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That was my first point. Secondly, will the Minister respond to the comments from the excellent CAMRA on the differential rate of duty imposed on on-sales and off-sales? Thirdly, given that the sale of food is becoming ever more important in pubs, does he recognise that the increase in VAT from January 2011 comes at a difficult time for the pub industry and will have an impact? Fourthly, I think that there is a case for the late-night levy, but only 2% of pubs and clubs have late-night licences. The big problem is the 44,000 hotels, the 1,700 supermarkets, and the sale of below-cost alcohol. Pubs often have to deal with the consequences when people arrive already having boozed. We are in favour of the
late-night levy, but pubs are entitled to feel aggrieved about the impact that it sometimes has on them.
Fifthly, the planning regime is crucial in the ways that I have addressed, and I hope that the Government will act on that. Sixthly, on the crucial issue of beer ties, we would like to propose a pub summit that would bring representatives of the industry together. We should tell the current beneficiaries of beer ties that if they are unable to change an unacceptable practice that is having serious consequences for those who run pubs up and down the country, the Government will act.
There was one point made in the debate that I think should be disregarded. It was absolutely wrong to resurrect the issue of the smoking ban. I say that for numerous reasons, but in particular because, having represented the union members concerned, I knew people who contracted cancer and died as a result of working in licensed premises. I think that that debate should rightly remain closed as we move on. In conclusion, the Minister is a man who is giant in stature. I know that he has heard the contributions from all parties represented here today, and I hope that he will respond positively.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair once again, Mr Benton. I thank all the Members who participated in what has been a positive debate, particularly the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), who has been a doughty champion of pubs, and my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), who introduced the debate in an exceptionally well-informed and persuasive manner. The debate has been remarkable in two respects: it has been unusually well attended for a Westminster Hall debate; and those who participated clearly have direct and personal experience of the subject, which we do not always see in our debates.
I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) that I have had the pleasure of visiting some of the public houses in his constituency. I cannot pretend to have visited every public house mentioned in the debate, but I was pleased that the Eagle in Battersea was mentioned, as I used to visit it in my past life. It will not come as a complete surprise to Members to hear that it is quite possible that I will find myself in a public house in my constituency at some point over the weekend. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands, I did not grow up in a pub, although my mother sometimes thought so.
We face a range of important issues, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) rightly said, and I welcome the constructive approach that he adopted. The Government are more than happy to work with all parties to find constructive ways forward to support what is a fundamental and great British institution. I hope to address most of the points that have been raised but apologise if I do not, as the time available is limited. I am sure that I will be able to write to Members and keep them informed about other matters. I will make no comment on my reaction to being asked to take over this job, other than to say that it was not a
great struggle. As for the appropriateness or otherwise of my stature, they do say that good things come in small packages.
I have already met a number of representatives of the sector and am aware of the issues that have been raised, so I will address them first. The Department for Communities and Local Government is undertaking considerable work focusing on the ownership and running of community assets, and my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) and others referred to that. The pub is part of the big society in a very positive way, and I was delighted to hear about the work of the big society vanguard in Eden valley that he is involved in. Pubs are a key part of that. My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) made the same point strongly, and it has resonances for many of us.
We recognise that pubs, like village shops and community centres, can be invaluable assets in helping to strengthen community relationships and encourage social cohesion, so we intend to address that in order to make progress. The localism Bill, which I promise will be introduced to the House very shortly-I hope that it will make good Christmas reading for all those concerned-will demonstrate our determination, because we want to provide people and community organisations with a fair chance to take over facilities and assets that are important to them. We will use the Bill as a vehicle to address that and certainly envisage that it could include local pubs, where appropriate. As the Bill has not been presented, I cannot go into the detail, but I can assure Members that we have taken on board the issue of community rights to acquire and to challenge, which link to that in relation to some other services.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) rightly referred to the work of Pub is the Hub in that context. I had the pleasure of meeting representatives of that organisation in a pub in Yorkshire not long after my appointment, and we are keeping in touch. That is another good example of how a number of services could be pulled together to keep both the pub and the village viable, so we are taking the appropriate steps to address that.
Planning will involve two pieces of work: we are determined to give local communities greater power through the localism Bill to shape their own visions for planning; and our proposals for the creation of neighbourhood plans will give local communities exactly the opportunities to say what sorts of developments are part of their vision, and under what circumstances. We will need to talk through the detail, but that raises some of the opportunities that have been mentioned and some of the impediments and perverse consequences of the existing bureaucratic system. That is the opportunity and the vehicle to deal with that.
Members will know that much of planning policy in this country is made through guidance, rather than primary legislation, and that remains the case. We intend to consult fully and widely on the whole national planning framework that we are providing, which can include the national steer. That will give context to the community plans that we will enable through appropriate legislation. The opportunity to do that arises exactly in that context. That also takes on board the need, which I am conscious of, to recognise diversification.
I have come across the example of the George and Dragon in Hudswell in Yorkshire, which was taken over by local people using community shares to raise funds. The Government remain committed to exploring the idea of using more social finance to leverage in the opportunity for communities to raise funds and to get them on to a level playing field, because access to finance is sometimes an impediment to such initiatives. I happen to know that one of the shareholders of the George and Dragon is my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, so that commitment runs right through the Government.
I am also conscious of the importance of diversification and creative thinking in that regard. There are many types of business activity that can be linked to pubs, as has been said, and we should take those on board.
I understand what was said about the impact of VAT. I will be honest. In a difficult economic situation, it is not possible to deal with all these issues. We want to give pubs not so much a hand-out as a level playing field across the piece for them to work on. For example, we have introduced a more generous small business rate relief scheme with effect from October, which will be a benefit to many pubs. We are also considering proposals to give councils power to levy discretionary business rate discounts, which could be used to support particular types of business or activity, and of course a pub could qualify under those circumstances.
Members will know, too, that we are committed to a comprehensive local government resource review of the whole picture of business rates. That will move quickly, starting in January and finishing in June next year. In a short period, there will be the localism Bill, that resource review and the consultation on the national planning framework.
The matter of the restrictive covenants placed on pubs was raised. I know that it is important, and it is also important to local authorities. In fact, three local authorities-Newcastle, Ryedale and Darlington-have requested Government action on the matter under the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. I am sure that hon. Members are aware that the Office of Fair Trading recently ruled that there was no competition issue in respect of covenants. However, it also made it clear that their use
"has the potential to harm consumers".
It is, therefore, an issue that is worthy of greater investigation, and the Government will make a formal announcement on how we intend to do that along with our other 2007 Act responses later this month.
I am with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington on the smoking ban. I know that some hon. Members have misgivings about it, but the fact is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands rightly said, that this is not a debate that will focus on the most important priorities for public health. I respect the views of those concerned, but I think that there are other ways to make progress more swiftly and constructively. That is why we are working on things such as sustainable financing, the big society, and using funds in dormant bank accounts to support social enterprises. There was
a reference to the Protection of Local Services (Planning) Bill, which is the private Member's Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams). I have met him once already, and my officials will be meeting him again shortly. I understand what his Bill seeks to do, but, like my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), the question is whether its underpinning objective of preventing unwanted demolitions and loss of buildings necessarily requires primary legislation. I therefore would like to look at the context of our broader planning reforms to see whether we can achieve a proportionate response, given that any planning legislation has impacts on proprietary rights which must be balanced in the equation. I believe that that would be the right vehicle to deal with that matter.
Other Departments are engaged as well. The Government are committed to introducing proposals to implement the ban on sales of alcohol at below cost. As hon. Members have observed, one of the keys is finding a workable measure by which we can capture that concept. We are working at present with retailers and other interested bodies, and we hope to make a formal announcement on the issue shortly.
The Treasury's review of alcohol taxation, which aims to balance the need to tackle problem drinking without unfairly penalising the majority who are responsible drinkers, or ignoring the economic and social importance of pubs, is under way. In consequence, from autumn 2011, the Government intend to introduce a new additional duty on beers over 7.5%-the ones that can be more of a problem-but at the same time to reduce duty on beers at or below 2.8%.
Hon. Members will have seen the Home Office response to the consultation on rebalancing the Licensing Act 2003. We want people to enjoy a drink without that becoming the driver of the crime that many town centres, including my own in Bromley in the past, have seen when people abuse the enjoyment of alcohol. We must get the balance right.
The Department of Health recently published its White Paper, "Healthy Lives, Healthy People: Our strategy for public health in England", which sets out a bold vision to make wellness central to all that we do. Clearly, I must read it at some point, if only from personal interest, as I have decided to lose some weight over Christmas.
This debate involves a raft of issues. I see on the monitor that the Division bell is ringing, although we cannot hear it. I will happily write to hon. Members to pick up further points. I hope that they can see from what I have said that there is a clear element of work being done. On the beer tie, we will follow the advice of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, and review the position in June 2011. If a voluntary framework is not in place and workable, we will consider revisiting the issue.