Gerry Steinberg MPIn the House...

Commons Gate

Regulation of Weights and Measures (HC 495)

Public Accounts Committee 26 Mar 2003

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SIR JOHN BOURN KCB, Comptroller and Auditor General, further examined
MR ROB MOLAN, Second Treasury Officer of Accounts, HM Treasury, examined.
REPORT BY THE COMPTROLLER AND AUDITOR GENERAL
Examination of Witnesses
SIR ROBIN YOUNG KCB, Permanent Secretary and MR JONATHAN REESE, Director, Consumer and Competition Policy Directorate, Department of Trade and Industry, examined.
DR JEFFERY W LLEWELLYN, Chief Executive and MR RICHARD FREWIN, Trading Standards Adviser, National Weights and Measures Laboratory, examined.

Mr Steinberg

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I want to pursue this issue of the pint. It says in paragraph 3.7 that "In 2000 and 2002, the Department consulted on the specific issue of clarifying the law about what constitutes a 'full' measure of draught beer and cider. But progress has been slow due to the Department not being able to achieve a consensus between trade and consumer groups, and Trading Standards Departments on the best way forward without increasing the price of beer generally." Certainly, progress has been slow. There is no doubt about that. Bearing in mind our Chairman himself was involved in this issue way back in the Eighties, it certainly has been slow. I wrote down the answers you have been giving; you said you were neutral, that it was a conundrum. This baffles me. What I want to know is, why does there need to be consensus between trade and consumer groups?

Sir Robin Young: Because ministers asked us to try and achieve one.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Why? It seems pretty clear and straightforward to me. I cannot understand why they would want a consensus. Did they ask for a consensus on a pint of milk?

Sir Robin Young: No, but the same issue does not arise on a pint of milk.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): If I go into a supermarket and buy a pint of milk, I know I am getting a pint of milk. No ministers asked the dairies whether there was a consensus, whether the dairies wanted to decide what a pint of milk is. What is the difference between a pint of milk and a pint of beer?

Sir Robin Young: Beer has froth on it. That is the difference. Each time we have consulted, an increasing loud lack of consensus has emerged, which has made it, it seems, impossible for ministers to come to a final conclusion on this issue. I cannot help the Committee any further.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I speak with a little bit of experience on the issue. I was president of a Labour club, and clearly, the froth is irrelevant. Let me tell you why. We had pint glasses with a mark at the top, and the mark was clearly a pint, and anything above that was more than a pint. We found after three or four months that we were losing a fortune, and I thought the steward was dipping his hand in the till. I instituted a check and what we found out was that the bar persons were filling the glass right to the top; they were giving a good measure above the pint mark. We were losing 20 pence a pint, and we lost something like 400-500 in the space of two or three months, and we did not know where that money had gone to. Then we realised. So regardless of the froth on the top, the fact of the matter was that it was beer, and that beer was being sold extra to a pint. Once we gave an instruction that you only filled to the mark, immediately we started to take the right money for what we were actually selling. So it seems to me there is no argument at all: a pint is a pint. There should be no reason why it should not be sold to a pint.

Sir Robin Young: That was the view that Mr Leigh put forward in 1992.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): He has moved up higher in my estimation now, although he has always been very high in my estimation. What is the law at the present time? If I go into a pub and somebody gives me less than a pint because the barman regards the froth as being part of the pint, what is the law at the present time?

Sir Robin Young: I am told the courts are reluctant to prosecute unless it is less than 90%, interpreting the Act as it currently is, unamended, despite efforts.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): How is it policed?

Sir Robin Young: By trading standards officers.

Mr Reese: Trading standards officers, as it says here, do regular surveys of pubs, licensees, to try and see whether or not they are selling a full pint.. As Sir Robin has just said, part of the problem that we are trying to reconcile is that the courts have said that they will not take prosecutions unless there is less than 90%. As these statistics show, very often, probably around 20% of pints have less than 95%.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): It says here "the best way forward without increasing the price of beer generally." Why should beer increase in price if you actually get what you are paying for in the first place?

Sir Robin Young: This is the argument put forward by the trade: based on what they get from their current practices, which vary below 100, they say if we force them to sell a full pint, they would have to up the price so as to get the same return. That is their argument.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): It is a false argument, for two reasons. One is that if you have a glass which shows the pint mark, that is not going to cost them anything. I remember from my time in the Labour club in Durham that glasses were broken on a very regular basis, and we were always replacing the glasses. That was a regular outlay. So that is not going to cost them anything. There are also these wonderful machines where you press a button and they put half a pint in your glass, and it does not actually need measuring. Why should it cost them any more money? I cannot understand that. What they are really saying is if this is changed, they will lose a lot of money, on the basis that they are already ripping off 16 million beer drinkers.

Sir Robin Young: I think that is arithmetically possible. You have to ask them, in a sense. What we are doing is consulting on two different propositions: one, 100%, and one, 95%. We have had differing views in on both. The Better Regulation Task Force, as I mentioned before, has supported the trade in saying this would be a disproportionate and an expensive enforcement effort. Lord Haskins, who was then Head of the Task Force, came in very firmly on the side of the trade. This is the response to the last consultation paper we have had. So we were accused of proposing a disproportionately heavy and burdensome regulatory intervention.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): You say you are waiting for ministers to make a decision. Is it possible that they will legislate to make it legal for 95%?

Sir Robin Young: Yes. They are choosing between two propositions. It may be there are some others.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): So it is possible they will legislate that a pint equals 95% of a pint?

Sir Robin Young: Consumers have a right to ask for the full pint, but you cannot prosecute the licensee.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Could they legislate that? Is that possible?

Sir Robin Young: They could legislate for what I am just saying, which is that a full pint is what the consumer is paying for, the consumer has the right to ask for a full pint, but you do not prosecute the licensee for serving less than 95%. That is legally possible. But, I repeat, ministers have not taken a view.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): So if the Government legislate in that way and go down this route, this would give a green light to companies to rip people off.

Sir Robin Young: It would mean they escape prosecution for serving between 95 and 100% of a pint, yes.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Would you agree it would undermine sales from breweries?

Sir Robin Young: It depends , I suppose. Consumers have the right to ask for a pint.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): If a brewery sells a barrel of beer with a certain number of pints in, if you can legitimately sell 5% more, you are actually ripping the breweries off as well.

Sir Robin Young: Yes. Consumers will have the right to ask for a top-up from 95 to 100%.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): This is double Dutch. If consumers have the right to ask for a top-up from 95 to 100, why is it not a statutory right that they get their 100% to begin with? It is crazy.

Sir Robin Young: I am sorry. I cannot say this more often. Ministers have not taken a decision on this issue, but there are two propositions in front of them, which I think I have described.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): You have indeed. You are managing very well not to drop yourself in it. As for the Treasury, your answers to Mr Bacon were appalling, frankly, because in fact you are being ripped off, as I see it. You are saying if you sell a pint of beer, and 5% of that beer can then be sold again, you are losing the duty on that, surely?

Mr Molan: I have promised to provide a note to the Committee.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Am I right?

Mr Molan: You may be right, Mr Steinberg. I honestly do not know the answer.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): It just seems to me if you sell a pint of beer, and you in fact do not sell a pint of beer but you keep 5% of it back, then you sell that 5% on, out of the barrel that you have sold you are selling more beer than is actually in the barrel, which is impossible, but if you do do that, you must be losing the tax on that.

Mr Molan: I understand what you are saying.

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