Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 4:10 pm on 25th October 2007.

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Photo of Michael McMahon Michael McMahon Labour 4:10 pm, 25th October 2007

I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate, as the issue that is being discussed is important not only to parts of Scotland, but to every neighbourhood and all individuals who make up our communities.

It is right to acknowledge that drinking alcohol is not a bad thing per se, but the effects of misusing alcohol are, unfortunately, a problem for far too many people in our society, whether they are users of alcohol or sufferers at the hands of those who drink to excess. Indeed, the misuse of alcohol has probably become the major source of most of society's ills—literally, in respect of its health impacts.

Alcohol is a powerful drug, but it can be a source of enjoyment if it is used properly. That is the problem that we must face in debates on alcohol or alcoholism. Alcohol is too often a problem, but we can do more than hope that it will not be a problem for ever. As members have said, we must change attitudes so that alcohol use can be more of a social and health benefit—if that is possible—than a problem.

That was why I welcomed the enactment of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 in the previous parliamentary session. It was the first legislation for many years that not only attempted to tackle how the sale of alcohol was regulated but tried to educate those who mistreat drink into adopting more appropriate alcohol-related behaviour. I took slight issue with Hugh O'Donnell when he said that we had tinkered around with the issue for too long; in fairness, no one could say that the 2005 act tinkered around with the issue. It addressed the fact that its subject matter was not only a criminal justice issue but a health problem that cost our national health service more than £1 billion a year. One in 10 accident and emergency admissions was attributed to alcohol. People who lived in the most deprived areas of Scotland were four times more likely to die an alcohol-related death than those in less deprived areas. We could no longer allow such things to happen, and we tried to ensure that they did not.

That the act aimed to tackle underage and binge drinking in particular was vital. The attitudes of far too many people towards drink were becoming alarmingly dangerous. That was why we focused on bringing into the licensing regulations many modern social trends that had overtaken the existing legislation, such as dial-a-drink services and party limousines. Members who were also members in the previous session will be sick of hearing me banging on about those two things, which I did as the Licensing (Scotland) Bill went through the Parliament. However, the police raised such issues with me because they had identified that no legislation existed to allow them to deal with the trends that had emerged. Such issues were having such an immediate impact on the attitudes of young people that addressing them became important and the bill was the vehicle that allowed us to consider them.

It is right to blame underage drinkers for much of the havoc that alcohol can bring to society, but we must be careful not to single out a particular group, because the misuse of alcohol is a widespread problem that occurs across all age groups and social backgrounds. In fact, alcohol-related hospital discharges are most common in the 45-to-54 age group. That certainly surprised me and such statistics may surprise many other people.

Licensed premises that make money from the sale of alcohol must recognise that they are part of a community and that they provide a service that is unlike any service that other businesses provide. Given that such premises have an impact on wider society, we should ask them to pay a bit more if they do not provide their service responsibly. Therefore, I support the cabinet secretary in holding licensees to account for the social problems that they exacerbate as a result of their poor sales practice, just as I supported Paul Martin when he first raised that issue in 2005. I am sorry that other parties that were represented in the chamber failed to give their support, but it is a case of better late than never, I suppose.

I pay tribute to Kenny Gibson in particular for his speech. My parents were teetotallers, and I did not have to endure the types of experiences that he obviously had to. When I was thinking about what I would say, I wondered how I could bring some reality to the debate. The only story that I could think of was a light-hearted one that a friend told me recently. I do not want to tell it because I want to tell a joke; rather, I want to make a point.

The story is about a married couple who were sitting in a restaurant one evening. At an adjacent table, a woman was becoming uproariously drunk. Most people in the restaurant were being distracted by her, but the woman in the couple noticed that her husband was paying particular attention to the drunk woman and her behaviour, so she asked him why. He said, "You don't know this, but I was formerly engaged to that lady. It was about 10 years ago, before we were married." He went on, "I have had a happy life since that time. She has taken to drink in the manner that you see throughout all that time." His wife said, "That's a long time to celebrate." The point is that people see the use of alcohol differently. We have to strike a balance on the issue. Some will use alcohol appropriately and others will not. Some licensees will take their responsible seriously while others will be more lax. Some people think that alcohol is evil and want it to be restricted; others see it as a good thing and want easier access. If the minister gets the balance right, I will support his efforts to address one of Scotland's most serious problems.