Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Budget 2008- breaking the link between alcohol and violent crime

Pub landlords are worried. Beer sales are declining. Pubs are closing. They want a freeze on beer duty. Should we be sympathetic towards them? On one level no. Consumer tastes are changing and if the industry hasn't adapted to that as a whole then it only has itself to blame. I certainly don't think that people are not drinking as much beer because of a few pence on the price (no matter what the landlords' elasticity graphs show!) Preference for wine (when was the last time you managed to buy a decent glass of wine in a pub???!!???), restaurants, some public health messages getting through, drink driving laws, people wanting to avoid town centres at night, all of these things have had an impact and they are by no means all negative.

But on another level I do have some sympathy. Pubs do, in the main, provide a safe and controlled environment for drinkers (obviously there are exceptions.) They are certainly more controlled than off-sales.

One of the key public safety challenges is to break the link between alcohol consumption and crime, particularly violent crime. This is a whole package of measures partly fiscal (levying off-sales to a greater extent mixed with anti-smuggling measures and tougher enforcement), partly about good licensing practice and good coordination with the local police. All these things cost money so it is strange to have a separation between the alcohol duty system and licensing system. Alcohol duty, though its expressed objectives are public health, is really about maximising revenue for HM Treasury (if you tax too much people smuggle or even stop drinking which lowers your revenues!) Licensing is more concerned with public order.

There needs to be a better coordination between the two. Public order and enforcement is expensive so the local licensing regime may need to be more flexible in order to ensure that sufficient revenue is available to local Councils and the police. That would make licenses more expensive so perhaps HM Treasury needs to be willing to accept less revenue from duty. So to break the link between alcohol and public disorder, we need to re-balance in favour of local enforcement and incentives over central revenue.

Perhaps the level of alcohol duty should not be a Budget decision at all? It is about making a combined decision about public health and public order and designing the duty/ licensing regime in accordance with that. Over to the Chancellor....

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