Maybe in Manchester ... but not in Wales

Somewhere in David Jones' locker there must be a glimmer of perspective, but it's a long way down.

The Welsh Government has made no secret of its belief that stricter controls are necessary on alcohol. This is from a BBC report at the start of a consultation on drug and alcohol abuse more than two years ago:

Speaking at the launch of the consultation, Social Justice Minister Brian Gibbons said the economic and social costs of alcohol and class A drug misuse were estimated to be as much as £2bn each year.

"It also puts pressure on public services, costing the NHS in Wales up to £85m a year," he said. "It is therefore right we should place a greater emphasis on alcohol and reducing the harm it causes."

Wales' Chief Medical Officer Tony Jewell said the strategy would target younger drinkers. "There is growing evidence that young people in Wales are starting to drink at an early age and regularly binge-drink – with consequent risk of injury, road traffic crashes, unsafe sex and anti-social behaviour."

BBC, 11 February 2008

As things evolved—particularly with regard to the policy the Scottish Government has proposed—the Welsh Government reached a firmer position, which Edwina Hart presented in an oral statement to the Assembly in April this year. This is an extract:

In some ways, it is common sense that lower prices lead to more consumption. But there is now strong evidence to support this assertion – major reports produced by the Institute of Alcohol Studies, and by the University of Sheffield, have demonstrated that increases in affordability of alcohol lead to increases in consumption. They have also shown that increasing the price of alcohol will reduce consumption, particularly amongst young people, binge drinkers, and harmful drinkers who are dependent on alcohol. So we believe that there is now a strong case for the introduction of a minimum price for alcohol.

But what can we do about this in Wales? Our substance misuse strategy sets out our determination to tackle the harms associated with alcohol misuse, and commits us to press for robust action to tackle the availability of alcohol, including:

•  Stricter rules on the promotion of alcohol,
•  Consideration of reducing demand by introducing minimum pricing, and
•  Increased taxation, linking levels of tax more closely to alcohol strength

We do not currently have the powers to implement these changes ourselves. Our focus has been on making the case to the UK Government, and I and my Ministerial colleagues have written on a number of occasions to highlight these issues. And I believe that opinion is swinging our way. In recent months we have seen calls for minimum pricing from the BMA, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, and the Parliamentary Health Select Committee.

Oral Statement on Alcohol Pricing Policy, 27 April 2010

So it shouldn't have come as any real surprise to David Jones when Edwina Hart wrote to the Welsh Cabinet asking to set in motion a process for devolving such powers to Wales. But it was. As we can read in this report today:

But Mr Jones told BBC Radio Wales that they were "rather surprised" about Mrs Hart's announcement, as alcohol licensing powers were "specifically excluded" from the devolution settlement.

Well, if they were already included, there wouldn't be much point in making a request, would there? For it is something that is outside the scope of the GoWA 2006.

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But to my mind, what he goes on to say displays an even greater degree of political ignorance:

Mr Jones said he would object in principle to powers on alcohol being devolved. He said the matter should be "properly dealt with on an England and Wales basis".

"Differential regimes could lead to so called alcohol tourism whereby people who live in Wrexham could go to Chester and do their alcohol shopping for a different price," he said.

If he—or even one of his researchers or a Wales Office special advisor—had read the Daily Telegraph a fortnight ago, he would know that local authorities in and around Manchester are intending to propose a minimum price on alcohol:

Manchester attempts to impose minimum price of alcohol

The ten local authorities in and around Manchester hope to pass a by-law that would set a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol, in an attempt to end to the cheap deals blamed for drink-fuelled disorder and health problems. It would affect all the pubs, supermarkets and off-licences in Manchester, Bolton, Rochdale, Oldham and the area covered by the The Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA), which has a population of 3.9 million.

This move would be far bolder than proposals by the Coalition Government, which have so far suggested investigating the banning of below-cost selling. A consultation has started to ascertain how to define "below-cost".

The Manchester idea has been pioneered by Our Life, an NHS-backed campaign group, which says North West England has one of the worst alcohol problems in the country. Andy Walker, at Our Life, said: "There are 1.3 million adults in the North West who drink hazardous or harmful amounts of alcohol. And the cost to the NHS North West, in terms of treating alcohol-related injuries and illnesses, is in excess of £400 million a year."

Daily Telegraph, 2 August 2010

So we see Manchester, an area with a very similar population to Wales, wanting to locally control alcohol pricing for its citizens in the same way as we want to do in Wales.

Now if the Tory party were being consistent, they would have dismissed Manchester's initiative out of hand. They would say it was illegal. They would say they were against the idea "in principle". They would point out that:

"Differential regimes could lead to so called alcohol tourism whereby people who live in Wrexham Manchester could go to Chester and do their alcohol shopping for a different price."

They might even go so far as to proclaim that:

"Laws over it would never be devolved."

But the Tories didn't do that in the case of Manchester. In fact they did precisely the opposite.

Despite retailers and the alcohol industry insisting Manchester's attempt stood no chance of passing the first legal hurdle, the Home Office said it was supportive of the idea.

A Home Office spokesperson said: "We welcome initiatives from local authorities especially when they are responding to the concerns of local people."

The lesson to be learned? If you represent the "local people" of Greater Manchester, the Tory/LibDem Government is all in favour of listening to your concerns and will support your initiative. If you represent the "local people" of Wales, that same government will not take any notice of your concerns ... and will dismiss your initiative out of hand.

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