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Boris Johnson urged to cut UK beer tax as a 'feel good' Brexit gift

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
Ralph Findlay, CEO of Marston's at the Rack and Tenter pub in central London. Photo: Justin Goff/Goff Photos

The UK government should give Britain a “feel-good Brexit dividend” by cutting beer duty to stop pubs closing and make beer cheaper, according to a leading UK pub boss.

Ralph Findlay, chief executive of Marston’s (MARS.L), told Yahoo Finance UK he was worried about the state of the economy, warning the “uncertain environment” and rising costs like beer duty and minimum wage increases were putting the pub industry at risk.

The Marston’s group, which owns almost 1,600 pubs in Britain, does not plan a single new opening next year, compared with previous levels of about 20 a year, he said.

The CEO urged new prime minister Boris Johnson and chancellor Sajid Javid to make a “populist” cut to beer duty with Brexit and a spending review on the horizon, saying the Treasury currently receives about 54p for every pint.

But a government spokesman said the tax had been frozen or cut for seven years, saving pubs and drinkers £5bn since 2013 alone.

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Findlay accused ministers of treating the sector as a “cash cow” and said politicians could be “sniffy” about low-paid work, suggesting they should not take pubs’ survival for granted. But he said he was more hopeful with a new prime minister in office.

He added that the sector employed more than 1 million people, often in less affluent areas and with significant opportunities for promotion to managerial roles.

“Lots of things are outside the government’s control, but this isn’t,” he said in an interview. “It’s within the gift of the chancellor, and it’s perfect timing for a Brexit dividend everybody can recognise.

“I think it would be a fantastic feel-good thing. They need to do something populist like this.”

“MPs and the government love talking up the value of pubs, but this is the biggest single thing they can do.”

Speaking as part of the Long Live the Local campaign, he encouraged the public to sign the campaign’s petition calling for lower beer duty rates.

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Former chancellor George Osborne with a pint of Sunbeam ale alongside Conservative MP Paul Uppal (left) and Marston's chief executive Ralph Findlay during a visit to Marston's Brewery in Wolverhampton. Photo: PA

He said even cutting beer duty by 2% or a “penny off a pint” could help to stemming the flow of pub closures and contribute to making pints cheaper.

It would be implausible for the government to claim beer duty rates were not threatening pub viability, he added, pointing to far higher taxes than in many other countries including Germany.

“Ministers view the sector as a cash cow. It isn’t. It adds huge value, and pubs are often the only community asset left after the Post Office goes. We raise millions for charity too.”

He said that he had sent former chancellor George Osborne a Christmas card when he was in office with a photo of David Cameron looking glum and holding a pint. “Even Cameron is fed up” over beer duty, he wrote.

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But a spokesman for Treasury said: “We recognise the important role pubs play in our communities. That’s why we have cut or frozen beer duty at six of the last seven budgets – which means a pint of beer is now 14p cheaper than it would have otherwise been.

“In the last decade, our decisions have saved drinkers £5bn and meant beer duty has fallen by 15% in real terms.”

The spokesman also said three-quarters of pubs could benefit from a business rates retail discount unveiled by the government in the 2018 budget, reportedly cutting a third off their bills.