Is Drink Aware about to collapse in a heap?

Recently we’ve become only too familiar with the spectacle of Tony Blair losing control of his backbenchers as he attempts to bulldoze through his “legacy” policies. But is he also losing control at the ministerial level?

The question has some pertinence because this week a piece of that landmark legislation passes into the statute books, and it already looks shaky. The Licensing Act has attracted saturation media coverage of the lurid aspects of binge-drinking and the prospect of round-the-clock licensing hours. But the problem does not reside there, nor in the rebellious parliamentary rebels that Blair has, on this issue, successfully faced down.

No, it’s in the strategy designed to bring sense to deregulated drinking. Or rather, the lack of one. For what has all the signs of a carefully crafted agreement between government and industry to curb anti-social excess may come apart at the seams owing to last-minute ministerial procrastination.

Enter the Portman Group, representing the more socially conscious (or at least, prudent) end of the drinks industry. It has been in protracted negotiations with various government departments to forge an agreed agenda covering such issues as responsible drinking and the development of an anti-binge-drinking campaign. It has come very close to success, by all accounts, in the form of the Drink Aware initiative. Broadly speaking, the initiative – likely to take the form of a trust dispensing advice, fostering research and promoting social responsibility – would combine the marketing and communications skills of the industry with the endorsement of political support. Though most of the money would come from industry, the idea is that its expenditure on strictly non-commercial ends should be ring-fenced by trust status.

Clearly there are benefits here for any government trying to bring a section of industry onto its agenda bandwagon (and neatly getting it to pay most of the bill into the bargain). Yet they risk being frittered away by inter-departmental wrangling. For while Home Secretary Charles Clarke has been very publicly leaning on the supermarkets to fall into line with a responsible drinks code, at a ministerial level his department seems incapable of sealing the deal with Portman. Admittedly, there were always going to be difficulties – the Home Office, though the lead department, is only one of three involved in formulating a drinks strategy (the other two being Health and Culture, Media and Sport). But a unique private/public initiative appeared very close to fruition before the Home Office minister responsible, Hazel Blears, was whisked away by a promotion in the wake of David Blunkett’s resignation. Her successor, Paul Goggins, seems very much less inclined to hurry.

And yet speed is important. Portman has stuck its neck out in rallying much of the drinks industry behind this initiative – and not merely its own members. What’s more, it has promised substantial funding. This offer will not stand forever. Already, there are mutterings within the industry about spending the money more wisely elsewhere. If the Drink Aware initiative founders through a lack of political dynamism, that would be a great shame. After all, it’s not as if the government has a joined-up alternative.

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