Diana Johnson: The message in a bottle that makes no sense

AFTER several months of speculation, we finally have confirmation to Parliament that the Government have performed a u-turn on their flagship policy on alcohol, abandoning their intention to bring in minimum unit pricing and a ban on multi-buy deals.

As we know, this was the Prime Minister’s personal policy, and it was a policy that the Home Secretary was so keen to introduce that she made minimum unit pricing the first major policy announcement in the House 
of Commons on a Friday for more than a decade.

On Wednesday, Theresa May sent her Liberal Democrat deputy to the Commons to announce the u-turn. The Government may pretend this is not a u-turn, but the evidence is overwhelming. The consultation was never about whether or not to introduce minimum alcohol pricing; it was about what level that should be at, and the Government chose 45p to consult on.

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Here is what the Home Secretary said last year: “We will introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol. We will consult over the coming months on the level of the minimum unit price and will seek to introduce legislation as soon as possible.”

The Prime Minister said: “I know this won’t be universally popular. But the responsibility of being in government isn’t always about doing the popular thing. It’s about doing the right thing.” Perhaps Ministers could explain why, if it was the right thing to do then, it is not the right thing to do now. Will they explain what representations Public Health England has made about this policy u-turn?

Labour has been calling for a complete package of measures to tackle alcohol problems, including dealing with licensing, education in schools and giving public health a bigger role.

Labour has said all along that several issues with minimum alcohol pricing had to be addressed before implementation. We argued that it could result in a windfall to supermarkets, and we were concerned that it may not be compatible with EU law and also that it was not the magic bullet the Government were claiming.

But we also clearly offered to work with the Government to overcome those obstacles. They chose to ignore all those concerns and pressed ahead with their flagship policy on minimum unit pricing. So, of course, David Cameron’s election strategist Lynton Crosby has now ordered a u-turn, to get the barnacles off the boat, and minimum pricing, along with most of the rest of the alcohol strategy and other important public health measures, has been scrapped.

Instead, we now hear that the Government want to introduce a ban on the sale of alcohol “below cost”. That policy was first announced in a written ministerial statement in January 2011, so we have taken two and a half years to return to exactly where we started.

Ministers claim that this proposal will ban cheap supermarket sales, but research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that such a ban would raise the price of less than one per cent of the alcohol sold in the off-trade, with most of that sold in discount stores, not supermarkets.

The Government put minimum unit pricing at the heart of their approach and have now abandoned it, and many other policies are just not working. The late-night levy has not worked. Nothing has been done on education in our schools or on advertising. The alcohol strategy was meant to be about changing the culture of excessive consumption, but the level of binge drinking among 15 to 16-year-olds in the UK compares poorly with that in many other European countries.

Mentor, the drug and alcohol charity, says that 60 per cent of schools fail to teach drug and alcohol education more than once a year. And why is there no mention of the role for health and wellbeing boards, set up by this Government, and why is public health not a licensing condition? We are also still waiting for the Government to make up their mind on full cost recovery for licence applications for local authorities, which are struggling with reducing budgets and having to take enforcement action.

Given the measures in the statement on personal licences and temporary events, it seems to envisage that economic growth in this country will now be powered by the late-night drinking economy – is this the Bullingdon plan for growth?

After a two-year Whitehall farce over the Government’s alcohol strategy we have ended up exactly where we started. On minimum alcohol pricing, the Prime Minister, like the Grand Old Duke of York, has marched us up the hill and back down again. This is a Government who could not organise an alcohol policy in a brewery.