A category on the defensive?

19 March, 2010

Itís possibly the hardest time to be lobbying, how are you finding it?Itís been much busier than I expected. Basically thereís been a big up shift in the health position since September when I started. We also had the Tory conference in October, which made references to strong cider and this message of ďbroken BritainĒ and binge-drinking. The Health Select Committee has been looking at alcohol, too.

Iíve found it all fascinating and outside of my comfort zone Ė thereís a massive amount of information that Iíve had to keep up to speed with. Lobbying with other trade groups has been a surprise Ė their approach can be quite aggressive but mine has been a bit more gentlemanly.

The Tories want to stop binge-drinking by doubling tax on strong cider. Whatís your response?Chris Grayling [Shadow Home Secretary] hasnít given any definition of what strong cider is. No government looks further than the next five years, so how are they going to solve the problem? It needs a whole cultural engagement. Itís just prohibition to bang the prices up. There are already laws that exist and they should be used before new legislation is introduced.

I think Cameron forced Grayling to put that in his speech. Broken Britain? Please can someone show me a broken Britain? Politicians have to be seen to be doing something. Putting duty up isnít going to stop binge-drinking.

The beer trade has been lobbying MPs to try and get the same tax breaks as cider Ė what do you think about that? Beer has been in decline for 30 years. The question that the beer industry has to ask is why small producers are doing as well as they are. Itís not just the fact they have a better duty rate, itís because their products arenít bland and boring Ė they actually taste of something.

There is very little focus on provenance in the beer category. Only marketeers underestimate the power of taste buds. Itís a subconscious thing and you underestimate it at your peril. Brewers fail to take into account the costs of orchards and the time it takes to get any payback. The argument that a duty difference isnít fair is very weak and any politician that takes that at face value shouldnít be in power.

What do you think might happen to cider duty?Labour put in the Pre-Budget Report that it wanted to review duty on cider. We met Sarah McCarthy-Fry [Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury], who was very attentive and asked good questions. Sheíd actually read up on the subject and seemed to understand the problems facing small producers.

Half the apples in the UK are cider apples and canít be used for anything else. If duty were to be increased it would encourage cheaper cider production using concentrate from places like China. I can say I donít feel like we have got to be overly concerned [about a big duty hike] but we still donít know for sure. The issue is still hanging like the sword of Damocles. Itís unforgivable. For any business the worst possible situation you can have is one of uncertainty.

Whatís your opinion of minimum pricing?I think itís lazy, what will it solve? Take someone on a low income, who has a drink problem, who spends £100 a week on alcohol Ė if that goes up to £130 theyíre going to spend £30 less on looking after themselves. But if the money raised from minimum pricing was tied into a long-term programme on alcohol education, for example, the industry would be less cautious about it.

What will you be concentrating on after the Budget?Hopefully after the Budget things will start to settle down. We are looking at a lot of sustainability stuff and are asking the question ďcan we make ourselves carbon neutral by 2022Ē? Cider makes a massive contribution to rural life and the rural economy. Weíve been looking at concentric planting as it saves a lot of diesel.

There is a lot of work being done around corporate and social responsibility, too. Ultimately, as chair of the NACM youíre representing the industry and dealing with whatever comes your way. I donít think you can come into the position with an agenda apart from to represent the industry as best you can.

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