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but that section appears to apply only to spirits. The amendment does not mention section 36, which deals with beer, section 62, which deals with cider, or schedule 1, which deals with wine. Is it the hon. Gentleman’s intention that only spirit duties be frozen for three years, or it is his intention that all duties be frozen for three years?

Mr. Browne: It is my intention that the Government examine their policy on alcohol taxation, which is of great concern to my constituents and, I believe, to those of many other Members. Some Members will be particularly concerned with the issue of whisky, which I know is a preoccupation of many who represent Scottish constituents, but others are concerned about other aspects of alcohol duty.

Mr. Hands: Will the hon. Gentleman make the position entirely clear? Is he suggesting that there should be no freezing of cider duty, for instance? That is what his amendment implies.

Mr. Browne: Conservative Members always labour under the misapprehension that no one in Taunton drinks anything other than cider. They have me bang to rights, because my constituents will be unable to enjoy any sort of social life if measures affecting cider are passed. Sadly, that used to be truer than it is now. Cider is not as widely drunk in my constituency as it once was—

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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD) rose—

Mr. Browne: It is widely drunk in Somerton and Frome, though. I give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Heath: I merely wish to make it clear that the social life in my constituency would be considerably impaired if cider were not available.

Mr. Browne: I am not saying that it would not be impaired in my constituency. I am merely saying that it would not be completely compromised.

The effect of the amendment is on the amendment paper for all to see, but I think it would be useful to expand my arguments so that all Members can understand the context not just of the amendment, but of Government policy as I understand it, and the impact that it will have in Taunton, in Somerton and Frome, and indeed in every constituency in the country.

I am pleased to see that the current debate is relatively well attended compared with our earlier deliberations, because what we are discussing has a profound impact. The Government’s current policy is to increase the duty on alcohol over and above the rate of inflation. Conservative Members may remember when the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) introduced the fuel duty escalator. This is the equivalent of that, except that it affects alcohol rather than fuel.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Browne: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry).

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The hon. Gentleman says that the purpose of the amendment is there for all to see. In fairness, however, he has not yet answered the point put by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands). With respect, I am not really interested in cider. What I, in north Oxfordshire, am interested in is Hook Norton beer, and I want to know whether the amendment will apply to beer. Why has the hon. Gentleman selected only whisky? Has he done so in order to placate the Scottish nationalists and others on the Benches behind him, and why is the Liberal party not concerned about the future of the English pub and English beer?

Mr. Browne: Whisky is, indeed, important, and I would not wish to diminish its importance—I know that the Conservative party has almost no representation in Scotland, which may have some bearing on its thinking on this matter. My concern is across the board: I am extremely concerned about the impact on people who drink beer, cider and every other alcoholic drink on which Members may wish to offer representations or make some special pleading.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Browne: I will give way in a moment. This is a wider debate; the overall concern is the impact on pubs, brewers and people who work in this industry. I regret that no amendments were tabled either by Labour Back Benchers or by any Conservative Member.

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Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Browne: As what I have just said is the case, I think it is best that I make a little headway for the moment, and try to explain why I think the Government’s alcohol escalator acts to the detriment of a good number of our constituents.

Ministers frequently make the point that there have been changes in lifestyle patterns in the United Kingdom, and that the rates of taxation charged on alcohol of all types is not the sole determining factor of demand for those products. I accept that: people behave differently and society is different from how it was 20 or 30 years ago, and people have modified their behaviour quite outside how that is influenced by duty levels on alcohol. Also, although the popular perception is that alcohol consumption is soaring, the reverse is the case: the total UK sales of most types of alcohol are declining. Within that overall big picture, there are changes in the way that people consume alcohol, such as the extent to which they consume it at home as opposed to in licensed premises. That is one consideration, and I do not say that the Government are responsible for those changing lifestyle patterns. Indeed, in some regards they may even have advantages, although in other regards they may have disadvantages.

There are additional factors. The smoking ban, for example, has undoubtedly had an impact on some establishments. Establishments that specialise in serving food alongside the sale of alcohol may even have benefited from the smoking ban, but it has undoubtedly had an adverse effect on the business of institutions that do not have food so high up their pitch to their customers. I think all Members would accept that. There will be Members present who voted in different ways. I voted against the smoking ban, but I was in a small minority. Most Members voted for its introduction in England, but the ban has undoubtedly had an adverse impact on a number of bars, pubs and restaurants in England.

Mr. Dunne: Not only do the Liberal Democrats no longer represent Shropshire in this House, but I can reasonably confidently predict that they will barely represent Shropshire at the local authority level on 5 June.

I, too, voted against the smoking ban, and one of my reasons for doing so was to allow pubs in my constituency to continue to attract customers, many of whom have smoked. Many pubs also have breweries attached to them. I am told by the Society of Independent Brewers, whose best bitter I judged in Ludlow castle on Sunday, that my constituency has more independent brewers than any other, and they are extremely concerned about the increases through the beer duty escalator proposed in this Budget.

10.15 pm

Mr. Browne: Sir Michael, that intervention may have been of a better length if the hon. Gentleman had cut out all the predictions about the local elections, which do not seem to have a direct bearing on clause 11. Let us not go through every county and make predictions about the local elections, not least because whenever the Conservatives in my area make such predictions they always look stupid afterwards. Who knows what the future holds? Everybody has their turn in the spotlight.

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I regret that some Members of other parties seem to place less importance on the matter before us than I do. We are dealing with the impact that Government policy on alcohol taxation is having on pubs, brewers—the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed that out—and people who work in the entertainment industry. It is well known that pubs are closing at an alarming rate in this country. It is not our duty in this House to try to ensure that pubs that are unable to attract customers remain in business regardless of their ability to sell their product at an attractive price to the people who choose—or do not choose—to go to them. Nevertheless, there is a discernable pattern and it is undoubtedly influenced by a number of factors. I mentioned lifestyle changes, and the smoking ban is also a factor, but price—specifically the price differential between sales in licensed premises and in off licences—is certainly a factor. Most people would accept that that is having an impact, on pubs in particular.

I am told by the British Beer and Pub Association that 70 per cent. of people oppose this increase in duty. That does not necessarily surprise me, but it is strange that it has become almost the received wisdom in political circles that putting higher duty on alcohol is popular. When I leave Westminster I find far fewer people who are enthusiastic about increasing alcohol duty than I do when I talk to think-tanks and others here, who tell me what a very good idea it is.

Mr. Redwood: Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the publicans, who have lobbied most of us in this House, that this latest duty increase could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, given the recessionary influences also bearing on the pub trade?

Mr. Browne: Not only do I agree, but the evidence is there for all to see. Six or so pubs are closing on a daily basis, so the camel’s back has been broken for them. The margins are fine on so-called liquid sales; the profit made by the publican, be it on spirits, beer, cider or any example that one chooses to highlight, is very modest. That is why so many pubs have, understandably, diversified into food and accommodation, but the situation is difficult for publicans if they are not able to make some sort of meaningful profit from their core business of selling alcohol.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman say something about the tremendous amount of work that all sorts of bodies, in particular the National Association of Cider Makers, have done on responsible drinking? The Government’s idea that increasing duty will be beneficial is counter-intuitive and does a great deal of damage to those bodies, which are working so hard. While I am on the matter of health, has he seen the Government deputy Chief Whip, who normally appears at these later hours—he certainly appeared at all times during consideration of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill—and does the hon. Gentleman know whether he is all right?

Mr. Browne: If I think about it, perhaps I will be able to work out what the second half of that intervention meant. Perhaps I should just address myself to the first half. Sheppy’s Cider is based in my constituency—sadly
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the only cider manufacturer left in Taunton Deane—and produces an excellent product. It is noticeable that, when people drink cider or other alcoholic drinks on the premises in traditional pubs, they are drinking in a controlled environment so it is much less likely to be detrimental to their health than if they were drinking in other circumstances. That is partly why community pubs have a civilising influence in many cases that would not be so obviously witnessed with other forms of retailer. Many people think that alcohol consumed in those circumstances is better than alcohol consumed in others.

I said that the majority of British people—I accept that this is unsurprising—oppose an increase in duty and an increase over and above inflation year on year, but I am told by the British Beer and Pub Association that 49 per cent. of Labour MPs oppose the increase. That is a very precise figure, and not quite half of Labour MPs. I am pleased to see much better representation on the Labour Benches than has been the case for other aspects of the Bill. It is still a modest turnout, but I hope that those Labour Members who have attended have come to champion the interests of their constituents, licensed premises, brewers and people who work in the entertainment sector in their constituencies.

VisitEngland, the organisation that is given money to promote tourism, has awarded the English pub industry its Enjoy England award for outstanding contribution to tourism. Previous winners include Sir Paul McCartney, the Queen and the Harry Potter films, so that is a measure of how much we value the traditional pubs in our society. They are enjoyed not only by all our constituents but by people who visit this country and regard visiting a pub and drinking the sort of drinks that are only available in this country as essential to the intrinsic appeal of being a tourist here.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I know that my hon. Friend is a great supporter of the fight to keep open pubs in his constituency. Has he had the benefit of work by the Pub is the Hub campaign, which underlines the contribution that pubs make to the local community—it is much wider than their direct business contribution? For example, in my constituency the Tree inn in Stratton now has a post office. It has reopened in the pub and is providing a fantastic service for the people of Stratton. Is that not a fine example of the contribution that pubs make?

Mr. Browne: It is a perfect example. In many villages, the pub just selling alcohol to the residents of that village is no longer a viable economic business model, for the all the reasons I have touched on. Pubs are having to diversify and if they have done so well, they have often been very successful. Some provide more food for Sunday lunches or evening meals, and some provide accommodation—

Mr. Heath: Skittles!

Mr. Browne: I shall come to skittles later in my contribution. Pubs also offer other services that are not necessarily part of the core offering of the pub. Postal services have been mentioned, but if a village no longer has a shop or any other outlet where the public can gather, the pub can be where people learn about social
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activities, or where the Rotary club meets. It would be a mistake to see pubs solely as an outlet for alcohol, but I fear that Ministers, when they proposed these above-inflation increases, failed fully to understand the wider social impact of their policies.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): It is indeed important that we defend these great British institutions. Skittles has been mentioned, but may I make a plea for darts? The game of darts is characteristically British and intimately associated with public houses, which is usually where people first learn and practise the game. What could be closer to the aesthetic of Britishness than the game of darts played in a pub with a warm pint of bitter?

Mr. Browne rose—

The Second Deputy Chairman: Order. May I ask the hon. Gentleman to concentrate on the amendment, before we start to talk about dominoes?

Mr. Browne: Sir Michael, your guidance is invaluable. The only thing that I would say is that I visited Andy Fordham’s pub when he won the world darts championship a few years ago. It was fantastic to see the world darts trophy behind the bar, next to the crisps and peanuts on sale there. Darts, right up to the highest level, is intrinsic to people’s enjoyment of pubs.

That takes me neatly—and conveniently in terms of not incurring your wrath, Sir Michael—back to the representations that I have had from my constituents on this matter. I have received an enormous volume of correspondence from people in my constituency and from institutions. They are extremely upset that the Government’s policies are likely to make it far harder for pubs and other entertainment retailers to stay in business. Indeed, in the past few weeks alone I have received representations from “The Westgate Inn” in Taunton; the “Allerford Inn” in Norton Fitzwarren; “The Blagdon Inn” in Blagdon Hill, just outside Taunton; “The Bear Inn” in Wiveliscombe, which was Somerset Campaign for Real Ale pub of the year last year and has, I think, a very good skittles alley; “The Crown Hotel” in Exford; “The Holywell Inn” in Taunton Deane; and many others, including “The Swan”, “The Bell Inn”, “The Cottage Inn”, “The Bridge Inn” and “The Waggon Inn”. I list those institutions only because those who are less familiar with Taunton Deane than I am—a large number of Conservative MPs visit my constituency, however, so perhaps I will take the opportunity to show them some of these institutions—will not know that that list contains a wide range of different pubs. Some are in Taunton, which is a reasonably sizeable town, and others are in quite isolated villages, but they all share the concern held by me and many other hon. Members that the Government’s proposals will impact adversely on their businesses.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): My hon. Friend is making a very powerful case. Does he agree that when pubs shut it is very difficult for the planning authority to resist an application for change of use? When such applications are resisted, the pub in question can often be resurrected and can be profitable and secure in the future. “The Old Barn Inn” in Three Cocks and “The Shoemakers” in Pentrebach are now doing very well indeed.

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Mr. Browne: I am delighted to hear that. Perhaps you might seek to encourage Members to talk about pubs they enjoy visiting in their constituencies, Sir Michael. The general point is an extremely good one. When pubs close, they rarely reopen and are lost to the community. The planning laws make it hard for pubs to reopen in many cases, but when they do it can be an extremely successful venture. It is also worth noting, in passing, that when new housing estates are built—the Government still aspire to have 3 million new houses, although progress has been slower than they might have hoped in that regard—they are rarely built with community amenities such as village halls, churches or pubs. People who live in many new developments keenly feel that their community would be greatly enhanced by a gathering point, such as a pub, where people can go for a sociable drink and also get to know other people, attend Rotary club meetings and so on. That only serves to highlight the importance of the sector, and why it is so clearly unwise of the Government to try to penalise people in it.

10.30 pm

Mr. Bone: I am following the hon. Gentleman’s powerful speech with great interest, but will he tell the Committee how many pubs in his constituency have closed already? At least three in my constituency have and the one in Little Irchester, where the Hell’s Angels always used to gather, has been flattened. That is a great loss to the town, and things will only get worse. What has been the impact in Taunton?

Mr. Browne: I carry out extensive research into the well-being of the pub sector in my constituency, as you might be able to tell, Sir Michael. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a precise figure, but a number of pubs have closed. What is alarming and notable is that they have closed everywhere—in Taunton itself, which is a reasonably sized town with a population of 63,000, and in villages too. It is extremely unusual for villages to have two pubs, as was common even 10 years ago. The sector is contracting the whole time.

As I said earlier, it is not in our gift to ensure that all businesses are successful. Some pubs that are failing to meet their customers’ expectations may not be viable businesses, but the amendment asks whether the Government, as an act of policy, should be making it even harder for businesses to be profitable and successful. I maintain that they should not.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I am absolutely in favour of the pub culture in our way of life, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that there are two reasons why pubs are suffering? First, the drink-drive laws mean that people drink at home and, secondly, people can buy cheap alcohol in supermarkets. Would it not be more sensible to raise the price of alcohol in supermarkets to help the pubs?

Mr. Browne: There are a number of reasons why pubs are suffering. I touched on changing lifestyles, and I suppose that one could incorporate the drink-drive laws in that. Certainly, there have been big changes in what is regarded as socially acceptable, although the relevant laws have not changed for a while. The hon. Gentleman did not mention the smoking ban, the effect of which I acknowledge has been chequered: although it may have had a positive effect in some establishments, in most it was probably a negative one.

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