Inside Track by Mark Stretton
It’s a momentous week for the sector. This Tuesday MPs will vote on smoking legislation that will shape operating strategies across the eating and drinking out market. It is a free vote – as much as any such vote is free. Consequently it has been a busy period for political lobbyists. The overwhelming impression from conversations I had at the weekend with several senior people close to the situation is that it will be an extremely tight process – too tight to call. One lobbyist told me that there was only 10 or possibly 15 votes in it. There are three outcomes possible: a complete ban; a ban with exemptions for private members clubs; or a ban with exemptions for private members’ clubs and pubs that do not serve food. The move to apply different laws to pubs that serve food to those that do not is nonsense – something now widely accepted. But this looks to be the least likely result of the three. Whether private members’ clubs will be included in a smoking ban is less easy to predict, and where the lobbyists have been putting in the hard miles. It is time for a bit of clarity on this issue. Arguments in favour of such an exemption largely centre on the notion that private members’ clubs – because they are private – should not be subject to the same laws affecting public places. But private members’ clubs are not private at all. The original proposal to allow such clubs to continue happily in a fug of smoke was a cynical move by a government desperate to appease a portion of traditional voters. In vast areas of the UK, private members’ clubs are basically the local public house and are very real competition to swathes of pubs. They are pubs by another name and the statistics bear it out. There are 20,000 private members’ clubs in the UK – employing 200,000 staff – which each year sell 1.2bn pints of beer. According to AC Nielson one in five (19%) of alcoholic drinks sold in the UK is sold in a private members’ club. According to Experian 86% of UK pubs have a private members’ club within a one-mile radius and research suggests one third of licensees believe they would lose 40% of their customers to a club in the event of a such a ban. They certainly are not – and should not – be exempt from health laws protecting workers. All clubs are workplaces and as such are subject to the provisions of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. If this is really about people’s health, and seeing as this legislation was put forward in a health bill, let’s assume it is, then workers in members’ clubs are entitled not to be harmed by the actions of others, like every other person who goes to a public place of work. As a lucid campaigning letter from the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health pointed out last week “no worker in any workplace should have their health undermined simply to keep their job”. By the very nature of members’ clubs, workers can often experience the greatest levels of exposure to secondhand smoke. There is no scientifically safe exposure level. Certainty that an employer has fulfilled its obligations to its staff can only come through the complete separation of workers and smokers. And achieving the separation of smokers and employees is what this is all about. It is why a range of countries such as Ireland, Italy and Sweden have banned smoking in bars. It is unthinkable that politicians may tomorrow vote in favour of such an exemption. It will put thousands of pubs at a competitive disadvantage but more importantly it has the potential to leave private members’ clubs open to private actions by staff whose health is damaged by such a policy. It is time to bite the bullet. A smoking ban will still represent a huge challenge for the hospitality industry but it is entitled to tackle the issue without direct competitors holding an illogical and detrimental commercial advantage.