Scotland's minimum unit price for alcohol: Why the case is not made for an increase from 50p to 65p – Murdo Fraser

The minimum unit price for alcohol appears to be another case of the SNP introducing policies just to be different from Westminster

I love the cut and thrust of political debate, whether in the parliamentary chamber or public meetings, on television or radio. I am lucky enough to be often invited on broadcast debates and am happy to engage if my diary allows.

Probably my favourite debate programme is not on TV but on radio – BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions. I have been on the panel several times in recent years, and the quality of the discussion is, in my view, normally superior to that on programmes like BBC’s Question Time, which seems to be little more than a platform for both panellists and audience alike to deliver soundbites.

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I was back on the Any Questions panel at the weekend, broadcast from St Matthew’s Church in Perth. Along with my fellow panellists, Jackie Baillie MSP, Alyn Smith MP, and my fellow columnist on this paper Joyce McMillan, we delivered what I hope was an interesting and generally courteous discussion, led by questions from an engaged and informed Perth audience.

Alcohol is set to get more expensive from September under the Scottish Government's minimum unit price policy (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)Alcohol is set to get more expensive from September under the Scottish Government's minimum unit price policy (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)
Alcohol is set to get more expensive from September under the Scottish Government's minimum unit price policy (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)

MUP isn’t working

There was one question from Sheila from Dunkeld which caused a good deal of debate. It was on the impact of minimum unit pricing for alcohol (MUP). Last week the Scottish Government announced that the minimum price per unit would be increased from 50p to 65p, meaning that the cheapest bottle of wine will now be over £6, and the cheapest bottle of spirits over £18. It was clear from the start that this was not a popular move for the people of Perth.

The statement announcing the increase was due to be made by the Health Secretary, Michael Matheson, but as he had to resign just a few hours before, it was left to the Deputy First Minister Shona Robison to deliver the bad news to Parliament. She sought to justify the increase on the basis of research by Public Health Scotland which she said showed MUP had been effective in improving health outcomes and reducing alcohol consumption.

When MUP was introduced at the 50p level in 2018, the Scottish Conservatives, under the leadership of Ruth Davidson, supported the move, but insisted on a sunset clause to allow the policy to be reviewed. Having studied the evidence, my party’s current health spokesman, Dr Sandesh Gulhane MSP, is of the view that minimum unit pricing has simply not worked. That there is no justification for an increase at this time.

Public Health Scotland claims that MUP has reduced deaths directly caused by alcohol consumption by an estimated 13.4 per cent, and hospital admissions by 4.1 per cent. And yet, we know that deaths from alcohol-related causes are now at their highest level for 14 years. The difficulty in assessing the evidence is that statisticians are trying to measure the impact of MUP on alcohol consumption against a counterfactual, where MUP was not introduced.

Cheaper, more harmful drugs

There is some evidence that alcohol consumption amongst more moderate drinkers has decreased over the last few years. However, even Public Health Scotland accepts that there is limited evidence that those who are alcohol-dependent – the target audience – have cut consumption. Indeed some of those with alcohol addictions may well have cut down spending on other areas, such as food and heating, because of the higher alcohol prices they are paying.

Anne-Marie Ward, who heads up the charity Faces and Voices of Recovery, and knows more about addiction than most other people in this area of public policy, is not convinced by minimum unit pricing, arguing that it has led to an increase in the take-up of cheaper, more harmful drugs. We have also seen a 40 per cent reduction in people accessing alcohol addiction services, and a cut in funding for these at a time when, with rising deaths, surely they are more essential than ever before.

An increase in MUP will, of course, also hit moderate and responsible drinkers. We are in a cost-of-living crisis, and substantial increases in the costs of alcohol will hit those who are already struggling to pay their bills. Is it really fair that the pensioner couple who might enjoy the odd tipple of rum, whisky or gin, or a glass of wine, might now find that small pleasure unaffordable, and simply on the basis of heavily disputed statistics?

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The Scottish Government’s approach here seems to be rooted in the “something must be done” approach to policymaking. Without convincing evidence as to why an increase in MUP is necessary at this time, it seems to be falling back once again on its tired old strategy of making policy choices just to be different from England.

We have seen from the Covid Inquiry that this administration makes choices not necessarily in the best interests of the Scottish people, but to diverge from Westminster as much as possible. And yet, despite this direction of travel, Scotland has a rate of both disease and death from alcohol well in excess of that of our southern neighbours.

Scotland’s relationship with alcohol is embedded in centuries-old cultural traditions, and the facts are simply not there to support an MUP increase at this point. It surely would be better for the Scottish Government to restore funding to alcohol treatment services to help those most in need, rather than hitting moderate and responsible drinkers in their pockets.

That certainly seemed to be the view of the Any Questions audience gathered in Perth at the weekend – where the issue for once was properly debated. I am sure there are many others across Scotland who will join them in questioning whether this latest SNP initiative is the correct one.

Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife



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