Alcohol Misuse

– in the Scottish Parliament at 3:46 pm on 7th March 2007.

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Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 3:46 pm, 7th March 2007

The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-5692, in the name of Kenny MacAskill, on tackling alcohol misuse.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party 3:55 pm, 7th March 2007

The Scottish National Party's motion seeks to express the concern that is shared throughout the Parliament—and increasingly throughout the land—that Scotland has a significant problem with alcohol. The problem has been with us not just in recent years, but through the centuries. We must now face up to it and address it.

We accept that there is no simple solution to the problem that we face and that we need to tackle a multitude of factors. The Deputy Minister for Finance and Public Service Reform is right to point out, in his amendment, the need for individual responsibility. Our position is clear. We need Executive action, but we also need culture change throughout Scotland. That will involve enforcing and extending existing legislation and changing the attitudes of all Scots. Our motion focuses on misbehaviour, often by young people in housing schemes in Scotland, but alcohol misuse is not restricted to the young or to those in marginalised areas. It is found among people of all ages and classes. The Government needs to act on the problem of alcohol misuse, but each and every Scot needs to look at his ways. As someone who offended in the past, I recognise the error of my ways and the requirement to address my consumption.

The figures on alcohol misuse that the Office for National Statistics published recently are frightening and shocking. We should be concerned that alcohol misuse costs our country more than £1 billion. The health service will struggle to cope, not just to provide liver transplants, but in other ways. There are also clear correlations between alcohol misuse and violent crime, and between youth disorder, including antisocial behaviour, and the availability of cheap alcohol throughout the land. We need to address those correlations.

Problems do not occur only on Friday and Saturday nights. Sadly, many communities are blighted by misbehaviour throughout the week. It is clear that we need to tackle the availability of cheap drink to youngsters—and, sadly, children—who are a danger to others and to themselves as they drink themselves towards oblivion.

Our position on the Tory amendment is that we would, of course, welcome additional police officers on the beat. It is clear, and we have argued, that a visible police presence reassures communities and deters crime. However, there is a time and a place for simply chanting a mantra and a time and a place for recognising that we have to target matters. That is why we will not support the Tory amendment.

We readily accept and support a great deal of the minister's amendment. Over the years, we have supported what the Executive has done to tackle alcohol misuse, including its work with the industry, which plays an important role. However, we believe that there has been a significant change in Scotland that, to date, has not been tackled. That change is the growth of the off-sales trade. There has been a significant shift in the sale and consumption of alcohol away from on-sales and towards off-sales—that is, a shift away from people accessing drink in pubs and clubs and towards people buying drink from supermarkets and off-sales. Almost 50 per cent of the alcohol that is sold in Scotland is sold by the off-sales trade. We need to ramp up the action on that.

The Executive is to be supported—and has had our support—in the action that it has taken against the on-sales trade. It is also fair to say that the trade has tidied up its act. There are still recalcitrant traders, but the licensed trade in Scotland has done remarkably well, and further measures are being introduced.

We must now tackle the off-sales trade, because in many instances the people—youngsters, in particular—who are causing problems are obtaining their alcohol through the off-sales trade. They are not stumbling out of pubs and clubs after buying pints of lager or whatever; they are obtaining bottles of cheap cider and other drinks from supermarkets and off-sales premises. They are causing mayhem and carnage in our communities and are a danger to themselves.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

Does the member welcome the alcohol test purchasing scheme that is being rolled out, after being piloted in Fife, whereby retailers who sell alcohol to underage consumers are identified? Does he acknowledge that there is an issue to do with young people's access to drink at home and that there is a job to be done to educate parents too?

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

The test purchasing scheme is welcomed in the motion, and the member's comment about education for parents and children brings us back to the culture change that is required, so I have no hesitation in agreeing whole-heartedly with him.

There is irresponsible promotion and pricing in the off-sales trade. It is perverse that a person in Scotland can buy a bottle of cider that is cheaper than a bottle of water, although we are a nation surrounded by water and quite often deluged by rain. The price of alcohol in pubs is being tackled. We are outlawing two-for-one offers and irresponsible promotions that encourage people to consume as much drink as they can as cheaply as possible. A measure on two-for-one offers in pubs should surely apply to such offers in supermarkets. If it is wrong to encourage someone to buy two pints of lager for the price of one, it is equally wrong to promote the sale of two cases of lager for the price of one. We must tackle irresponsible pricing and promotion by extending the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 to cover not just the on-sales but the off-sales trade and we must then enforce the law.

Under the law of the land, alcohol should not be sold or supplied to minors. However, communities throughout Scotland know that the law is routinely abused. The sale of alcohol to minors is not always deliberate—people can be leaned on and threatened—but it is unacceptable. We need a proof-of-age card, because there is clear evidence from Canada and the United States of America, for example, that such an approach works and supports licensees who want to abide by the law. We must ensure that people who sell or supply alcohol to minors are prosecuted and have their licences revoked.

The action that we need to take is widespread and is not limited to the measures that the motion and amendments describe. We must tackle the problem, because it is growing. We must tackle not just the on-sales trade but the off-sales trade. We must address the irresponsible sale and promotion of alcohol and the provision of cheap drink, in particular in supermarkets. We must stop the sale of alcohol to minors, for their benefit and for the benefit of communities.

I move,

That the Parliament notes with concern the recent alcohol statistics published by the Office for National Statistics which show that men and women in Scotland are twice as likely to die an alcohol-related death as people in the United Kingdom as a whole; recognises the huge cost of alcohol abuse to the health service and the economy and its impact on families; further recognises the clear links between alcohol abuse and crime and antisocial behaviour; further notes that youth disorder and violence in many communities throughout Scotland are often fuelled by cheap and easily available alcohol; welcomes measures such as test purchasing and calls for the strict enforcement of existing licensing legislation to prevent the sale or supply of alcohol to those under age, and calls for the powers contained within the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 to be extended to off-sales premises, thus stopping irresponsible drink promotions in off-sales premises and the practice of deep discounting of alcohol by supermarkets.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat 4:02 pm, 7th March 2007

I welcome the opportunity to talk about an important subject and describe actions that we have taken as part of a long-term process of changing culture—I am glad that Mr MacAskill acknowledged that we need to change the culture. There are no short-term fixes that can immediately change behaviour in relation to the misuse of alcohol.

We are all too aware of the damage that excessive drinking can cause to our communities, our economy and our way of life. The statistics speak for themselves. We acknowledge that action is needed to tackle binge drinking and underage drinking and to change the culture in Scotland.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

I have quite a bit to say and I want to make progress, but I will give way to the member soon.

We cannot have a short-term approach that targets one issue but ignores others. Unfortunately, the approach that the Scottish National Party has taken today tends to target just discount pricing.

The Executive has taken action, through the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005. It is worth restating what that act does and the measures that are being taken to crack down on a wide range of irresponsible promotions in on-sales and off-sales premises.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

Yesterday, the Local Government and Transport Committee considered a statutory instrument that will allow clubs to open to the public and sell cheaper drink, 52 weeks a year. I do not think that the instrument's implications were entirely clear to members of the committee. Extensive lobbying is going on. Will the minister consider the instrument's implications?

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

As Mr Crawford will remember from discussing the matter in committee, the occasional licences provided for by the regulations that we dealt with yesterday are for boards to give to clubs for one-off extensions for special occasions. They are not expected to be used on a wide scale. It is for the local licensing board to decide when that is appropriate. That is the context that members must understand in relation to those regulations.

For all premises, both on-sales and off-sales, we are banning promotions that encourage people to consume a larger measure than they had intended; promotions based on the strength of the alcohol; promotions that reward or encourage drinking alcohol quickly; and promotions that offer alcohol as a reward or prize.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

I do not have a lot of time, but yes.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

It is just a quick question. Will the Executive ban drink that is considered to be too high in its alcoholic content?

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

I am just coming to that matter.

For on-sales premises, we are banning promotions that offer alcohol free or at a reduced price on the purchase of another drink. We are also requiring that free tap water and reasonably priced soft drinks must be available. We are banning promotions that involve unlimited amounts of alcohol for a fixed price, and we are requiring that prices be maintained at the same level for 72 hours, so as to ban happy hours. That package of measures represents tough action, which will have a significant effect on the way in which alcohol is promoted.

We are also taking measures to tackle underage drinking. The 2005 act has already been used to pilot the test purchasing of alcohol, and Fife constabulary's work has been extremely successful. We have decided that test purchasing should be rolled out to all police forces on 1 May, subject to parliamentary approval. That is another example of tough action being taken to tackle underage drinking and those who sell alcohol to under-18s. Licensing boards will have the power to take away individuals' licences if they are caught under the test-purchasing rules.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

We will shortly publish the outcome of research that examined issues around off-sales promotions and antisocial behaviour, as we promised during the stage 1 debate on the Licensing (Scotland) Bill. We will consider that work very carefully and then decide whether we need to go further. In considering whether other sorts of promotion need to be restricted, we will take an evidence-based approach to developing further policy. We must be careful not to go for the headline-grabbing gimmick approach, which does not deliver real results. I welcome the significant progress that is being made by many retailers to roll out the challenge 21 scheme, which is a valuable tool in tackling underage drinking.

The effect of alcohol and antisocial behaviour on our communities is key, and we need to break the link. There are now about 1,500 more police officers in Scotland than there were in 1999 to prevent and detect crime—and preventing crime and disorder is a key principle of the 2005 act.

It is easy to say that more legislation is needed and that, somehow, that will be the magic bullet that solves Scots' love affair with the booze. That is a blinkered attitude that will achieve nothing. A focused and comprehensive approach to achieving a long-term culture change is needed and we are in this for the long term. It is about changing culture and behaviour over the coming decade.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

We can change culture, as the smoking ban shows. It is about creating a society where alcohol misuse is no longer acceptable.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

That inclusive approach is the right way to tackle Scotland's love affair with the booze.

I move amendment 5692.2, to leave out from "with concern" to end and insert:

"the damage excessive drinking can cause to physical and mental health, our communities, our economy, and our way of life; notes the success of the Fife test purchasing pilot and welcomes its proposed rollout to all police forces; welcomes that the vast majority of licensed retailers in the Fife pilot refused to sell alcohol to those under age; believes that the provisions of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 provide a solid foundation for future action to combat problem drinking; notes that this Act already sets out a range of irresponsible drinks promotions in both on-sales and off-sales that will not be permitted when the Act replaces the current licensing regime; welcomes the publication of the updated Plan for Action on Alcohol Problems and the industry partnership agreement, the actions from which represent a significant programme to reduce alcohol misuse; supports the Executive's commitment to extend the Keep Well initiative as a way of ensuring that those most at risk from the effects of excessive drinking in our deprived communities are offered advice and support; recognises that the problems associated with excessive drinking require action from industry, government and individuals, and notes that changing culture and behaviours will require a long-term collaborative approach where everyone takes responsibility for our society's excessive consumption."

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

I call Nanette Milne to open for the Conservatives. You have four minutes.

Photo of Nanette Milne Nanette Milne Conservative 4:08 pm, 7th March 2007

Alcohol misuse is one of the most serious public health problems facing Scotland. Long gone are the days of my youth, when alcohol was available at home only during the festive season. Friday and Saturday evenings saw the occasional drunk, usually middle-aged and male, staggering out of the pub at the 9.30 closing time. Pubs, with their sawdust-strewn floors, were not where respectable women would be seen, of whatever age.

Contrast that with any city centre today, with hordes of young men and women spilling out of nightclubs as late as 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning in a sorry state of inebriation. Girls as young as 15 boast of having no recollection of what took place on a night out, and many young people of both sexes end up in accident and emergency departments, which struggle to cope with the influx of drunk patients, particularly at weekends. It is small wonder that there is an increase in antisocial and violent behaviour, in road accidents, in sexually transmitted disease, in unwanted pregnancies and, ultimately, in the onset of alcohol-related liver disease at an alarmingly early age.

Every six hours someone in Scotland dies from alcohol abuse—a stark statistic that masks the misery, pain and suffering of lives destroyed, relationships ruined and the devastation of grieving families. I am glad that the SNP has brought the debate to Parliament today because we must find some way of changing today's binge-drinking culture into one in which alcohol is enjoyed by the majority of people at a level that is safe and, indeed, can be beneficial to our health.

There is no quick fix to culture change, but it can be achieved, as we have seen with drink driving, smoking and the wearing of seat belts. It takes years of education, hard-hitting public broadcasting and often, ultimately, legislation. We have a long way to go in the battle against the misuse of alcohol.

We must start by curbing underage drinking. Young people and their parents must be made aware of its serious consequences, and parents must learn that it is unacceptable to turn a blind eye to their teenage children's activities. My local community policeman tells the story of an irate, well-to-do, west-end parent claiming back a bottle of vodka confiscated from her 14-year-old son, because she had given it to him. Such irresponsible behaviour simply cannot be condoned.

Retailers must play their part in enforcing the law. It can be difficult to judge the age of a teenager, and I commend the social responsibility of retailers who voluntarily refuse to sell alcohol to people under the age of 21 and ask for proof of age. Community police have a good record of locating and dispersing underage drinking groups, but sadly, too few of our communities benefit from a police presence at night.

The new licensing legislation approved in 2005 is meant to end the happy-hour culture and stamp out speed drinking in pubs and clubs, but ahead of its implementation in 2009 some licensees are already replacing happy hours with rolling promotions of cheap drink and spirit prices as low as 50p.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

I hope that the member will recognise that we can amend the schedule to the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 to deal with the situation if we think that on-sales are trying to circumvent the promotional bans that we have introduced.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

You have one minute, Mrs Milne.

Photo of Nanette Milne Nanette Milne Conservative

There are so many licensed premises today that competition for custom is fierce, and licensing boards should be seriously considering the proliferation of alcohol licences and their effect.

Although I welcome test purchasing, I hesitate to support the SNP's call for the powers of the 2005 act to be extended to off-sales premises, because I am assured that there is there no hard evidence to date that deep discounting actually leads to an increase in alcohol consumption. Research is under way into the relationship between off-sales and problem drinking in Scotland, and I think that we should await its findings before considering any further changes to the law.

I am pleased that the alcohol industry is taking very seriously the need to promote responsible drinking, and I welcome the recent partnership set up among the Executive, the Scotch Whisky Association and eight other trade associations to tackle alcohol abuse.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

I must hurry you, Mrs Milne.

Photo of Nanette Milne Nanette Milne Conservative

The Conservatives have previously called for a crackdown on owners of licensed premises that sell to underage drinkers and for businesses to become more involved in responsible drinking initiatives. It is good to see that once more, where we lead, the Lib-Lab pact follows.

There is a long way to go, but we are waking up to the serious scourge of alcohol misuse in Scotland and taking early steps to tackle it.

Photo of Nanette Milne Nanette Milne Conservative

We must support all initiatives to safeguard our society against alcohol abuse.

I move amendment S2M-5692.1, to leave out from "and calls" to end and insert:

"recognises that an increase in the number of police walking the streets would help to enforce the law, and welcomes the recent partnership between the Scottish Executive, the Scotch Whisky Association and eight other trade associations representing alcohol producers and retailers to tackle alcohol abuse."

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

I must stress to members that four minutes means four minutes—not four and a half, or four and three quarters. The rest of the speeches will have to be timed accurately.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour 4:13 pm, 7th March 2007

I welcome this afternoon's debate on tackling alcohol misuse. In the north-east, we are acutely aware of the significance of the problem. It is certainly not one that will be solved over the course of such a short debate, but it is nevertheless important that we take opportunities to discuss an issue that pervades not just Scotland's health but the fabric of our communities, as it affects problems such as crime and antisocial behaviour.

Last summer, The Press and Journal ran a campaign to highlight the impact of excessive drinking on crime in the north-east. It was a successful campaign, and I was aware of its importance from my experience of joining Grampian police on a tour of Aberdeen city centre one Friday night into Saturday morning. People should be able to enjoy a pint on a night out and to socialise through drinking sensibly, but I was struck by the sheer number of people pouring out on to Union Street at 3 am. It seemed to me busier then than during some daytime hours. I hope that the Licensing (Scotland) Bill, which we passed earlier in this parliamentary session, will help the situation.

What was even more striking was that the people who were detained by the police that night—through what I must say were rapid police responses—were clearly driven to their offending because of binge drinking. Once apprehended, they were understandably contrite. They were asked what jobs they did, and they were often in good employment. When I viewed the process, it seemed clear to me that binge drinking had turned reasonable people into people who were capable of offending.

Of course, problems relating to alcohol misuse do not occur only in busy town centres. I know from the too many complaints that I still receive from communities throughout Aberdeen and in rural areas that alcohol misuse blights the lives of too many people. In particular, there is concern about young people drinking, or underage drinking, which even happens in public. The British Medical Association's briefing contains worrying statistics relating to that problem. It is clear that too many young people get access to alcohol at home. We must continue to urge parents to be vigilant about that, but it is also an issue for retailers. The vast majority of retailers sell alcohol responsibly, but I am pleased that the Executive has taken action in the area. When I heard about the test purchasing pilot in Fife that aims to identify retailers who sell alcohol to underage people, I immediately called for the scheme to be rolled out to the north-east if it proved successful. I am glad that it has now been rolled out nationwide, as it will be valued throughout Scotland.

It is important to acknowledge that the Executive has acted to discourage alcohol misuse. The new licensing laws focus on doing so. The Executive has already awarded the relevant powers to local licensing boards in some of the areas that the SNP has mentioned so that the right decisions can be made at the community level. It is important that licensing boards make such decisions. The Executive is, of course, promoting prevention and education through advertising campaigns and through working with organisations such as Alcohol Focus Scotland and with the industry, which has an important role to play. Indeed, the industry is treating its role seriously. At the local level, alcohol and drug action teams are working to help people who are suffering because of their alcohol misuse.

The Executive is therefore taking national initiatives and enabling local action to address alcohol misuse, which has blighted our society for far too long. Members should be united in their determination to address the issue. I welcome the tone of Kenny MacAskill's speech in that context, and am confident that the Executive will not relent in continuing to consider new ways to tackle alcohol misuse. I am sure that no serious party will say in the election that the Parliament and the Executive have not addressed the issue.

No one should pretend that there are easy or quick fixes to such a long-standing problem for Scottish society. However, concrete measures to tackle alcohol misuse have been taken in this session, and I am sure that more action will be taken to tackle it in the next session.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party 4:17 pm, 7th March 2007

I agree with Richard Baker: a multifaceted approach must be taken to address to the problem of alcohol misuse. There must be cross-party support for action, as my colleague Kenny MacAskill and the minister said.

I want to discuss the four As of alcohol abuse: affordability, availability, advertising and acceptability. I will deal with affordability first. Members are probably aware that alcohol was 54 per cent more affordable in 2003 than it was in 1980. In a recent Asda promotion, two litres of cider cost 69p. Alcohol Focus Scotland has stated:

"We have spent time collecting information about the price that alcohol is available at from supermarkets and off-licence outlets. We have been dismayed to find some cans of beer cost less than cans of cola".

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

The member has made a valid point. However, alcohol is even cheaper in many southern European countries than it is here, but they do not have the cultural problems with alcohol that Scotland has. They do not have binge drinking problems and do not experience the after-effects of such drinking that we see in our communities. What is his view on that?

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

There are as many levels to the problem as there are to the solution. However, it is clear from all the research—I am sure that the minister is not trying to contradict the research—that the cheaper the alcohol, the more of it is consumed and the greater the problem is, certainly in northern European countries. That is a fact.

I turn to the availability of alcohol. Between 1980 and 2003, the number of off-sales licences increased by 25 per cent in Scotland. In East Renfrewshire, where I live, the number of off-sales licences rose by 27.6 per cent over that period. There are more outlets for selling alcohol, which makes it easier to access it.

Society must ask itself striking questions about advertising. Do we want to allow alcohol to be advertised on television and radio before the watershed? Alcohol is a product for adults, so why should it be advertised in the middle of the afternoon? What about removing logos and brand names associated with alcohol from children's clothing, particularly sports shirts? I am glad that we are making progress in that respect. Such things should have been removed from children's clothing long ago, and I commend the Executive for taking action.

Supermarkets, of course, use alcohol as a loss leader and heavily advertise how cheap their drinks are. That must be controlled. For example, in late 2006, one advert from a well-known supermarket featured two men who were unable to get any more drink into the back of their hatchback car because it was so stuffed full of alcohol. Also in late 2006, another supermarket advertised the fact that its alcohol was extremely cheap by showing a man with crates of alcohol next to him and a large white van, which he was about to stuff full of alcohol. I believe that those are examples of irresponsible advertising on the part of the supermarkets and in no way reflect the kind of television advertising that we want to see for what is, for many of us, a difficult product.

Acceptability is an issue that we tend to ignore. Formerly, it was socially unacceptable for a man to be drunk in public, but that has changed. More recently, drunkenness among women has become more socially acceptable among some sections of society, in particular among younger people. That cultural shift, which should concern us all, has been encouraged and promoted by many so- called personalities. People used to go out to socialise and to have a drink at the same time. Unfortunately, many people now go out with the specific intention of getting drunk as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

The effects of drink becoming cheaper, more widely available and heavily advertised are increased consumption—consumption has risen by 23 per cent in the United Kingdom in the past 10 years—binge drinking and increased long-term problems. Many of the health statistics that have been published in the past week are very frightening. Over and above that, not only does alcohol have costs for health but it is a factor in crime. It costs us as a society more than £1 billion a year—

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

We must face up to those problems by enforcing the current laws and extending them to off-sales.

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat 4:21 pm, 7th March 2007

I want to concentrate on health issues. Many statistics on alcohol have been published recently. As Stewart Maxwell mentioned, alcohol misuse now costs the economy more than £1 billion per annum. However, the statistics also show that there has been a 72 per increase in alcohol-related deaths since 1995 and, since 1990, a 54 per cent increase in reported drinking by 15-year-olds and a 100 per cent rise in drinking by 13-year-olds.

It is good that we have an updated action programme from the Scottish Executive, but I agree with Kenny MacAskill that we need a culture change. I welcome the spirit of his remarks. We need to adopt what the British Medical Association has described as a multilayered approach. I believe that we can change behaviour in society. That is what happened when the wearing of seat belts was made compulsory some years ago and when the recent ban on smoking was introduced.

The Liberal Democrats believe that an extension in alcohol services can be achieved through the provision of additional community health facilities. I welcome the piloting of a telephone-based intervention service under the keep well initiative, as set out in the Executive's updated plan. However, alcohol abuse is manifest in more than just deprived communities. We need to roll out the anticipatory care concept across the whole of Scotland. Early intervention where harmful and hazardous drinking is identified is as important as early intervention where disease is found in an individual. Faster diagnosis leading to faster intervention and/or treatment will yield both short-term and long-term health improvements.

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat


We agree with the extension of the alcohol test purchasing pilot to all of Scotland in 2007. That is an important development in the updated plan. We also wish to see the progressive roll-out of bottle tracing schemes such as the one that was successfully piloted in the Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale constituency of my colleague, Jeremy Purvis. As the BMA has said, the existing legislation on the sale of alcohol to young people ought to be more rigorously enforced.

The Executive's action plan rightly supports the further development of youth community alcohol-free environments—CAFEs—but a number of such projects have serious problems with core funding. I see that in my constituency, where youth clubs have been unable to continue at their previous operating levels. If we really believe in curbing excessive alcohol consumption, we ought to defer and deflect the recruitment of young drinkers. Accordingly, the Liberal Democrats believe that it will be particularly important for the next Scottish Executive to address, with local government, the core funding issues for youth club and youth CAFE provision.

On the issue of recruitment, I believe that Westminster ought to talk directly to the drinks industry about sugary, fizzy alcoholic drinks. The clear intention behind so-called alcopops seems to be the recruitment of a generation of drinkers. Limiting the sugar content of alcoholic drinks could be beneficial not only because high sugar content is unhealthy but because it might contribute to deferring recruitment to alcohol consumption.

The stocktake of drug and alcohol action teams that is proposed in the updated plan will be a welcome opportunity to assess their individual and collective performance. It should also ensure that best practice is disseminated among the teams. I believe that DAATs ought to continue, but if the focus needs to shift, the sooner that is done, the better.

In particular, we see DAATs helping the public to understand alcohol consumption more—to understand what the safe level of alcohol consumption per day is by unit and to know how many units each drink contains. I suspect that vast numbers of people have little or no idea on either account.

I commend efforts to establish the impact of alcohol on the number of incidents that accident and emergency departments deal with and on the entirely unacceptable level of violence against health care staff in those departments that persists despite recent legislation. I endorse the work that is being done to improve the recording and reporting of information on drug and alcohol use during pregnancy, which is important.

It is important that NHS boards enhance services to deal with alcohol misuse and do so soon. If we are serious about reducing alcohol misuse, three further actions need to be taken. The first is to find out more about waiting times, and to reduce them, for access to alcohol services—a parallel exists with healthy eating campaigns.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

I am afraid that you must close, Mr Robson.

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat

We need to ensure that the public sector promotes the sensible use of alcohol.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party 4:26 pm, 7th March 2007

My colleague Christine Grahame told me that she first highlighted alcohol as a greater problem than drugs in 1999, when she asked the Executive to hold a debate on the problem of alcohol, which it duly did in spring 2000, so we have discussed the subject for a considerable time.

In my brief speech, I will focus on

"the ... links between alcohol abuse and crime and antisocial behaviour", to which Kenny MacAskill refers in his motion. Like Richard Baker and others, I have been out with the police. Last weekend, I was out with the police van between 11 o'clock on Saturday night and 4.30 on Sunday morning. No issue that we met in those five and a half hours was other than related to drink—none at all. No shout that the van dealt with and no incident that we encountered ad hoc was other than alcohol related.

I will give two brief examples from that evening to illustrate the effect of alcohol on people, which I guess will chime with others. The first is of an adult who, having drunk an excessive amount of alcohol, was asked to leave licensed premises. On the way out, the adult decided that revenge was appropriate, so he picked a fight with the glass door of the licensed premises and charged into it head first. The door won that battle. The individual ended up with about 8 square inches of skin hanging off his skull and blood was to be seen everywhere. The person was so inebriated that he was barely conscious of the damage that he had done to himself. He fought the Scottish Ambulance Service staff to prevent them from taking him to hospital; six policemen had to take him there to have his wound attended to.

The second example is of a 17-year-old youth who was drunk out of his mind. The police with whom I was out on patrol offered him the choice of being taken home to his mother or spending a night in the cells. It was a tribute to his mother that his first preference was a night in the cells. However, the police persuaded him that his mother would still be rather irritated with him in the morning and that he might as well get it over with. In the back of the van, he was so agitated that he sought to destroy the cage in which he was being held. He then lowered his trousers and urinated in the back of the van precisely to cause the maximum irritation. He was correct to fear his mother. We met his mother, and I have every confidence that she was going to deal with him.

Access to drink is a huge social ill when that drink is abused excessively. The problem is not new and we should not pretend that it is. In one of his books, T C Smout described a village in East Lothian in the mid-1800s that had one pub for every 14 people. In 1916, David Lloyd George introduced legislation that restricted drinking in the dockyards by ensuring that distilled liquors were held in bond, first, for two years and, later, for three years. When I first entered work in 1964, it took me 22 minutes to earn the money to buy a pint of beer; today it takes people on minimum wage only 15 minutes.

We need to address a huge range of problems, and I support my colleague's motion.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green 4:30 pm, 7th March 2007

I welcome this timely debate on an issue to which members in the next session of Parliament will have to return. Most members' speeches have contained points with which I agree and comments with which I disagree, but I do not think that we are that divided over this issue.

I am not wild about any of the positions set out in the SNP motion and the amendments. In time, the measures called for in the motion might well be needed, but I would want to wait and see the impact of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 in practice before I could feel able to support its stance.

The weakness of the Executive amendment lies largely in its reference to

"the damage excessive drinking can cause", while at the same time seeking to delete from the motion the fact that the statistics are getting worse. This is not something that should simply be noted; this damage is being caused right now.

The Conservative amendment deals with the issue through the very narrow filter of crime and disorder. Clearly there are connections between alcohol and such matters, but this is first and foremost a public health issue that cannot be dealt with simply by putting police officers on the streets.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

Rather than being a public health issue, is binge drinking not a matter of fashion? How do we change such attitudes?

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

The member certainly has a point. Members in the next session of Parliament who take the time to carry out more substantial work on this matter will need to identify some of those trends. The problem has got worse because of changes in the sector over the past 50 years that have led to the monopolisation of the industry by huge conglomerates. The previous model of a much more local and independent retail sector and more local production was, I think, healthier.

We should also listen to what young people say on this matter. When Scotland's commissioner for children and young people asked young people how we could prevent unhealthy attitudes towards alcohol from developing, their suggestions did not necessarily focus on drink alone. For example, they pointed out that, for many young people, going out and having a drink is the cheapest, easiest and nearest means of enjoying themselves socially. We need to provide and talk up positive alternatives that are cheap or, where possible, free.

We also need to avoid certain dangers. For a start, hitting small independent retailers too hard can damage rural and urban communities. Moreover, we should avoid doing the easy bits first. For example, it is easy to introduce measures such as those on off-sales opening hours that were agreed a while ago, but doing so ignores very difficult problems related to health inequalities and culture change that will take a lot longer to deal with and for which we have as yet no coherent solutions.

We must also avoid any accusation of hypocrisy. After all, I recall the day of the stage 3 debate on the Licensing (Scotland) Bill when, after the chaos in the chamber, many MSPs trooped out having spoken and heard words of Puritanism to enjoy the trays of free booze that awaited us.

Photo of Campbell Martin Campbell Martin Independent 4:34 pm, 7th March 2007

I am glad that everyone who has spoken in this debate has acknowledged that alcohol misuse affects every part of and every social class in Scotland. I am also sure that we would all acknowledge the great work done by many people in voluntary organisations, the health service and certain parts of Government.

However, a degree of hypocrisy permeates all the arguments about alcohol misuse, even those that take place in the Parliament. We are here today to say what needs to be done to tackle alcohol misuse outside the Parliament, but I am sure that there are very few MSPs who have not, on occasion, found themselves blootered; Mr MacAskill has already admitted to a small indiscretion, which resulted in his being a guest of the London polis. I accept that that applies to some members more than to others, but it is a reality. The degree of hypocrisy that exists among members permeates every strand of the argument about how to tackle alcohol misuse.

It is extremely difficult to tackle people's drink problems because all the good work, campaigns, assistance and support will be useless until the people concerned decide for themselves that they have had enough and that they want to stop. That is accepted by the professionals who are involved in caring for people who have alcohol problems. I speak as someone who has some knowledge on the subject. I have a friend whom I have known since I was at school who is now permanently hospitalised as a result of the consequences of excessive drinking. We can do our best, but the reality is that until a person who has a drink problem faces up to it and seeks help for themselves, all the good will and help in the world will not tackle the problem.

The problem that we face has two strands: preventing people from getting to a stage at which they drink too much and need help; and supporting people who find themselves in that position. If legislation is to be effective, we must work hand in hand with the drinks industry and with bar managers. I have spoken about hypocrisy and although I do not mean that in a terribly bad way, it is true that it exists. According to figures for 2005-06, the Government raked in around £14 billion in tax from the drinks industry in that year alone. I do not know how much money is being allocated to campaigns to prevent people from drinking too much or to helping people with drink problems, but I venture to suggest that the figure is not £14 billion. There is also a degree of hypocrisy among bar managers and staff, whose representative organisations regularly tell us that they endorse responsible drinking, but who are happy to line up the shots and rack up the profits. There needs to be less hypocrisy.

It is clear that, in certain areas, the Executive does good work to tackle such problems. However, we hear from councils across Scotland that cuts in Executive funding have meant that they have had to cut their budgets and their spending, which has had a knock-on effect on organisations that seek to support people with drink problems. For example, North Ayrshire Council completely stopped its allocation of £20,000 a year to the Ayrshire council on alcohol, which means that the organisation can no longer provide the services that it used to. Indeed, an office in Kilmarnock may now have to close. That is the reality. Perhaps we should stop the hypocrisy and help the people concerned.

Photo of Scott Barrie Scott Barrie Labour 4:38 pm, 7th March 2007

Alcohol consumption is on the increase, as are violence and health-related alcohol problems. That we must address the situation is not in doubt, but what we must do is far harder to determine. Prohibition is not the answer, as we all know from the experience in the United States. It is clear that the growth in organised crime was related to the passing of the 18 th amendment and that the social benefits claimed by prohibitionists were never realised.

Simply increasing the price is not the answer, as the experience in Scandinavia—where high alcohol prices have not led to a reduction in health and social problems—has shown. Last year, I was a member of a parliamentary delegation to Iceland. When we met representatives of the Icelandic Ministry of Health and Social Security, we learned that although alcohol is considerably more expensive in that country, the number of referrals to the acute alcohol unit at Reykjavik general hospital ran at 10 times the rate of admission to similar facilities in Scotland. Sweden and Denmark also have substantial problems with alcohol misuse. There seems to be a huge cultural difference between countries in the south of Europe and those in the north, into which category the UK and Scotland fall. Many of our problems are shared by our northern neighbours. There are no easy answers—we recognise the problem and its difficulties—but that does not mean that we should do nothing.

In tackling underage drinking, not for the first time Fife is leading the way. Test purchasing of alcohol, which was piloted in Fife, is to be rolled out throughout Scotland. Up to the middle of last month, 810 on and off-sales premises in Fife had been tested, with 17 per cent failing. Those that failed were split equally between on and off-sales, giving the lie to the belief that only off-sales are the problem with underage sales, as Kenny MacAskill seemed to suggest. The Fife pilot showed that, if licensees are found to be flouting the law and selling alcohol to kids, licensing boards must use their powers to take away their licences.

I am glad that Kenny MacAskill called for a proof-of-age scheme. I think that an identification scheme would provide that. I am glad that the SNP seems to be moving, at least slightly, in that direction.

I agree with everyone who has said that we need a culture change. We must aim to create a society in which the safe and sensible consumption of alcohol is recognised as being compatible with a healthy lifestyle. Perhaps if we were to educate our youngsters and adults in the delights of drinks other than cheap, fizzy, chemically produced lagers with a high alcohol content we would go some way towards educating our palates, which is a point that other members have made.

Kenny MacAskill made a fair point regarding off-sales promotions. He said that two-for-one promotions were wrong in on-sales premises and suggested that the same was true of off-sales premises. Nevertheless, I think that there is a slight difference. If someone buys alcohol in on-sales premises, they need to drink it at some point; they cannot take it with them. Those who buy cheap alcohol from supermarkets may not drink it straight away, therefore the two situations are not exactly the same. We should bear that in mind.

We all have a responsibility in the area of alcohol abuse, but let us not pretend that there are easy answers. I am glad that there seems to be a degree of consensus this afternoon. We must ensure that there is not just one solution but many solutions to the problem.

Photo of David Davidson David Davidson Conservative 4:42 pm, 7th March 2007

This has been a consensual debate, and I am glad that the SNP raised the subject this afternoon. As has been said by many members, we must take a multifaceted approach to the problem. It is not a single issue and, as Nanette Milne said, there is no quick fix. We must examine all the issues. The current licensing law needs to be reviewed at the earliest opportunity by the next Parliament. It cannot be postponed much longer. We must also do some research on off-sales, as there has been a huge shift to off-sales. We need more information on whether people make large purchases and take them home or consume them as quickly as possible.

Yesterday, along with other MSPs, I attended a hustings hosted by the Grampian joint branch board of the Scottish Police Federation. One issue that the police raised with us was the problem of alcohol fuelling crime—not just antisocial behaviour but other crime as well. They saw that as a bigger issue than the drugs situation, which is a major problem in their area.

Last Friday, I visited Albyn House in Aberdeen, just outside the city centre, which is run by a charitable organisation. Over the previous year, the police in Grampian delivered into its care 800 people who were incapable of looking after themselves. There are special rooms there in which people's breathing and so on is monitored, and emergency care is available. The police joined me on that visit. They are putting in place a liaison officer, as alcohol misuse is now a major issue for Grampian police. Organisations such as Albyn House need funding to continue to deliver that type of care.

We have an issue with rogue traders selling alcohol to underage people, but we also have an issue with adults purchasing alcohol and passing it to young people. I recently saw that being dealt with in England through the use of closed circuit television to check whether alcohol that was purchased by an adult was passed on to young people in the locality. That project is receiving police support.

What about parents? The police tell me that parents give their children alcohol and we have heard about experiences of that. Do those parents not understand? I have always believed that the issue is cultural and will not be dealt with by legislation—the legislative approach certainly has not worked in other countries in northern Europe. If we are going to educate people, we must educate parents, too. I go further and say that we must educate young people at school, before they become parents, about what alcohol can do to them, their future and the children that they may have.

We need better dialogue with the trade. I congratulate the Scottish Beer and Pub Association on its challenge 21 exercise, which is taking place in various forms throughout Scotland. There is a voluntary scheme in Portlethen Village, near where I live. The two off-sales premises in the village—a supermarket and a small convenience store—have come to an agreement and are now rigorous about to whom they sell alcohol.

Way back when Mary Mulligan was the Deputy Minister for Health and Community Care, she agreed with me in a debate in the Parliament that there should be a national proof-of-age scheme. I am disappointed that ministers recently turned that down, because there is an appetite for such a scheme. It would be much simpler to operate than requiring people to carry a collection of bits and pieces to prove their age.

We welcome measures such as the test purchasing scheme. However, there is no single answer to the problem. A lot of good work is going on, but we need to co-ordinate it and ensure that everybody does their bit to solve what is becoming a generational issue.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat 4:47 pm, 7th March 2007

There is a consensus among members about the importance of the subject. Several important issues have been raised during the debate, but every one of us acknowledges that achieving the aim of changing Scotland's attitude to alcohol is not an easy proposition. There is a deep-seated culture in Scotland of people being unable to enjoy a night out unless it involves copious or at least moderate amounts of alcohol. As a parent, I am concerned that the culture has changed, and I am sure that many members share those concerns.

When I was younger, people's objective was not to get out of their face before they went out. Unfortunately, from my experiences as a parent—I am sure that many members are in the same predicament—it seems that that is exactly what kids want to do nowadays. They want to buy booze, get out of their face and then go out and enjoy themselves. That is a difficult cultural shift that we must try to reverse. All members who have spoken acknowledge that that is not easy to overcome and that there are no easy answers to the difficult challenge that faces us all.

Photo of John Swinburne John Swinburne SSCUP

Does the minister agree that a total ban on advertising alcohol would be a gigantic step in the right direction?

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

I am not convinced that that would be the magic bullet that would cure everything, but I am sure that that proposal, among others, will continue to be discussed as we consider what further action we need to take.

I will deal with a couple of issues that have been raised. Several members mentioned proof-of-age schemes. The new Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 requires off-sales premises to obtain proof of age before a sale takes place. The test purchasing powers are meant to ensure that that is happening throughout Scotland.

Stewart Maxwell raised concerns about the increasing number of outlets. The measures on overprovision in the 2005 act should help local licensing boards to tackle that.

Nanette Milne rightly highlighted the crucial role of parents. If they do not ask questions about where their kids are, where they are purchasing drink or accessing alcohol and what they are up to at night, we will have little opportunity to tackle and overcome the problem.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Does the minister agree that, as part of the range of approaches that could be taken, there should be an increase in the number of places where byelaws on the consumption of alcohol in public places can be applied? In my constituency, the application of such byelaws has been successful in reducing the consequences of alcohol consumption. The measure could be used in other areas.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

That is certainly one approach. Local authorities have powers to ban the consumption of alcohol in public places. In my constituency, those powers have been used in Dunoon, where a huge problem of alcohol abuse and drinking in the streets was associated with the Cowal games. The situation has certainly improved.

The Executive has a long-term vision for changing culture and behaviours over the coming decade. We are working in partnership with the medical profession, the alcohol industry and others to achieve that change. Where statutory measures are necessary, we have put them in place. Tough restrictions on promotions are contained in the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005. It will be another couple of years before those restrictions come into force, so it will take some time to establish their impact.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

I assure the chamber that, where further statutory measures are necessary, we will bring them before Parliament.

As many members have said, this debate is about changing culture and behaviours over the coming decade, pursuing a collaborative approach with the alcohol industry and creating a society where alcohol misuse is no longer acceptable. Of course, Government has a role to play, but personal responsibility is also crucial. We must examine critically our own behaviour and think about the long-term consequences of drinking too much and the problems that it stores up for us, for our children and for society in general. It is time for us to take responsibility for our own drinking habits and to set an example for our young people to ensure that they are well educated about responsible moderate consumption and are empowered to make the right decisions.

We are in this for the long term. We want to change Scotland's culture with alcohol, and I believe that that is a realistic goal. The smoking ban is a case in point.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

If anyone had suggested 10 years ago that the Scottish Parliament would introduce a smoking ban to widespread acclaim, many would have doubted their sanity and their grip on reality. Nevertheless, the culture has shifted.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

On this issue, we can make progress and change Scotland's culture. An inclusive approach is—

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Minister, you must close now. I have switched off your microphone. In any event, you were repeating yourself.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party 4:52 pm, 7th March 2007

It is not like George Lyon to repeat himself, is it?

This has been a good debate, with a large degree of consensus on what needs to happen. That is positive.

One issue that we all agree on is cultural and relates to Scotland's unhealthy relationship with alcohol. In that relationship, we are by no means unique in northern Europe, but we certainly have a binge-drinking culture. No one is arguing that there is a single solution.

A number of issues have been raised, such as the need for education and the need to enforce existing legislation. However, we also have to consider where the gaps are. I will come back to that point in a moment.

We must have an honest debate about the consequences of what we see happening in our communities, and we must consider where young people are accessing alcohol. One large supermarket was recently selling packs of 18 440ml cans of Strongbow cider on a two-for-£16 deal. That works out at a mere 44p for a can, or 19p for a unit of alcohol. Unfortunately, such offers are within the reach of too many young people. I will come back to the evidence on the link between price and the abuse of alcohol.

As Kenny MacAskill said, we have to tackle the off-sales trade. A total of 50 per cent of all alcohol sold is now sold in the off-sales trade, where a bottle of cider is often cheaper than a bottle of water. The price of alcohol is an issue. As he said, a lot of progress has been made in the on-sales trade, with happy hours being curtailed. That applies in the pubs, but why are measures not being applied in the supermarkets where the same sort of two-for-one offers are rife?

George Lyon quite rightly said that no one has the easy answers, which is why the SNP has highlighted a number of solutions that need to be introduced. However, he said very little about the off-sales trade. Yes, test purchasing is important—we have supported it—but it is not the only issue that must be addressed. We should consider the research on off-sales and whether we need to go further. There is already a lot of evidence about the link between off-sales and youth drinking and disorder. We only need to speak to the police in whichever force we choose and they will tell us about the clear link between cheap off-sales and youth disorder and violence on our streets.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

I listed four or five measures to ban promotions in off-sales. Clearly, they will not happen until measures in the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 come into force. I argue that we need to determine the impact of those measures before we decide to go further. Research has been done to establish the link between off-sales and antisocial behaviour and drunkenness outside off-sales premises. On the basis of that research, we will consider whether we need to go further.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

I suppose that we are just anxious for change—and quick change. There is already enough evidence for us to take action. However, I am sure that we will continue to debate that.

George Lyon mentioned headline grabbing. Singling out for attention just one product—Buckfast—is a cul-de-sac debate. We need a sensible debate about all the measures that need to be taken. We believe that tackling the off-sales trade is one of those.

Nanette Milne talked about the proliferation of licences and the role of the licensing boards in curtailing that, and she is right. In considering licence applications many licensing boards are already paying careful attention to what is already available in an area. She said that no evidence is available to link the off-sales trade's discounting of alcohol with excessive drinking. I refer her to a British Medical Association briefing, which states:

"There is evidence that increasing the price of alcohol may be an effective method of reducing use by adolescents."

That evidence is in the BMA board of science and education document "Adolescent health" and elsewhere. There is already enough evidence for us to take action.

Stewart Maxwell talked about irresponsible advertising by supermarkets. He also mentioned the social acceptance of drunken behaviour, which he said has to change—given the 23 per cent rise in consumption in the past 10 years, I agree.

Euan Robson talked about early intervention. That is an issue. We need to ensure that the next generation of Scots has a different relationship with alcohol. That is important for all of us who are parents and who worry about what the future holds for our teenagers. The funding of youth alternative activities programmes should also be addressed. We need to ensure that there are other activities for our young people so that they do not just hang out with the crowd that is drinking down the park.

Stewart Stevenson talked a lot about the evidence that he had seen on the links between alcohol abuse and crime. He was the only person to raise the important issue of violence against our health service workers, some of which is driven by alcohol abuse. Appalling behaviour is dealt with day in, day out in our accident and emergency departments and our community health services. Drink is an important factor. The SNP will not tolerate such behaviour. We need a zero-tolerance approach to any violence or aggression towards our health service staff.

Rather surprisingly, given the Greens' approach to supermarkets, Patrick Harvie does not believe that the large supermarkets should be tackled on deep discounting.

Campbell Martin made some important points, which we should take on board. Although we may not always have the best relationship with alcohol—we are perhaps as guilty as the rest of society—as legislators we are in the position to do something about it. The SNP wants the Parliament to tackle an important area that has not been tackled to date—the off-sales trade.

This has been a good debate, and we thank everyone for their contributions.