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.
"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".