I recently heard that a booze summit is being proposed. I don’t know how your mind works, but the first image that sprang into my mind was a Balvenie-sponsored Ben Rinnes with Cameron McNeish offering you a dram as you reached the top.
But alas, my imagination got the better of me, or wishful thinking. It turns out Scottish Labour Leader Jim Murphy has invited Scotland’s 42 football clubs, supporters and the Scottish Football Association to a summit at Hampden aimed at reversing the booze ban in football stadiums.
The ban was introduced in the aftermath of booze-fuelled violence at the 1980 Cup Final between Old Firm rivals Rangers and Celtic. The anomaly is that you can drink at rugby stadiums, but not football. I think this is short-term populist politics and ignores the wider public health issues.
Health Secretary Shona Robison, a former sports secretary, acknowledged Scottish football has changed since the 1980s but said “horrendous scenes” at the Celtic v Rangers match on February 1, which saw 37 arrests, demonstrates there is still an unacceptable amount of violence.
The problem with the proposal to lift the ban on booze is that it isn’t evidence based.
Growing up with a family of Celtic fanatics, my dad would never dream of taking me to an Old Firm match and warned me not to go even as an adult. To this day, he is very careful to pick the matches to attend with the grandchildren.
Shona Robison said: “Scotland has a difficult relationship with alcohol and our position has been to reduce alcohol consumption. I just think this goes in completely the wrong direction.”
I think it is equally short sighted and unfortunate that Mr Murphy cites class prejudice as a reason for the alcohol ban in football stadiums. It’s our attitude towards our consumption of alcohol as a country which needs addressing. And there are many reasons other than our health why the booze ban shouldn’t be lifted in football.
But much of tackling Scotland’s unhealthy relationship with the bottle, which costs Scots £3.6bn each year, equivalent to £900 for each adult in Scotland, is linked to powers which are only partially devolved.
As a consequence, we are only partly able to tackle the problem. This is often cited as a reason why we struggle to tackle poverty with welfare powers only partly devolved.
But it’s not just alcohol. Scotland faces several public health problems. Smoking accounts for around a quarter of all deaths in Scotland and gambling is also at higher levels than the UK average.
The previous Labour Government brought in the smoking ban in public places, and the SNP Government has focused on alcohol with initiatives such as minimum pricing, ending deep discounting and decreasing the drink-drive limit. However, the duties placed on these activities are key tools that are currently out of our control.
So, for example, while we can place a minimum-price-per-unit on alcohol, which increases the amount of money going to the retailer, we cannot look at a fairer taxation system altering the duty, which is the revenue that goes to the government, to tackle problem drinking. For example lowering duty on spirits such as the fine whisky we produce which is not exactly associated with binge drinking and instead increasing duty on problem drinks such as cheap ciders.
In addition, the public services which these activities most negatively affect our health and justice systems are devolved in full. As a result, we have the responsibility to deal with the problems associated with tobacco, alcohol and gambling, but none of the powers over the revenue they generate and how those duties are targeted, which is currently inefficiently and ineffectively.
So while most taxes are designed to raise revenue, other taxes are also aimed at changing behaviour. Tobacco, alcohol and betting duties are three such examples, or ‘sin’ taxes, and together raised just over £2bn in Scotland 2012/13.
Alcohol duty, like smoking, has been around since the 17th century. It is used as a way to try to restrict binge drinking as well as raising revenue. Again, revenue raised in Scotland amounts to 10% of the UK total, which is higher than our population share.
We could say the same about gambling duties. As well as raising revenue, these duties can be used to influence behaviour over an addictive activity. As with the other two sin taxes, Scotland contributes more than its population’s share in revenue.
A meaningful Home Rule settlement which devolves these taxes would enable Scotland to try different approaches in attempting to deal with particular problems we face. And indeed, if we are successful, we may end up leading the charge to changes throughout the UK as we have done already with smoking and minimum pricing.
The Campaign for Scottish Home Rule has sensibly argued that Scotland should be responsible for raising the money that it spends and in order to achieve that end, we need control of a wider basket of taxes than those offered by the Smith Commission, including these sin taxes.
There are numerous health and financial problems associated with smoking, drinking and gambling and these problems seem more prevalent in Scotland than the rest of the UK and as such are in need of a home-grown solution.
Bringing decision making closer to the people of Scotland with a Home Rule for Scotland with financial responsibility would not only make us accountable, it may end up being good for our health and just what the doctor ordered.