Inside Track by Mark Stretton
The government's credibility has sunk to a new low following its absurd conduct regarding proposed smoking legislation. In another bureaucratic bungle that could have been lifted directly from the pages of “Noddy does legislation”, New Labour's “vision” has been lost in a fug of smoke. Having led stakeholders down one avenue - that of a partial ban, exempting venues that do not serve food and working men's clubs - the government has, at the last minute, paved the way for a completely different outcome. It has failed to provide the key things that the business community - no matter what the policy is - needs: common sense and certainty. A properly timed ban is eminently sensible. It is the lack of clarity and surety that is intolerable. There is also the ridiculous notion that the minister responsible for this legislation, Patricia Hewitt, will vote against her party's own proposals. The move to a free vote is massively cynical. The smoking debate has trapped the government between the clichés of the New Labour voter, sipping Chardonnay in a smoke-free Islington restaurant and the Old Labour voter, downing pints in a fug-filled working men's club a world away from Westminster. Throwing the vote open gives the government a convenient get-out clause, should it result in a full ban without exemptions. The free vote is likely to come towards the end of January if not, early February. Three outcomes seem possible: a full ban; a ban with exemptions for clubs; or a ban with exemptions for non-food pubs and clubs. It is possible that other proposals will still be considered but in all probability business must now prepare for a full smoking ban. If there are any lessons that must be learnt for the licensing reform process, it is the guidance to local authorities, which in that case was hopelessly ambiguous leaving local authorities to make their own interpretations. This cannot be allowed to happen again. The rules must be established clearly. The government must eradicate any vagaries. Questions that need clear answers include the issue of outside space. For example, how much can be covered? We are already witnessing confusion in Scotland, where some local authorities have deemed that awnings cannot carry logos, obviating any sponsorship opportunities with drinks suppliers. Industry bodies, such as the ALMR, will campaign for a long lead time, with 2010 as its preference. It will argue that given the economic risk, businesses must have proper time. In Ireland, drinks volumes are thought to have shifted from the on-trade to the off-trade by between 5% and 10%. In the UK, JD Wetherspoon is providing insight into what could be expected, having converted 50 pubs to an entirely no smoking policy. As a result, like-for-like sales in these pubs are more than -7%. But no matter the economic implications, it is hard to envisage Labour allowing the inception of a ban to creep into the next parliamentary session. This is the one thing it will be sure of. The ban will come before the next general election, possibly as early as March 2007. At best, it will be 2008. As usual the industry must dust itself down and work out how to operate within the confines of these regulations.