Sunday, 28 December 2008

The price of alcohol

(Published as a letter in today's Scotland on Sunday)

I'm slightly sceptical about some of the grounds suggested by retailers for a legal challenge against the Scottish Government's proposals to introduce minimum prices for alcohol.

My understanding is that, in general terms, competition law doesn't apply to decisions taken by public bodies in a regulatory capacity, except where such organisations are engaging in commerce themselves.

To that extent, there's no redress under competition law for those affected by market distortions in licensing decisions, such as numerical controls on betting shops, public houses, off-licences, houses in multiple occupation and taxis.

These regulatory issues are not the same as competition law and policy per se, which is reserved to Westminster. The alcohol pricing proposals relate to liquor licensing, which is devolved to Holyrood, with the existing regulatory powers mentioned above being further delegated to local authorities. Thus a challenge under the Scotland Act seems unlikely.

Perhaps the political perspective provides a more realistic avenue for challenging the SNP's proposals. For example, the party made much of the competition and consumer perspective during the recent debate on the merger of Lloyds TSB and HBOS.

Likewise, the proposal to limit off-sales to over-21s has been rightly lambasted using examples such as a soldier returning from a warzone and being unable to buy a bottle of wine; and in this regard, it's interesting that the Government's proposals for direct elections to health boards would allow 16-year-olds the vote.

Indeed, presumably the SNP's 20-year-old councillor in Aberdeen could in theory be deciding liquor licensing issues while unable to make a purchase from an off-licence?

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