Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Big beast back on front bench

Could Ken Clarke be the best
friend of beleagured pub trade?

The return of former Chancellor Ken Clarke to the Tory front bench could be good news for the pub trade. At long last pubs -- reeling from the smoking ban and regular increases in beer duty -- have a sympathetic voice in a powerful position in parliament.
As a young MP in the 1970s, Clarke introduced a private members' bill in an attempt to reform the hours pubs were allowed to open. As chancellor, he avoided many of the swingeing increases in duty that has bedevilled the pub trade in recent years. He even delivered his budget speeches with the aid of a glass of single malt Scotch whisky! He is is renowned for his love of good beer and is a leading member of the All-Parliamentary Beer Group.
The Labour government can be written off as far as pubs are concerned. In recent years it has piled misery on misery on hard-pressed publicans. Five pubs a day are closing, unable to compete with the deep discounts offered by supermarkets. The smoking ban was badly planned: the government should have followed the European norm of allowing bars to set aside one room for smokers instead of imposing a blanket ban. The result has been the need for pub owners to invest millions in heated outside areas while smokers have preferred to stay at home and drink cheap supermarket beer.
Chancellor Alistair Darling, a man in urgent need of a personality transplant, seems to have no idea of the damage he inflicts on pubs. He increased excise duty twice last, each time putting around 20 pence on the price of a pint. The government says it is concerned about binge drinking but it drives people into the arms of the supermarkets by hiking up pub prices.
From the opposition front bench, Ken Clarke is in a powerful position, as the spokesman on business and enterprise, to speak out against the terrible damage being done to pubs by Brown and Darling. And if the Tories win the next election and Clarke returns to government, he could undo much of Labour's damage to the pub trade by cutting or at least freezing beer duty. And, as a smoker, he could ease the smoking ban by allowing pubs to set aside rooms for smokers.

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