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Talking drink

Brian Taylor | 11:27 UK time, Thursday, 26 November 2009

"Twelve and a tanner a bottle That's what it's costin' today".

Thus, the late great Will Fyffe on the subject of alcohol pricing. Will is, of course, better known for trilling "I belong to Glasgow".

The star was actually born in Dundee. In his hit song, he assumed the character of a genial drunk he had met in a chance encounter outside Central Station in the Dear Green Place.

But back to the prize of booze. Will went further on the subject.

"Twelve and a tanner a bottle Man, it taks a' yer pleasure away "Afore ye can hae a wee drappie You have to spend a' that you've got."

There it is. Sung from the stage of a thousand music halls and theatres.

The close potential connection between price and consumption. The ditty apparently reflects, ruefully, upon a hike in the price of whisky.

At Holyrood, Labour has conceded that there is such a connection. Jackie Baillie said as much when the topic was debated in parliament.

Broader bill

Dr Richard Simpson writes as much in The Scotsman today.

Yet Labour has decided to vote against the Scottish government's proposal for a minimum unit price on alcohol in a bill to be published today.

They may well still vote for the broader bill in principle at stage one - but would then seek to delete the minimum pricing element at stage two, in committee.

For Dr Simpson, in particular, it has apparently been a journey of discovery. The MSP started out intuitively supportive of minimum pricing, based upon his hospital experience of the damage which excessive alcohol consumption can cause.

However, Labour, including Dr Simpson, has concluded that this particular plan wouldn't work: that it wouldn't provide sufficient deterrent to those with the greatest alcohol problems, that it is too broad a brush and that it may be illegal.

There is the Buckfast Question. Labour says that a moderate minimum price, as envisaged during the consultation, wouldn't increase the price of Buckfast, the tipple of choice for certain social streams in the west of Scotland.

Ministers say Buckfast represents less than one per cent of alcohol consumption.

Counter argument

Further, Labour argues that hiking drink prices would simply add to supermarket profits without providing revenue which could be used by Scottish authorities to fund action against alcohol abuse.

Logically, it is possible to pose a counter argument to that.

Ministers would say that the objective is quite the contrary: it is to drive sales down by increasing price.

They say minimum pricing would deter "loss leader" promotions by retailers.

Labour lodges further objections. They say that ministers have failed to produce the formal advice guaranteeing the legality of their plan, despite repeated prompting.

They say further that the government has yet to specify the minimum price which would be levied. That complaint strikes me as somewhat disingenuous.

It is common practice for a bill to provide the basic legal principle - with the numerical detail provided by subsequent order.

Unit price

That allows such numerical detail to be altered relatively expeditiously with the passage of time.

In any case, if that were Labour's objection, then presumably they would have waited for Ministers to pronounce the chosen minimum unit price (they have indicated they favour 40p) before making up their minds.

It is important to stress that the Tories and Liberal Democrats are also against the bill, on pragmatic grounds.

The Tories in particular stress a further factor.

They are concerned about the impact upon the Scotch whisky trade.

The fear is that other countries might seize upon the precedent of a hike in prices here to impose punitive duties upon the export of Scotch.

Given the jobs involved here in Scotland, that is, at the very least, an important concern to bear in mind.

Issue debated

Ministers complain that Labour has jumped too soon - without providing any alternative.

They say opposition parties should have listened to the evidence which will now be submitted to Holyrood committee hearings.

They have a point - but not, I feel, an overweening one.

This issue has already been debated and discussed in Scotland for around a year. MSPs have been besieged with information and ideas.

Among that barrage has been overwhelming support from the medical profession for minimum pricing.

Doctors, including the chief medical advisers to government, say the plan would force up the price of low-cost "problem" drinks - with discernible health gains.

Further, senior police officers are supporting the use of price deterrence as a mechanism.

Stephen House, the chief constable of Strathclyde Police, says his officers see "the devastation caused by cheap, strong alcohol each and every day".

More measures

SNP ministers point out, reasonably, that they lack the power to alter alcohol duty as that is reserved to Westminster.

They insist their plans are within the law - and would work. They challenge their critics to produce other ideas.

Of course, today's bill contains more than minimum pricing.

There's action to counter deeply discounted promotions and other measures including a proposal to enable the levying of social responsibility fees upon retailers in individual areas, in individual circumstances.

Labour has now set up a commission to examine options. If that endeavour is to be seen as valid, it will have to address the arguments put forward by the doctors and the police.

Party leaders say they have by no means ruled out using price-sensitive mechanisms - such as that responsibility fee or perhaps a local sales tax which might generate productive revenue.

Ministers say they will press ahead with their plans, hoping that the evidence produced at Holyrood will sweep objections aside.

Let's give Will Fyffe the last word.

"How can a fella be happy When happiness costs such a lot."


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