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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:[1]

Duties on alcoholic drinks are forecast to raise £12.4 billion in 2021/22 – split between beer & cider, £3.7bn; wine duties, £4.6bn, and spirits duties, £4.1bn.  In this year fuel duties and tobacco duties are forecast to raise £26.0 billion and £9.6 billion respectively.[2]

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.”[3]  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.[4] 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.”[5]  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.[6] 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.[7]

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.[8] 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).[9] 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.[10]

In subsequent Budgets the Conservative Government has followed this approach, often freezing duty rates on beer, and some other alcoholic drink categories.

In the Spring 2017 Budget the then 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.[11] 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.[12]

In his Autumn 2017 Budget Mr Hammond confirmed that the Government would introduce a higher duty rate on white ciders from 2019, while duty rates on alcohol would be frozen.[13] Freezing duties was estimated to cost £225-£240m a year from 2018/19.[14]

In his 2018 Budget Mr Hammond 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.[15]

The Chancellor Rishi Sunak presented the Government’s next Budget on 11 March 2020, following the postponement of the Autumn Budget due to the timing of the 2019 General Election. The Chancellor announced that all alcoholic drink duty rates would be frozen for the next year,[16] at an estimated cost of £190-210m a year from 2020/21.[17]

The 2020 Budget report also announced that the Government would review the current duty system with a view to making reforms after the conclusion of the ‘transition period’ on 31 December – the period over which the UK was to negotiate a new UK-EU relationship.[18] As a first step it would issue a call for evidence,[19] and this was launched on 1 October 2020. As this noted, the Government’s aim is to make the current duty regime “simpler, more economically rational and less administratively burdensome on businesses and HMRC.” The document underlined that “at this stage, the Government is not consulting on specific proposals to change the duty system. The Government is interested in understanding the views of stakeholders on how well the system currently works and how it might be reformed. After this first stage has concluded, the Government will seek to bring forward more detailed proposals in line with its tax policymaking framework.”[20]  Responses were invited by 30 November.[21]

The Covid-19 pandemic over 2020 saw the Budget postponed a second time, and in his Budget statement on 3 March 2021, the Chancellor announced a further one-year rate freeze for all alcohol duties. This is estimated to cost £315-£350m a year from 2021/22.[22] To date the Government has not published any further details of its alcohol duty review.

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, and the Pubs Code was launched in 21 July 2016.  

Further details on both these issues are in two Library papers: Alcohol – minimum pricing, CBP5021, 11 March 2020 and, Application of the Pubs Code 2016, CDP2018‑19, 23 January 2018. National and regional figures for the number of public houses and bars in the UK, as well as employment data, are in Pub Statistics, CBP8591, 6 November 2020.

Notes : 

[1]     Institute for Fiscal Studies, A Survey of the UK Tax System, November 2016 p19. The tax burden on these different excise goods reflects the fact that both duty and VAT is charged on their sale

[2]     OBR, Economic & Fiscal Outlook, CP 387, March 2021 (Table 3.3: current receipts); and, Fiscal Supplementary Tables (Table 2.11)

[3]     Budget 2010, HC 61, June 2010 para 2.96

[4]     HC Deb 30 November 2010 c65WS. The new duty rates came into effect from 1 October 2011.

[5]     HM Treasury, Review of alcohol taxation, November 2010 para 2.2

[6]     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

[7]     HC Deb 20 March 2013 c943. Budget 2013, HC 1033, March 2013 p65 (Table 2.1 – item 44).

[8]     HC Deb 19 March 2014 c791. Budget 2014, HC 1104, March 2014 p50, p57 (Table 2.1 – items 29 & 30)

[9]     HC Deb 18 March 2015 c777. Budget 2015, HC 1093, March 2015 p64 (Table 2.1 – items 9 & 10).

[10]    HC Deb 16 March 2016 c965. Budget 2016, HC1093, March 2016 p31, p86 (Table 2.1 – item 55)

[11]    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).

[12]    Budget 2017, HC 1025, March 2017 para 3.33; HMT, Alcohol structures consultation, March 2017. The consultation closed on 12 June.

[13]    HC Deb 22 November 2018 c1053.

[14]    Autumn Budget 2017, HC 587, November 2017 para 3.57-8, Table 2.1 – item 11

[15]    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.

[16]    HC Deb 11 March 2020 cc284-5

[17]    HMT, Budget 2020 – Policy Costings, March 2020 p11

[18]    On 24 December 2020 the UK and EU announced the conclusion of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), to be implemented in time for the end of the transition period. For details see, The UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement: summary and implementation, CBP9106, 30 December 2020.

[19]    Budget 2020, HC 121, March 2020 para 2.243

[20]    HMT/HMRC, Alcohol duty review: Call for evidence, September 2020 para 1.18.

[21]    For details of the general procedure for making tax policy see, HMT, The new Budget timetable and the tax policy making process, December 2017

[22]    Budget 2021, HC 1226, March 2021 p41 (Table 2.1 – item 9)

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