No, I don't want to pay £2 for a glass of water
June 5, 2006 11:56 AM   Subscribe

Is it true that in the UK it is illegal for a licensed restaurant to refuse to serve tap water? If so, where can I obtain a copy of the relevant piece of paper so I can wave it in the faces of restaurant managers who want me to spend extortionate amounts on drinks?
posted by Lotto to Law & Government (15 answers total)
Q: Can a restaurant force you to purchase its mineral water instead of providing tap water free? What's the relevant law/regulation?

A: When you order a meal in a restaurant you're agreeing to pay for the food, drink and service. It's a contract for work and materials to which the Supply of Goods & Services Act applies.

While a restaurant can't force you to buy bottled mineral water, it can legitimately charge you for providing tap water, as mean as it might sound. The provision of any water includes an element of service, such as pouring the water into a jug and/or glass and cleaning the jug and/or glass.

So apparently there is no such law requiring restaurants to serve you tap water, but many people seem to think there is, judging by this snopes thread.
posted by ND¢ at 12:26 PM on June 5, 2006

I think the answer above refers to the US, not the UK. It's illegal in Scotland under new legislation from the Scottish Executive. As far as I can tell from a quick trawl of HMSO, the same is not true in England or Wales. I have a feeling restaurants can actually charge for tap water, if they want - it's a service, at the end of the day, even if it's daylight robbery.
posted by greycap at 12:29 PM on June 5, 2006

My mistake ND¢ - sorry, you were referring to UK. Teach me to read it properly.
posted by greycap at 12:32 PM on June 5, 2006

The BBC's consumer FAQ seems to believe restaurants in the UK can charge you for tap water. [Scroll down to answer 2.]

I think the crucial thing may be that they can't refuse to serve you tap water if you want it. A club in my university town in England (not a restaurant, but still a licensed premises) got into trouble for not selling tap water.
posted by randomination at 12:49 PM on June 5, 2006

I think there's some kind of health and safety thing at things like concerts where they have an obligation to provide you with tap water, so you don't collapse and die. But maybe that's just another of those urban legend thingies.
posted by reklaw at 1:27 PM on June 5, 2006

greycap writes "I have a feeling restaurants can actually charge for tap water, if they want - it's a service, at the end of the day, even if it's daylight robbery."

Not much difference between paying for tap water and paying for fountain drinks or coffee. The raw materials in each only differ in price by about a dime.
posted by Mitheral at 1:36 PM on June 5, 2006

So... if they have no legal obligation to give me tap water for free, does that mean they can refuse to serve me tap water altogether, even if I'd pay? Being the student that I am I'd still much rather pay 20p or whatever for a glass of water than £1.50 for a coke. Ah, that brings up another question - could a restaurant offer tap water but only at the price of however many £££s they like?
posted by Lotto at 1:53 PM on June 5, 2006

I assumed this was a theoretical question but maybe it's not. If I were that broke and absolutely had to go out to eat, I'd eat at home and when I got to the restaurant order a drink and nurse it and then leave as generous a tip as I could afford. The point is to act poor but not cheap.
posted by rdr at 2:36 PM on June 5, 2006

Weird. I always thought that they couldn't refuse to give you tap-water, but they could refuse to allow you to drink it inside the restaurant. It appears that isn't the case.

Snopes has this message board conversation. Not much that's different to what is said here already except for the following:
UK licencing laws requires all pubs to show the prices for their beverages. As I very much doubt they had 'tap water' on their pricing boards, charging you for it was illegal as the price wasn't advertised
Restaurants operate under a license, so the same may (if it's true) apply.
posted by seanyboy at 2:58 PM on June 5, 2006

You could always take a spare glass into their washroom and fill up from the tap. Except British water is sometimes not potable (Canadian urban water always is).

My favorite phrase I used in France was " l'eau de robinet", and they seemed happy to serve it. But we didn't eat anywhere very fancy.
posted by jb at 3:48 PM on June 5, 2006

I don't know about the UK, but, in Canada, restaurants fall under municipal by-laws, when it comes to water. So maybe there isn't a national UK law, but a city by city code? (I just checked the Vancouver code and could only see that potable water is legislated, but it doesn't say anything about being free. I had always been told there was a law, too.)
posted by acoutu at 3:55 PM on June 5, 2006

Licensing laws are implemented by local authorities but in line with national legislation. The Scottish legislation is prescriptive, whereas from what I can make out, licensing legislation in English and Wales doesn't mention tap water. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport guidance doesn't specifically mention tap water being provided. I haven't had a chance to look through the Licensing Act 2003 and its regulations (which are the legislation governing all of this) in depth, so I don't know whether there is a permissive power in there that allows local authorities to set their own conditions (I would imagine given the deregulating ethos of the Act that there might be, which would mean that it would probably vary from area to area).
posted by greycap at 12:26 AM on June 6, 2006


British water is sometimes not potable

Yes it is! Urban water at any rate.

posted by greycap at 12:28 AM on June 6, 2006

greycap: maybe I should do another askme, but since you're here -- I'm living in Cambridge now, and I was told to not drink from just any tap while here (as we do in Toronto). In particular, I was told that hot water is homes is not potable (some thing about a special tank for fire prevention), and that British people don't expect all water to be potable. I did notice that the toilets in a library I frequent do have a special tap from drinking water, as did another sink in a public toilet.

Ah - here is the relevant part of your link: "10.Q-"Should I drink water from the taps in my bathroom?"

A- You should drink water from the cold bathroom tap only if the water comes directly from the supply main. Otherwise, you should always use water from the cold water tap in the kitchen. The cold water taps in the bathroom may be supplied from a storage tank in the loft so the quality may not be as good as that from the kitchen tap, which comes directly from the mains."

So is this no longer true for public toilets?

posted by jb at 2:22 AM on June 7, 2006

There was a similar discussion at the consumerist about whether an american restaurant or bar could refuse to accept your credit card for a charge less than a minimum amount, usually $10. While it was determined that it is, in fact, against the merchant services agreement to have such a minimum, it's completely within their right to tell you to fuck off and never come in ever again.

In short, it's a poor way to save a buck, and an even worse way to make a friend. I think bitching about overpriced bottled water fits in the same category. They've got the right to sell water for £50, and you've the right to go somewhere else if you don't like it.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 3:40 PM on June 7, 2006

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