Herald Scotland (Scotland) – Supermarkets should pay share of alcohol responsibility levy

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Who should take responsibility for alcohol-related crime and disorder?

Clearly individuals ought to drink in a fashion that does not harm others or themselves and, de facto, taxpayers pick up the tab for the costs to the police and the NHS. Yet responsibility also rests with those who sell alcohol.

The idea behind the Scottish Government’s social responsibility levy, which took its place in the Alcohol Bill yesterday, was to shift some of the burden from the public purse to those who profit from alcohol. (It was also the obvious way to recoup some of the windfall that would have accrued to grocers, off-licences and supermarkets from minimum unit pricing, an idea that now appears doomed for want of opposition support.)

The principle of the levy is sound and, in a policy area that has suffered from politically-driven polarisation, it is gratifying to find some cross-party agreement. Alcohol misuse is costing the public purse in Scotland up to  £3.5bn a year.

The cost in human misery is incalculable. Public drunkenness leaves ordinary citizens feeling unsafe, especially on Friday and Saturday nights in our city and town centres. Reducing over-consumption and alcohol dependence are urgent priorities.

The levy would operate as a local tax, with councils using it to offset local authority expenditure. The hope is that it would enable them to be creative and innovative in the way they tackle alcohol misuse. As ever, the devil is in the detail.

It is unclear how the levy would operate, if at all, because the legislation merely establishes the power to raise it. Regulations will then be used to dictate how it will be used.

Among amendments accepted yesterday was a rebate system whereby licensed premises deemed to operate good practice could recoup part of the cost. This sounds good in theory but could make it cumbersome and expensive to administer, cutting substantially its potential to raise revenue.

And who decides what constitutes good practice? Surely this is the job of the licensing system that exists to reward and penalise good and bad practice respectively. That system would work better if infringements more often resulted in licenses being revoked or refused.

As Alcohol Focus Scotland has argued, the levy should apply to all premises, not just the problematic ones, across both the on- and off-trade. Less than 40% of all alcohol sold in the UK is sold through the on-trade. Of the rest, 84% is sold by the six big supermarkets, one-third of it through Tesco.

Pubs, clubs, restaurants and hotels are already suffering loss of trade as a result of customers “pre-loading” on cheap supermarket booze before going out.

It would be blatantly unfair if new legislation did not reflect this and created an even more uneven playing field between the on- and off-trade. All those who profit from the sale of alcohol should make a proportionate contribution.


Source: Herald Scotland (Scotland) , 06/10/10