‘A demonstration of the aesthetics of public policy’: Sir Peter Housden on how the Scottish Government introduced a minimum price for alcohol
A court ruling this month means a Scottish Government plan to introduce a minimum price for alcohol will finally go ahead. Its introduction is a nothing short of a thing of beauty in policymaking
Just as engineers and steel erectors might gaze at the new Forth Crossing and allotment-holders beam at their vegetables, these last few days will have seen public servants and politicians marvel-ling quietly at the beauty of minimum pricing of alcohol.
On 15 November the Supreme Court brought to an end a 10-year fight by the Scotch Whisky Association to have the Scottish legislation struck out. The legislation enables the Scottish Government to set a minimum price for a unit of alcohol. The industry argued that such a measure would distort the market and thereby EU trade and competition. In a crystalline paragraph, the court found it impossible to conclude that these considerations should trump the benefits offered by minimum pricing to population health and those most at risk of harm.
The facts are stark, unyielding and specific. Sales of alcohol in Scotland are 20% higher than in England & Wales and amongst the highest in Europe. Alcohol has become steadily more affordable. In the 1980s the determination of large supermarkets to capture the expanding ‘carry out’ market led to a spike in hospital admissions. This spike had not been recovered in Scotland and deaths from alcohol induced diseases have doubled in recent decades.RELA
Alcohol sinks its teeth into all classes of society but does not distribute its favours evenly. Scotland thus put in place a wide-ranging strategy to reduce overall consumption and particularly amongst those most at risk. People on lower incomes, including the young, and living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods are particularly prey to high consumption and exposed to risk of harm. The effects of alcohol misuse on Scottish society as a whole are well-understood and expressed in family break-up, patterns of offending including domestic violence, and in direct costs to the economy in health care and absenteeism from work.
The crucial piece of evidence on which the legal proceedings turned concerned patterns of consumption. Those most at risk of harm are the most disadvantaged. They are disproportionate consumers of cheap, high strength alcohol. A price signal was required. Evidence from two Canadian Provinces demonstrated interventions akin to minimum pricing were effective in the twin goal of reducing overall consumption and that amongst those most at risk. A seminal piece of research at Sheffield University modelled the effects of particular prices in Scotland. The case was clear. The method was novel but evidenced. A six-year trial was proposed. Who could possibly object?
Industry interests. Major international corporations heavily invested in the sale of cheap spirits, wine, beer and cider in Scotland fought tooth and nail to resist the notion that government could use health-based legislation of this kind to re-shape marked preferences and lower consumption. They argued that taxation based on retail price was sufficient. The court rejected this argument. Taxation cannot secure a minimum price. EU rules make it an inflexible instrument. And it would penalise most those on modest incomes. The judgement was decisive.
A thing of beauty? Yes.
As a policy measure, minimum pricing has a defining neatness and precision. It offers health benefits to both the general population and those most at risk of harm on lower incomes and in poorer neighbourhoods.
As a governmental process, minimum pricing was exquisitely fashioned. Clear and consistent advocacy and political intent was shaped and reinforced through close engagement with community and health interests. That force was translated into viable policy through the applied expertise of officials, analysts and lawyers. Across the project’s extended timelines, all concerned displayed espirit de corps and persistence as evidence was marshalled and updated to meet the ever-increasing rigour of legal scrutiny through the Outer and Inner Houses and onto the Supreme Court.
The outcome was a real a vote of confidence in devolution. The Scottish Government defined a challenge that, whilst by no means unique, has particular and harmful dimensions in Scotland. These have proven resistant to existing policy instruments. Through an act of public policy, they are now able to act on behalf of society as a whole.
Could there be any better demonstration of the aesthetics of public policy? And at its heart were civil servants. This being Scotland, they did their work without alarums and excursions, without bonuses and without ministerial excoriations on the need for ‘reform.’ Sometimes things happen to make you believe the world really can be a better place.
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