Ministers hear trade concerns, but offer little help

By James Wilmore

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Beer, Minister, Public house

Five government ministers have acknowledged the problems facing pubs - but failed to offer any concrete help - during an unprecedented trade summit...

Five government ministers have acknowledged the problems facing pubs - but failed to offer any concrete help - during an unprecedented trade summit meeting in parliament today.

They were responding to the pleas of trade figures on issues including beer tax, red tape, rates and planning.

Around 150 people, including more than 50 MPs and a host of industry figures, packed into the House of Commons for the crisis meeting.

But any hopes for special treatment for tax on draught beer in next month's Budget were dealt a blow.

Treasury minister Angela Eagle said she thought the issues were "more complicated" than just tax.

"Remember duty rates are subject to EU rules and it's difficult to be as flexible as many people wish, particularly between the on and the off-trade," she said.

"It's basically not legal for us to have a different tax treatment for the same product based on its point of sale."

On special treatment for cask beer, she said the Treasury would be "anxious" to look at it, "but again there are EU kinks that constrain us".

But she urged the trade to "keep up the conversation" on the duty escalator.

On the pubco model, Eagle name-checked the Fair Pint campaign group and said there were "issues" around pub ownership structures.

"People have hit on something and these business models do have an impact," she said.

Licensing minister Gerry Sutcliffe agreed that the issue around tied houses "needed to be looked at".

But hopes the trade can force a government re-think on its controversial mandatory code of practice or beer duty are looking unlikely.

Home Office minister Alan Campbell said: "We recognise the difficulties you (the trade) are under and we realise that any action needs to be balanced and proportionate."

However, he pointed to figures that show around just under a fifth of all violent crimes happen "in or around pub and clubs." He said that the aim of a mandatory code was to "reduce the prevalence of binge-drinking and excessive drunkenness".

Campbell added: "The focus will be on irresponsible promotions such as all-you-can-drink for £10 and the majority of businesses, who sell alcohol responsibly, should not be unduly affected." Any "unintended consequences" from the code would try to minimised, he added, and a full consultation will be carried out.

Public health minister Dawn Primarolo said she "absolutely recognised" that it was"difficult times" for pubs, but that harm through excessive alcohol consumption was costing £2.7bn a year.

Local government minister John Healey offered some hope for the industry, saying the government would consider looking at rate relief for businesses, such as pubs, that were the centre of their communities.

Industry leaders speaking at the summit included Marston's chief executive Ralph Findlay, Shepherd Neame boss Jonathan Neame, the Society of Independent Brewers' Keith Bott and the Campaign for Real Ale's Mike Benner.

Related topics: Legislation

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