Alcohol Taxation

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Thursday 7th July 2022

(1 year, 9 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Lucy Frazer Portrait The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Lucy Frazer)
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It is a pleasure to respond to this debate and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) on securing it. It has been good to hear from hon. Members across the House and from the chairs and members of very important all-party groups on this subject.

It is very clear that my right hon. Friend is an ardent advocate for producers and traders in his constituency. Indeed, Wales has an historic association with alcohol production going back 4,000 years and today produces many ciders, beers and wine. My hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) also talked about the producers in her constituency.

As many Members have mentioned today, we are making changes to outdated, arbitrary and inconsistent alcohol tax laws. These reforms will make the system fairer, simpler and more aligned to public health goals than the system that we inherited from the EU. As the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) said, these are significant reforms that we are making.

Before addressing the excellent points that have been raised today, I want to remind Members of the major changes that we are making to improve the duty system. Reform of our alcohol tax laws is long overdue. These laws have barely changed since the 1990s. That is largely because incoherent and prohibitive EU rules have, in the past, hindered much-needed change. In the current system, a high-strength white cider will pay less duty per unit than a low-strength beer. Sparkling wine—a product of which the UK has world- leading examples—pays much more duty than still wine, even when it is substantially less strong. Fortified wines are made with the addition of spirits, and yet they pay less duty than a liqueur made with spirits, even if they are the same strength. We have inherited 15 rates from the EU across five different products, and with three different methods of taxation.

The current system is complex and archaic. The Institute of Economic Affairs said that it “defies common sense”. Producers, importers and exporters in this country have called it “distorted”,

“perversely incentivised to produce stronger drinks”

and welcomed “the opportunity for reform”. We agree. Now that we have left the EU, we have an opportunity to create alcohol laws that are more rational and that support the many and varied producers and traders in this country that we have heard about today.

I wish to take this opportunity to remind everyone of the significant benefits that have been introduced with our reforms: a radically simplified system, slashing the number of bands from 15 to six and taxing all products in proportion to their alcohol content; taxing all products in the same rational way, a policy banned by EU law; and ending the premium rates on sparkling wine and equalising them with still wine, and substantially reducing duty on rosé. We have introduced new rates for low-strength drinks below 3.5%, encouraging innovation and reflecting consumer preferences for the low or no-alcohol market, and we are cutting duty on 3.4% beer by 25p a pint. We have modernised the taxation of cider, targeting unhealthy and problematic white ciders while cutting the duty for lower ABV craft and sparkling ciders. We have introduced small producers’ relief to support the many small, artisan alcohol producers who continue to create world-leading products in this country. Those are benefits that would not have been available to us before we left the EU.

Daisy Cooper Portrait Daisy Cooper
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Can the Minister clarify which specific EU regulation was preventing us from enacting duty reform?

Lucy Frazer Portrait Lucy Frazer
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There are many laws in the EU, as the hon. Lady will know, that have dictated our laws for many years. Those are the regulations and directives that we are changing, not only in this area, but in many others.

Coming back to the system we are producing, we ran a consultation from after the autumn Budget until January this year and Treasury officials have met many stakeholders from across industries and public health groups. The hon. Lady said that we need to consult more, but I can assure her that Treasury Ministers, largely the former Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), who was responsible for this area, have met colleagues from across the parties. We have spoken to and visited businesses, from the smallest to the largest, welcomed representations from many of the most important trade bodies and sat down with the Australian high commissioner, all to ensure that at the Treasury we have heard all points of view on the reforms. I can assure the hon. Lady and others that we are listening.

I will come on to the points that hon. Members have made. We have heard from industries, businesses and colleagues about their concerns, and we will continue to listen to the feedback. The comments made in this debate will form part of that listening. We are actively thinking about how we can reduce burdens on businesses while still preserving the many benefits of the system, not least the clear and obvious public health benefits of taxing products by their alcohol strength.

Many hon. Members have talked about issues with keg size, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan, my hon. Friends the Members for Meon Valley and for Dudley South (Mike Wood), and the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper). I want to assure them that, while I cannot make any announcements today, we are listening to that point. My right hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South and others talked about how small producers’ relief is too complicated. I reassure them that we are determined to get rid of the cliff edge to support the growth of small brewers.

Other hon. Members talked about the duty charges on wine. I have spoken to the former Exchequer Secretary, who told me how she has been engaging with the sector on this very issue. The hon. Member for St Albans mentioned that she had visited the Wine Society and heard its views, and I know the Treasury is looking at ways to reduce the administrative burdens.

The hon. Lady also talked about fortified wines; she will know that we are reforming the duty on fortified wines to ensure that those products pay a consistent rate of duty per unit with still and sparkling wines and high-strength beers. We are increasing the duty on fortified wines to equal the duty on spirit-based liqueurs such as Baileys, because both drinks are made using spirits and we think it is right in those circumstances that they pay the same rates.

My hon. Friends the Members for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) and for Meon Valley talked about cider, as did others, and I hear what they are saying. They will know that ciders will benefit from new reduced rates for lower ABV ciders below 3.5% ABV, and as part of our new draught relief we will cut duty rates on draught fruit ciders by 20% to equalise them with beer, cutting 13p off a pint. Nobody has mentioned this today, but I would like to reiterate that we announced in the 2021 autumn Budget that we were freezing cider duty for the fourth consecutive year.

The hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) talked about Scotch and other spirits. I remind him that at the Budget the Government froze spirits duty, saving 52p off a bottle of Scotch compared with what it would have been if duty had risen with inflation. Because of the decisions that we have made, spirits duty rates are at their lowest level since at least 1918. It is a really important industry for us and we have an exceptionally competitive environment for Scotch to succeed. Domestic whisky volumes have expanded year on year, including throughout the pandemic, to reach their highest levels since 2013, growing by 11% over the past two years.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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I am looking at a graphic that shows that when duty on a shot of whisky in the UK was 46p, duty on the same measure of whisky in Spain would have been the equivalent of only 12p. I wonder what Brexit benefit it might be that has resulted in that differential staying there even with whisky duties being frozen.

Lucy Frazer Portrait Lucy Frazer
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The hon. Member will know that the benefit of Brexit is that we can now make these decisions ourselves, reflecting our own industries and what we want to do as a Government going forward.

We have heard many positive responses to the changes we have made, welcoming the substantial benefits that they will bring to businesses. Respondents to the consultation said that they

“wholeheartedly welcome the direction of the proposals.”

Many hon. Members have mentioned positive features of the proposals, which have been called a “genuinely significant achievement”. Crucially to a country that puts its people first, a public health group described the reforms as

“the largest and most positive shift from the perspective of public health in contemporary alcohol policy.”

I thank all colleagues who have contributed to this important and insightful debate. We will soon confirm details of the reforms and publish the draft legislation for consultation, alongside the Government’s response. We have before us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform and improve an outdated system, with new incentives for producers to diversify and innovate, while introducing a direct boost for pubs. The reforms are more rational, they are fair, and they are better aligned to public health goals and consumer preferences. They support the great British pub and small producers producing fantastic, world-leading products. Our reforms spell exciting times for alcohol businesses in this country and will protect our brilliant heritage in alcohol production and trade.