November 28, 2012 10:34 pm

Brussels could challenge alcohol policy

Proposals for a minimum 45p per unit price for alcohol in England and Wales are in danger of legal challenge from Brussels, after a strongly-worded directive suggested that a similar policy in Scotland contravened competition law.

The Home Office’s 10-week consultation on the new 45p price, published on Wednesday, forms part of wider efforts to prevent alcohol-fuelled crime from blighting the high streets. But Scotland, which has already decided on a 50p minimum unit price, has had to pause following legal opposition from both EU member states and the alcohol industry.

The task facing the Scottish Parliament became even steeper after Catherine Day, the European Commission’s secretary-general, warned in a directive that Scotland’s plans would “create obstacles to the free movement of goods within the internal market”. Ms Day also “invited” the authorities not to introduce the minimum 50p price.

Rona Bar-Isaac, a competition lawyer at the Addleshaw Goddard firm, said that this could affect the UK government’s plans, once the Home Office proposals progressed beyond the consultation stage.

“You can fully expect that if the EU has raised these objections against Scotland, they will be able to make very similar arguments against the UK,” Ms Bar-Isaac said.

If the prices are implemented in Scotland and England, some industry participants have said the 5p difference could lead to “booze cruisers” making shopping trips south of the border.

The prime minister’s spokesman said the government would not be deterred by potential legal challenges. “We have said it’s our intention to bring this [minimum price] in and we are carrying on with the consultation,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Home Office consultation unleashed well-rehearsed criticism from the drinks industry, who argue the move will hurt moderate consumers and do little to stop those who drink to excess or are binge-drinkers.

The International Chamber of Commerce in the UK warned that, as demonstrated by the legal challenges, “there is a real risk that the measures will be viewed by some as an effort to freeze out low-cost competition in the drinks market”.

Andrew Wilson, director of policy, said this could inadvertently encourage protectionism: “In recent years governments have become extremely adept at introducing trade restrictive measures on public health and security grounds. This ‘murky protectionism’ has huge implications for the ability of British business to tap overseas markets.”

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