In Parliament – March

Beer Duty Escalator – 5th March 2013

Nigel Mills MP: It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I join in the congratulations to my hon. Friend Mr Jones on securing it. We have spent much of the past year working together on beer, as we both took part in the all-party beer group’s inquiry into the smuggling of beer to try to get round the UK duty rules. That issue has not yet

been raised much in this debate. One reason why we do not get the increase in revenue that we would expect from the beer duty escalator is the increasing amounts of beer that are brought over in what we could euphemistically call white vans. I suspect that they are actually large trucks, sneaking through our border, so that the beer can be sold round the backs of industrial estates.

It was quite scary, when we took evidence from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, to hear exactly what the scale of the fraud was. It was something like the equivalent of all off-sales sold outside supermarkets in the UK, which is a seriously large volume. I am not saying that every small shop selling beer is selling non-duty-paid beer; that was just to show the scale of the problem that we have. We have to consider whether, all other things being equal, a policy that just generates extra rewards for people smuggling and avoiding beer duty is sensible when we are trying to encourage the legal trade.

I agree with what everyone else has said. I think that everyone has used the useful statistics that we have for the debate. The idea of increasing beer duty by more than inflation every year was probably wrong when it was introduced four or five years ago. In fact, various members of my party and the Liberal Democrats said at the time that it was wrong. It is a pity that taking on the chains of office means that we change our mind on some of these things.

It was intriguing to see that the present Secretary of State for Health was not happy with the policy when he was in a shadow role five years ago. I hope that that is something that my right hon. Friend has taken with him into the Department of Health and that we can see a reduction in the rather scatter-gun and unfair efforts to stop ordinary, reasonable people having an ordinary small amount of drink every week. It is right that we tackle excessive drinking, but we should not be trying to tackle the ordinary drinker and push the cost up for them.

If we are trying to tackle excessive alcohol consumption, which we clearly should, it is important to point out that the beer duty escalator targets people who drink, in pubs, pints of British-brewed beer. I suspect that that is not the biggest health problem caused by alcohol that this country has. We should be encouraging people to drink a nice, relatively weak pint of beer, rather than sitting at home drinking a litre of spirits or whatever. That is the direction of travel we should be looking at—encouraging the supervised drinking of British-brewed products in pubs and discouraging the drinking of imported cheap spirits.

I am not convinced by the arguments for the health benefits of this policy and I am probably even less convinced of its economic advantages. The forecast in the Red Book last year showed that the expected increases in this Budget would not actually raise any more money. I accept, and I will happily make the argument, that we are pretty desperate for revenue to reduce our deficit, but it seems bizarre that a policy would be introduced that raises no money and actually does damage to a pretty important industry that is a significant employer throughout the country. While I am on that issue, I should join the list of hon. Members praising their

small local breweries. I can think of a fair few—Amber Ales, Leadmill, Bottle Brook, Coppice Side and Marlpool. I have to say that I think I have drunk quite a lot of all their beer. I made a special effort to have a barrel of beer from the Marlpool brewery at my engagement party a few weeks ago, which went down very well, so I am happy to say that I will do my bit to support my local brewery trade.

We can see that the number of these breweries is growing every year. Every time we drive round an industrial estate, we find that a new brewery has sneaked up round the corner. We should be supporting this trade. We should be supporting our pubs. They generate employment and they provide a community facility that we value. Therefore, I do not believe that the original case for increasing beer duty by more than inflation holds water any more. We should at the very least be stopping that above-inflation increase. I can see the argument that all other costs go up by inflation, so why should not the duty element? I cannot see the argument for putting it up by RPI plus 2%.

I would happily agree with all the other hon. Members who would say that beer duty is too high now and it is doing great damage. We have had a 42% increase in beer duty in the past four years. We have had enough. Let us try to support people and freeze it. If the Government cannot quite go that far, let us at least announce in two weeks’ time that we are scrapping the escalator and we will have to deal only with inflationary rises each year. That would at least be a fair situation from which to go forward.

Nigel Mills MP: The hon. Lady has gone back to the topic of VAT. Does she regret that when the previous Government reduced VAT in 2008, they increased the duty on alcohol, so that the VAT cut had no beneficial impact?

Cathy Jamieson MP (Kilmarnock and Loudon, Labour): We are at the stage in the parliamentary cycle when the coalition Government must absolutely take responsibility. Hon. Members who are in government have the power at this time. As I have said, the then Chancellor took that decision on the basis of the economic circumstances of the time, as Ministers must do today.

I simply hope to extract some information from the Minister about what assessment he has made and what the current thinking is. I would not expect a Minister to say what will happen in the Budget. It would clearly not be right for him to do that, but he could give us some information about his thinking and perhaps about what he has ruled out, and I look forward to his speech.

I thank all hon. Members who have taken the time to speak in the debate. As I have said, the fact that only a few Opposition Members could take part this morning does not in any way suggest that they do not take the issue seriously. We look forward to hearing from the Minister.

Oral Answers to Questions – Work and Pensions – 11th March 2013

Nigel Mills MP: We look forward to seeing the Minister later. Does he agree that one of the problems is that people just do not understand what the change will mean for them? What plans do the Government have to write to everybody to tell them what pension they would have received under the old system and what they will receive under the new one?

Steve Webb MP (Minister of State (Pensions), Work and Pensions; Thornbury and Yate, Liberal Democrat): My hon. Friend is right to say that information will be crucial. One thing we have been doing with the changes to the state pension age, for example, is writing to the individuals affected so that they know exactly what position they are in. All too often in the past, laws have been passed, no one has been told and it has taken many years for people to find out about it. An information campaign will be central to taking forward these excellent proposals.

Minimum Alcohol Pricing – 14th March 2013

Nigel Mills MP: On behalf of the responsible drinkers of Amber Valley, I thank the Government for reconsidering this excessive nanny state policy. Has he considered what the policy might do to encourage further the already serious problem of the illegal sale of non-duty-paid alcohol?

Jeremy Browne MP (Taunton Deane, Liberal Democrat): My hon. Friend makes a very strong point. The higher the Government set an artificial floor for legally acquired alcohol, the greater the profitability of distributing alcohol that does not comply with the Government’s own regulations. That is another of the points that make this issue a little more complicated, if one looks at it in a mature and reflective way, than it may appear if one looks at it from a cursory, party political perspective.

Net Migration – 25th March 2013

Nigel Mills MP: What progress her Department is making in reducing net migration to the UK.

Theresa May MP (Home Secretary; Maidenhead, Conservative): As has already been referred to this afternoon, the latest statistics show another significant fall in net migration—down almost a third since June 2010. This shows that we are bringing immigration back under control. Our tough policies continue to have an effect, and this marks a further step towards bringing net migration down from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands by the end of this Parliament.

Nigel Mills MP: I welcome the fall in net migration. Can the Home Secretary confirm to the House that it was caused by fewer people coming to the UK and not more people leaving, as some have suggested?

Theresa May MP (Home Secretary; Maidenhead, Conservative): My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The figure for net migration is reached by looking at the numbers leaving and the numbers coming in. The Office for National Statistics has been absolutely clear about the statistically significant fall in immigration and net migration, and it is the fall in immigration that has led to the fall in net migration.

Rail Franchising – 29th March 2013

Nigel Mills MP: Although I welcome the new station for Derbyshire, can the Secretary of State assure me that it will not be serviced at the expense of two other stations on that line, namely, Alfreton and Langley Mill?

Patrick McLoughlin MP (Secretary of State for Transport; Derbyshire Dales, Conservative): I think that that was a welcome for the new station and for the greater investment. Of course one always has to strike a balance when these cases are put forward, but I think that Ilkeston, Derbyshire county council and my hon. Friend Jessica Lee made a strong case for why Ilkeston should be successful. The case was judged by a panel that did not include me, and I am very pleased that Ilkeston has been successful.