Mike Weatherley is the Conservative MP for Hove and Portslade.
"To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers, but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers."
– Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776).
Britain has always been proud to be called a "nation of shopkeepers". The phrase came to signify British trade, democracy, openness and honest hard work. It meant that the Government wouldn’t hold you back. Uttered by Napoleon as an insult (one he regretted), it originated with the great economist Adam Smith who felt governments should be influenced by their shopkeepers as the foundation of the economy.
Little has changed. At this time of economic hardship we all agree our Government should be doing everything it can to support local small business. Are there areas it could look at again?
I understand the Coalition is soon due to announce whether it will allow the unproven tobacco display ban to remain in place. The ban was forced through the last Labour parliament with a three line whip, and is due to come into force in 2011. I hope a measure which neither Coalition party supported before the election (only two Conservatives voted for the ban) is not put through without some additional research being undertaken.
The ban would potentially condemn many independent family run shops to closure. I am a committed "anti-smoker" in that I firmly believe any measures that could help to reduce smoking are to be encouraged. However, I was recently invited to meet small shop retailers in my constituency and was shocked by how worried they were about the proposed ban.
I have been working with the NFRN (the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, which represents a sector of 33,000 small shops) on the issue since then. The NFRN say that the display ban, while fine in Whitehall theory, in practice is disproportionately harmful to the small shop. In Ireland, where a display ban was introduced in July 2009, small independent shops lost four times more tobacco sales revenue than the multiples (5% down, against an average of 20% down).
The NFRN estimate it will cost each retailer £1,000 to implement the ban. This is a huge cost for a small shop – they will need to generate £20,000 more in sales to offset this. So this legislation would force small shops across the UK to collectively pay £33m to implement the measure. The ban will severely reduce customer service levels and transaction times because retailers will be forced to hide their tobacco products under the counter. Customers will migrate to larger shops, because they won’t know what brands are being sold at what price.
The great British sense of fair play and support for the underdog means that there is little public support for a ban. A recent Populus poll for the NFRN found that 80% of the public does not believe in the display ban and would not oppose its withdrawal. This month, I tabled two questions to the departments of Business and Health. I asked what impact on business rates this ban would have on local councils as shops closed and what evidence supported the assertion that a ban would lead to reduced smoking rates?
Mike Penning MP, then a Shadow Health Minister, said in the Commons on 12 October last year: “I have looked long and hard for evidence from around the world that the Government’s proposals (to ban displays at the point of sale) are sufficiently evidence-based, but I do not think that they are". This is the kernel of the matter. The Labour Government did not carry out a comprehensive impact assessment.
Local corner shops are at the heart of their communities, close to where people live and work, providing a form of value-added, personalised retailing that does not exist on the high street anymore. They are a valuable community amenity in our nation of shopkeepers. As a constituent told me: “We’re told this will improve health in 10 years time – well, it could take my livelihood in 10 months time.”
Our government should again be influenced by shopkeepers: it should scrap the tobacco display ban until or unless a proper impact assessment is undertaken, and we have evidence that a ban it works. And if the impact assessment shows that our high streets shops will not be adversely and disproportionately affected, I will be the first to lead the campaign for the ban. Until then, I strongly urge caution.