Leading Article: The case for saving bootlegged liquor

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE smooth workings of the market economy sometimes seem to be incompatible with charity and imagination. Yesterday's destruction by Customs and Excise of more than 10,000 bottles of imported beer and wine was a case in point. The official justification for the draining and crushing operation in Kent is that to dispose of the bootlegged liquor in any other way would further damage the livelihood of British manufacturers and retailers already reeling from imports from the Continent.

Yet surely some means of disposal must exist that would not distort the market. The damage would not be great if, for example, the stuff were auctioned for charity, or despatched to British soldiers in Bosnia. Readers may have other suggestions. This is not to deny that manufacturers and retailers of all forms of booze deserve a tot or two of sympathy. No one knows how much beer, wine and spirits has been imported since restrictions on imports for personal use were in effect removed last January, but it is undoubtedly a prodigiously large quantity.

Trade estimates, which suffer from what Germans call Zweckpessimismus (self-serving pessimism), put the loss of duty to the Exchequer at anything up to pounds 350m a year: the official estimate is pounds 250m including tobacco. As much as 14 per cent of beer consumed at home may hail from continental Channel ports.

Recent cuts in pub prices for beer may be partly due to this competition. Yet the trade does have a legitimate gripe. European Union governments have made little progress towards common excise duty rates. Britain's make virtually all forms of alcohol cheaper in France, except the more expensive wines. Until duties have been aligned, the axles of British vehicles fresh from the Continent will continue to be strained by crates of beer and wine, the temptation to flog it surreptitiously will continue to be too much for some, and British retailers in particular will continue to suffer.