Alcohol Taxation Debate

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Department: HM Treasury

Alcohol Taxation

Mike Wood Excerpts
Thursday 7th July 2022

(1 year, 9 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Mike Wood Portrait Mike Wood (Dudley South) (Con)
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It is a real pleasure to speak in the debate. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) on securing it at such a vital time for so much in the sector. It is a particular pleasure to speak as chair of the all-party parliamentary beer group, which is the largest APPG in Parliament.

A lot of public focus is given to the very real harm that can be caused by alcohol and overconsumption, but not enough attention is given to the real contributions that British beer and our community pubs make to almost every element of life. On balance, they genuinely are forces for good. They are a force for good economically, with beer and pubs nationally contributing about £23 billion to GDP and, as I am sure the new Chancellor will become very aware, about £13 billion to the Exchequer. They are present in every single one of our constituencies in every part of the country. We have about 1,800 brewers —possibly more—across the UK, including about 150 in the west midlands. My own constituency is home to at least five breweries.

They make huge contributions to our local economies. They are a force for good for employment, with beer and pubs employing around 900,000 people, with an almost identical gender balance. Around half the people employed across the sectors are aged under 25 and there is a fantastic variety of career progression across the industry. They are good for tourism. British pubs are named consistently as one of the top three things that visitors to the UK want to do here. They are good for exports. They are the third-highest food and drink export sector, worth about £550 million for the UK economy. Before the pandemic, the sector was growing more quickly than almost any other export sector. They are good for our society and culture. At a time when loneliness and isolation are often the biggest challenges facing some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, in many areas the community pub really is the last of the services in towns and villages.

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I thank my hon. Friend for raising the long-term and managerial career opportunities in the sector, and for raising the charitable good will and fundraising that happens in many of our pubs. I recently went to a “Brave the Shave” in the Burrell Arms in Haywards Heath, which raised masses of money for Macmillan Cancer. That sort of thing goes on up and down the land, bringing people together and bringing good causes and good will together—as well as a good time.

Mike Wood Portrait Mike Wood
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. PubAid estimates that pubs up and down the country contribute more than £100 million every year to charitable activities and community causes, and a further £40 million for grassroots sports in our constituencies, so they really are forces for good in our communities.

As my hon. Friends have said, our pubs, brewers and many other parts of the sector have long been over-taxed. UK pubs and brewers are taxed around 20 times more than US tech companies, as compared by their turnover. They are taxed around five times more than UK gambling. The UK has one of the highest levels of beer duty in Europe—behind, I think, only Finland and Ireland—which is 10 times that of Germany. Taken together, our pubs and brewers contributed over £10 billion in tax last year, even in reduced market conditions—£1 in every £3 spent in a UK pub goes straight to the Treasury. I am sure the Minister is very grateful for that, but I am also sure that Members recognise the disadvantage and burden that places on responsible places for people to drink responsibly and in moderation, compared with the opportunities that supermarkets in particular and other off-trade retailers have to sell their products far more cheaply, with far fewer employment costs and far fewer responsibilities to regulate who they are selling to.

Daisy Cooper Portrait Daisy Cooper
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Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is an absolute travesty that about 10,000 pubs and restaurants could be lost if there are not more fundamental reforms to the tax system that affects UK hospitality? Many say that the pressures they face now are even worse than those they faced during the pandemic. Does he agree that we need to go much further than just having the alcohol duty reforms?

Mike Wood Portrait Mike Wood
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There has been a long-term trend away from drinking in pubs and on-trade, and towards supermarket sales making up a greater share of the market. Some of that will be due to natural changes in consumer preferences and people’s lifestyles, but we should not allow the tax system to aggravate such trends, which have real social and economic consequences. Where we can tweak the tax system to make sure that our pubs, brewers and other producers get a fairer deal and where we can reduce some of the disincentives to people consuming drinks in well-regulated public houses, we should do so.

I welcome the alcohol duty review, which is a massive step forward. The level of duty, which is much higher than in most comparable countries, is compounded not only by VAT, but by extremely high business rates. I hope that we can look at how our system of local business taxation can be further modified. The Treasury has clearly been piloting attempts to charge digital and online companies. That is an important starting point, but we need to make sure that our taxes on clicks are comparable with our taxes on bricks, to help sectors that have to operate in the real world. Nobody has yet established a viable virtual pub. A few people tried during the pandemic, but I do not think that any of those experiences quite worked out. It is noticeable that in April and May last year, most people were quick to get back to the real thing rather than using the online equivalent.

On the duty review, the proposed reforms are hugely welcome, particularly the banding that recognises the progression through alcohol strengths, so that higher-strength drinks have, if not quite exponentially more, progressively higher levels of duty compared with low-strength drinks. The changes to the low-alcohol band for beer for 2.8% to 3.4% will make a big difference to the availability of good-quality, lower-alcohol beer. Brewers find it relatively simple to change recipes to bring a 3.6% or 3.7% real ale down to 3.4%. It is much easier than getting a recipe down to under a 2.8% threshold without changing the character of such drinks, although I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan that 3.5% would clearly be preferable, if we are looking at those details.

Similarly, the proposals for small brewers relief are hugely preferable both to the system that we have and to the Treasury’s initial proposals, which would have caused a lot of difficulties for relatively small breweries. I accept that the changes will take a while to get our heads around—that is probably putting it lightly—but the current system has a distorting effect, with sharp edges that act as a very strong disincentive for growth and that impose an unnatural plateau at about 5,000 hectolitres. That means that unless businesses are confident that they will grow significantly beyond 5,000 hectolitres, they have very little incentive to invest in the extra staff and the extra capital to do so. The system that has been proposed is far better. It is very noticeable that what for a long time was probably the most contentious issue in the beer sector has now brought people together: although there are some details that each person might like to change, the overwhelming majority in the sector now feel that they can live with it.

I suggest that the Treasury look at whether it might be possible to extend some form of small producers relief beyond beer and cider, to include small wine producers. That would have particular benefits for English wine producers, and of course for Welsh wine producers; I must say to the SNP Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson), that I do not know the scale on which Scottish wine producers are operating at the moment, but I imagine that they mostly fall within the smaller category.

The differential draught beer duty rate that the then Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), announced in his Budget last autumn is a fantastic proposal. It has the potential to make a big difference to supporting responsible beer drinking in our pubs, cafés and bars, instead of our supermarkets and—let us be honest—our park benches, town centres and street corners.

The difference will depend on the scale of the differential. The 5p differential is a good start in establishing the principle, but getting a new system up and running is likely to mean that almost all of it will be retained by pubs and breweries. That will typically mean an additional investment of about £2,000 being available to pubs, but if we want our consumers and beer drinkers to benefit from the draught beer duty rate, the differential will need to be widened. Only once it gets to 10p or 15p will we start to see a real difference in what customers pay for a pint at the bar, which will also make a difference by encouraging people to drink on regulated premises instead of buying from the off-trade.

We would like to see the differential not only increased but introduced at the first available opportunity. I know that the Treasury was looking at introducing something in probably the spring of next year, but given the difficulties that we all know the hospitality sector has had over the past two years or so, if a suitable fiscal event or financial instrument could be found that would allow the measure to come into force before this year’s Christmas season, that would make a massive difference. It would help the pubs that the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) referred to, which may be struggling, on the edge of going under or just about managing to stay afloat through the winter. Bringing the differential in early would make a big difference.

There has clearly been a very lively debate about container size; 20 litres is very obviously the correct answer. Having had discussions with the last Chancellor and the last Economic Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen), I think they recognised that 20 litres was where we needed to end up. I very much hope that incoming Ministers will reach the same conclusion. I think that the last Chancellor broadly accepted the argument that 40 litres was probably not the right container size for the threshold: he was pictured with the Prime Minister holding 30-litre containers to launch the policy. The 20-litre level will make a big difference to the range and types of beer that can be made available, particularly for our smaller brewers. However, I also think we should look at the provisions on distribution mechanisms, and ensure that containers do not necessarily have to be connectable to either a gravity-pulled or an electrically pulled draught system. When it comes to the pins of the kind typically seen at beer festivals in all our constituencies, where there is just a tap in the side of a barrel, I think that applying the discount to a container of over 20 litres makes a good deal of sense. Brewers I have talked to estimate that less than 0.1% of their beer is sold through those taps. We are not risking a massive distortion in the market from people buying huge numbers of these containers for parties at lower rates of duty, and applying this to all containers of over 20 litres would constitute a minimal cost to the Treasury.

The system introduced a few years ago in Australia does have a requirement involving connectors, partly because the Australian market is very different and partly because there is a much lower threshold—from memory, I think it is as low as 8 litres—but I think that a provision for 20 litres would capture virtually all the beer that almost all the small brewers that we are trying to support supply through our pubs and our licensed premises, and that they would benefit. I therefore hope that the Treasury will settle on that, as the obvious figure, in its final decision.

Once again, I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan for securing the debate. I also thank the Treasury for all the discussions that we have had over the past couple of years, particularly since the publication of the duty review. We look forward to the speedy introduction of these measures so that our brewers, our publicans and UK hospitality as a whole can benefit, succeed and thrive.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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We now come to the Front Bench winding-up speeches. First, I call Richard Thomson.

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Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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I thank the hon. Member for that intervention. It has indeed been introduced in Wales, and the evidence is that it has been a very positive thing in both jurisdictions.

We also need to look at promotions. Minimum pricing and other associated policies ended the practice of supermarkets using cheap, below-cost-price alcohol as a loss leader to draw people through the doors. Today’s evaluation of minimum unit pricing in Scotland—I am sure there will be similar evaluations in Wales—shows that, in the 12 months following its introduction before the pandemic, there was a 2% reduction in off-trade alcohol sales and, more significantly, a 10% decline in alcohol-specific deaths in 2019. With more alcohol being drunk at home and with the changes in behaviour we saw throughout the pandemic, it is still reasonable to conclude that minimum unit pricing is contributing to a lower level of harm and adverse health, crime and social outcomes than might otherwise be the case.

All of this has been part of an initial suite of measures to try to change the relationship we sadly have with alcohol in Scotland. We can have an incredibly positive relationship with alcohol, but we cannot be blind to the impacts it can have. I am pleased that the Scottish Government are reviewing the effectiveness of the current system of alcohol brief interventions where people have exhibited problem behaviours, and are reviewing how the product is marketed and presented to consumers, as part of delivering those improved public health outcomes. I believe a review of where we are on duties is a ripe opportunity to do that, and I would be failing in my duty as an SNP spokesperson if I did not say that this would all be better if it were devolved.

Mike Wood Portrait Mike Wood
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On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I should have drawn the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests relating to the hospitality I have received from, appropriately, the hospitality sector. Can you advise on how I may put that on the record?

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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Thank you for giving me notice of your point of order. You have just done that, and I thank you for correcting the record at the earliest opportunity.