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Darling, you've really made a mess of that

Andy Murray on how the Government have got it very badly wrong on alcohol duties

Published on April 4th 2008.

Darling, you've really made a mess of that

The salient facts you’ll be all too familiar with. Indeed, you may well have been on the wrong end of the consequences already. The recent Budget raised duty on alcohol by six per cent over inflation, with beer, cider and wine all subject to significant price hikes.

There’s a huge disconnect, not for the first time, between politics and reality. There’s no doubt that it will stop the good folk of Manchester from supping a few pints down the pub.

Those working in the pub trade are left facing disgruntled punters, or, worse, over time, fewer punters of any description. In Edinburgh, one pub resorted to posting up a picture of Alistair Darling, announcing that henceforth he was barred. A cheap gesture, perhaps, but the idea’s caught on, and several establishments around the country have followed suit. Now there’s even a Facebook group dedicated to the cause. So how have pubs in our own city centre responded?

Roger Ward, owner of the twin Victorian Chop Houses, has attracted much attention by writing a personal apology notice to customers now up on display in his premises.

“It actually began just as a bit of courtesy really,” Ward says. “All I was trying to do was apologise to people - for the fact that we now appear to be collecting income tax by another name. The fact that all of our suppliers seem to be colluding to put prices up over and above inflation. And the fact that, now smokers aren’t responsible for everything that’s wrong with society, it would appear that drinkers are! I’m more than averagely irritated and frustrated by this.”

Ward’s not taking prepared to take this lying down, either. After consulting with assorted colleagues and contacts, he’s actively looking to open his own microbrewery. “The way I look at it is that people start microbreweries because they operate under a different duty regime, so it’s one way of fighting back against Gordon Brown: I like that. I’m told it’s relatively inexpensive to do - and by relatively I mean it’s tens of thousands of quid, but it’s cheaper than opening a new bar. Everyone who does it says that it’s not actually as hard as you’d think. And how much fun, and how English, is it to make a proper pint of your own?”

William Lees-Jones, of local brewery JW Lees, explains, “There is this loophole. Smaller craft brewers actually now pay about £65 a barrel less duty than brewers such as ourselves. Sometimes I feel I’m not only being squashed by the big international brewers, but on the other hand you’ve got the smaller brewers who have got that advantage.”

Nor, he insists, is the current situation favourable when compared to other nations. “When we went into the European community the likes of Sweden and Ireland were all way above us, but at the moment we’re paying the highest duty of alcohol of any country in the European Union.”

A major reason cited for the Budget’s duty increase was that a pricier pint would help curb binge drinking and yob culture, but this notion of socio-engineering is given short shrift by Lees-Jones. “My view is that it’s a very naïve perspective that the government’s taken,” he says. “I think that there’s a huge disconnect, not for the first time, between politics and reality. There’s no doubt that it will stop the good folk of Manchester from supping a few pints down the pub, which to my mind is something they should be doing more of, not less. I’m not just saying that because I’m a brewer, either. Interaction with other people, surely, is a good thing, rather drinking at home.”

If one common issue sticks in the craw of those in the local pub trade, it’s the fact that as their prices soar, supermarket retailers are selling the same product at rock-bottom prices. “Let’s face it, none of us are thick,” argues Roger Ward. “We can all go into a pub and spend three quid buying a pint, or go to a supermarket where you can get it for less that a quid. What strikes me is, what are the brewers doing to the value of their brands? Stella was lovingly marketed for twenty years under that line, ‘Reassuringly expensive’. It’s fucking not reassuringly expensive at Tesco’s, is it?”

As far as Ward’s concerned, the reasons given for the Budgetary rise are just a smokescreen. “It’s got cock-all to do with socio-engineering,” he asserts. ” If they really cared about binge drinking they’d attack cheap booze, not expensive booze. If they want responsible drinking then they should be encouraging people to drink in licensed premises that are regulated by law. The fact of the matter is, nice decent bar restaurants are not contributing towards the violence that goes on in Society. We’re trying to protect our customers from it, not stoke it.”

It’s still too early to say what scale the full impact of the price hike will be. Over the three weeks since the Budget, the Easter weekend and some decidedly shabby weather would have resulted in low takings anyway, so publicans are still waiting to see. But even before the Budget, the pub trade was feeling the pinch. By some estimates, the smoking ban’s already knocked ten per cent off beer sales on licensed premises. At the last count, CAMRA estimated that up to four pubs are closing around the country every day, while cheap home boozing in booming.

Dave Melville, assistant manager of the Briton’s Protection, hasn’t detected much resistance to the increases from customers as yet, beyond the old mild grumble. “To be honest being a city centre pub we’ve always had that, because we’re always slightly more expensive than a people’s local, so when they come into town it can come as a bit of a surprise. But really I wouldn’t say it’s had an impact as yet. Not that we’ve noticed, because to be honest we’re in a bit of a decline anyway.” Nor is opening a microbrewery open to the Briton’s at present. “It’s a great idea and I wish we could do it here, but we’ve just not got the right facilities.”

Melville reckons he’d stop short of barring Alistair Darling. “I don’t know if we’d do that, but I’m sure if he came to the pub he’d get a good stern talking-to...” Roger Ward, though, is all for it. “I tell you what, I agree with it – and while we’re at it, let’s throw Gordon Brown into the mix as well!”

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AlApril 4th 2008.

Roy I think the main problem is that the best type of drinking is in a pub. Social drinking or in a regulated environment should be encouraged anyway it can be. Who cares that the motivation of the budget rises was for Child Benefit, that could have been found elsewhere, the result has been to place more pressure on the public house.

Roy Victor ParkesApril 4th 2008.

Are you all so young that you can't remember EVERY budget hammering cigs and booze. However there's been few rises in alcohol duty in the last 10 years, which is why drink is cheaper in real terms than it was. (In contrast the taxes on fags have gone up so often the pessimists said the Government was so hooked on the income it would never take serious steps to curb smoking......).The purpose of the rise in duty on booze was NOT to tackle the culture of excessive drinking. Instead of listening to what the Government actually say, you listen to the soothsayers,commentators and detractors. The income raised is to pay for an increase in child benefit in the Autumn of 2008. Sounds like a good cause to me, which I will gladly pay whenever I down a pint. I won't be buying a second tho in any pub I see a 'Darling...you're barred' notice. Publicans have been tax collectors for longer than any of us have been drinking, I thought they'd got used to it. I like the idea of another micro-brewery in the city centre, but it was Gordon Brown's idea to reduce the tax on them in the first place, so he won't be upset if its a success, like most of the others have been. Chill out, and go with the flow!

spacebeagleApril 4th 2008.

Abso****inglutely! I am sick to death of this government dressing up tax increases as social policy (alcohol taxes) or environmental policy (petrol taxes). This is a government that presided over an economic boom generating massive increases in tax revenues and then proceeded to spend the lot, resulting in their current plight of scratching round to raise cash wherever possible under whatever pathetic pretext they can dream up. What's even more laughable is the amount of time they've spent berating people for not saving enough! They need to get off our backs and stop trying to micro-manage the lives of free citizens! I wouldn't trust them to run a fairground burger van.

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