Opinion > Peter Coulson

Time to curb pre-loading

By Peter Coulson , 27-Feb-2012

Related topics: Business Support

It is not surprising that National Pubwatch has picked up on minimum-pricing schemes in various parts of the country. I have been contacted by a number of readers questioning the manner in which they have been approached to keep prices to a certain level.

Pre-loading to blame more than pricing for bing drinking, suggests Peter Coulson

Pre-loading to blame more than pricing for bing drinking, suggests Peter Coulson

But it is not just the police involved in this: some local authority people have also been found proposing schemes through Pubwatch and other local organisations with which they are involved.

The worst recent case (now withdrawn) was a prominent local authority that suggested failure to follow the locally ‘agreed’ scheme would see the offender banned from the local group as a punishment! It would seem some officers are going their own way on this without checking whether their suggestions are within the law or not.

A few years ago, police in Kent backed a form of responsible retailing ‘contract’ that was said to be voluntary but was accompanied by a veiled threat that failure to comply might risk a review of the licence.

I have received similar examples from elsewhere and have written about this on these pages, and there has been some attempt to curb local enthusiasm for ‘DIY’ schemes of this kind. But they still exist.

I have also attended one or two local meetings that were billed as ‘partnership working’ but consisted of a set of dire warnings to the trade not to step out of line.

It was clear that the police, in particular, saw these as an opportunity to lecture licensees on what they saw as their responsibilities, rather than any attempt to reach a more promising co-operation with those in the industry.

This is why I am somewhat sceptical of the whole exercise. The police are currently under pressure to get results, to control city centres, but on their own admission they are strapped for cash.

They support the late-night levy mainly for these cash reasons and it is still not clear whether the contribution from the trade, which is 70 per cent of the total, will be ‘ring-fenced’ for late-night policing, in spite of this being raised in committee at the time of the debate on the measure.

It was Lord Elton, in his totally neglected report on licensing fees, who said that he was not sure that some of the claimed ‘expenses’ of licensing administration were not other local government activities that they do anyway.

To load night-time police activity on to one sector of the economy might be seen as a similar exercise in creative accounting.
It is also the thin end of the wedge. There have been valid cries that the beginning of the ‘polluter pays’ culture may mean that other sectors also become targets for financial levies to pay for what we, as taxpayers, pay for already.

But this assumes that the people who will pay the levy are indeed the polluters, and that is by no means assured. This is an across-the-board tax on the late-night economy, not based on an assessment of blame but on simple mathematics — you stay open after midnight, you pay the fee.

Minimum pricing has the same rather crude logic: if you make sure everyone pays higher prices, they will not drink as much. But one speaker at the recent Pubwatch conference rightly shot this argument down in flames. There is plenty of binge drinking going on at nightclub prices. Price is not really a deterrent in this scenario. Pre-loading may be more to blame.

If central government cannot get a handle on the problem, how is a local licensing officer going to devise a scheme that works better?

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