Self-defeating ritual of ever-higher beer duty must end

Nik Darlington 11.11am

Beer duty has bilged by more than 40 per cent in the past four years, which means when you buy that satisfying pint of ale in your local pub, around 190ml belongs to the taxman.

Meanwhile, more than 5,800 pubs have shut up shop since 2008 at a rate of eighteen per week. Quite frankly, it’s miserable, the sort of news to drive even the most abstemious to drink.

MPs, pub and brewing industry groups and campaigners have made a number of attempts in the past to quash the beer duty escalator, including a successful debate in the House of Commons last November, but to no avail. The Chancellor plans to go ahead with a further increase in next month’s Budget.

Another increase in beer duty would compound the folly of minimum unit pricing and put ever-more pricing pressure on pubs. There’s a semi-plausible argument from some publicans that MUP could chip away at some of the supermarkets’ competitiveness and send punters back through their doors. Yet any gains from that are surely offset by the pain in everyone’s pockets of a dearer pint.

There is a certain silver lining. Politicians have always tinkered with booze taxes, and we can be pleased that Mr Osborne doesn’t wish to follow the lead of his Liberal predecessor Sir William Vernon Harcourt, who in 1895 tried to balance the budget on the back of beer duty alone.

In that November debate, economic secretary to the Treasury, Sajid Javid, hinted that beer duty was simply too lucrative to freeze or reduce, garnering £35 million this year and £70 million the next. Furthermore, it’s Labour’s tax. True, but it would not be the first time this Government had reversed a fiscal act of the previous government.

One gets the feeling that there’s a moralistic streak at play, similar to that driving the MUP policy. I have no truck with being slightly moralistic about alcohol, which is as dangerous a substance as any if in the wrong hands, in the wrong volumes, at the wrong time.

Yet that is why further inflating the price of proper beer in pubs is so self-defeating. Surely it is reasonable to encourage the survival of pubs as focal points of the community, and relatively safe, secure and well-monitored drinking environments. You don’t have a publican withdrawing that second bottle of Buckfast as you slouch on your sofa on Wednesday morning.

So to finish up, register your support with the Mash Beer Tax launched today and request the Chancellor calls time on ever-higher beer prices in pubs.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

No obstacle to Tories’ supporting more devolution after Scottish independence referendum is won

Andrew Morrison 10.48am

There are many things to be encouraged by in Ruth Davidson’s leadership so far. It is fair to say that Ruth is seen as a moderate, especially due to her pragmatic positions on social issues such as same-sex marriage and minimum unit pricing for alcohol.

The first stance is a recognition of a majority view and the fact Conservatives should not waste political capital on taking unpopular stands on social issues that are of no consequence to the truly pressing issues in our society, such as slowing social mobility, growing inequality between the best and worst performing state schools, and an increasingly inefficient Scottish NHS while life expectancy in some pockets of Glasgow is as bad as third-world nations.

The second stance is necessary in order to try and curtail Scotland’s disproportionately high alcohol consumption. A dogmatic approach against all forms of state intervention is not actually helpful if we are to achieve Conservative objectives such as reducing the number of problem households and cutting anti-social crime.

As for the pledged ‘line in the sand’ on devolution, this was offered during the leadership election and was designed to counteract fellow contender Murdo Fraser’s pledge to form a new pro-devolution centre-right party.

The Unionist camp will win the independence referendum, and win it by a clear enough margin to kill the issue dead for a generation. The campaign headed by the cross party Better Together group and the Scottish Tories’ Friends of the Union are designed to attract non-party political folk to our cause and are focusing the minds of all activists and elected politicians.

Ruth’s big challenge shall be the reversal of the ‘line in the sand’ position, to recognise that post-referendum a significant number of Scots shall sympathise with that point of view, especially as the mechanisms for administrating the tax-generating powers bestowed by the last Scotland Act are implemented and the public are made fully aware of the changes taking place.

For nearly everyone in the Union, the elephant in the room is the funding arrangement. The Barnett Formula. As a Conservative, I believe an organisation charged with the responsibility of representing the people also has the responsibility to show it is spending the people’s money sensibly.

My biggest criticism of the Scottish Parliament – one shared by others in the United Kingdom – is that the policies implemented by the Scottish Government have no impact on the tax revenue received by them because it is supported by the UK Treasury.

There is no incentive to rejuvenate Scotland’s under-performing economy because it will not translate into a direct boost in tax revenue. The Economist once compared MSPs to ‘teenagers living on an allowance’ – and like teenagers, that usually leads to discussion on whether they earn their keep sufficiently or not.

Tory reformists believe in reforming public services, welfare and the tax system in order to achieve a fairer, safer, more prosperous and coherent society. This reforming instinct extends to reform of the constitutional settlement that exists between Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. It naturally follows that moderate Conservatives would not blindly rule out any further devolution of powers.

I believe Ruth Davidson is a moderate, reforming Tory and will accordingly construct a compromise on greater fiscal autonomy and further devolution but only after the independence campaign is soundly defeated.

After doing so, the centre-right in Scotland can realise it’s full potential by talking about how one raises the taxes which are spent on public services, and consequently get Scottish political discourse on to discussing what we get out of public services such as housing, education and health rather than merely what we put into them.

Andrew Morrison is a member of TRG Scotland, serves as the current Vice-Chairman of the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party West of Scotland Regional Council, and stood for election recently at the Local Authority elections in May 2012. Andrew previously stood for the Holyrood constituency of Glasgow Pollok, being ranked number three on the Glasgow regional list.

Europe might let the Scots get away with minimum wine pricing rules

Nik Darlington 10.14am

On Tuesday, I reported on Scotland’s spot of bother with implementing their minimum price for alcohol policy. Downing Street will be taking note, because David Cameron is keen to follow Holyrood’s lead.

Essentially, the CEEV is claiming that because the EU classifies wine as an agricultural product, it cannot be subjected to pricing regulations by individual member states alone.

In a further development, reported by Decanter today, the European Commission says that exceptions can be granted in “certain circumstances”. The Scottish Government is banking on a public health argument to fulfil that. And according to one EU law specialist, the minimum pricing might not be discriminatory because all types of alcohol would be equally affected.

The European Commission’s lawyers are expected to deliver their verdict in the autumn. My guess is that the Scottish Government shall get its way. But it is a battle perhaps worth fighting for the wine industry, with Scotland being a lucrative export market. Only a few years ago, the World Health Organisation published data that showed Scotland to be one of the highest consumers of wine per capita in the world, ahead of the rest of the UK.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

Is it time to review government policy on drugs?

Alexander Pannett 11.15am

The fecund lands of Latin America have always attracted interest in their abundant resources.

From mines to agriculture, the region is particularly rich with potential for human development.

In recent decades, the coca leaf has been one of the more infamous products to have dominated the region’s trade. Used as a constituent of Bolivian tea, as well as a mild, traditional stimulant when chewed, it is now most widely used for producing cocaine.

Consequently, the USA has insisted that the coca leaf’s cultivation be banned, which has antagonised Bolivians who see the use of the coca leaf as an important part of their national identity. At the same time, demand from America and the wider West for cocaine has soared. This has driven cultivation and the huge profits it generates into the arms of organised crime.

For four decades, the “War on Drugs” has been fought by the USA and its allies against organised crime’s stranglehold of the illegal drugs industry. There has been only limited success in tackling the production of illegal drugs.

Where one area has its production cut through action by the authorities, production increases in other areas to compensate.  The $8 billion Plan Colombia reduced coca production there by 65 per cent, while production increased 40 per cent in Peru and doubled in Bolivia.

However, the biggest failure of the war on drugs is its inability to reduce the soaring demand in rich consumer nations such as the US. It is this demand, and the huge profits, that fuels production and gives organised crime the resources and firepower to intimidate and corrupt law enforcement agencies.

The more punitive and aggressive governments act in their approach to drug enforcement, the more violent and ambitious the drug cartels become. In Mexico, it is estimated that as many as 50,000 people have died as result of the ongoing government war against the drug cartels.

The failures and escalating violence of the drug wars has started calls by Latin American governments of a major re-think of the strategy behind drug enforcement. President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia has proposed the establishment of a taskforce of experts, economists and academics to analyse the realities of global drug addiction, trafficking and profiteering.

Other leaders have been more forward and called for the legalisation of drugs. It is also not just the more liberal-minded who are calling for an end to the drug wars. Guatemala’s President Otto Perez Molina, a general during the country’s “dirty war”, came to power promising an “iron fist” against drug consumers. He recently called the war on drugs a failure and argued that “consumption and production should be legalised” within certain limits.

There certainly seems to be much benefit in re-casting drugs as a social problem of dependency on stimulants rather than a criminal concern. This is the approach that is taken with alcohol and cigarettes, the most popular legalised drugs in society.

Regulation of drugs would raise quality, removing dangerous products from the streets. It would also lower prices and raise tax revenues that would pay for the health and social services needed to provide support to those suffering from drug abuse.

Consumers could still be required to be a certain age - 18, say - before they could purchase drugs (just as with alcohol); advertising would be banned (as with tobacco); drug-driving would remain illegal; and the law relating to liability whilst intoxicated would remain the same.

Substances could also remain banned if they are deemed to be above a certain addiction threshold. This would encourage legal drug producers to concentrate on creating the stimulating rather than addictive effects of drugs.

The negative side of legalisation is that it would likely lead to higher use as drugs would become more available. This would likely lead to higher numbers of drug-related health issues in society. When prohibition was introduced into the United States in the 1920s it reduced alcohol-related illnesses dramatically. As the monetary cost of drinking tripled, deaths from cirrhosis of the liver declined by a third. This improvement in health, however, hid and fed rampant criminality and a dis-respect for the law by all sections of society.

The law must protect us from other humans but, concerning our own bodies we have seen progressive strides, from abortion to sexual freedoms, in allowing humans the choice to do what they will with their own selves. Considering both the law and society already accept the right of humans to intoxicate themselves through alcohol, tobacco, coffee and other legal stimulants, it may be time to accept other drugs onto this list.

It would be naive to assume that the vast death toll and social cost of drugs in the Americas will not soon reach Europe. In many deprived areas it already has. To pre-empt such a social disaster we should respond to the call of Latin American governments and review our own government policy and attitudes towards drugs.

A drug-free utopia, after all, is a fantasy we could never achieve naturally.

Follow Alexander on Twitter @alpannett