Two pub industry heavyweights have warned that the introduction of minimum alcohol pricing could do significant damage to the long-term prospects of the pub industry.
Ian Payne, chairman of the Stonegate pub company, warned that minimum pricing was "the worst thing that could ever happen to our industry" as he spoke at a debate on the future of the pub at the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers's (ALMR) 20th anniversary conference.
"It would just be a disaster, because if you give the Government control over your retail prices as a retailer then you are asking for trouble," he said. "Just look what happened to students' fees. Blair brought them in at £3,000. You have a change of government and all of a sudden £3,000 is £9,000."
Tim Martin, founder and executive chairman of JD Wetherspoon, echoed Payne's remarks. "I passionately believe minimum price is a red herring. It won't do any good for us at all," Martin said.
The remarks were in stark contrast to the cautious official welcome the licensed trade gave to the concept of minimum pricing when the proposals were announced in March. The proposals are currently under consultation.
Payne said he believed the licensed trade still needed to put more simple, positive messages across to government about the advantages of pubs, which are a controlled, supervised drinking environment, when it comes to tackling irresponsible drinking.
He warned that the industry had still failed to overcome common misconceptions, such as the idea that there were thousands of pubs and bars open 24/7 encouraging irresponsible drinking around the country. "We are not getting across simple messages," he said. "One simple message: Tesco has got more 24-hour licenses than the entire UK on-trade put together."
But he disagreed with Tim Martin's much-publicised stance, calling for a reduction in VAT for pubs to 5%, which he said he believed was not a winnable battle.
Martin stuck to his guns on the VAT issue, arguing that the government would see sense if unemployment continued to rise, given the capability of pubs to create new jobs. "We can at least make an intellectual argument that we should be treated in the same way as supermarkets. Not one person has come up to me and said it's wrong in principle. No one has said supermarkets should pay no VAT and pubs should pay 20%," he said.
By Neil Gerrard
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