Budget 2018: A missed opportunity

Dr James Nicholls | October 2018 | 5 minutes

Under the Autumn Budget 2018, duties are frozen for spirits, cider and beer while there is no new public health funding for alcohol treatment services.

Ahead of this year’s Autumn Budget, we called for a 1% increase in alcohol duties, ring-fenced to help address the crisis in alcohol treatment services. That 1% could have brought £100 million a year into essential services. We are disappointed, then, that the Chancellor has chosen to freeze duties for spirits, cider and beer, especially as there is no announcement of new funding for public health.

Freezing duties is always a popular move, and it is understandable that the Government would wish to support the drinks industry, especially after it has spent £9 million campaigning for a continuing freeze. The alcohol industry is also a major employer and so, inevitably, has huge influence with Government. But there are many, many reasons why this move should not be welcomed, or even greeted with apathy.

We all want good pubs to thrive, and there are many ways they can be supported. However, the Treasury’s own Budget costings suggest previous duty freezes have cost £4 billion, and this new round will cost hundreds of millions more. At the same time, Public Health England estimates that every additional £1 spent on treatment saves an estimated £3 in healthcare costs. So, as a result of this decision, less money will go into the Treasury, and far more will have to be spent on hospital and social care. In other words, it is a false economy.

We can add to this the human cost to individuals and families when treatment services collapse. Many thousands of people, including an estimated 200,000 children of alcohol dependent parents in England alone, are affected by heavy and dependent drinking, and know just how damaging it can be. If alcohol services’ budgets continue to be cut, those seeking help will not simply disappear; rather, they will be abandoned without support towards recovery. The toll on them and their families will be huge, as will the costs to taxpayers in the long run.

Around a quarter of alcohol industry turnover comes from people drinking at very heavy or dependent levels, and yet the industry takes no direct responsibility for addressing the enormous social costs that this creates for individuals, families and communities. Most local authorities don’t even have a fraction of £9 million the alcohol industry has spent lobbying to spend on supporting some of the most vulnerable in their community, on whom the alcohol industry relies for their profits. Yesterday’s Budget missed an opportunity for the industry to shoulder some responsibility. Instead, while profits are protected many local areas will continue to slash their treatment budgets – leading to increased pressure on hospitals, the police and social services and greater social costs for all.

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