Scotch Whisky Association In Supreme Court Fight Over Minimum Alcohol Pricing

24 July 2017, 13:26 | Updated: 24 July 2017, 13:28

Supreme Court

Plans to use minimum pricing for alcohol to improve public health in Scotland are under attack at the UK's highest court.

A QC for the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) has told the Supreme Court in London there are a variety of better ways to achieve the Scottish Government's aim.

The SWA is arguing in a two-day hearing in London that minimum unit pricing (MUP) is ''disproportionate'' and illegal under European law.

Aidan O'Neill QC told seven justices: ''It is a political decision that pricing should be used to decrease alcohol consumption and improve public health.

''We point out that there are a whole number of ways in which pricing can legitimately be used in accordance with EU law to achieve those aims.''

Mr O'Neill said that, in principle, raising excise duty might be one way of increasing the price and achieving the same health benefits.

The fresh challenge comes after the Court of Session in Edinburgh, Scotland's top civil court, rejected the SWA's appeal against the measure in October.

But judges at the same court later gave the whisky body permission to take its fight all the way to the UK's top court.

The move is the latest step in an extended legal wrangle that began in 2012 over the proposals, which has delayed implementation of a policy aimed at tackling Scotland's drink problem.

The SWA says alternative pricing measures would be less disruptive of free trade and less distortive of competition across the EU single market, and would have at least an equivalent level of effectiveness in achieving the aim of the Scottish Government to improve public health.

SWA chief executive Karen Betts said: ''The Scotch whisky industry is an export-focused industry - 90% of Scotch is exported to 182 markets overseas - and we rely on open markets and free trade to sell successfully around the world.

''Minimum pricing schemes amount to non-tariff trade barriers and this is of real concern to our industry.

''Were other governments to follow the Scottish Government's lead, the Scotch whisky industry - which is an important part of the Scottish economy - would be damaged and with it the jobs and communities which rely on the industry's continued success.

''This risk to how we are able to trade internationally is now compounded by the uncertainties surrounding Brexit.''

She said the organisation is encouraged that evidence shows alcohol-related harm is ''on a downward trend in Scotland and more broadly across the UK'', but said it ''recognises that significant challenges remain in tackling alcohol-related harm''.

Scotland's Health Secretary Shona Robison said: ''We're looking forward to the judgment of the Supreme Court on Minimum Unit Pricing and if it is the positive outcome we hope for, we will move as quickly as is practicable to put the policy in place.''

The Supreme Court has to decide whether the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012 is incompatible with European Union law and therefore unlawful under the terms of the 1998 Scotland Act.

Scottish ministers have prepared a draft order specifying a minimum price per unit of 50p, but neither the 2012 Act nor the order have been brought into force pending the legal proceedings.

SWA will be joined in the case by industry bodies spiritsEUROPE and CEEV.

The appeal is being opposed by the Lord Advocate and the Advocate General for Scotland.

The seven justices - court president Lord Neuberger sitting with Lady Hale, Lord Mance, Lord Kerr, Lord Sumption, Lord Reed and Lord Hodge - are expected to take time to consider their decision and will give their judgment at a later date.