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By the time the Finance Bill reaches this stage, it is like one of those not very good musicals where the main tunes are reprised throughout so everybody gets an opportunity to hear them several times. That is certainly true of the main themes of this Bill, as we have had further opportunities to discuss income tax and other matters that have already been touched upon both in the Committee of the whole House and in the Public Bill Committee.
I make no apologies, however, for returning to a theme that I have already visited: Government taxation of alcohol. As several Members have raised this point, let me say at the outset that the amendment deals specifically with beer duty but that I want it to be regarded as illustrative of a wider concern that has been expressed to me: about the Governments approach to alcohol taxation as a whole. Other Members may, of course, wish to speak about different forms of alcohol, and I do not wish to give the impression that I am concerned solely about beer. For many people beer is probably the most high-profile illustration, however, although I and other Members are also concerned about the taxation of cider, spirits, wine, sparkling wine, whisky and other forms of alcoholic beverage.
Stewart Hosie: I am sure many Members are concerned about all sorts of unfairness in the duty regime, but the bit of the Bill that the hon. Gentlemans amendment seeks to change is only about beer. I am not quite sure how, without stretching the patience of the Chair, we can go beyond beer, and the fact that that stands on its own makes all this slightly odd.
I shall focus on beer, therefore. The British Beer and Pub Association estimates that 39 pubs are closing every week in Britain, which means that about half a dozen pubs close every day. I do not pretend that it is the role of Government to ensure that every pub stays open indefinitely. I notice that the Conservative party has come up with some uncosted proposals to try to ensure that nothing ever changes in any rural communities regardless of economic circumstances. That is not my view. I realise that good pubs will thrive and become more profitableand may even expand, if they get planning permission to do soand that pubs that cannot attract customers are likely to go out of business. I am not trying to question that basic economic assumption.
There is an underlying problem, however, that goes beyond just changes in lifestyle and drinking practices, although I recognise that more people than in the past now wish to consume beer at home, perhaps while watching a DVDor the Ashes on television tomorrowand that they may not be as tempted as they once were to visit a pub. I want to put it on record that there are such changing circumstances, because it is impossible to have a balanced debate if we do not acknowledge that. Even given those considerations, however, we should be concerned that 39 pubs on average are closing every week in Britain, because pubs are more than just businesses: many of them are also the social hub of their community.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue, which is of great concern to many Members. Does he agree that, especially in rural communities, the pub is often the social focal point and meeting place for people? The Crown in the town of Montgomery, the Four Crosses pub in Four Crosses and the Lion in Llandinam are all
Mr. Browne: I think I understood the point being made by my hon. Friend. It would have helped me a bit if he had been able to give a few more examples from his constituency, but I agreed with his basic point. It is no coincidence that so many soap operas are set in and around pubs, because they are such an obvious setting in everyday life for social interaction and for opportunities to exchange views and information. I am sure that that is very much the case not only in my constituency, but in the constituencies of other hon. Members present.
Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that the beer duty increases will have an impact not only on rural communities where the pub is the hub, but on a lot of smaller breweries, which are very important employers? They will be indirectly affected by any such changes and we should seek to protect them too.
Mr. Foster: Before my hon. Friend moves on, he should continue to list the benefits of pubs in our communities, because they are not just the hub. Surely they are also a place where people can drink much more responsibly than they often do when they have bought pocket-money-priced booze in our supermarkets and off licences. Therefore, will he suggest that instead of going ahead with this ridiculous beer tax and the other increases on duty, the Government should be considering minimum pricing so that we can cut down on the supermarkets cheap booze in order to solve many of our problems?
Mr. Browne: That is a very valid point, which also illustrates peoples wider concerns about losing pubs. Although people go to pubs to drink beer, in many cases they also enjoy eating in that environment. It has been notable how many pubs have modified their offering to their customers in order to provide food. Pubs also provide entertainment, for example, quizzes and music; karaoke may be popular with some customers, although less so with others. A range of attractions in pubs help to make them part of their community and popular with their customers.
Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): My hon. Friend has consistently pushed the case for defending pubs on the duty issuelast year and this. I hope that he is also aware of the many services that are often provided in pubs. In recent weeks there have been polling stations in pubs, and my constituency contains a post office in a pub at Strattonthere is also a proposal to bring a post office back to St. Issey in this way. These are the sorts of thing that the pub, as often the last institution in the village, can preserve.
Mr. Browne: That is also a very good point. The Prince of Wales has campaigned on the notion that The Pub is the Hub. As services get consolidated in rural communities, there will increasingly be a desire for pubs to diversify into not only other aspects of their business, such as food and accommodation, but areas of business that have not previously been associated with pubsfor example, providing stamps and basic groceries such as bread and eggs. Where it is possible to consolidate a post office in a pub and that is thought to be desirable for the community involved, there is no reason why that cannot be sensitively handled in a way beneficial to the people who live in the area, just as a pub and a village shop can be consolidated on one site.
I was discussing how many pubs are closing each week, but perhaps that point is even better illustrated by looking at what has happened over a slightly longer time scale. Since the 2008 Budgetthat is not too long ago2,200 pubs have closed across Britain.
According to industry sources, the cost in jobs has been 20,000. Over the same period, beer sales have fallen. It is a common myth that more people are drinking more beer than ever before. There are some people who consume alcoholin beer or in other formsto excess, especially on Friday or Saturday evenings. I take
the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) that often it is better and safer for them to do that in a well run and responsibly managed pub than to buy off-licence alcohol and drink it in a park or somewhere similar. If the Governments motivation for levering up taxes is an attempt to choke off demand for beer, I am afraid that that is happening already, to the detriment of both publicans and brewers.
Mr. Bone: The hon. Gentleman is, as usual, making a powerful speech. I just wanted to make the point that this is not only happening in rural areas. In my constituency, many small family pubs have closed. The result is that more teenagers are drinking in parks, leading to antisocial behaviour.
Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. My constituency contains a large townTauntonand a second town, Wellington. Three quarters of my constituents live in those two towns, so large parts of my constituency have urban characteristics, and I see the phenomenon that he has described. In the more rural areas, I see how important pubs arein some cases, they are the only retail outlet in a village, once the post office and shop have gone. So, if people want to put up notices about a local playgroup or information about the village fete, they have to put them up in the pub, because there is no other suitable place.
Lembit Öpik: Does my hon. Friend agree that in many small communities where shops and post offices have closed, the public house actually provides social cohesion, without which the villages would become dormitory villages for larger towns? In those circumstances, the school is also likely to close and the sense of community, which made the village such an attractive place, will be dissipated.
Mr. Browne: That is true, and it is noticeable in rural communities that very few villages have more than one pub, if they have one at all. Those pubs are valued by those who have lived in the village for a long time, but they are also often the main attraction for people looking to move into a rural community, perhaps because they have reached retirement age. They look at a village, say in Somerset, to see whether it would be an attractive place to spend their retirement, and one of the main attractions is a village pub with a nice atmosphere and some good local beers. It is important that both newcomers and long-standing residents support the pub, as it needs sufficient customers to be a viable business for the person who owns and runs it.
David Taylor: If the hon. Gentleman is building the hypothesis that pubs are a good thing but 2,000 a year are closing because of beer duty, it is not a very sound one. He has already mentioned social change and the availability of cheap beer in supermarkets, which are much more important factors. A thirdand most importantfactor is the attitude of the pubcos, which seem to be less concerned about the pubs that were once part of the chains that they owned and more concerned about maintaining their volume through their various other outlets, including supermarkets. Surely we can encourage them to take a more imaginative approach.
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