Column: Call of Duty

MPs Greg Mulholland (left) and Andrew Griffiths celebrate the scrapping of the Beer Duty Escalator a

MPs Greg Mulholland (left) and Andrew Griffiths celebrate the scrapping of the Beer Duty Escalator at a Westminster pub - Credit: Archant

A penny off a pint may sound like small beer but the decision by Chancellor George Osborne in his March budget marked a significant victory for people campaigning to save the British pub. At the same time as he cut the price of a pub pint, the Chancellor also scrapped the Beer Duty Escalator that has seen beer prices rocket in recent years.

The escalator was brought in by Osborne’s predecessor Alistair Darling in the last Labour government. It allowed the duty on beer to rise by two per cent above inflation every year at the time of the budget. The result has been a disaster for brewers and publicans. Between 2008, when the escalator was introduced, and 2012, the price of a pub pint went up by 42 per cent.

During that five-year period, more than 5,000 pubs closed. There are many reasons why so many pubs are going out of business but the price of a pint is clearly one of them. It’s increasingly difficult for pubs to compete with supermarkets that offer cheap beer – often for less than the cost of production – to attract people into their stores.

Britain remains a major beer-producing country, second only to Germany. Brewing is booming, with as many breweries operating today as there were in the 1930s. But this important industry, which with pubs included, employs close to one million people, is taxed so hard the pips squeak. With the exception of Finland, Britain has the most heavily taxed beer in the European Union.

There has been a spirited fight back by beer drinkers to scrap the escalator. The driving force has been CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, with its head office in Hatfield Road. Last year, CAMRA launched an ‘e-petition’ with the aim of getting the government to change its policy.

E-petitions were introduced by the present government to allow people to have more of a say about politics than just at election times. If more than 100,000 people sign a petition, this automatically triggers a debate in Parliament. The number of signatures needed is daunting and most petitions fail.

But at the end of 2012, CAMRA’s petition was successful and a debate lasting several hours took place in Parliament. Among the speakers calling for an end to the duty escalator were Andrew Griffiths, the MP for Burton-on-Trent, Britain’s capital of brewing, who also chairs the Parliamentary Beer Club, and Greg Mulholland, chair of the Parliamentary Save the Pub committee. Mulholland is a Leeds MP but he has friends and relatives in St Albans, is a frequent visitor to the city and works closely with CAMRA.

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During the debate, a government spokesman was lukewarm on the call to scrap the escalator and it seemed the campaign might fail. But the government felt the depth of feeling on the subject when CAMRA and MPs organised a mass rally in Westminster in January, attended by thousands of beer lovers, brewers and publicans from all over the country.

The result was loud and clear in the budget: not only a 1p cut in the price of a pint but the scrapping of the escalator. Of course, where budgets are concerned, there’s always pain as well as gain. In order that the Treasury doesn’t lose out financially, duty on wine and spirits was increased, so hard-pressed publicans are still under the cosh. But the end of the escalator does mean that beer will not automatically go up in price every March and as beer is the major drink sold in pubs it does ease some of the burden on publicans.

The campaigning doesn’t stop here. CAMRA, pub owners and brewers are still calling on the government to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol. This would not affect pub prices but could stop supermarkets selling beer for less than the cost of bottled water.

And, led by Tim Martin, founder of the Wetherspoon pub chain, based in Watford, there’s also a demand for the government to follow the French, German and Belgian governments in cutting VAT on food and drink sold in bars and restaurants in a bid to increase trade.

The campaign to save our pubs goes on.

Beer drinkers can help celebrate our national drink by supporting the Mayor of St Albans’ charity event on 12 April. It usually involves a wine tasting but the current mayor, Cllr Eileen Harris, has asked me to organise a beer tasting, which is not only an honour but a splendid boost for beer.

Money raised will go to the Mayor’s chosen charities for 2013 – Centre 33, which aids homeless people, and Special Olympics St Albans.

There will be beers from craft breweries in Hertfordshire and surrounding areas and the beer will be interspersed with a “pub quiz”. A good evening is promised in support of worthy causes.

The details are: Friday 12 April, 7.30pm, Old Town Hall, St Peter’s Street. Tickets cost £10 and are available from the Mayor’s Parlour in the Civic Centre (01727 819544), and from Sue Dines at Centre 33: and Suzie Williams at Special Olympics: 01727 819422.

See you there!