Saturday 3 November 2012

Not going to happen

Well, the House of Commons debate on the beer duty escalator has come and gone, and the House voted unanimously (or should that be unopposed?) in favour of the motion that the government should set up an inquiry to examine its effects before the 2013 Budget.

I can’t help thinking, though, that the anti-drink lobby kept their powder dry, and didn’t bother putting their case at all. The full debate can be seen here, but I don’t see any contributions from the likes of Kerry McCarthy or Anne Milton. There were also a lot of weasel words spoken by people who labour under the illusion that the fate of pubs can somehow be detached from the general role of alcohol in society.

Frankly, I would be utterly amazed if the escalator was scrapped in the 2013 Budget, given that it is such a central plank of the government’s general anti-drink strategy, especially given that minimum pricing seems to have been kicked into the long grass of 2014 or later. If it was, the anti-drink lobby would be provoked into howls of outrage. And would it be a credible policy to scrap the escalator on beer and still keep it in place for cider, wine and spirits? Cider and whisky are significant British industries as well as brewing.

While the escalator is widely portrayed as a major threat to pubs, has it in isolation really made that much difference? It has been in operation for five years now, so the rate of duty is maybe 10% more than it otherwise would have been. That translates into a difference of about 10p a pint at the bar. Of course it doesn’t help, but that can’t really be a make-or-break factor for many pubs. And, when I can still get a decent pint of real ale for less than £2 in several pubs within a couple of miles of my house, when others are charging £3.20, it suggests that the trade needs to take a long hard look at its own pricing model before pointing the finger at the government.

Price does have a part to play, but most of the reasons for the long-term decline of pubs relate to wider changes in society, as I outlined here. I would say the smoking ban, the denormalisation of “one-drink driving” and the erosion of the acceptability of alcohol consumption in general social settings are the main factors. Even if town-centre pubs were selling beer at £1 a pint, they wouldn’t be full of office workers at lunchtime the way they were in 1982. In reality, the most important reason for scrapping the escalator (and indeed reducing alcohol duties across the board) is the encouragement that high duties give to smuggling and organised crime.

And to support scrapping the escalator while at the same time advocating minimum alcohol pricing really is the most breathtaking hypocrisy.


  1. Martin, Cambridge3 November 2012 at 18:18

    Spot on. I'm as bored of the beer duty campaign as I am of the full pint issue, both are extremely marginal issues for the vast majority of drinkers, and not just because of the number of excellent £1.49 pints in Spoons I've had recently.

    All that analysis of UK tax against the rest of Europe fails to explain why comparative beer seems to cost twice as much in France, Italy, Spain etc.

  2. I'm not bored with the beer duty campaign. With previous price rises, after a while you get used to them and think no more about it. In recent years, I haven't become used to prices increasing significantly above inflation, and certainly by more than my income. Prices are going up faster than my ability to acclimatise, and I'm sure I'm not alone feeling this way.

  3. Why not go to the pub less and supermarket more, Nev? Save your money, pal.

  4. True, it would, but I don't like bottled or tinned beer as much as draught beer; not even RAIBs (real ale in a bottle) are as good as cask.

  5. Also not as sociable, of course.

  6. But as mudge says, Nev, you don't have to be sociable and rub shoulders with scrotes if you give pubs a wide bearth.

  7. Phil Mellows seems to agree that the debate was a hollow victory.


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