There was a short exchange in Parliament last week regarding the minimum pricing of Alcohol. Jim Shannon MP is a member of the Democratic Unionist Party and the parties health spokesperson. With an eye on the final Queens Speech of this current Government he asked a very simple question of the Home Office “To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will bring forward legislative proposals to enable minimum pricing for alcohol.” Because Norman Baker is the Home Office Minister responsible for “Alcohol (including Licensing Act and powers of police and local authorities) and alcohol strategy” it was his privilege to answer the question and hansard reports his response as “Minimum Unit Pricing remains a policy under consideration but is not being taken forward at the moment, while we assess the response of industry to our Alcohol Strategy. In the meantime we are introducing a ban on alcohol sales below the cost of duty plus VAT from April 2014. This fulfils the Coalition Governments’s commitment and will stop the worst cases of very cheap and harmful alcohol sales.”
Putting aside the numerous promises made by the Coalition Government that have not been fulfilled, several of which I have written about in recent days, in this case irrespective of how close to the promise the answer is, it would be useful to reflect on the real issue which is the reason why most campaigners include myself believe that setting a realistic minimum price for Alcohol is important. Strictly speaking what the Government have offered is a minimum price, but one that is so low, that men and women whose lives have become damagingly dependent on the consumption of alcohol, are still able to access very strong and cheap bottles of their drug. The words of Mr Baker give away the fact that there will continue to be bad cases of cheap and harmful alcohol sales, they will simply not be as bad as the ones where a retailer is discounting below the cost of the alcohol itself and even below the cost of the VAT and the duty. A cynic could say that the Government wants to prevent the temptation of retailers of defrauding its obligations to the state, irrespective of the damage on the individual.
According to an article in Nursing in Practice, even these pedestrian changes will increase the cost of 1.3% of purchases, and reduce consumption by 0.04% which sounds so small that it is barely worth the effort. However this reduction will save the NHS £5.3M and for this read reduce the self inflicted damage on the lives of 1000’s of men and women across the country. However much more could be achieved if Norman was serious about his brief within the Home Office. According to Eric Appleby of Alcohol Concern “The idea that banning below cost sales will help tackle our problem with alcohol is laughable. It’s confusing and close to impossible to implement. The government is wasting time when international evidence shows that minimum unit pricing is what we need to save lives and cut crime.”
The following are some of the areas which Norman Baker is responsible for in his Home Office brief according to his page on the Government website. My view is that all of these areas would benefit if we could reduce the levels of alcohol consumption in the country designing out crime
- antisocial behaviour
- public health
- violent crime, violent offender orders
- youth crime and youth violence
- domestic violence, including forced marriage, honour-based killing and FGM
- sexual violence, sex offenders, child sex offenders review, prostitution, lap dancing
- violence against women and girls, sexualisation of young people, women’s safety and fear of crime
- missing persons
- child sexual exploitation, including Sexual Violence against Children and Vulnerable People national group
So come on Norman, at £2.24 for a bottle of wine or £10.16 for a bottle of 40% Spirits or £50p for a 440ml can of 5% beer or cider your proposals really don’t go far enough. One of the other areas you have responsibility for is community activism. Based on the experience of the Street Pastors who I work with on a weekly basis, there needs to be a radical response to the issue of people arriving on the Streets of Brighton and Hove already drunk. One way of attempting to improve this situation would be to use pricing to increase the prospect of some of these revellers coming into the area sober, and drinking in a more supervised context such as the well run pubs and clubs in the city. At least in these environments people can be discouraged from drinking as much as they do at present and some of these other aspects could be mitigated against.