Chris Game examines an issue notable by its absence in the Queen's Speech - minimum pricing for alcohol.
Compared to his EU referendum contortions, David Cameron’s about-turn on public health reform, and specifically the omission from this week’s Queen’s Speech of any legislative proposals for either plain cigarette packets or a Minimum Unit Price (MUP) for alcohol seems perhaps, well, small beer.
By most U-turn standards, though, the latest minimum pricing one especially, which is the subject of this article, was about as “handbrakey” as they come, adding, many will surely feel, another rather shabby chapter to an already unedifying record of recent governments of all parties.
The last Labour Government, whose initial solutions to binge drinking were reduced excise duties and 24-hour opening, opposed any and all forms of minimum alcohol pricing.
The then Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, summarised the evidence as he saw it. There is a clear relationship between price and consumption of alcohol, particularly – not except, as opponents often allege – among heavy drinkers. These latter tend to choose cheaper drinks, and an MUP would therefore affect them “far more” than those who drink in moderation.
Sir Liam recommended a minimum price of 50p per unit, which Alcohol Concern calculate, using Sainsbury’s current basic prices, could increase the price of an economy can of lager from 25p to 58p, a two-litre bottle of strong cider from £1.89 to £8.14, a cheap bottle of wine from £3.49 to £4.05, and one of vodka from £9.29 to £13.13.
Sir Liam’s recommendations, though, were rejected before they were even published. The Brown Government’s party line was that “the majority of sensible drinkers should not have to pay for the irresponsible drinking by a small minority”.
The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were less dismissive, but their Coalition Agreement changed the terminology from MUP to BCP: “We will ban the sale of alcohol below cost price”. Which sounded positive until you realised that their idea of cost price probably isn’t yours.
You thought it might include the cost of actually producing the stuff, and perhaps even distributing it? Forget it. Ministers’ definition was the rate of duty plus 20 per cent VAT, which produced figures way below a 50p MUP and which would leave the vast majority of prices untouched. So unthreatening was it that even the Wine and Spirit Trade Association backed it.
Armed with its BCP ban, the Government was now as opposed to an MUP as Labour had been, and, to make extra sure, they’d found another argument – a real goodie. The Home Office had “received advice” about the possibility of any form of minimum pricing being illegal under EU competition law – although they couldn’t, of course, for reasons of legal professional privilege, reveal what the advice was.
In the March 2011 Budget, therefore, we got a clutch of measures aimed more at raising money than at seriously attacking harmful drinking. Alcohol duty would increase by two per cent above the inflation rate each year, and there would be a higher duty on strong beer – nearly five times that on strong cider, which sent an interesting message to drinkers, as well as inadvertently making the case for an MUP.
Cue the Coalition’s first major U-turn, for exactly 12 months later the PM, in a personal foreword to the Government’s Alcohol Strategy, was becoming quite passionate about the societal costs of binge drinking. “The crime and violence it causes drains resources in our hospitals, generates mayhem on our streets, and spreads fear in our communities. We can’t go on like this.”
The strategy contained proposals to attack binge drinking “from every angle”, but principally through an MUP. “For the first time it will be illegal for shops to sell alcohol for less than this set price per unit.”
So what had happened over those 12 months to produce this dramatic policy reversal? Much, no doubt, but one big, annoying thing in particular had happened north of the border. In the May 2011 Scottish Parliament elections the SNP had become a majority, rather than minority, government, and had resurrected its legislation for minimum unit pricing of alcohol.
Not for the first time, Edinburgh was about to outflank Westminster. The SNP’s earlier proposal had been for a 45p MUP, and the Act passed in May last year, with Labour the only significant opposition, upped that to 50p. By comparison, the Coalition’s plan to consult on a 40p MUP seemed late, imitative and rather puny, but less embarrassing presumably than nothing at all.
Besides, as Cameron asserted in his foreword, even at 40p, that could still mean “50,000 fewer crimes each year and 900 fewer alcohol-related deaths a year by the end of the decade” – the figures taken, as almost all such assertions are by MUP supporters in this debate, from the latest iteration of the so-called Sheffield (University) Alcohol Policy Model.
In fact, the crucial Home Office consultation on the Government’s overall approach to reducing harmful drinking, which concluded in February of this year, actually recommended an MUP of 45p – from the imposition of which we could expect a whole series of exciting, if disconcertingly precise, beneficial outcomes.
These included a “reduction in consumption across all product types of 3.3 per cent, a reduction in crime of 5,240 per year, a reduction in 24,600 alcohol-related hospital admissions, and 714 fewer deaths per year after ten years”.
Reactions to the Government’s conversion to an MUP were generally predictable, but the antis were rattled. First, they laid into the cited evidence, following almost point by point Sir Humphrey Appleby’s recipe in Yes, Minister for discrediting an unwelcome report. Attack the methodology, the quality, quantity and validity of the evidence, the interpretations, the key conclusions and recommendations, and, if desperate, the qualifications, neutrality and integrity of the researchers.
Secondly, they returned to the supposed EU hurdle, which always reminds me of Dr Johnson’s characterisation of patriotism: the last refuge of the scoundrel. In this case, it seems, the scoundrels were not only misinformed, but have recently been forcefully reminded of the fact.
Put simply, the EU principle of the free movement of goods is not an absolute principle, but one that can be weighed against, and outweighed by, a member state’s discretion to protect public health. It’s an argument about proportionality, as the Scottish Whisky Association was reminded only last week, when a Scottish judge dismissed its claims that Scotland’s MUP legislation breached EU competition law.
Meanwhile, the fate of England’s MUP could hardly be more different. Far from parading proudly before the judiciary, it has been withdrawn by its owners from the legislative race before even entering the parliamentary arena. The PM, so full even a few weeks ago of all those exciting MUP statistics, has U-turned once more and decided that binge drinking and public health are no longer important enough to warrant a mention in the Queen’s Speech.
At which point, it would be easy to conclude with a comment along the lines of seeing Nigel Farage’s point when he declares that he can’t stand Cameron, and nobody trusts a word he says. Easy, but not very satisfying. Much more satisfying would be to hear some ideas of what’s going to happen here in Birmingham and the West Midlands, now that the national Government has lost interest in minimum unit pricing for alcohol.
The Scottish Parliament wasn’t the only devolved administration to develop its own MUP policy. The Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA), for example, produced a by-law to fix a minimum price for the public sale of alcohol based upon a 50p MUP, with a £500 maximum penalty for breaching it.
I don’t recall anything similar happening here, but I could be wrong. I do, however, remember the then Conservative/Lib Dem Council’s own Alcohol Strategy that slightly predated the Government’s and greatly exceeded its length. I recall too that, almost buried within it, was the pledge to “continue to lobby for the implementation of a minimum unit price for alcohol”.
In the 14 months or so since that pledge, we’ve acquired a new Labour-led Council, a cabinet member for health and wellbeing, a new Director of Public Health, part of a Police and Crime Commissioner, and minimum unit pricing is no longer a Government priority. Is it, I wonder, a priority here in Birmingham?
* Chris Game from the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham