Saturday, November 19, 2011

Pubs, Punters and Price Fixing

I heard someone say recently, "Pubs are like churches - not used all the time but there when you need them and both sadly suffering from falling rolls".

Often we hear about the ‘drinking culture’ in this country – true perhaps, but we shouldn’t necessarily be ashamed of that. This week, I had the great pleasure of listening to Lee Le Clerq from the Beer and Pub Association, who got me thinking about this.

I, for one, think alcohol is OK. Pubs and drink bring enormous enjoyment and benefits to individuals, communities and society as a whole.

What is not OK is the bad behaviour that too frequently accompanies alcohol consumption, serving alcohol to children or drinking to the extent that it causes physical or mental damage.

Alcohol has a dark side and its impact on individual health, family stability and our streets are all too apparent. However, let’s not lose sight of the fact that around 90% of the adult population drinks alcohol and most of us do know how to behave ourselves. Most licensees don’t sell alcohol to kids and thankfully most of us will not be burdened by alcohol-related illness.

The decline of the Local Pub

The government’s 1989 Beer Orders were introduced to reduce the apparent monopoly big brewing companies exercised in the pub sector. Today, the largest pub companies own many more pubs than the biggest national brewery estates back in 1990 – so large monopolies have in fact been replaced with larger ones.

The vast majority of these premises are tenanted or leased so while the pub company will own the freehold, the licensee is often committed to certain supply agreements in return for a low cost entry to the trade; the pub is run as an independent small business with the licensee responsible for its operation.

We then saw the introduction of the smoking ban in pubs, something I have serious issues with. I would have much preferred air quality legislation to force pubs to install appropriate extraction and filtration to maintain acceptable standards.

In addition, I don’t think a year has passed since the Licensing Act came in when we have not seen yet more laws, and dozens of regulations and restrictions primarily aimed at the pub trade. So much legislation in fact, that the government has found it necessary to run three separate series of road shows touring the country to explain the powers within the legislation.

Would minimum pricing help the pub industry?

The issue of minimum pricing is something largely driven by the public health lobby. A modelling study, carried out by Sheffield University in 2008, claimed that a 50p per unit minimum price would bring about a 6.9% reduction in overall alcohol consumption. This would, they predicted, lead to 97,700 less hospital admissions per year and the saving of around 3000 lives.

Since 2008, overall alcohol consumption (without minimum pricing) has dropped by more than 6.9%. As a nation we are now drinking 13% less than the peak in 2004 and yet – according to the health lobby - we are not seeing any such savings in lives or hospital admissions. On the contrary, these continue to rise. Of course there is a link between price and consumption but the link between national consumption levels and health is not as simple and clear cut as the Sheffield model suggested. They are currently revisiting their studies at the request of the Scottish Parliament and it will be interesting to see what they have to say this time around.

So, would a 50p unit price suddenly make the pub a significantly more attractive option than drinking at home? I suggest not.

Let’s consider 80p a unit, favoured by some members of the Scottish Labour Party. A pint of beer in packaged form in a supermarket would cost £1.60, still considerably cheaper than the same quantity in a pub. However, the cheapest bottle of spirit on a supermarket shelf would be priced at £24. The implication here is that at this price why anyone would buy blended whisky, when for very little more one could buy a 10 or 15 year old single malt? This would almost certainly signal the end of the Scotch whisky industry as it exists today, as the ‘wee dram’ became an elite beverage, only for the wealthy.

We’re told that sensible, moderate drinkers would be unaffected by minimum pricing but the evidence does not appear to support this. Would this reduce the consumption by heavy or dependent drinkers? Perhaps they would just spend a greater proportion of their income on drink, and as for deterring under-age drinkers a great many rarely pay for the alcohol they consume anyway.

Indeed, minimum pricing could be counter-productive by leading to an increase in the production and consumption of ‘moonshine’. Illegally produced alcohol is incredibly dangerous, sometimes containing levels of methanol high enough to cause instant blindness. What will be the cost to the NHS when those who want to drink turn to illegally produced alcohol, because they do not have the means to buy it legally, either in pubs or from shops?

The EU may have something to say if the Scottish Parliament tries to bring in minimum pricing, as there are indications that it would be illegal under UK legislation, namely the 1998 Competition Act, and these are laws that are not devolved to Scotland for them to amend at will.

What would the Office of Fair Trading do as the body responsible for monitoring price fixing in the UK? Will it take action against the Scottish Parliament if it embarks on such a scheme, or would it ignore it? There is no minimum pricing on anything anywhere in the EU so why start with alcohol?

I have often voiced my concerns regarding the ‘Tescofication of the high street’ and some of the large supermarket pricing policies are cynical, and have a detrimental effect on the suppliers, particularly farmers. The Government has recently announced the ‘below cost’ minimum pricing option which simply takes into account excise duty plus VAT which should ensure that supermarkets cannot sell alcohol below this price. This is, I think a positive step and goes a long way to address the issue of alcohol being a ‘Loss Leader’ for the supermarkets - so perhaps a little good news for pubs here.

The dilemma ....

We’re all consumers and the overwhelming majority of us use supermarkets. Do we really want the government artificially increasing prices to protect us from ourselves when the overwhelming majority of ‘ourselves’ need no such protection? If an argument is made for minimum pricing, why should it stop with alcohol? The NHS spends three times as much on combating obesity as it does on dealing with alcohol abuse. Would the next target be McDonalds? How dare they sell a calorie laden burger for only £1.99! Then there’s the inestimable environmental damage caused by global aviation. What if those advocating minimum pricing decide that we should no longer allow hard-working families to holiday abroad at ridiculously affordable fares?

The industry knows that it is necessary for sale of alcohol to be licensed, regulated and monitored. Pubs understand their responsibilities. It’s important that everyone who retails alcohol understands the regulations and complies with them, and the vast majority of our pubs do so. There should be no state interference in fixing prices – especially when the consequences cause more harm than good.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Thanks for all your support

I would just like to thank all of those who have offered me their support this week and continue to do so – friends, colleagues and those from across the political spectrum and around the world. I thank all of you that have blogged or reposted the story, including those through facebook (or that “form of witchcraft” according to some of my fellow East Riding Tory Councillors…).

The update 2 at the end of the previous blog post shows exactly what for I have been censured for.

Having read the post I realised that I made a startling omission - When making the complaint to the Standards Committee, Mr Whitley attempted to do so under the cloak of anonymity. His request was certainly at odds with his numerous critical letters referring to me in the Goole Times, the Goole Courier and the East Riding Mail, as well as his own Lib Dem site (closed since he deserted the Lib Dems for Labour) - clearly not the actions of a man looking to keep his name out of the public domain. Attempting to anonymously place a complaint to the Standards Committee in the run up to an election, where he was planning to stand against me, is in my opinion nothing short of cynical.

I am at least grateful that this request was not granted by the Standards Committee.

Some of those blogs/sites are carrying this story are:

Conservativehome blog

Taxpayers Alliance website

Carl Minns Blog - A View from Hull

HU12Online - The Hedon blog

John in Gilberdyke blog

and the great reporting by the East Riding Mail at here and especially here

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A sad day for bloggers, a sad day for freedom of speech, and a sad day for democracy

Today I had to appear before the East Riding of Yorkshire Council’s Standards Committee to answer charges that in response to a posting on this blog, I had allowed two specific comments written by others to be published. I was found to have breached the Code of Councillors and received a written censure.

The complaint was brought by Mike Whitley of Gilberdyke, who stood against me as a Labour candidate at the May 2011 East Riding of Yorkshire Council and Gilberdyke Parish Council elections - he failed to be elected to either.

Although disappointed, I certainly feel that the Standards Committee was put in a very difficult position today because of the evidence and recommendation provided by the Council’s Monitoring Officer, and in only censuring me I appreciate that they gave me the absolute minimum punishment they could.

I am particularly disappointed that the evidence provided was as narrow as it was and resulted in the decision being made on a very technical point. Some of the evidence was subjective and some clearly wrong, and both the Monitoring Officer and Investigating Officer have some serious questions they need to answer, and I will be buying them both an English Dictionary for Christmas.

I have been censured not for anything I have said or done but for failing to censor the free speech of Howdenshire residents, who understandably feel strongly about the continued actions of an individual that has put their homes and livelihoods at risk.

I understood we have free speech in this country and unless a comment is defamatory or untrue I will continue to allow free speech and debate on my blog. I did not then and still do not, believe the key comment was defamatory and it is certainly true that Mark Twain did include such events in his novels. I accept that this is subjective and accept that the Committee did not share my understanding of the strength of feeling locally.

The Standards Regime is supposed to deal with wrongdoing in the public interest not give a voice to Political candidates to score points against their opponents. The committee was not allowed to look at the wider context of the repeated and unfounded complaints – (8 times this individual has referred me or Gilberdyke Parish Councillors to the Standards Board and every one cleared) and also reporting me to the Police which was also deemed to be unfounded. Conversely the Investigating Officer was free to attempt to mislead the committee and to raise other matters unrelated to the narrow accusation.

The Political context of the repeated complaints, and the totally untrue comments and accusations the complainant put into the public domain was also not considered.

In short the public has just paid for a failed political stunt.

Councillors who break the law should face the full force of the law - everything else is a matter for the electorate. If a Councillor does not reach the standards expected of them they will not be re-elected. I am at a loss to know what this process has achieved. A censure is meaningless but has cost an enormous amount of taxpayers’ money. A retired officer brought back at who knows what rates to undertake extensive investigations. How much has this cost and what services to our residents do we cut to pay for this?

If ever there was an example of why the Government is right to abolish this expensive and misused system, this is it. Absolutely nothing has been achieved and no difference has been made apart from the taxpayers get the bill for someone to pursue a personal, vexatious Political agenda.

I will continue blogging!

The East Riding News coverage of the story can be found here

Update - The paper copy of the newspaper article in addition carries an interesting quote from an unnamed fellow ERYC Conservative Councillor at County Hall:

"Many in our group believe facebook and Twitter are akin to witchcraft"

Oh dear, we really do need to drag ourselves into the 21st Century.....

Update 2
- The comment (not written by me) but which I allowed on my blog was, ‘In Mark Twain’s classic literature perpetrators of anti-social activity were stripped, tarred and feathered then ridden out of town on a rail. Not that I would suggest such a thing mind’

“Guidance published by Standards for England about blogging” – because there was other part of the guidance included in the Investigators report I can only assume this is what he used to base his decision and subsequent recommendation – This guidance quite clearly states that a comment has to be defamatory or obscene to be in contravention.

If one looks in the English Dictionary it says that, “defamatory remarks are not true and make people have a bad opinion of someone” (so logically any remarks have to be untrue before they can be defamatory)

The dictionary also states that obscene remarks are, “indecent, disgusting or likely to deprave or corrupt”

I’m still at a loss, because the advice I was given supported my thinking that there is nothing that could be considered UNTRUE, INDECENT, DISCUSTING or LIKELY TO DEPRAVE OR CORRUPT in the comment.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Roadworks the American Way - Lessons to be learnt?

Having spent some time in America this past couple of weeks, one thing that I was able to look into was roadworks, as this is somewhat topical around Howdenshire at the moment, and whilst driving in Alabama and Mississippi took the opportunity to investigate further as to how significant repairs and road construction are able to be carried out with seemingly minimum disruption to road users, and residents.

The first thing to notice was the lack of the 1,000’s of cones we see when roadworks are carried out locally, with the works are carried out at night when the roads are less busy, they appear to avoid peak traffic periods, and relatively short sections are started and completed before moving on to the next. There also seems to be fewer workmen and the road construction is somewhat simpler, without kerbs for the most part and constructed slightly higher than the verge to aid drainage.

The speed enforcement signage is also quite interesting, there are no fixed or variable speed cameras, to ‘trap the motorist’ along the whole section of the repair all of the time, instead there is a limit and double fines only when ‘workmen are in the road’ - not when they’re not, this is clearly signed and enforced by a combination of gun-toting State Troopers, Sheriffs and Local Enforcement Officers.

On talking to one of the construction teams working near the State border, they were a little surprised on seeing a ‘foreigner’ in those parts when I stopped to talk about roadworks, but quite amused when I described the way roads are repaired in England. It was clear that they looked at what could be done in a day (or night) and broke the whole job down into daily segments where they could plane the road surface, remove the scalpings and lay the new tarmac, before moving on to the next section the following day. The traffic is normally controlled by flags, stop/go boards and sometimes traffic lights, and diversions as a last resort.

Interestingly they described how the scalpings are recycled, remixed with tar and re-used as a base.

All in all a very different carry on to what we see in England, and some of their traffic management arrangements we could learn certainly learn from – BUT then there is that small issue of Health and Safety legislation which we would perhaps find difficult to get over.