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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.