A minimum alcohol price would hit the poorest hardest

Cameron's new policy would further squeeze those on low incomes.

If David Cameron's announcement of a minimum price for alcohol was designed to distract attention from the Budget [Paul Waugh notes that in the last 10 years there have only been three ministerial statements on a Friday], it seems an odd choice of policy. At a time of falling real wages, here's yet another policy that tightens the squeeze on consumers.

The proposed 40p minimum unit price would increase the price of a £2.99 bottle of red wine to £3.76, the price of a 75p can of lager to £1.20 and the price of an 87p can of strong cider to £1.60. In addition, the government is considering banning the sale of multi-buy discount deals [e.g two crates for £20] in supermarkets. The Guardian notes that at 40p a unit, two 20-pack crates of Strongbow cider would cost a minimum of £37.30 as opposed to £20 at present.

Cameron's justification for the policy is that it could mean "50,000 fewer crimes each year and 900 fewer alcohol related deaths per year by the end of the decade." But whether or not these claims are born out [and if it doesn't work, will the government increase the price further?], the policy has two major shortcomings. First, that it penalises responsible as well as irresponsible drinkers [an approach at odds with Cameron's traditional emphasis on "individual responsibility"] and second that it hits the poorest hardest. As a recent ONS study noted:

People in poorer households spend a greater proportion of their disposable income on alcohol duty than higher wage earners.

In addition, any windfall will go to retailers and drinks manufacturers, rather than the state, which could use it for deficit reduction or alcohol-related programmes.

It's for these reasons that some in the cabinet, most notably Andrew Lansley, are sceptical. The Health Secretary told the Spectator last year:

I don't like a minimum price, we are acting against below cost selling. My problem with a minimum price, well I have two problems. One is it's regressive, so there are perfectly normal families who just don't happen to have much money who like to buy cheap beer or cheap wine. Should they be prevented? No, I don't think so and if you put in a minimum price, one of the journalists calculated that if you set it at 50p a unit it would add £600 million to the profits of retailers and drinks manufacturers which doesn't seem to me to be the right thing to do in these circumstances.

But, unsurprisingly, the hapless Lansley has been overruled.

There could, however, be some virtuous outcomes from the policy. It could help revive the pub trade, where the minimum unit price already exceeds 40p, by reducing the availability of cheap supermarket alcohol. In turn, this could encourage more sociable drinking.

But what do the public think? According to a recent ComRes poll, 44 per cent are in favour, with 41 per cent opposed. The political problem for Cameron is that, at a time of austerity, this is yet another policy that hits the poorest hardest. Forget the "squeezed middle", minimum pricing will hit the squashed bottom.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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