The country pub and binge drinking are poles apart

Thursday, 5 April, 2012

In Suffolk, brewing and the pub sector is an important part of the local economy. It creates jobs. It is at the heart of the tourist industry. The traditional pint in an English country pub is part of our cultural heritage.  

There are 100 pubs in and around Bury St Edmunds on which 2,000 local jobs depend. One of the leading pub and brewing companies in the UK, Greene King, was founded in Bury St Edmunds in 1799. Now, its turnover tops one billion pounds and we are proud to have this successful business in the town.

The great English pint and the pubs that serve them should be supported. That is why before the Budget I arranged for Greene King to meet the Treasury Minister responsible for beer duty, to argue against beer duty increases.  It was, therefore, disappointing to hear in the Budget that the Chancellor went ahead with plans to raise duty by 2 per cent above inflation.

This was a difficult decision for the Chancellor- he had to find the money from somewhere to fill the record peacetime borrowing deficit that the country has to deal with. But I hope when the recovery kicks in there will be money available to keep duty increases on a pint of beer down.

Let’s not forget there is a world of difference between enjoyable, sensible drinking in a pub and getting sloshed on cheap booze bought from supermarkets. The responsible drinkers in Bury St Edmunds are in the majority; the irresponsible ones are in the minority.

The reputation and success of our local pubs, such as Greene King, must not be undermined by a culture of binge drinking that has exploded as a social problem.

Beer and pubs are part of the solution to a more responsible drinking culture in the UK, not part of the problem. A successful night-time economy can be built on the basis of a sensible drinking culture that does not disrupt town centre residents or stretch police resources.  

That is why the Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced a new alcohol strategy last week, to deal with problem drinkers and problem pricing.

 In order to tackle problem drinkers, the Government will remove the unqualified right to drink from those who are convicted of alcohol-related crimes, through piloting sobriety schemes. These schemes will involve breathalysers and specialist electronic tags to monitor offenders’ alcohol levels and ensure they remain sober.

To tackle problem pricing, the Government will impose a minimum, sensible unit price for alcohol. This will prevent the heavy discounting and bargain basement sales that drive binge drinking.

Unfortunately, some people’s idea of a good Friday or Saturday night out consists too often of purchasing cheap booze from the supermarket and drinking it at home, before going out to a pub, club or bar. This worrying “pre-loading” culture has gone too far and must be rectified. As the Home Secretary pointed out, some supermarkets are now selling a can of lager for as little as 20p. The fact that beer can be cheaper than water beggars belief.

We all know there is a significant minority in the country who drink irresponsibly. Almost one million violent crimes and 1.2 million hospital admissions each year are alcohol-related. Just under half of all violent crime is linked to alcohol.

 Elsewhere in East Anglia (I won’t mention any names) booze-fuelled disorder disrupts the lives of many law-abiding citizens. Too many town centres are swamped with inebriated mobs, creating places of intimidation and mayhem.

Thank heavens we live in Bury St Edmunds. As I saw on my recent tour with the Town Pastors a few Friday nights ago, law and order is compatible with people having a good night out in our town centre.

The police were on hand- discreetly and unobtrusively. Security men were on club entrances checking ID. And the trusty St. John Ambulance were ever-present in their large vehicle near the arc.  

That said, Bury must be vigilant and not let its standards slip. It is unacceptable for people, many of whom are under age, to get drunk in public in a manner that destroys lives, spreads fear and increases crime. A drink should be enjoyable, not dangerous.

The Government’s proposal for minimum pricing will do much to tackle the loss-leading sale of beer, cider and wine for less than the value of the tax on it by irresponsible retailers who use alcohol as a way to get customers on to their premises. People who like going to the local pub for a drink or two will not be affected by Mrs May’s policy at all. Contrary to what some people think, this policy is aimed at tackling heavy consumption of cheap alcohol rather than punishing moderate social drinkers. It is estimated that a 40p minimum unit price could mean at least 50,000 fewer crimes each year and a thousand fewer alcohol related deaths per year by the end of the decade.

The Government is calling time on binge-drinking. But let’s never confuse that with supporting a great, Suffolk-brewed pint in our great local pubs.