Wednesday 26 March 2014

The limits of a local alcohol policy

So, another day, another event, another blog post.  This time, I don’t feel like a voyeur, because I actually plucked up the courage and got the opportunity to ask a question.

On Tuesday, I attended a Westminster Social Policy Forum event on alcohol policy.  It raised a huge number of issues for me, but I’m going to try to focus on just a couple here.  My main concern underlying the whole event, though, was simply the question of ‘what’s the point of this?’  As I understand it, these events should provide a forum (as in the organiser’s name) for policymakers to hear the arguments of both industry and public health.  I’ve written before about how this binary isn’t helpful – and I wouldn’t suggest that someone like Chris Snowdon, who presented what might be seen as an industry-friendly position, is really ‘the industry’.  However, there is something in the binary, because it was drawn on by a number of speakers, who obviously felt they were being cast in a certain role.

At the same time, the reality was one of a divided retail sector at least, as Paul Kelly from ASDA sought to pin the blame for alcohol harm on (a) convenience stores (who facilitate street drinking, selling more strong beer/cider than large supermarkets) and (b) the on-trade, which he feels has been let off in debates around binge drinking (!!!).  I know that journalists were rubbing their hands (or rather, frantically scribbling away) at his comments – and you can see why when you look at the sheer number of stories in the sector papers about ASDA’s current woes.

Chris has (oh so flatteringly) described me as ‘the lukewarm water between fire and ice’ on alcohol policy, and I’ve written before about how ‘the industry’ has a legitimate role in alcohol policymaking, so I’d like to think I’m not known for being on a particular ‘side’ of the debate.  However, my question on this occasion, and the issue that has been preoccupying me since, is sceptical of the statements from the industry.

Eric Appleby from Alcohol Concern made a plea for localism to mean genuinely local decision-making.  He noted that local areas had a good deal of choice, in whether or not to introduce EMROs and Late Night Levies, and so forth, but the industry was able to draw on national resources and influence to reduce the chances of these being accepted.

However, this idea of localism ran through the conference.  Speaker after speaker rose to say how they too believed solutions should be local, and sought to present this as being the consensus of everyone involved: that alcohol issues can only be dealt with locally.

My problem with this is that there simply isn’t this consensus, and saying doesn’t make it so – though if there had been one at this event it might have seemed like it to a policymaker.

It’s hard to argue against the argument that we need solutions that are tailored to local need and circumstances, and as a commissioner of local services I know the value of that principle, but it’s important to get behind the claim to understand what it means.

It means that national solutions, or those at a broader level, are unavailable.  But at the same time, we know that national policy shapes behaviour.

Crucially, this rules out serious price controls.  Bournemouth (and more recently other areas including Newcastle) have talked about – or even tried – local price controls, but they are fraught with danger around competition law and the voluntary nature of such arrangements raises the spectre of not-so-tacit collusion.

Ruling out MUP by talking about local solutions might be seen as convenient for the industry, but this isn’t just about the old MUP debate.  It could also be argued to be about education – one of industry representatives’ favourite causes.  There have been campaigns for effective PSHE to be embedded into the national curriculum – and the opportunity to do anything constructive in this vein at a local level is continuously eroding as more and more schools opt out of local authority control by becoming academies, meaning that a local authority can commission an education programme and then a huge proportion of schools can decline to take them up on it.

Even what Eric Appleby was envisaging could be local decisions – the introduction of an EMRO, for example – depend on national legal/regulatory frameworks.

Henry Ashworth, replying to my question (or rather, in classic conference style, comment), explained that he wasn’t saying there should be no national action, just that local action should come to the fore and be tailored to local circumstances.  That’s slightly missing the point though.  To illustrate how we need ‘localism’, he presented a map showing areas of the country coloured by the density of alcohol-related health harm.  But this doesn’t illustrate anything in itself.  We know that a considerable element of that variation is explained by independent factors such as deprivation, urban/rural settings, ethnic mix of local areas, and so on.  In fact, the variation isn’t so surprising when you take these things into account, and we can see national – even international – patterns in alcohol-related harm.  We know that alcohol consumption and behaviour are affected by factors not circumscribed by local authority or regional boundaries.

Localism, therefore, as I unwisely said to a journalist from The Grocer, feels a bit like a convenient argument, a cop-out when we should be having a serious debate about to genuinely get to grips with the issues that surround alcohol.

Henry Ashworth and the others on the panel know exactly what they’re doing with this narrative, and for the first time in a long time, I felt angered by ‘the industry’ in the way they were presenting themselves.  Miles Beale (as well as Mark Baird) again peddled the bizarre idea that statistical modelling isn’t ‘evidence’, when in fact he’d make use of these techniques all the time – in terms of judging brand recognition, making sales predictions and even, as he did in his own presentation, in presenting alcohol consumption figures.  And I felt Paul Kelly was being disingenuous throughout, with his comments about convenience stores and the on-trade, and his claim that Diageo would recoup any additional profits resulting from MUP.  It was all about conscious, contrived presentation – but dressed up as honest, constructive debate.

Next to them, Daniel Kleinberg from the Public Health division of the Scottish Government seemed a paragon of openness and neutrality, not criticising the SWA for taking legal action and (at least) delaying the introduction of MUP in Scotland – he said that he saw the delay as the result of court procedures, which might be unfortunate, but the challenge itself was a necessary, or at least reasonable, part of the process.  How I’d like to see that sort of helpful engagement from both ‘sides’ of this issue – and what a great reminder that Public Health officials can be constructive without being adversarial too.

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