Dear Editor, I refer to the comments of Walsall South MP Valerie Vaz (Pubs should return to 11pm last orders, Birmingham Post, February 16.)
It seems that Ms Vaz, like many others who comment on the subject, has wrongly associated beer and pubs with the binge-drinking debate when she calls for a return to the 11pm last orders.
It is true the Licensing Act 2003 allowed pubs to apply for longer opening hours but in reality, as research conducted five years after the new laws were introduced showed, it meant on average that pubs, bars and restaurants had increased their opening times by an additional 20 minutes with many opting for a modest extension of half an hour or an hour on a Friday or Saturday night.
It is far removed from the 24-hour drinking term which is often bandied around in many parts of the media when in fact the true picture had been a modest extension of hours providing a little more choice to adults on a night out.
That is not to say towns and cities do not have problems associated with alcohol but I think Ms Vaz will find that beer and pubs do not play a major part in this scenario.
Partnership working at a local level and initiatives such as Best Bar None, Pubwatch and Business Improvement Districts have all helped to improve the situation in town and city centres and she will find that in Walsall itself, like many other towns and cities, there were very few alcohol-related incidents over the recent festive period.
Pubs offer a regulated, controlled environment for the responsible consumption of alcohol and in this environment beer accounts for 68 per cent of sales. Beer is a comparatively low-strength pub-based drink which on average is around 4 per cent compared an average strength of 12.5 per cent for wine and 37 per cent for spirits. In fact the lowering of the tax on beers of a strength of less than 2.8 per cent has seen a proliferation on new low-strength beers being made available by the country’s brewers.
I would suggest it is not beer that is fuelling the problems she refers to but other products as spirits which have become the drink of choice for 18 to 24-year-olds on a big night out.
Yes, Ms Vaz does make the point about cheap beer and two for ones and here I assume she is referring to supermarket prices which the Government has planned to tackle by way of banning below-cost sales. However, her calls for minimum pricing are likely to fall foul of competition laws and would of course penalise the majority of responsible drinkers for the sake of the minority who abuse alcohol.
Seventy per cent of alcohol is now bought in supermarkets and off-licences and many of the young people she refers have of course fuelled up on cheap alcohol bought through these outlets before they even reach town or city centres for a night out.
I would urge Ms Vaz and her colleagues to support my association’s plea to the Government to freeze beer tax now and scrap the 2 per cent above inflation duty escalator which is set to push up beer prices once more in next month’s Budget. This would hopefully result in more people drinking in the controlled environment of a pub instead of in the street and also spark a growth strategy in terms of creating new jobs in the industry.
Midlands Regional Secretary,
British Beer and Pub Association