It’s time to talk about parliament’s drinking problem

Making alcohol freely available through a short walk down the corridor attracts cold comfort from a public that expects its MPs to uphold standards in public life

Tony Rao
Thursday 11 November 2021 13:54
Alcohol warning for over-65s

As we approach both Remembrance Sunday and Alcohol Awareness Week, a double whammy that dishonours the former and seems almost to disown the latter has led to Defence Secretary Ben Wallace criticising some of his peers in the House of Commons.

The behaviour of three MPs, alleged to have been “drinking heavily” on the way to an official visit to Gibraltar this week, part of a larger group on the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, has been described by Wallace as showing a­ “a lack of respect for the enduring work of our armed forces” and an incident that risks “undermining respect for parliament”.

One MP is alleged to have needed the use of a wheelchair to get from the baggage hall to a military minibus, while the other two were allegedly “lairy” and “rude” when their Covid passes failed to work at the airport gates. All three of them vehemently deny the claims.

Whether or not the allegations are true, this provides an opportune moment to reflect on a wider problem in Westminster. Last year, I was lead author on one of the few surveys of the drinking patterns of UK MPs. We made a series of findings which make for sobering reading. One hundred and forty six MPs took part in the study. We found these MPs to be more likely than those from comparable socio-economic groups to have a drink four or more times a week; to drink 10 or more units of alcohol on a typical drinking day; and to drink six or more units on one occasion. They were also more likely to feel guilty because of their drinking.

These figures may have even been an underestimate of the true extent of the problem. Although the survey was anonymous, there is always a strong chance of playing down alcohol intake due to the stigma of being seen as an “alcoholic”.

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There is still a strong culture of drinking within the Parliamentary Estate. There are 30 bars, restaurants and hospitality suites where alcohol is available or sold in the Palace of Westminster, and six bars that open most evenings when MPs are voting or waiting to vote.

This is unusual, as alcohol is no longer a feature of the modern workplace. The days when a lunchtime visit to the pub for a swift pint or two are now long gone. So why is the very seat of democracy, a place where those who make the laws and policies of our land, still a place where MPs can freely imbibe a substance that renders them, at best, unable to concentrate on the business of the day, and at worst, incapacitated?

Alcohol Awareness Week should be a time for a more serious debate around the availability of alcohol within the Parliamentary Estate. It’s a given that politicians experience the type of scrutiny that could involve both harassment and aggressive behaviour from the public in the form of direct physical attack, which we know all too well. With over half of MPs experiencing stalking or harassment, the impact on their mental health can be devastating and alcohol can sometimes be a way to drown out the background noise of this and other potentially traumatic events. This is likely compounded by the added stress of long working hours and time pressures.

But making alcohol freely available through a short walk down the corridor attracts cold comfort from a public that expects its MPs to uphold the decorum of standards in public life. Perhaps MPs need to talk more about their drinking when they have a problem, as some have been brave enough to do. Perhaps it’s also time for last orders for MPs.

Tony Rao is a consultant old-age psychiatrist and visiting lecturer at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust/Institute of Psychiatry in London

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