Jane Bradley: Let's be crystal clear - water should be free

Restaurants must end the practice of making customers feel bad about asking for a glass of tap water, says Jane Bradley
Tap water must be provided free of charge and on request on licensed premises.Tap water must be provided free of charge and on request on licensed premises.
Tap water must be provided free of charge and on request on licensed premises.

There’s always that awkward silence when the waiter comes to take my drinks order.

I order wine or beer - or a soft drink - then the question comes: “Any water? Still? Sparkling?”

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I feel it stick in my throat a little as I try to utter the word: “Tap”. I almost always add a “please”, unless the waiter is looking particularly supercillious about it, in which case I may be too focused on trying to avoid eye contact.

For I am one of the 36 per cent of people in Scotland who finds it awkward to ask for tap water - a substance which comes out of the taps, free of charge.

I often feel like I am asking a huge favour - one which, nine times out of ten, is forgotten by the waiter or bartender when they bring my order, forcing me to have the awkward conversation all over again.

I just can’t see the problem, especially if a customer is also buying a pay-for product, so not doing anything which is preventing the establishment from making money. Water is essential to life, it needs to be available and it is. We have one of the best water supplies in the world - clean, tasty and reliable.

Health campaigners are constantly encouraging people to drink more water and eschew sugary drinks such as fizzy sodas or even fruit juice, which can contain as much sugar as a can of Coke.

Yet, as a nation, we still feel bad about requesting a glass of something which the person we ask gets for free.

A report out this week from Keep Britain Tidy and Brita UK, which, understandably, wants to cut down on waste from non-reuseable bottles, found that just a quarter of Scots realise that they have the right to ask for tap water in licensed premises such as bars, restaurants and theatres.

Any venue which serves alcohol has to adhere to the Licensing Act (Scotland) 2005, which stipulates that tap water “fit for drinking” must be provided on request.

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Perhaps an even lesser known fact, however, is that cafes or any other premises which do not serve alcohol and are therefore not bound by licensing laws, are not legally required to provide tap water on request, although many do.

Even licensed premises which have to provide the water for free could still potentially charge for the use of the glass - although any that did should be named and shamed as the worst cheapskates around.

If licensed venues do not agree to provide free water, they could technically be at risk of losing their licence, in the same way as if they had sold alcohol outside restricted hours - or sold to a minor.

Yet some restaurants and bars still try to sneak around the issue, making it as difficult as possible for diners to get their free fix of H2O.

At popular chain restaurant Yo Sushi! a customer looking for water is directed to the dispenser located on every table - a snazzy little thing from which they can fill a glass at leisure.

Yet although one of the options is still water, which like its fizzy companion, is unlimited, the water is not free. A charge of £1.30 per diner appears on the bill. However, Yo! Sushi is not breaking the law. A spokeswoman insists that the restaurant will provide plain tap water free of charge if it is specifically asked for.

The water available at the tables, however, is not tap water. No indeed. It is, according to the chain, “triple-filtered, chilled” and (in the case of the fizzy stuff), “carbonated”.

“We do not charge for tap water and it is available on request from all of our restaurants,” the spokeswoman insists.

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Alex Buchan, partner and licensing specialist at Brodies law firm in Edinburgh, explains.

“What the Licensing Act says is ‘tap water’ mjust be provided,” he says. “If the establishment does something to the water - filters it, or carbonates it, between it coming out of the tap and it being served to the customer, it does not have to be free of charge. However, they do have to provide plain tap water for free if asked.”

Leigh Sparks, professor of retail studies at the University of Stirling, points out that the mark-up on soft drinks - including bottled water - is far higher than even that on alcohol, encouraging restaurants to sell as much of it as possible.

“It is a straightforward commercial thing,” he says.

However, Edinburgh fine dining chef Mark Greenaway, who runs an eponymous restaurant in Edinburgh, does not charge for tap water, offering council pop as an option along with still or sparkling water when a drinks order is taken. He believes that the restaurant world is beginning to come around to the idea that tap water should be offered to customer not only for free - but as standard.

And he is right to do so - the Keep Britain Tidy survey found that 78 per cent of people would view a business less favourably if it refused to give them free tap or filtered water. By greedily trying to bump up a restaurant bill by a couple of quid, business owners could be doing themselves out of return custom.

“We feel the water here in Scotland is of such good quality that why would we not [offer it]?” explains Greenaway. “In the past I think it was perhaps looked upon as ‘posh’ to have bottled water, however it’s so cheap now to buy it, it’s cheap to sell it to customers, so makes no difference.”

More restaurants need to embrace this attitude and stop making people feel bad for drinking water. It is cheap, it is healthy. And it is free.