MP WRITES: Help needed to save pubs

The Harbour of Refuge, bettern known as the Pot House
The Harbour of Refuge, bettern known as the Pot House

It’s a busy time of year in the Parliamentary calendar.

This Sunday marks the most important day of my year as the town’s Member of Parliament, with regards to Remembrance Sunday and I wish to focus next week’s column on that topic.

This week I have also been able to secure a debate in the House of Commons on the disappearance of Katrice Lee some 30 years ago and I hope to be able to comment on that important and moving matter in the column after this.

However, I wish to focus this column on the Parliamentary debate I contributed to last week: that of the future of pubs and the beer duty escalator.

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I think the pub is a great British institution, that can and does bring a community together and is important in social, economic and cultural terms.

I mentioned in the House of Commons a statistic that somebody once told me – I’m not sure it is true, but I thought it worth repeating to emphasise the importance of the pub in Hartlepool society – that in the early part of the 20th Century there was a higher ratio of pubs to streets in Hartlepool than any other part of the country.

Pubs remain important in town life. We have some great pubs like the Fisherman’s Arms, the Causeway, the Pot House and the Jackson’s Arms, serving great beer and allowing people to put the world to rights on matters as far and wide from politics to who should be the next manager of Pools.

It is also an important contributor to the town’s economy.

I mentioned in Parliament that we have an employment level of about 34,000 in Hartlepool and nearly 1,000 people work in pubs, not to mention working men’s and social clubs.

We also have a world class brewery in Camerons, offering great own brand products like Strongarm and Sixth Sense but also making beer for global brands.

The decline of pubs and brewers does put jobs at risk.

I think it would be wrong to lay the blame for the loss of pubs and the decline of drinking beer entirely at the Government’s door – any Government.

Changes in tastes and consumption habits have altered in the last 30 years; this country now drinks wine as opposed to beer, and some 70 per cent of all alcohol purchased in Britain is now consumed at home rather than in the pub.

As I mentioned in the House of Commons, I don’t wish to challenge that: if people want to watch a film or the football while having beer or wine and a takeaway while sitting on their settee, the Government shouldn’t really interfere with that.

However, I am concerned that there is now a huge unlevel playing field in selling beer in supermarkets and in pubs.

Supermarkets can absorb price rises and offer loss leading bargains to encourage the customer.

The nature of the pubs means that the landlord cannot do this, and must pass on every price rise – whether that is increases in beer duty, rises in VAT or increases in raw materials or transport costs onto the pub drinker.

It is this effect which, among other things, is harming the pub.

I would hope to see the Government contemplating a change to the way beer is taxed to ensure that there is a more level playing field between pubs and supermarkets.

The message from MPs from all parties and all sides of the House of Commons was very clear. The pub should be a cherished part of our society, but is being undermined by factors which the Government could change. I hope the Minister will listen to the concerns raised.