Zero tolerance: Should the sale of alcohol be banned permanently on the Parliamentary Estate?

As the sale of alcohol in Westminster faces a temporary ban, Dr Tony Rao, author and Visiting Research Fellow, explores whether it is time for last orders to be called in the bars of Parliament.

On 17 October 2020, the sale of alcohol was banned in the House Commons, following an announcement by the Speaker a few days before. Through this measure, the ban would cover all catering outlets, whether or not food was served. He added that this ban would last for the “foreseeable future”.

But should Parliament go a step a further? Would a permanent ban on the sale of alcohol be a timely last order?

Just before UK lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the first research paper on drinking patterns in MPs in the House of Commons was published. One in five MPs responded to the questionnaire. Although MPs were no more likely than those in similar socio-economic groups to drink at risky levels, they were more likely than these groups to drink four or more times a week, to have 10 or more drinks on a typical drinking day or to have six or more drinks in one occasion.

Over the past month, I put out the suggestion of a permanent ban on the sale of alcohol across the Parliamentary Estate. Of the 94 responses, 80% were in favour of an outright ban.

It’s not just the long hours and work pressures that could influence drinking in MPs. There is also the matter of how accessible alcohol is on site.  In fact, in a recent media interview I said: “The observation that MPs in this study showed higher levels of daily, weekly and binge drinking than other comparable groups may be a reflection of how having a drink in parliament could simply mean just a short walk down the corridor.”

The suggestion of a complete ban on alcohol availability in the workplace is not plucked out of thin air. We know, for example, that greater availability of alcohol in the workplace predicts the development of problem drinking.  An observation that has driven change in some organisations. The TUC stops short of a zero tolerance approach and states “alcohol and drugs have no place in the workplace, unless required for a medical condition, however we also believe that employers should not interfere in a person’s private life unless it impacts on their work”. In a similar vein, UNISON talks about working under the influence of “excess alcohol” in the workplace or during working hours under the Safety at Work Act. For doctors, it has been suggested that it would be prudent and ethical not to consume alcohol during working hours, including when on call.

It is difficult to compare MPs to airline pilots in imposing a zero tolerance approach to drinking during working hours. But if we know that the ready availability of alcohol means a greater chance of the harmful use of alcohol, not having alcohol on your doorstep might make you think twice about downing that second drink. If research has already informed us that MPs show heavier drinking than other groups, then why should Parliament not follow the lead of most other workplaces? There is no sale of alcohol in hospitals and the days of alcohol being served at working lunches in the NHS are long gone.

The ready availability of alcohol should almost certainly not be a feature of the modern workplace. Would it be too much to ask for MPs to move along with times?

Written by Dr Tony Rao

This blog was published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alcohol Health Alliance or its members.