Tory plans spell disaster for pubs

By Roger Protz

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Licensing act Binge drinking Drinking culture

Protz: not a true blue
Protz: not a true blue
With the Tories odds on to win the next election, hosts face threats to their freedom, says Roger Protz.

The Tories are coming. Be afraid, be very afraid. For the first time in my life, I'm faced by the strong possibility that I won't cast my vote in next year's general election.

I'm a political animal. I take an intense interest in the subject and have been on a large number of marches and protests in my time.

My complete disillusion with the New Labour project means the party has lost my vote. The Lib Dems are like a large yellow blancmange, slithering incoherently all over the place.

And then there are the Tories. Is it really possible that Britain in 2010 will be governed by a bunch of Old Etonians? The polls suggest an answer in the affirmative. And we got a strong hint of what to expect from a Tory government last week in a speech by shadow health minister Mike Penning. He said the Conservatives would repeal the 2006 Licensing Act and what he called "24-hour drinking".

It doesn't fill you full of confidence when a prospective government minister can drop such a howler and show so little understanding of the legislation he is keen to repeal. There's no such thing as "24-hour drinking". The 2003 law enables pub owners to apply for variable hours within each 24-hour cycle. This means that pubs may close at 11pm for most of the week but stay open for a few hours longer at the weekend.

In Hertfordshire, where I live, the new edition of the Good Beer Guide shows that many pubs still close at 11pm and a substantial minority are shut in the afternoon. Some open until midnight or 1pm at the weekend. None, of course, is open 24 hours a day.


Supermarkets can sell alcohol round the clock but Mr Penning made no mention of them in his speech to the Wine & Spirit Trade Association. He said the Tories wanted to continue "the great traditions of British pubs and clubs". But repealing the current licensing act can only shackle pubs still further as they attempt to deal with unfair competition from supermarkets.

I have little praise for the out-going Labour government but they deserve a pat on the back for two pieces of legislation. Progressive Beer Duty has proved a shot in the arm for smaller brewers who pay lower rates of duty if they produce no more than 30,000 barrels a year.

And the Licensing Act 2003 has proved to be a sensible change that has improved behaviour among pub-goers. The law was introduced against intense and often scurrilous opposition from sections of the media, with the Daily Mail and the BBC's Panorama leading the charge.

Far from encouraging the breakdown of civilised society, the licensing act has ended the "11 o'clock swill". Large numbers of people no longer fall out of pubs at the same time,

followed by fighting and other forms of bad behaviour. A report a few weeks ago showed that binge drinking and its attendant horrors are in sharp decline. As those of us who supported the new licensing law argued at

the time, the overwhelming majority of pub-goers have grasped the

opportunity to drink in a more civilised fashion.

It was famously said of the Bourbons, the old French ruling aristocracy, that they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. The same charge can be levelled at the Conservatives.

When they were last in power, their interventions in the brewing industry and pub trade were nothing short of disastrous. The 1989 Monopolies Commission report into the brewing industry led to the Beer Orders of the early 1990s. The results are all too familiar: giant pub companies charging top dollar for beer and rents, narrowing choice for drinkers, and taking most of their products from global brewers with little or no interest in Britain's ale culture and heritage.

Typical Tories

It's typical of the Tories that they want to turn the clock back rather than forward. If Mike Penning thinks a return to restricted pub opening hours will help tackle alcohol misuse

then he needs — to use his party leader's phrase — "to wake up and smell the coffee".

If pubs are allowed to open only for shorter periods, we will rapidly return to the 11 o'clock swill and mayhem on the streets of some towns and cities. The power of the supermarkets will grow as they are allowed to sell cheap alcohol when pubs are shut.

What is missing from Mr Penning's plans is any understanding of the fact that the overwhelming majority of British people are able to handle alcohol moderately and sensibly and that pubs, unlike unsupervised supermarkets, encourage moderation.

Mr Penning, in short, wants to curtail our pleasure. I thought the Tories were opposed to the Nanny State but it seems they're preparing even greater threats to our freedoms.

Be afraid...

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