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23 Feb 2010 : Column 32WH—continued

I shall make just two points. The first comes out of bitter experience of the way in which friends of mine who have been publicans have been very badly treated by pubcos. That is nothing new. When I was a councillor, I was aware of numerous occasions on which people were encouraged into the trade by-I will name the company-Whitbread. Those people clearly did not have the capability to run a pub properly but were encouraged to invest all their savings, including their house, in a pub, and gradually over time the price of the barrelage was raised until they were driven out and had nowhere else to go but the local council. That was the context to this issue when the breweries were running
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things. Nowadays, because of the changes made through the beer orders and so on, there are pubcos. I would say that the attitude of pubcos is even more mercenary.

I have one case involving a close friend who was affected by the 2007 floods in Gloucestershire. For the best part of eight months, her pub was inaccessible because the road that took people to it had collapsed. One would have thought that that would be a good reason for the pubco to be fair, reasonable and enterprising-I use that word deliberately. Sadly, it did not seem to think that it was a particular problem for her and was arguing all the way through, despite all the pressure that I and friends were able to bring to bear to try to get it to adjust what it was charging her. It was only through pain and the greatest of anguish that we got the pubco to listen and at least to adjust downwards what it expected her to pay, given that her trade was inevitably going to fail.

I wish that that was a one-off tale. Sadly, from all my experience of talking to publicans, I have to say that it is the norm that people are being driven out. I accept that the Government have a role to play in terms of how they price beer, spirits and all the other things for which they are responsible, 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. I agree with much that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley said about things such as Sky TV and the way in which all those costs accumulate and make it much more difficult for people to run a pub.

My second point is about what happens when a pub gets into difficulties. I feel strongly that we use expressions such as "The pub is the hub" and "The pub is the centre of the community" glibly, but we are not prepared to do much about that. When a pub is closing in a village, the community does come together and often has the wherewithal to be able to do something about that, but too often, although there is a predisposition against granting planning permission for something else, we go through the game of the pubco trying to do everything within its power to prove that it is an uneconomic business and it cannot remain as a pub. Despite there being a community effort, with people willing to put their hand in their pocket to obtain the property and the means to be able to run it as a pub on a community basis, we are unable to hold the line in terms of planning.

Mr. Sutcliffe: Perhaps this is an appropriate time to mention the task of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing in his role as the Minister with responsibility for community pubs. It is exactly that issue of the planning requirements that need to change and of support for community pubs that he will consider, and the hope is that he will come back with proposals in the coming weeks.

Mr. Drew: I welcome that and I welcome the appointment of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing in that role. It is good that he will be working with my hon. Friend the Minister who is here. However, we have heard the words; we now have to see the actions. I can cite cases. I will not go into detail, because many of them involve issues that in a sense have passed on by, but there are some cases in which the community is still
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totally committed to trying to do something to keep the pub in the community. I want it made absolutely clear that changing the planning permission to allow something other than a pub should be the last resort. When the pub is the last such institution in the community, throwing in the towel should be absolutely the last thing that we do. We have not used the planning rules to encourage local authorities to make it clear that we are not prepared to see that happen.

Let us be honest: too many pubcos have invested badly. They saw their property portfolio as their wealth creator. Following the collapse in property prices, they have caught more than a cold, which is sad, but that is their problem. If it was a question of their losing everything, one could feel sympathetic, but there are acceptable bodies of people who are willing to take institutions on, so why can we not see that as a way forward? We are all co-operators now, and as a co-operator myself, I see co-operative outcomes in communities as genuinely the way forward. Of course, people have to be able to provide a proper business plan, and institutions have to make money, but as we have seen with post offices and village shops, there are voluntary solutions that can work over the long run.

We must make sure that the planners get the message that they must not yield far too easily. I hear what the Minister says and I welcome the recognition of what the Minister for Housing can and should be doing. As I said, however, we have heard the words before; let us now see the action.

11.31 am

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): It is nice to be under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on his perceptive and well-informed speech. I am sure that he speaks for many of the publicans from St. Albans who came to me because they were frustrated with the tied pub, the 24-hour licensing, the smoking ban and all the other things that have been piled on them.

Some people dispute this, but St. Albans apparently has the most pubs per square mile of any place in England, and pubs are part of the historic street scene. Anybody who has been to St. Albans will have seen the historic pubs, and there can even be two or three in one short road. Those pubs traditionally supported people on the many pilgrimages to St. Albans, so they go back a long way.

The smaller pubs are finding life hard. The bigger pubs, which can bring in the clubbers and people interested in the dance scene, are not struggling so much and they have benefited from extended licensing. However, the smaller pubs, where people go for a quiet drink and to chew the fat or to debate the issues that my hon. Friend raised, have been struggling.

CAMRA, which is based in my constituency, has a beer festival every year, and I go along to help open it, but I also have my ear pressed very much to the ground so that I can hear about all the issues facing pubs. I am not a beer drinker, which is a shame, but a shandy drinker, which is a heinous crime according to CAMRA. None the less, CAMRA raises some valuable points.

I have been out all night with the police in St. Albans, and one sees young girls and young men going out to the pub. They will be raucous, lively and enjoying
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themselves. They will already have consumed a significant amount of budget-price alcohol, possibly while they were getting ready to go out. There has been a shift in the way we behave: some people have two, three or four glasses of wine, several pints of beer or half a bottle of vodka before they go out, so they are well oiled before they ever hit the pub.

When I am out with the police late at night, I see that the pubs are picking up the damage from this change in behaviour. They get blamed for people urinating in gardens. I am not saying that people who do not use the toilet before leaving the pub are blameless, but there are no toilet facilities easily available to people going down Fishpool street, Pageant road or some of the other historic streets in the city centre. If people see someone who has come out of The White Hart Tap or The Goat urinating in the street, they may assume that those pubs served them far too much alcohol, and the pubs may be penalised and robustly criticised. I am not saying that there is an issue with those particular pubs, but just giving an example.

Part of the problem is the alcohol that is consumed before people go to pubs. The Waterend Barn in St. Albans is synonymous with some unfortunate incidents, and I have seen people sitting outside it vomiting into the bushes late at night. I have also seen the ambulance crews picking them up. However, the prices that many of our pubs have to charge mean that those people would have to be pretty wealthy to get that drunk in such a pub.

Mr. Evans: Does my hon. Friend agree that organisations such as Pubwatch do a tremendous job in ensuring that somebody who is ejected from one pub will not be served in any others? My hon. Friend makes the important point that one of the great things about a pub is that it is supervised, while people drinking at home or on the streets are not. The landlord and landlady can ensure that people drink responsibly in a good atmosphere.

Anne Main: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. By and large, our pubs in St. Albans co-operate enormously with the local council and residents. The historic street scene means that they sit cheek by jowl with residents, and most pubs try their best to co-operate and to be good parts of the community. Many employ bouncers and doormen-again, at additional cost-to stop the wayward drunks and to ensure that someone who has been thrown out does not come back in if the pub believes that they are drinking irresponsibly.

It is a real shame that the smoking ban, which many people welcomed, has not only hit some smaller pubs disproportionately, but brought them into conflict with some of their neighbours. Pubs have to create smoking shelters, or people have to stand in the pub garden. As a result, doors are opened, and music drifts over to houses that were not previously bothered by noise. There is chatter, laughter and other noise outside in the garden in the winter, which one would never have expected. That causes conflicts with local residents. The legislation, which was introduced for the best possible reasons, has therefore had some unfortunate consequences.

I pay tribute to pubs for the fact that they are not only the heart of the community, but put things back. I have regularly done the prize draw with Cilla in the
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Three Hammers pub, and all the funds raised go to our local hospice. Pubs are not just drinking dens. Every time a VAT rise goes on to the price of a pint of beer, the assumption is that it will be on the pint in the pub.

Mr. David Hamilton: I just want to make an observation. We have The Woolpack in "Emmerdale", The Rovers Return in "Coronation Street", The Queen Vic in "Eastenders" and The Tall Ship in "River City", which is a serial in Scotland. Pubs are central to virtually every serial on television, which clearly shows how the British population works. We do not want to be partisan, but to work across parties to ensure that pubs stay alive throughout the UK.

Anne Main: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I do not watch those particular soap operas, but I am fully aware of them. [Interruption.] I do not have the time.

It is important that we look at the unfair blame that is often shifted on to small local pubs. In St. Albans, it is difficult to finger the pub that made the last irresponsible sale to a young person. If there is only one pub in a village, it is easy to see where people who are causing trouble are coming from, but it is hard to do that in areas such as St. Albans, and we are not alone in that-many historic cities have the same problem.

I have touched on the problems of smoking gardens. Unfortunately, another part of the problem associated with pubs is the vomiting and urinating in front of people's houses and in their gardens. The Department for Communities and Local Government is looking into whether local authorities should provide more toilets, and some pubs and big businesses have made the useful suggestion that we should have a community toilet scheme. Pubs are willing to offer their premises for charitable events and social events and, indeed, to embrace a community toilet scheme. The National Association for Colitis and Crohn's Disease, which was launched in St. Albans-the city is its home-recognises that many people cannot wait to use toilets, and that is not the result of drunkenness. The association therefore welcomes the fact that pubs are prepared to embrace a community toilet scheme. Yet again, pubs are showing their willingness to be a part of the community and to contribute.

We should bear that in mind, as well as the fact that pubs can and do offer so much more. I say that because some very large pubs and clubs have caused out-of-hours antisocial behaviour, and the result, unfortunately, has been the demonisation of all pubs, with everyone being tarred with the same brush.

On behalf of the smaller, well run pubs in St. Albans, I welcome the possibility of a rethinking of the tied pub, because damage is being done to young people who are prepared to take on what are in effect historic buildings, in conservation areas. The Boot, in St. Albans, which is a conservation pub, had a problem with a flood. It was closed for ages because it had to do everything through the planning department, in line with the requirements of the conservation officer. That must have been very hard financially.

I ask that when historic places such as St. Albans are considered, it will be borne in mind that the pressures involved are not necessarily those that affect a local supermarket. Tesco, which is also based in Hertfordshire,
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can afford to weather a big storm, but many local pubs cannot, and they are being pushed over the edge by things as small as flooding in an historic conservation area pub, or snow, because if the council does not grit the streets people will not go to the pub, but make their way to Tesco, which has the might to ensure that its car park is user-friendly.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): My hon. Friend is speaking from the heart, and we agree with her. I am a lifelong supporter of CAMRA and the Brewers Association. Will my hon. Friend make the point that a pub in the community is a place that encourages responsible drinking, because of the role of the landlord, who is concerned about his or her reputation and the pub's reputation? Surely the Government would want to encourage that, and rather than imposing regulation, costs and tax on beer they should encourage pubs, where people can learn to drink responsibly the traditional beer we all love.

Anne Main: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The publicans in my constituency whom I talk to are fully aware about the issue not only of serving too much alcohol to someone who is inebriated, but of serving it to someone who may take it over to that person. They are only too aware that they must be cautious and abide by the rules. I would not encourage people to learn to drink in a pub, but the people we need to be most concerned about are not those sitting sipping a drink and chatting, perhaps playing backgammon or engaged in another pub event. 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.

11.42 am

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): The fact that my brief speech follows those of two self-proclaimed non-beer drinkers, who spoke with such passion and insight about the future of the pub, underlines perhaps more than anything the hold that the British pub has on British people. Eighty per cent. of people visit a pub at some time in the year, and very few other institutions, even the Church or the Post Office, have such a reach. Perhaps only our most popular television channels have it in the course of a year. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) has done the nation a great service in obtaining the debate. Our common aim must be to make the pub a general election issue.

The hon. Gentleman chided my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing as one of the few Members of the House who has survived to tell the tale following a News of the World exclusive. Obviously, as we come into a general election period, parties will seek political advantage. That is only natural. However, I hope that my right hon. Friend's appointment, together with the Liberal Democrat and Conservative proposals, will mean that there is something to debate. We have heard about leaders' debates, and I am sure that we shall watch them with interest, but I hope that an organisation such as CAMRA might have a debate on the future of pubs, with the various Ministers and shadow Ministers giving their views.

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Time is limited and I want to rattle through one or two suggestions for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, but before that I want to mention managed pubs, which the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) mentioned. The issue of tied pubs has been well rehearsed and we await with interest the report of the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills, the Government's response and now, again, the Office of Fair Trading report. However, let us not forget the role played by managed pubs in this country.

One company whose model is under threat is Mitchells and Butlers, which has been taken over in all but name. I am not sure that the takeover panel has done a particularly good job on the issue. The new chairman has said that in 60 days he will produce new proposals for Mitchells and Butlers. An average Mitchells and Butlers pub-they have names such as All Bar One-employs 20 people, and the business employs 40,000 people. It has gone for a model of comparatively low beer prices but high quality, and highly staffed bars and pubs. There is a danger that, perhaps during the general election period, when the House is not sitting, Mitchells and Butlers will come up with proposals for big cost cutting, and the closure of pubs and bars. I urge the so-called independent directors who have been appointed to the board to speak out now, if they are truly independent. Otherwise they will be seen as the patsies for the offshore interests that have taken over Mitchells and Butlers. I just mention that in passing.

I shall rattle through the main issues, and as I do not want to repeat what has been said I shall try to pick one or two other ideas. CAMRA has suggested that rate relief, which has been a big boon to village pubs in recent years, should be extended more widely, to community pubs in suburban areas and small market towns. That needs to be considered. A proper definition of a community pub is obviously needed, but I think that local authorities would be well placed to judge whether a pub is a community pub. That would be a good way forward.

Various hon. Members have discussed putting a lower rate of duty on draught beer. I want to underline the fact that that is a current issue. The European Commission is reviewing the rules on duty now, and I hope that all three Front Benches will unite in what they say about this and that the British Government will argue-although we need allies, and potentially have them in such countries as Germany and the Czech Republic-that the European Commission should allow different nation states to impose a lower rate of duty on draught beer. That could do as much for pubs in the next Parliament as the lower rate of duty on small brewers has done for the expansion of micro-brewers in this Parliament.

Mr. Evans: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's powerful speech. I read his last column in the Morning Advertiser. I hope that he carries on with it after the general election. The important point is the differential on tax. Not only should the Government not fear that if we made the change the general take would go down-because if we can get more people into pubs the taxation take would increase; in addition, if a pub survives, the £80,000 that it pushes into the community, the more than £100,000 that it pays in taxes, and all the charitable things that it does, can continue.

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