David Cameron was never keen on a minimum price for alcohol, but bowed to pressure to include a consideration of it in his Alcohol Strategy after being railroaded by Scotland’s decision to go ahead. Figures being bandied about at Westminster are 40p a unit. Or 45p. Or 50p. The higher the price, say alcohol harm experts, the more effective it will be. But if it is higher than Scotland then the English will pour over the border to buy their booze there.
And that is just one of the unintended consequences a minimum price and restrictions on multiple purchases has thrown up. Former Labour Cabinet minister Ben Bradshaw is worried that it will hit cider apple growers in his Devon constituency, and the detrimental effects it might have on lower income groups. Health Department officials have even been asked to plot the likelihood of those who can no longer afford drinks from off-licences turning to meths. There is the question of how any extra profits in the retail sector will be shared out, and whether the suppliers will benefit from them. Whitehall is even wrestling with worries that it might make selling wine by the case illegal because you could not offer a cheaper price for 12 bottles in a box than 12 bottles bought singly.
To get over this, the Scottish legislation is framed so that at whatever price you sell the multiple, it has to apply to the single as well have a minimum purchase limit, according to Chris Heffer, deputy director of Alcohol and Drugs at the Department of Health. That’s going to disconcert some online retailers and wine clubs.
And the complications get, well, more complicated. Home Office minister James Brokenshire says the government will have to consider the impact of minimum pricing on the Treasury, presumably in lost taxes if people drink less. But Public Health minister Anne Milton will also want that to be balanced against savings for the NHS if hospitals have to deal with fewer alcohol abusers. She rattles out the statistics that there are nine million people who say they drink above the guidelines, leading to 1.2 million hospital admissions with a £3.5 million cost to the NHS.
And she lists other “harms” to the economy such as “time off work due to alcohol misuse, hours lost off work due to hangovers, late-night parties and so on and people who misuse alcohol losing jobs so there is the impact of poverty on families.” That pushes up the benefits which have to be paid out by the Department of Work and Pensions.
But there is a distinct impression at Westminster that minimum pricing is also the cause of ministerial headaches. Milton summed up her predicament to the Commons Health Select Committee.
“I feel like I am standing in the middle of the road and two juggernauts are heading towards me driven by those who feel that this is nannying and penalising responsible drinkers and those that think it is a solution to all ills,” she told MPs. “It is important not to stay in that middle. What we do has to be based on the evidence, the consultation and the legal advice.
“We have to be absolutely convinced it will have some effect.”