Wetherspoons on the warpath over pub 'price cartels'

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The Independent Online

The cheap and cheerful pub chain JD Wetherspoon is to lobby the Office of Fair Trading over concerns that rival operators are trying to introduce pricing cartels.

The cheap and cheerful pub chain JD Wetherspoon is to lobby the Office of Fair Trading over concerns that rival operators are trying to introduce pricing cartels.

The row is brewing over moves to introduce "minimum pricing", where pubs, bars and nightclubs agree not to sell drinks below certain prices.

Those in favour argue that it will help stem controversial levels of binge drinking and alcohol-related violence. The Government has said the number of discounts and promotions in the pub trade is unacceptable, while earlier in the summer, nightclubs operator Luminar - the UK's biggest - said introducing minimum pricing across all pubs and bars was the only way to solve binge drinking and social disorder.

Some regional police forces and councils are understood to be backing the concept and a number of schemes are already being tested.

But such a move would be a blow to Wetherspoons, which is known for its cheap beer. Earlier this month, the group revealed that it would be cutting prices further to help revive flagging sales.

Its managing director, John Hutson, said the OFT was the only body that would be able to provide clarity as to whether such schemes, if introduced permanently, would be legal.

"If this is a scheme that has been initiated by local publicans - in effect a price cartel - then it may well be interested."

Mr Hutson said Wetherspoons worked closely with police forces in an effort to curtail alcohol-related problems. "We don't want to turn around to the police and say you are wrong. But we don't think minimum pricing is going to improve things. This isn't the answer and it isn't required. It is not the panacea it's being made out to be."

Instead, he hit out at pubs and bars that carried heavily discounted promotions, such as a pint for 50p or triple vodkas for a £1. "The police aren't concerned about the price," he said. "They are more concerned about how it's promoted. They take fright at the sort of '£8 for all you can drink' offer."

Mr Hutson conceded that a nationwide introduction of minimum pricing would hit sales at Wetherspoons, and could force the chain to increase beer prices by 40 per cent and wine by 30 per cent.

The company recently reported its first fall in profits since it floated more than 10 years ago. It blamed the Euro 2004 football tournament - unlike their rivals, Wetherspoon pubs do not have televisions - and a natural slowdown in growth after the chain's rapid expansion over the past few years.

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