British Pubs

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 23rd February 2010.

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Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley 11:00 am, 23rd February 2010

It is a pleasure to introduce this debate, Mr. Gale. I declare my interest as vice-chairman of the all-party group on beer, and as a member of the Campaign for Real Ale. I am delighted to see the Minister here, but a little surprised that the Government are not represented by the newly appointed pub supremo. It is an excellent idea to have a pub guru in the Government, although the decision was greeted with some interesting news articles. I am sure that the Minister will pass my message on to the pub supremo, and I am almost certain that he will lose no time in reading what I and other hon. Members have to say.

On 18 February, Paul Charity, editor of the Morning Advertiser wrote an article entitled, "Healey starts with a pub crawl", in which he said:

"Healey's appointment was met with the presentational gravitas it deserves by being unveiled in the form of a News of the World exclusive. His trip around Wentworth's pubs last week did little to dispel the scepticism of those who think the appointment of a pubs minister is a cynical attempt by the Government to win cheap publicity.

This opportunistic grab at positive media coverage has become a defining characteristic of this Government."

He then wrote that it was "a shame" that the pubs Minister was not given the job some time ago-and so say I, as does The Publican, whose headline, "Right idea, shame about the timing", says it all. Both magazines are no doubt essential reading for John Healey, and he will not be short of ideas for what to do.

Miles Templeman, chairman of Shepherd Name, started the ball rolling on the front page of The Publican, when he said:

"Many of the problems that pubs face are a direct result of the intrusive Government regulation and big increases in duties on drinks."

Marc Allison, the freeholder of The Artful Dodger in York, summed up the matter best:

"I am sure this is about winning votes but it could potentially be a good thing if he does his job properly."

The right hon. Member for Wentworth is quoted on the front page as saying:

"While we can't stop every pub from closing it's right that we do everything possible to back them. But they need help now so I am determined to have a deal on the table with a package of practical help in the next few weeks."

I presume that that is where he is today.

The proof of the pie will be in the eating, but past performance from the right hon. Gentleman is not promising. Instead of supporting the massive tax hikes on beer, he should have provided support for an industry suffering from an onslaught of body blows. Never has "punch drunk" been a more appropriate description of an industry attacked from so many sides. It is little surprise that pub closures have been at an all-time high over the past three years, oscillating between 39 and 50 a week.

I will not reiterate the importance of pubs to local communities. I have been vice-chairman of the all-party group for more years than I care to mention, and Mrs. Dean and I produced a report on the importance of community pubs. It took us more than two years to do so, and we took evidence from a number of sources. James Purnell who, regrettably, is leaving the House, stated in the introduction:

"The Government recognises the cultural importance of public houses in the UK, as centres of entertainment, as hubs for local communities, as a diverse and vibrant part of the hospitality industry and as a unique British institution that helps make our country so attractive to overseas visitors".

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does he agree that his arguments in favour of the British pub apply equally to non-profit-making clubs in the UK, such as Labour clubs, Conservative clubs, working men's clubs and British Legion clubs?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Absolutely. I agree with my right hon. Friend that such clubs are very much at the heart of communities. The things that make pubs attractive places for people to visit are the same as the things that make people go regularly to clubs in this country.

The community pub inquiry by the all-party group made 17 recommendations, including ending the duty escalator on beer; differential taxation on pump-pulled beer; and an examination of the huge contrast between supermarket prices for beer and prices in the pub. Pub prices used to be twice those of supermarkets, but they are now much greater-sometimes seven times as much-with aggressive pricing by the supermarkets.

I have spoken to many landlords and landladies over the years, and a few more when preparing for this debate. I am particularly grateful for the sage advice of Steve and Chris Dilworth of The Swan with Two Necks in Pendleton, which is a successful free house in the village where I live that offers very good food and excellent real ales from the region. Steve is a CAMRA member, and knows his beer and how look after it.

As a case study, I went to a very different pub in the town of Longridge, which serves pies for locals-that service is aimed at football fans-but relies very much on wet sales. Irene Nuttall is the landlady, but prefers to be called the landlord, and she is chairman of the local pub watch. I sat in the pub with her last Saturday, and listened to her encapsulate the problems. She is tied to Heineken UK, which used to be Scottish and Newcastle, for her beers, and the premises are owned by Trust Inns. I shall show the price differential between what she pays to Heineken and what she might pay if she went to a wholesaler on the free market. An 11-gallon barrel of Fosters costs £127 from Heineken, but from a wholesaler it would cost £92. Cask ales-nine or 10 gallons-cost £96 from Heineken, or £55 from a wholesaler. An 11-gallon barrel of John Smith's costs £114 from Heineken, or £88 from a wholesaler. Cases of Pils bottles cost £31 from Heineken, or £12.99 from a wholesaler. There is even a big differential between the prices of soft drinks. The tie today has the pub industry over a barrel, and penalises the tied landlord.

The Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills and its predecessors have examined the matter several times. The Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend Peter Luff, would have been here today had he not been chairing a meeting on a further report on the tie. We look forward to that publication, but a previous reports states:

"There are strong indications that the existence of the tie pushes up prices not just to lessees but to consumers...our provisional view is that the tie should be severely limited to ensure there is proper competition in the market."

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport)

Will the hon. Gentleman comment on what has happened to CAMRA's complaint to the Office of Fair Trading? I am sure that he will be happy with the OFT's decision to look again at what CAMRA has said.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I am delighted, but we need action. The matter needs to be considered urgently, and I look forward to the report from the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, which I hope will be finalised today. I am sure that the industry is waiting with bated breath to see what it says. One recommendation was that it should be referred.

Photo of Anne Main Anne Main Conservative, St Albans

It is no secret that CAMRA has its headquarters in St. Albans. I met, as I am sure did many other hon. Members, the lobby against the tie. Publicans are expected to squeeze out more beer from a barrel than they are supposed to. CAMRA's Fair Pint campaign says that publicans are expected to make up money by selling in that way, but publicans are very unhappy about it.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

The regulars with whom I drink would certainly not stand for any short measures. If the head on a pint is too big, they let it settle before it is refilled. They do not even have to ask for it to be refilled, because landlords and landladies are very good at ensuring that people do not receive short measures. I congratulate CAMRA on that campaign.

Photo of Andrew Pelling Andrew Pelling Independent, Croydon Central

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Will he comment on something that the managing director of Marston's said yesterday-that the tie protects people in the business?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

The best antidote to such comments, which is a generalisation, is that in some cases, the pubco or brewer may take a particular interest their estate, and in such cases the tie may be a good thing, but clearly it is not brilliant in the instance that I just described. During our community pub inquiry, far too many landlords and landladies said that there is a serious problem and that they are being crippled, because they have been forced to pay so much for the beer from their pubco or brewer. A free house down the road is able to compete more fairly and has more chance of surviving in an economic downturn, when fewer people are going to pubs and drinking beer.

Photo of Greg Mulholland Greg Mulholland Shadow Minister (Health)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and on his excellent speech. Does he think that there is a stark contrast between Wetherspoon, a large managed pub chain that gets huge discounts from brewers which it passes on to customers, and those big pub companies that get the same discounts but take them as profit for their shareholders and do not pass them on to the pub?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

That is an issue of muscle in the purchasing of beer, and it also involves supermarkets that are able to sell beer cheaply and buy it more cheaply from brewers than those pubs that are tied to a particular estate. That issue needs to be looked at in its generality, and I hope that the OFT will look hard at the survival and prosperity of the network of pubs throughout the country.

Let me return to Irene Nuttall of The Durham Ox in Longridge. She lists a few points, and perhaps I can quickly rattle through some of the problems faced by landlords and landladies, which I am sure a lot of hon. Members will recognise. First, aggressive supermarket pricing is crippling for a lot of pubs. Secondly, the tie can be oppressive and should be opened up. Thirdly, dry rent is paid, but a lot of publicans also pay residential rent, as they are required to live on the premises, which can be incredibly expensive and insurance on top of that takes a huge chunk of money. Fourthly, the duty on pub-sold beer is too high. Irene Nuttall mentions the sleight of hand in the VAT reduction last year from 17.5 to 15 per cent. However, the Government waved a magic wand, and the duty was increased on beer, so that its price was not reduced when the rate of VAT came down. However, when VAT went back up to 17.5 per cent., so did the price of beer.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

My hon. Friend makes a powerful argument. Does he agree that the change in VAT was unhelpful, given the length of time for which it lasted, and the time at which it returned to 17.5 per cent? The rate went back up at midnight on 31 December-a busy time of the year for publicans across the country.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Some publicans did not even bother putting the price up. They took the hit, for the reason mentioned by my hon. Friend. Furthermore, around this time of the year, wholesalers often look at their pricing and start to put up prices for their customers. That means that a publican might have had to reproduce lists twice at a busy time of year. A lot of pubs have not yet put up prices and are waiting to see what their suppliers are going to do. Clearly, it was an awkward situation for them.

Fifthly, business rates are too high. Irene Nuttall is paying £4,617, and although there is a small amount of business rate relief, for her it amounts to only £182, which would hardly contribute to the survival of some small pubs. Sixthly, council tax must be paid on top of that sum for the residential part of the property. Point number seven is that she has a TV in her own flat and a TV downstairs, so she needs two licences for the BBC, even though both sets are in the same building. Eighthly, the water rates cost several hundreds of pounds.

The ninth point concerns Sky TV. The Minister knows that there have been problems with Sky TV-the Government have promised to look at that, but we have seen nothing yet. Irene Nuttall's pub is relatively small, and she said, "Guess how much I pay for Sky TV?" My mind went wandering, and I said, "£120? £150? £240?" No-it costs £594 a month to have Sky Sports in a relatively small pub. That is based on rateable value. As we know, in a lot of villages and towns, a pub's rateable value could be extremely high, but the number of people in the pub at any one time might be relatively small. All the profit that a pub makes by getting people in who are attracted by the magnet of Sky Sports is completely lost as a result of the £594 charge. Something desperately needs to be done about the pricing of Sky TV. It is an attractive venture for pubs wishing to get people through the door, but surely they should not be clobbered to such an extent.

The 10th point is the building insurance of £1,500, which must be paid, even though Irene Nuttall does not own the building. Electricity is the 11th point and costs £400 a month. The gas bill is £850 a quarter, and bank charges of £90 a month are charged for paying money in, taking money out and direct debits. It all adds up, and there are staff to pay on top of that. She finished by saying, "I wonder why I'm doing it." Considering all the pressures on one pub, I think exactly the same thing. She clearly loves the business in which she operates, otherwise she simply would not do it.

Banks have proven to be unco-operative. One landlord I spoke to wished to borrow more money due to investments that he had made in his restaurant and pub trade. The bank said no, then charged a huge amount for the loan that the landlord already has, including an interest rate insurance fee-which I had never heard of before-to insure against fluctuations in the interest rate. It costs him a fortune to insure against those fluctuations. The bank then needed to value the property, and it charged him for that. It wanted his accounts to be audited by its officials, and it charged him for that service. Woe betide him if any cheques are returned, as there are swingeing penalties to be paid. One might think that the bank was working hard to give this landlord the little nudge that he needs to go bust. A number of pubs also have accountancy fees to pay, as well as a music licence if they have music.

D

The TV License is a ridiculous burdon the already highly taxed UK citizens should not have to pay. The BBC should enjoy the very same commercial pressures that ALL other companies have to. The BBC offer nothing by way of uniqueness or superior quality regardless of whatever counter assertions they throw back. Do the UK tax payers know how easy it is for their money to support BBC program reception in the USA? I am not referring to BBC America either. If you care to watch from here (in the USA) it will very quickly and forcefully become apparrent that the BBC have nothing positive to say about the UK, the country who supports them. They never say anything about how they actually go about collecting the tax because if they showed detector vans and phoney cops harassing OAPs which they do (no argument to the contrary) on USA channels I can say for certain their viewing stats would decline to almost nil and programs be likely sent back with a message attached.

Submitted by David Callan

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

There is another issue that my hon. Friend has not yet mentioned but which has been devastating for many pubs and clubs-the smoking ban. It is not the ban per se that is the problem, but the heavy-handed way in which it has been introduced in the United Kingdom. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is ludicrous that the only way in which a licensee can provide an indoor smoking room for his or her customers is if they happen to operate on a boat?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

One imaginative pub thought that if it changed itself into an embassy, it might get away with it. Sadly, that did not work. The way in which the smoking ban was introduced was far stricter than in almost any other country. There are 12 million smokers out there, and a lot of them used to go to pubs, but now that is clearly not the case. I know that my right hon. Friend and hon. Members from other parties are trying to get changes in the law, not to lift the smoking ban but to amend it sensibly so that smokers will at least be treated like human beings when they go to pubs and clubs, and be looked after as opposed to being treated like lepers. A friend of my right hon. Friend, Antony Worrall Thompson, stated:

"The smoking ban has had an extraordinary detrimental effect on pubs and clubs. The legislation as it stands is excessive and I would like to see it amended."

As I have noted, MPs from all parties have co-operated with my right hon. Friend in his campaign. We are all familiar with seeing people standing outside pubs having a cigarette in sub-zero temperatures, in the rain and the snow with all the elements against them. Hypothermia has become a smoking-related disease under this Government.

Mark Hastings, director of the British Beer and Pub Association, commented succinctly on the value of pubs to local communities. On average, pubs inject about £80,000 a year into the local community and pay £107,000 in taxes. Over half a million people a year are directly employed by pubs, with 380,000 people employed in associated trades. Mark Hastings states that beer taxes have risen 20 per cent. since March 2008, with another 2 per cent. above inflation expected in the Budget next month. I hope that when the Minister speaks on behalf of the Government, he will at least give us some good news about the Budget next month and say that that escalator will be taken off and that there will be no duty increase on beer. Research by Oxford Economics suggests that halting the proposed Budget increase of 2 per cent. above inflation could save 7,500 jobs and the Government tax take would increase.

Photo of David Hamilton David Hamilton Labour, Midlothian

The Government have the opportunity to separate draft beer tariffs from those of normal beer where canned beer is involved. It would need a change in the European legislation, but surely all parties can agree across the board that if we change the draft beer position, that would give an edge to all the pubs and clubs that are involved.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I could not agree more; I am 100 per cent. with the hon. Gentleman. What he describes needs to be done. I have asked Ministers about it and every time, they say, "Brussels won't allow it. There's a problem with Brussels." Let us sort out Brussels. The pub is an iconic British institution. If we want to support pubs and ensure that supermarket pricing does not give supermarkets such a great advantage, the one thing that we need to do is recognise that the product served in a pub is different from the product that people receive when they get 24 cans from a supermarket. Therefore, different taxation on draught beer-pump-pulled beer-needs to be put in place. We need to tell Brussels that that is what we shall do. I do not see how any other part of the European Union would be disadvantaged by our recognising that pump-pulled beer is somewhat different and involves something more than just lifting up 24 cans. I am 100 per cent. behind the hon. Gentleman and I hope that we can take that matter to Brussels and say that it is something that we want to do in this country to support British pubs and that we will do it.

Since March 2008, 4,100 pubs have gone bust. Beer sales are down 16 million pints a day compared with 1979. Turnover on beer in the past 12 months alone is down £650 million. Since 1997, beer duty has gone up 14 per cent. in real terms, yet spirits duty is down by 20 per cent. How about equality of treatment for a product that is so synonymous with Britain? Like almost 200 Members of Parliament, I have backed the "I'm backing the pub" campaign led by the British Beer and Pub Association, and more than 100 MPs have signed the early-day motion on the campaign tabled by Mr. Grogan, the chairman of the all-party beer group. I am delighted to see him in his usual place.

Like many other MPs, I shall be in a pub on 19 March, as part of British tourism week, to show my support for pubs. Every year, 13.2 million tourists visit pubs in the United Kingdom. We cannot let the pub die. It is the hub, the social centre, the heart of villages and towns. It is where business deals are done, family occasions are celebrated, and darts teams, pool teams and football teams play, celebrate their wins and drown their sorrows. It is where every problem is discussed and where, as the Minister will know, a Government in waiting drink regularly. It is where the general election will be discussed daily and every evening. It is where we as candidates will banter with the regulars, and on election night it is where we shall have a final tipple, perhaps, to steady our nerves. It is where I have celebrated every election victory since moving into my village, with locals, friends and those who have helped out in the campaign.

The British pub is iconic. It represents the very heart of Britain. We have seen so much of the fabric of our way of life threatened in so many ways over the decades, from post offices to churches and from village schools to small shops and rural bus services. Now is the time to make a stand, so the message for the Minister for pubs is that we are holding him to his word about giving a helping hand now to the great British pub. Now is the time to deliver. I hope that at the end of the debate, this Minister will do just that-stand and deliver for the great British pub.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud 11:23 am, 23rd February 2010

I am delighted to take part in the debate, albeit briefly, with so many knowledgeable hon. Members present. I congratulate Mr. Evans on obtaining the debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Grogan, who chairs the all-party group on beer with great skill and is held in great esteem, and Greg Mulholland, who has led the save the pub group, of which I am proud to be part.

I have come to the debate with some trepidation, because I am a long-time teetotaller. One reason why I do not visit pubs as much as I would like is that someone who drinks soft drinks feels particularly exploited currently, because the price differential is so unfair for those who choose not to drink. One argument advanced by the British Beer and Pub Association is that low-alcohol drinks are disproportionately priced, meaning that people feel adversely affected in that way.

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 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.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport)

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.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

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 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.

Photo of Anne Main Anne Main Conservative, St Albans 11:31 am, 23rd February 2010

It is nice to be under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale. I congratulate my hon. Friend 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 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.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

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.

Photo of Anne Main Anne Main Conservative, St Albans

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 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.

Photo of David Hamilton David Hamilton Labour, Midlothian

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.

Photo of Anne Main Anne Main Conservative, St Albans

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 had 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, 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 a 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.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

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.

Photo of Anne Main Anne Main Conservative, St Albans

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.

Photo of John Grogan John Grogan Labour, Selby 11:42 am, 23rd February 2010

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. 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.

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 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.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

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.

Photo of John Grogan John Grogan Labour, Selby

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.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport)

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.

Photo of John Grogan John Grogan Labour, Selby

Those words give me great encouragement from the only other Bradford City supporter in the House-as far as I am aware.

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.

Photo of Andrew Pelling Andrew Pelling Independent, Croydon Central 11:51 am, 23rd February 2010

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 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.

Photo of David Hamilton David Hamilton Labour, Midlothian

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.

[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]

Photo of Andrew Pelling Andrew Pelling Independent, Croydon Central

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.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

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 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.

Photo of Andrew Pelling Andrew Pelling Independent, Croydon Central

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.

Photo of Greg Mulholland Greg Mulholland Shadow Minister (Health) 12:00 pm, 23rd February 2010

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I congratulate 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 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 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, 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 Anne Main. Pubs make vast contributions to charity and offer a hub to the community, but that is not reflected in the rate system.

Photo of David Hamilton David Hamilton Labour, Midlothian

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?

Photo of Greg Mulholland Greg Mulholland Shadow Minister (Health)

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 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.

Photo of Greg Mulholland Greg Mulholland Shadow Minister (Health)

I will not, unless it is very brief, because I am running out of time.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

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?

Photo of Greg Mulholland Greg Mulholland Shadow Minister (Health)

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 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.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) 12:10 pm, 23rd February 2010

It is a pleasure to work under your leadership, Miss Begg, and it is also a pleasure to participate in a very helpful debate.

I am looking around at some of the faces in Westminster Hall today. It was said that there are some of the "usual characters" here. It is almost like a scene out of that old sitcom "Cheers", as we are gathered around a horseshoe-shaped table talking about these issues. Unfortunately, the similarities continue, because the very same subjects that came up in episodes of "Cheers" seem to be repeated by us here again and again and again.

My first question to the Minister today is about the appointment, very late in the day, of the Minister for Housing, John Healey, as the pubs Minister. I am very sorry that he could not be here today; this debate was an opportunity for him to lay out his stall. I do not understand why the Government have seen fit to appoint a pubs Minister, or pubs tsar as he might be called, so late in the day, with only 90 days or so until the general election. The right hon. Gentleman is Minister for Housing anyway, so his portfolio is already quite busy. He says that he has a few ideas in his locker; today would have been the ideal day to open that locker and let us see what is actually going on. It is a little bit like someone realising that their glasses are in their pocket at the very end of their driving test; it is a bit late to put things into focus and it is certainly a bit late to impress anyone.

Nevertheless, we have the Minister who is here today, the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Mr. Sutcliffe. So perhaps he is able to answer some of the very pertinent questions that have been asked in the debate.

My first question to the Minister is about the co-ordination of Government voices. The Minister for Housing might be able to clarify this issue, but unfortunately I wonder where drinking sits within Parliament and who has responsibility for it within Government. Is it the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that has responsibility for drinking? Well, one could argue yes, and one could argue no. Certainly, licensing is supposed to be the responsibility of DCMS. However, I think that we have heard today that actually the Treasury pretty much has a grasp on what happens from the taxation perspective, without having an awful lot of conversations with the DCMS. Regarding the issues of antisocial behaviour and policing, one could also argue that it is the Home Office that is responsible for drinking, but of course local government, local authorities and so forth are also involved, which means that the Department for Communities and Local Government is involved too. Then, of course, there is the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which has produced its own report on pub ties, another issue that we have debated today.

Actually, I think that that description illustrates half the problem here. Is the pub industry well represented in Government? I think that the answer to that question is no. It is because of the confusion that things fall by the wayside, issues do not get confirmed or dealt with, and taxation goes up and down without someone standing up and saying, "Let's actually check this out-what is it doing for the British pubs?" The consequences of that are what we have seen; the huge numbers of pubs that have been closing week by week, month by month and indeed year by year.

However, let me roll back and congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Evans on his work on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. He is a supporter of the drinks industry and he not only makes his case with humour and gusto but with relevance and detail. I think that the whole House will appreciate his efforts, and indeed those of other Members who are in Westminster Hall today, in ensuring that the drinks industry has a voice, and in particular the pubs.

As shadow tourism Minister, I appreciate the relevance of the role of the pub to British tourism. The pub is one of the reasons why people come to Britain, stay in Britain and enjoy Britain. It is part of our heritage and our culture. It is also unique. As much as people may want to try and replicate a pub in Dubai or Thailand, they cannot create a pub as good as those on our high streets and in our towns and villages here in Britain.

The contribution that brewing and pubs make to our economy is huge-£28 billion a year. From a tourism perspective, our pubs receive more than 13 million visits by tourists every single year. Also, one in four of us here in Britain drinks in a pub every week. Those are very positive statistics and the Government should certainly pay attention to them. Furthermore, from the perspective of employment, more than 500,000 people are employed in the industry directly and more than 250,000 people are employed in associated trades. Also, 90 per cent. of all alcoholic drink in Britain is brewed domestically, which is another very positive statistic that was cited by other Members earlier.

The issue of the pub tie does not go away; I think that it was Greg Mulholland who made that point earlier. The pub tie needs to be reviewed. It has been examined by the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee. The pub tie has been around in different forms for a number of years. It has largely worked well, by providing an opportunity and support for people who want to run their own pub. However, the business model has come under scrutiny during this recession and tenants of tied pubs complain that the pub companies are demanding higher rents in order to pay back their debts.

So I ask the Minister to respond to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee's report on the drinks industry and some of the changes that have been proposed in that report. I am certainly glad to hear that the pub sector itself is responding positively to that report, by trying to establish an industry-wide code of practice and by trying to ensure that would-be publicans are better informed and better qualified, and that there is an ability for tenants to appeal in circumstances where there is an unresolved dispute in a rent review.

I think that the mandatory code of conduct, which is being introduced in the Policing and Crime Bill, has been referred to by a couple of Members. I myself am not keen on a mandatory code; I would prefer a more voluntary approach. More intelligent policies are needed, with more of a touch of localism too, because what applies, for example, to my constituency in Bournemouth is not necessarily relevant in other areas. There should be freedom for local authorities and the pubs to work together to work out what is best for their particular area.

Sky television was mentioned earlier. I have had meetings with Sky and I am pleased to say that it is reviewing its rates system, to ensure that it is fair, because there might be only one corner of a pub with a TV, in which only 15 people-not a huge audience-can stand, and yet the pub gets rated for its entire capacity, which might be up to 400 people because the pub has a lot of seating. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley made that valid point and Sky has responded to it positively.

Indeed, Sky has gone a step further, in talking about the debates in the upcoming general election. Sky would like to show those national debates between the party leaders and then get the local candidates in each area inside their local pub to continue the debate after the national debate has been shown on Sky. I would encourage all parliamentary candidates and indeed all current MPs to take up that opportunity.

The issue of rates, including business rates, was also raised. I am glad that the Conservative party came out some time ago with the idea that a Conservative Government will give the flexibility to local authorities to reduce the local rates on pubs, or indeed on post offices, or any other of those community assets that might be struggling through these difficult times. That is very positive. Labour Members shouted, "Where will the money come from?" The other dimension to this issue is that the local authorities will be able to keep the business rates for any new businesses that are created in a particular area, providing a link between business and the local authority, and encouraging small and medium-sized enterprises. At the moment, rates are simply collected and the money is sent to the coffers up in London.

I want to pay tribute quickly to some of the initiatives that pubs themselves have taken on board: Pubwatch; crime and disorder partnerships; Best Bar None; Purple Flag; the Campaign for Smarter Drinking, and Drinkaware. I have visited a number of pubs in Bournemouth and indeed elsewhere that are involved in some of these initiatives, and I was very pleased to see that they are local initiatives that are not led by the Government in any way, showing that the pubs themselves have a sense of responsibility. That point echoed around Westminster Hall today; that inside the pubs is where responsible drinking takes place and that is where the landlords and landladies take care of those who are inside. Unfortunately, pubs do get a bad name. We are occasionally seen as the drunk man of Europe, but that is not the fault of our pubs-absolutely not-and that point needs to be underlined.

There are other initiatives that I would like to see developed in the future. Certainly the issue of preloading needs to be addressed; my hon. Friend Anne Main made that point. It is a disgrace that when Labour came to power the price of beer in a pub was twice that of beer in the supermarket but now the price of beer in a pub is seven times that of beer in the supermarket. Is it any wonder that people are loading up on alcohol before going to the pub, or buying alcohol in the supermarket and avoiding the pub? That issue needs to be addressed. We will place a cap on the price of loss leaders in supermarkets and I hope that that will work.

Time is tight, so I will conclude by saying that far too many pubs have shut; 4,000 pubs have shut since the Budget of 2008. There was a tax break-the VAT reduction that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley talked about, very acutely. However, the duties went up in response. That is not a way to look after our pub industry. Unfortunately, the Treasury is failing us, more so than the DCMS. The Treasury will lose about £250 million in receipts by 2010 if the present rate is maintained.

My final point involves what are called stakes without prizes machines, on which people in pubs can play The Weakest Link, Monopoly, Cluedo or Scrabble. They are not considered gambling machines; they are considered quiz machines. Yet a joint statement on 12 December said that there would be a three-year retrospective tax payment for such machines. That is disgraceful and will cost the industry about £90 million a year during its toughest moment. The Minister gave us no guarantee in his earlier intervention that the tax would be removed. It is still on the cards, unless he corrects himself in his statement.

I am afraid that the Government simply do not get it. They do not understand that by looking after the pub industry, they can make more money for the Exchequer, help defend our communities and preserve the glue that holds our society together. Instead, they are trying to turn a nation of quizzers into gamblers, which is simply wrong. It is time to say goodbye to this Government unless they can come up with something far more imaginative, which I do not think will be the case.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport) 12:21 pm, 23rd February 2010

It is a great pleasure to respond to this excellent debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Begg. I congratulate Mr. Evans, whom I call a friend. We have shared a number of pints in a number of pubs while attending a variety of events. I know that he speaks with passion on the issue. It is not just something that has come up today; he has been consistent over his many years in Parliament about the role of the pub, and has been a loyal member of the all-party beer group, many members of which are here today. I congratulate the all-party group on its work.

One thing that this Government cannot be accused of is not having, listening to and responding to a number of debates about pubs and their future. The passion of many of the hon. Members who have contributed to this debate does not hide the context of the issues facing pubs. Anybody who stood up and said that every pub in the land could be saved would be completely wrong. The pub industry is facing great change, and many of the issues must be seen within that context. It must also be accepted that people's drinking habits have changed dramatically, which has had an impact on the number of pubs that have closed. I will try to respond to the issues raised that are Government issues, but some are for local government, some are for Europe and some are for the industry itself.

I understand what Greg Mulholland said about the tie. It is a competition issue. I have been closely involved with it not only as licensing Minister but previously, as consumer Minister and competition Minister. There are problems that must be addressed. I think that the route that the Campaign for Real Ale has taken is the right one, and I know that colleagues in other Departments have concerns. We need to ensure that we address the issues.

It is right that the British Beer and Pub Association has a view on tied pubs. The BBPA was trying to say that that is not an issue, and it has claimed the same thing in deliberations with me. We need to get to the core. The fact that the Office of Fair Trading is considering what CAMRA said is a step in the right direction.

Photo of Greg Mulholland Greg Mulholland Shadow Minister (Health)

Some big pub companies say that bad tenants are the only problem. I bring the Minister's attention to a leaflet delivered by Enterprise Inns in Otley, in my constituency, where Enterprise Inns has been involved in a number of high-profile disputes. The leaflet says:

"Have you ever sat in a pub and wondered what makes it great and thought.... I could do that!", yet Enterprise is seriously suggesting that it is not deliberately trying to attract people who cannot run pubs in the first place. That is an issue that needs to be dealt with.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport)

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. I know that he will continue to work with the various bodies in the House that see that as an issue, and I will work with him to ensure that we do what we can to influence serious consideration of the issue.

Lots of hon. Members have spoken of the role of my right hon. Friend John Healey, who was named as pubs Minister in the News of the World. He is one of a number of pubs Ministers, as the issue has effects across government. However, he is specifically considering the issue mentioned by my hon. Friend Mr. Drew, which is how planning can be changed to support community pubs and whether we might consider community ownership in finding ways to deal with the problem. My right hon. Friend has been tasked to do so quickly, and I hope that he will introduce proposals in the next few weeks.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

It is an important point on the new appointment. To whom does the pubs Minister answer, when will he report and how will we scrutinise what he is doing?

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport)

He answers to the Prime Minister, as all Ministers do. I think that the hon. Gentleman was at the event organised by the all-party beer group last year or the year before last on the publication of its report. Five Ministers attended that debate to discuss our roles in supporting pubs. I am slightly confused. He says that one Department should deal with-

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport)

Well, I apologise if the hon. Gentleman did not, but he tried to indicate that it should not be the role of many Departments to consider the issue. Alcohol is obviously of great concern in terms of health-

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

I said that there needs to be co-ordination.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport)

To return to the point that this is a general election issue, I am highly in favour of that. It is right that issues close to our communities should be discussed in public, especially at general election time. However, I find it interesting that the hon. Gentleman did not mention what an incoming Conservative Government would do about beer duty. I put that on the table for those who will be considering the issues-

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

The Minister is in power. He can say something about taxation. What is he going to do?

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport)

I will deal with that question. I just thought that it was interesting that the Opposition did not deal with it when we touched on it.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

I echo my hon. Friend's point. The Minister is under scrutiny, not us. When the election is called, he will understand in more detail what our plans are. However, for the record, we have made it clear that we will increase taxation levels on alcopops and spirits. Beer drinkers will undergo a net reduction, as they will not be affected. We have made those announcements; they are in the public domain.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport)

We will look with interest at the budgets and the Opposition parties' responses to what the Chancellor has to say. Taxation is a matter for the Chancellor, but he listens to representations from the different sectors. His deliberations will be set against the public finances when the Budget is decided in the not-too-distant future.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware of the great concern in the House about beer duty and the effect on pubs. I am glad that Anne Main mentioned irresponsible publicans and alcohol sales. I believe that the Licensing Act 2003 has helped local authorities and communities deal with irresponsibility. The vast majority of publicans act responsibly. She is right that the fact that they can show that they act responsibly is one important contribution of the Licensing Act to supporting measures to address problem drinking.

Pre-loading is an issue that needs to be faced. It is a cultural thing. We need to educate people about how it affects youngsters and their health; it affects youngsters in particular.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport)

Price is an issue. We have been considering a variety of the issues. The Department of Health is considering minimum pricing. I understand that it is an issue in Scotland.

Photo of David Hamilton David Hamilton Labour, Midlothian

It is a hot debate in Scotland at present. I realise that we have only a few minutes to go, but surely we do not want to reinvent the wheel. I encourage the Minister to talk to his colleagues and look at the debates taking place in Scotland so that we do not need to repeat them down here. Let us learn from what is happening up there.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his experience. We will have those discussions. I understand that the Scottish Government are having difficulties introducing minimum pricing. We will wait to see what happens.

The British pub is important. Earlier, we discussed the definition of a community pub. From my perspective, that definition includes members' clubs, not-for-profit clubs and other clubs that affect our communities and offer sport, cultural and community activities. The smoking ban has been mentioned. Do hon. Members forget that the overwhelming majority of Members of this House voted for the smoking ban? I understand that there have been issues with its implementation, but we have considered best practice to ensure that the ban has been applied so as to meet policy objectives, as well as to find ways of supporting those who want to smoke. It was the Government who introduced the amendment for the smoking ban to include clubs, which some hon. Members voted against. I lay that on the table. Sometimes memories are selective.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

Some of us voted for it.

P

On the 1st January...

Submitted by Philip Collins Continue reading

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport)

Indeed, but the overwhelming majority voted for the ban.

Sky TV is important, particularly to me in my role as sports Minister. Like the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East, I have met Sky and been told that it will change how it handles rateable value. We think that that will be a step in the right direction. We are aware of the issues relating to community pubs in particular-

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

Order. We must move on to the next debate.