This post is a little different from the others, in that the HSC report doesn’t really attack pubs implicitly. In fact, it suggests that minimum pricing would help traditional pubs at the expense of off-licences. Some commenters have suggested this is a cynical ploy to divide the pro-drinks lobby. I won’t give my thoughts on that here.
But while the HSC lets pubs off the hook on the surface, there are two reasons to keep defence of pubs to the fore.
The first is that the HSC report recommends the urgent introduction of the Mandatory Code for pubs. As well as suggesting bans on happy hour type promotions – which many responsible drinkers would at least sympathise with – it contains more worrying proposals such as the introduction of CCTV in pubs, and a broader role for police in pubs. At best, the Code means more red tape for licensees and a huge administrative cost to implement, when many landlords are already on their knees. At worst, it could fundamentally change the unique character of the British pub. Further ideas that have been discussed (though to the best of my knowledge, not seriously proposed) include:
- Limiting live music in pubs to be no louder than the volume of a hairdryer
- Having two police officers stationed inside the door of busy pubs – with the publican having to pay for them
- Insisting that every drink must be poured in a legally approved measure so people know exactly how much they’ve had to drink – which would make it illegal to top up a new glass from an open bottle, for example.
- Insisting that some pubs use plastic glasses at all times
The anti-alcohol lobby will continue to suggest proposals such as these in its fight against the pub, so its important that we defend the pub against them.
Secondly, the broader anti-alcohol lobby regularly has pubs in its sights. Most pictures illustrating binge drinking stories in newspapers and illustrated with pictures of pubs. Attacks on “24 hour drinking” invariably suggest that pubs are open all night.
While most alcohol consumed in the UK is now bought off-trade, the pub is still the symbolic home of the drinker. Eric Ilsley MP told the SIBA conference in 2008 about a Radio 4 story focusing on children as young as ten being admitted to hospital with drink related problems.When the interviewer asked the health expert what could be done about this, the ‘expert’ replied, “Well, we’ve got to get tougher with pubs,” as if children of ten were happily nursing pints at the bar.
So while some progress is being in advancing the image of the pub, it is still a scapegoat in the eyes of right-wing tabloids at least. This series of posts is intended to provide ammunition to combat all the usual attacks on the beer and pub industry – not just the HSC report – so I wanted to include the following data here.
24 hour licensing – the truth
“24 hour drinking” is a myth that has become true by simple repetition in the media. So here are the facts.
The number of 24 hour licences issued so far is 7178. Of these, 22% have gone to supermarkets, the rest 5600 – to the on-trade. There are 105,000 on-licensed premises in the UK, which means that 5.3% of UK on-licences have 24 hour licences.
The vast majority of these have gone to hotel bars, chiefly top clear up the ambiguity around staying open late to serve hotel guests. Only 12% - or 861 licences – have gone to pubs, clubs and bars. A tiny, fraction of pubs have 24 hour licences.
The truth of “24 hour drinking is, according to a review by the Department of Health, that pubs on average stay open a while 27 minutes later than they used to.
The image painted in the media of pubs servoing drunks around the clock is a complete fabrication.
On versus off-trade
Not all of you are going to like or agree with this, but it’s a point that has to be made – and it’s a point on which I agree with the HSC!
I’m not arguing that supermarkets are entirely to blame for the drinking problem that does exist in the UK (whatever the true size of that problem may be). And I’m not necessarily arguing in favour of minimum pricing.
But I would argue that it is wrong to sell alcohol below cost price. Several bloggers have been angered by the whole “alcohol cheaper than water” claim, but I’ve seen the documents that show this has on occasion happened.
And whatever your views on that, it’s simple to calculate the total VAT and Customs & Excise duty on a given container of alcohol. It is common to see booze sold in supermarkets for less than this amount. I’m sorry, but selling below cost price strikes me as irresponsible.
But the main point I want to make is one of principle, not price. In their evidence to the HSC, representatives of big supermarket chains repeated the line they always used when questioned on the ethics of selling alcohol below cost price:
Sandra Gidley: Why do supermarkets sell alcohol at below the cost of the duty that is on it from time to time as a loss leader?
Mr Kelly: As we said earlier, we are in a highly competitive market competing for customers and we will sell sometimes loss leaders across a whole range.
Sandra Gidley: Do you think it is right to do this with alcohol though? Do you think it is socially responsible?
Mr Kelly: We are in a highly competitive market.
I’m bringing this up, remember, to defend pubs. Supermarkets are doing remarkably well, taking an ever-increasing share of British total expenditure. Pubs are closing at a rate of 52 a week. If anyone knows what a competitive market is, it’s the publican.
But just imagine if a Publican, or even a big PubCo, did a promotion of shots for 30p and when questioned on the morality of it, shrugged and replied, “We’re in a competitive market.” They simply wouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. But supermarkets are.
I’m not saying the carnage in the pub market is all the supermarket’s fault. I’m unhappy at having to write something potentially divisive in this series of posts. But alcohol is an intoxicating drug and I believe anyone who sells it has a duty of care to their customers to recognise that and act upon it. Supermarkets do not. Pubs – not all pubs, but the vast majority – do recognise this.
So in summary, there are two points to this post really:
- Pubs are responsible retailers of alcohol and are often unfairly demonized. The myth of “24 hour drinking” is a classic example of this.
- Supermarkets need to publicly acknowledge the ethical responsibility that comes with selling alcohol. By simply justifying their behaviour with regard to price they are failing to do so. This does a grave disservice to the entire alcohol industry, and opens everyone up for attack.
I’m all for working together and uniting the industry with one voice, as these posts hopefully suggest. But this requires an acknowledgement of the responsibilities the industry has.