Minimum alcohol pricing law: Scots legislation on the rocks as whisky industry goes to court

Scotch Whisky Association chief executive Gavin Hewitt says policy needs to be targeted on the problem. Picture: TSPL
Scotch Whisky Association chief executive Gavin Hewitt says policy needs to be targeted on the problem. Picture: TSPL
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PLANS for a minimum alcohol price in Scotland face lengthy court delays after drinks industry leaders confirmed they were launching a legal challenge.

• Scotch Whisky Association to take legal fight to European Commission and Court of Session

• Backing from European co-petitioners

• SNP plans to introduce minimum pricing after MSPs passed legislation

Health secretary Nicola Sturgeon wants a minimum price of 50p per unit and MSPs have passed legislation clearing the way for this.

Ms Sturgeon says the new law – under which the cheapest bottle of wine would cost £4.69 and a four-pack of lager at least £3.52 – is needed to tackle Scotland’s chronic problem with alcohol.

But the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) branded the move “misguided and said it would not reduce the number of problem drinkers.

It has revealed a twin-pronged legal challenge to the proposal. A complaint is being made to the European Commission on the basis it is a restriction of trade. There will also be a petition for judicial review to the Court of Session.

SWA chief executive Gavin Hewitt said: “Despite warnings that minimum pricing of alcohol would be illegal, the Scottish Government has pressed ahead with its ill-targeted policy and misguided legislation. The Scotch whisky industry is left with no option but to oppose the legislation in Europe and through the Scottish courts.

“We’re far from alone in our objections. Others in the UK and Europe share our views and will also be raising objections with the European Commission.”

The SWA is being joined in the Scottish court challenge by the European Spirits Organisation and European wine body Comite Vins. All three trade bodies say the measure breaches the UK’s EU treaty obligations. They also say Holyrood has overstepped its powers under the devolution settlement because it can’t pass legislation relating to the price of goods and services.

Ministers wanted to bring in minimum pricing next April, but the European challenge is expected to take a year. The Scottish court challenge is expected to be heard in the autumn.

Ms Sturgeon said: “We regret the decision of the SWA to challenge minimum pricing in the courts. We firmly believe that minimum pricing meets the legal tests required and we will vigorously defend this legal challenge, just as we did on asbestos and are doing on tobacco.

“Notwithstanding our difference of opinion on minimum pricing, we will continue to work constructively with the SWA in support of the whisky industry, which is both important and valuable for Scotland.”

The UK government has indicated it plans to introduce minimum pricing in England and Wales, but Mr Hewitt hinted that a successful legal challenge in Scotland could scupper those plans.

Minimum pricing is not universally opposed by the drinks industry, with the Scottish Licensed Trade Association having spoken out in favour. It has also won support from medical and police chiefs.

The Scottish Government has lodged an official “notification” with the EU on its ­proposals to seek a ruling on whether they comply with treaty law aimed at protecting trade from government interference.

EU law does allow for minimum pricing if it can be shown it will protect health and there is no alternative.

The Scottish Government’s plans were passed by MSPs earlier this year.