'Confusion' as Gordon Brown rules out minimum drink prices

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GORDON Brown has ruled out any attempt to introduce a minimum price on alcohol across the UK, despite warnings from his own cabinet ministers that they must contemplate radical action to reduce binge drinking.

Amid confusion over Labour's stance, Downing Street insisted yesterday that there were no plans to set a floor price on drink. The statement followed comments by Health Secretary Andy Burnham who had used an interview to argue that he could no longer ignore the warnings of health chiefs over Britain's alcohol problem.

His comments prompted claims that the radical plan, which would greatly increase the cost of cheap, high-strength alcohol, is to form part of Labour's election manifesto.

Such a move would be a massive embarrassment for Scottish Labour which decided before Christmas to oppose similar proposals by the SNP-run Scottish Government.

Those plans, currently set before parliament, would see a minimum price of 40p per unit set on all drink. Drinks which would soar in cost under such a scheme include cheap strong cider and supermarket-brand vodka.

Mr Burnham gave a strong hint that he was prepared to consider such a scheme across Britain, as the country seeks to tackle the growing cost of alcohol abuse.

Pointing to evidence from health organisations which have backed a minimum price, he added: "I can't sit here and read reports like that and say it is all fine."

Mr Brown has previously said he does not support a minimum-price policy, and Number Ten moved quickly to dismiss any suggestion that Mr Burnham had signalled backing for such a move.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister said that "at this stage", a minimum price on drink would not be "sensible". He added that the government continued to take advice from medical experts "seriously."

Sources in the Department of Health claim that the wrong interpretation had been placed on Mr Burnham's comments.

Opposition parties said that the episode highlighted the confusion in Labour's ranks over the policy.

In Scotland, several Labour MSPs had suggested supporting the SNP's plans, only to then come out in opposition. The Scottish Lib Dems have also come out in opposition, despite comments from their UK leader Nick Clegg backing a minimum price.

Mr Burnham's comments came after the two health bodies, the NHS Federation and the Royal College of Physicians, warned over Christmas that the nation's alcohol addiction was costing the country 2.7bn a year in health- related costs, double the figure of five years ago. Both bodies, along with all of the UK's chief medical officers, have supported a minimum-price policy.