This visit was a real eye-opener to me and taught me how much the ‘Big Brother’ society is starting to negatively impact on our day to day lives. I also had a lesson in how little power we have to challenge the people who are doing this.
Let’s start with the basics: it is not possible to have a night out in Southampton without carrying some form of identification.
The types that the bars and clubs accept are: a 'Prove it' card (which at 30 I am too old to have), a driving licence (I don’t drive) or a passport (which in line with Home Office guidelines I use for immigration purposes only!). Without one of these documents, snarling bouncers will refuse you entry to almost every club or bar, even if you the last time you got IDed John Major was still Prime Minister!
So my night out began by one charitable doormen “turning a blind eye” to the fact I couldn’t prove I was over 18. My 30 year old face and girth was apparently not enough evidence on its own. On to another bar and door staff helpfully told me that it was discrimination to only ID people who looked young. Apparently they’d have merrily turned away a pensioner!
Whilst trying to find a bar that would let me in I noticed many seemed to be operating a system called 'Club Scan'. This system helpfully copies your passport details and leaves them with the club. Luckily I was unable to join in because I couldn’t produce any ID they were interested in. As I tramped round in the rain I pondered what would happen if this precious database were stolen.
On to a Club called Bliss. Once again an angry bouncer took exception to me daring to suggest that looking 30 was enough evidence of age. Regardless of what I said, I wasn't coming in. I was soaked to the bone, hacked off and far more alcohol-free than I had hoped to be at 11pm on a Saturday... So I decided to go home.
Like every customer put in this position by Southampton’s draconian rules I resolved never to return, but unlike others I thought I’d investigate further what had happened to create this Big Brother Nightmare.
First I called the Council; they told me that it was pure coincidence that every bar in the City Centre operated the same rule. I pointed out that many of the bars in Southampton had branches elsewhere that didn’t operate similar rules, how could this be? What’s unique about Southampton or the officials that run licensing there? The council suggested that the Police might know.so I 'phoned Hampshire Constabulary and was told that the Licensing Department at the Council “strongly encourage this as best practise”. I wondered how willing bars are to refuse anything that is “encouraged” by Licensing Inspectors? I also asked them whether having thousands of people carry their passports on a night out presented any concerns about border security... I received a non-descript response.
Now it was time to call a bar/club. I could remember Bliss so I thought I’d give them a shout. It’s fair to say that the Manager was bemused by my call. He assured me that there was no formal policy to force bars to ask everyone for ID, but it was very strongly encouraged. He also helpfully suggested that in future I could call in advance and he would waive the ID rule just for me. Thanks but no thanks!
So now I knew the truth it was time for action,
I registered to speak at full Council challenging the policy of encouraging bars and clubs to only allow people in if they had ID. I also wanted to complain about the recording of passport details and the ridiculous notion that it was discrimination to take into account how old someone looks.
Over the course of four weeks I negotiated with Democratic Services, redrafting my questions several times. On deadline day they finally told me I couldn’t speak at all because the policy was informal and had not been fully agreed by Cabinet. So there was to be no discussion and no democratic input from either me or the elected members of Southampton City Council.
Undeterred, I put a bid in for second prize: registering to speak at Hampshire Police Authority on the subject of Passport Security in Southampton. After two weeks of discussions the Police also refused to hear me on the grounds that the policy to demand passports was not theirs. The Council jobsworths had rendered their policy untouchable.
I doubt many reading this blog will lament their inability to enjoy the delights of nightlife in Southampton but beware; these ‘initiatives’ rarely stay confined to one place.
Rest assured that short middle aged bald inspectors right across the country are looking enviously at the nightmare on the South Coast.
Big Brother Boozing is coming to a town near you soon!
By Andre Walker.
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