Friday, January 13, 2012

Pintless Debate

[In which the debate for/against the regulation of pub companies is ultimately broken down into the futility of arguments.]

The Parliamentary debate on the future of pub licenses has me hooked. Living in Brighton, it's difficult to describe, or even imagine, just what effect local pubs have on every day life - from evening entertainment, to decent food, to convenient meeting and organising places, to Damned Good Beer.

So it was great to see my MP Caroline Lucas weighing in with views from the Landlord of the Greys in Hanover - in fact, this was why I clicked through to the rest of the debate.

Two Pints, Please

In a nutshell, the debate is a classic "is market self-regulation enough?" argument. Most voices in this one argue that large pub companies ("pubco's") have too much power when it comes to setting a) rents for licensees, and b) rules and rates for "guest beers" and other things that help make pubs "interesting" (or affordable).

The motion moves for regulation to free up licensees from this "beer tie" and to review the self-regulatory nature pubs by an independent body.

But as you read through, it becomes clear that the debate is really about:

1. BIS' response to CAMRA's complaint appearing to be taken fairly word-for-word from a BBPA (British Beer & Pub Association) submission without much further input - recently discovered through an FOI request.

2. The Government's apparently "weak" action of apparently rubber-stamping the self-regulatory guidelines as what should constitute the statutory code. (See Adrian Bailey's comment.)

3. What seem to be otherwise fairly "liquid" but one-sided negotiations between tenants/licensees and the pubco's (see here for example).

Brian Binley makes a very interesting point about the unsustainable debt model used by pubco's basically being passed on to landlords - and hence on to consumers, who unsurprisingly either go to a cheaper local pub (if one exists) or the supermarket. Andrew Bridgen goes on to call it "almost feudal".

How [the] debate rages

But over time, the debate threatens to emerge from its pretence of being about the pub model, and into an attack on the political process that is driving it (or being driven by it). At this point, the debate breaks down into 3 types of discourse:

1. Anecdotal/qualitative rhetoric: Stories from constituents, traders, etc. I suggest that the Select Committees' evidence also falls under this as they adopt an "interview" style approach. (Also, here's a good SC report from 2009 on the matter.)

2. Statistical evidence for/against intervention: Ed Davey seems to use stats more than others, for example.

3. Attacks against process and character: With the nature of the BIS response and its apparent "close ties" to the BBPA being thrown open by the FoI request above, this is a third line of argument which seeks to undermine both of the above, on matters of personal principle.

There are also appeals to "external" authority. The OFT, for instance, seem keen not to be involved, which leads some to say they're not relevant, but others to say this merely means regulation has no place in an apparently successful market.

Welcome to politics. What's interesting is how - or if - each of these types of argument "trump" each other. In other words, should we give pubs more choice over beer because 

a) a lot of people say it's a problem?
b) data suggests there is a link between lack of freedom, and pubs closing?
c) the people behind the non-choice have too much economic and political power?

In my mind, this is a bit of a paper-scissors-stone situation. Can any of these really be more important than the others, or do they just lead to a cycle of disagreement? How much do each of these - or all of them combined - duly influence any voting on the matter? And should I really have bought that four-pack of Speckled Hen from Sainsbury's today?

Exit, Stage Left

I also liked the general response to Ed Davey's comment which reads a little like the script for a bad school comedy play:

Brian Binley: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Edward Davey: No, I want to make some progress. 
[Hon. Members: “Oh!”]


Martin Horwood: Will my hon. Friend give way?
Edward Davey: No, but I will in a second.
Brian Binley: Will the Minister give way now?

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