensation Scheme’ to compensate licensees who lost their licences through no fault of their own, but as a result of action by local Justices to close down premises in areas where they deemed there was overprovision. The scheme was funded by a levy on all licensed property, from £1 on small beer houses to £150 on large hotels. The scheme was not popular with either side in the alcohol/society debate, with temperance campaigners dubbing it the “Brewers Endowment Fund” and brewers calling it the “Mutual Burial Fund”.

The scheme didn’t last for long, but the money collected was not returned to the trade from whose pockets it had been picked. The fund was left in abeyance, and it wasn’t until the 1981 Act that half of the residual funds were transferred via a liquidator to establish the Alcohol Education and Research Council (AERC). In 2011 the AERC was wound up and the investment fund was transferred to a new charity, Alcohol Research UK.

The merger
On the 7th December 2016 there was a joint press release announcing that AC and ARUK are to “merge” by April 2017. Why has this happened? If you look at the published accounts of both organisations this gives you a clue. AC has struggled to fund itself since it lost core funding from the UK government in 2012. It still receives taxpayers’ money from the Welsh Assembly government totalling £185,108 in 2016, with its second biggest funder being the Big Lottery – Pembrokeshire which contributed £62,459 in the same year. In the recent past AC has received money from the pharmaceutical industry for its support for a treatment for ‘mild alcoholism’ that was marketed as ‘Selincro’. However, in 2016 its expenditure exceeded its income by some £72,330 and it is apparent that AC struggles to make ends meet, and if the UK government isn’t going to finance its sock puppet activities using public funds to lobby for public policy change, then its long-term future looked uncertain at best.

ARUK, on the other hand, is losing even more money, with its expenditure exceeding its income in 2015 by £317,701. Whilst this is a much bigger budget deficit than Alcohol Concern’s, ARUK does have a dependable source of income from its historical investment fund of £15.7 million, which delivered £548,855 in 2015, with just £51,972 from voluntary donations and an income of just £17,864 from “charitable activities”.

So, when is a merger not really a merger? Well, the CEO of the newly-merged organisation will be Dave Roberts, who currently heads up ARUK. AC’s current CEO Joanna Simons was appointed with the specific remit of looking at options for its future strategy and she will leave in April 2017, when the merger is accomplished. Emily Robinson, AC’s deputy CEO has already left. So, it appears that ARUK will gain AC’s income of around £950K a year, lose the cost of the two biggest earners from its payroll, and, presumably merge the two offices and save even more cost. All very sensible.

But what will really remain of AC’s campaigning efforts in the future? ‘Dry January’ will presumably still go ahead in January 2017, but after that will it be retained, rather like Fidel Castro’s cigar, as the signature symbol of a dead icon, or will it be dispensed with? I guess that will depend on whether AC’s funders are prepared to fund the AC part of the merged charity.

And what will be the position of those key figures in ARUK who insist that theirs is an objective, independent research organisation, now that they are about to acquire an organisation dedicated to advocacy and campaigning? ARUK states that its aim is to “reduce levels of alcohol-related harm by ensuring that policy and practice can always be developed on the basis of research-based evidence”; whereas AC states that they “work throughout England and Wales towards our vision of a world where alcohol does no harm”.

There is a big difference between reducing levels of harm, and creating a world where alcohol does no harm – which, given the mantra of “there is no safe level of alcohol consumption” - can only mean a world without alcohol. Whose vision will prevail? Given the tendency of anti-alcohol groups to undergo Trotskyite-like splits, will this marriage of financial convenience last, or might the Institute of Alcohol Studies and IOGT win-out in the neo-temperance merger stakes? We’ll have to wait and see.

Paul Chase

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