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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MP after a moonlighting job? I've got the perfect opportunity

If it's really about staying in touch with the real world, how about something menial and underpaid? Or reforming parliamentary rules on second jobs...

There she stood outside Number 10 on 13 July last year, the new Prime Minister pledging with earnest sincerity her mission to fight injustice and inequality, to “make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us”.

 “When it comes to opportunity,” she promised the ‘just managing’ millions, “we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few". Another new day had dawned

But predictably since then it’s been business as usual. If we needed proof, George Osborne has provided it: those who have so little must continue to go without so that the man with so much can have it all.

What would it take for Tory backbenchers to trouble Theresa May’s serenity? Not her u-turn on Brexit. Nor her denial of Parliament’s right to scrutinise the terms of the UK's uncertain future. Certainly not a rampant Labour opposition.

But were she to suggest that they give up their adventures in the black economy and focus on the job their constituents pay them for, she would face a revolt too bloody to contemplate.

Fifteen years ago, I introduced the short-lived Members of Parliament (Employment Disqualification) Bill. My argument was simply that being an MP is a full-time job for which MPs are paid a full-time salary. If they can find time to augment an income already three times the national average, they can’t be taking it seriously or doing it properly.

Imagine the scandal if other public servants - teachers perhaps or firefighters – were to clock off whenever they fancied to attend to their nice little earners on the side. What would become of Britain’s economy if employers were unable to prevent their workers from taking home full pay packets but turning up to work only when they felt inclined?

But that’s what happens in the House of Commons. Back in 2002, my research showed that a quarter of MPs, most of them Conservatives, were in the boardroom or the courtroom or pursuing lucrative consultancies when they should have been serving their communities. And it was clear that their extra-curricular activities were keeping them from their Parliamentary duties. For example, in the six month period I analysed, MPs with paid outside interests participated on average in only 65 per cent of Commons votes while MPs without second jobs took part in 91 per cent.

I doubt that much has changed since then. If anything, it’s likely that the proportion of moonlighting Members has risen as the number of Tory MPs has increased with successive elections.

Their defence has always been that outside interests make for better politicians, more in touch with the "real world". That’s entirely bogus. Listening to people in their surgeries or in their local schools, hospitals and workplaces provides all the insight and inspiration a conscientious MP could need. The argument would be stronger were absentee MPs supplementing their experience and income in the menial, insecure and underpaid jobs so many of their constituents are forced to do. But, they aren’t: they’re only where the money is.

It’s always been this way. The Parliamentary timetable was designed centuries ago to allow MPs to pursue a gentleman’s interests. Until relatively recently, the Commons never sat until after noon so that its Members could attend their board meetings – or edit the Evening Standard - and enjoy a good lunch before legislating. The long summer recess allowed them to make the most of the season, indulge in a few country sports and oversee the harvest on their estates.

The world has changed since Parliamentary precedent was established and so has the now overwhelming workload of a diligent MP. There are many of them in all parties. But there are also still plenty like George Osborne whose enduring sense of entitlement encourages them to treat Parliament as a hobby or an inheritance and their duty to their constituents as only a minor obstacle to its enjoyment.

Thanks to Osborne’s arrogance, the Committee on Standards in Public Life now has the unflunkable opportunity to insist on significant, modernising reforms which remind both MPs and their electors that public service should always take precedence over private interest. And if sitting MPs can’t accept that principle or subsist on their current salary, they must make way for those who can. Parliament and their constituents would be better off without them.

Peter Bradley was the Labour MP for The Wrekin between 1997 and 2005.