CAMRA’s Annual General Meeting and Conference, scheduled to be held in York on 3 to 5 April, is among many events to be cancelled. This year, remarkably, only two conference motions had been notified but one of them calls for the adoption of a Policy Document that, for the first time, has been written for the general public to read and understand rather than simply for reference within the Campaign.
The document was alerted to all CAMRA members in early December for three months’ consultation. It sets out where we stand on all sorts of relevant issues, not least the uphill struggle we have in supporting pubs whose property company owners prefer to make more money by selling them or converting them for other uses and meanwhile let them decay.
A month before our Conference, we have the distraction of a national budget. At such times, for several years now, we have seen expensively orchestrated campaigns by global brewers and the like against increases in beer duty. Yes, by comparison with most countries in Europe, beer duty in the UK is ridiculously high but no, reducing it across the board does nothing to help pubs whose prices tend to go up regardless, as opposed to supermarkets whose prices remain so much cheaper. ‘Long Live the Local!’ Hardly: beer duty is indiscriminate. CAMRA now distances itself from that campaign.
Instead, for the last year or so, and more confidently now that we have left the EU(!), we have been lobbying for beers supplied for draught dispense to be subject to lower rates of duty than beers sold in bottles or cans. There is a precedent in Australian legislation, as was noted in an impressive recent report by the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group, ‘Unlocking Pubs’ Potential’. The report also rightly focused on the scourge of the crippling increases in business rates that many pubs are facing.
That report makes no recommendations about the statutory Pubs Code in force in England and Wales, ‘as this is currently under review’. Indeed, and after what seems the best part of a year the long grass into which the review could have been kicked may now be submerged under a couple of metres of floodwater. We should be asking the relevant Minister or Select Committee chairman if and when it might be dredged out.
I would still like to think that the Government’s response to that review will herald improvements to the Pubs Code and its administration. Contributors to this magazine have dwelt at length on the inadequacies of the Code and the difficulties placed in the way of tied tenants requesting ‘market rent only’ terms in order to alleviate chronic financial hardship. But now that we have left the EU, I’d also suggest a more fundamental change. Just as we now feel free to advocate taxing draught beer less, let us advocate removal of the exemption of ‘vertical agreements’ from the application of competition law. Pub companies’ restrictive supply ties should be open to scrutiny. Unless they can be shown to confer consumer benefits, I believe they should be unenforceable.
CAMRA’s Regional Director for Greater London