Roger Gale with Cole Barnard at the door of Number Ten
December 17th 2008
Imagine Margate, Herne Bay and, particularly, the surrounding villages without any public houses.
Those who regard the traditional British pub as a source of much, if not all, evil would of course welcome that prospect. For the rest of us, who like the occasional pint of beer, pub lunch or celebratory evening meal with a bottle of wine the idea of our local closing is too awful to contemplate. But it could happen in a street or a village near you!
Just after Chancellor Darling's pre-budget report I received a letter from a constituent asking me why, as VAT had been cut by 2.5%, the price of a pint of beer had not gone down. The reply was straightforward: in that "budget" the chancellor raised duties on alcohol to compensate for the cut in VAT. His original proposals had the effect of pushing up duty by 8% at the same time as the "reduction" in VAT. Following screams of anguish from the Scottish distilleries the increase in spirits was reduced to 4%. The increase in beer prices remained at 8%. That, Sir, is why your pint is no cheaper. And just in case you were wondering, Mr. Darling is planning increases of 2% plus retail price index in each of 2009, 2010 and 2010.
My publicans - I will not name them but they are not many yards from Herne Bay and Margate Town Centres - are now so worried that they are rallying behind the brewers and the pub chains in the "Axe the Tax" campaign. Not surprisingly. The combined effects of a necessary clampdown on drink-driving, the ban on smoking, the credit crunch and a hike in taxes has meant that British pubs, once the envy of the tourist world, are closing at the rate of five a day while the average beer-drinking customer is about to start paying £558 in beer tax in a year of moderate drinking.
Do we care? I think we should. Much is made of "problem drinking", particularly amongst the young. The problems, though, tend to stem from alcohol bought and consumed from off-sales outlets before the drinker has got anywhere near a pub. I know plenty of landlords but virtually none who will serve under-age drinkers, sell wine or beer or spirits or `alcopops` to a customer who has already had too much to drink or who will permit bad behaviour or foul language in his or her House. Quite simply, it is more than the license is worth - but the same cannot be said for the outlets from which those who drink from cans on the Downs in Herne Bay or on the seafront and in the parks in Margate acquire their booze.
It seems to me that we have a stark choice. We either recognise that the pub is a source of major employment that generates many hundreds of thousands of visitor pounds a year and is worth preserving or we carry on, as the Treasury is at present, regarding it as a soft touch for tax revenue and as an easy target for criticism of anti-social behaviour. If the latter course of action is allowed to prevail then a lot of good small businesses that are also a focal point for many of our communities will cease to exist and, once they are gone, they will not come back.
At the House of Commons this week the British Beer and Pub Association launched a five-point campaign:
To axe plans to increase beer tax still further.
To enforce existing laws to deal firmly with irresponsible drinkers and premises.
To end the irresponsible promotion of alcohol.
To trust adults to make informed choices, not punish them for the actions of an irresponsible minority.
To support the British pub as a vital part of our local communities.
Suzy and I and our now extended family will say "Cheers" to that and wish you all a very happy Christmas. And do visit your local - while it is still there!