'Big Beast' is back
fight for future of the pub?
How the media loves a cliché! The return of Ken Clarke to the Tory front bench was greeted with endless headlines and those annoying running titles at the foot of the TV screen announcing “The Big Beast is Back”.
I’ve always thought that Clarke – who I’ve interviewed once and chatted to at the Parliamentary Beer Club’s annual dinner -- seems a convivial cove. But we live in a confrontational age and so the media portrays him, cigar in mouth, pint in hand and Hush Puppies on feet, as a beast.
The hard pressed pub and brewing industry is in urgent need of a big beast. Clarke now speaks for the Tories on business and let us be hopeful that, as a beer lover, he will call for action to stop pubs closing at a rate of knots.
He will be up against Peter Mandelson. I’m not an expert on parliamentary procedure but it seems odd that Clarke will speak in the Commons while the newly ennobled Mandelson is in the Lords. It would be wonderful to see them across the aisle in the Commons. I suspect the sight of Mandelson defeated, gutted and generally hung out to dry by Clarke would bring much-needed cheer to millions – including quite a few Labour backbenchers.
Of course, Ken Clarke speaks for the Opposition. He cannot legislate. But he can make recommendations for easing the problems of publicans and brewers. I don’t think the current government will take any action but Clarke is in a powerful position to flag up much-needed changes that could be adopted by a new government.
And, oh boy, how we need a new government...
First, of course, is the key matter of excise duty. I don’t need to tell readers of this paper that Nobody’s Darling twice increased the duty on beer last year, once in the budget, the second time in the autumn statement to parliament. The second increase was one of the most disgraceful examples of parliamentary sleight-of-hand that it’s possible to imagine: a cut in VAT that had the pub trade cheering, followed by an increase in duty that immediately wiped out the VAT relief.
Britain is the most highly taxed country within the EU where alcohol is concerned. We used to be second to the Irish Republic but the Dublin government actually cut duty last year. We need to follow suit. We need a freeze on duty followed by cuts in successive budgets.
There will be squeals from the Daily Mail and the anti-alcohol lobby. But Ken Clarke would have to make it clear that cheaper beer does not lead to an increase in consumption. It will get people back into pubs and out of supermarkets. Increased pub trade means a greater tax take for the government. It also means job opportunities for those thrown out of work by the current economic nightmare – I’d love to have a pint pulled for me in my local by an unemployed hedge fund manager.
Any cuts in duty must be underscored by a frontal attack on the behaviour of the supermarkets that continue to sell beer, wine and spirits as loss leaders. The multiples merely laugh at increases in duty. There’s the celebrated example of the Bargain Booze chain that told its suppliers last year, following the budget, that they had to absorb the duty increase or the retailer would cease to trade with them. I think that’s known as blackmail.
As Ken Clarke is both a lawyer and a politician, he will know how to tackle the obscene power of the supermarkets and insist they sell alcohol at a price that reflects the costs of production, distribution and retail. The Scottish parliament is looking at a minimum pricing policy for sales of alcohol in the off-trade and the national government should follow suit.
Pubs are not booze shops. They are pillars of the community. They offer drink in a pleasant and controlled environment. Drunkenness is not only frowned on but publicans that permit it can be prosecuted and lose their licences.
Ken Clarke could make the telling point that the government actually fuels binge drinking by forcing people out of pubs and into the arms of the supermarkets. We need to get drinkers moving in the opposite direction, off the pavements and back into pubs.
Pubs desperately need small business rate relief, something refused them by the present government. If billions can be pumped into banks then surely far smaller amounts can be used to help struggling pubs.
The smoking ban needs to be revisited. As Ken Clarke enjoys a puff with his pint, this demand should not be lost on him. I’m not a smoker but I recognise the damage done to the pub trade by ill-thought-out legislation that has driven many customers away. It would not require major legislation to allow pubs – as is the case in Belgium – to set aside one room for smokers.
The pub needs help. Ken Clarke is the man for the job. So up and at ‘em, Ken -- and give Mandelson hell.