Sutcliffe: We've tried to be 'supportive' of pubs

By James Wilmore

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Pubs Community pubs Public house Government

Pubs are still closing at a record rate. What do you think are the reasons for this? I think they are many and varied. And from our perspective as a...

Pubs are still closing at a record rate. What do you think are the reasons for this?

I think they are many and varied. And from our perspective as a champion of the licensed trade across government we are looking at what goes on.

I think the principal factor is the change in people's drinking habits. If you look at how people drink these days, you see changes there. But I've always been a strong supporter of community pubs because I think pubs are a key part of our society.

Pubs that have been successful are the ones that have diversified into food. People's attitudes are not the same as they were in the past. I mean you could have a pub on every street corner when you had a strong manufacturing base because people would nip out to the pub. I think lunchtime drinking, that's changed dramatically as people don't drink at lunchtime like they did in the past.
How about the way the beer tie is being operated. Is that a factor?

Well, that's a factor as well. And obviously I'm quite pleased that the OFT have re-opened the CAMRA appeal. I'm pleased about that, obviously it's a matter for the competition authorities and they will have to come to a conclusion, but I think it shows they are taking an active involvement in what's going on and obviously and I was competition minister before so I know it's an issue that's been with us for a long time.

Because of the divide over the beer tie is the industry seen as an easy target by government?

I don't think an easy target, there's complex issues there. There are different approaches by different companies. I mean I spoke to Brigid Simmonds, chief exec of BBPA who was trying to argue that the tie wasn't a problem. And I said to her Brigid, it is, because different companies are operating in different ways. And I have had constituency examples where landlords are feeling they have been put in a difficult position by the pub companies.

It is a problem. What the solutions are a competition issue and that's why it's right the OFT are going to take a look at it.

Why do you think it's a problem?

I don't think there's any consistent approach to the tie. You look at the BIS committee report and you look at the broad range of concerns that there are by leading players in this area. But ultimately it can only be resolved by competition policy.

Do you think it will end up at the Competition Commission?

Well, that's not for me to say. But the fact that CAMRA feel as strongly as they do shows it is a big issue in the sector.

The mandatory code is designed to clampdown on irresponsible promotions. But do you think selling alcohol cheaper than water as some supermarkets do could be deemed responsible?

Well there's two things there. The supermarket issue is being looking at by colleagues in the Department of Health in terms of the impact there. Where we're concerned is irresponsible promotions in licensed premises where's it actually happening. You've probably seen it around all-you-can-drink for a fiver.
That's only in a minority of venues though?

In a minority of venues. Yes, I accept that. That's why responsible landlords do not have any problems as far as I'm concerned. Because they are responsible and make sure people drink in a responsible way.

So I think the majority of pubs, the majority of landlords have nothing to fear from the mandatory code. Because they are doing what we want them to do. It's just this small section of people that do create the problems.

But there is still a cost to community pubs though as the Home Office has pointed out?

Well there is that, but I think it's a discussion we've had but the balanced view is that you have to be proportionate here and have proportionality and I think we've achieved that with the mandatory code.
On the issue of supermarkets though, there seems a massive reluctance from the government to act. Do you agree?

I'm not sure there's a reluctance. I think over the years going back to being consumer minister it was an issue that was raised then. It's getting the evidence…

So you don't think there's enough evidence?

I think it's hard to link how you actually deal with it as an issue in terms of what can you do about it.

I mean in Scotland they are trying minimum pricing but they are not even sure they can get that through. And it's this balance - do you attack the responsible drinker who's able to get alcohol at a cheaper price for the problems that irresponsible drinkers cause. It's making that link then. That's why it's good that the Department of Health are looking at the issue. That might be the route through.

Do you see minimum pricing happening in the next 10 years?

I think the concern about alcohol is live right across government and has been over the last few years and particularly to the Department of Health. You only have to look at the Health Select committee in terms of their concerns about units and about what's going on. And the cost to the health service.
Many licensees feel that government policy around pubs seems to based on headlines that appear in the Daily Mail. Is that a fair criticism?

No. I think what we've tried to do is be supportive in the diversification of pubs into food and live music and looking at ways we can support pubs. Obviously to see the sector reduce at the rate it does, we will be concerned about that. It's easy to blame government. But I don't think it's government alone that's caused the problem.
But a lot of people would say this government has been massively anti-pub in the amount of legislation it's brought in over the years, the amount of red tape and the issue pubs now have with councils. They see this as a completely anti-pub government and they'll be glad to see the back of it. How do you respond to that?

I hope they don't see the back of it. I don't accept those charges. I think we've tried to be supportive within the context of the issues around drinking.

What do you mean by the issues around drinking?

Well we've got to make sure the environment is right. We've got to make sure people enjoy a responsible drink.

I think the Licensing Act introduced that opportunity where you couldn't get a drink after 10.30. If you went to the theatre or a sporting event late night or the presidential election you couldn't get a drink so I think the new LA and the local focus of the Act should have been and has been a big benefit to pubs.

But the pub industry is now one of the most regulated industries. Do you not think there is too much regulation?

Well, we've tried to simplify that. We've looked at better regulation and tried to find ways to simplify things, on-line applications, we've looked at TENs, we're looking at making at easier for licensees that have had a bereavement to get a change there.

We've done what we can within the context of better regulation. We've tried to take a balanced judgement in supporting and trying to make sure that the industry survives. Not all pubs are in crisis.

So John Healey is the new minister for pubs. Why him? Why now?

At the response to the beer group with five ministers, it was clear then that these were issues that are being dealt with across government. John in particular as communities minister and minister for planning, there were issues specific to community pubs on planning, and we think he should look at that to see what can be done in the short term to assist pubs. The idea of community pubs is something we support and I think from our perspective it's good that we have another minister looking at issues acr

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