This note looks at the way alcoholic drinks are taxed, the Labour Government's introduction of a 'duty escalator' in 2008, and the concerns in the pub trade at the impact of this policy. It goes on to discuss the Coalition Government decision to remove the duty escalator in two stages in 2013 and 2014, and the current Government's approach to the taxation of alcohol.Jump to full report >>
Excise duties are levied on three major categories of goods – alcoholic drinks, tobacco and road fuels. Generally excise duties are charged a flat rate: a certain number of pence per pint, per litre, per packet - though tobacco is subject to an additional ad valorem tax. Duty rates across these categories, and the share of the selling price taken in duty, and tax, as of April 2016, are illustrated below:
Duties on alcoholic drinks are forecast to raise £12.3 billion in 2018/19 – split between beer & cider, £3.9bn; wine duties, £4.5bn, and spirits duties, £3.9bn. In this year fuel duties and tobacco duties are forecast to raise £28.3 billion and £9.3 billion respectively.
As flat-rate duties are expressed in cash terms, they must be revalorised (ie, increased in line with inflation) each year in order to maintain their real value. In its 2008 Budget the Labour Government increased the rates of duty on alcoholic drinks by 6% in real terms, and proposed that rates would rise each year by 2% above the rate of inflation for another four years. A commitment to raise duty rates by a specified percentage each year is called a duty ‘escalator’, and in his March 2010 Budget the then Chancellor Alistair Darling proposed that the escalator would remain in place at least until 2014/15.
In its first Budget in June 2010, the Coalition Government launched a review of the taxing and pricing of alcohol “to ensure it tackles binge drinking without unfairly penalising responsible drinkers, pubs and important local industries.” Subsequently two changes were made to the structure of beer duty: an additional tax on high strength beers and a reduced rate of duty on low strength beers. The review did not offer a view on the level of duty rates, though it noted there was little consensus on the right level of tax as “the debate about the absolute level of alcohol duty rates is often polarised.” That said, many commentators attributed the difficulties being faced in the pub trade at this time to the impact of the duty escalator on the price of beer. In his 2013 Budget the then Chancellor, George Osborne, announced that the rate of beer duty would be cut by 1p, and the escalator removed from this drink category, at a cost of £170m in 2013/14, rising to £215m in 2014/15.
In Budgets over the next three years the rate of beer duty was cut by 1p on two occasions, and then frozen.
In his 2014 Budget Mr Osborne announced the first of these rate cuts, as well as confirming that the duty escalator would be scrapped on all alcoholic drinks, and that for the coming year, duty rates on spirits and ordinary cider for the coming year would be frozen. It was estimated that cutting beer duty and freezing cider duty would cost £110m in 2014/15, while freezing spirits duty and abolishing the escalator on wine duty would cost £175m in the same year. Mr Osborne announced a second 1p rate cut in his 2015 Budget, just prior to the 2015 General Election – as well as cuts in duty on both cider & spirits duties, while wine duties were frozen. The annual cost of these changes was forecast to be £80-85m a year (beer and cider), and £95-105m a year (spirits and wine duties). Finally in his 2016 Budget Mr Osborne announced that duty rates on beer, cider and spirits would be frozen though duty rates on other drink categories would be increased in line with inflation, at an overall cost of £85m a year.
In his Spring 2017 Budget the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, announced that excise duty rates for alcohol as well as tobacco would be increased in line with inflation, with effect from 13 March. In addition the Government launched a consultation on options for reform to ensure that “duty rates better correspond to alcoholic strength”; specifically, a new duty rate band to target cheap, high strength ‘white’ ciders, and a new lower strength still wine band, to encourage the production and consumption of lower strength wines. In his Autumn 2017 Budget the Chancellor confirmed that the Government would introduce a higher duty rate on white ciders from 2019, while duty rates on alcohol would be frozen. Freezing duties was estimated to cost £225-£240m a year from 2018/19. The following year in his 2018 Budget the Chancellor announced a continued freeze for the rates of duty on beer, cider and spirits, while the duty rate on most wine and higher strength sparkling cider would be increased in line with inflation from 1 February 2019. The new duty rate band on ‘mid-strength’ still cider and perry (6.9%-7.5% abv) would come in from this date. Taken together, these measures were forecast to cost £165-£185m a year from 2019/20.
Two other issues are often discussed in relation to the alcohol taxation and the pub trade: minimum pricing, and the regulation of pub companies.
First, in March 2012 the Coalition Government had announced proposals to discourage the sale of cheap alcohol by setting a minimum unit price – rather than, as initially planned, banning its sale if priced below the rate of excise duty and VAT. Following a consultation exercise, in July 2013 the Government announced that it would revert to initial plans, and in May 2014 legislation came into force to ban sales if priced this low.
Second, many have argued that another factor that has encouraged the decline in the number of pubs in recent years is the behaviour of pub companies – pubcos – to their tenants. Following several attempts to improve pubco-tenant relations through voluntary arrangements, in 2014 the Coalition Government introduced legislation to establish a code of practice to be enforced by an independent Adjudicator. The Pubs Code came into effect on 21 July 2016.
 For example, Society of Independent Brewers press notice, BPA, SIBA and CAMRA publish ‘The Story of Beer Duty’ setting out damage caused by Beer Duty Escalator, 11 November 2016
 HC Deb 8 March 2017 c815. The Exchequer impact of this measure was neutral (HMRC, Alcohol duty: rate changes – tax information & impact note, March 2017).
 HC Deb 22 November 2018 c1053.
 HMRC, Alcohol Duty Uprating – tax information & impact note, 29 October 2018. Provision to this effect is made by ss53-4 of the Finance Act 2019. See also, HM Treasury press notice, Treasury backs British brewers with duty freeze, 1 February 2019.
Commons Briefing papers SN01373
Author: Antony Seely