The Health Committee at the Scottish Parliament is today expected to defeat the Government’s plans to introduce a minimum price for alcohol.
The Committee will debate a Tory amendment that would remove the proposed 45p per unit minimum announced by the Government earlier in the month from the Alcohol Bill. The amendment is likely to be backed by both Labour and Lib Dem MSPs, forming an opposition minority.
The government has offered to insert a so called sunshine clause into its bill, meaning that the issue would be reviewed after six years, but this has not convinced its critics.
Ministers could try to reintroduce the measure when the bill comes before the full parliament for a final vote, although the arithmetic would suggest they would be defeated for a second time.
Everyone knows that Scotland has an alcohol problem; that’s not news. But unfortunately there is no clear agreement on how best to tackle the issue.
Nicola Sturgeon for the SNP believes that minimum pricing would hit binge drinkers the hardest by raising the price of the cheap high strength drinks favoured by many. And many health professionals agree with this.
But the opposition parties believe that it would be responsible drinkers who would be affected most by the move, particularly those on low incomes. They also argue that any moves should be co-ordinated across the UK rather than creating different prices in Scotland from England.
And, as Jackie Baillie for Labour pointed out, supermarkets would gain through price increases. “According to the Scottish government’s own study, a minimum price of 45p per unit will deliver more than £140m of extra revenue per year for retailers – but it won’t create a single extra penny for more police or the NHS.”
The government’s proposed minimum price would mean that a two-litre bottle of Tesco’s own brand cider would rise from £1.32 to £3.80, while Asda’s whisky would go up from £9.20 to £12.60 a bottle. There would be no change in the cost of brands like Bell’s, Whyte & Mackay or Johnnie Walker, which currently retail above £14, although some promotions would be affected.
Minimum pricing is a blunt instrument. It would hit everyone rather than targeting those who abuse rather than enjoy alcohol responsibly. And for hardened drinkers, I can see little impact. The addicts will always find a way to get what they crave. After all, heroin is much more expensive than alcohol and drug users manage to get their fix, often though illegal methods.
A government defeat today would take one of the major initiatives for cutting alcohol misuse from its bill. I can understand the opposition parties’ arguments although I wonder whether there might be ways around them. But I would want to see any new policies introduced on a co-ordinated UK basis.
The question that the SNP government can legitimately ask the other parties is a simple one: if you don’t back minimum pricing, what would you have us do instead?
Opposition has a duty to hold government to account and to oppose where necessary. But on big issues like this there is surely a need for a constructive approach to a problem that costs Scots so much, in human terms as well as financially.