The Scottish Government paid thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ cash for minimum unit pricing guidance that put retailers “at risk of prosecution”, it has been revealed.
Ministers claimed they had “part-funded” two documents, drafted using legal advice from a private law firm on behalf of the Scottish Wholesale Association (SWA) and the Scottish Grocers Federation (SGF).
However, both the SWA and SGF said the Scottish Government had picked up the tab in full after they were invoiced for “independent legal advice” by TLT Solicitors.
The guidance, accessible via the Scottish Government’s own website, suggested some wholesalers who also sell to trade could use “dual pricing” to sell products below the ceiling unit price, despite no such exemption appearing to exist anywhere in law.
The Scottish Government denied it had paid directly for the legal advice to be produced, claiming the £21,000 of public cash handed over had been used for “producing and printing” the documents.
However, a spokeswoman for the SWA later confirmed the legal bill had been “invoiced to us and paid for by the Scottish Government”.
The SGF added the “majority” of the funds they received had been used to clear the invoice from TLT in full, while the rest was spent on promoting and distributing the guidance.
The process has been described as “highly irregular” by a leading licensing expert, given ministers typically ask civil servants to draft guidance and then have it scrutinised by a third party such as the Law Society of Scotland – a practice that is normally free.
It is understood the issue was raised at a meeting of trade bosses last week, with several leading figures in the industry questioning why ministers had splashed out thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ cash to fund guidance for private trade bodies.
Scottish Conservative tax spokesman Bill Bowman said: “The Scottish Government has an army of highly capable civil servants and lawyers who are paid handsomely to help run the country.
“But the taxpayer is expected to pick up the tab for the SNP’s costly mistakes. Why was the guidance of the Law Society of Scotland not good enough?
“The Scottish Conservatives supported the concept of minimum unit pricing, on the condition there is a sunset clause and that the case is legally sound.
“But the people of Scotland have been billed for legal work that Shona Robison has already had to bin. It doesn’t bode well for the health minister.”
The Courier revealed how Health Secretary Shona Robison had finally acknowledged legislation will need to be redrawn after Tayside-based licensing expert Janet Hood warned the guidance could be wrong in law.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said cash had been given to the two organisations for the purpose of “drafting guidance for their respective audiences”.
“Obtaining legal advice would be a matter for the organisations themselves,” she added.
“The funding provided was used for producing, printing and distributing the guidance products.
“We have not provided any money directly to any law firm in relation to guidance for Minimum Unit Pricing.”