Sober times call for sober minds, so we should also call time on alcohol in the Senedd
On a purely personal level, I felt a degree of sadness about the fate of Paul Davies, the Leader of the Welsh Conservatives, who was reported last week as having consumed alcohol with other Members of the Senedd in December.
As National Assembly Correspondent for Golwg magazine, I was among the first reporters (and quite possibly the very first) to interview Paul Davies on the occasion of his becoming a member of the National Assembly for Wales in 2007.
Three years later, working for the Disability Law Service (DLS) in Wales, I had no hesitation at all in inviting Paul Davies to be the sponsor of our National Assembly launch of a major report on the provision of disability advice services in Wales. Paul Davies undertook this task in a diligent and thorough manner which reflected well on the DLS as an organisation.
More recently, Paul Davies has campaigned hard on an Autism Bill for Wales, which was narrowly rejected in a 2019 Senedd vote. Expert disability legislators are a precious commodity and, if only for this reason, I do hope that Paul Davies will be able to personally reflect and then rebuild his role in Welsh public life.
Media focus on the incident last week has, understandably, centred on the inconsistency of MSs being able to consume alcohol whilst the hospitality sector in Wales remained locked down under COVID-19 regulations. However, in my opinion, the “elephant in the room” which continues to remain unspoken, is that this episode would not have happened at all if consumption of alcohol was forbidden on the Senedd estate.
Consumption of alcohol is not allowed in most workplaces: it would normally be a disciplinary offence to do so. The unsavoury episode reported last week provides Wales with a golden opportunity to bring its national parliament into line with other workplaces, and to permanently remove alcohol from sale on its premises. I will outline three reasons why such a ban should be enacted.
Firstly, and in the short-term, the Senedd should be brought into line with other hospitality venues during COVID-19. In October, the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, initiated a comprehensive ban on alcohol in the Westminster Parliament in response to specific issues relating to the current crisis. It would be wholly appropriate for the relevant Senedd authorities in Wales to follow suit.
Secondly, and more generally, an alcohol ban in the Senedd would serve as a daily reminder to our legislators and officials of the deadly serious issues arising as a result of alcohol consumption is in Wales. A summary of government data reveals that n 2017/18, there were 54,900 alcohol-related hospital admissions and 14,600 alcohol-specific admissions in Wales. Approximately 1,500 (5%) of deaths in Wales each year are attributable to alcohol consumption. 18% of the adult population in Wales are drinking above the recommended 14 units per week.
Research by Alcohol Change suggests that these general patterns will be exacerbated by the extreme conditions of the COVID-19 crisis, whilst The Lancet medical journal concludes that “…lockdown represents a risk factor for increasing alcohol consumption in people with alcohol use disorders and relapse for those who were previously abstinent.”
My third and final reason for a Senedd alcohol ban is that it would be a hugely symbolic act of regulation for Wales, sitting alongside such innovations as the establishment of the Children’s Commissioner for Wales in 2001 and the Future Generations Act (2015) which places Welsh Ministers under a duty to act “in accordance with the sustainable development principle”. Similarly, a Senedd alcohol ban (including working under the influence of alcohol consumed elsewhere) would compel Welsh legislators, staff, visitors and other officials to act in accordance with a principle of sobriety, at least whilst on Senedd Premises.
At the very least, it would provide at least one positive legacy from this painful episode in Welsh politics and I sincerely hope that the idea put forward in this article gains some traction amongst interested parties in our Senedd.
Dr Carwyn Tywyn was National Assembly Correspondent for Golwg magazine from 2006-07 and is now an experienced disability advice caseworker. Carwyn has lived an alcohol-free life since March 2015 and campaigns regularly on the issue of alcohol awareness. Carwyn is a current member of Club Soda, which promotes mindful drinking, and is a former trustee of Stafell Fyw Caerdydd / Living Room Cardiff.