John Bercow has been accused of suppressing details of alcohol problems among Westminster politicians and their staff. The House of Commons Speaker has rejected a Freedom of Information (FoI) Act request to make available reports of alcohol-related incidents in Parliament's bars. The request follows a series of episodes, including alleged assaults involving MPs, peers and their staffs.
There are around 12 bars and restaurants serving alcohol in Parliament, which are subsidised by taxpayers to the amount of approximately £4m each year. Former MP Eric Joyce was convicted of assault during a fracas in the Strangers' Bar in 2012. Another ex-MP, Mark Reckless, has revealed that he missed a late-night vote in 2010 because he was drunk.
The FoI Act request was made by the Press Association news agency. The issue of alcohol abuse in Westminster is not new. Dr Sarah Wollaston, Totnes MP, former general practitioner and chair of the health select committee, warned in 2011 that some of her colleagues were drinking "really quite heavily".
She said: "Who would go to see a surgeon who had just drunk a bottle of wine at lunchtime? But we fully accept that MPs are perfectly capable of performing as MPs despite some of them drinking really quite heavily."
Limiting MP's alcohol
Alcohol Concern has urged parliament to remove subsidies from alcoholic drinks in its outlets. Meanwhile, Commons bar staff have been given training on how to refuse to serve drunk customers. They have also been told to top up glasses less frequently at functions.
The parliamentary Safety, Health and Wellbeing Service is believed to have carried out work to identify the extent of drink-related problems and the ways they could be addressed.
The FoI Act request was for "any evidence or reports produced by the Safety, Health and Wellbeing Service regarding the provision and consumption of alcohol on the parliamentary estate, and related health effects". The parliamentary authorities have disclosed merely that nine appointments were made with the Health and Wellbeing Service over "alcohol dependency" in September 2012.
Dodging FoI requests
It is very easy for parliament to avoid scrutiny under the FoI Act. Section 36 of the Act allows the Speaker of the House to withhold information if he believes that it would prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs. Section 36 was used three years ago to avoid disclosing details of Bercow's tax liabilities for his grace-and-favour parliamentary residence.
Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said of the parliamentary authorities: "On the face of it there is no reason why they should not reveal what their assessment of any alcohol problem in parliament is. It is a matter of public interest if any MP's or peer's conduct is being impaired. It is entirely reasonable for us to know whether they regard that as a problem, and what has been considered."