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Departments differ on free tap water

Martin Rosenbaum | 09:08 UK time, Friday, 26 March 2010

Next month, pubs and licensed clubs in England and Wales will have to make free tap water available to their drinking customers.

This requirement is being imposed by the Home Office on 6 April in a new code of practice on alcohol retailing - despite the fact that another government department described it as a "disproportionate" act of excessive regulation which will provide "more meat & drink to the Daily Mail". (One can only assume that the Daily Mail does not survive on a diet of free tap water).

Pub interior

The differences of opinion between government departments have been revealed by a freedom-of-information request from the BBC.

The new Home Office measure is backed by the Department of Health, but it was opposed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The DoH says it backs the idea "as this allows customers to moderate their alcohol intake, should they so choose". But after the Home Office ran a consultative exercise on the code last year, the DCMS objected to the inclusion of the free-tap-water proposal, partly on the basis that it "veers into the health objective territory and is therefore inappropriate for the code".

The DCMS wanted this requirement deleted, arguing as follows:

"DELETE: not proportionate - we need to see evidence that this is necessary, especially given that refusal could lead to loss of licence etc. Do publicans really often refuse to provide water to customers who have purchase [sic] and consumed any kind of drink or food? There are also laws to stop the sale of alcohols to drunks and purchase on behalf of them etc, so this measure, in effect, is unnecessary and veers into the health objective territory and is therefore in appropriate for the code. Finally, it would be unworkable for licensed public land as well. There are hundreds of public spaces that have been licensed, in over 150 licensing authorities including village squares, parks farmers markets etc."

Defra also objected to the suggestion that free tap water must be provided where it is available. It saw the issue as a matter of proportionality in regulation, arguing:

"If for no other reason, 'where it is available' makes this condition entirely disproportionate. And is there really a problem here? Do pubs in practice refuse free tap water? Do people really end up drunk because free tap water was refused (presuming that paid-for tap water was available?). This all sounds implausible - more meat & drink to the Daily Mail."

However, the Home Office has pressed ahead despite the objections from DCMS and Defra. The BBC obtained this material through an FOI request to the Department of Health, which originally turned it down but then conceded after an appeal from my colleague, Julia Ross, who argued that disclosure was in the public interest.

I'm writing this up not because it is shocking or even surprising. It's perfectly reasonable for government departments to have different viewpoints, even if this is normally hidden from public view under the guise of "collective responsibility". Nor is it strange that the DoH prioritises health factors and the Home Office focuses on crime reduction, while other departments with other responsibilities emphasize the interests of the catering and entertainment industries.

But it is interesting that the DoH - eventually - agreed that this could be revealed to the public without excessive damage to the future candour of policy discussions.

And it's also very interesting for the extra light it sheds on how the inter-departmental consultative and decision-making process operates. The Home Office document states (paragraph 3.5) that the tap water proposal was unpopular with some retailers, but naturally doesn't reveal that concerns also extended to officials in DCMS and Defra.

And for those analysts of the British machinery of government who like to regard individual departments as clients, captured by the interests it is their job to rule over, they may be pleased to see this one apparent example of their theory in practice.

(Apologies, by the way, for light blogging recently, which is connected to my other responsibilities at the BBC as the general election approaches.)

Update 1530: In response to Guy Freeman (comment 3), here are the actual documents: letter and appendix.


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