Farming minister 'gagged' over cider minimum pricing
The Government minister charged with standing up for farming has been "gagged" from speaking up for traditional cider makers potentially hit by a crackdown on cheap alcohol, it has been claimed.
Farming Minister David Heath, MP for the rural Somerton and Frome seat in Somerset, has handed over ministerial responsibility for cider because of his constituency's strong links to the industry.
The Government has proposed a minimum alcohol price of 45p per unit, meaning a pint of ale could be sold for no less than £1.08 and a bottle of wine around £4.05.
But many traditional cider makers have complained that drink sold directly from farms will double in price to £13 a gallon, making their business unsustainable.
It is feared the measures could put at risk a cornerstone of Westcountry rural life.
Former Environment Minister Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter, said: "It is totally ridiculous that the minister whose job it is to stand up for our cider industry has been gagged from talking about it."
The revelation came after Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs minister Richard Benyon responded to Mr Bradshaw's written ministerial question.
Mr Benyon said there had been no discussions with cider makers over the impact of the policy or on whether an exemption for farm producers was possible. Mr Bradshaw tabled a further question about discussions Mr Heath had had with cider maker Julian Temperley at the producer's farm near Martock, Somerset, in the MP's constituency.
Mr Heath responded by writing to Mr Bradshaw to say he had attended a social event to mark annual apple day celebrations, where the issue was raised by Mr Temperley.
"I advised Mr Temperley that owing to my constituency interests this policy area was the responsibility of another minister," Mr Heath wrote in the letter seen by the Western Morning News.
Mr Bradshaw told the WMN: "Minimum pricing would be disastrous for cider makers and hit responsible drinkers, while doing absolutely nothing to curb problem drinking. Mr Heath appears to have given a nudge and wink to Mr Temperley that there could be an exemption for cider.
"They should publish their legal advice. In my view it would not be possible to draft an exemption that would survive legal challenge.
"Heath and other Westcountry MPs should be fighting minimum pricing altogether and stand up for consumers, who are already being squeezed, and our vital cider sector."
A Defra spokesman confirmed Mr Benyon, who usually covers water among other policies, was now in charge on cider and said it was normal for another minister to take over an area where a potential conflict of interest emerged.
He said: "We are just following normal civil service procedure."