David Martin: Booze blame and shame dangerous game

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I WAS struck by recent coverage of an Edinburgh Licensing Board decision in Tollcross for what seems to be a rather one-sided castigation of a board decision that, as far as I understand it, is based on two main criticisms.

Firstly, that the board had the audacity to take a decision based on its own merits. Secondly, the convenor disputed that there was a direct causal link between availability of alcohol and alcohol-related harm.

The fact is the fundamental principle of licensing is that each application should be determined on its own merits. The assumption against granting a licence is a very iffy concept and one, which I fear, is promulgated not on any rational thought or robust ­evidence base but on a dogmatic and, dare I say it, ideological desire to ­prohibit alcohol in Scotland.

There is no doubt, that a very small minority of Scots do abuse alcohol. However, there is also a very large majority of Scots who are quite ­capable of enjoying the product in an entirely responsible and safe way. Thankfully, the most recent figures tell us that this majority is growing, with a significant reduction over recent years in alcohol-related harm across Scotland.

That is not to say that there is no problem to tackle. For the small minority there is a range of very complicated and intractable social, cultural and psychological reasons of why they do it. Sometimes, of course, there is simply an old-fashioned abdication of responsibility.

However, in both cases I would strongly counter the argument that the main motive for alcohol abuse is simply the fact it was available.

That is why, when considering our public policy response, we must be wary of punishing the many for the sins of the few. Blanket over- provision policies, and spurious claims of availability, best summarised as the logic of “because it’s available, I must therefore abuse”, only serves to reduce consumer choice, restrict investment and ultimately punish the responsible majority.

In Northern Ireland this approach has been taken to its logical conclusion whereby the granting of a licence is conditional on the surrender of an existing licence. This has led to a situation where licences are scarce and where they change hands for exorbitant if not extortionate amounts of money. A situation we do not want to get into in Scotland.

• David Martin is head of policy and public affairs at the Scottish Retail Consortium