Deputy Calleary raises a number of issues which I could probably spend the entire session discussing. Members should not worry as I do not propose to do so. The Deputy asked about the Save the Pub Group. I am visiting Ireland to share the group's experience and potentially make contacts. I visited the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly to discuss the possibility of similar groups being formed and it is wonderful that the next place I am visiting is the Republic of Ireland.
I am aware that Ireland does not have a system of all-party parliamentary groups. We are a formal all-party parliamentary group which is constituted through the rules pertaining to all-party parliamentary groups, which have a certain number of Members of Parliament from the various parties. We have officers selected along those lines. Ultimately, we set ourselves up as a campaigning group with a specific set of aims. I have our 2010 remit, which leads me nicely on. I will read briefly from the purpose and mission statement of the group. It states that the purpose of the Save the Pub Group is to "bring together Members of the House of Commons and House of Lords who want to add their voice to the efforts to preserve and protect the British pub". The group shares a belief that "British pubs are important to the country's history and heritage and are hugely important to the communities they serve".
To pick up on another point the Deputy made, the Save the Pub Group also believes that the traditional public house provides a sociable and controlled drinking environment, which is important in encouraging responsible and sociable drinking. We continue to push this message strongly as it is one that has been lost to a great extent to both nations.
We have not agreed a policy on supermarket pricing because there are different views on that thorny issue. The price differential is very significant and surveys show people are opting to drink at home because of the very low prices available in supermarkets. My own view is that below-cost selling of alcohol is entirely wrong. I have pushed the Government in the UK and its predecessor to deal with the issue, and we have had some success in so far as legislation was passed. However, that legislation does not really deal with the problem because it is effectively concerned only with taxation issues, without any reference to the cost of production and distribution of the product. I am still pushing both Government and industry to come up with a workable below-cost selling ban. We have considered minimum pricing, which I understand is also under consideration here, but that brings one into the realm of having to decide what level to choose and considerations such as whether it is an arbitrary level and whether what is being done is punitive. While we all want to encourage responsible drinking, we do not want something that is deliberately punitive. We will continue to push on that particular issue.
The assets of community value, ACV, scheme which was introduced in Britain by the last Parliament under the Localism Act is an interesting initiative that gives communities the ability to seek to list not only pubs but also local shops and other community facilities. So far, the number of pubs listed is not huge, at between 600 and 700, although it has gone up in the past few months. Communities must go through a listing submission process with the local authority and applications are sometimes turned down. However, the opportunity is there to put a community bid together. It is a fairly weak power in that the bid can be ignored, but it does present something of a roadblock to those situations where a local pub is lost without communities having a say. One of the greatest problems in terms of pub closures in the UK is the situation where supermarket chains are buying pubs, including profitable pubs, simply because they want to impose a store on local communities. We have absurd permitted development rights which allow that use class to go through without the need for planning permission and with communities having no say. Where indebted property companies own pubs, it often suits their needs to sell them, even where they are profitable and viable concerns. The ACV scheme was partly brought in to deal with that particular threat, but we are still campaigning for greater protection and an end to all permitted development rights.
Ireland is very lucky not to have this type of issue with property companies, which has proved a disastrous economic experiment in the UK. It was essentially a scam and is, in fact, referred to by many campaigners as the "Great British Pubco Scam". It came out of an attempt to facilitate more competition for consumers through the introduction of beer orders back in 1989, at a time when the six largest brewers had a stranglehold on the market. The situation in Britain is very different from that in Ireland in that we have many smaller brewers, including very small brewers, who were struggling to access markets. It was the right thing to do to try to tackle that but, unfortunately, there was no restriction on non-brewing companies. As a consequence, large pub companies were set up which did not brew beer and which proceeded to buy up thousands of pubs. The problem is that they then borrowed money against an overvalued estate, that is, an asset with an artificial value. When the property market collapsed, it proved disastrous, with the two largest pub-owning companies now in billions of pounds of debt. That is a significant problem which the sector in Ireland does not face, although there are, of course, different issues here.
The introduction of beer duty would not automatically result in lots of pubs being able to stay open. However, it would send a strong signal that governments and parliamentarians value pubs. It is easy to say how much we value pubs and the brewing industry's great products, including, in Ireland's case, the great Irish whiskeys and stouts.
Putting those things into practice is often something that Ministers are more reluctant to do. The experience of beer duty in the UK is that it does restore confidence among businesspeople. There were huge celebrations among licensees and trade representatives following the abolition of the beer duty escalator three years ago and the first cut in beer duty and a sense that this was, perhaps, doing a lot to stem the decline in the British pub sector. One of the exciting things for Ireland is that because it has a much less complicated pub sector with, generally, freehold ownership, as long as producers commit to pass on any reduction in excise duty - I am sure they would do so because it is in their interests to do so - this will have a direct and predictable benefit for the producing-brewing sector. I note, although this relates only to a small part of the market, that as in the case of the rest of the western world the craft beer market is now opening up in Ireland.
The only issue we had with the beer duty was that the property companies, because they were in huge debt, would pocket any reductions in beer duty. We had to really push to ensure this did not happen. Ireland does not have that problem and, as such, it will be able to ensure a more sensible and reasonable level of beer duty, which will have a much more positive economic effect on beer producers and will then be passed down directly through the chain to individual licensees and the customer, which is crucial.