Why should anyone tip a waiter in a restaurant?

WH Auden said that to praise your hostess at a dinner party was bad form “because praise would imply it could have been bad.”

Well, WH, some of the service in restaurants nowadays is bad so why not reward those who provide the good.

But how? There are no laws that determine how tips should be distributed or shared in UK restaurants. The whole question of tips is a minefield and Oxfordshire is a battlefield between good and bad practice.

Bills, a chain of 86 restaurants, kept the entire 12.5 per cent service charge it added to every bill.

Pizza Express keeps an administration fee of eight per cent when tips are paid by card. The chain has 430 branches around the UK and makes an estimated £1m a year from the practice, according to the union Unite.

One anonymous waiter at Pizza Express said the admin fee was costing her £3 a night.

“I have worked at Pizza Express for 15 years,” she said in a letter to Unite. “After all this time I’m still only paid the national minimum wage of £6.50 an hour. So you see my colleagues and I are heavily reliant on customer tips to top-up our low wages.

“I work hard and I am good at my job but when Pizza Express thinks it can get away with taking a percentage of our hard-earned tips left on a card, I get upset.”

One chain of restaurants, Ask, also takes eight per cent of tips paid by card. But recently, after public discussion and pressure, another chain, Café Rouge, agreed to scrap the 10 per cent administration fee from the staff tips paid on cards.

The Las Iguanas chain with an Oxford restaurant in Park End Street has decided to scrap its policy of requiring staff to pay it three per cent of the table sales they generate on each shift, but this announcement last week came after a petition on the web attracted about 90,000 signatures.

The man who started the petition via the website 38 Degrees, Samuel Hughes, said this proposed change, which will come into effect in November, was “a great result for the hard-working staff at Las Iguanas.

“Other restaurants with unfair tipping policies should be looking at this and following suit.”

Donald Sloan, head of the Oxford School of Hospitality Management at Oxford Brookes University, pointed out: “Practice adopted by certain companies is clearly unethical, and it is damaging to the image of the industry.

“It’s a mess and deserves to be exposed.”

Last week I ate two times at the rooftop restaurant at the Ashmolean Museum.

The bill had a printed notice at the bottom that read: “A discretionary 10 per cent service charge is added to your bill. After a small amount is taken to cover taxes and fees the money is distributed among all the staff.”

I asked the waiter how much was the “small amount” and discovered it was more than 10 per cent.

The staff member pointed out that the service charge was not compulsory and would be taken off if the customer asked for that.

I understand from another restaurant that only four to five per cent of their customers ever refuse to pay the service charge. So this is a nice little earner.

But there are many restaurants in Oxfordshire which have a transparent and fair tipping policy. In fact, most restaurants act in an ethical way. Each one I contacted, though, said the restaurant did not want to be quoted or mentioned in this article.

However, the owner of the Atomic Burger and Atomic Pizza on the Cowley Road, James Reilly has said: “All of our tips go to staff. I mean that. We don’t take any of it. We collect them and a percentage is given to the kitchen staff and then it is all shared out. Tips are a recognition of good service and therefore should go to the people who provide the service.”

Mr Sloan put this problem in context: “In the USA, restaurants have improved their practices in the past few years.

“There is considerably more protection for the rights of staff and pay and conditions are getting better. In the USA waiters get a living wage and the UK staff treatment, in some companies, compares badly.

“The industry here is not unionised so there is no representative body speaking for the employees.

“The unions in general have not made headway in the hospitality industry.

“There is not a tradition of union membership in hospitality and many who work in it are transient staff. All this works against high levels of union membership.

“The organisations that do exist, like the British Hospitality Association, do not primarily represent the interests of staff. Their raison d’etre is to protect the interests of the employers.

“The majority of employers operate in a competitive market which is international and not just limited to the UK. To attract talented, motivated staff, I would suggest UK companies need to offer good pay and conditions. Whilst we have to expose bad practice, we should also highlight that the majority of companies are now good employers.

“I have been connected to the hospitality industry for 25 years and I would not have done that if unethical practice was the norm. The industry provides exciting opportunities for corporate careers and for entrepreneurs.

“It is not any longer a career for people who haven’t succeeded elsewhere.

“The best companies see their employees as an asset. They want to secure staff loyalty and want to have a long-term relationship with the employees.

“There are plenty of fantastic companies out there, which makes it all the more galling that we still have examples of negative practice.”