Inside Track by Peter Martin
You might not like Gordon Brown, but are the Tories promising anything better? Judging by the latest initiative from the Conservative policy factory, the eating and drinking-out market won’t be getting any favours from a future David Cameron administration. The new proposal from the Tories’ social justice policy group is for an extra 7p on a pint and 20p on a bottle of wine as part of a plan to raise £400m or so in taxes in a bid to cut binge-drinking and stem alcohol abuse. Yes, this is from the Conservative Party. It just underlines the fact that these days the Puritans are everywhere and come in all political shades. It may be only a proposal and not yet policy, but it is symptomatic of the “something must be done” theme that runs through much of public life, epitomised in David Cameron’s need to mend our supposedly “broken” society. This is not to diminish the seriousness of the alcohol problem in Britain. But is the best solution to introduce what is little short of a scatter-gun tax on enjoyment that will hit the majority of law-abiding and sensible drinkers and the responsible pub and bar operator every bit as much as those with a problem? It would do nothing to focus on the price disparity between on and off trades, and makes current Government policy look measured and proportionate. It also comes at a time when there is evidence that fewer teenagers are now drinking regularly - partly because, according to a Trading Standards survey, it is becoming harder for youngsters to get hold of alcohol, which in turn is a result of targeted drinks industry action. The number of those who say they never drink at all has climbed from 12% in 2005 to 17% in the latest Trading Standards poll, of 12,000 children in north west England. Those who drink regularly, at least once a week, fell from 50% to 44%. The latest Tory initiative does not so much target particular problem areas but delivers a message that alcohol is bad, we should all feel guilty for drinking and pay the price too. This should be the most worrying aspect for anyone involved in retailing alcohol. Is this really how the once free-market party will be legislating if it gains power? What ever happened to choice and personal responsibility? With little to choose between the Puritan wings of either Labour or the Conservatives, the pressure on this market is unlikely to recede. It also looks as if what we currently have may be as good as it gets. We await Tuesday, when the full details of the Tory plan are unveiled. Peter Martin is the co-creator of M&C Report and the founder of The Peach Factory