Government 'buried' release of key evidence on minimum alcohol price before policy U-turn


Charlie Cooper
Wednesday 08 January 2014 01:00 GMT
Health campaigners have been pressing for tougher action on alcohol abuse
Health campaigners have been pressing for tougher action on alcohol abuse (Getty Images)

The Government “buried” key evidence in the run-up to a major U-turn on minimum pricing for alcohol, it has emerged, amid accusations from doctors that pressure from the alcohol industry was “instrumental” in blocking the policy.

A draft report from the University of Sheffield, which outlined the benefits of minimum unit pricing, was in the Government’s possession for five months but was not made public until after ministers announced the policy would not be implemented.

An additional report which concluded that the Government’s preferred policy would be ineffective was also delayed until after the U-turn announcement – at the Home Office’s request.

The revelation came as some of the country’s most senior doctors condemned the “high-level access to government ministers” afforded to the alcohol industry.

An investigation by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) revealed that ministers and officials met representatives from large drinks firms and leading supermarkets on numerous occasions – even after the formal consultation on minimum pricing had closed.

David Cameron committed the Government to introducing minimum pricing in March 2012, but the policy was scrapped in July last year. Jeremy Browne, then a Home Office minister, told the House of Commons at the time that the Government lacked “concrete evidence that its introduction would be effective in reducing harms… without penalising people who drink responsibly”.

However, John Holmes, a public health research fellow at Sheffield University, told the BMJ that the first draft of their research, which concluded that minimum pricing would reduce alcohol consumption and harms and would have only a small impact on moderate drinkers, was sent to the Home Office as early as February 2013.

Sheffield eventually published their two reports immediately after Mr Browne’s statement. The second report, which was requested by the Home Office itself, concluded that the Government’s eventual preferred policy – banning alcohol sales at costs cheaper than the tax payable on the product – would be 40 to 50 times less effective than a minimum price of 45p per unit.

The Conservative MP and former GP Sarah Wollaston claimed last night that the university had been “intimidated into not publishing its data” before the announcement, telling The Independent that she had also been denied advance access.

Mr Holmes said that after sending the second report to the Government, “the Home Office further requested that we did not release our appraisals of this policy ahead of any government announcement,” adding that the university agreed to the request.

The BMJ said its investigation revealed the “extraordinary level of access” granted by the Government to the alcohol industry. Documents, some of them obtained through Freedom of Information requests, reveal that the Department of Health alone has held 130 meetings with alcohol industry representatives since 2010.

In March 2012, David Cameron wrote that a minimum price of 40p per unit could mean 50,000 fewer crimes each year, while cutting alcohol-related deaths by 900 a year by the end of the decade.

“Of course, I know the proposals in this strategy won’t be universally popular,” he wrote at the time. “But the responsibility of being in government isn’t always about doing the popular thing. It’s about doing the right thing.”

In a letter to the BMJ, senior doctors including the Royal College of Physicians’ special adviser on alcohol Professor Sir Ian Gilmore and Professor Terence Stephenson, chair of the UK Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, said the practices of ministers and industry representatives had been “deplorable”.

A spokesperson said the Department of Health “utterly reject[ed] the allegation of anything untoward” in the meetings, adding that ministers and officials had had “a similar number or more meetings with health charities, health campaigners or the food industry”.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Coalition Government is determined to tackle alcohol abuse. A range of evidence was considered as part of the consultation on our Alcohol Strategy, which informed the Government's decision not to proceed with minimum unit pricing at that time.

“Alcohol-fuelled crime costs England and Wales around £11bn a year which is why we are taking a wide range of action including introducing a ban on the worst cases of very cheap and harmful alcohol sales.”

Alcohol lobbying: The evidence

By George!

On 14 July 2013, three days before the announcement that minimum pricing would not be introduced, George Osborne was among 100 MPs and members of the House of Lords who mingled with guests from the alcohol industry at the 20th annual dinner of the all-party parliamentary beer group. At the dinner, Mr Osborne was awarded the title of Beer Drinker of the Year for his decision to scrap the beer duty escalator.

Sajid’s Choice

In January and February 2013, during the Home Office consultation on minimum unit pricing, Sajid Javid, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, had meetings with lobbying groups. He had a beer named in his honour to thank him for his part in taking 1p off beer duty.

‘Voluntary action’

Public health minister Anna Soubry and Theresa May, the Home Secretary, hosted a meeting with representatives of the alcohol industry on 3 July 2013. According to the Home Office the meeting was held “to discuss the voluntary action that industry could take to help reduce problem drinking and the crime and health harms associated with it”. It was attended by representatives of supermarkets Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, and Tesco; drinks companies Diageo, ABInBev, and Heineken; and lobby groups.

Crosby’s client list

Conservative Party strategist Lynton Crosby’s Australian consulting firm Crosby Textor includes the Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia among its clients, according to the register of lobbyists in New South Wales. The Council has been fighting against proposals for a “minimum floor price” tabled by the Australian National Preventative Health Agency.

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