David Cameron was accused yesterday of rushing out the Government's strategy to combat binge drinking, to distract attention from unfavourable media coverage of the Budget.
His plan for a minimum price of 40p a unit for alcohol, which will raise drink prices in supermarkets and off-licences, was due to be published on Monday. It was brought forward to yesterday amid mounting criticism of the so-called "granny tax" – the result of George Osborne's decision to freeze tax allowances for pensioners.
Labour accused Theresa May, the Home Secretary, of acting as a "human shield" for the Prime Minister after she made a hastily arranged Commons statement on the drive to tackle irresponsible drinking. Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, said there had been only three Commons statements on a Friday – on the Iraq war, swine flu and Libya. "What is the national emergency today?" she asked. "The only emergency is that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have gone wobbly over the coverage of their Budget."
The legality of the policy was also questioned with suggestions that minimum pricing went against European laws., with one representative of the drinks industry describing it as "probably illegal"
Downing Street hit back, however, by accusing critics of levelling easily made but as yet unsubstanciated criticisms. "It's never been done and there's no test case so far," said a spokesman.
Responding to claims the announcement of the alcohol policy was driven by a need to distract from the budget, Ms May accused Labour of "political point-scoring" and said: "This strategy is targeted explicitly at dangerous drinkers, problem pubs, irresponsible shops and harmful drinks. Those who enjoy a quiet drink or two have nothing to fear from our proposals. The local pub has nothing to fear, the responsible off-licence has nothing to fear."
Under the Government's plans, the price of a two-litre bottle of cider could rise from £1.89 to £3.36 and a 700ml bottle of vodka from £8.72 to £10.52.
Jane Bevis, director of public affairs at the British Retail Consortium, said it was "puzzling" that Mr Cameron had decided to "trump" the "responsibility deal" announced yesterday by the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, in which 35 companies had agreed to sell more low-strength drinks to cut consumption by one billion units by 2015.
Q&A: Alcohol and minimum pricing
Q What is the Government doing?
A David Cameron wants to raise the price of alcohol to cut the £21billion cost to the UK annually of illness, crime, disorder and health treatment arising from excessive drinking. He intends to set a minimum price per unit of alcohol.
Q What level will be set?
A The Prime Minister is minded to introduce a 40p-per-unit minimum, though by law he must wait for the results of the public consultation to be assessed before he can confirm that figure.
Q Which drinks will rise in price?
A Mostly cheap supermarket booze. Pub drinks invariably cost more than 40p a unit. According to The Grocer, a 40p-a-unit minimum will hike the price of one in 10 drink products in supermarkets, principally strong ciders, multi-packs of generic lager and bottles of cheap gin, vodka and whisky. A two-litre bottle of Strongbow will jump from £3.23 to £4.24 and a 700ml bottle of Bushmills whiskey from £10 to £16.90. Theoretically, an offer such as three bottles of wine for £10 will rise by £1, but it is more likely that the price will stay as it is and the quality of the wine will fall.
Q How much will that cost drinkers?
A The Government says the measure will cost an average drinker £21 to £23 a year and heavy drinkers (men who drink 50 or more units a week and women who drink 35 or more units a week) £105 to £135.
Q Who supports a minimum price?
A Almost everyone apart from the drinks industry. Professors of alcohol policy say that drinks have become relatively more affordable in recent decades, increasing consumption. Police officers and doctors who have to deal with the road crashes, late-night violence and domestic abuse that flow from binge drinking are also strongly in favour, and a minimum price has long been supported by the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Chief Medical Officer and the British Medical Association. CAMRA, the real ale campaign, is also in favour, pointing out that pubs are losing trade to supermarkets selling bargain lager, cider and vodka: in the past 10 years the price of shop beer has risen by 1 per cent and the price of beer in pubs by 43 per cent. An average of 16 pubs a week closed in the final six months of last year.
Q Who is opposed?
A Industry groups – and presumably some drinkers. Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: "Effectively, a minimum price is a tax on responsible drinkers." Gavin Partington, chief executive of the Wine and Spirits Trade Association, which represents distillers, vintners and supermarkets, said a price rise will "adversely affect millions of consumers and businesses in the UK, while doing nothing to tackle the root causes of alcohol misuse".
Q Politically, what does this mean?
A In backing a minimum price, David Cameron has overruled his Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, who believes in brewers and distillers voluntarily reducing alcohol content and in individuals taking more responsibility. The Prime Minister's intervention also clashes with his own political philosophy, which is to create a smaller state where more power and responsibility is devolved to individuals and companies – which is the thread running through his Big Society idea, the Cabinet Office's use of 'nudge theory' to improve individual behaviour, and the Public Health Responsibility Deals, where drinks and junk-food firms are encouraged to make their products more healthy.
Q What will be achieved?
A According to the Government's computer modelling, a 40p minimum price will lead to 170 fewer alcohol-related deaths in the first year, rising to 900 fewer deaths a year over 10 years – a fall of 7.7 per cent in deaths from drinking. A second estimate is that there will be 50,600 fewer crimes a year, a 1.7 per cent dip – including a proportionately higher fall in violent crimes, of 12,900 – a total reduction in violent crime of 1.8 per cent. More than £80m is forecast to be saved in health and crime costs in the first year, rising to over £140m in the tenth year – a 3 per cent fall in those costs. Defending his proposal, the Prime Minister suggested that excessive drinking was so pernicious it deserved special measures: "Binge drinking isn't some fringe issue, it accounts for half of all alcohol consumed in this country. The crime and violence it causes drains resources in our hospitals, generates mayhem on our streets and spreads fear in our communities."