Politicians argue that alcohol abuse and related antisocial behaviour is a big problem and that minimum pricing is the solution. “Binge drinking isn’t some fringe issue,” states the foreword in the latest alcohol strategy. “The crime and violence it causes drains resources … generates mayhem on our streets and spreads fear in our communities”.
I agree. The cost of alcohol abuse in England & Wales is estimated at £21bn to £24bn annually, while in Scotland it is £3.6bn. The alcohol strategy is failing badly. But why?
Consider the “mayhem and fear” issue. The key weapons in the police armoury are Fixed Penalty Notices and, where appropriate, the courts. But less than 50% of FPNs get paid and habitual offenders know there is little the authorities will do if they don’t pay up.
Those that do go to court tend to be part of the 90% of convicted offenders who do not get a custodial sentence. The collection rates for court fines is not much better than that of FPNs. A recent report published by the Public Accounts Committee showed that almost £2bn of fines remain unpaid. It would seem the government’s position is that if criminals won’t pay fines, then the law-abiding public should pay higher prices for alcohol.
We believe there are four main reasons for policy failure. First, the proverbial ‘loophole’, second, the ‘law of unintended consequences’ third, that policy can be based on flawed, incomplete or ‘cherry-picked’ evidence and fourth, the ‘blinkered vision’ of policymakers.
We have organised a conference in Edinburgh to undertake a risk assessment of minimum pricing. The guest speaker will be Dr Richard Simpson MSP, who has considerable experience of working with alcohol abuse. We will be looking at behavioural and cultural issues, as well as the four policy failure perspectives.
The consequences of failing to act on alcohol abuse are considerable for the trade. The good news is that an alternative to minimum pricing will be presented at the conference. But will ministers listen?