The minimum price dilemma

Yes, minimum prices put money in the pockets of the supermarkets - but that's the necessary evil of the project.

The IFS yesterday released its analysis of the effect of a minimum price for alcohol, and it made some interesting points.

Far from what one would believe from Theresa May's statement on the matter, and the press focus on "supermarket multi-buys" and "cut-price alcohol", it is by no means just the cheapest booze which would be hit by a proposed floor of 40p a unit. With the average price-per-unit just 44.8p in their sample, a total of 47.8 per cent of drinks would have their prices hit by the changes. For some types, it's even worse. Over 80 per cent of ciders will see price increases.

The correlations between price and wealth, and price and quantity consumed, are as you would expect (or even slightly weaker):

The average price for those with incomes below £10,000 per year is around 42p per unit, compared to 51p for those above £60,000. Households consuming fewer than 7 units of alcohol per adult per week pay almost 49p per unit, compared to 41p for those consuming more than 35 units.

One area where the report isn't quite so compelling, however, is in its call for minimum pricing to be enacted through the tax system rather than a simple floor.

In this, the authors echo an argument made by Matt Cavanagh in the Spectator last month (Cavanagh clearly being psychic, he managed to address the issues a month before the Home Secretary even raised them), when he wrote:

Last year’s IFS study [pdf] estimated that, assuming ‘no behavioural response from consumers and no wider price effects’, the 45p MUP proposed by the SNP in 2010, if introduced across the UK, ‘would transfer £1.4 billion from alcohol consumers to producers and retailers’. By contrast, an MUP implemented indirectly, via changes in duty, would transfer this money to the Exchequer, which could reduce the need for spending cuts or tax increases elsewhere.

The problem for both the IFS and Cavanagh is that the single biggest argument the government has in favour of minimum pricing is wrecked if it is implemented through duty.

The rough plan (which would still be an enormous shake-up to the current way "sin taxes" are administered, and is likely illegal under EU law) would involve changing duty so that it is charged at a flat rate per unit, rather than the current variable rates depending on the type, as well as the strength, of alcohol. At present, only spirits, fortified wine and beer are taxed purely in relation to strength, with all other drinks merely striated into broad categories.

In order to prevent this increase being absorbed by supermarkets as a loss-leader (even with duty at the much lower current rates, it is possible to buy some drinks which are sold for less than the combined duty and VAT charged on them), this would have to be combined with legislation preventing shops from selling for less than the duty charged on the drink.

Enacting this plan would indeed result in a sharp rise in alcohol prices, with most or all of the increase going to the treasury rather than the supermarkets or drinks companies. But the increase would come from all drinks, rather than just the cheaper ones that the proposed minimum price is targeting.

With a minimum price, a drink which is already over the floor would see no price increase at all. If a three-unit bottle of beer costs at least £1.20 before the change, it will cost the same after. This allows the government to truthfully say that the price will hit heavy drinkers hardest and have the happy side-effect of aiding our flagging pubs (while slightly less truthfully claiming moderate drinkers aren't affected; the IFS confirms they are still "substantially affected").

The same is not true if the increase is put in through the tax system. That £1.20 bottle of beer may have around £0.60 of duty on it before the change, with production making up the other £0.60. After an increase, it suddenly has £1.20 of duty on it, with production still taking up £0.60. While, of course, supermarkets and drinks companies have profits which they may choose to cut into to prevent a price increase, it is unlikely they would be able to suck up all the extra cost.

In a 2011 paper, the IFS offer some concessions to this problem. They point out that as a percentage increase, a higher duty would still hit cheaper drinks more, and it is certainly the case that the public will be a lot more comfortable with any price rises going into general taxation than into the pockets of businesses.

Nonetheless, the strongest argument the government has in favour of minimum pricing is that it only affects the cheapest drinks and the heaviest drinkers. The IFS study already puts that on shaky ground, but trying to do the same thing through general taxation would blow a hole in the argument altogether. If the aim is simply to discourage drinking by raising prices across the board, then that can be achieved through taxation. But the aim of minimum pricing is more nuanced than that, and there's no point in pretending that it can be done any other way.

Not hit by a minimum price: a cocktail in the Ritz-Carlton hotel. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle