Pioneering spirit on the Isle of Man

By Peter Coulson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Isle of man, Drinking culture, Kim howells

Coulson: will follow Manx proposal with interest
Coulson: will follow Manx proposal with interest
Prohibition has often been found to be counterproductive — not only in alcohol, says MA legal guru Peter Coulson.

It is strange how being surrounded by water turns you to drink! There is a certain island mentality which does not seem to pervade landlocked areas, and Britain has its fair share of such places, with their separate legal systems and willingness to do something different.

So it is that the Isle of Man — the first place in the country to do away with permitted hours for pubs — is now considering lowering the drinking age to 16. This is a bid to combat antisocial behaviour by youngsters who are drinking in parks and open spaces unsupervised and appears to have the support of a leading police officer on the island as well.

The proposal, of course, is not new. I well remember sharing a platform at a BII seminar a few years back with a senior police officer who hit the headlines in England after proposing the same thing. The Government of the time was not interested in pursuing the idea, or even discussing it. I think the current Home Office personnel would run a mile from it.

But in spite of the then Labour licensing minister Kim Howells in his typical trenchant fashion giving the Isle of Man Home Affairs Minister Alan Bell a rough time over the hours issue — "it would never work here on the mainland etc" — a few years later what did Labour do but introduce the abolition of permitted hours? And no-one could say that it has not worked in principle, even though many local authorities are not really following the spirit of the law.

The main challenge to the idea of lowering the drinking age is that it will take the drinking threshold back further — that youngsters of 14 will then become the major problem. To judge from some of the statistical data — admittedly based on the so-called "confessions" of the youngsters themselves — this is already happening. But it has nothing to do with the legal age for the purchase of alcohol.

Strong opposition

Removing rather than reinforcing the under-18 blanket prohibition would require a major change in social policy, particularly as Scotland has attempted to go in the other direction — to raise the age of purchase. That has so far failed, meeting very strong opposition. But it is clear that there are opposing schools of thought on how you deal with the hazardous and often lethal effects of over-indulgence by the very young.

Prohibition has often been found to be counterproductive, not only in the areas of alcohol but in other aspects of human behaviour as well.

There is no doubt that youngsters find the alcohol age ban a challenge and attempt whenever possible to find ways round it. Legalising their purchase and consumption while still promoting the strong message of sensible drinking and the dangers of over-indulgence might possibly have a calming effect and would take away the "thrill" of something unlawful.

The problem for England and Wales is that so much play has been made of the "crime" of selling alcohol to those under 18. So much time and money has been invested in test purchasing and prosecutions, with the prospect of three strikes being reduced to two strikes and the loss of a licence in the near future. It would take a seismic shift in attitude on the part of the present Government, which I do not see coming.

I'll follow the progress of the Manx proposal with interest. If it becomes law and is successful, no doubt Labour will trot out Kim Howells or his equivalent to rubbish it once again. But the island may have the last laugh.

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