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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.