Parliamentary beer group hits quarter century

By Claire Churchard

- Last updated on GMT

Beer group: The All-Parliamentary Beer Group celebrates its 25th anniversary - and continues to fight for the sector in Westminster
Beer group: The All-Parliamentary Beer Group celebrates its 25th anniversary - and continues to fight for the sector in Westminster
The hospitality trade needs someone to stand up for it, especially with the difficulties it has faced throughout the years and the current headwinds. The All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group has served that purpose for decades and continues to fight the good fight

What has the beer group ever done for us?

Ruth Smeeth MP, and group vice-chair
“The group reminds MPs throughout the year of all the great things that beer and pubs do for the country, as well as giving them the opportunity to try a variety of great pints [in the bars at parliament].

Jonathan Neame, chief executive of Shepherd Neame
“The group’s inquiry into the role of community pubs was influential. At the time, beer and pubs were seen as old fashioned and something consumers had fallen out of love with. The inquiry helped to turn the tide of opinion, to persuade people that pubs were valuable to communities and part of an industry that wanted to invest and modernise.”

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality
“Helping abolish the beer duty escalator and secure a freeze in beer duty over successive years, plus highlighting the issue of business rates and obtaining rates relief for pubs has been immensely valuable.”

BBPA chief executive Brigid Simmonds
“The beer group has long been the largest all party parliamentary group in parliament. It has been instrumental in helping the industry achieve three cuts in beer duty and two freezes. Its role in highlighting our regulatory challenges – from the threat of costly tax stamps, to the burden of business rates on pubs – has proved invaluable.”

Andy Slee, chair of the Black Sheep Brewery and beer group steering committee member
“It highlights the disproportionate tax burden on the sector. For example, Black Sheep Brewery turns over about £19m but we pay five and a half times more in beer duty than eBay pays in UK corporation tax. Beer duty and business rates are the issues focusing most people’s minds.”

Former Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) chairman Colin Valentine
“Its main achievement is engagement. From engagement lots of other things follow. It gets people from industry to talk to parliamentarians and explain ‘if this happens this is how it will affect my business’. We’ve had members of parliament and ministers at our receptions over the years – Clare Short, Vince Cable and Eric Pickles to name a few.”

Ian Payne, founder and chairman of Stonegate Pub Company
“We’ve raised the awareness of the importance to the country of beer and pubs, especially for their local economies and for jobs. That’s the message we’ve always tried to get across to get the members of parliament – to visit the sites in their constituencies to see what we do. I live in north-east Hertfordshire, where Sir Oliver Heald is the local MP, he visits pubs and see what goes on and we’ve tried to replicate that across the country.”

Forged in the years of upheaval following the 1989 Beer Orders, the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group, which represents pubs and brewing, turns 25 this year.

In its quarter century of existence, the group has achieved much for the sector. From bringing pub and brewing industry people together to speak with one voice, to creating a forum for cross-party discussions and agreements, and even convincing the then chancellor George Osborne to abolish the ‘hated’ beer duty escalator, its influence has been wide reaching.

“When the group was first set up, the industry had not long been through the trauma of the endless Monopolies & Mergers Commission’s investigation in the mid-80s, which ended up with the Beer Orders,” says Robert Humphreys, the first beer group secretary, who set up the group in 1993 with the group’s first chairman and former labour MP Sir Alan Meale.

The Beer Orders forced seismic change. The likes of mega breweries such as Bass, Courage and Whitbread, which owned the majority of the 60,000 pubs in the UK at the time, were forced to dramatically reduce the size of their pub estates.

Lack of anticipation

“[The group was formed] in that context of sheer mystification of the industry about how this had come to pass and how their trade associations at the time had failed to head it off or anticipate it or moderate it,” says Humphreys.

While the group highlights the challenges faced by the industry, it was not set up to replace trade associations, but to work alongside them. “It had the objective from the outset of developing, in parliament, a body of informed support over a long, sustained period of time,” adds Humphreys, who is renowned for his sartorial style and diplomacy. This aim remains central to the group’s raison d’etre today, with current secretary Paul Hegarty picking up the mantle from Humphreys in 2014.

It continues to work to bring together representatives from the House of Commons and House of Lords with pub and brewing leaders to increase understanding of the sector and what it contributes to the UK’s economy in taxes, growth and jobs.

Major achievement

In terms of a single issue, the group’s campaign to scrap the beer duty escalator, which was announced in the March 2013 Budget with a duty cut of 1p, was a major achievement. Subsequent duty cuts in the 2014 and 2015 Budgets were followed by a duty freeze in 2016.

It was pivotal, not just in helping bring about the renaissance in brewing, but also in ensuring the survival of the brewing industry, says former chair of the beer group who led the campaign to axe the escalator, Andrew Griffiths MP. “I think if we had kept the duty escalator in place, the brewing industry would look very different today,” he adds.

For the campaign to be a success, the support for pubs and brewing in the UK had to come from all sides of the political spectrum. The cross-party nature of the campaign was hugely important, involving Conservative, Labour, SNP and Liberal Democrat parliamentarians.

Small Breweries’ Relief

Current chairman Mike Wood MP, who took up the post in June 2017, says that in addition to the end of the beer duty escalator and the hard-won successive reductions and freezes in beer duty, another beer group achievement was getting Small Breweries’ Relief introduced.

“It’s very controversial now, but there was no question that it played a massive role in transforming the profile of the brewing industry and led to the enormous number and variety of brewers we now have in the UK,” he maintains.

The group itself has changed with the times. Jonathan Neame, chief executive of brewer Shepherd Neame, says the organisation has been trying to promote the role of women in beer for some time. “There’s so many misconceptions or presumptions about the great British pub and beer drinkers, from the beer belly to the boozer, to bad food. It’s been a sector full of caricatures and cartoons and the beer group has been very good at taking these issues head on and shining some daylight onto them.”

Looking ahead to issues still being discussed, Wood says a key part of how the beer group works is “we only campaign on those issues where there is broad consensus across the industry and across political parties”. One such issue is business rates.

Challenges to come

“There is broad agreement that the old model of business rates isn’t really working and is certainly not working for pubs and the hospitality sector,” Wood says. This is one issue to keep watching when it comes to beer group lobbying.

The group, in sync with the sector, has many more challenges to come. From a slow decline in beer sales to a reinvigorated health lobby (aka the anti-alcohol lobby) and even the possibility that cannabis could be legalised in the future.

But whatever unexpected challenges arise, the beer group will be there to ensure parliamentarians understand the importance of beer and pubs to the UK economy.    

Beer drinker of the year

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This year, Great British Bake Off 2016 winner Candice Brown (pictured above) was awarded ‘beer drinker of the year’ for her support in encouraging young people to consider the merits of careers in pubs and brewing. Other notable drinkers of the year include the first to be awarded the honour, Kenneth Clarke QC MP in 1994, Michael Parkinson in 1999, beer writer Roger Protz in 2004, Gordon Brown MP in 2005, Nick Hewer in 2008 and The Sun​ newspaper in 2015.

Related topics: Legislation

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