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Bob Cotton's top 10 crazy laws

28 June 2007

Sometimes it seems the Government has no understanding of the issues faced by the hospitality and tourism industry. Here, our guest editor Bob Cotton lists what he reckons have been the 10 craziest ideas. Emma Allen reports

1. Banning glasses in pubs

A glass ban in pubs was something the Glasgow licensing board attempted about a year ago, to reduce pub violence. But after being challenged by the British Beer & Pub Association, the board backed down and the ban was dropped. Now the idea is being pushed in England, and, if current Government proposals go ahead, pubs, clubs or bars with a history of alcohol-related violence could soon be forced to swap glass for plastic. While the move has drawn some support, many operators believe there's been a big drop in alcohol-related crime since the new licensing laws came in, so the issue is less pressing than it was, and the British Hospitality Association (BHA) says the crime figures being used to support the idea are out of date. There's also the problem that drinking out of a sharp-edged beaker is a turn-off - research shows three-quarters of punters would go elsewhere if their tipple was served in a plastic glass.

2. Portion control to fight obesity

We might be becoming a nation of fatties, but Westminster's latest whim in the fight against obesity - to persuade restaurants across the UK to stick to government-controlled portion sizes - seems ill-advised, to say the least. While you might be able to get food manufacturers to control salt and sugar levels, the idea of legislating so that chefs in the kitchen will work to national food quotas is nonsense, surely. Whatever next? Waiting staff required to count the number of chips going out on a plate? Or what about fines for hungry diners who order two portions?

3. The Tourism tax

The idea that every business in the hospitality sector, from zoos to restaurants to theme parks, should pay a local authority licence fee to operate.

4. The Bed Tax

Forcing hotels to fork out a tax of 5-10% on the cost of an overnight stay was, along with the tourism tax, an idea put forward by Sir Michael Lyons, as part of his report into local government funding reform. Slammed by operators as unfair and ill-thought-out, the proposals caused uproar across the industry, and the BHA, Tourism Alliance, Travelodge and Caterer and Hotelkeeper led the industry in protest, delivering more than 4,000 signed petitions to Whitehall. Eventually, in what was viewed by most as a victory for common sense, the Government dismissed the idea outright, just hours after it was presented to the local government minister.

5. Empty pubs in Scotland staying open all night

The last customer's gone home, there's just you behind the bar and you fancy an early night so it's time to close the doors and lock up. But not in Scotland, where, under the new Licensing Act 2009, licensed premises will legally have to remain open for business even when there are no punters in sight - or likely to be for the rest of the evening. Basically, in an attempt to deter people from applying for 24-hour licences, the act states that whatever the hours the licensee has applied for, those are the hours that must be traded.

6. The draft Smoking Bill

The original plan, put forward by former health secretary John Reid, was to exempt working men's clubs and wet-led pubs from the smoking ban. Only those pubs serving food would be affected, leading to much wrangling and debate about what the laws would mean, particularly in relation to food - did it have to be freshly prepared or bought in to count, did selling a few bags of nuts qualify? Confusing? Absolutely. In the end, following a massive U-turn by the Government, a majority of 200 MPs voted in favour of a complete ban, set to start in England on 1 July.

7. Smoking in Parliament

On the subject of smoking bans, not everyone is frantically getting rid of the ashtrays and giving the carpets a thorough cleaning. One place where you'll still be able to spark up is in the bar areas of the House of Commons. Apparently, as it's a royal palace, it's exempt. However, this hasn't stopped the House of Lords - also a royal palace - from voting in favour of a complete ban.

8. Environmental Health ‘scores on the doors' grading system

At the moment there's no legal requirement for restaurants to display their public health rating, but under the Freedom of Information Act, anybody can phone the council and ask for a report. Councils have received so many requests for public health reports - often from curious journalists keen to dig up kitchen horror stories - that most have now introduced pilot schemes so people can look them up themselves. Most are horrendously complex though, and some use confusing star gradings that simply don't mean very much. Instead, the BHA wants to see a national scheme with a simple pass or fail mark. If a kitchen fails, it has seven days to improve. This seems to make better sense. After all, what most people want to know is whether the kitchen is fit to serve food or not.

9. Compulsory labelling of beef

The idea is still on the table, but under current proposals, Scotland wants all Scottish beef sold in food service to be clearly labelled as Scottish, so that consumers can choose to buy local if they want. Sounds good in theory, but there's a slight problem. Under EU regulation, Scotland is seen as a region of the UK, not an EU member state, so labels merely have to state the UK as the origin to be compliant. So that pretty much scuppers that plan, then. Some might also say things are already confusing for consumers, with "Scotch" beef distinct from Scottish beef and people buying Aberdeen Angus, believing it to be Scottish, when it actually denotes breed and not provenance.

10. Listing Genetically Modified foods on menus

Those discreet notes at the bottom of menus, quietly pointing out that "some of our dishes may contain GM food" are pretty familiar now, thanks to laws passed in 2000 that require anywhere serving food to indicate if GM foods are being served - with the lesser-known proviso that trained staff must be on hand to advise customers. But according to the figures, there's only one customer query per one million meals, so it's debatable whether anyone is actually interested. More to the point, with more and more places choosing to slap the note on their menu just to be on the safe side, diners are having to face an ever-increasing load of meaningless waffle when they sit down for a meal these days.

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