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The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, which perhaps should bring me on to saying a word about tax. If we are honest, it is unlikely that any
Government in the near future will reduce the overall take from alcohol tax, given the pressure on public finances. However, there is a strong and fair case to be made that beer and pubs have lost out in recent years. A rebalancing is needed with spirit tax and duty on cider.
There is a technical issue that the Government could deal with in the Budget. Machines that have been defined as skills-with-prizes machines-the low-stake machines that are in many pubs-are being redefined as games of chance. Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs is trying to claim three back years of amusement machine licence duty. That will be a big blow. It has already been postponed once, and I hope that the Chancellor will at least examine that detail.
Mr. Sutcliffe: I am delighted that my hon. Friend has given way on this issue of skills with prizes. It has come to me as the Minister with responsibility for gambling, and I have taken it up with the Treasury and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing. We hope to be able to make announcements shortly, and are well aware of the issue.
The phrase "pub is the hub" has been used in the debate, but it is also the name of an organisation. Under the guidance of John Longden, Pub is the Hub has saved many pubs, by bringing together post offices and shops in pubs. Some consistent funding, perhaps from regional development agencies, is needed for it, because it has probably done more than any other organisation to help save individual pubs.
Sport on TV has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members. Many marginal pubs rely on sport on TV. For example, many are looking forward to the World cup later this year. There is a relationship between this debate and that on listed events. I hope that before Parliament rises Ministers will confirm the new list of sporting events that must be available on free-to-air TV, because some pubs will never be able to afford subscription TV.
I think that it was Hilaire Belloc who said that the pub is the very heart of England. [Interruption.] I say that with sympathy for my Gaelic friends and for my Irish background, but I am sure that Belloc's comments have wider resonance throughout the United Kingdom.
Many hon. Members mentioned the numerous activities that take place in pubs. Only yesterday, at the Jug Inn at Chapel Haddlesey in my constituency-in the heart of England and the heart of Yorkshire-Councillor Jack Davie made a great presentation for the British Heart Foundation. He has made it part of his life's work to visit all the pubs in the area to help that charity.
Through the efforts of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley, my good friend, and the responses that we look forward to hearing from the Front Benches, I hope that although the pub will not be centre stage it will certainly play a part in the general election, and that candidates up and down the land will receive letters asking for their proposals and their views on the issues that face the British pub.
Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): It is a pleasure, Mr. Gale, to serve under your chairmanship again this morning. It is interesting to see that a cross-section of those who were here for the pensioner debate are here also for the public house debate. Both debates have been attended by the highest class of Member.
It has been a great pleasure over the past five years to attend debates secured by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and the various events that he has sponsored. He has been a stout defender-no pun is intended-of British beer and public house business. He looks thin and fit on it. It is important that we debate this subject, given that the British Beer and Pub Association said yesterday in its pre-Budget report that there should be a lower tax rate for beer.
It has been my habit in previous debates to refer to important totemic public houses in Croydon that have been closed. Perhaps today I should refer to those that are thriving-or at least struggling with the burdens of taxation and other requirements put upon them by the Government and still doing reasonably well. I took the opportunity yesterday to speak to a number of public houses. I shall not ascribe particular comments to particular public houses, as it might compromise them, but it will give an illustrative background in support of points made by other hon. Members.
Those public houses are the Half and Half, the Claret Free House in Lower Addiscombe road, The Royal Standard, The Ship, The Builders Arms and The Spreadeagle. I was not able to reach those other excellent pubs, The Surprise and The Sandrock. I would not want to give the impression that I had been running from one public house to another yesterday evening, as I was busy here with the business of the House. However, it was helpful to be able to talk about some of their problems. I previously met the landlady at The Cricketers.
It is hard, given business rates and Government taxation, to keep the public house business going in these difficult times. One publican spoke about the impact of the recession. His public house depends particularly on clients aged between 25 and 30, and he has seen reduced patronage as a result of their loss of employment. Public houses would very much like to see rates and taxation reduced, but the business rate is particularly troublesome.
One interesting comment is that it is impossible to keep up with the supermarkets as their beer and wine is sold at a cheaper price per litre than water. That brings home some of the challenges that are faced. Another independent provider found that duties were too expensive, which caused breweries to cut the alcohol content of some of their drinks. As well as business rates and taxation, another burden is the cost of energy, something that has not been mentioned today. Such burdens make it difficult for independent providers to compete with big chains such as Wetherspoon; indeed, some say about the chain beers that they cannot buy a tin for the same price, let alone the beer itself.
Publicans in Croydon have some interesting reflections on the impact of smoking, but expressing different views. Some felt that it was difficult to ban smoking near doorways for those public houses that do not have gardens, but others felt that the smoking ban had had no impact on the industry, given the attractions that
they had to provide as public houses. The response of one provider was that smokers will arrive in rain or snow.
Mr. David Hamilton: May I make the point about the smoking ban? Most Members will be aware that it started in Scotland long before it did in the rest of the UK. One problem for many clubs is that women often refuse to go outside to smoke, and that has had a major effect on some of the clubs in Scotland.
Mr. Pelling: That obviously has an impact; but it has an impact also on those public houses used by families. The hon. Gentleman is right; if women feel that it is not appropriate or unsafe, or that it looks wrong to be smoking outside a public house, that too can have a disturbing effect.
One point made in previous debates on the subject is that the public house acts as the centre of the community-as a place for the family. I spoke to a publican of a pub to which I had only recently been introduced by Croydon citizens advice bureau. I was impressed by its friendly nature; it was very family friendly. However, despite all our troubles, it is often said that even those who are redundant can always find the money for a drink. It is as if the recession has no effect. In some ways, that may seem rather flippant, but it tells of the importance of public houses in difficult times.
Public houses can be a place of respite. They can be places where people will find comfort in difficult times. Some may spend too much time at home trying to find employment, but being able to be part of the community may not only lift their spirits-again, no pun is intended-but may make them better able to find employment through the networking that public houses can provide.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: The hon. Gentleman is an independent Member and has spoken forcibly in many debates. Would he not describe the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) as an emergency debate? The huge number of pubs now closing will create a huge problem for many communities. For many, the village pub or the community pub is the only facility where people can meet. It is important that the Government take the matter seriously, and that the Budget that we are shortly to have announces some relief for those in pubs and the smaller breweries.
Mr. Pelling: It is a great privilege to give way to the hon. Gentleman. I do not know how the House will be able to progress when it no longer has such independent-minded Members to ensure that Parliament thrives.
It is important that public houses thrive. As we heard in the many debates in which the hon. Gentleman and others have taken part, the community can be undermined by the loss of the post office or of local shops. When a parade of shops loses a public house, its size and importance mean that the rest of the shops often end up being under threat.
There are many implications. The real conclusion to throw to the Minister is that the thriving public house community in Croydon that I have described offers many different types of provision. The Bird in the Hand, for example, reaches out to the trans and lesbian
community, and The Rose and Crown retails to the vegetarian community. There are many communities that can be catered for. Government talk about diversity and how everyone should be able to take part in a community, so this is a debate of very great importance. I look forward to the Minister's response.
Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on securing it. The hon. Gentleman and friend is a fellow executive member of the all-party parliamentary beer group and a member of the all-party parliamentary save the pub group, of which I am chairman. Let me make it clear that I am speaking on behalf of both the Liberal Democrats and my all-party parliamentary group. Part of the reason for that is to give other hon. Members a chance to contribute to the debate.
I have a little bit of news for the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan). CAMRA and the save the pub group are hosting an event to which all three parties are invited. It will either be on 9 March or 16 March, and I hope that all three parties will take part and join other people from the industry and members of CAMRA.
I am pleased to be speaking in this debate, but frustrated to be still talking about the same issues. I am sick of always getting warm words-I prefer my beer cellar cool and not warm-and no action. I warmly welcome the Government's decision to appoint the right hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey) as Minister responsible for pubs. I look forward to working with both him and the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe) to get some action in the remaining few weeks of this Government. However, I would have preferred it if such an appointment had been made some time ago.
Let me rattle through a few of the important issues. We need to consider the level of beer duty and the way in which it has risen. We want the Minister to tell us that the duty will now be frozen, and we want to see the abolition of the beer duty escalator that has caused so much damage. I also agree that we should consider a lower rate for draught beer, which is something that both all-party 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, store and serve, so I agree that we should take the fight to Europe. We should also consider minimum pricing, which the hon. Member for Selby also champions. However, let me add a note of caution. People talk about putting the level at 50p, but an independent body should assess the level so that responsible drinkers, either at home or in the pub, are not penalised. Such a scheme will help pubs to compete, especially as they offer that uniqueness that we all know about.
We need to consider live music in pubs. The Live Music Bill is going through the other place, but I ask the Government to review their exemption level of 100 people because it is not sufficient. The Bill stipulates 200 people, which would do more to help pubs as well as encouraging more live music.
Rate relief is another area of consideration. The community pub inquiry report stated that there was no recognition of the contribution that pubs make to the
community, which was also mentioned by the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main). Pubs make vast contributions to charity and offer a hub to the community, but that is not reflected in the rate system.
Mr. David Hamilton: The hon. Gentleman will realise from my comments that I am more of a club drinker than a pub drinker. There are a number of clubs in my area, which I actively support. If the hon. Gentleman is talking about rate relief, who will pay it? Local authorities in my area pay 80 per cent. rate relief to all the clubs if they make contributions to the local area. It costs the local authority £500,000 a year. Who will pick up the tab under his proposal?
Greg Mulholland: If we are serious about the matter, we need to value that contribution. I have to say that I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's premise. I must move on now to the two main issues that must be tackled if we are serious about saving the British pub. All too often we have an air-brushed debate, which is deliberately manufactured by those in the industry who do not want real change. I refer here to the rather misleading "I'm Backing the Pub" campaign that is being promoted by the British Beer and Pub Association.
If we are serious about saving the pub, two things must happen. First, we must reform planning laws. As the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said, it is all very well to say that we support the pub, but until we give communities the right to stop the closure of the pubs-they have none at the moment-this is all talk. The Minister would have no say about the closure of his local pubs in Wibsey, which is in his constituency. Decisions to close a pub against the wishes of the community could be taken in Solihull, Burton-on-Trent or anywhere else. 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, which should include an independent viability study to see if that pub is, or could be, viable. At the moment, even pubs that are making money are being deliberately closed just to suit shareholders' interests, and that is a national scandal. We still have the absurd situation in which it is perfectly legal to demolish a free-standing pub overnight without planning permission or to turn it into a restaurant, a shop, a café, or, ludicrously in England and Wales, a financial services office. I have nothing against accountants, but let us face it, they are not hubs of community life.
The second issue is the structure of the industry and the way in which the tied tenant system operates. That is an area that must be tackled. Any solutions that do not tackle such an issue will not stop the closures from happening.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: I will be very quick. Does the hon. Gentleman, whom I respect for what he is doing on the issue of pubs and beer, not believe that the tied system is very important for the smaller brewer?
Greg Mulholland: That is an interesting point. One of the problems with this debate is that that argument comes out. 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 about having a fair and transparent system, which we do not have. The excellent Business and Enterprise Committee report last year highlighted that issue and showed that even when pubs had a turnover of more than £500,000, more than 50 per cent. of lessees earned less than £15,000. That cannot be right, and it is about time that the Government did something about it. That means not waiting for the Office of Fair Trading, which has shown that it does not understand the issue and that it is of little use in this area, but referring the matter to the Competition Commission. The report concluded:
"The time has now come for Government to intervene to ensure a fair and legal framework."
Will the Minister indicate that the Government will do that, because this is an issue of fairness and of exploitation of workers-the kind of things that one would hope a Labour Government would take seriously.
The British Beer and Pub Association is trying to stall the process. I have nothing against the organisation, and I agree with it on many things, including on beer duty and minimum pricing, but it represents the big pub companies and breweries. It is not the voice of the industry as a whole. It has introduced what it calls a UK industry framework, but it is nothing of the sort because it applies only to its own members. As Greene King has shown, all one has to do if one does not agree is to leave the BBPA. In the meantime, the Independent Pub Confederation has come together with a number of organisations-CAMRA, the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Guild of Master Victuallers, the Society of Independent Brewers, trade unions and Justice for Licensees-to call for, among other things, reform of the tie.
If we are serious about British pubs, I want to make it clear that what we do not need is yet another debate. I am glad that we have had this opportunity for a debate today, but we do not need another debate to say how important pubs are. I have said that again and again and again-and they are important. However, that importance is not being recognised in planning law. Also, we are not dealing with the fact that more than 50,000 of our pubs are owned by pub companies that, in too many cases, really do not care about the impact of pub closures on communities. We need structural reform and reform of planning law. We also need to give the pub back to the British people.
I simply ask everyone here today to look at the Independent Pub Confederation's excellent charter "Time for a Change", and at CAMRA's beer drinkers and pub goers charter. Those charters are real manifestos for reform and reform is the only thing that we should be talking about today and in the future.
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