HC Deb 06 May 1966 vol 727 cc2120-30

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. McCann.]

4.7 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Rhodes (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East)

The question of the price, strength, quality and adequate labelling of beer is one of some considerable importance. It is not widely recognised that beer is the highest-rated item in the food and drink section of the cost-of-living index. Indeed, it ranks third in importance to cigarettes and rents among all sections of the cost of living index. At present the brewers are pressing my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture in attempting to negotiate price increases for their products. Yet, as I shall show in the course of the debate, many of the brewers in this country are persistently year by year reducing the strength, the gravity, of the beer, which they sell. At the same time as they have managed to inflate their profits, they are not labelling the containers which contain the beer, so that the public, the consumers, are largely unaware of what is going on.

I first investigated this matter of the original gravity of beer and its decline a few weeks ago, when the Chief Weights and Measures Inspector of the Northumberland County Council, Mr. C. L. Arlidge, was quoted in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle as saying that all beers are now dearer than a few years ago, but none of the brewers appears to have thought it necessary to announce any reduction in the strength of beer.

Mr. W. E. Garrett (Wallsend)

On a point of order. Does my hon. Friend have similar figures for price increases for soft drinks, which are non-alcoholic?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)

I am sorry, that is not a point of order.

Mr. Rhodes

I do not have that information, but I am sure that it would be as fascinating a field to develop as the one I shall now develop. Mr. C. L. Arlidge said that none of the brewers appears to have thought it necessary to announce any reduction in the strength of beer. No obligation eixsts for them to state the strength on the container. I subsequently commissioned privately a number of qualified chemists in the Newcastle area to purchase a wide variety of beers and check the original gravity. I then checked those figures with similar readings taken a few years ago. This private investigation produced quite astonishing results, because some beers were markedly weaker than they were a few years ago.

I reached exactly the same conclusion as Mr. Arlidge, namely, that the gravity of the beer being sold should be clearly indicated on the bottle, can or such other container as is used. I understand that in the course of the last few days the County Councils Association has pressed this very point of view upon the Minister.

At this point, it is, perhaps, as well to establish one or two facts. It is a statutory offence for a retailer to water down the beer supplied to him by the brewer. Consequently, weights and measures inspectors regularly take samples and measure their gravity. They therefore keep comprehensive records. They can verify the extent to which the brewers themselves are watering down the beer which they produce.

Mr. Garrett

On a point of order. Is my hon. Friend aware that there is not one hon. Member on the Opposition benches when we are discussing a project concerning the workers: namely, the beer they drink—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is not a point of order. The hon. Member may intervene, but not on a point of order.

Mr. Rhodes

In view of the interest of many hon. Members opposite in the brewing industry, I am surprised that they are not present. I have been told that they are hopping mad because I have got them over a barrel this afternoon.

My second point is that a brewer pays duty on beer on the basis of its gravity and a reduction of one degree in the gravity of beer represents a saving to the brewer in terms of Excise duty of 7s. 3½d. per barrel produced. If the brewer reduces the gravity by one degree and does this unannounced to the consumer and does not pass on this saving to the consumer, for every one degree he is, in effect, increasing the price of a pint by a halfpenny.

I have available a comprehensive list of gravity recordings of many beers sold in the north of England. The figures were taken between 1955 and 1966. In practically every case, the beers are weaker than they were a few years ago, some of them not by one degree, but by two, three or even five degrees. Excise officials, who have staffs placed in every brewery, have been able to verify the information which I am about to present. In anticipation of a reply from the brewers, may I say that it is no use representatives of the brewing industry claiming that they are maintaining the strength of their products. The evidence against them is considerable.

The information which I shall give will be placed in the hands of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Board of Trade, who is responsible for consumer protection. They can easily check this information through the Excise officials and can check the accuracy of my statement. I also propose to draw this matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the First Secretary, because it is of vital interest to the Prices and Incomes Board in view of the pressure of the brewing industry to raise its prices.

I should like to quote one or two examples to clarify my point and establish the case for the gravity to be clearly indicated on the bottle. Bottled Bass Blue label is a well-known, widely-distributed drink.

Mr. John McCann (Rochdale)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Rhodes

Between March 1962 and January, 1965, the gravity of this beer was reduced by 2.27 degrees and between January, 1965 and February, 1966, it was reduced by a further 2.26 degrees, a drop of nearly 5 degrees in the gravity of that beer in less than four years. If this saving even in Excise duty, let alone the saving in the cost of production, had been passed on to the consumer, the price of this product would have been reduced from Is. 3d. to something like ls. 0½d. In fact it rose during this period from 1s. 3d. to 1s. 6d. or 1s. 7d. Between March, 1961 and February, 1966, Newcastle Breweries bottled brown ale was reduced by nearly three degrees whilst its price rose from 1s. 10d. to 2s. 4d. a pint. The same brewery's Amber Ale was reduced by nearly two degrees whilst its price averaged an increase by a tremendous sum, from 1s. 2d. to 1s. 8d. a pint. Vaux's Double Maxim, between March, 1962 and February, 1966, was reduced by over two degrees, and during that period its price rose from 1s. 11d. to 2s. 4d.

Perhaps I should mention briefly the much advertised keg beers, very high priced beers with a very low gravity. Scottish and Newcastle Breweries produce Tartan Bitter which sells at 2s. 1d. but has a very low gravity of 1,036 degrees. Likewise, Whitbread's Tankard, which sells at 2s. 1d., has 1,038 degrees. Watney's Red Barrel, which sells at 2s. 4d., is at 1,039 degrees; Bass Keg, which is 2s., is at 1,039.6 degrees, and Lorrimer and Clerk—Vaux—Scotch in Tank, which sells at 1s. 8d., is at only 1,035.35 degrees.

This is information which has never been revealed to the public before. It is my view that this is the kind of information which ought to be available. There are people who say that the average consumer of beer does not know what all this business of gravity is about, but I suggest that if we had full reports from year to year people would obtain this knowledge and would draw to the attention of the people concerned what was happening, and this would help considerably to meet the case which the breweries are now putting forward for increased prices.

I see that the group profit after tax attributable to Bass, Mitchell and Butler Ltd. rose in 1964 from £5,699,469 to £7,841,038 in 1965. The enormous Allied Breweries group, of Ind Coope, Tetley, Walker and Ansells, recently announced an 8½per cent. increase in profits—before tax in this case—of £17,641,000. The Chairman, Mr. Edward Thompson, said that the profits were particularly high because of higher sales of beers with better profit margins". I wonder, taking the brewing industry as a whole, how far these higher profit margins arise mainly in respect of weaker beers, the highly advertised beers which are being put on the market at the present time.

Mr. Garrett

Is my hon. Friend assuming that breweries which are predominant in the North-East are selling weaker beer than that which is being sold in the rest of the country? There is one brewery which he has not mentioned, the Federation Brewery, which is owned by the working people of the North-East. That is so strong it is worth a comment.

Mr. Rhodes

To clarify this point, traditionally beers produced by northern breweries have been stronger than beers produced in other parts of the country. My hon. Friend, if he studies this closely, will find that with the amalgamations and mergers which are taking place in the brewing industry breweries with a predominantly southern interest, with a traditionally southern market, are gaining influence and control of the brewers' market in the north of England and thereby are now beginning the process of reducing the gravity of beers in the north of England, to something nearer the national average.

Mr. Garrett


Mr. Rhodes

This partly explains what I am saying. It is true, I understand, that in the north of England, as my hon. Friend said, the Federation Brewery marks the gravity on its bottles and gives a guarantee of gravity of the beer in the bottles it sells. With spirits, proof and strength have to be marked on bottles. This is not done with beer.

What is the objection to doing it? I see that during the discussions in Standing Committee on the Weights and Measurer Bill, on 29th January, 1963, the present Minister of State at the Board of Trade, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling), together with his Labour colleagues, including your good self, Mr. Deputy Speaker, tabled an Amendment to enforce the marking of gravity on beer containers. I do not know what happened to the Amendment, but now that the then Opposition have moved from the position of rebels to the position of the Establishment, I wonder what the intention is. because the same situation exists now.

The brewers object that gravity is not the only measure of the quality of beer. This is a fair point, and I understand that the Food Standards Committee has advised my right hon. Friend along similar lines, but I hope that he will not accept this line of reasoning, because the consumer magazine Which?, which carried out a comprehensive survey of beers in 1960, came to the conclusion that gravity was the only really effective measure of quality.

In any event, assuming that the general quality of the ingredients and the mash of a particular beer are constant, it follows logically that any subsequent lowering of the gravity of that beer is steadily reducing its quality. This makes it a weaker ber and it should, therefore, cost the consumer less.

Far be it from me to criticise those who wish to include other items such as the ingredients and the alcoholic content, and the measure on the label. Indeed, I look forward to the day when the exact measure is on the label, especially on cans. The average working man does not care to understand fluid ounces. He undertands half pints and pints, and I see no reason why, apart from a number of technical difficulties in relation to cans, we cannot produce measures of this kind.

I have little interest to declare, because I do not drink beer, but I contend that there is something indiotic in a situation in which a retailer can be prosecuted for watering down beer, but the brewer can, in effect, do the same thing with impunity to his own financial advantage. I think that on the whole the brewing industry is a highly profitable investment, and I suggest, therefore, that this matter, which has a vital effect on the cost of living index, should engage my right hon. Friend's attention, and I am sure that he will take note of this.

I am not even arguing that beer should be stronger. All I am saying is that a fair price should be charged for it, and that the customer has a right to know the strength of the beer he is buying and pay accordingly. The pressure by brewers to put up prices because of so-called rising costs is sheer cheek, and I hope that the Government will resist them. Some of the beer being sold today is weak, and is too highly priced, and I hope that the Government will do something to protect the consumer.

4.24 p.m.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Fred Peart)

This has been a most useful debate. Earlier in the day I wore my other hat as Minister of Agriculture. I am now replying as Minister of Food, because the cost of beer is obviously involved in our assessment of the cost of food in relation to the cost of living, and this issue is very important to many people.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Rhodes) for raising this topic, even though he is not a beer drinker. I shall not, of course, inquire into his habits, but he knows that this is a matter which affects many people all over the country.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for providing such a stimulating subject for debate at the end of a very busy day. It is a pity that we did not have more time for this debate. I am sure that many other hon. Members would have liked to join in, even though the benches opposite are unoccupied.

We all know to our cost that the price of beer depends to a large extent on the rate of duty, and not for nothing is beer called "the Chancellor's friend". The fact that beer duty has not been changed in the Budget should enable prices to be held steady, as recommended by the Prices and Incomes Board. I have recently had discussions with the trade, and hon. Members have no doubt carefully perused my Press statement. I am confident that the trade will adhere to the agreement which we have reached, and that there will be no question of a change in quality.

I was interested in what my hon. Friend said about changes in the original gravity of certain beers and the effect on revenue for duty. I noted carefully the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend (Mr. Garrett). As I am a northern Member and know the North-East. I was interested in his views. He talked about the trade in the South in relation to our northern beer supplies. This is a very interesting matter, and perhaps some of my hon. Friend's northern colleagues will pursue it. Speaking from a national point of view, whatever individual variations there might be there is no doubt that on average over the country as a whole the figure has remained roughly the same for the last ten years.

The case for putting the original gravity on the label is usually based on three points. First, that the duty is levied on the original gravity and the customer is entitled to know what it is so that he can tell how much he is paying for the beer and how much he is paying in tax. There is something in this, but although it might mean a lot to some people I doubt whether the ordinary customer would understand how much tax was involved in the difference—for example—between the original gravities of 1,030 degrees, on which the main duty is levied, and 1,035 degrees, which was the range of the draft milds surveyed by the magazine, Which? in 1960. As the original gravity is by no means the only factor that affects price, this might make comparisons between beers misleading.

The second argument is that if the original gravity is shown on the label, the customer will be able to see when changes are made in the original gravity, and can then take note when prices are changed up or down. I can see the strength of this argument. I know the Federation Brewery, to which reference has been made. Its products go into my constituency. It has built up a very high reputation. I appreciate this argument, especially when prices are so important and when the industry as a whole has agreed to do its best to keep them steady. But this point cannot be considered on its own. It is also bound up with the question of standard containers for beer, which is a matter for my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade.

The third argument is that the original gravity is an indication of quality. As my hon. Friend knows, this question was dealt with by the Food Standards Committee, which advises me on all these matters, and was included in the survey by Which? The Committee's report on food labelling deals with the whole subject of clear and informative labelling for the consumer. On beer, their conclusion was that information about original gravity would not—I emphasise this—help consumers to assess the relative merits of different beers, as their quality depends on a number of other factors.

As was said in Which?, and as I am sure many hon. Members will know from their own experience, there are all sorts of other factors involved in an assessment of the relative merits of different beers; such an assessment would depend often on flavour and taste. This therefore involves questions of individual tastes, and these might well have nothing to do with the strength or the original gravity——

Mr. Rhodes

Assuming this to be true, would my right hon. Friend not agree that, given a particular brew, with all the qualities of flavour and the other factors which he mentioned, if over a period of four years its gravity was lowered by five degrees, the lowering of the gravity would surely represent a lowering of quality?

Mr. Pearl

Yes, I see some force in that argument. I will not be entirely negative in my reply, as he will see. If one assesses a particular brew in which the same flavour and the same taste is maintained while the gravity changes, there is strength in that argument, but I am talking from the point of view of the national approach, as I must. I am merely emphasising what Which? has said—that people judge beers largely on flavour and taste and that it is not just a matter of the strength or the original gravity.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the declaration of ingredients and additives. The Food Standards Committee dealt with this in their Report on food labelling and recommended that it should not be required in the case of beer brewed in the United Kingdom—

Mr. Garrett

On the basis of that argument, would there not be a case for arguing that more and more people are drinking Coca-Cola? But the facts are not so. There are not more people drinking Coca-Cola.

Mr. Peart

Soft drinks are a different matter from those with an alcoholic content. If my hon. Friend wants to continue to drink Coca-Cola, that is his responsibility. I was dealing with a product which many of us prefer to Coca-Cola. We are dealing with beer and we have to be concerned with gravity. If ever a time comes when Coca-Cola has to be considered in that respect, we shall look at it. I believe that people do add other things to Coca-Cola to improve it.

My Ministry did not receive many representations about these views on the original gravity question and none at all on the question of declaration of ingredients. I therefore accepted the views of the Committee in drawing up proposals for Regulations, which were issued last September. We are now considering all the representations which have been made on these proposals. Again, there have been very few on the subject, although we have had a tremendous number on others. It may well be that, as a result of publicity, through my hon. Friend's speech and the debate, further representations will be made. In that sense, my hon. Friend will have helped the cause which he advocates.

We shall, of course, consider all representations on their merits, but I am bound to say that there are a number of practical difficulties to be overcome before requiring a compulsory declaration of original gravity, which would then be enforced by the food and drugs authorities. These authorities already sample beer at the point of consumption. This is a safeguard for the consumer. The difficulties arise because beers can go through several processes, which include filtering, chilling, blending and bottling. This makes it very difficult to declare the original gravity of a finished beer with any degree of accuracy. Variations could take place either by chance or by design at more than one stage in the processing. There are also seasonal variations to contend with.

We shall now very carefully consider all these points once again—the views of the Food Standards Committee and the arguments now advanced by my hon. Friend. I am not being negative, but we must bear in mind some of the practical difficulties. I cannot promise an early decision on this aspect of food labelling, but we shall be as quick as we can.

I want quite sincerely to thank my hon. Friend once again for raising an interesting, important and vital topic. He is anxious to protect the consumer, and it is right that people such as he should be vigilant. I make no complaint in answering an Adjournment debate of this kind after attending a major agricultural debate throughout the day. This has been a good, short debate on an important topic, and I will carefully look at the matter, as I have promised.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes to Five o'clock.