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Cameron raises a glass to localism

By Paul Goodman

Picture 3 The Times splashes today with a spin-off from David Cameron's "PM Direct" event in Manchester earlier this week.  It reports his support, expressed in an interview with the Manchester Evening News, for local authority alcohol bans (£).  The Prime Minister said that proposals by ten local councils in Greater Manchester to introduce the minimum pricing per unit of alcohol in their area would be looked at “very sympathetically”.  (The Home Secretary would need to sign off any minimum pricing by-law.)

He said -

“I think if what you’re trying to do is stop supermarkets from selling 20 tins of Stella for a fiver that’s what we’ve got to go after...Where I want to try and help is ending the deep discounting on alcohol; people going and ‘pre-loading’, having bought from a supermarket where they were attracted by a price designed to bring them into the store."

As the Times points out, many health lobbies support national minimum pricing, claiming that it would save lives, while Andrew Lansley opposes the move, arguing that it would hit poorer people, and isn't necessarily the best way of reducing demand.  There are at least three issues at stake.  One's whether local minimum pricing would be effective.  (Many alcohol retailers say that it wouldn't, and support a national pricing policy.) Another's whether government, either national or local, should try to raise alcohol prices at all.  Yet another's whether local authorities should have ways of doing so if they wish.

I believe that they should.  If localism's to happen, councils must have more freedom (which necessarily includes the freedom to make mistakes, although the right of local people to force referendums is an essential counterweight).  They may well be a long distance away from gaining it in this case.  The European Court ruled earlier this year that a minimum price for cigarettes breached a European Directive.  So attempts by local authorities to set minimum prices for alcohol locally - or by the Commons to do so nationally - look to be frustrated sooner or later.

Parliament none the less has the power to raise or lower alcohol duties.  Tim argued recently that the budget should have radically restructured the tax system, raising "sin taxes" and cut businesses taxes.  There's a strong case for a blanket rise, but it would entail tearing up an election pledge.  Osborne's committed to the promise made in opposition to raise duties on high-strength drinks, such as many alcopops, and cut them on low-strength ones, such as some beers and ciders.  Such a scheme clearly wasn't ready for implementation in the budget, and would be sure to raise complaints about complexity and anomalies.  Perhaps that's why the Chancellor promised to "report back" on it in the autumn (and announced a cider duty cut).  Let's see what happens next.


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