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Beer Duty Escalator

Volume 547: debated on Monday 2 July 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Newmark.)

It is a great privilege to have secured this debate this evening. It is an even greater pleasure to see so many hon. Members in their places as we start this Adjournment debate at this late hour. One could say that an Adjournment debate is akin to an after-hours lock-in, but probably without so much pleasure or enjoyment. We are all here because we care passionately about both the brewing industry and, of course, our pubs right across our constituencies and across the nation. We care about them because we know they are part of the fabric of our nation. We all have concerns about the beer duty escalator and the impact it is having on the many pubs and breweries across the land.

We have to go back to 2008 to see the introduction by the last Labour Government of the beer duty escalator, which saw beer duty rise by inflation plus 2% each year. This, sadly, has been carried on, and it is having a detrimental impact on our pubs and breweries.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I congratulate him on securing this important debate. He will be aware that it has been predicted by the British Beer and Pub Association that the escalator could cost as many as 5,000 jobs. When he talks about a detrimental impact, does he think it important for the House to recognise just how significant that detrimental impact could be on such an important industry?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point about the impact on jobs in the industry of the beer duty escalator, which I was coming on to. In my constituency of South Staffordshire, 1,286 people are employed in breweries and pubs—whether in the fantastic brewery of Enville, the brewery of Kinver, the Morton brewery in Essington, the Marston’s brewery in neighbouring Wolverhampton, or in the 86 pubs scattered across the constituency. Unfortunately, however, these pubs have declined in the last few years, and I am afraid that the beer duty escalator has had an impact in that respect.

Does my hon. Friend agree that a sensible way of helping pubs might be to lower the duty on draught beer but raise it on canned beer?

My hon. Friend is not known as a visionary—I believe that his new wife often refers to him thus—for nothing. I hope that the Minister is noting his ideas eagerly, and will recommend them to the Treasury as a host of examples of radical new thinking that could improve and support our breweries and pubs.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, and assure him that his cause has the full support of the all-party parliamentary save the pub group.

Pubs pay even more tax per pint because of the other forms of tax to which they are subject. I fully support my hon. Friend’s proposal—indeed, I think that a separate duty should apply to real ale, which requires an increased cost of production and increased cellarmanship—but there is also a problem with European legislation. Rather than saying that we should not challenge that legislation, should not Ministers convey to Europe the message that it could do something important that would greatly help not only our brewing industry but our pubs?

It is always welcome when a Liberal Democrat speaks so vociferously against the European Union. I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has fought so hard for pubs not just in his constituency but throughout the country.

Almost 1 million jobs in the United Kingdom are generated by the UK beer and pub industry, which affects all our constituencies, including that of the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith). Some 550 people work in the industry there, and I am sure that, like the rest of us, my hon. Friend wants the number to increase.

I am trying to extend the debate to the Opposition Benches. Although my local brewer, Fuller, Smith and Turner, is internationally famous, it is still a family firm, but last year it paid 37% of its turnover—not its profit—in tax, and beer duty will rise by 27% during the current Parliament. Should not the Government take notice of that?

The hon. Gentleman has made an important point about how difficult it is for many pub and brewing companies to invest more money in generating new jobs and products in a sector in which we are world leaders. We in the United Kingdom are clearly paying far more duty than the European average. Although we consume only 13% of the beer consumed in the European Union, we pay 40% of the tax bill. I do not often talk about the need for European harmonisation, but I should like us to harmonise with the Germans, who only pay a tenth as much beer duty on their pints. Perhaps we should explore that idea further.

My hon. Friend mentioned new products a moment ago. The Firefly, a pub in Worcester, recently embarked on the first new brewing venture in the city for 16 years. I am sure that the pub, and Worcestershire, would support my hon. Friend’s campaign.

My hon. Friend has made a valid point. Not only is everyone in South Staffordshire rooting for the ending of the beer duty escalator, but so are those in the great county town of Worcester. Obviously their pubs are not as fantastic as those in South Staffordshire, but we all have our crosses to bear in life.

We recognise that the Government face a great challenge. It is not easy to do what they are doing, and Treasury Ministers carry a burden on their shoulders that I am sure none of us on the Back Benches would wish to carry.

As chairman of the all-party group on beer, I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I am sure he agrees with me that the packed Benches at almost midnight show the strength of feeling in this House in support of Britain’s brewing industry. Does he share my shock that British brewers are paying half their income in tax to the Treasury, yet the future of the industry is at a critical point? Does he agree we can save jobs and pubs if we cut the duty on beer?

As always, my hon. Friend and fellow Staffordshire Member of Parliament makes an excellent point. We want to encourage investment by our brewers into this vital industry and into our pubs.

Over the last eight years there has been a 50% increase in beer duty but only a 10% increase in revenues from that duty. That is a great concern.

We are talking here about small and medium-sized businesses—businesses that employ some 1,600 people in my constituency. My four breweries are very successful small businesses, but they could do with some help in respect of this policy.

All the Members who have intervened have made the most wonderful points, and my hon. Friend certainly has not disappointed in that regard. I am a little disappointed, however, that he did not mention his four breweries for a potential future press release.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. As the Member for Bedford, the home of the largest family-owned brewery, Wells and Young’s, may I ask him whether he agrees that it is also a timely debate? The Treasury recently took action to reduce the fuel duty escalator, and it would be a welcome addition if we were also to eliminate the beer duty escalator and its impact on our economy.

I would never dream of supposing that I knew more than Treasury Ministers, but that would certainly be a good idea to bear in mind for future Budgets. We must look at the economics involved. As I mentioned, there has been a 50% increase in the rate of duty, but only a 10% increase in the amount of revenue.

I have had the great privilege over the past few months of serving on the Finance Bill Committee, where I heard many emotive and brilliant arguments from my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary about the need to get the balance right between the rate of tax and the money it brings in.

I must declare an interest: for 25 or 26 years, I have been married to a brewery man—and thank goodness for Bass and for Young’s. Many pubs in South Derbyshire are still under threat or are going to close, even though the Shardlow brewery, the John Thompson brewery and in particular the Burton Bridge brewery, which has just opened, are fantastic. I should also mention the Brickmakers in Newton Solney. We are trying to do our best, but the yoke of taxation is too high. Does my hon. Friend agree?

I entirely agree. I think we have gone too far, and it is having a detrimental effect on the amount of tax revenue the Treasury can get from this important potential source. The Exchequer already brings in £8 billion in tax revenue from the beer and pub industry, but my concern is that that amount will go into slow decline. Already, the Office for Budget Responsibility and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs have made it clear that the money coming in from the increase in beer duty is not going to increase. It has not done so in the past year and it is not expected to do so in the next year. We therefore need to look at different ideas. One of them is not to keep taxing. We have had many debates about the Laffer curve and its benefits, but the simple reality is that beer duty is getting to the point where it is too high and it is pricing people out of the market.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems of getting the duty rate too high is that it gives a boost to the illicit trade, which now makes up about 10% of the off-sale market? The higher the duty is pushed, the higher the illicit sales go and so no duty at all is received.

The worst thing we could possibly see is the growth of the illicit trade and the Chancellor of the Exchequer getting none of the money whatsoever. We want to make sure that people are paying their taxes and their duty, but we do not want to tax people out of the market.

May I add a slightly solemn note to what has been a light-hearted debate? I had a great friend, David Woodhouse, the chairman of Hall and Woodhouse in Blandford, who died aged 49 of a heart attack, running his company. He said to me on many occasions that he could not understand why Governments, and ours in particular, were proposing this tax every year, given that it is a tax on jobs at a time when we are trying to increase jobs. Surely that must be a point for the Government to take away from this debate.

My hon. Friend touches on an important point: this is not only about jobs, but about British jobs. Some 68% of the drinks that our pubs sell are beers, so this duty is having a detrimental impact on every one of our pubs. Furthermore, 86% of all that beer that is consumed is produced in this country, which compares with a figure of 0.2% for wine.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. He is absolutely right in what he says about the jobs in the pub and brewing industry, but let us also not forget the malting industry, which has a great tradition, especially in Yorkshire. I must declare an interest, because there is also an impact on the farming industry. The job creation that is affected by the beer duty escalator goes right from the grain to the glass.

I would never expect anything other than an intervention from a great colleague of mine, who also is a farmer, to enable us to understand the whole process of the brewing industry and to put it into perspective for us.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, and he is being extremely generous with his time. Does he agree that it is also ironic that we are increasing the tax on beer, which drives people to drink much more harmful substances—drinks with a much stronger alcoholic volume—so raising the duty all the time is not good for the nation’s health either?

The hon. Lady makes a very valid point. One of the consequences of having a Scotsman as Chancellor for quite a period of time is that the duty on Scotch whisky seemed to be frozen. Perhaps now that we have an English Chancellor what we need is to freeze the duty on English beer. There is so much that we need to be doing. We need to be reviving our pubs. We need to be seeing that vigour and sense of community returning to all our pubs across the country.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate; the number of Members here at this late hour shows its importance. Does he agree that pubs not only sell beer, but provide a great community centre in small and rural communities? So many charity collections and fundraising exercises begin in pubs, where people meet and talk.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. In addition, pubs are an important part of the economy and employ young people. In my constituency, 50% of those employed in the beer and pub industry are under the age of 25.

We all talk about the beer duty escalator. Just the other day, I was in a department store. I went up an escalator, and then I noticed that I went down one. So I say to the Minister that we could keep a beer duty escalator, but perhaps put it in reverse.

My hon. Friend is being very generous and possibly setting a world record in taking interventions. A suggestion that might meet the requirement from the Treasury Bench to raise revenue and which builds on the points made by colleagues about supporting the industry and supporting pubs is to remove the escalator just from cask ales. Those ales are available only in pubs. British pubs are of course part of our heritage and we are talking about a British product with a British supply chain, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) said. We have great pubs, particularly in the Yorkshire area.

Unfortunately, they are not as good as those in the county of Staffordshire—although I am sure the pubs in Yorkshire are not bad.

I would love the Minister to stand at the Dispatch Box and announce to the whole Chamber that the beer duty escalator will be frozen or reversed. I know that she carries many burdens on her shoulders and may not be able to give us that promise, so I ask her to meet me and other colleagues who have such concerns in order to listen to the arguments put forward by the industry and by people who feel passionately not just about our pubs but about our beer and our great breweries—a part of our industrial heritage that is living and breathing today.

I am quite sure that if the Minister can take the arguments to the Chancellor and to all those in the Treasury and convince them that we need either to freeze beer duty or to let it rise only in line with inflation rather than at inflation plus 2%, she will be able to provide an enormous boost not just to British breweries and British beer but to the great British pub. I am quite sure that, if my hon. Friend can achieve that, when she next enters the pub every punter will be raising their glass to the Boadicea of British beer.

I must take the opportunity, after that last reference, to invite hon. Members to drink at the Iceni brewery in Norfolk, at which I am sure they would be extremely welcome.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) on securing the debate. It has been interesting and I thank him and all hon. Members who have contributed tonight. It will not be a surprise, as I have the rather thankless task of being the final speaker tonight at this late hour, if I suggest that he can buy us all a drink when we have finished. I am sure he can do that.

In all seriousness, I want to compliment my very fine brewing and drinking city of Norwich. I regularly go into pubs—indeed, I drink the odd beer—I run politics in the pub surgeries and my local newspaper also runs a very fine “Love your local” campaign, so I am very much in tune with the spirit of what we are discussing tonight.

I regret to say that I must turn to the burdens about which my hon. Friend spoke and do my duty in providing some background on my hon. Friend’s proposal to end the beer duty escalator. As hon. Members will be aware, the inflation plus 2% annual increases were first announced in the 2008 Budget by the previous Government and were extended in the March 2010 Budget. Those pre-announced increases applied to all alcohol types, not only beer, and the additional revenue from the increases was included in the public finance projections at that time. Let me put some numbers on that for your edification, Mr Deputy Speaker. The value of removing the escalator would be £35 million for 2013-14 and £70 million after that.

Does the Minister not accept that beer has been treated particularly unfairly when compared with spirits and cider? Ludicrously, the global cider producers who knock out mass-produced products, often not using British apples, pay half the duty even of the smallest micro-brewers on the lowest small breweries’ relief rate. That is simply not fair.

I hear the hon. Gentleman’s argument and pay tribute to him for his work with his all-party group. Let me answer his question with the main question posed at the end of the speech made by my hon. Friend: I would of course be happy to meet hon. Members who are present tonight to discuss these matters further.

There are many points to go into—more, I regret to say, than I have time for. The key point that I must make first is that the duty increases that we are talking about—the increases through to 2014-15—form a vital part of the Government’s plan to tackle the debt left by the previous Government. It would be worse for everybody if we did not tackle that debt. When I say “everybody”, I mean beer drinkers, cider drinkers, spirit drinkers, wine drinkers, brewers, publicans and, of course, all those who never touch a drop. The high interest rates that would result if we abandoned our credible plan to tackle the deficit would not help anybody.

The Minister will no doubt have seen in the business section of The Times today the piece on the Sharp’s brewery in Rock. Doom Bar is now a famous brand around the country, and is enjoyed, the article tells us, by the Prime Minister. The Minister has rightly set out the situation facing the country. However, the brewing industry is very keen to take on young people, train them up, and give them a career. That is what Sharp’s is doing. Does she agree that being more sympathetic on beer duty might allow companies to invest in taking on more employees?

Again, a fine point is made. I am the first to support the notion of encouraging young people into work and work experience, but we have to be realistic. The Treasury and the Government face a number of proposals from different industries that say, “Ours is the industry that holds the key,” and I am sympathetic to those arguments. There is, of course, much evidence to go into for all such proposals, but it is important to proceed as a responsible Government, and to try to take into account the revenue that is required to fund vital public services and that, as I say, helps everybody.

To expand on my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), perhaps we can look at a tax-neutral way of getting more people into pubs, which create so many jobs. As there is an onus on landlords to ensure that people drink sensibly on their premises, that, rather than minimum pricing for alcohol, may help to tackle alcohol abuse.

On that note, let me come on to some of the factors affecting the state of the industry. It is important to be clear that duty is not the only thing affecting the state of the pub industry. We have all, I am sure, been in good pubs and terrible pubs, and the price of the beer is not the only factor involved. On the price of a beer, I point out that the pre-announced alcohol duty increases in question added only 3p to a pint of average-strength beer, including VAT. The total duty on a pint of beer is now 47p. I think that hon. Members will agree that, especially as alcohol consumption does, after all, carry its own costs and concerns, that addition in the Budget this year is not an overwhelming or unreasonable amount. It is something that we can consider in the context of the public finances and the challenges relating to them that have to be met.

As I say, alcohol duty is only one of a wide range of factors that determine the final price paid by the customer. Let us be clear about the position of the industry. The decline in the beer and pub industry that some talk of is influenced by a number of factors. Lifestyles are changing. People’s choices when they walk into pubs and other establishments are changing. People have more choice about whether they go to a pub or somewhere else. Removing the escalator, which is what has been asked for tonight, and the pre-announced duty increases would not solve those problems. There is very much a wider context.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening)—my predecessor as Economic Secretary to the Treasury with responsibility for alcohol duty—and I have met a wide range of representatives from industry. As I said, I am happy to continue doing so. I recognise the important contribution that pubs and breweries make to local communities and to the wider economy. Many groups that have been prayed in aid tonight, such as the Campaign for Real Ale and the British Beer and Pub Association, have welcomed the work that we have done to date, such as the review of alcohol taxation in November 2010. We continue to keep all taxes under review.

I am sorry. I must complete my remarks within a few minutes, but as I said, I am happy to continue the conversation, whether in the bar or elsewhere.

CAMRA’s figures show that the net rate of pub closures has slowed dramatically over the past two years. I believe the BBPA’s figures support this. I support pubs as places where people can drink sensibly in a supervised environment and enjoy themselves responsibly. I want to reverse the trend towards pre-loading on cheap alcohol at home. I was out with Norfolk constabulary in my neighbouring constituency, Norwich South, on Saturday night, observing some of the problems in action in places that are not as friendly as the community pubs that have been spoken about tonight.

In my view, minimum unit pricing will help to tackle the issue of excessive alcohol consumption and heavily discounted alcohol sold in supermarkets and off-licences. I strongly believe that that will benefit pubs and the responsible on-trade once we can tackle the demand for cheap alcohol in supermarkets. It is of interest to hon. Members here tonight that we have introduced a 50% reduction in alcohol duty for low-strength beers. That may be a growing sector in the industry.

In brief response to my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), the Government are committed to tackling alcohol fraud and avoidance, and have been working in collaboration with the industry to address that. There are a number of measures that we wish to take to act on that.

At the Budget, this Government knew that it would be unfair to place further burdens on the alcohol industry, on pubs and on responsible drinkers. This is why we did not go further than the pre-announced duty increases. But I return to my main point. There is an important question of the public finances. The revenue from these increases was included in the public finance projections at that time. It would now require the raising of other taxes to pay for removing them. That is the question that I ask hon. Members to consider. I am sure that many pub conversations come up with the best answers to that, which hon. Members may like to go on to discuss.

This year’s duty increase and those to 2014-15 form part of our vital plan to reduce Britain’s debt, which is required to ensure low interest rates and a stable platform for growth for everybody—drinkers, businesses and households. We will continue to keep all taxes under review and monitor the impact of alcohol duty—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).