A large number of constituents have contacted me about the crisis facing British pubs, and I attended the meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group at 5pm on March 4th in Room 10 in the House of Commons. Many pubs in North West Hampshire are struggling to stay afloat.
The room was crammed full of MPs from all parties, along with publicans and representatives of the brewing industry. The principle request of those speaking on behalf of the brewing industry was the abandonment of the tax escalator on beer, and a freeze on beer duty in the forthcoming budget. They also wanted business rate relief on the council tax paid on pubs, particularly where pubs provided a range of services available to the community as a whole – such as access to the internet. A theme running through all the presentations was the desire for ‘equivalence’ of duty across all alcoholic drinks. The case was made that duty bore particularly heavily on beer, as opposed to spirits, wine and cider. A plea was made for tax relief on draft beer, as this can only be purchased at pubs and clubs.
The point was also made that six pubs a day were closing, with a loss of jobs and of tax revenue to the Exchequer. There was criticism of the 2001 legislation, as it was applied inconsistently across the country. One pub lost its licence because a publican’s widow failed to post a notice about his death within the statutory 10 day period. There were also complaints about the slow appeals process when a licence is withdrawn, with a suggestion that mediation would be a better way forward. It was pointed out that the differentiation between the price of beer purchased in supermarkets and the price paid in the pub was widening, to the disadvantage of British pubs. A further speaker pointed out that since 1997, 299 new regulations had been introduced which were specific to pubs and the regulatory burden was taking the average publican between 8 and 10 hours a week to comply with. They asked for a new moratorium on regulations and disputed the need for the proposed statutory code which was on the way. A representative of the pub companies saids that rents were not responsible for the crisis, as these had not been increased rece=ntly in line with inflation (though in my view some are still far too high to make the pub viable)
The final speaker referred to the initiative of HRH The Prince of Wales behind the ‘pub as the hub’ campaign. This was aimed at providing a wider range of services in the village based on the local pub, and the campaign was looking for grants in order to promote its work.
Ministers replied to the points sympathetically; but the Treasury Minister was in Budget “purdah” and unable to anticipate what might be in the Budget. Other Ministers said they would reflect on the points made, but no commitments were made. Both Angela Eagle and Gerry Sutcliffe implied that part of the problem, for those pubs that are tied, was the obligation to buy beer at high prices from the big pub companies.
My impression was that, given the state of public finances, there is little headroom for financial support – although the concession on the tax paid on draught beer might be made.