Pricier booze for Greater Manchester – a good idea?

The ten local authorities that make up Greater Manchester are considering imposing a minimum alcohol price of 50 pence a unit across the area – and David Cameron is certainly interested.

The move, planned for October, would see a standard bottle of wine costing at least £4.50, a 700ml bottle of whisky £14 and a six pack of lager at least £6.

Health officials are in favour, believing it will cut alcohol-related illness, improve life expectancy and reduce inequality.

One of the ten authorities, Stockport, is cautious, though. Stockport’s concern is not so much about the principle of minimum pricing but the reality of alcohol being available at different prices in shops just a mile or two apart – or just metres apart in some cases.

For example, under this scheme residents would pay higher prices for alcohol in the Cheadle constituency. But drive two miles down the road to the big Tesco superstore just over the border in George Osborne’s Tatton constituency and the low prices will still be available.

So what will people do?

Down in Kent the “booze cruise” – crossing on the ferry to Calais and coming back with the car loaded with alcohol and fags – has long been a popular way to save money. Is it really likely that people in Greater Manchester will choose to pay a lot more for alcohol? Or might they drive a couple of extra miles to do their shopping in Cheshire, Derbyshire or Lancashire – perhaps even buying in bulk and maybe drinking even more as a result.

When it comes to localism, the Lib Dem view has tended to be doing things at the most local appropriate level. The word appropriate is important.  Other things being equal, make it more local. But not all decisions are best implemented at a very local level.

This may be one of them. There’s a clear case for implementing a national minimum price for alcohol (along, of course, with counter arguments against, but that’s another debate). But doing it locally when people can easily travel out of the area risks creating a range of peverse incentives and unforeseen consequences, not least that it might damage local traders whilst failing to achieve its objective of getting people to drink less.

Maybe it can be done in a way that works, but caution is certainly justified.

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20 Comments

  • Terry Keeley 13th Aug '10 - 12:01pm

    Not very liberal. Not very small government.

    Wy not let people make their own minds up ? Or do you, like the last shower, consider them not capable of doing so?

    Restricting liberties based on personal wealth is a dangerous step.

  • Terry Keeley 13th Aug '10 - 12:04pm

    Not very liberal. Not very small government.

    Wy not let people make their own minds up ? Or do you, like the last shower, consider them not capable of doing so?

    Restricting liberties based on personal wealth is authoritarian.

  • Terry Keeley 13th Aug '10 - 12:05pm

    oops … 🙂

  • This is deeply illiberal idea. J S Mill as ever considered this and as he says:
    “…is suited only to a state of society in which the laboring classes are avowedly treated as children or savages, and placed under an education of restraint, to fit them for future admission to the privileges of freedom.”

    Here is a fuller discussion from ‘On Liberty’

    A further question is, whether the State while it permits, should nevertheless indirectly discourage conduct which it deems contrary to the best interests of the agent; whether, for example, it should take measures to render the means of drunkenness more costly, or add to the difficulty of procuring them, by limiting the number of the places of sale. On this as on most other practical questions, many distinctions require to be made. To tax stimulants for the sole purpose of making them more difficult to be obtained, is a measure differing only in degree from their entire prohibition; and would be justifiable only if that were justifiable. Every increase of cost is a prohibition, to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price; and to those who do, it is a penalty laid on them for gratifying a particular taste. Their choice of pleasures, and their mode of expending their income, after satisfying their legal and moral obligations to the State and to individuals, are their own concern, and must rest with their own judgment. These considerations may seem at first sight to condemn the selection of stimulants as special subjects of taxation for purposes of revenue. But it must be remembered that taxation for fiscal purposes is absolutely inevitable; that in most countries it is necessary that a considerable part of that taxation should be indirect; that the State, therefore, cannot help imposing penalties, which to some persons may be prohibitory, on the use of some articles of consumption. It is hence the duty of the State to consider, in the imposition of taxes, what commodities the consumers can best spare; and a fortiori, to select in preference those of which it deems the use, beyond a very moderate quantity, to be positively injurious. Taxation, therefore, of stimulants, up to the point which produces the largest amount of revenue (supposing that the State needs all the revenue which it yields) is not only admissible, but to be approved of.

    The question of making the sale of these commodities a more or less exclusive privilege, must be answered differently, according to the purposes to which the restriction is intended to be subservient. All places of public resort require the restraint of a police, and places of this kind peculiarly, because offences against society are especially apt to originate there. It is, therefore, fit to confine the power of selling these commodities (at least for consumption on the spot) to persons of known or vouched-for respectability of conduct; to make such regulations respecting hours of opening and closing as may be requisite for public surveillance, and to withdraw the license if breaches of the peace repeatedly take place through the connivance or incapacity of the keeper of the house, or if it becomes a rendezvous for concocting and preparing offences against the law. Any further restriction I do not conceive to be, in principle, justifiable. The limitation in number, for instance, of beer and spirit-houses, for the express purpose of rendering them more difficult of access, and diminishing the occasions of temptation, not only exposes all to an inconvenience because there are some by whom the facility would be abused, but is suited only to a state of society in which the laboring classes are avowedly treated as children or savages, and placed under an education of restraint, to fit them for future admission to the privileges of freedom. This is not the principle on which the laboring classes are professedly governed in any free country; and no person who sets due value on freedom will give his adhesion to their being so governed, unless after all efforts have been exhausted to educate them for freedom and govern them as freemen, and it has been definitively proved that they can only be governed as children. The bare statement of the alternative shows the absurdity of supposing that such efforts have been made in any case which needs be considered here. It is only because the institutions of this country are a mass of inconsistencies, that things find admittance into our practice which belong to the system of despotic, or what is called paternal, government, while the general freedom of our institutions precludes the exercise of the amount of control necessary to render the restraint of any real efficacy as a moral education.

  • Short answer is that yes, people will travel to get the cheapest booze – it already happens with petrol!

    For me, I’d be OK with this if the money raised was going to health or alcohol education projects, but it’s not – it would go straight into the pockets of the alcohol companies.

  • A minimum price is a clumsy tool for regulating demand and it is a regressive one as it hits the poorest hardest. In which case, perhaps we should think up a better solution to reduce the nuisance to others of drunkenness in the streets. That is unless you think that the liberty to get as drunk as you want and in some cases cause trouble is a principle so valuable that the nuisance caused to those around you is a price worth paying.

    I’m not advocating this personally and not just because I don’t drink but it is an argument that can be made. What a minimum price per unit also does is reduce the differential cost of cheap drink versus “quality” products. The idea is that a responsible drinker will buy a smaller quantity of a better product and enjoy it for what it is, rather than buying a vat of discounted binge fuel for the sole purpose of getting very drunk very quickly. Quite how effective this might be I’m not at all sure but as with so many things, partly better is preferable to not better at all.

    If excess consumption is a problem that needs to be reduced and minimum pricing is not liberal enough, how else can antisocial drunken behaviour be limited? Limiting supply by reducing the numbers or licensed premises or by reducing opening hours will only make buying supplies less convenient. We couldn’t introduce rationing. We can’t flood the streets with police to arrest everyone who is disorderly. Perhaps a minimum price, however objectionable, is the only viable option. The remaining choice is do it or don’t.

    In terms of the original question of localism, If you want to like local decision making, you have to accept that neighbouring locales may make different decisions and that on the boundaries of these local areas, people will be upset because their locale is different (and worse in their view) than the place next door.

  • I bet the producers and retailers are delighted that the local authority is driving up the retail prices for alcohol and inflating their profits. If alcohol is too cheap then it should be taxed more.

  • Robert Heale 13th Aug '10 - 1:43pm

    I agree with Kevin (above).It would be better to increase the tax on cheap alcohol and perhaps ring-fence the proceeds for use in drug and alcohol rehabilitation (as long as retailers do not find a way to evade the tax!). Cameron never seems to think through the consequences of what he is saying. As for the so-called “booze cruises”, the vast majority of people find it too expensive to travel to one of the ports and pay for a ferry trip so that is a minor issue.

  • Colin Green 13th Aug '10 - 1:48pm

    An additional thought to do with pubs, front-loading and under age street corner drinking. Pubs are responsible places to enjoy a drink where you are often seated and are served by a bar tender who has a responsibility to stop serving you if you’ve had enough. Pubs have been marginalised on cost compared with supermarkets and discount retailers. A per-unit minimum price of around 50p will have no effect on pub prices but will affect the discounted priced hard. As a result, the effect of a minimum price will affect those too young to drink in pubs and those who get drunk before going in to town in the evening but will leave the publican trade unaffected.

    The problem still remains that a minimum price will affect those responsible people who drink cheap alcohol at home without harming society at large.

  • charliechops1 13th Aug '10 - 1:54pm

    I keep looking – and hoping. We get at least a policy suggestion a day from the Coalition. Perhaps today there will be a really good one. Statistically, if there are enough, surely one will be sound, thought through and in some way justified. Oh, well…not today.

  • Lots of interesting points there.

    Iain Roberts: I totally agree that this would ideally be a national measure. However, inspite of the overwhelming support from just about every Royal Medical College, the Commons’ Health Select Committee, ACPO, CAMRA and goodness knows who else, Andrew Lansley keeps pouring cold water on it. If Westminster refuses to do it, shouldn’t local authorities be allowed a crack?
    With regards to the borders, the Cheadle / Tatton eg in particular is not necessarily accurate as Cheshire and Merseyside have also been looking at this and seem on the verge of signing up to it in principle. The council in Rossendale, which is to the north of Greater Manchester, have also supported the idea. Others are investigating. That would make a significant geographic bloc.
    The Scottish Parliament and various councils in the Midlands and the North East are also looking at it.
    I agree that it would work better on a national scale though.

    Niklas Smith:
    I agree, it’s not ideal. But ASDA have already said that they will move from doing deep-discounts on booze to deep-discounts on staples such as milk. Wouldn’t we all benefit from that?
    There would be the possibility of the Government introducing a windfall tax.
    We really have got to remember that this is about fixing a broken market. Corner shops and pubs cannot compete with supermarkets. More drinking in controlled, social environments like pubs can only be a good thing.
    Remember too that 44% of all alcohol is bought by just 10% of the population. The 14 / 21 unit recommended drinking limits are exactly that: LIMITS, and not recommended allowances.

    Kevin: Taxing would be one answer. BUT, how would you apply it so that pubs don’t get screwed even more? There’d have to be an equivalent tax break for them.

    Though I have plenty more to say, that’ll do for now – except to say, of course, that minimum pricing is already Federal party policy….

  • Andrew Hickey:
    What if you see it as more of a re-balancing of a broken market? Booze is 75% more affordable than it was in 1980. Supermarkets are loss-leading – and you’re giving them a tax subsidy for that (see The Herald for details). Local off-licenses can’t buy their stock for what supermarkets are selling it at. Pubs are being buried by the unfair competition. Meanwhile, pocket-money prices mean that a woman can drink her recommended maximum intake for 2 quid, a bloke for 3.

  • The booze industry does very badly out of me. I am clearly not one of the 10% who buys 44% of their products!

    When politicians, doctors, journalists, self-appointed moralisers, etc, talk about the undesirable consequences of alcohol consumption, they are referring to two things: (1) the effect on the imbiber (heart disease, cirrhosis of the liver, etc), and (2) the effect on innocent 3rd parties (eg, residents who get woken and harassed by drunken revellers).

    With regard to (1), I tend to the view that if people get ill or die through drinking too much booze, that is their own silly fault, and the state shouldn’t be trying to protect them from themselves. On the other hand, they are costing the NHS a lot of resources that could be better used on more deserving people. With regard to (2), I have every possible sympathy with people who object to disorderly alcoholic behaviour.

    The problem is that Britain has a culture of binge drinking, which was exacerbated in 1987 when, under pressure from the brewers, the Thatcher government amended the Use Classes Order to allow change of use from non-licensed A3 to licensed A3 without the need for planning permission. That has led to the swamping of town centres with superpubs, which has had terrible consequences for the maintenance of public order and civility.

    A number of solutions, all of them authoritarian and cack-handed to varying degrees, have been suggested.

    The nastiest and most sinister is to copy the Americans (as ever) and raise the legal drinking age to 21. Those who advocate this are, in the main, wholly unconcerned about the welfare of the young people. What they object to is what they see as an impudent invasion of adult space. The Labour government, in its populist drive against young people, decided to enforce the age restriction more vigorously (again, copying the Americans). The result is that young people have been driven out of the relatively safe environment of pubs and into dimly-lit streets and public parks. As ever, authoritarian measures, unless they are enforced with real military might, don’t work and have unforeseen consequences.

    Pushing up the prices probably would reduce overall consumption, but not among the heaviest drinkers (the 10% who buy 44% of the liquor), who are the biggest drain on the health service and cause the mayhem in town centres.

    What is needed is a strategy that targets those 10% of drinkers, is not an excuse to bully and demonise young people, and discourages the swamping of town centres with excessively large licensed premises.

  • I can see a case for banning loss leaders on cigarettes, alcohol, baby milk, petrol etc, but then all you need to do is tax it more if you think it is too cheap. Min prices just hand a windfall to commercial interests – a bizarre thing to do when you can have the money yourself!

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