IT was a recipe for a perfect storm. Take a call for a more effective approach to overprovision, add a proposed national target in a drive to reduce harmful levels of alcohol consumption and throw in a suggestion that alcohol retailers should yield up sales volume data – and it’s a tiny leap towards claims that trade operators could be forced to impose rationing.
The row started to brew after a presentation at my licensing conference last month when Alison Douglas, chief executive at Alcohol Focus Scotland, told delegates that 96% of new licence bids were approved; less than half of the country’s licensing boards had overprovision policies in place; a new strategy was needed to reduce alcohol consumption across the whole population; and the provision of sales information could strengthen licensing boards’ powers.
Subsequent reports that pubs, supermarkets, corner shops and restaurants could be forced to declare the volume of alcohol they sold as a condition of a licence being granted gave way to a monumental misunderstanding, with fears that retailers would face sales quotas.
You can imagine a sign outside a pub: “We have sold our annual allocation of alcohol.
Food and non-alcoholic beverages continue to be available.”But if I follow the proposal correctly it was never floated as a tool to restrict sales. Rather, those seeking a licence would be bound, as part of the application process, to provide a sales forecast that might result in alcohol floor space restrictions and curbs on trading hours as well as informing a licensing board’s approach to overprovision.
That certainly seemed to be the rationale when the idea was put to the Edinburgh licensing board a few years ago – and sunk without trace.
It also forms part of the wish list published by SHAAP (Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems) earlier this year: “Legally binding mechanisms should be established to ensure that authorities have access to relevant information about levels and patterns of sales in order to exercise the licensing principles.”
Yet, even when the proposal is properly understood, it’s totally flawed.
Sales forecasts provided by licence applicants would be unverifiable. They could well be wide of the mark. Accurate volume data would change over time. Unless existing operators were forced to hand over their trading figures, a licensing board would have a data bank that was hopelessly incomplete.
More fundamentally, in a system that measures the overprovision of outlets using “localities”, sales figures will reveal nothing about the whereabouts of the purchasers – nor could they even be a step towards assessing alcohol consumption patterns.
As the row continued, first minister Nicola Sturgeon stepped in with a categorical assurance that the quota reports were wrong: “We have no plans to restrict the amount of alcohol that can be sold in individual pubs or supermarkets, but we will continue to pursue an evidence-based approach to tackling alcohol harm.”
And, predictably, Ms Sturgeon took the opportunity to restate her government’s commitment to minimum pricing.
I reckon that puts the first minister in a paradoxical position.
We’re told that a floor price for alcohol could save over 2000 lives in the next 20 years. That predicted result is threatened by the ongoing court challenge to the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012 based on inconsistency with European Union trade law. Yet, Ms Sturgeon remains passionately wedded to Scotland’s continued membership of the European Union.
That illogicality aside, prospects for the early implementation of minimum pricing look remote despite the ‘leave’ vote.
While the UK’s exit is inevitable, it could take over two years to complete, might well include a trade deal of some sort and the current court battle in Edinburgh is likely to be continued in the UK Supreme Court with a final resolution at least 18 months away.
So, the future of minimum pricing post-Brexit is anyone’s guess.
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