You shall not PASS

Most of us love to go out for a pint with our mates in the evening, particularly when the exam season leaves us spending the majority of our time corralled in the library, spewing our revision notes like battery hens. For most this is a casual affair, but for the thousands of students who are unable to obtain a driving license, proving your age can be somewhat challenging.

Those with medical conditions such as varied as impaired vision, epilepsy and hypersomnia have two choices; they can carry around and place at risk their bulky, valuable passports or they can use one of the Home Office approved PASS cards.

Costing from just £15 and available since 2003, PASS cards represent an inexpensive and virtually unforgeable proof of age for anyone who doesn’t want to risk more valuable forms of identification. They are officially accepted at all major supermarkets and are explicitly supported by several county councils, but for some reason Britain’s pubs and clubs won’t follow the trend.

During 2009, BBC Watchdog ran an exposé of the failings of the PASS-registered Citizencard, highlighting the widespread refusal by pubs and clubs to accept it. Their findings were depressing to say the least: over half of the pubs and clubs investigated refused to accept Citizencards as a matter of policy. Over three years on, it seemed only appropriate to investigate what progress has been made in providing young disabled students with a safe, viable means of hitting their pubs and clubs.

As a frequenter of drinking-holes nationwide, the opportunity to engage in some field work seemed like the least I could do to help discover more about this peculiar form of discrimination. As it happened, The Swan & Castle in Oxford provided a useful case study.

On the door, a pair of bouncers told me that they refuse PASS cards “because of JD Wetherspoon policy”, which is issued by head office fifty miles away in Watford. Furthermore, a rather tense conversation with the manager uncovered their logic: “They are easy to forge because they lack a holographic overlay”, he argued, before assuring me several times that it was also up to each individual franchise to determine its own specific policy “according to local licensing restrictions”. The majority of this, it turned out, was complete fabrication.

First off, the myth that Citizencards do not have a holographic overlay was quickly dispelled by a visit to the Citizencard website, accompanied by a cursory glance at mine. I would argue that if you have developed the resources and capabilities to forge one, then frankly you deserve a congratulatory drink.

Secondly, speaking to JD Wetherspoon Head Office, they actually claimed to be a “retail partner” of PASS, supporting the scheme at all of their franchises. However, they also added that it was up to each franchise to “make the decision at an operational level… according to local licensing regulations”. Most interestingly, customer services informed me that franchises were not expected to justify their decisions to head office; their specific regulations were merely accepted provided they did not contravene any legal precedent.

What emerges is a consistent pattern of pseudo-regulation which is unsupported by legislation and rarely challenged from within the corporate structure. Each level outsources responsibility to the next, pushing the blame down the hierarchy until a privately contracted bouncer throws it back to the top.

This pattern exists nationwide, affecting tens of thousands of businesses. For example, Britain’s largest pub chain, Punch Taverns, were adamant that “it would be inappropriate for [them] to comment” on their ID policy because “decisions are made on a pub by pub basis by the licensee”. Responsibility over ID policy is continually batted between franchisor and franchisee. Overall, it appears that most drinking establishments are reluctant to accept these cards, despite their evident benefits.

As for our very own Warwick Campus, the atmosphere seems a little more relaxed. Barracuda Group, who run Varsity, accept all “PASS accredited proof of age cards”; a policy which seems to be upheld at our campus branch. Likewise, bar staff at the Dirty Duck and Copper Rooms have always been equally willing to accept this form of valid identification. However, this is more than likely facilitated by the university’s lack of underage inhabitants, which decreases the necessity for such draconian ID policies.

But for those gracing the neo-classical boulevards of Leamington, the problem persists. An employee of The Benjamin Satchwell informed me that both they and The Jug & Jester did not accept them as a policy, despite JD Wetherspoon’s endorsement of the campaign. Likewise, Evolve and Smack will only accept passports and driving licenses as valid ID. However, it must be noted that experience shows that all of these venues will accept PASS cards, given a sufficient explanation and a convincing degree of facial hair.

All this conflictual policy makes it obvious that the companies themselves are lacking any form of organisation on the matter, so what’s the position of those in the corridors of power? At first glance it appears quite rosy:

Contrary to the folks at The Swan & Castle, Oxford City Council assured me that they accept PASS cards under their licensing agreements and Hampshire County Council proudly state that, “when you see the PASS hologram logo you can be confident that it is a valid photo-ID”. Likewise, back in 2011 Chief Constable John Stoddart of Durham Police and the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) declared that “The Proof of Age Standards Scheme (PASS) has the ACPO’s full support”.

This sort of unambiguous support carries on up to the lofty heights of Parliament, where Minister for Security James Brokenshire MP claims “the Government wholeheartedly supports the Proof of Age Standards Scheme (PASS), and would encourage all retailers to accept it as proof of age”.

So it’s here that we see the problem. The government, Police, local councils and licensing officials all encourage the PASS scheme, but nobody actually enforces it. Most security for pubs and clubs is privately contracted, whilst the venues themselves are franchises of larger corporations such as JD Wetherspoon & Barracuda Group. Even if the parent corporation endorses the PASS scheme, it’s slow for the regulation to ‘trickle down’ the layers of responsibility, because there is no imperative to do so.

To add insult to injury, the scheme remains relatively obscure for most, including those in the industry. Unfortunately for its exponents, one of the most common responses to the question “have you heard of Citizencard?” seems to be, “Oh, you mean those identity card thingies that Labour tried to introduce?” In the end, the muscle on the door neither knows nor cares enough to respond appropriately.

So, what should be done? First, the scheme has to be advertised more effectively so that both door staff and the public are aware of its existence and its legitimacy. Because legislation to combat underage drinking is so stringent, bar and security staff are placed in an uncomfortable position with regards to accepting unfamiliar but apparently legal ID. If there is any doubt, they will understandably refuse it. Current schemes are widespread, but clearly not widespread enough.

In addition, it would be highly beneficial for government and local councils to review the legal implications of refusing this form of identification with no legitimate grounds. As we’ve seen, PASS cards are the first port of call for those refused driving licenses on medical grounds, so the issues of disability and discrimination are inevitably going to surface. Although it is obviously not discrimination on grounds of disability, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (Section 20) caters for refusal of supply to a disabled person “for a reason which relates to the disabled person’s disability” where “[one] cannot show the treatment is justified”. Get a good lawyer and that one would stand up in court; the only thing preventing it is the fact that it’s more costly to go through the legal process than risk your passport on Friday night.

It seems a distant hope however, as an Early Day Motion arguing that accepting PASS cards be made mandatory received just 43 signatures. Considering that a 2010 EDM advocating the creation of a “Special Filipino Task Force” to prevent Filipinos from eating dogs recieved 250 signatures, it appears unlikely that parliament will legislate any time soon.

In the end, the issue of the acceptance of PASS cards is small fry in comparison to the range of trials faced by disabled students in the UK, but it seems a great way of ensuring nobody is excluded from any of the social experiences that university provides. Adding another level of difficulty, however small, to the lives of individuals suffering from chronic illness is wholly unnecessary. Most importantly, it’s a problem that can be fixed with relative ease at the local level, leaving government to get on with solving the debt crisis, goading the Argentineans, and whatever else it is they get up to these days. There comes a point when you really have to ask; why not?

_To support the petition to oblige the acceptance of PASS cards, please visit: _

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