Grim news from the north

04 September, 2008


the consultation over Scotland's controversial alcohol proposals ends, Tom Bruce-Gardyne weighs up the possibilitie


In mid-June, the Scottish government unveiled plans for possibly the biggest crackdown on alcohol this side of prohibition. Trade bodies had anticipated many of the measures, but the uncompromising tone of the 78-page document came as a shock. And, though called a

"discussion paper" with

"nothing ruled in or out ", few doubt the determination of ministers to prevail, particularly Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill. With the consultation period

ending next week (Sept 9), it is time to consider the likely outcome and

wider implications beyond Scotland.

"The consultation document includes every single thing mooted over the

past year," says Gavin Partington, of the Wine & Spirit Trade Association .

Some issues are clearly beyond the scope of Holyrood, such as the call to lower the drink-drive limit, while others are more borderline. It is still unclear whether minimum pricing would breach UK or EU competition law.

According to Fiona Moriarty, of the Scottish Retail Consortium, the government's stance on minimum pricing has hardened since June

and appears to carry sufficient support from opposition parties. There is still time for a legal challenge before the new Scottish Licensing Act becomes law next September and lawyers are busy picking over the details. If they feel there is a good case, a challenge by one of the main trade bodies.

such as the WSTA, perhaps sponsored by a big supermarket, is highly likely.

Minimum pricing

Not everyone in the drinks industry is against minimum pricing, particularly the on-trade where BOGOFs have already been banned. At the Scotch Whisky Association , Campbell Evans welcomed the idea of treating all alcohol the same,

but expressed concern at the principle of

state-controlled pricing. Using the example of 35p per unit of alcohol given in the document, Scotch would be unscathed, though if the figure rose by even 5p it would suffer.

"Our fear is if they went to, say, 40p that would have the effect of making people think twice about buying alcohol. Perhaps that's the object of the exercise," says John Drummond, of

the Scottish Grocers Federation . Indeed so, and anyone reading the document will spot the underlying agenda to cut per capita consumption and hence sales. How this fits with MacAskill's claim that he is not anti-alcohol is unclear.

It is also unclear whether minimum pricing removes the need to ban volume discounts. Would a buy-six-get-one-free deal on Champagne be allowed, so long as the overall price per unit was above the minimum? Some say it would, others that the government is keeping the

"BOGOF ban" in reserve, in case minimum pricing fails.

On the issue of raising the age limit to 21, there is pretty universal opposition from the industry, with only the Scottish Licensed Trade Association in favour.

"I think the more reasoned members of the beer and pub trade recognise that if the 21 age was introduced in the

off-trade it wouldn't be long before it

was introduced in the on-trade," says Partington.

Hope lies with the other main parties in Scotland , Drummond

says. "I think there's strong political opposition, so I'm optimistic it will be dropped after the consultation. The Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are

against it, though the Labour MSPs have not been so vocal."

In its mission to "de-normalise alcohol" the Scottish government also wants

separate tills for drink. "No other product could be processed through the 'alcohol checkout'" declares the document in a move clearly aimed at

frustrating shoppers and disrupting supermarket business. Industry sources claim this may get dropped because it is impractical, while Drummond, whose members are mainly convenience stores, wants to ensure that whatever happens it won't apply to smaller shops. If separate tills are introduced he has proposed they only apply to stores over 3,000sq ft (280sq m) - the same threshold used for Sunday trading.

Social responsibility

As anticipated, the consultation document included provision for a "polluter pays" levy, though the wording was diluted to "social responsibility fee". The proposal may prove unworkable and the details are hazy to say the least. Interestingly, this is one area in which Holyrood has taken its lead from Westminster. The idea of alcohol disorder zones for England was introduced in 2005 and with it came the provision to charge local businesses for the cost of policing the zones. "It seems local authorities don't want to use them, though it remains a live issue," says Gavin Partington.

Equally vague is the document's suggestion that promotional material should be banned or made invisible to those outside. As Campbell Evans

points out, if taken to extremes it would mean off-licences having to blacken their windows to prevent those on the street peering in at rows of bottles.

Drummond thinks not, but reckons it probably applies to window bills, shelf strips and stack cards. "We've argued that it's part of the marketing mix of selling alcohol. And in the case of small stores, window displays are almost their only opportunity to advertise."

These Scottish proposals should not be seen in isolation. Flushed with

success over the smoking ban, the UK health lobby almost certainly views Scotland as a test case on alcohol policy.

If these draconian measures to curb the sale and promotion of drink are endorsed in law in Scotland, the likes of the BMA will be lobbying Westminster as never before.

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