This marks the end of a five-year legal saga over the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012 where MUP was to be introduced and where a legal challenge from the Scotch Whisky Association, SpiritsEurope and the Comite Vins had delayed proceedings for five years as they three argued in favour of taxation over MUP.
According to the seven-judge Supreme Court decision, “Minimum pricing targets the health hazards of cheap alcohol and the groups most affected in a way that an increase in excise or value-added-tax does not.
“The latter would be felt across the board in relation to the whole category of goods to which it applied and unnecessarily affect groups which are not the focus of the legislation.”
The decision clears the way for the Scottish government to introduce MUP. This move will no doubt be followed by similar introductions England, Wales and NI.
“We’ll move as quickly as is practicable to put the policy in place,” promised Scotland’s Health Secretary Shona Robison.
Scotland is now set to become the first country in Europe to have a MUP for alcohol.
Here, the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland has welcomed the Supreme Court decision with VFI Chief Executive Padraig Cribben describing it as “a significant step on the road to introducing similar legislation in Ireland.
“Today’s news sends a strong message to our Government that there is no legal impediment to the introduction of MUP. It is now time for the entire Irish drinks industry to fully support Government plans for the introduction of MUP.”
The VFI has also declared itself in full support of the other provisions in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill and has urged the Minister for Health Simon Harris to press ahead with the Bill’s implementation.
“As publicans we fully support a Bill that will reduce misuse of alcohol through the introduction of Minimum Unit Pricing,” stated Padraig Cribben, “There’s a misconception that the drinks industry is totally opposed to the Bill. In reality, the pub sector along with independent off-licences, who together form the major part of the drinks industry, support the Bill.
“Much has been made of the effect segregation of alcohol from other products will have on small retail outlets. This is a cynical move, initiated and supported by large retailers to distract from the fact they continue to use cheap alcohol as a loss leader and footfall-driver.”
The VFI Chief Executive agreed that the delay in progressing the Bill is frustrating and that action needs to be taken.
In opposing Structural Separation in the Seanad debate last week, Senator Michael McDowell pointed out that he fundamentally disagreed with the notion of keeping alcohol separate from other products.
He didn’t accept that “separating nappies from alcohol” would achieve the desired result, describing the proposal as “mistaken in principle” as it wouldn’t stop young people from accessing alcohol.
But while the Minister for Health Simon Harris has agreed to meet small shopkeepers to discuss the issue of Structural Separation he’s stressed that his bottom line is to minimise alcohol’s visibility in retail outlets and that he’d have a “short engagement” on the issue.
The Minister had been speaking after nearly eight hours’ debate in the Seanad on the Bill before it passed Committee stage with 25 amendments.
However according to a report in the Irish Times recently, the introduction of MUP may be delayed until Stormont is back in operation and able to introduce MUP in NI simultaneously with doing so in RoI as originally intended.
In this the Minister’s allaying the concerns of some Senators who’ve warned that jobs could be at risk in border areas where people would cross the border to buy cheaper drink in NI due to the increased price differential.
According to a spokesperson for the Minister, he’d “like to see an all-island approach to MUP and notes that there has been considerable support for MUP in the North”.
But with no sign of devolved government in NI being restored following its January collapse, one wonders just how long the Minister can hold off making a move on MUP, especially since the Scottish government has been vindicated in its attempt to introduce MUP to Scotland.
It has been pointed out that under MUP legislation a can of lager here would cost €2.05 where it currently costs €1.70 in NI and a €21.46 bottle of whiskey in NI would cost €24.89 here, so a considerable price margin remains unless NI raises its alcohol pricing considerably.
The Bill will return to the Seanad for the Final Report stage.