Inside Track by Peter Martin
It is unlikely that Tory leadership hopeful David Cameron would have caused such a press storm this week if he had been a former director of Tesco, Asda or Morrisons rather than bar operator Urbium. Obviously, selling jugs of cocktails at £8 a go, as Urbium was charged with doing on BBC2's Newsnight, is far worse than promoting 'value' vodka at under £4 a bottle. But, as my 18-year-old daughter, home this weekend from university, confirmed, Tesco's Value Vodka is as much a part of a night-out for many young adults as the vodka and Red Bull consumed later at £1 a shot in city centre bars. Supermarket spirits are the cheap 'warm-up' before catching the 11pm bus into town to finish off the night's entertainment. It is just that pubs and bars, and those associated with them, remain easy hits in the ever emotive, and increasingly simplistic, debate over alcohol and social responsibility. It is becoming a free-for-all where sensational newspaper headlines and politicians' moral outrage sideline rational argument and hard facts. The Cameron case is a perfect example. It is no secret that David Cameron was a non-executive at Urbium, but it has taken until this week for the press to catch on, led by Jeremy Paxman in his Newsnight interview with the Conservative contender on Thursday. At least Cameron defended his position and the general case for licensing reform, unlike his Tory rival David Davis, who was quick to attack his opponent's stance. Davis, of course, is a member of the New Puritan movement that is now firmly embedded in all three main political parties. A ray of reasonableness shone out when switching channels on Thursday to catch the debate on BBC1's Question Time, where a good number of ordinary folk in the audience eloquently made the case for personal freedom and responsibility rather than state diktat over when and where they consumed alcohol. But, of course, this is not about the public. It's about the Fleet Street and Westminster village. So on Sunday we had the Sunday Times suggesting that late opening would boost sales of alcohol by £500m. This all seemed to be based on a single report from Goldman Sachs on the benefits it believes one operator, Mitchells & Butlers, will gain from reform. Some dubious maths involving sales figures of other major pub chains allowed the paper to come up with the £500m figure and the required headline. Who exactly is going to be spending all this extra money, it didn't make clear. Presumably not cash-strapped students? All the evidence is that alcohol sales in the on-trade are in decline. The Government's own statistics published a couple of months back, showed that consumer spending on alcohol out-of-the home fell 3.3% last year, with consumption down 5.5%. This was against a 9% leap in alcohol purchases for home consumption in the year. This was followed up by a report only this weekend revealing a fall in pub-going. Researchers for the TGI survey found the number of adults that went out to drink more than once a week had fallen from 17% of the population in 1987 to 12% now, with the percentage of 18-24-year-olds who visit the pub once a week down from 18% to 11%. The problem is that alcohol misuse is an extremely serious issue for this country, in terms of health and crime and disorder. But it is not just a pub, late night or young people's problem. The debate is badly in need of some reasoned reflection. There are much wider social issues. Closing a few pubs and bars is not the answer, nor would shutting the odd Tesco or two - although that might make a few more sit up and take notice. Mark Stretton, editor of M&C Report, will be chairing the Alcohol Retailing and Social Responsibility conference tomorrow at the Sheraton Park Lane Hotel in London. Speakers will include Tim Martin, founder and chairman of JD Wetherspoon, Steve Thomas, the chief executive of Luminar and Professor Ian Gilmore, chairman of the alcohol committee at the Royal College of Physicians. For more information contact Elizabeth Brown on 01293 867 612 or