A Bristol bar owner recently complained customers who asked for free tap water with their meals, rather that alcohol or soft drinks, were ruining her business. She said that she was struggling to turn a profit on tables where this happened.

In an age where we are all being encouraged not to buy single use plastic bottles it seems to make good sense for the environment to provide customers with a glass of tap water but there is no doubt that this can have an impact on profits for an operator who relies on selling lots of bottles of water and other soft drinks.  We look at whether you are obliged to give customers free water if they ask and the consequences of not doing so?

What does the law say?

The Licensing Act sets out various mandatory licence conditions.  One such conditions requires

The responsible person shall ensure that free tap water is provided on request to customers where it is reasonably available.”

There are various points to note here:

This obligation only applies to a premises which is licensed to sell alcohol. For example, a cafe that does not have a licence is not be obliged to give customers free tap water.

  • It is open to a licensed premises to make a charge for the glass that the water comes in, to charge if it is filtered water or to charge for their service.
  • The obligation is only to provide customers with free water. A customer is not defined in the legislation.  Arguably a customer is someone who “buys your goods or services”.  It would follow therefore that you could lawfully refuse to serve free tap water to a group who arrive and sit in your bar watching your TV and using your facilities but not buying and drink or food.

Having said all that, Keep Britain Tidy, strongly encourages businesses to provide free drinking water to customers and non-customers whether or not they have an alcohol licence.  Each bottle of water takes 7 litres of water to make and we currently consume 3 billion litres of bottled water in the UK every year.  The environmental case for tap water is clear but your business model may need adjustment.

Penalty for failing to serve tap water

There is also a penalty for failing to serve tap water to a customer.  As this is a breach of a licence condition it can be punishable with up to 6 months in prison or a fine of up to £20,000.  Of more relevance may be the possible resulting cancellation of your licence.

The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the present time and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.