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The Grapevine

The WSTA's views, distilled.

A win for the industry and a win(dfall) for the Treasury: duty collections increased following duty freeze

Last November’s Budget was in many ways a strange affair. With the prospect of an RPI duty increase in the region of 4% and a need to sure up public finances, I think it’s fair to say we all expected the worst. As it turned out, all that worry was for nothing as the Chancellor stood at the dispatch box and announced a freeze on all alcohol products “recognising the pressure on household budgets. And backing our Great British pubs”. As a result of this decision, the wine and spirit industry is estimated to have saved £247m in tax liabilities and were also saved the burden of price changes at Christmas, a crucial trading period for our members. 

But it turns out the Treasury benefited anyway, as we predicted. The latest duty collection figures from HMRC show that from December 2017 and April 2018, duty collections increased by 2% on the same period last year, in real terms that is £86m. For the WSTA members specifically, the increase was 2% or £67m, meaning that the wine and spirit industry accounted for 78% of the increase. Wine collections have so far increased £33m (+2%) and spirit collections increased £34m (+2%). Overall, wine and spirit duty collections are at record levels, with a projected £7.7bn in revenue for the financial year 2017/18, up £140m from the previous year.

Historically, wine and spirit products tend to account for more than their fair share of increased duty payments, as shown above. That wine and spirit products account for nearly £4 in every £5 of added revenue from alcohol duty collected by HMRC probably points to increased wine and spirit sales for the festive period, particularly sparkling wine and the last market report shows that gin also had an excellent Christmas period, and an excellent first quarter of the 2018 for much of the industry.  

In the slightly longer term, wine and spirit duty collections continue to increase to record levels. The wine industry paid £4.3bn (+6% on 2016) in duty in 2017 whilst the spirit industry paid £3.5bn (+6% on 2016), with total alcohol duty payments totalling £11.6bn, up 6% on 2016. In real terms the increase amounts to £695m extra duty payment on 2016, 75% of this increase came from the wine and spirit industry, showing again that the two categories over-index in terms of shouldering the burden of duty collections.

There is more to consider when combining actual duty collections with the OBR projections (for 2017/18 they were £4.3bn for wine and £3.4bn for spirit drinks). Firstly, and most notably, their consumption projections are, at best, curious: they expect wine consumption in the UK to increase over the next five years which is in direct contradiction with what we have been for years seeing in the market. That said, the duty freeze in November was welcome for consumers, particularly at a time when it looks like wages are just starting to rise consistently for the first time since before the financial crisis in 2007/8.

Secondly, given the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, projections of inflation will likely change between now and the end of the transition period in 2020, so it is likely that the real picture will look very different when it comes to it, should the RPI-linked duty rate increases continue out of kilter with CPI inflation. This is surely no way to plan the public finances or calm an already uncertain business environment, especially one so heavily dependent on cross-border trade.

Finally, Scotland will implement MUP in May. This policy is without precedent and, though the Scottish Government have said duty collections will go down (offset slightly by VAT increases), this means that it is very difficult to know what distortive effects MUP will have on what the OBR will project for inflation, consumption volumes and, ultimately, duty collections for the public purse. What is clear is that MUP has yet to affect the projections, given that volumes continue to rise over the next five years.

In March, we met with the new Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, Robert Jenrick, mainly by way of introduction but also to highlight the general concerns of the industry as part of the new year-round campaigning effort on the budget. He came across as well-briefed and understanding of the issues facing the industry, asking sensible questions and showing a particular interest in exports, distillery growth and the English wine industry. This is an encouraging start to our relationship with the new minister, one which should be fruitful as we look to educate him further on the prominence of our industry.

You can download and view the latest duty bulletin releases on the HMRC website here.

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