Letter from Westminster 17.10.08
THERE is no knowing what the media will ever find to be interesting. In recent weeks my time has been taken up dealing with a fairly wide range of different issues ranging from the operations of Post Office to seafarers’ taxation arrangements, especially as they affect people working in the North Sea with a whole variety of issues in between.
The issue that seems to have caught the imagination of the media, however, is the future of Skullsplitter, Orkney Brewery’s high strength beer the future of which is under threat from the Portman Group.
In fact, it is not the men of yesteryear in chain mail and horned helmets that ought to be causing us concern but the men in lounge suits at the Portman Group headquarters.
For the uninitiated, the Portman Group is an organisation set up by the big players in the Drinks Industry (Diageo, Pernod-Ricard, Scottish and Newcastle etc) in order to promote responsible drinking. A cynic might say that it suits them better to operate a measure of self-regulation than to have forceful regulation from a government body.
Clearly when you consider the situation in many of our town centres (including some of our own on occasion) on a Friday and Saturday night, it has a job of work to do. The problems caused by excessive drinking are real. The question is, who should our targets be in tackling this? It is on this point that I part company with the Portman Group. Very few of the people who perpetrate (or are victims of) drink-fuelled violence will have got themselves drunk on expensive and less available brews like Skullsplitter. Few in fact will even have taken the bulk of their drink on board in the pubs and clubs outside which the problems might occur. Much more likely the bulk of their alcohol will have been drunk at home, having been bought from a supermarket shelf at a discounted rate. That is to say, if there is a problem product here it is more likely to be a two-litre bottle of white cider than a 33cl bottle of Skullsplitter.
The Portman Group claims that the name of the beer is likely to encourage violence. If we are to start removing drinks from the shelves on the basis of their names, where will it all end? Does the Portman Group really believe that people drinking Spitfire Beer are going to start going to war in vintage aircraft or that those of us partial to the occasional Beefeaters’ gin and tonic will be looking for jobs in the Tower of London? The logic is ridiculous.
Unfortunately, however, the risk is real as the Portman Group is not accountable to anyone. It acts in this process as victim, police, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. The only role for which no provision is made is a defence. The rules of natural justice do not seem to apply to it. Its procedures are arbitrary and lacking in fairness but the power it wields is massive.