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British Pubs

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 12:10 pm on 23rd February 2010.

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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.