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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  


         The politics of drinking
December 9, 2009



Fair to tenants? You’re having a Luff!

What drama! After a damp and dreary publican protest outside the Houses of Parliament on Monday, the Business Skills and Innovation Committee hearing into the tied house system kicked off in great style yesterday with chairman Peter Luff, Tory member for Mid-Worcestershire, laying into the pubcos.

"I am not used to being unable to comment on my own reports for fear of litigation," he said, referring to the responses from Punch, Enterprise and Brulines to the committee’s interim report.

“The central question is can we trust you? I don’t feel we can,” was, not surprisingly, his conclusion. “There have been no major improvements since the 2004 inquiry.”

All seemed set for the industry’s worst nightmare – legislation to force fairer treatment of tenants, or even a snipping away at the tie.

Still, he threw the British Beer & Pub Association a lifeline, asking BBPA chief Brigid Simmonds how long it will be before the proposed new code of practice will show positive results.

“Two years,” said Simmonds. And apparently everyone laughed.

Oh dear. I feel kind of sorry for Brigid Simmonds. Only a couple of months in the job and she’s having to sort out the crap of ages. The words ‘poisoned’ and ‘chalice’ spring to mind. I’m not sure what she can do.

Luff is right. Five years since the Trade and Industry Select Committee gave the pubcos a chance to put their house in order there’s not much to suggest this warning shot was taken seriously.

I know there has been some extra effort to support tenants, but the problem has always been that these companies are too big to make sure that help gets to where it’s needed. With 60 or 70 pubs to look after area managers can ignore the struggling, awkward ones and concentrate on those that are going produce the best figures.

The theory that pubcos can add value to a licensee’s business sounds great, and there have been good initiatives. In practice, though, it only works for some.

Now they are scrambling about to do something and it’s too little, much much much (add as many muches as you like) too late.

The recession hasn’t helped, of course. Who was to know there would be a slump? Very unlike capitalism, that.

No, really, there’s no excuse. But what will the BISC recommend? Will the government act?

I stand more or less by what I said at the start of this process. It won’t be state intervention but commercial pressures that determine the outcome. What will that be? Ask me again in about… err… two years.

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