MPs reinforced the call to take the fight for a lower rate of duty on draught beer to Europe, as part of a wide-ranging debate in Parliament yesterday.
Tory MP Nigel Evans, who called the debate, said: "I have asked Ministers about it and every time they say, ‘Brussels won't allow it. There's a problem with Brussels.' Let us sort out Brussels. The pub is an iconic British institution.
"If we want to support pubs and ensure that supermarket pricing does not give supermarkets such a great advantage, the one thing we need to do is recognise that the product served in a pub is different from the product that people receive when they get 24 cans from a supermarket."
Liberal Democrat MP Greg Mulholland, who heads up the all party Save the Pub group, also supported the call. He said that he wanted to see newly-appointed pubs minister John Healey, who was not present at the debate, freeze duty on beer and abolish the beer duty escalator.
"I also agree that we should consider a lower rate for draught beer, which is something that both all-parliamentary groups support. I should like to explore the possibility of a lower duty for real ale. Cask-conditioned ale is more costly to produce, so I agree that we should take the fight to Europe," he said.
And Labour MP John Grogan pointed out that while any government was unlikely to allow a reduction in its overall tax take on alcohol, tax on beer should be rebalanced with spirit tax and duty on cider. Since 1997, beer duty has risen by 14% in real terms, while spirits duty is down by 20%.
Meanwhile, pubcos came in for renewed attack over the issue of the beer tie. Evans, commenting on the huge differential between what licensees pay for beer under the tie, compared to what they would pay wholesalers, said: "The tie today has the pub industry over a barrel, and penalises the tied landlord," he said.
David Drew, Labour MP for Stroud, also attacked the pubcos, accusing them of being "mercenary". "I accept that the Government have a role to play in terms of how they price beer, spirits, but I shall hold fire on them for the moment and concentrate my energies on highlighting the complete unfairness in the way in which pubcos now operate with regard to the people they should hold dearest, who are of course the people who run the pubs that are making money for them," he said.
Mulholland also said he wanted to see reform of the tie, and called for an immediate referral of the matter to the Competition Commission. "The big pub companies say, ‘You shouldn't abolish the tie.' No one is talking about abolishing it; we are talking about reforming it to make it fair for the tenant and the customer. The inflated beer prices are bad for pub consumers and the unfair rents are closing pubs. It is not about abolition, but having a fair and transparent system, which we do not have," he said.
And he called for reform of planning laws, which would make it easier for local residents in the community to oppose the closure of a pub and its conversion into another type of property.
"We need to have pubs in their own use class order so that any change of use to a pub would have to go through a planning process. At the moment, even pubs that are making money are being deliberately closed just to suit shareholders' interests, and that is a national scandal," he said.
The debate also touched on the issue of the cost of a subscription to Sky TV. Evans pointed out that it costs £594 a month to have Sky Sports, even in a relatively small pub, because the price is based on the "rateable value" of the pub.
But Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood said that Sky would review its rates system to ensure that it was fair.
Meanwhile, Tory MP for St Albans Anne Main highlighted fears Government legislation to tackle anti-social behaviour was unfairly targeting small pubs, which were often being blamed for heavy drinking of customers who had consumed large amounts of alcohol at home prior to going out.
"Too often we are using a stick to beat the wrong person. The pub is potentially picking up the reputation of causing antisocial behaviour in the community but perhaps we should be looking to the supermarkets or small corner shops that sell people alcohol irresponsibly," she said.
By Neil Gerrard
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