Iain Stewart is a member of the Transport Select Committee and MP for Milton Keynes South
Alastair Campbell has offered to make a £10,000 donation to the Conservative Party if we introduce a minimum unit price (MUP) for alcohol. It would give us all a great thrill to take Alastair’s hard earned cash, and I respect the fact that he speaks from the point of view of someone whose life has been scarred by alcohol – having had the courage to tackle his own alcoholism. But however right he is to say that we should take alcohol abuse very seriously, he is wrong to say that an MUP is an answer to that problem.
I wrote on this site some months ago that I was against a minimum unit price for alcohol because I believe that the plan would be grossly unfair to many of my constituents who drink responsibly – like the majority – and who would be unfairly penalised by the policy. As the cost of living debate grew stronger, so the rationale behind hitting responsible drinkers in their pockets as a policy response to those who abuse alcohol grew weaker.
So I was delighted when the Government dropped it. Since then, even more compelling evidence has been produced to show that the plan would be ineffective. Ministers’ original evidence base for an MUP had been the Sheffield Report, published in 2009, and which appeared to show significant improvement in health harms through the introduction of an MUP. Indeed, the findings of the original Sheffield Report were frequently used as the justification behind the controversial plans. But the revised Sheffield Report, wisely commissioned by Ministers and eventually published in July this year, showed a much less compelling picture. Sadly, it got almost no pick up in the press, but its conclusions, buried deep in the hundred page text, are worth repeating.
The original 2009 report had claimed that a 45p MUP for alcohol would cut consumption by 4.3 per cent, the 2013 one predicted just a 1.6 per cent drop. The original said that 2,040 lives would be saved in ten years, the new says 624. Meanwhile the number of predicted alcohol admissions to hospital saved was slashed by 42,500 – down from 66,200 to 23,700.
Now for the sake of clarity, I regret the fact that just one person’s life should be ruined by alcohol addiction and I would like us to have a policy response to remedy it. But the fact that the four years that separates the two reports shows a two thirds reduction in the predicted benefits of a policy that would be both bureaucratic and socially regressive (MUP impacts the poor more than the rich), entirely vindicates for me the Government’s wise choice to drop it.
Significantly, the much derided Responsibility Deal – in which the industry voluntarily introduces measures to reduce health harms – will prove much more effective than a 45p MUP. The voluntary pledge to remove one billion of units of alcohol from the UK market would reduce consumption by 2.7 per cent (nearly double the benefit of MUP) or by 19.2 units per drinker per year.
I hope we won’t be hearing any more of MUP, but that doesn’t mean to say that we shouldn’t be looking for other answers to stop people’s lives being blighted by alcohol. There are some excellent schemes that tackle the root problems, such as the Wine and Spirit Trade Association’s Community Alcohol Partnerships which stops young people getting access to alcohol and causing a public nuisance; or the alcohol industry’s own Best Bar None programme which promotes responsible management and operation of alcohol licensed premises and was described by Theresa May, the Home Secretary, this summer as showing ‘spectacular’ reductions in drunkenness and reducing drunken violence.
Better education and local, tailored solutions are likely to make a much bigger impact on irresponsible drinking, alcohol admissions to hospitals and anti social behaviour than a cumbersome system of price controls. So what we need is more of what already works and more ideas coming forward – keeping a truly conservative focus on the minority with the alcohol problem and not asking the majority to pick up the bill.