Sixteen and 17-year-olds could be serving alcohol in pubs by the end of the year under proposals drawn up by the Government. Ministers want to amend licensing laws so that school leavers can go straight into the pub trade instead of waiting until they are 18.
The big brewers have registered their strong support for the reform, arguing that restrictions imposed by the Licensing Act of 1964 mean they lose "young talent" to other retail outlets.
In a consultation paper, the Home Office has suggested that school leavers be allowed to serve behind bars, provided they were on approved "pub apprentice" schemes leading to National Vocational Qualifications. At the moment, under-18s are banned from working in the bars of licensed premises.
A spokeswoman for the Catholic Church yesterday said bishops opposed the idea because young bar staff would not only serve alcohol, they would be more likely "to end up drinking it". The spokeswoman said it would be better if young Britons were introduced to alcohol at a younger age as part of normal family life, as they are in France. However drinking in Britain was seen as the preserve of adults. "In this country, teenagers have to drink 18 pints of lager in order to prove themselves. We do not have a mature attitude to alcohol, so we think the law should stay as it is."
However, neither the Roman Catholic Church nor the Church of England were consulted by the Government.
It is also understood that some smaller breweries have registered their opposition, partly on the grounds that they will not be able to offer apprenticeship schemes. They fear that the big brewers will have an unfair competitive advantage if they are able to take on young employees and pay them less.
The charity Alcohol Concern was involved in the consultation exercise and said it was "cautiously supportive" of the plan, provided there was strict supervision and that the effect of the change was monitored.
"The drinks trade as a whole has not got a magnificent record for training its employees, that's why we are emphasising the need for proper supervision."
Kim Parish, management development and training director at the Scottish and Newcastle brewery group is urging ministers to press ahead with the change, insisting that it would ensure young bar staff were properly supervised.
"We would not put a 16-year-old in a position where there could be a potential problem. They would not be serving in pubs where large numbers of customers were drinking heavily," she said. Young trainees would be employed at family pubs or where the emphasis was on food.
Brewers point out that 16 and 17-year-olds already worked in pubs in Ireland, where there did not appear to be a problem.
The consultation period stipulated by the Home Office ended on 29 March and ministers are hoping to lay an order before parliament on 3 June. The new regulation would then come into affect by the end of the year.Reuse content