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Blog: Anne Krebiehl meets the Bonded Warehousekeepers Association

Published:  27 October, 2011

Last Friday, October 21, saw members of the Bonded Warehousekeepers Association sip aperitifs on the sunny terrace of the House of Commons and eat at the Winston Churchill Suite at their annual lunch sponsored by Diane Abbott MP.

Contrary to the association's name, not just bonded warehouse keepers but the entire drinks supply chain makes up the 64 present members: the association's committee alone unites representatives of logistics and distributions specialists; supermarkets; whisky distillers, blenders and bottlers; warehousing software providers; hauliers and contract packers.

Held in the heart of Westminster, the formal lunch with Abbott at the top table, along with the committee members and chairman Graham Hough (AKW Group), signalled the importance of the drinks trade to the government. In 2010 the sector was responsible for an annual tax revenue of £14.6 billion - enough to make a busy MP share some of her time and views with some of the people behind that revenue stream.

Addressing the association, Abbott, the member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and shadow secretary for health, said: "I think what you do contributes to the economy in an important way. Many of you are involved with British brands that keep the flag flying." Stressing the over-reliance on banking and financial services which lead to this "difficult place as an economy", Abbott said that not enough attention had been paid to "people who manufacture things". "This sort of activity is so important because you are involved in selling, distributing and making real things."

John Tripp, BWA's secretary, said: "We consider this the flagship event of our association and many members take the opportunity to bring guests and clients on this fantastic day." However, Tripp stressed that this was different from the serious day-to-day business: "The lunch is more of a social event but the core of the association is about the knowledge and interface with HMRC, so if you have issues with the HMRC, not at an individual level but at a strategic level, we can offer help. We are often called in to take a view on forthcoming policies so HMRC tests the market through the association. We have the opportunity, to a degree, to influence law in the making. We go to our members and ask for their views on the consultation, so they have a voice and a chance to possibly influence some of the decisions that are being made rather than just being told this is what is going to happen."

Graham Hough, BWA's current chairman, took the opportunity to brief Abbott and later said the annual lunch was "an excellent way of bringing members together to socialise, interact and enjoy the benefits of being members of the BWA". Reflecting on his conversation with the MP, Hough said: "The communication really was about what we do, the jobs we create, the way that we interact with Customs & Revenue and the way that we advise our members. This [lunch] gives her a chance to talk to us about what we do and how we do it and what the impacts of the changes of the legislation have on the industry. We are all against the common thief that will defraud the government. We look after the livelihood of the UK within the drinks sector. That is our purpose." Hough is convinced that Abbott "goes away with a clearer idea of what is happening in the drinks sector."

To applause and laughter, Abbott was presented by the association with a personalised souvenir of a bottle of The Famous Diane Abbott (rather than Grouse), sponsored by the Edrington Group. As Abbott confessed to Harpers, her favourite tipple is "whisky, but straight, with a little bit of soda or ice:" When pressed about a favourite brand she was diplomatic: "Single-malt, the most expensive I can afford." Recognising the importance and singularity of the UK drinks trade, she said: "I really respect the work of the association because they produce a world-beating product; there are so many areas of manufacture in which Britain is no longer at the forefront but in this field we are world-beaters and I am very proud of that."

Committee members Clive Brady (Wincanton) and Elaine MacDonald (Edrington Group) stressed the strong co-operation between the association and HMRC. MacDonald pointed out that alcohol legislation and the handling of duty was an area in which it took "a long time to acquire expertise" where membership is beneficial, not just to big operators but smaller companies who may not have their own legal teams. While MacDonald said "HMRC are also there to facilitate trade, so they do help", conversation revolved around HMRC's decreased flexibility and increasing use of penalties concerning human error as opposed to deliberate mis-reporting as well as the pink UK Duty Stamp introduced in January 2010 which "pervades the supply chain and reduces flexibility."

When asked about the benefits of membership, Brian Davis, director of London City Bond, said: "It is access to HM Customs & Excise and being able to affect policy within the business; trying to bring customs into the real world about what's going on in the market sector and how to improve generally." Davis was also critical about the EMCS (Excise Movement Control System) and the visible UK Duty Stamp: "Things like UK tax stamps put a massive overhead into the industry which ends up a cost to the consumer but there has been no great benefit. By Customs' own admission: has it affected change? The answer is no." Nevertheless, he is convinced of the BWA's on-going work: "All we can ever do is carry on working with the department and try to effect change to improve the situation, never give up and always try to find a solution that benefits the whole trade."