Everything You Need To Know About #ScotchEggGate And "Substantial Meals"
The vexed issue of whether a scotch egg constitutes a 'substantial meal' has consumed the political discourse in recent days (PA)
As the second lockdown ends and England enters the new tier system of coronavirus restrictions, the government has found itself embroiled in a bizarre row about scotch eggs and whether they constitute a “substantial meal”.
That is not a sentence anyone would have expected to have read this time last year, but for pub landlords and bar owners struggling to stay afloat amid the pandemic it is serious business.
The rules, which are due to come into force on Thursday, say that any hospitality venue placed into Tier 2, which will cover 57.3% of the country, can only serve alcohol if it is alongside “substantial meals”.
But just what that entails has become a massive source of contention, which despite Number 10’s repeated assertions that it has made it clear, continues to cause confusion.
The Question Of Cornish Pasties
If all this sounds familiar, then that is because it was first raised as an issue when the previous tier system was introduced earlier this autumn.
The communities secretary Robert Jenrick suggested a Cornish pasty would not count as a substantial meal unless it was served with chips and a side salad.
"If you would expect to go into that restaurant normally, or pub, and order a plated meal at the table of a Cornish pasty with chips or side salad or whatever it comes with, then that's a normal meal," the minister said.
That did not clarify things entirely, but as the country soon went back into lockdown and hospitality was closed altogether the matter drifted out of the discourse.
The reason it matters though is that many pubs in tier 2, of which there are more than 20,000, cannot simply re-tool as full restaurants, and unless they can serve full meals they will have to remain closed in the crucial pre-Christmas period and potentially much beyond that.
They therefore need to know with a great deal more clarity than there has been so far on what they can serve to customers and fulfil the requirements in the regulations and remain in operation.
And crucially without that clarity it puts the onus on local councils and the police in each area to decide what constitutes a full meal, meaning a pub on one street in one borough might get away with serving a scotch egg, while one street over into a different borough another pub might face a fine for doing the same.
This exact issue played out in Manchester back in October, when pubs were forced to serve a substantial meal with alcohol when the city was placed in the old tier 3.
Staff at Common bar say police told them serving single slices from a 22-inch pizza didn’t count, only to later backtrack and deem that it was sufficient to be a full meal.
It’s co-owner Jonny Heyes said at the time: "It's just a bit of a joke. I don't want to say anything bad about the officers because they had obviously been sent round to check everyone was serving food and adhering to the guidelines.
"But they don't have any information about what actually constitutes a substantial meal. They're just winging it.
"As far as I can tell there is no proper guidance. The government policy is just so woolly, there's no clarity.”
So with less than 48 hours until pubs and bars can re-open their doors it has roared back into the news, kicked off by a question to environment secretary George Eustice on Monday morning about the now infamous scotch egg.
"I think a Scotch egg probably would count as a substantial meal if there were table service,” he said.
"And often that may be as a starter. But yes, I think it would.”
The Thin Line Between Snack And Dinner
Asked to clarify if that was the case, Downing Street only served to blur the issue by failing to set out the where the line is between a snack and a dinner.
"It's a principle that's well established in the hospitality industry and it's something they've been applying for some time," the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson said.
"We introduced the rule that you can only provide alcohol along with a substantial meal along with the first set of tiering. That remains the case under this set of tiering.”
But so far nobody in government can point to anything in the Licensing Act or any other legislation, either during Covid or pre-pandemic, which defines what exactly is substantial or not.
The Licensing Act 2003 contains a clause which permits 16- or 17-year-olds to consume beer, wine or cider with a table meal if they are accompanied by an adult, infamously depicted in an episode of the TV show The Inbetweeners.
It goes on to define a “table meal” as a “meal eaten by a person seated at a table, or at a counter or other structure which serves the purpose of a table and is not used for the service of refreshments for consumption by persons not seated at a table or structure serving the purpose of a table.”
This is the same definition adopted by Parliamentary Counsel which drafted the tier system, but while the regulations say pubs “remain open where they operate as if they were a restaurant – which means serving substantial meals, like a main lunchtime or evening meal”, there is nothing to say what size “a main lunchtime or evening meal” is.
Pork Pies and Ploughman's
It led to the PM’s spokesman being pressed on whether the new rules extended to sausage rolls, pork pies, or a ploughman's lunch counting as a substantial meal, to which he said: "I'm obviously not going to get into the detail of every possible meal.
"But we've been clear: bar snacks do not count as a substantial meal but it's well established practice in the hospitality industry what does.”
That sounded rather like Number 10 was coming down on the snack side of the debate, which appeared to be backed up my Michael Gove this morning, who told ITV's Good Morning Britain: "As far as I'm concerned it's probably a starter.”
Later on LBC he appeared to harden his stance on scotch eggs, the Cabinet Office minister saying: “A couple of scotch eggs is a starter as far as I’m concerned.”
But by the time he spoke to ITV News shortly afterwards Mr Gove appeared to have performed a volte face, he said: “A scotch egg is a substantial meal.”
Pressed on whether it was actually a bar snack, he replied: “I myself would definitely scoff a couple of scotch eggs if I had the chance, but I do recognise that it is a substantial meal.”
But the issue of whether under law it really is a meal, and crucially, whether a pub can serve it with a pint and not be in breach of the legislation and face racking up thousands of pounds-worth of fines, remains undefined.
And the issue over lots of other things a pub may be able to serve without having to upgrade or instal a kitchen, and all the regulations that entails, is also unclear and seems to be placed in the hands of publicans to make the call themselves and risk falling foul of the law.
Perhaps even more bizarrely, this is far from the first time this particular issue has been raised, with the previously obscure 1965 legal case of Timmis v Millman thrust into the public eye.
That involved the defendant and a friend caught in a hotel bar at 11.30pm consuming light ale and stout outside of permitted drinking hours.
But the-then Lord Chief Justice decided their meal of a “substantial sandwich” served with pickles and beetroot constituted a “table meal”, and not just a “bar snack”, which allowed them to stay within rules which allowed for an extra hour after the end of the ordinary permitted drinking time as long as it was for finishing their supper meal.
And that built on the court ruling in Solomon v Green a decade earlier, where sandwiches and sausages on sticks were found to constitute a meal.
Whether any enterprising landlord will attempt to use such case law to justify serving cocktail sausages on toothpicks to thirsty drinkers remains to be seen, but if they do then the obliqueness of the current rules may work in their favour.