I spend a lot of time convincing friends and colleagues that this is not just a lot of fun. It is a lot of fun of course, but there is a serious purpose to the Group, a very serious purpose. Pubs across Wales act as the hearts of our communities, some acting as Post Offices as well as social centres. They are essential to our tourism sector, our social services and our community cohesion.
Over the last year or so I have been touring pubs in my area of Mid and West Wales and, with every visit, become more and more convinced of how important they are to our society. They are disappearing at an alarming rate, currently three a week on average in Wales alone.
Some of the issues that have arisen when I have visited pubs are as follows:
(i) the high level of business rates;
(ii) the fact that many publicans pay business rates, council tax for living above the pub as well as extra for collection of rubbish and extra again for collection of recyclables;
(iii) the lack of a level playing field with the supermarket where liquor is sold very often as a loss leader and where they have benefited from the Chancellor’s reduction in VAT, the pub industry had an excise duty increase similar to the reduction slapped on at the same time – the increase in excise duty, of course, will be permanent, though the reduction in VAT is only temporary;
(iv) suffering because of the current credit crunch;
(v) the cost of Sky television is assessed on rateable value and is massively high for many pubs which offer this to attract custom;
(vi) payments for the Performing Rights Society whenever music is played;
(vii) masses of visits from different public authorities rather than a cohesive approach by a single visit to assess food standards, health and safety etc.
These are some of the issues that Jeff and I will be wanting to discuss in the Group and we will no doubt want to look at the Scottish experience as it builds up in relation to charging a minimum amount for a unit of alcohol and whether this is effective.
Some of these decisions can be affected by Assembly action, others would need action at Westminster level. What is clear is that this Group will be having a focus on seeing what can be done positively to protect this marvellous asset that we have in Wales and, indeed, more widely.
At the launch Justin Grant, or Buster as he is known, spoke very effectively. He heads up the Association of Welsh Independent Brewers and also Breconshire Brewery. He told us that there are 40 breweries currently in Wales. When he started in 2002, they were then the 13th, so this is a great growth area. He laid down a challenge for me and Jeff, which is very reasonable, to see how we can ensure that Welsh independent brewing is represented in receptions and meals that are put on by public bodies in Wales, and we will be trying to rise to that challenge.
Various Welsh breweries were represented at the launch:-
The Artisan Brewery
The Bull Mastiff Brewery
The Vale of Glamorgan Brewery
The Otley Brewery
The Rhymney Brewery
The Celtic Experience
I also had a very interesting discussion with Iain Loe of the Campaign for Real Ale to get his advice on how we tackle some of these issues.
An enjoyable evening but certainly one with a serious purpose.
I followed this up with a visit to the Great Welsh Beer and Cider Festival in the CIA on Thursday. I pulled a pint of Mountain Rescue and had a tour of the stands – thanks Arthur.