Fuller's attacks Government on low-cost alcohol

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The Independent Online

Fuller Smith & Turner's chairman, Michael Turner, launched a stinging attack on supermarkets, the Government and a rival pub chain's property strategy, as he warned it faced the toughest market conditions in its history this year.

His comments came as the British pubs operator and brewer posted adjusted pre-tax profits up 4 per cent to £23m and total sales up 2 per cent to £181.1m for the 52 weeks to 29 March. Mr Turner said: "The current economy is uncertain and the coming year is likely to be as hard as any we can remember."

Mr Turner reserved his most hard-hitting remarks for supermarkets and the Government, which he said were contributing to the UK's binge drinking culture.

He said he found it "extraordinary" that despite the "fuss" around the idea of supermarkets working with the Government to introduce legislation preventing retailers selling low-cost alcohol in stores, super-market prices were now below the level they were around Christmas. Mr Turner said: "55p to 56p a pint is mind blowing. Most of the problem drinkers are getting pre-fuelled before they go out. The big effect from supermarket prices is the flak the rest of the industry gets placed under for binge drinking."

However, Mr Turner made it clear that he blamed the Government for not introducing legislation on the sale of cheap alcohol. "The Government has clearly got to get to grips with the pricing legislation. They do not show the desire to do it."

Mr Turner also slammed the strategy of rival pub chain Mitchells & Butlers over its plans to convert to a real estate investment trust, which is considered to be a tax-efficient way of driving value from a large property portfolio, through a separate operating and property company. "It is very unfortunate. I don't think it will be good for industry or customers," he said.

Fuller's, which has 360 pubs in the UK, posted like-for-like sales up 3.6 per cent at its pubs and hotels. Panmure Gordon analyst Douglas Jack said: "Although this implies a slowdown from the first half's 5.3 per cent increase, it was still a resilient result during a downturn." Pubs in the UK have been hit by a consumer downturn, a rise in beer duty in the March budget and the smoking ban, which came into effect in England and Wales last summer.

Mr Turner warned that inflationary pressures on commodities are pushing up its costs and squeezing customers' disposable income. He said that its gas and electricity costs alone will rise by £1.2m this year if prices remain at their current level, having already risen by £600,000 last year.

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