Tie will come under EU spotlight
threaten to undermine craft brewers' pubs
Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do. Publicans leading the Fair Pint campaign have joined forces with the Federation of Small Businesses and the GMB trade union to take their campaign agaisnt the tied-house system to the European parliament. They are in danger of opening a Pandora's Box that could spell ruin for Britain's regional and smaller craft breweries for whom the tie is their lifeline.
The justifiable complaints against the behaviour of the giant pubcos, which force heavily discounted lagers and keg beers on their tenants and lessees, restricitng choice for consumers, is in danger of getting lost in a general review of the tie by the European Commission. If the tie were to be banned in Britain, scores of independent brewers -- who mainly produce cask beer -- would consider the game was not worth the candle and get out of brewing.
Fair Pint, FSB and GMB will focus on the EU's Directorate General for Competition, which will decide whether to renew a series of opt-outs -- known as block exemptions -- from European competition law. The British tied-house system has been reviewed a number of times by the directorate and given an exemption but there is always the danger the exemption could be lifted. The current exemption expires in 2010.
The campaigners are heading for Brussels with the wind in the sales following a damning report on the behaviour of the pubcos by parliament's Business & Enterprise Committee. But a press statement by Fair Pint shows it does not distinguish between the behaviour of the pubcos and independent brewers. Fair Pint says: "It's an opportunity for licensees in the UK to make a strong case to the European Commission as to why the tie in the UK should not be allowed to continue. The European Commission has received complaints in the past about the situation in the UK and we expect this review will not simply be rubber-stamped, as perhaps some pubco and brewery executives hope or expect."
Note that the statement says "pubco and brewery executives". Clearly Fair Pint does not distinguish between the likes of Punch and Enterprise Inns and independent breweries. With the exception of Heineken's Scottish & Newcastle subsidiary, the global brewers operating in Britain do not oeprate tied estates. It's the likes of Marston's, Greene King, Fuller's, Shepherd Neame, Everards, Thwaites and Wells & Young's who would be hit hardest by a ban on the tie. Without the tie, their pubs would be swamped by heavily-discounted lagers and keg beers. Cask beer would be driven from the bar tops at the very time it's enjoying a revival.
Speaking at his annual meeting on Friday, Fuller's chairman Michael Turner hit out at the Fair Pint tactics. He said it could lead to disaster. It had taken the pub trade many years to recover from the ill-thought-out government Beer Orders of the early 1990s, he added, which wanted to turn thousands of pubs into free houses, and action by the EU could have a similar result.
A key question: why is the GMB union getting into bed with free marketeers such as Fair Pint and the FSB? The role of the GMB is surely to defend its members' jobs -- and they could be threatened if the tie were to go.