Analysis: Lonsdale’s Controversial Drunkenness Crackdown

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Photo by Lucy Lamb

Being drunk in public spaces, including College bars, contravenes University rules. Dealing with such instances can come under the remit of the College Deaneries. This is not a rule that was introduced last Friday: it has always been in place at Lancaster University, and students have been fined for being drunk in the past. Being drunk in public spaces is also against the law, and is an offence under section 12 of the Licensing Act, 1872.

That’s the real story right there, but your author gets the impression that it raises far more questions than it answers about the now notorious Lonsdale College “DRUNKENNESS CRACKDOWN”, announced on Friday, Week 1, of Lent term (January 17th) via email by College Administrator Juli Shorrock, and initiated by College Dean Dr. Richard Austen-Baker and the Principal, Dr. Keith Davidson.

So let’s start at the beginning – stay with it; the plot and the resolution is, if nothing else, more satisfying than the most recent series of Sherlock.

On Friday, an email was sent out to all Lonsdale College students informing them that fines of up to £250 would be levied over any student found to be drunk, or any member of bar staff serving alcohol to any drunken student. Notices to this effect were pinned up in all Lonsdale College spaces, and staff members were sent very long emails from Dr. Austen-Baker informing them of these rules, and their intended enforcement.

The response from the student body was loud, clear and oppositional. Facebook statuses attacking the SCR for their draconian ‘new’ rules, placards roaring slogans such as “SCR, NOT YOUR BAR” and “WE’RE HERE, WE’RE QUEER, WE WANT TO HAVE A BEER!” were painted and deposited in the bar, and some good old fashioned ‘civil disobedience’ seemed to be brewing. As an aside, it’s rather depressing yet telling that the angriest, most organised rebellion I’ve seen in my time at Lancaster was a misguided and ill-informed barmy over alcohol rather than austerity, strike action or educational rights, but c’est la vie.

Your author, wanting to know what on earth was going on, spent his evening in Lonsdale Bar. The College Assistant Deans were there to keep an eye on matters, and even the Head of Commercial Services, Jo Hardman, had to cancel his plans and show up to check that everything was kept in order.

The staff seemed cross, the students seemed crosser, and the intent was quite clear – everyone present was going to get drunk and stick it to those fat cats in city hall.

Theories were flying all over the place. Had the normally staunchly anti-authoritarian Richard Austen-Baker changed his views overnight? Was the notoriously bolshie and incendiary Dean of the College attempting to win some kind of battle of wits with someone who had annoyed him? Or was the whole thing a ploy between the SCR and JCR executive designed to attract custom to Lonsdale, something that the College has done before? Most pressingly, had the College really, seriously announced that being drunk is now a fineable offence?

Yes and no, and no and yes. Here’s what happened.

Lonsdale College has, in the last term alone, seen an unfortunate string of incidents relating to drunkenness. On more than one occasion, ambulances have been called out to South West campus to deal with drinking related cases. I don’t mean falling over and hurting your knee or banging your head – I’m talking alcohol poisoning here. Rightly or wrongly, members of Lonsdale College SCR felt this high rate of incidents to be down to drinks offers on spirits, and had requested that these offers were replaced by offers on beers; the logic being that spirits are not self-limiting, are consumed quickly and in high quantities, and get you drunk quicker. A series of misunderstandings ensued, which led the college to understand that drinks offers on spirits would no longer be in effect.

This, of course, wasn’t the case, and it was only the day before the notices were sent out that the SCR realised that drinks offers on spirits would be in place that weekend. Fearing for student safety and a repeat performance of hospitalisations and disorderly activity, and on a very hurried turnaround without time even to consult with the JCR Exec, the Dean made the announcement.

That’s right, as much as we probably want to think the University were plotting against us, it seems to have been done with student interests at heart. Except, isn’t it a little authoritarian to announce new impositions on students simply for getting drunk? It is, if you read it in that way and not in the purely legal sense and in the correct sense.

It appeared in an article in the National Student, which states: “There is so far no explanation as to why Lonsdale Bar, The Red Lion, is to impose the controversial guidelines.” Even national newspaper The Independent picked up on this story. It claims that Lonsdale is one of Lancaster’s “most popular campus bars” – but that wasn’t the only inaccuracy – it also refers to this initiative as “new rules”. These are not new rules, these guidelines have always been in effect, in all colleges.

University Deaneries are permitted to discipline students if their rules are infringed, or if any offence (deemed so by the law of the land) is committed. (University Rule 2.28 Any act or omission not specifically mentioned above which is a criminal offence under English law (including a road traffic offence if committed within the University precincts). Criminal offences such as being drunk in public places. That’s right; under section 12 of the Licensing Act, 1872, it is clearly stated that it is illegal to serve alcohol to someone who is drunk, or to be drunk, in a public place.

So in that case, you’re probably wondering: “I’ve been drunk in pubs loads of times, so have loads and loads of people! How can it be against the law?” Well, because the law has a very specific definition of what ‘drunk’ actually means. By ‘drunk’, the law means having a blood alcohol level of .08. Just for scale, a person weighing 180lbs who drinks four pints in one hour would have a blood alcohol level of .06. As you space yourself out even for half an hour, it drops a little – (try this, for fun: http://www.ou.edu/oupd/bac.htm).

By ‘appearing to be drunk’, the law means being unable to stand, walk, or talk in incoherent sentences with vomit down your top and a traffic cone on your head. It’s why people are refused drinks in pubs, it’s why people are disallowed by the bouncers from entering The Sugarhouse, it’s why most places *ahem* won’t serve me after 8pm *ahem* – because it is illegal at both ends to do so, and it is enforced! People have been arrested in the street for it, Lancaster students have been fined for it in the past. So whilst it might appear as though the University are taking a totalitarian approach to preventing students from having a good time, the poorly phrased email threatening to fine anybody appearing to be drunk has been misinterpreted.

Even a university spokesperson told The Independent that it was a “one-off campaign… the ban was not enforced and the bar operated normally” despite the fact that it always has been and always will be, although in fairness to them, their explanation was probably deemed far simpler than the confusing clusterfuck that is the real one.

Richard Austen-Baker is a legal professional who, perhaps foolishly, didn’t anticipate that students don’t have a strong knowledge of the purely legal definition of certain terms, or the law in general. He also certainly won’t, but should, have anticipated that the notices would be taken in completely the wrong way and make it into the national press. But Dr. Austen-Baker is certainly not an idiot who would do something that, some students were heard to say, “CAN’T be legal!”

So, that’s about the size of it. Students are and always will be allowed to be “drunk” in the purely colloquial sense, and this whole thing, although quite understandably outrageous and implosive at first glance, is nothing more than a poorly explained initiative that was banged out with much haste and little thought – something that the Dean himself has recently apologised for and clarified in an email sent to Lonsdale College members today, stressing: “No one is ever fined or will be fined for being merely ‘under the influence’ – only if they got so drunk that they harmed other people, or property, or were abusive or were in some other way a danger to themselves or others. This has always been the case and will continue to be the case.”

It’s one of those things where a lot happened over something that did yet did not happen. Hopefully the above puts this to bed in some way. While the confusion has been most amusing and a definite anecdote for the future, I would implore students to realise that this is a misunderstanding, and that nothing has actually changed at all. It is my understanding that certain individuals on Lonsdale College SCR have received some extremely abusive and unpleasant emails from students. Stop that now.

Let’s all make up and drink to our continued right to drink.