I thank Mike Wood for securing the debate. Is not it interesting that it is so well attended, and that we are all in such accord on one issue? I think it will be a long time before we find another one on which we are in such accord.
None of us has a monopoly on fantastic breweries and pubs in our constituencies, and that fact signifies the key importance of the issue. The debate, by my reckoning, focuses on two principal issues: one is the fairness of taxes that breweries and pubs face, and the disproportionate burden they must support; and the other is the value of pubs. To begin with the second issue, the pub, as many hon. Members have pointed out, is a venue for solidarity between members of communities—particularly small communities, or communities within larger conurbations. It is an opportunity for company for the isolated, and it provides opportunities for entrepreneurial advancement, whether artistic or in micro-brewing and other things. Notwithstanding any of those softer, more pastoral benefits that pubs generate for communities, they also generate £23.1 billion for the economy, which is not to be sniffed at either.
It seems to me there is something important for the Government to do. First, they need to admit that there is a problem. By the calculations of the Office for National Statistics, 11,000 pubs—23% of the entire estate—closed in the past 10 years. I think that we would all pretty much recognise that that signifies a problem that we need to deal with. We need to take a collective look at the burden of rates, VAT and duty on pubs. I am pleased that pubs in my constituency and elsewhere in Scotland benefit from the most competitive rates regime in these islands, but that is no help to anyone in England, Wales or Northern Ireland—so there is work to be done there.
I am not sure whether we should touch on the question of VAT, but we should touch on duty. In the research that I undertook to prepare for this speech, I could find only Ireland and Finland ahead of the UK, in the European context, for beer duty. I cannot speak for Finland, but I know that Ireland is also wrestling with a pub closure problem. A yawning gap between the price of on-sales and off-sales in the UK is feeding directly into the pressure on pubs. As many hon. Members have pointed out already, off-sales products are much more attached to the more harmful types of drinking—particularly lone drinking. Also, something that I believe is now popular with younger people is pre-loading before going out. I do not know anything about that, but it is definitely associated with problems of excessive consumption, leading to matters of public health concern, and to public order concern when things get a little out of control. If we do nothing else by coming here, I join colleagues in other parties in their pleas to the Minister to take a serious look at beer duty. I hope it will be reduced. Many of our brewers need that, and many pubs will not survive without it.