Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 3:58 pm on 25th October 2007.

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Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat 3:58 pm, 25th October 2007

I did not actually connect the word "extreme" with the cabinet secretary's proposals. He should listen carefully.

Even a Liberal, Lloyd George, attempted to solve the problem in 1916 by nationalising the pubs in Cumbria to stop Scots coming across the border to get alcohol. Despite a raft of measures that included a ban on the buying of rounds—some members might be sympathetic to the idea of reintroducing such a ban—his attempt was not successful. Anecdotally at least, the measure led to a substantial increase in the production of illegal alcohol. That draconian step—bear in mind that I am describing a Liberal policy, rather than a Scottish nationalist one—remained in force until the 1970s, but it made no difference whatsoever to the consumption of alcohol in and around Carlisle.

No one doubts that in Scotland as a whole—and certainly among some teenagers—there has been a dramatic and substantial increase in the consumption of alcohol, but please let us be careful. Please do not let us use the increased consumption levels of a minority of teenagers as another weapon with which to demonise our teenagers and young people by calling them not only antisocial hoodies but drunken antisocial hoodies. Let us be very careful about doing that.

As Ross Finnie said, the problem is substantially a public health issue. Figures from the BMA, the NHS and Alcohol Focus Scotland all bear that out. Effective action requires a multidisciplined, joined-up approach as the way forward.

We must be cautious about using taxation and pricing as control mechanisms. Although loss leading by the retail trade is, if not illegal, morally questionable, research evidence from the Amsterdam Group and the University of Copenhagen goes some way towards undermining the claim that pricing and taxation are an effective way of proceeding. It seems significant, if not a little contrary, that alcohol consumption by young people has steadily climbed in northern Europe countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Finland and the UK—where the laws and taxes on alcohol mean that the prices are among the highest in the world—whereas such consumption has remained at substantially the same levels in southern European countries such as Greece, Portugal and Italy, despite the fact that alcohol is much more readily available and much cheaper in those countries. Consumption levels in those countries have been stable and consistent since the 1960s.

As Ross Finnie said, the problem is substantially a public health issue, for which a stand-alone criminal justice approach will not work. I welcome the cabinet secretary's announcement that the Government intends to have a co-ordinated strategy. The Government and the Parliament need to ensure that we enforce the current legislation and engage in health education and school education, but we also need to ensure that the industry—both retailers and producers—takes on board its responsibilities. At the moment, the industry sometimes seems more than a little disingenuous.

We must tackle the problem with a united front; it is not a matter for party-political division. I look forward to cross-party support for the measures that will be introduced.