Scottish Labour: “Minimum unit pricing was rightly rejected by MSPs because it is effectively a tax on the poor”

The UK’s coalition government has announced proposals to introduce minimum unit pricing on alcohol sold in England and Wales.  But with it being a devolved matter, Northern Ireland doesn’t have to follow.

Nevertheless, the NI Social Development Minister and the Health Minister have joined forces to announce their intention to launch a public consultation on the issue.  Although there is already a wrinkle evident

“I am meeting the Irish Minister for Justice and Law Reform Dermot Ahern in Dublin in the first week in February. Our discussions will include opportunities for minimum pricing on the island of Ireland given there is so much cross-border trade including purchase of alcohol.” [NI Social Development Minister, the SDLP’s Alex Attwood]

In Scotland, where concerns were raised about the legality of such minimum pricing, similar proposals have already been rejected

“Minimum unit pricing was rightly rejected by MSPs because it is effectively a tax on the poor,” the opposition Scottish Labour Party Health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said in an e- mailed statement.

A point on which Brendan O’Neill would undoubtedly agree

As John Stuart Mill argued 150 years ago, any hike in the price of “stimulants” that is designed to make them less accessible represents an attack on individual liberty. He described moralistic price rises as a “sin tax”. “Every increase of cost is a prohibition, to those whose means [do] not come up to the augmented price”, he wrote. “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.”

What we have in minimum alcohol pricing is a prohibition on the kind of boozing that Cameroons and Cleggites consider immoral: the cheap and speedy consumption of lots of drink with the aim of getting temporarily wasted. Such drinking might not be the high point of human civilisation, but it should not be punished and possibly even banned simply because it doesn’t conform to some political squares’ idea of what a proper night out is. This is prohibition through the backdoor, targeted at those whom the political classes consider to be reckless and self-destructive.

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  • Pigeon Toes

    Slightly off topic, but how is this any different from taxing of older, large cars which is a tax on poorer families, especially those in rural areas who have to travel to work?

  • DC

    It didn’t stop the Scottish government from introducing a tax on plastic bags which likely affects the poor more; however, I suppose with alcohol the damage harms the individual whereas with plastic bags it is the general environment.

    Having said that where do you draw the line using such an argument – one in favour of individual liberty? The next step would be – rightly in my view – to legalise certain drugs etc.

    And in terms of price fixing for NI, leaders here would need to be mindful of pricing too high that displaces shoppers out of supermarkets and into the arms of organised crime – given the strength of paramilitary networks here in NI, which really haven’t gone away you know.

    The paramilitaries already supply smokes cheaper than the shops do now our MLAs could end up giving them a bigger slice of the alcohol market as well. Not to mention drugs.

    It isn’t just the old notions of collectivist services like the NHS that is under pressure from fragmenting needs, the concept of collective action such as this will have unintended consequences – over-regulate and the black market will thrive.

    Our politicians would do well to remember NI is an impoverished region and is relatively cash strapped. Is the context and culture the same as southern England?

  • Neil

    No doubt that’s justified by the idea that Mr. Toes will dump his old wagon (to save an extra 40 quid every 6 months) and buy a brand new smart car (for 15 grand) and thereby save the environment. Bollocks obviously as you can usually afford the extra 40 bills twice a year, but coming up with 15k for a car that runs on batteries is not so easy.

  • pippakin

    This is a smug middle class bill which will of course effect the poor, as most taxes do, most. What it will not do is prevent anyone who wants to drink alcohol from drinking it.

    In regard to the north genuine suppliers face an uphill struggle against the illegal purveyors of cigarettes and alcohol as it is without making it even worse.

  • Pigeon Toes

    Mr. Toes?

  • Frame

    What’s wrong with taxing the Scottish poor especially if it reduces their consumption of alcohol?

    Given that their health is worse than the Ukrainians are we only allowed to tax deep-fried Mars bars?

  • DC

    This is a smug middle class bill which will of course effect the poor, as most taxes do, most. What it will not do is prevent anyone who wants to drink alcohol from drinking it.

    I guess my point is instinctively the same as yours – except Cameron and Clegg can’t knock the NHS for being too collectivist and one size fits all and not reflective of individual needs etc, then charge ahead with a collectivist measure such as this is, but done on drink.

    There will be individuals waiting in the wings, particularly so in NI ready to fill the gaps if things become too costly. This is the flip side to fragmentation and living in market states.

    Individuals are indeed becoming more networked and knowledgeable and can thrive more in the black market if the regulated market becomes – well – too regulated and costly.

    The first signs of policy incoherence by the Coalition.

  • tacapall

    “This is a smug middle class bill which will of course effect the poor, as most taxes do, most. What it will not do is prevent anyone who wants to drink alcohol from drinking it”.

    This bill does nothing but get rid of the big supermarkets little rivals in the working class housing estates, a minimum cost per unit for everyone but for the big supermarkets its buy one get one free, guess where all those poor people will go.

  • The market interprets supply-side controls as damage, and routes around them.

  • JAH

    Why does anyone for one minute believe that this minimum pricing limit will remain low?

    There is a very vocal anti-drink lobby which will start pushing for it to be increased. It’ll just take some drink fuelled outrage and it’ll go up. Bit by bit…

    In the US you can’t drink under 21. I asked someone what did the kids do instead.

    “Take drugs” was the reply.

    Unintended consequences will always appear.

  • andnowwhat

    I agree with DC, it would be a gift to paras and crooks.

    I forget the details but Lord Blair of Al Matuk invited a top cop over from the states some years ago as he had some big success clamping down on gangs back home.

    Unfortunately, after looking at what was going on,the top cop said that they tax drink, fags and petrol too much and thus create a market.

    THe cop was quickly packed off home.

    How about encouraging people back to proper pubs with a tax based incentive. I believe that the problem with the young is that they are unchecked in discos/clubs and encouraged to spend as much as possible.

    At the other end, pubs, who are far more stringent on the behavioiur of their customers, are on their knees. I would suggesthalfing the tax in pubs, inreasing it in disco/clubs and bring drinking back to the social activity it was not so long ago.

    Right,I’m off to the city centre to enjoy a barrack buster with a Bucky chaser and an Aldo’s pastie

  • andnowwhat

    Ooops.meant city cemetery

  • Cynic2

    I can see the poteen stills being dragged out again and the good folk of South Armagh switching product ….

    So we can expect to see SF to support it on economic grounds and the DUP on biblical grounds. The SDLP will support it for beer and some spirits but not wine (over £6 a bottle) and brandy. The UUP will want assurance ion the potential impact on the availability of cheap mash for cattle feed. Alliance are trying to work out what it means.

  • andnowwhat

    You forgot the diddients political wings Cynic.

    They’ll want no rise in Lugan champagne

  • Cynic2

    Perhaps drinking Buckie can be made a Catholic Obligation – they can always then console themselves that they are helping the good Fathers and doing the Lord’s work

  • 241934 john brennan

    Public drunkenness, particularly female drunkenness, used to be deemed shameful. Now the media’s favourite means of highlighting the subject – images of blootered mini-skirted girls, floppy as rag dolls – are commonplace and longer shock.

    Ireland’s misuse of alcohol is a cultural issue, rather than a price/consumption one. Nevertheless, Alex Attwood’s proposals for a minimum unit price, with tighter laws and enforcement, would a good move in the right direction. But an end result of raising extra revenue, not for the NHS, but for retailers, with increased cross-border trade and smuggling, would be unacceptable.

    In the past generation we have greatly increased our alcohol consumption, facilitated by cheaper and stronger drink, supped faster from bigger glasses. We also changed the definition of a moderate drinker. Half bottle of wine with dinner is now generally considered quite safe, though medical advice says otherwise. Women and young people are drinking far more than ever before. Many more drink much more at home – with ‘off sales’ up 50% in the past decade, compared with a 10% rise in drinking overall.
    It will be difficult to change our drinking culture – a culture that celebrates ‘heroic’ drinkers, ignores health risks, family and other societal problems, with associated costs. But If the smoking ban worked, why not the same intolerant approach to alcohol?

    As things stand we could do with a 21st century revival of the Temperance Movement to bring us back to our senses, including a sense of national shame – and to protect young people!

    So, three cheers for Alex Attwood’s small measures.

  • John,

    The smoking ban and minimum pricing are not comparable. The former works because it controls demand. The latter will not work because it controls supply. Every time that governments have attempted to eradicate a social ill by restricting supply (by whatever means) it has ended in costly failure. You are right to point out that our drinking culture is the root of the problem, so surely it is our culture that has to change?. Demand for intoxicating substances is notoriously resistant to price changes – this is the real reason why governments have come to rely on sin taxes for so much of their revenue in recent years. And sin taxes are highly regressive. The only difference in this proposal is that the extra revenue would go to the supermarkets rather than the state. The effect on consumption will be the same: not much.

  • 241934 john brennan

    Andrew:
    You are right. A culture change in our drinking habits is needed. The obvious place to start is with the young – and start by making alcohol targeted at the young less attractive – by increased taxation, with increased VAT on cigarettes and alcohol going to the NHS. Not impossible for legislators.

    Back to the culture. It simply has to change, if pubs in rural Ireland are to survive.

    Here, loud obnoxious behavior and foul language at week-ends, especially from young girls, is not tolerated even in spit and sawdust hostelries in Glasgow – it wud scunner Rab C Nesbitt, an gie him tha boke.

  • John, you’ve completely ignored my point. Making drink and drugs harder to buy does not make them less attractive. If people want to get drunk they will find a way. This is why prohibition of alcohol didn’t work in the 30s, and why prohibition of cannabis isn’t working now. If you make intoxicating substances more expensive you will create a bigger market for criminals and smugglers and lose control of the quality of supply, thereby both increasing the crime rate and making these substances more dangerous than they already are. Before you rush into a course of action, you should be sure that it will have the intended effects.

  • Pigeon Toes

    “Public drunkenness, particularly female drunkenness, used to be deemed shameful. Now the media’s favourite means of highlighting the subject – images of blootered mini-skirted girls, floppy as rag dolls – are commonplace and longer shock”

    Tut tut…. Shouldn’t be allowed to vote or talk about politics either. Such unladylike behaviour..

  • 241934 john brennan

    Andrew:
    I might not have answered your point. Sorry. However, having legal, though harmful, toxic substances e.g. alcohol freely unavailable to the general public in supermarkets and off-licences, at prices cheaper than bottled water, makes no sense in terms of promoting health, road safety etc. In the end it comes at a terrible price to individuals, a huge cost to families, society and taxpayers.

    I once had the experience of spending a couple of months in 24-bed general ward in a large hospital. There was a regular turn-over in individual patients, but the overall population of the ward remained constant. Three older men gasping and dying in oxgen masks because of smoking. Two younger short stay men recovering from S.T.D’s (and from their conversation would soon be back for further treatment). Three older alcoholics raving and dying in DT’s.

    We are all grateful for NHS treatment and medicines – but if taxation can reduce the terrible consequences and crippling costs, why not go for it?

  • DC

    This is why prohibition of alcohol didn’t work in the 30s, and why prohibition of cannabis isn’t working now. If you make intoxicating substances more expensive you will create a bigger market for criminals and smugglers and lose control of the quality of supply, thereby both increasing the crime rate and making these substances more dangerous than they already are.

    From January’s PSNI Brief

    Drugs Seizures

    In the month of January, there were a number of significant cannabis seizures made by the Districts. This is part of the ongoing commitment to delivering a protective police service to communities across Northern Ireland.

    – Cannabis factory – South Belfast

    Following information received, police from the Tactical Crime Unit in south Belfast recovered over £200,000 worth of suspected cannabis plants from a cannabis factory discovered in a house in London Street. The find was made shortly before 8am on 13 January 2011. One 45 year old male has been charged with possession and possession with intent to supply class B drugs and cultivating cannabis.

    – Cannabis factory – Kilkeel

    Police from E District’s Tactical Crime Team uncovered a cannabis factory in Kilkeel. Cannabis plants worth an estimated £75,000 were recovered during a pre-planned search of a property at Rooney Park at around 9pm on the 8 January 2011. A 29 year old male has been charged with possession and possession with intent to supply a class B drug, being concerned in the supply of a class B drug, and cultivation of a class B drug, and possession of a class A drug.

    – Seizure of cannabis plants Carrickfergus

    Police in Carrickfergus seized a large number of cannabis plants following the search of a house in the Irish Quarter South area on the 6 January 2011. Plants with an estimated street value of £188,000 were seized in addition to items used for the cultivation of cannabis.

    Local area commander, Chief Inspector Paula Hilman commented: “This was a very successful search which has resulted in the seizure of a substantial amount of cannabis plants. The seizure will prevent this cannabis from filtering onto our streets and becoming part of the illegal drug trade. Taking these drugs out of circulation is further proof of our commitment to tackle the concerns of the local community and address the issues that matter to them.”

  • John,

    You did not only not answer my point but blithely ignored it:

    if taxation can reduce the terrible consequences and crippling costs, why not go for it?

    My argument is precisely that increased taxation cannot further reduce these consequences, and is instead increasing other unintended consequences. Addiction is a terrible condition precisely because it is not rational, and the laws of supply and demand depend explicitly on the assumption of rationality.

    Look up David Nutt sometime and read his report to the UK government on drugs policy – the one that got him fired because the politicians found it uncomfortable.

    And bottled water being more expensive than alcohol says more about the bottled water industry, IMHO.

  • 241934 john brennan

    We Irish have two obsessions – booze and fights. Separately they are dangerous. Together often fatal – like the man hoist with his own petard. Planted a bomb, went to a pub and then returned to find out why it hadn’t gone off.

    On a lighter note, below is a parody on the words of the Irish people’s anthem – written in the 1920s. The original is about the call to war and possible consequences. The parody, written about the same time is about our other great obsession – booze

    Danny Boy

    Oh Danny boy the Civic Guards are calling,
    At every house all down the mountain side.
    The poteen’s here and all the things beside it.
    ‘Tis you, ‘tis you must go the still to hide
    But come you back when moonlight’s on the meadow
    And I shall have the fire all aglow
    And we shall set the mountain dew a-boiling
    And watch its sparkling drops as swift they flow.

    But when you return if I am drunk,
    As drunk I well may be,
    You’ll come and find the place where I am lying,
    And throw an old top coat all over me.
    For I’ll not feel the wind or rain upon me
    And I’ll not wake until the dawn is here.
    So you can take a drink and sleep beside me
    Until the guards are gone and all is clear.

    +++++++++++