By Lindsay Ash
‘All I can say is that I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me,’ was a famous quote from the great man Sir Winston Churchill. These days, of course, if he lived in Jersey the quote would have been more akin to ‘alcohol has taken far more out of my bank account than I can possibly put in’.
Casting modesty aside (because again quoting Churchill, I am, like Attlee, a ‘man with much to be modest about’) no one had really raised the issue of the cost of alcohol in the States despite many telling you how much they represent the people of the Island and their interests until I was elected with a pledge to attempt to change things. As people often ask me why things didn’t change I think it’s worth looking at how things went and where they are now.
Let’s start at the very beginning because, as Julie Andrews sang, ‘it’s a very good place to start’. I was elected in 2018 under the banner ‘Get on the L.Ash’. People have always assumed this was some sort of rallying cry for the Island to push on and knock Latvia off their perch as No 1 drinkers. Sorry to disappoint but it really wasn’t. I had always been known as Lash due to my initials and someone at work suggested I had that play on words as my slogan.
However, it seemed to get me elected along with a pledge to oppose any further increases on alcohol – rather ironic that people voted for this but four years later a fully costed manifesto including free at the point of entry dental care for children and I was voted out… politics is weird.
So I arrived in the States Assembly and pretty much my first task was to argue against the increase in alcohol duty in the first budget. I managed to get agreement that it would not rise by more than inflation. This was the first time in more than 20 years that duty had not risen more than inflation.
I continued to argue this on every occasion with mixed results, from no rise at all to not having a rise on beer. That was overturned by the States Assembly led by the current Chief Minister.
These debates often saw me pitted against the Health Department and other areas. The health argument is interesting because it’s flawed. ‘Drinking is dangerous so put the prices up and people will stop’ – well, we’ve been following this route now for 25 years, sacrificing part of our tourist industry’s appeal on the back of it, and guess what? We are now ranked number two in a league table for consumption – it hasn’t worked. It also comes with the danger that it moves people into other areas such as drugs. Scotland has been successful in lowering alcohol usage but now has one of the biggest drug problems in Europe…coincidence? Probably not.
So to me the question is this– if alcohol is that terrible you go the Saudi route and ban it, that is the honest thing to do, but to allow your citizens to be exploited to the extent that occurs in Jersey is plain wrong.
Now, though, here’s the interesting thing – it’s not actually the duty that drives the cost of a pint higher than the UK. If you strip out all the tax which gives you the actual cost of the pint pure and simple, Jersey is way more expensive than the UK (spirit duty is higher on account of the UK not wishing to attack the Scottish whisky industry too much but our Treasury has no such qualms).
So then Lash, the government is not to blame for the price of a pint? Well, yes and no. The tax is less than the UK but, unlike the UK, they have allowed a virtual cartel to operate in Jersey, which was highlighted in the JCRA report in much better official jargon than I could muster, and that has resulted in us having prices akin to central London.
So once I had established the facts what could I do about it? Firstly, would I blame a FTSE-listed company for their pricing policy? Not really, it’s their job to make a profit and if you keep hiking your prices and people keep paying them… well, the job’s a good ’un. The problem lies, of course, with them being allowed to do that through lack of competition and that’s what I tried to change. What I could do without, though, is their pleading for the government not to hike drink tax because times are hard and we need to help hospitality etc etc and then when the tax was left alone whacking 50p on a pint.
Thus, having argued my case with a certain degree of success with the government, I decided to tackle the real issue – the lack of competition and a pricing policy that encourages it. My first draft of an amendment before the States resulted in me getting a call to have a chat with the Attorney General during which he told me in a charming and diplomatic way that I couldn’t bring such a thing. Well, I could but it was not possible to win it as the States Assembly had no power over alcohol issues, it rested with the unelected Licensing Bench. So I had to go away and rephrase it. This came as a surprise to many States Members who hadn’t realised they were powerless in this matter.
The revamped proposition was in three parts, firstly to ask the Licensing Bench to consider allowing price promotions, secondly to ask the JCRA to review the whole issue of drinks pricing in Jersey and thirdly to amend the licensing law by 31 December 2021 to have licensing policy decisions decided by the States Assembly.
I felt I would lose the drinks-promotion section but I won it. I was pretty sure the States would vote to bring back power to the elected body and they did, and I thought the JCRA looking into the whole issue was a no-brainer. Oddly, the Assembly voted not to but since then one has been done anyway.
However, despite these votes, the Licensing Bench has not allowed drinks promotions and the States Assembly has not been given the power to regulate alcohol policy and the Jersey public are continuing to pay over the odds.
I am often asked if Wetherspoons were banned. As I understand it they were not, they were merely informed that their business model of price promotions would be illegal in Jersey. A pint of Doombar in a south London ‘Spoons’ currently trades at £2.50. In one St Helier pub it’s £5.75. Are Wetherspoons run as a charity? Their share price would suggest otherwise.
Sadly we have certain politicians who appear to be happy with the status quo and the public footing the bill. It’s sad, though, when one of the major topics in a pub is how Jersey used to be such a great place for a night out but now no one can afford it.
You can apparently have a good night out without drinking but, as Hemingway said: ‘I drink to make other people more interesting.’ He could have added today, ‘but at these prices I’ll put up with the boredom’.
Lindsay Ash was Deputy for St Clement between 2018 and 2022, serving as Assistant Treasury and Home Affairs Minister under Chief Minister John Le Fondré. He worked in the City of London for 15 years as a futures broker before moving to Jersey and working in the Island’s finance industry from 2000. Feedback welcome on Twitter @Getonthelash2.