Traditional West Country cider could be exempt from a Government crackdown on cheap alcohol if it hits jobs in rural areas, a minister has conceded.
Farmers in the cider heartlands of Devon and Somerset have warned they will go out of business if a proposed minimum alcohol price of 45p per unit gets the go-ahead, arguing that their cottage-industry craft products are being unfairly lumped together with super-strength ciders produced in industrial quantities.
Questioned in the House of Commons by Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw on the “devastating” impact the plan could have on the cider industry, Environment Minister Richard Benyon – whose department champions farming – said: “We are working on the issue with the Department of Health and the Home Office.
“We will raise with those departments any instances in which the measure would have a pernicious effect on the rural community, and exceptions may be forthcoming.”
Cider makers have complained that drink sold directly from farms will double in price to £13 per gallon, making their businesses unsustainable.
When the policy was announced last week, Julian Temperley, the Somerset producer credited with reviving cider brandy production in Britain, said the plan risks “destroying” a cornerstone of West Country rural life.
The Government wants to outlaw ultra-cheap alcohol sold in supermarkets to tackle the night-time binge-drinking that is blighting Britain’s high streets. But craft cider-makers argue that their products are not part of the binge-drinking problem. In contrast, often highly processed and cheap white cider is in the firing line, but it represents only around eight per cent of the cider market, and only half a per cent of the total UK alcohol market.
Mr Bradshaw, Exeter’s Labour MP, and a former minister for the region, said the Government should ditch the idea in its entirety.
He said: “Ministers have finally been forced to admit minimum alcohol pricing will have a ‘pernicious’ impact on West Country cider makers. They make vague references to possible ‘exceptions’ to protect cider makers – they must now publish the legal advice on this. I have serious doubts that it will be possible to draft exemptions for cider in general – or farm gate sales in particular – that would withstand legal challenge. It would be better if ministers were honest about this, stood up for our cider makers and stopped this damaging proposal now.”
Roger Wilkins, of Mudgley, near Wedmore, in Somerset, whose farmhouse cider is enjoyed by actress and model Jerry Hall among others, is one who will be affected. He currently sells 500ml for 75p, and said: “If they had a brain in Parliament they would be dangerous.”
Martin Thatcher, managing director and fourth generation cider maker in Sandford, North Somerset, has previously warned: “We are currently planting new orchards here at Thatchers, which is the long term commitment that we as a family-run firm are putting into our business, and into the wider rural economy. Any tax increases will have a disproportionate impact on the industry and consequently the rural economy.”