Prisoners at the bar

Having a drink in one English town means everyone knows your name – including the authorities. Cheers.

Guy Herbert

Topics Politics

If you want a late-night drink in Yeovil in south-west England, prepare to be treated like a criminal. Pubs and clubs there are asking everyone for photographic identification and evidence of address. They are recording the information, including photos and dates of birth, sharing it with others involved in the scheme. They’re even fingerprinting their customers. It won’t be long before similar schemes are popping up all over the country.

In some ways the Yeovil scheme is even worse than being treated like a criminal. If you are arrested in England and Wales, police may take fingerprints and DNA samples, and have no obligation (after a bit of retrospective legislation legalised previous practice) to destroy them. If a prisoner is not convicted of anything, however, police will destroy the photographs they take. Even with recent extensions of their powers, police are reluctant to take people into custody without good reason. And they have no power to demand you identify yourself by giving your name and address if they don’t suspect you of an offence.

The Yeovil regime is somewhat less forgiving. The pretext is that pub licensees ‘have a duty of care’ to oversee their guests, in case anyone misbehaves (1). The practice is the supervision of individuals by a committee called Pub Watch. If you’re caught misbehaving, your case will be reviewed by the committee and you could end up being banned completely from the drinking holes of Yeovil. The context: Home Office funding for ‘safer communities’ schemes (2); some barely disguised arm-twisting of pubs and clubs by authorities using the Licensing Act 2003 (3); and a shift of policy by government at all levels, from regulating drinking premises, to regulating the behaviour of drinkers as directly as possible.

Before the 2003 Act, licensing justices decided to grant or withhold a license on the basis of submissions about the fitness of the premises or the licensee, and broad policy considerations about the number of drinking places in a locality. It was a fairly simple judicial function, but one which government claimed was too restrictive.

Such restrictions have been resolved by creating a whole new licensing bureaucracy with specific statutory duties to promote (with equal importance): the prevention of crime and disorder, public safety, prevention of public nuisance, and protection of children from harm. They have to produce written licensing policies to do these things. And they are subject to ‘guidelines’ issued by a minister (4).

The universal application of such conflicting and often irrelevant rules turns pubs and others into closely supervised child-minders for the infantilised at law. Not even the other sort of inn escapes. The Inns of Court, the voluntary societies that act as trainer, supervisor and networking hub to London’s barristers, are statutorily charged with licensing functions for themselves. They now provide their members with wine at dinners subject to a ludicrous officialese rubric, such as: ‘The aim of the policy is to ensure the safety and amenity of the community within the Inner Temple while facilitating cultural and entertainment activities. The Inn recognises the needs of residents for a safe and healthy environment and is working with City of London police, the fire service, chambers, members of the Inn and residents towards the promotion of the objectives set out in this policy.’ (4)

Such insulting nonsense is an empty burden of paperwork for the honourable societies. To bureaucrats it is a career (5), and to the ordinary drinking man or woman it is the end of an ancient culture. We don’t all long to go where everybody (in authority) knows your name. The function of pubs and the equivalent all over the world is that of speakeasy: formal identification and official roles are put aside, and people can engage in direct communication with some shield of anonymity. Being drunk is a permitted excuse for sometimes pretty bad social behaviour.

The pub is a museum of informal, voluntary relationships among people presumed responsible for themselves. We make allowances for each other, forgive and forget where reasonable, and accept some hypocrisy will be stripped away, to be replaced the morning after. The bar is a directly negotiated social mix not subject to official standardisation. Perhaps that is why the authorities feel that the right of anonymity there, of all places, must be stamped out.

Like prisoners, punters will now have their fingerprints used to log their interactions with the system. There’ll be no more forgiving, no more forgetting.

Guy Herbert is general secretary for the broad-based campaigning organisation NO2ID. He is also a senior contributor to

Read on:

spiked-issue: Drink and drugs

(1) For example, a well-rehearsed Yeovil licensee speaking on the Jeremy Vine show, BBC Radio 2, 24 October 2006

(2) Now to be used to extend this scheme to Coventry, Sheffield, Hull and other places. See Beer fingerprints go UK wide, The Register, 20 October 2006

(3) Ibid., ‘New licences stipulate that a landlord who doesn’t install fingerprint security and fails to show a “considerable” reduction in alcohol-related violence, will be put on report by the police and have their licences revoked.’
Licensing Act 2003, s4

(4) Inner Temple Deputy Sub-Treasurer’s Licensing Act 2005 Policy, 7/10 January 2005

(5) Julia Bradburn, principle licensing manager of South Somerset District Council, who is responsible for the Yeovil scheme, was a guest speaker at the Biometrics 2006 conference and exhibition in Westminster in October 2006, talking as part of the ‘Law and Order’ stream.

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Topics Politics


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