BBC BLOGS - Blether with Brian
« Previous | Main | Next »

Striking a balance

Brian Taylor | 11:55 UK time, Monday, 26 October 2009

Voters frequently yearn for the "pure and simple truth".

Understandably, they want politicians to be straightforward with them, to tell it as it is.

Then the wicked media pile in - and demand "straight answers to straight questions"

Result? Politicians seek sanctuary in platitudes, saying nothing in particular but saying it awfully well.

Of course, truth in absolute is rarely pure and never simple. Political decisions can be complex, often hideously so.

They will seldom present straight choices. Rather they are an amalgam of competing pressures.

Such is the case with the current controversy over alcohol in Scotland.

Alcohol problems

The Scottish government is about to introduce a Bill to set minimum prices for drinks, calculated by volume of alcohol.

The measure is supported by health professionals who say it will force up the price for certain drinks commonly associated with alcohol problems.

This, they say, will have discernible benefits for Scotland's health.
Critics say the measure may be illegal or ineffective or insufficient - or a blend of all three.

Then there is a further aspect.

The Scotch whisky trade is seriously concerned that such a move would have drastic, unintended consequences for their business.

Their argument is that they have fought a prolonged battle over many years to prevent foreign countries from imposing discriminatory duty on Scotch in order to prop up home-grown products.

They say there are countries which will use the precedent set by minimum pricing in Scotland to impose punitive duties on whisky. This is disputed by Scottish ministers.

Legal questions

How about that illegality point? Critics point to a ruling by the European Court's Advocate General to the effect that minimum pricing with regard to tobacco violated competition law.

No, say Ministers. That applied in the particular circumstances of an individual case. They cite a wider statement by the EU Commissioner, Gunther Verheugen, responsible for enterprise and industry.

Replying to Labour MEP Catherine Stihler, the Commissioner said that member states were not prohibited from using minimum pricing to pursue health directives, provided the measure fell within other aspects of Community law such as the free movement of goods.

One might quibble whether that ruling applies to devolved sub-divisions of EU member states - but ministers interpret this as meaning that minimum pricing is legal, provided a balance is struck.

They intend to strike that balance.

Which brings us, as ever at Holyrood, back to arithmetic. Can ministers assemble a coalition of support for this measure - which forms part of a much wider attempt to transform Scotland's attitude to alcohol?

Right now, looks difficult. The Liberal Democrats are against minimum pricing, preferring other measures.

'More evidence'

The Tories are also agin, opting for targeted duty increases on "problem drinks". It will be noted that this would involve action at a UK level, not in Scotland.

The Scottish Parliament has no control over duty.

Which leaves Labour. Over the weekend, they again demanded sight of the legal advice upon which ministers base their insistence that their initiative doesn't breach the law.

Further, they want more evidence that the measure would be effective.

Failing these, they say they remain unconvinced by the measure.

They back other initiatives - such as the Challenge 21 programme under which licence holders would be obliged to seek ID from anyone seeking to buy drink who appears to be under the age of 21.

Eighteen would remain the legal age for alcohol purchase.

Diluting proposals

Ministers say they are more than open to considering other ideas. They point out that their bill involves much more than minimum pricing.

There will be new constraints on the display and marketing of alcohol in off-sales premises. There will be curbs on heavy discount promotions.

Police forces will be able to request consideration of increasing the off-sales legal age to 21 in areas where there are substantial alcohol problems.

That is a diluted version of the original plan: proof, say ministers, that they are open to discussion.

But minimum pricing remains the big controversy - and will feature in the bill when it is published in mid-November.

Following that, the debate will intensify. Rarely pure, never simple.


or register to comment.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.