The papers have been full of stories about how the café culture, AKA the night-time economy, AKA spending all night getting bladdered out of your mind and then beating up the nearest bloke for looking at your bird as she chomps on her kebab, hasn’t been quite the roaring success that the-then Labour government said it would be.
Heck, even Alastair Campbell says they ‘might have got it wrong‘, and he’s not a big believer in admitting they got stuff wrong.
All of which put us in mind of this section from the late Inspector Gadget’s book, Perverting the Course of Justice:
24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE
WE HEAR a lot about ‘booze Britain’ these days, but it’s not the booze which is the problem, it’s the people.
Most of us like a drink now and then. As a younger man, particularly when I was in the Army, I had a few beers and rolled back home drunk more than once, but I never smashed all the car mirrors off in the streets on the way back, or attacked anyone with a baseball bat, or told the police to f**k off. I still enjoy a pint from time to time, but I don’t get absolutely slaughtered and I don’t go out and smack people in the face and puke all over the pavement. I don’t drink-drive and I don’t beat up my wife or kids or neighbours. I don’t smash shop windows, or urinate in doorways, or use foul language at the top of my voice.
I’m nothing special: there are millions of people who don’t do any of these things, and you’re probably among them.
The problem is, there are also quite a lot of Britons who don’t feel like they’ve had a decent night out until they’ve ticked several of the above boxes, and had a kebab/KFC.
Of course, their behaviour is often appalling when they’re sober, but it’s far worse when they’re drunk, as whatever inhibitions or social polish they might have had are swept away on a tide of Stella Artois and blue, vodka-based pop.
There are people who say that it was ever thus, and point to Hogarth’s Gin Lane and the back streets of our port cities where sailors would get tanked up and fighting drunk after months at sea. But this new phenomenon is happening on our High Streets, at least three or four nights a week.
The protagonists are often young, and they have a lot of disposable income: they can’t afford to buy houses anymore so they all live with their parents way beyond when they used to. With no responsibilities, and with discount drink far cheaper than it ever was, why not go out and get hammered every night?
Into this poisonous cocktail the Government recently threw another ingredient – 24 hour licensing.
Not many places are open 24 hours, it’s true, but lots are now open much later than they were. I don’t care what the figures say, this has caused us huge problems. When the nightclubs used to shut at the same time, we could gear everything to that point. We would have a flurry of issues – the town centre fights, the robbing or bilking of taxi drivers, the drink-driving accidents, the people falling over and smacking their heads on the concrete etc – but at about 2.30am it would all start to die off. Now it carries on all the way through to 6am. Ask any front line cop, and they’ll tell you: broad daylight on a Sunday morning, getting towards the end of the shift, and they are still going to fights in the High Street. What’s going on?
The Government calls it the ‘Night Time Economy’ (NTE). This Orwellian phrase refers to those bars, clubs and other such venues operating at night in town centres. It is a nightmare of vomit, urine, chips and police officers being punched in the face, but that doesn’t square with the official vision of longer licensing and the NTE – where everyone meets up in cafés to share polenta and vine-ripened tomatoes, sip their five units of alcohol and chat about the issues of the day.
Again, I may have missed it but I don’t think any minister has gone on telly and admitted that the NTE licensing experiment has been a disaster. They don’t like to admit they’re wrong about much, do they? Instead, the pressure is on the police to find ways to deal with NTE crime and anti-social behaviour.
Launching an advertising campaign recently, Jacqui Smith said, ‘I am not prepared to tolerate alcohol-fuelled crime and disorder on our streets and this new campaign will challenge people to think twice about the serious consequences of losing control. It reinforces Government action already underway to deal with excessive drinking, including tougher sanctions for licensees who sell to young people, new powers for the police to disperse disruptive drinkers and better education and information for everyone.’
The Government’s input, then, is an advert, some ‘better education and information’ and the wildly misguided hope that the lunatics we arrest each weekend will somehow start to ‘think twice about the serious consequences of losing control’.
As for actually sorting it out, that’s down to us. Luckily, they are legislating to give us ‘new powers’.
The problem with politicians these days is that very few of them have actually ever done anything in the real world. They go from university, to jobs as MPs’ research assistants, to themselves becoming MPs and then Ministers. Being law-abiding types themselves (save for the odd run-in with cannabis), they actually believe that a ton of extra verbage on the statute books is all it takes. If only it were that simple.
The Government says irresponsible landlords who serve drunk people should be prosecuted, and that we should also identify the bar staff who served these idiots their booze. Which sounds great when you announce it at the despatch box in the House of Commons, or on Richard and Judy’s sofa, or in an exclusive interview with some newspaper political editor. It’s not so easy at midnight in our towns, when the streets are full of paralytically drunk yobs who are kicking off, smashing windows and fighting with us. We don’t have the time or the personnel to start checking CCTV to find out where they just came out of. Even if we did, and we went to speak to the manager of the venue, what’s he going to say? He’s going to say, no, we didn’t serve them, they came in pissed so we kicked them back out. So we spend however many hours reviewing the tapes to find all the previous venues they went to, and the managers there say, no, we didn’t serve them either, they were pissed when they came in here, too.
OK, so we grill the bar staff instead. We push our way into a club we think a given bozo has come from. There are 300 people in there, the ‘music’ is at about 140 decibels, the five barmaids are all Polish and hardly speak a word of English. Shouting to be heard, we’re trying to ask them if they served a man in a striped shirt with tattooed forearms and a gold earring, in a club containing about 200 men in striped shirts with tattooed forearms and gold earrings. Back on the street, meanwhile, a whole different group of drunks is now kicking the living s**t out of my officers.
This is the stuff of fantasy. It is ludicrous. It is dreamed up by people sitting in air-conditioned rooms whose experience of modern drinking, I can only think, must be limited to nights out in country inns in the Cotswolds or metropolitan bars in London. In a trendy pub in Islington, there might be three dozen people sitting listening to jazz all night and if one of them later goes mad outside the 24 hour Tesco possibly you can pin something on the people who served him his last quart of pinot grigio. But these are not the places from which the trouble emanates.
The police can shut problem pubs, says the Government. Yep, we can. But it’s not quite as easy as it sounds when you say it to Andrew Marr and he’s nodding in agreement. I have shut a pub down. Once. But it was a really difficult thing to do, it took days of police time and it wasn’t easy to get it through at court. The licensees don’t just roll over, they put up a vigorous defence because it’s their livelihood you’re taking away. Plus, all it does is displace the problem. People don’t stop drinking and brawling just because their favourite bar has closed, after all.
I don’t know the full answer to the problem. I suspect no-one does. It probably involves all sorts of things, from improving attitudes to civility and behaviour from a very young age, to changing our drinking culture, to making booze harder and more expensive to buy (though this would penalise non-problem drinkers), to tougher enforcement of the basic laws against public drunkenness and violence.
This latter element of a wider solution is the one thing the police actually could do something about – after all, Ms Smith says that she has given us new powers to ‘disperse disruptive drinkers’. But this is another one straight from the la-la land school of public order: ‘Excuse me sir, can you put that bottle down and stop trying to blind that other man? We have new powers to disperse you, you see.’
Disperse them with who, Jacqui?
I know the Home Secretary says we have more police than ever, but how many of them are working Response? I know, too, that we have PCSOs now, and that they look a bit like police, but very few of them work beyond 9pm because it’s too dangerous (it’s not too dangerous for the public, note, but it is too dangerous for PCSOs, despite their stab vests and their radios). In the first few months of 24 hour licensing, we were given enormous amounts of centrally-funded extra money to put more bodies on the street. I know, because I was one of them – the overtime was great. As a result, everywhere you turned there were police. Once that dried up, we were back to normal – and we really don’t have the numbers to do much more than control things to a just-about acceptable level.
So, what if we could do something to the figures, to make it look like things are better? If it’s not within our gift to stop the nations’ youth getting drunk and fighting, and it’s not, the only place left for us to go to, to get the reductions we need, is our bureaucrats.
If we arrest lots of people for relatively minor things, so we get lots of ‘detections’, we at least have some ammunition to use in our defence when people start squealing about NTE crime. Or if police statisticians start to look at definitions of crime, maybe we can shift things that would have been counted into areas that wouldn’t be?
For instance, someone is being aggressive and drunk in the street. We have two options. We can arrest him for being ‘drunk and disorderly’ or for one of the offences under the Public Order Act 1986 – sections 3, 4 and 5 of which are more commonly known as ‘Affray’, ‘Threatening Behaviour’ and ‘Disorderly Conduct’.
What’s the difference? The difference is that ‘drunk and disorderly’ is not a recordable crime. You are found in that state by a police officer, arrested and bound over to keep the peace at court the next day (or, more often, given a Penalty Notice for Disorder and sent on your way). It doesn’t show up on our figures. S5 POA is recordable, and does.
There is widespread anecdotal evidence of PCs being put under pressure to arrest for drunk and disorderly. Even if they arrest for S5 POA, it can later be changed to d&d – this is perfectly legitimate, no-one is doing anything technically wrong or illegal, but it does have the added benefit of making the NTE figures look a lot better than they actually are, doesn’t it?
I don’t even really blame senior officers if they are creating this pressure: the Government has said it wants to see reductions, so we have to provide them.
Whether it actually makes things better… well, who in authority really cares? As long as they aren’t getting stabbed in the kebab house, or having their car walked over at 3am, or being woken up by people fighting in their front garden – and they aren’t – then is there really a problem?