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.