The Treasury's obsession with cheap booze and plastic bags shows just how much government policy is dictated by hysterical tabloids
Those of you who have long suspected this government's policy is driven primarily by mid-market tabloids no doubt feel confirmed in that view by the Budget.
An above-inflation increase in the duty on alcohol has been on the cards for at least the past year and duly arrived. But at least we did not have to suffer a lecture on the contribution this and future increases will make to reducing binge drinking. No, the Chancellor did not even twitch a black eyebrow in that direction, except to say alcohol was now too cheap. Oh yes? Relative to what? Presumably not the general rate of inflation, because a few weeks ago the Treasury disclosed that in the past 50 years the average price we pay for our drink, even net of discounting, has gone up by more than inflation.
No - the claim that alcohol is "too cheap" is essentially a value judgement, rather like the parrot cry of "cheap food" repeated ad nauseam by the anti-supermarket brigade. Both these terms are nothing more than sloppy substitutes for serious thinking about the problems they are supposed to explain.
Our so-called epidemic of binge drinking boils down to this: some 90% of those adults who drink consume less that the recommended guidelines per week, while the remaining 10% drink a good deal more. Overall consumption is on a downward trend and the UK occupies virtually the same place in the European boozers' league table as it did 40 years ago. There would have been a further reduction this year, even if the Chancellor had left the duty as it was. The squeeze on consumer spending will see to that.
Supermarkets will continue to compete on price as there is no legal way they can avoid doing so. Advocates of "responsible" retailing usually overlook the fact that any concerted effort by supermarkets to restrain competition on alcohol or any else will incur a heavy fine from the OFT.
The second triumph for the tabloids was the Chancellor's threat to force retailers to charge for plastic bags. This was pure populism. Supermarkets are already pushing bags for life and also seem to be cutting the plastic content of bags. Yet some are now so thin that any sharp-edged package easily cuts through the plastic and the resulting tear makes them useless for any other purpose such as lining a bin. They are now a one-use-only throwaway item.
But that's what happens when retailers allow their actions to be driven by the media.n
Kevin Hawkins, former director general, British Retail Consortium