Boozing of British lawmakers under review

March 31, 2012 - 9:16 AM
Britain Last Orders

WITH STORY BRITAIN LAST ORDERS - A glass of beer rests reflected in a window across from the Houses of Parliament in London, Friday, March 30, 2012, with Big Ben's clock tower also reflected. There are nearly 20 bars and restaurants inside Parliament, so as lawmakers try to roll out plans to restrict the consumption of alcohol in Britain, they may have to consider the availability of booze on their own doorstep, possibly signaling a call of last orders for some libations inside the Houses of parliament. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

LONDON (AP) — British lawmakers have been known to get rowdy during debates. They also have been known to fall down drunk during a vote, headbutt colleagues in a drunken brawl, and run up 50,000 pound ($80,000) tabs for food and drink.

But in what could signal a last call for drunken debauchery on the Parliamentary Estate, Britain's House of Commons is mulling new rules on lawmakers' libations amid a broader effort by the government to curb drinking.

The crackdown could come after a review that was reportedly ordered by the speaker of the House of Commons shortly after a lawmaker, Eric Joyce, admitted he was "hammered" on red wine when he headbutted two Conservative rivals, punched another and assaulted a member of his own Labour Party in a frenzied brawl at Strangers' bar in Parliament.

The official review sounds like a response to bad publicity generated by the Joyce incident, said George Jones, a professor emeritus of government at the London School of Economics.

"It damages the reputation of the House of Commons, and one way of dealing with it is to show that the House of Commons takes it all very seriously, that it cares," he said. "There is a culture of drinking and it's encouraged by the access of these MPs to cheap drink at any time. It's long been so."

Lawmakers' appreciation for liquor has included Winston Churchill's legendary love of champagne, Margaret Thatcher's thirst for Scotch, and Prime Minister David Cameron's past membership in the Bullingdon Club, a collegiate society known for its drinking binges.

But as Britain explores ways of tackling excessive drinking by its citizens — including a minimum price on alcohol — public drunkenness by public servants boozing in the nearly 20 bars and restaurants in Parliament has come to the fore.

There was Conservative lawmaker Mark Reckless, who admitted to the BBC he was too drunk to vote on the 2010 budget and "doesn't remember" falling over.

In January, opposition Labour lawmaker Chris Bryant said the scene at one of the largest bars in Parliament, Strangers, felt like London's Rupert Street — a Soho stretch known for its gay watering holes.

Then came Joyce's February assaults, generating front-page headlines about overindulgence at the seat of government.

That seems to have prompted Speaker of the House John Bercow to seek a review of alcohol's role on the Parliamentary Estate.

Alcohol sold there — from draught beers to Autumnal wine selections, Jameson Irish Whiskey and Campari aperitifs — is typically priced below normal bars and pubs, thanks to a broad subsidy that covers all food and refreshment costs in the House of Commons.

When it is finished in April, the House of Commons Commission's review could enforce changes in opening and closing hours or raise prices.

But many say overdoing it with pints in Parliament is less common than in the old days and that the Commons is now more family friendly (one pub was converted to a nursery) and lifestyles have changed.

Several watering holes have closed over the past few years, and lawmakers seem more concerned with politicking or pumping iron in the gym than pub-hopping or indulging in boozy lunches.

Conservative lawmaker Sarah Wollaston said she has been told by long-serving colleagues that drinking used to be a serious issue in Parliament but is now more moderate.

But, he said, the Joyce case highlights the need for real guidelines on drinking at work.

"You wouldn't visit a surgeon who had drunk a bottle of wine at lunchtime," she said in an email. "Parliament should have drinking-at-work guidelines like everywhere else."