Last orders! Report calls time on boozy Westminster culture | Society

With its 16 bars and restaurants, and endless receptions where free alcohol flows, no one is ever far away from temptation at the Palace of Westminster, as the late Tory MP Alan Clark recalled so colourfully in his diaries.

During his time as a junior employment minister, Clark had had a few too many at a wine-tasting before he was due to address MPs from the dispatch box in 1983. “We ‘tasted’ the first bottle of ’61 Palmer, then ‘for comparison’ a bottle of ’75 Palmer then, switching back to ’61, a really delicious Pichon Longueville,” Clark wrote, confessing that this medley of fine vintages left him feeling rather “muzzy”.

When he rose to speak in the chamber soon afterwards, it was from an unseen script written by civil servants. “As I started [reading it out], the sheer odiousness of the text sank in,” Clark recalled. “I found myself myself dwelling on, implicitly, it could be said, sneering at, the more cumbrous and unintelligible passages.”

There was nothing for it but to get the speech over as fast as possible, so awful was the content. “Helter-skelter I galloped through … Sometimes I turned over two pages at once, sometimes three. What did it matter? There was no shape to it. No linkage from one proposition to another. The very antithesis of an Aristotelian pattern.”

Unsurprisingly MPs could not make head nor tail of what the minister was saying. “Up bobbed a teeny little fellow, [Greville] Janner by name,” wrote Clark “a Labour lawyer who always wears a pink carnation in his buttonhole. He asked me what the last paragraph meant. How the hell did I know?”

Then a new Labour member, Clare Short, protested, saying it was “disrespectful to the house and to the office that he holds that he should come here in this condition.” Members took sides. “Screams, yells, shouts of ‘Withdraw’, counter shouts. General uproar … The House was alight.”

The Tory MP and minister Alan Clark admitted making a speech in the Commons while feeling somewhat ‘muzzy’ after a wine tasting.

The Tory MP and minister Alan Clark admitted making a speech in the Commons while feeling somewhat ‘muzzy’ after a wine tasting. Photograph: M McKeown/Getty Images

That was the era of late-night sittings and votes, when there were fewer women MPs in an unreformed parliament, and when over-indulgence was much more common. But almost four decades later, the propensity for MPs to drink too much, and the way the Westminster culture encourages them to do so, is still causing concern.

Last week the British Medical Journal published results of a survey of MPs, conducted in late 2016 but not revealed until now, which found that binge drinking – having more than six units in one session – was more common among those who make the laws of the land than the general public.

One of those behind the survey was Tory MP Dan Poulter, a GP, teetotaller and part-time NHS psychiatrist. Poulter has also carried out research on the links between the Westminster culture and mental health problems.

The survey found that as a group they were more likely to “drink riskily” and down the equivalent of a bottle of wine on a standard day than the public. And while parliament provided help for MPs with drink problems through its own health and wellbeing service, the study found more than three quarters of members were unaware of its existence.

The former Tory MP and former chair of the all-party select committee on health and social care, Sarah Wollaston, welcomed the survey. She said that although during her 10 years as an MP she had seen a definite reduction in excessive drinking by MPs, there was still a tendency for a minority to “cruise from reception to reception picking up free alcohol along the way”.

Poulter said the Commons authorities should reduce the availability of alcohol at Westminster so it was more in line with parliaments in other countries: “It is extraordinary that there are so many bars in parliament where alcohol is available at almost every hour of the day.

“This is not the case in other parliaments elsewhere in the world and is certainly not the case in other workplaces where drinking alcohol is not acceptable during working hours. It is important that parliament takes note of our research and brings the working environment into the 21st century. This is particularly important for those MPs who have developed a difficult relationship with alcohol.”

Another of the report’s authors, Tony Rao, a psychiatrist at King’s College London, said: “The observation that MPs in this study showed higher levels of daily, weekly and binge drinking than other comparable groups may be a reflection of how having a drink in parliament could simply mean just a short walk down the corridor.”

A House of Commons spokesperson said efforts were being made to encourage responsible drinking: “The House of Commons Commission has agreed a number of actions to promote responsible alcohol consumption, including increasing the range of non-alcoholic drinks and lower strength beers available, expanding and encouraging alcohol-free areas, discouraging members and staff from drinking in offices after bars are shut, and not running promotional advertisements for alcohol.

“The Parliamentary Health and Wellbeing Service is on hand to offer support to anyone working on the estate with physical, mental health or wellbeing issues.”

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