Opinion: we shouldn’t make the poor pay for the irresponsible: on why Theresa May is wrong (again!)

I am fully aware of the evils of alcohol: believe me, I’ve spent my fair share of nights out on the town (and now have the dubious privilege of living above a dodgy nightclub in an otherwise pleasant area), so I have seen first-hand what binge drinking looks (and sounds, and smells) like. It is not a pretty picture, and in addition to being a blight on neighbourhoods in town centres up and down the country, it is a huge health nightmare.

But how do you solve this problem? To quote from Yes, Minister, the Government’s response rather looks like a case of ‘The Government must do something, this is something; therefore the Government must do it.’ Instead of actually engaging in why binge drinking is going on and seeking to challenge these causes (let alone actually addressing its most immediate effects), their proposals just make it more expensive for everybody to have a drink. Now for most people this may be nothing more than an irritant, but for many people who genuinely don’t have much money in the first place, this is taking away their opportunity to enjoy the benefit of one of the few available low cost luxuries.

Yes binge drinking is a problem, but we need to remember liberal principles when trying to solve it. First, let us remember that the patron saint of liberalism John Stuart Mill advocated that the freedom of individuals shouldn’t be restricted for the sake of preventing them harming themselves. Second, in recognising that binge drinking blights neighbourhoods and costs the NHS and other state bodies money (most notably the Police and Ambulance Services) we should remember the principle underlying our environmental policies: the polluter should pay. The idea that you put tax up for everyone to pay for damage done by a minority polluting the environment would be laughed out of Party Conference – those who do the damage should pay for it, an approach that is both just and provides deterrence.

While the Government may market their minimum pricing as a policy which mirrors this approach, it doesn’t take a philosophy student to notice the flaw in their logic. Not all binge drinkers rely on cheap alcohol (in fact an awful lot of them don’t) and most certainly not all buyers of cheap alcohol are binge drinkers. Unfortunately, the reality is that binge drinking is for many a way of life, it is a cultural problem, and not one that can be solved by just pricing the poor out of buying it altogether.

That is not say that there aren’t things the Government can do, there are! First of all, they can recognise that the worst social effects of binge drinking come not from people who’ve bought 2 litres of cider from Tesco but who’ve downed 10 pints at the bar in the town centre. If I were in Government, I would make provision for the levying of a tax on all alcoholic beverages sold in public houses or other non-retail licenced premises of between 1p and 5p (depending on what the region wanted), every penny of which was ploughed straight back into the emergency services and other teams required to properly police town centres and deal with the effects of binge drinking. Such a tax would hardly be noticed by patrons, would not price anyone out of going out for a drink, and would fund the proper policing we need to deal with the current situation.

More can also be done in terms of oversight of licensed premises. We do license companies to serve alcohol, and such licensing does (and certainly should) come with conditions like not selling alcohol to people who clearly have drunk too much already. Councils can and should (and with the additional tax would have more resources to) properly inspect all such premises regularly, and be prepared to withdraw or suspend licenses very quickly if licensing conditions are breached and irresponsible drunkenness encouraged.

All in all, we need to have a debate about what government (both local and national) can actually do to help people instead of just reaching to hit the poorest hardest with yet more price increases in already difficult economic times.

* Matt McLaren is an elected member of the English Party Executive and the English Party’s representative on the Federal Conference Committee. In London Region, he is Vice-Chair of Enfield Liberal Democrats, a member of its Local Parties Committee and one of its elected representatives on the English Council. Matt is also currently a Liberal Democrat candidate for Enfield Council, standing in his home ward of Winchmore Hill.

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  • Spot on Matt.

    Disappointing how many liberals are perfectly happy to implement a form of what amounts to collective punishment to deal with a social problem.

    It offends me both ideologically and personally: I buy lots of cheap lager at supermarkets (3 crates for £20 and those kinds of deals) at below this minimum price, but don’t drink it all at once! I stick it in the cupboard and it lasts for a summer’s worth of barbecues. I’ve got no real problem with paying a few pounds more to genuinely help others (I’d happily pay a bit more tax to fund public services), but in this case the principle does make it grate with me.

  • “I’ve got no real problem with paying a few pounds more to genuinely help others …”

    The worst of it is that it’s difficult to see how this is going to help people with drink problems.

    The proposal would make the minimum cost of drinking up to the recommended weekly limit £8.40 for men and £5.60 for women. I can’t see that this sort of pricing will be any deterrent at all, except for the poorest of the poor.

    It’s been suggested that the benefit will be felt by the tiny percentage of people who drink very much more than the recommended amount – say ten times or more. But these people must currently be spending £40 a week on alcohol at the very least. Even if increasing the price causes them to reduce their consumption, there’s no way it will take them below the recommended limit, or anywhere near it.

    I just don’t see how this is meant to work, except as a purely political stunt.

  • Geoffrey Payne 27th Mar '12 - 12:43pm

    II agree with the policy. In fact I think the price should be made higher in order to reduce alcoholism even more. I remember a time in the 1970s when people bought less alcoholic drinks because they were more expensive. No one then said that the poor were suffering because of that. Whether these drinks are affordable is down to market forces, not out of any sense of social justice. Do we imagine the poor are suffering because they cannot afford to buy champagne?
    All sections of society suffer from the effects of cheap alcohol, either directly or or indirectly. A person who is an alcoholic not only damages himself, he also is more likely to be violent to his wife and children, and for that matter the local neighbourhood. We as taxpayers end up paying even more on the police and NHS in order to deal with this.
    So although some will be disappointed that they will have to buy less alcohol, maybe those same people, plus everyone else will be glad that they do not have to put up with the problems that come with excessive drinking. On balance I do not think that the poor will on balance “suffer”, many will have their quality of life improved.
    If you argue that increasing prices will not make any difference, that is a different argument. If it can be objectively shown this is the case, well fair enough. However I suspect the reason the government wants to do this is because the evidence suggests otherwise.

  • That’s your view Geoffrey, but if society suffers so much, why not just ban alcohol? It would make society better and people safer.

    Forgive me for thinking that a liberal party’s position would include some reference to individual rights, freedoms and desires – rather than societal outcomes alone.

    I recognise that addiction has always been a ‘problem’ for pure liberalism (alongside things like animal rights, raising children into certain lifestyles, and religion, but those are debates for another day…), but I still think we need to be helping addicts recover, better enforcing the law when laws have been broken, getting night-time industries to contribute more to dealing with anti-social behaviour, but leaving non-troublemaking, non-binge drinkers alone!

  • Over the years, we have relatively successfully modified smokers behaviour by price – even Tesco don’t do BOGOF/3 for 2 etc on tobacco products, so it’s difficult to see why drinkers shouldn’t be treated similarly.

    Booze is not a staple item and alcohol related health problems (either ER or long term) cost the NHS loads.

    We can’t on the one hand complain about closing pubs whilst allowing the sale of dirt cheap booze

  • “That’s your view Geoffrey, but if society suffers so much, why not just ban alcohol? It would make society better and people safer.”

    Or why not introduce alcohol rationing? Isn’t that the logic of what Geoffrey is saying? In a way it would be preferable to what’s proposed, as it wouldn’t penalise responsible drinkers, and it would have an impact on problem drinkers over the whole range of incomes.

    In fact why not go further, and enforce a healthy diet on everyone? No doubt some people will be disappointed that they can’t eat what they like, but I’m sure everyone will have the quality of their life improved in the long run.

    Come to think of it, why stop at food and drink? There are all sorts of ways in which I’m sure people would be better off if they behaved as I’d like them to, rather than doing as they please …

  • “Those people vomiting outside your flat have almost certainly been heavily pre-drinking on strong, cheap booze before they went out.”

    But have you actually thought about how this measure will affect those who “pre-load” in this way?

    Suppose half of someone’s alcohol intake comes from cheap booze at 20p a unit, and the other half from booze bought in a pub or club for £2 a unit. The average cost per unit is £1.10.

    Now the minimum price per unit is raised to 40p. Assume they don’t change their behaviour. The average cost per unit rises to £1.20 – an increase of about 9%.

    Is that really going to have a significant effect on their behaviour? Particularly when they could nullify the effect of the increase by simply upping their cheap alcohol intake to 55% rather than 50%? The more I think about this, the more I don’t believe a word of it.

  • Just to confirm what commonsense tells us, here’s some modelling of the effect of minimum pricing in Scotland, done by a group at the University of Sheffield in 2010:

    The modelled effects of a 40p per unit minimum price are shown in Table 3.1 on p. 30.

    In the group classed as “Hazardous,” average consumption per week was modelled as dropping from 27.42 units a week to 27.03. In the “Harmful” group the drop was from 71.84 units per week to 68.38.

    Clearly, the advocates of minimum pricing should be arguing for a much higher minimum price, if they are trying to achieve significant benefits to problem drinkers. But the government won’t do that because it would be so unpopular. So they’re pulling a political stunt instead.

  • It’s an unworkable policy based on stirring up bogeymen more than anything else. For a start the evidence for preloading is thin and may not be linked to how cheap booze is, anyway. It’s unlikely to effect the bigger most popular brand name white spirits or beers, which is what youngster drink . Secondly, there are a growing number of illegal distilleries, precisely because alcohol is actually very expensive in Britain. Plus other substances have crept in the live for the weekend tendency in our culture.
    It also prices a lot of firms out of the market. If say a blended malt costs the same as a ten year old single malt, the blend becomes uncompetitive. Finally, it’s just outrageously illiberal to put the price if products under government control. And it isn’t an attack on the poor, it’s an attack on ordinary people who just want a good deal for a few bears in their garden over the summer. In sort it’s a Daily Mail pandering knee-jerk moral panic, not a policy., You can’t moan about Labour’s nanny state whilst expanding it.

  • “it’s an attack on ordinary people who just want a good deal for a few bears in their garden over the summer”

    Surely “beers” … ?

  • i type quick and didn’t spot it and that’s nit picking that its” beers” ” bears” who cares

  • It doesn’t target problem drinkers, it targets ordinary people. Alcoholics are like all drug addicts. They will pay what they are forced to pay or find a cheaper source. Here’s a thought take it to a vote. , Ask voters do you want to pay more for a drink. Yes or No, See how far it gets . And if you put the duty down whilst putting the minimum price up you just loose revenue and people will be buying cheap imports from under the counter just like they do with tobacco.

  • Malcolm Todd 29th Mar '12 - 3:48pm

    @ Glenn — it’s a mistake to assume that “problem drinker” is synonymous with “alcoholic”, or indeed that the world divides neatly into normal people who make rational decisions based on things like price, and “addicts” who are completely unaffected by economic reasoning. These simplifications are not good reasons for rejecting the proposal.

    Having said that, I’m at a loss to understand why the law should insist on boosting supermarket margins on alcohol rather than simply whacking on a tax on off-sales (and perhaps a general regulation that you can’t sell alcoholic drinks at a loss — but whilst I’ve seen various comments claiming that supermarkets do this, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone citing direct evidence of it, and it seems a surprising strategy).

  • Malcolm granted. about the alcoholics thing. , To be honest I just don’t like the nanny state stuff and basically think it’s wrong for governments to impose prices.
    I think this mostly another of Britain’s many moral panics..

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