Minimum pricing: Scots go it alone after UK U-turn

Jeremy Browne told MPs the 45p per unit idea was shelved. Picture: PA
Jeremy Browne told MPs the 45p per unit idea was shelved. Picture: PA
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THE UK government has performed a U-turn on introducing minimum pricing in England and Wales – meaning Scotland will go it alone in introducing the measure.

Prime Minister David Cameron said that while the idea had “a lot of merit” there were questions over its effectiveness and fears it could be challenged in the courts.

Attempts to introduce minimum pricing in Scotland are currently bogged down in a legal challenge. In May, the Scottish Government won a landmark legal battle to introduce a minimum price for alcohol.

But the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) announced an appeal after the Court of Session rejected its claim Holyrood had overstepped its powers and the move breached trade EU laws.

Minimum pricing is at the heart of the SNP’s plans to tackle Scotland’s “unhealthy” relationship with alcohol. Laws to introduce the measure were passed last year, but met an immediate court challenge by the SWA and European drinks firms.

Plans for a 45p price per unit of alcohol in England and Wales were floated in a consultation last year but Home Office Minister Jeremy Browne confirmed in the Commons that they would not be taken forward. He also ruled out a ban on multi-buy offers in England and Wales due to a “lack of convincing evidence” that it would have a significant effect on consumption.

But he said there would be a ban on the “egregious” sale of alcohol for below the rate of duty and VAT south of the Border, meaning a can of lager would cost at least 40p.

Tory MP Sarah Wollaston, a former GP, said the government had “backed down for short-term political expediency” and added: “Doctors up and down this country who are fed-up with being lectured on how to reduce avoidable mortality within the NHS see the one tool they are asking for that could reduce avoidable mortality in liver disease taken away.”

The Prime Minister, who had previously championed the idea of a minimum unit price (MUP), insisted the measures announced yesterday would end the sale of very cheap alcohol.

Mr Cameron said: “We are introducing today what is effectively a minimum price because we are saying it’s going to be illegal to sell alcohol below the rate of duty plus VAT. So supermarkets or shops deeply discounting alcohol will be made illegal.”

He said there was a “a degree of legal uncertainty” about a minimum unit price and “question marks about the evidence behind it” but hinted that the policy could be looked at again in future. He stressed that the decision had been made “by me as Prime Minister”, as had the shelving of plans for cigarettes in plain packaging.

“In the end the buck stops absolutely here,” he said. “These are both decisions that I have made, I think they are the right ones because we need the evidence base, we need the legal certainty and then we can move ahead.”

The announcement disappointed public health campaigners. Professor Kevin Fenton, of Public Health England, said: “There is strong evidence that MUP would make cheap and higher-strength alcohol less available, with the greatest impact being in younger and in heavier drinkers. Six countries including Canada have introduced minimum pricing for alcohol and we are beginning to see significant benefits.”

Miliband wants probe into guru over tobacco packets

LABOUR leader Ed Miliband has asked for a formal investigation into whether Prime Minister David Cameron’s election guru Lynton Crosby directly influenced alcohol and tobacco policy on behalf of companies who paid him as a lobbyist.

Mr Miliband has written to the head of the civil service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, asking him to look into claims Mr Crosby, who is employed by tobacco giant Philip Morris as well as the Conservative Party, changed government policy on plain packaging for cigarettes.

The letter came on the day the government introduced a bill to control lobbying of parliament and ministers. Mr Cameron faced questions over the influence of Mr Crosby, during lively exchanges in prime minister’s questions. Mr Miliband accused Mr Cameron of having “caved in to big tobacco” in a “disgraceful episode”.