A draught of common sense

The history of legislation on alcohol has been one long story of obstruction

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The Independent Online

If The Independent on Sunday were an old newspaper, it might greet the spectacle of yet another well-meaning minister threatening to get tough with the alcohol industry with weary cynicism. As a young and optimistic newspaper, however, we welcome the decision by Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat Home Office minister, to summon industry representatives for a talking-to.

He tells us that he is "challenging the industry" and that he wants action before the election. The drinks companies promised last year to come up with a voluntary code to restrict advertising and point-of-sale promotion, but Mr Baker thinks they are "drifting".

We may be youthful and optimistic, but we are not naive, and we realise that the politics of alcohol are fraught. David Cameron stepped back at the last moment, last July, from minimum unit pricing. This had been the option favoured by the Government, a policy strongly supported by Andrew Lansley, the former Health Secretary, who was shuffled out of that post in 2012. There are, however, problems with it. Minimum pricing would certainly have a disproportionate effect on poor people who are not problem drinkers. In our view, that is a price worth paying for the wider social benefits of cutting alcohol consumption generally and problem drinking in particular.

In the Prime Minister's view, however, the balance was tilted by the perceptions as much as the reality: namely that his is seen as a government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich. To be accused of taking away the simple pleasures of the working class proved to be more than Mr Cameron thought electorally wise. Instead of a legislated minimum price per unit of alcohol, therefore, it will become illegal to sell alcoholic drinks at lower than cost price from April. This will stop the worst of loss-leading supermarket promotions but, in our view, it does not go far enough.

The history of legislation on alcohol has been one long story of obstruction by the drinks industry to frustrate and delay measures to protect the public interest. If Mr Baker's determination to prove that the Lib Dems are serious about public health helps to stiffen the Government's resolve, so much the better. His instruction to his officials to try to find a way of "ungranting" permission for J D Wetherspoon to run a pub in an M40 service station is another welcome sign that a seam of common sense has – late in the day – been discovered somewhere in the catacombs of the Home Office.

The excuse for ditching minimum pricing was that there was not enough "concrete evidence" that it would work. But it works in Canada, for example, where nine of the 10 provinces have such a law.

And it must be asked why several drinks companies have gone to the courts to block the minimum-pricing law passed by the Scottish Parliament two years ago. As Alex Renton wrote in The IoS two weeks ago, they have done so not simply to block the law in Scotland, but because "the industry fears that the precedent set in Scotland will be followed by other cheap-alcohol-afflicted nations across Europe".

This is a good way to cut through the arguments on both sides: if minimum pricing were ineffective, why would the alcohol companies be opposed to it? We have had enough of petty politics. If Mr Baker can put pressure on Mr Cameron to rediscover some principle and promise minimum pricing at the election, both of them would deserve our youthful and optimistic praise.