The UK parliament has an alcohol problem – fuelled by the high availability of alcohol, the pervasive alcohol norm, close ties with Big Alcohol, long working hours, high pressure, and stress.
In 2013 a survey by Alcohol Change UK (then called Alcohol Concern) found that more than a quarter of Members of Parliament (MPs) believe there was too much alcohol use in Westminster. The situation has not improved to this day.
A study in 2020 explored the heavy alcohol use problem in the UK parliament. Researchers sent confidential questionnaires to all 650 MPs, and 146 responded. The researchers then compared the alcohol use levels of MPs with the general population, corporate and non-corporate managers, and those in other high-income groups.
They found the following key results:
- 40% of the MPs who responded were likely to consume alcohol at least four times a week, compared with 15% of the general population.
- Overall, 29% of the MPs in the study engaged in high-risk alcohol use.
- 18% of MPs consumed six units or more in a single alcohol use episode at least weekly – compared with 8% of the general population and between 10% and 12% of the other groups.
- MPs were more likely to feel guilty about their alcohol use daily or almost daily:
- 3% of MPs reported feeling this way compared with 1% of the general population and between zero and 1% of all other groups.
The study authors report that there was a higher number of women in their study than in the total MPs group. As women tend to have less alcohol than men, this may mean that levels of alcohol use among MPs are actually even higher than the study findings.
Insider reporting reveals several sources have said alcohol has become a major problem for the parliament but MPs are reluctant to get help in fear of the information being used against them.
The UK parliament is a place where alcohol is highly available. Unique among the world’s legislative chambers, the Palace of Westminster contains eight bars and other licensed venues where cheap alcohol is available.
The Insider reports that one whip said heavy alcohol use is one of the major problems his team deals with in the parliament. A small number of the same MPs supposedly engage in heavy alcohol use during working hours. It has become very difficult to try to change their behaviors. And the heavy alcohol consumption has led to other problems such as fights, arguments, and sexual harassment.
A punishing environment
MPs on the other hand say that support is lacking. One junior MP had even said that the party whips “would much rather some members, especially those more rebellious ones, get inebriated so they are easier to guide as to which lobby to go through” when voting.
Another MP said that the whips will keep track of incidents caused by heavy alcohol use just to use the information against MPs. Party whips have a history of storing negative information to use against MPs to push them to vote in favor of what they want.
It is a hard, difficult job, it is hugely pressured – you are working morning, noon, and night if you are doing the job properly — and there isn’t enough in the way of support to individual MPs. Westminster picks its casualties and spits out the weak,” said one MP, as per The Insider.A UK Member of Parliament
Even if having an alcohol problem is not used against an MP to sway their decisions and push them in some direction, the consequences are still not good. It would mean suspension from the party, a disciplinary matter, which is not supportive to overcome the problem.
For anyone struggling with alcohol, working in Westminster can be a challenge,” said Dan Carden, UK MP, who went public with his alcohol addiction.
While we are fortunate to have access to a range of health and well-being services, there has been a lack of peer-support available on the Parliamentary Estate, until now.”Dan Carden, UK MP
Carden is now working with the Speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle to start a peer-support group for anyone struggling with alcohol problems in parliament.
While sources of The Insider article welcomed the idea they were unsure if anyone would use it in fear of it being used against them. The notion was that “Parliament isn’t a safe space for anyone to seek help” and that “it would be leaked and briefed out.”
There is a wall of abuse and a wall of work and a wall of expectations and pressure. But both main parties say ‘you wanted to be an MP, so deal with it,'” said one Tory backbencher, as per the Insider.A Tory backbencher
Work and social lives saturated with alcohol
Another major problem is that most of the networking is still done in social settings with alcohol being omnipresent – a reality fueled by the alcohol industry. Using alcohol has thus become a part of the job.
… networking is still done via informal [alcohol use]. Often you actually can go a whole day without doing any work and then get a week’s worth of networking done in one night at the [nearby pub] Red Lion,” said one former staffer, as per The Insider.A former staffer of UK parliament
The hours and setting of the UK Parliament are not helpful either. Late-night voting means MPs are often away from home and their loved ones. They stay in hotels or flats. The lack of connection means MPs would rather go out than go back to their room. Going out for most MPs has become saturated with alcohol.
Sources of The Insider claim that parliament is home to “lots of functioning alcoholics” and that quite a lot of people are dependent on alcohol. Many are using alcohol as an unhealthy coping mechanism.
During the pandemic, the parliament bars stayed closed or under restrictions. When MPs returned to parliament while the bars were closed they got their staff to go to the nearby convenience store to buy alcohol products. MPs would then have alcohol with colleagues in their offices.
A similar but much more heightened trend was recently uncovered in No.10 Downing Street. A report written by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant on the events held at No.10 Downing Street during the pandemic uncovered a harmful and pervasive alcohol norm within the UK government.
Dr. Richard Piper, chief executive of Alcohol Change UK said that instead of blaming individuals the pervasive alcohol norm within the UK parliament must be tackled to reduce the problem.
The House of Commons reports that the parliamentary health and wellbeing service is on hand to offer support to members, peers, and staff of either House and the parliamentary digital service, with physical, mental health, or wellbeing issues. There are also assistance programs in place that offer 24/7 confidential advice and support on personal or work-related issues. The problem is MPs are afraid to use the services in case it gets leaked and is used against them.