Alcohol

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 4:45 pm on 25th October 2007.

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Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour 4:45 pm, 25th October 2007

As others have said, we are not the moral majority on alcohol—Patrick Harvie is right that we are not in a position to be that. However, we are identifying that we have a drinking culture and a trend of heavy consumption of alcohol, with corresponding disastrous effects. The cabinet secretary talked about the statistics on the relation of alcohol to murder and death and we have heard from others about the impact on women's health. It is clear that alcohol is, first, a health and welfare issue, but that a bit of enforcement is required to act as a deterrent.

Setting the boundaries through enforcement is key to tackling the complacency that the cabinet secretary talked about. It sends a message to those who sell alcohol that there will be boundaries and that we will regulate if necessary, although in the wider public interest and not just for the sake of it. If we see irresponsible behaviour and difficult consequences, we should act. We need to turn round the idea that we do not have a big problem in Scotland—we need a new social responsibility. I hope and believe that there is consensus among the parties in the Parliament on the need to create a renewed social responsibility.

I am pleased that the cabinet secretary has agreed to accept the Labour amendment, which is on underage drinking, an issue that is important to us and which other members have talked about. Underage drinking can be harmful to young people. However, as Michael McMahon pointed out, it is important that we do not demonise all young people because, in 2004, 32 per cent of 13-year-olds did not drink at all and, of those who did, 42 per cent did so only occasionally. In tackling underage drinking, we are trying to prevent a culture from developing and becoming the norm.

We are thinking about the safety of young people and about the zero tolerance approach in communities, which Paul Martin talked about. It is odd that the police can stop anyone in the street—not just a young person—who has bought a product illegally and then pour it down the nearest drain, but that they can do nothing further. It is worth considering what should happen next in such situations—we should consider giving the police powers to refer. We are particularly pleased that, in accepting our amendment, the Government is, I presume, accepting our point that a summit involving all the parties and the wider stakeholders would be useful. I agree with Bill Aitken that enforcement is important in relation to licence holders and that we should take a hard line on that.

Assurances are needed. The Scotch Whisky Association, which has briefed us all, has concerns about where we might go on the matter. We must assure many people that our aim is to tackle the long-term behaviour of heavy consumption, not drinking in moderation. I want to talk about the boundaries for the sale of alcohol. I agree with Ross Finnie that education is key and that there is a welfare issue. However, we have a responsibility to set the parameters for the sale of the source of the problem. For today's purposes, Labour agrees with the principle of not ruling anything out. We must get across the message that the act of sale does not end the seller's responsibility. There is a fine line in determining which types of sale to restrict to reduce heavy consumption, because we do not want to penalise those who drink safely. Therefore, we must discuss the finer detail of how to achieve that.

We must examine the fact that the huge cost of dealing with the consequences of irresponsible behaviour is paid for exclusively by the public purse. Labour has already signed up to the notion that those who benefit may have to pay some of the real costs. I believe that that is heading in the right direction.

I will say a word or two about Michael McMahon's work on the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005. The issue is not only about pubs and clubs; it is about supermarkets and anyone who has a licence. Anyone who has been in Hope Street on a Saturday night will have been staggered—I was, certainly—by the number of limousines and the size of them. They are getting bigger and bigger. The people who pour out of those limousines on to the streets are clearly not sober. The serious point is that those operators must be covered by the act and must pay for the consequences of the behaviour of people who spill out on to the street.

Not long ago on the same street, the police could do nothing to close down a club at which serious and violent assaults took place. That situation must end. I hope that the cabinet secretary will come to my constituency, which has the highest concentration of clubs and pubs, to see some of the policing challenges in Glasgow city centre. I am sure that that would be a teetotal night.

I will finish by discussing scrutiny of the 2005 act. The cabinet secretary can correct me if I am wrong, but I have been advised that he said no when the chair of the licensing forum asked to meet him to discuss the act's impact and delivery. Perhaps the cabinet secretary will clarify the position. I am a wee bit concerned that, despite the excellent work that members did to develop an act to promote responsibility and safe drinking, some people think that the act will deregulate licensing. Clubs and pubs are already extending their hours in the expectation that the act will deregulate the licensing regime. Some serious discussion must take place to ensure that the act's intention comes to fruition. I hope that the cabinet secretary is prepared to meet all those who are responsible for implementing the act in the way that the Parliament intended.

In the short time that I have, I cannot summarise all the speeches. The debate has been productive and excellent. Dr Ian McKee talked about places of safety—the idea is good and worthy of consideration. Kenny Gibson made a brave speech and I am sure that we all thank him for bringing his experiences to the chamber. It is a tragedy for families to live with the abuse of alcohol. Paul Martin and Mary Scanlon were right to talk about the value of Alcoholics Anonymous, which has been an important organisation for many people. Claire Baker, Trish Godman and Marlyn Glen talked about the gender issue and foetal alcohol syndrome.

Labour supports a radical approach on alcohol misuse. The Government has our support in that direction, but we reserve the right to discuss the detail of proposals. The tide is turning and we will support the changes, which we hope will be made on a cross-party basis.