Alcohol Sales (Age Limits)

– in the Scottish Parliament at 10:22 am on 2nd October 2008.

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Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 10:22 am, 2nd October 2008

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-2629, in the name of Murdo Fraser, on age limits on purchases of alcohol.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative 10:29 am, 2nd October 2008

Scotland needs a mature and reasoned debate on our relationship with alcohol. The statistics are frightening. The United Kingdom is in the world's top 10 for alcohol consumption per head of population and, as we heard last week, Scotland's record is worse than that of the rest of the UK. One in three men and one in four women in Scotland exceed the recommended daily limits for alcohol intake, and alcohol misuse costs Scotland around £2.25 billion every year.

Against that backdrop, the Scottish National Party Government was right to bring forward an alcohol strategy, and the Scottish Conservatives are happy to engage in discussions with it on many of the sensible proposals in that strategy. I am sure that the same goes for the other parties that are represented in the Parliament. However, it is a pity that our shared ambition to tackle Scotland's problems with alcohol has been overshadowed by one Government proposal in particular—the ludicrous plan to raise the age at which alcohol can be purchased from off-licences from 18 to 21. What a pity that that proposal has stolen the headlines and dominated the debate when we should be addressing issues on which there can be some degree of consensus.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

On the issue of consensus, the other main plank of the proposals is minimum pricing. Do the Conservatives support that? Did they submit alternatives in the consultation process?

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

The cabinet secretary—the minister, I should say; I am terribly sorry about the promotion—should listen carefully to my speech. I will talk about some of our alternative proposals which, I am sure, will satisfy her concerns.

Since the Government published its proposals in June to increase the minimum age at which alcohol can be purchased from off-licences, there has been a huge backlash against them. In particular, I pay tribute to the coalition against raising the drinking age in Scotland campaign group for its sterling work in marshalling public opinion against the proposals, with its petition with 10,000 signatures. There has also been opposition from the Federation of Small Businesses, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, the Scottish Grocers Federation, the Scottish Youth Parliament, the National Union of Students Scotland and a whole host of other bodies.

We believe that it is wrong in principle to raise the age at which alcohol can be bought from 18 to 21. There are problem drinkers of every age in society. Targeting 18 to 21-year-olds suggests that that group alone has a specific problem that other sectors of society do not have. The proposal is discriminatory, and there is simply no evidence to back it up.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

The member has lodged an all-or-nothing motion. Does he accept that, if we voted for it, we would prejudice—in fact, we might criminalise—supermarkets and local authorities that already exercise voluntary policies in which 21 is the age at which alcohol can be purchased? The motion would rule out local variation.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I would have thought that a qualified lawyer such as Christine Grahame would understand the difference between the law and voluntary schemes. I am disappointed that she does not understand that difference.

The SNP wants to create a ludicrous situation. Students would not be able to buy a bottle of wine or a few cans of beer to enjoy in their hall of residence or flat. It wants to create the even more ludicrous situation in which a 20-year-old soldier who has returned from a tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan would be unable to buy a bottle of champagne from an off-licence to celebrate his safe return with his wife. Someone who bought a bottle of champagne for him would be guilty of a criminal offence. In either case, the people involved would still be able to purchase alcohol in a pub. The proposal is inconsistent and unfair.

In defending its proposals, the SNP has put great emphasis on the pilot schemes that were carried out in Larbert, Stenhousemuir, Armadale and Cupar. It has claimed that the temporary restrictions on alcohol sales to those under the age of 21 substantially reduced crime in those areas, but we cannot extrapolate lessons about creating a national, permanent ban from those short, time-limited experiments in small geographic areas, where there was undoubtedly heightened awareness of the rules relating to alcohol off-sales. I can do no better than refer to what was said by the vice-president of the Royal Statistical Society, Professor Sheila Bird. She said that the Scottish Government was either spinning the figures or simply being naive. She said that a proper study was required and that the pilots did not constitute such a study. If the only argument that the SNP can marshal in support of its proposals is the evidence of the pilot schemes, it is on incredibly weak ground.

I say to Shona Robison that, instead of the SNP's proposals, we need a targeted approach that addresses problem drinkers, who belong to all age groups in society. I have no problem with talking about the pricing of alcohol, although I suspect that it would make sense to deal with that through the tax system rather than through some system of minimum unit pricing.

Above all, before we consider further legislation, we must ensure above all that the current laws are being properly enforced. The statistics show that, in 2005-06, only seven people under 18 were proceeded against in Scottish courts for buying alcohol or consuming alcohol in a bar, but we all know that under-18s seem to have no difficulty in purchasing alcohol. There should be a proper clampdown on those who break the current law before we consider changing it.

The SNP must be congratulated on its remarkable success in building a broad-ranging coalition against its proposals. It has succeeded in developing a true consensus in Scottish politics. The Conservative party, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and Margo MacDonald are all agreed. Of course, the consensus does not stop there. We know that SNP back benchers, councillors and grass-roots activists disagree with the proposals. We know that even the SNP's usually ultra-loyalist youth wing, the Federation of Student Nationalists, has come out against the plans. If the SNP cannot even persuade its party activists that the idea is good, why on earth should we support it?

The SNP Government believes that young people are responsible enough at the age of 16 to have the vote. In The Herald earlier this week, Bruce Crawford, the Minister for Parliamentary Business, said:

"The Scottish Government agrees that the lack of consistency with other legal rights on entering adulthood such as paying taxes, getting married or serving in the armed forces, leads young people to believe that their views are not valid or important".

I could not agree more. The SNP says that young people are responsible enough at 16 to vote but, in the next breath, it says that those self-same young people should not be able to buy a drink in a supermarket or an off-licence for another five years. I am delighted to welcome Bruce Crawford as the latest convert to our consensus. I hope that Parliament will join us in voting down these ludicrous plans.

I move,

That the Parliament rejects the Scottish Government's proposals to raise the age limit for purchasing alcohol from off-licences and supermarkets from 18 to 21.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party 10:36 am, 2nd October 2008

It is ironic that on the day when the SNP Government rolls out free school meals to five to seven-year-olds, some members obsess about providing alcohol to 18 to 21-year-olds. That speaks volumes about the Government's values and the minority interests of others.

The problem with the Conservatives' position on alcohol—as with so much—is that they carp and complain from the sidelines but have no ideas and make no input into the consultation. They have instigated today's debate on an issue that has been cherry picked from a comprehensive package of measures. They arrogantly dismiss the proposal out of hand on the basis of nothing more than dogma and a desire to play to the gallery.

Murdo Fraser, who comes across increasingly as a spokesman for Wal-Mart, either has his head in the sand or walks around with his eyes shut. He pursues the outdated line that alcohol misuse is a minority issue. It is not. It has an impact on everyone in Scotland in some shape or form in relation to health, the economy and justice. We cannot go on as we are.

We should not be surprised by the Conservatives' lack of understanding, given their past convictions and previous sins on passive smoking. We remember that Margaret Thatcher was the milk snatcher. Now Annabel Goldie appears to be the cairrie-oot provider. The party that sought to be tough on law and order now seems to accept the disorder that flows from a free-for-all in alcohol retailing.

A

As a 17 year old Student, I would like to remind people that Mr MacAskill bought alcohol from an off license when he was going to attend an England Versus Scotland match - he was arrested on suspicion of being drunk and disorderly, It's odd that he isn't calling for sale to be restricted for under 50s.

Well, we can all be hypocrites.

I don't drink - But what an insult to those responsible young adults who do.

Submitted by Alastair Manderson

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

Not at the moment.

The Conservatives have moved on from David Cameron's hug-a-hoodie plan to Murdo Fraser's free bottle of Buckie or David McLetchie's gie-them-aw-a-cairrie-oot idea. I was interested to read that the London mayor, Boris Johnson—good old Boris—backs a proposal for an age 21 initiative in Croydon. Why are the Tories so dismissive of proposals in Scotland but so protective of their home counties heartland?

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Who would have thought that we would see the day when the SNP said that a solution that was proposed for London should automatically be imported to Scotland?

Does the cabinet secretary apply all the criticisms that he has just made of me to the Federation of Student Nationalists?

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

Mr Fraser well knows his past predilections in the Federation of Conservative Students. I leave him to account for those.

We are not adopting Boris Johnson's suggestion; he is accepting as appropriate for the home counties what we have suggested. The Conservatives do not care about housing schemes in small-town Scotland. Of course, the Conservatives are happy to accept the council-tax freeze—we are delighted that Mr Cameron has come on board. Perhaps the Conservatives should take a few more of our policies.

I am thankful that people in Scotland recognise that the problem exists and that we cannot go on as we are. Scotland has one of the fastest-growing rates of alcohol-related liver disease and cirrhosis in the world. Each year, 40,000 people are hospitalised with an alcohol-related illness. As Mr Fraser admitted, the estimated cost of alcohol misuse is £2.25 billion per year. That is why we need a serious debate, with serious suggestions from serious people. The difference between us and the other parties is that we recognise the scale of the problem and are willing to try new approaches to tackle it.

We will not sit back and watch problems arise. The Tories must account for the fact that, when they were in office, the number of off-sales premises in Scotland increased by 31 per cent—from 4,900 in 1980 to 6,400 in 1997. That happened on the Tories' watch. They built not one new prison, but they increased the number of off-sales outlets by 31 per cent. It is no wonder that our communities pay a price in antisocial behaviour these days.

Our work to deal with alcohol started in opposition.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

The cabinet secretary's amendment refers to consultation and listening, of which we have not heard much in his speech. Will the Government definitely make legislative proposals to implement the ban?

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

We are consulting. The consultation period has finished and we are considering the issue. It is a pity that neither Mr Purvis nor anybody else in the Liberal Democrats took it on themselves to contribute to the consultation, but it is for them to answer for that.

It is easy to dismiss the age 21 discussion out of hand but, where the system has been tried, the results have been positive. Other factors have been at play in Armadale, Stenhousemuir and Cupar, and restricting the sale of alcohol to those aged 21 and over was only one element. However, the police and communities were grateful for the successful outcomes. The statistics speak for themselves.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

Not at the moment.

We need to consider the complete picture. Debating the purchase age is only one part of that. We acknowledge that the Government does not have all the answers and that we need to work in partnership. We also recognise that we require not simply legislation but a culture change and enforcement of current laws. However, we need legislative change, because the status quo is unacceptable. As I said, we cannot go on as we are.

We welcome the input from a variety of organisations, including CARDAS, which accepts minimum pricing. We welcome the fact that Nick Clegg has come round to the concept of minimum pricing. Yet again, a UK political party is taking on board the Scottish Government's proposals.

We are delighted that Scotland is seen as leading the way by Boris Johnson and Nick Clegg. We have an opportunity to rebalance Scotland's relationship with alcohol, which is out of kilter. I appreciate that the prospect of reducing alcohol consumption is anathema to some, but that is the ball game that we need to win to end the damage that alcohol misuse has done to our economy and our country. As a Parliament, we owe that to future generations.

I move amendment S3M-2629.1, to leave out from "rejects" to end and insert:

"welcomes the period of consultation, listening and debate that is happening in Scotland on how to rebalance the country's relationship with alcohol; welcomes the initiatives being taken at local level, including voluntary agreements not to sell alcohol to persons under 21; notes the ongoing work done by licensing boards and other partners to implement the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005; recognises the need to build on that legislation with further measures including the ending of irresponsible alcohol promotions, and acknowledges that given the major public health implications failure to take further action to tackle alcohol misuse is not an option."

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour 10:43 am, 2nd October 2008

We need a serious debate on the issue, but the cabinet secretary frustrates that ambition. It is accepted that underage drinking is a problem in communities throughout Scotland. To address that, we need policies that will make a difference. Instead, the cabinet secretary has again placed a political gimmick before real solutions.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

On policies that will make a difference, what policies has Richard Baker proposed in response to the consultation?

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

We are a Parliament. We are giving our view now. This is a debate, in which we are clearly presenting our views. If the SNP is serious about listening to other views, I hope that it will listen to what the Parliament says tonight and ditch the policy.

We all accept that Scotland has a cultural problem with alcohol consumption. We know the toll that that takes on our health, through crime and on our communities. That is why the Scottish Government is culpable for placing a flawed policy at the heart of the debate. Our approach needs to be consistent, but the Government is not. The Government does not dispute that 18-year-olds can join the police, buy alcohol in a pub and run a pub, but it says that they should not purchase alcohol in an off-licence until they are 21, although the SNP wants to lower the voting age to 16. That simply does not make sense.

The proposal is not just deeply flawed in itself. It is part of an artifice to allow political posturing from the Government on tackling underage drinking to hide the Government's failure to invest in measures that would make a difference to the problem. The cabinet secretary has also failed to win broad support for his proposal. Some members might know that, over the years, the Federation of Student Nationalists and I have not seen eye to eye. However, I am today pleased and proud to stand four-square with my friends in the FSN in opposition to the Scottish Government, so that we can debate the issues properly.

The cabinet secretary mentioned the pilot in Armadale. The pilot's success is disputed. Although Chief Inspector Jim Baird welcomed it, he said that because initiatives

"all ran in parallel it is not practicable, particularly with the low numbers of calls and reported crimes, to identify what operation had what effect."

I do not doubt that the increased police presence and resources made a difference in tackling underage drinking. The increased police presence and not the ban on purchases in off-licences resulted in progress.

There are much more practical alternatives to the proposal. Consideration could be given to challenge 21 schemes, which do not require unfair and discriminatory legislation, and to proof-of-age cards. Most of all, we must ensure that the existing licensing legislation is rigorously applied. As members said, that is not happening. We should expand the use of test purchasing, which has been successful, and we should ensure that premises that have been found to be selling alcohol to underage purchasers face immediate suspension of their licences—

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

There is barracking from the SNP benches, but the evidence does not back up what members are saying. During the previous session of the Parliament, we established strong licensing laws. Proper enforcement of those laws will have the most impact, particularly on underage drinking.

The purchase of alcohol from off-licences is only part of the problem. Too many young people have access to alcohol in other places, including the family home. That is why local policing and resources offer the best way of dealing with underage drinking. Instead of the 1,000 more police officers that were promised, only 74 have been provided. Instead of more investment in community wardens, in Aberdeen, in my area, we have witnessed wardens being removed from communities in which underage drinking is a particular problem and their duties being combined with those of traffic wardens. Instead of investing properly in community safety, the Government is cutting the budget in real terms.

Instead of bringing incoherent and inconsistent policies to the Parliament, the Government should put its money where its mouth is on underage drinking. I welcome the debate that the Conservatives have brought, which has given all parties the chance to put the proposal in the bin, where it should be. The Parliament will do the debate a service at decision time when it ditches the proposal, so that we can consider the alternative measures that I described, which will make a real difference in tackling alcohol misuse in Scotland.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat 10:47 am, 2nd October 2008

Liberal Democrats welcome the debate, particularly because it focuses exclusively on the proposal on 18 to 21-year-olds.

I do not think that the cabinet secretary quite understands the point that the Liberal Democrats are making: there is no disagreement about the need to change the culture, however the questions for us all are why, and on what evidence. The cabinet secretary and his Government have decided that 18 to 21-year-olds are part of the problem and not part of the solution. We fundamentally disagree with that.

The issues that are raised by that element of the Government's proposals to tackle alcohol misuse are wholly different from the issues that are raised by the other proposals and revolve around the lack of evidence to support the Government's proposition that 18 to 21-year-olds are responsible for a substantial proportion of alcohol-related crime.

I share Murdo Fraser's view that the Government's misguided proposal has diverted attention from the serious debate on which it has rightly embarked about how best to respond to the substantial body of evidence that the British Medical Association gathered, which links the price of alcohol with consumption; how best to enforce existing licensing law and extend bottle labelling and separate bottle marking; and how best to increase levels of education. Indeed, consideration of how best to engage with younger people to tackle the cultural inheritance has been singularly absent.

The Government's response to the lack of evidence has been to pray in aid the Armadale in West Lothian experiment. There has also been an increase in the use of test purchasing by the authorities and an increase in prosecutions for selling to underage persons. That approach is right, but we are concerned about the lack of evidence.

The results from West Lothian should not be ignored, but if the cabinet secretary is drawing conclusions from what happened, he could conclude that the introduction of safer neighbourhood teams and deployment of additional resources by way of police officers or community wardens have led to a reduction in alcohol-related crime. He could conclude that the procurement of the agreement of off-sales proprietors to enforce rigorously the law on sales to underage persons has also had an impact. Those conclusions are borne out by the experiments. One could also conclude that the use of test purchasing and active enforcement of the law by the authorities has had an impact. That conclusion, too, is borne out by the Armadale experiment and by the extraordinary surprise of the chief constable of Strathclyde Police at the substantial number of licence-holders who failed the test-purchase test.

Alternatively, one could conclude, as the Government has done, that it all appears to be the fault of 18 to 21-year-olds. However, we must search hard to find evidence of a reduction in the number of alcohol-related crimes that are perpetrated by 18 to 21-year-olds.

The proposal is fatally flawed, not just for the reason that I gave but because it will fail fundamentally to contribute to bringing about the essential cultural change in attitudes to irresponsible drinking. If we are to get the next generation actively to play its part in such essential cultural change, that generation must be regarded as part of the solution and not as part of the problem. By stigmatising a generation, we run the risk of alienating that generation instead of harnessing its energies and idealism in order to effect change.

The Government's proposal is not evidence-based and does not acknowledge the role of the next generation. On the question of 18 to 21-year-olds, the cabinet secretary has—to borrow a phrase—misdirected himself. Accordingly, the motion must be passed.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

We move to the open debate. We are up against the clock, so members must stick to their time limit of four minutes.

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party 10:51 am, 2nd October 2008

Although there appears to be no consensus on raising the age for the purchase of alcohol in off-licences, I think that there is a consensus on the scale of the problem that we face in Scotland in dealing with the nation's unhealthy relationship with alcohol, which costs the nation £2.25 billion—not to mention the individual, family and community misery that it brings.

On 25 June, Parliament had an opportunity to debate the proposals in the Government's consultation document. During the past three months, communities and groups throughout Scotland and every member and party in Parliament have had an opportunity to feed in their views on what would and would not work and on what should be included in the strategy. It is becoming apparent that members have not even bothered to make the effort to do that, because they cannot engage effectively in the debate—

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

Sit down.

Members have been happy to feed their views into the consultation on local income tax but have not fed their views into a consultation on one of the biggest public health problems that our society faces.

Murdo Fraser had the cheek to start his speech by saying that we need a mature debate, when his motion sets out no alternatives and says nothing about the scale of the problem but simply opposes one element of a wider strategy.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I see that Mr Matheson is in no better humour than he was when he was on the radio with me at a quarter past seven this morning. First, why did he not listen to my speech, in which I made positive proposals? Secondly, to how many Government consultations did the SNP respond when it was the Opposition? The answer is not many.

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

I made representations on a number of occasions. Murdo Fraser introduced the debate, so it is a cheek that he did not feed his views into the consultation.

During the past 30 years we have heard much about the cultural shift that Ross Finnie mentioned, but we have not heard hard detail about how we can create such a shift. A targeted approach has been tried but has not made the significant impact that is needed if we are to change the culture. Our generation must be prepared to make the tough decisions that will start to change the culture. No single element of the Government's proposals will change the unhealthy relationship that we have with alcohol, but collectively the proposals can do so. The Opposition could have fed in its ideas at the start of the process, but it did not bother.

It is important that the Government acknowledges that the evidence from the pilots raises interesting issues. During the six-month pilot in Stenhousemuir in my constituency there was a 40 per cent reduction in breaches of the peace, a 20 per cent reduction in minor assaults and a 60 per cent reduction in serious assaults. The police will tell members that no additional resources were provided, so the approach was cost neutral. The increase in the age limit was an essential part of the local strategy.

I hope that the Government will assure us today that it will listen not just to the vested interests of certain groups that have run high-profile campaigns, but to constituents such as mine, more than 600 of whom have responded to my local consultation, with 78 per cent in favour of increasing the age limit. We need to ensure that the communities who suffer the misery that is caused by our unhealthy relationship with alcohol have their views taken into consideration. I hope that, in publishing the outcome of the consultation, we can ensure that it is not just the vested interests of organisations that the Tories might be happy to argue for, but the views of communities that are listened to.

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour 10:55 am, 2nd October 2008

Like many other members and the crowd who were outside Parliament this morning, I believe that increasing the age limit for alcohol to 21 is misguided.

There will be future opportunities to debate whether the other measures in the Government's alcohol proposals will bring about the cultural change that we all know is needed, but there can be little debate left about a simple increase in the age limit to 21. It is an inconsistent policy that will not bring about the significant changes in Scotland's relationship with alcohol that we need.

If the reason for raising the age limit to 21 is to tackle underage drinking, the SNP's policy looks even weaker, because the main reason for increasing to 21 seems to be to enforce the age limit of 18. If we want to enforce that age limit, we must invest the resources to do so. We should not unfairly target 18 to 21-year-olds in order to tackle a problem with 15 to 16-year-olds. Instead, the Government must do more to enforce the current age restriction and prevent children from getting a supply of alcohol from adult friends or relatives.

We must do more to prevent retailers from selling to our children. That involves tougher enforcement of current laws, enhancing the test purchasing scheme and enforcing a change in the culture of retailers and pubs so that proof of age is always asked for. It is about coming down hard on retailers and pubs that break the law; it is not about increasing the age limit to 21.

Photo of Nigel Don Nigel Don Scottish National Party

There seems to me to be a serious case to show that younger adults—the 18 to 21-year-olds and perhaps those a little older—are likely to be pressured by youngsters in their community to buy alcohol for them. They are committing an offence, but are likely to get away with it.

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

I appreciate the intervention, but the evidence that I have suggests not that it is solely 18 to 21-year-olds who supply alcohol, but that it tends to be older relatives who do it—the conviction in Fife was of a 26-year-old. It is not only people in the 18-to-21 age category who are involved in proxy purchasing. We must crack down on adults who buy alcohol for children. It is often far too easy to overlook the fact that proxy purchase—not direct purchase—is the greatest source of alcohol for children. As we crack down harder to enforce the age limit of 18, there is the potential that we will see an increase in the problem of proxy purchasing.

Statistics show that 22 per cent of 13-year-olds and 29 per cent of 15-year-olds get alcohol from friends or relatives. Even more concerning is the fact that those figures rise to 26 per cent and 35 per cent when we consider girls alone. However, on the most recent figures, we have had only one conviction for proxy purchasing in Fife—as I said earlier, that person was over 21—and we have had only 83 across the country. Something is clearly wrong, and increasing the age limit to 21 will do little to tackle that aspect of underage drinking.

Rather than increase the age limit, the Government should consider radical ways to encourage retailers to demand proof of age before selling alcohol. Challenge 21 is a useful scheme for retailers across Scotland, and radical solutions to encourage uptake and use of proof-of-age cards, such as the Young Scot card, could be far better routes to tackling underage drinking.

Scotland faces a real challenge in its relationship with alcohol, and I agree with the Scottish Government that we must be prepared to consider radical solutions to the serious problems that we face. However, the emphasis should be on the word "solution" and not the word "radical". There is no point in doing something for the sake of being seen to do it.

Raising the age limit to 21 is not a solution to the problems that we face in Scotland. The SNP should drop the plans and instead focus on more effective measures to tackle proxy purchasing, underage drinking and our cultural attitude to alcohol in Scotland.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative 10:59 am, 2nd October 2008

I welcome the cross-party support that the motion has attracted from members, with the notable exception of members on the SNP benches.

Two things are clear from today's debate. First is the need to tackle the problems that are associated with alcohol abuse in Scottish society, and second is that the SNP's ridiculous proposal will do little, if anything, in tackling the problems that society faces. There is some political consensus on the matter among members, and there also appears to be general agreement around Scotland that the proposal is a complete waste of time.

I will make several points on the Government's plan to increase the minimum age at which it is legal to purchase off-sales alcohol from 18 to 21. Most important, I will consider the evidence from the pilot schemes that the Government is putting forward in support of the proposals. I will focus in particular on the conclusions in the Lothian and Borders Police report into the Armadale pilot. I suggest that the evidence shows that the trial was actually far from successful and certainly not something on which to base any new legislation.

First, during the pilot, there was an insignificant change in alcohol-related behaviour and a rise in minor assaults.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative

I want to develop the point.

Assaults actually increased. The average before the ban was 0.4 per week, the average during the ban was 0.5 per week, and the average since the ban ended has continued at 0.5 per week. Youth disorder was recorded in four calls per week during the ban and has remained the same, at four calls, since the ban.

Secondly, the trial was too short—it lasted only six weeks. A pilot should be much longer before the Government can use it as the basis for legislative changes. Thirdly, the trial took place on only two days per week, between 5 pm and 10 pm on Friday and Saturday nights. That is not comparable with raising the drinking age nationally, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Fourthly—and lastly—small pilot areas such as Armadale cannot be compared with the whole of Scotland. Results in one specific area are unlikely to be representative of how the scheme might work if it were to be rolled out throughout Scotland, and the Government is wrong to try to suggest that.

Not only does the evidence fail to stack up, but the plans will create unnecessary inconsistencies in the legislation. Young people and parents rightly look to Government for leadership, but the proposals send out mixed messages to young people on where and when it is acceptable to drink alcohol. The rationale behind the plans is confusing and illogical, and they would penalise the vast majority of 18 to 21-year-olds who drink alcohol responsibly. Perhaps the Government does not understand that alcohol misuse is not a young persons' disease: adults of all ages misuse alcohol. In any case, all the plans would achieve is a messy and complicated set of rules for the purchase of alcohol.

The proposals unnecessarily discriminate against certain members of our society. As a society, we recognise that young people gain additional responsibilities when they reach a certain age. By 18, they can vote, get married, drive, pay tax and even serve in the Army, but the SNP still does not trust them to buy a couple of cans of lager to take home. Those who are under 21 and live in rural areas will also be discriminated against if they want to enjoy a drink because they will no longer be able to do so in their own homes and are increasingly unlikely to have a local pub.

The proposals are not necessary. Proper enforcement of the existing legislation would go a long way towards reducing the problems of underage drinking. In 2005-06, only seven people under 18 were prosecuted for buying alcohol or consuming alcohol in a bar. Either underage drinking is not a problem in Scotland or the current legislation is not properly enforced. I challenge even Kenny MacAskill to say that anything other than the latter is true.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

The member must conclude there, I am afraid.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party 11:03 am, 2nd October 2008

We see a total lack of alternatives in the woeful attempt at a motion from the Tories. They say that we need a reasoned debate, but where are their alternatives?

We have Murdo Fraser, now champion of the students in Scotland. Perhaps he feels a bit guilty because the Tories reneged on their eight-year policy of abolishing the graduate endowment tax. He also talked about the Federation of Student Nationalists: he might be thinking about his own radical student days, when he was a member of the smash the national health service wing of the Thatcherite Federation of Conservative Students.

What has been disappointing about the Tory contributions so far is a total absence of any discussion about the impact on health of excessive drinking. Only recently, we saw the report that said that 2 litres more per head of pure alcohol is drunk in Scotland than in England, and for every extra litre there is a 30 per cent increase in the probability of liver disease. That is a major health problem that we have to deal with.

I was surprised by Mr Lamont's speech. He spoke about the six-week Armadale trial but—funnily enough—did not mention the six-month Stenhousemuir trial, which produced much more detailed evidence, including evidence of a significant reduction in antisocial behaviour.

One organisation that has not been quoted—I thank Gail Grant of the British Medical Association for providing this information, which I understand was sent to all MSPs—is the BMA. BMA Scotland's briefing states:

"In the BMA's survey of members, 97% of doctors said that stricter enforcement of age restrictions, particularly for off sales, was an important factor in reducing drinking amongst young Scots."

The briefing also points out:

"A 2003 survey published by the Scottish Executive found that 49% of 15 year olds reported buying alcohol for their own consumption. Indeed, most purchases made by people over 18 for underage drinkers are reported to be made by those aged 18-21."

On many occasions, the 18 to 21-year-olds are fuelling the underage drinking culture that besets our nation.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

Does Kenneth Gibson accept that such purchases are an offence? All members agree that the offences that are currently on the statute book should be enforced. A person between 18 and 21 who buys alcohol for someone who is under age should feel the full force of the law.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

I do not accept that that will make a significant culture change, but I believe that the current law should be enforced. We should consider how likely it is that people will pretend that they are a given age. It is much easier for 17-year-olds to pretend that they are 18 or 19 than it is for 20-year-olds to pretend that they are 22 or 23. I believe that a three-year shift in the age limit will make a significant difference to the amount of alcohol that is sold to young people.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

If people do not believe me, they should look at what happened in the United States of America. During the Vietnam war, the fact that young men going off to fight could not buy a drink was used—as the Tories have used it today—as an argument to reduce the age for drinking in several US states. Within a decade, many states had to raise the age to 21 again because the change had resulted in more antisocial behaviour on the streets of US cities and a significant increase in the number of people who were killed in car accidents. Since America raised the drinking age to 21 again, there has been a significant reduction in alcohol abuse.

People should understand that drinking patterns for life are set very young. If people cannot get alcohol at a young age, they are less likely to develop alcoholism. We need to consider that 6,500 young Scots under the age of 18 are hospitalised each year because of drinking. Indeed, in the previous debate, Jamie Stone mentioned that his son had been a victim of that.

We are trying to do something positive. We are not doing this for populism—like the Tories, who are languishing at the bottom of the polls—but to try to improve the health of the people of Scotland.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

We want to reduce antisocial behaviour in our communities. We want to allow 18 to 21-year-olds, who are often the victims of—

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour 11:07 am, 2nd October 2008

I am pleased to take part in this morning's debate.

Clearly, the effects of alcohol on individuals' health and behaviour are not always good, so I agree with the amendment that doing nothing is not an option. However, let us remember that the previous Labour-led Scottish Executive acted by legislating to ban irresponsible drinks promotions, to reform the licensing system and—significantly—to introduce the test-purchasing scheme. There is more to do, but a ban on off-sales to 18 to 21-year-olds is not the answer. Targeting young people in such an unsophisticated way is not the answer.

On health, I agree with Kenneth Gibson that people are generally drinking more than was the case in the past. Alcohol is cheaper and more readily available. Understanding of units and alcohol strength is limited—as NHS Scotland's helpful briefing points out—so we need better education for everyone. We need better labelling so that people can be better informed.

However, the Armadale pilot in my constituency was introduced—as I have said on previous occasions—to deal with antisocial behaviour. To that extent, the ban on off-sales to under-21s contributed to a drop in reported antisocial behaviour. Although the statistics from Lothian and Borders Police show a welcome decrease in antisocial behaviour, they leave many unanswered questions. Was that decrease due to the introduction of safer neighbourhood teams and youth workers? From speaking to local people, I think so. The alcohol ban happened only while the SNTs and youth workers were deployed, so it is not possible to say what effect the ban had. The increase in antisocial behaviour after the ban was lifted was minimal—one rise is not a trend. The minister must acknowledge that the figures are so small that the phrase "not statistically significant" correctly applies to them.

More important for me is the experience and reaction of local people. They are asking for police on the streets and for youth workers and youth facilities so that young people have something to do. Local people want licences to be removed from anyone who is found selling alcohol to, or for, under-18s; they are not asking for such an arbitrary ban to return, which is why the ban has not returned. I have not had people from other towns and villages in my constituency banging on my door asking for such a ban, either.

There is cross-party support for tackling the problems that are caused by alcohol misuse so—lest the Cabinet Secretary for Justice or Minister for Public Health accuse me of having no ideas—let me make a few suggestions on how to do that. We should make use of test purchasing and remove licences where the law is breached. The judiciary must be part of that, so that licensing boards do not feel that their decisions will be overturned.

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour

In areas such as Armadale that have problems with street drinking, existing laws should be enforced. West Lothian has byelaws to prevent street drinking, but I am not aware of their being used. Alcohol should not be sold to people who are already drunk, whether they are in an off-licence or a pub. I realise that that would put shops and bar staff on the front line, so proper training should be given.

Also, we should look at prices. I cannot be the only person who feels that selling bottles of vodka at £2.99 in supermarkets must have an impact. We need to look at prices seriously. On that issue, I disagree with the Wine and Spirit Trade Association. However, I appreciate the association's point about internet sales, which is an issue that the minister should consider.

Finally, the minister should look at issuing proof-of-age cards for 18 to 25-year-olds.

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour

In particular, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied WorkersUSDAW—has supported that suggestion. Alcohol—

Photo of Dave Thompson Dave Thompson Scottish National Party 11:11 am, 2nd October 2008

I quote a recent headline in the Inverness weekly newspaper, the Highland News : "Price war fuels ned scourge?" Sadly, the story is an all-too-familiar tale of modern Scottish life, in which "two local shops" are

"selling cut-price deals on Buckfast Tonic Wine - knocking £2 off the price if they buy two bottles instead of one."

As a result, an area that already had a problem with underage drinkers suffered an increase in antisocial behaviour, with people being harassed by drunken yobs and the local play park strewn with smashed bottles.

A month after that story appeared, it was reported—in July this year—that people in the Inverness area are more likely to end up in hospital because of alcohol than the average Scot: the figure for Inverness is 114 per 100,000 of population as compared with a Scottish average of 83.7 per 100,000. However, the alcohol problem is not confined to the ned scourge that was highlighted by the Highland News. A local alcohol worker who commented on the figures highlighted the change in the kind of people that services are working with. In particular, services are seeing increasing numbers of professionals, young people and women who have alcohol problems.

The conclusion that has been drawn by Highland NHS Board's director of public health, Dr Eric Baijal, was clear and unequivocal. He said:

"The figures underscore the need for Scotland to change its relationship with alcohol ... Despite ample evidence of the negative impact of drink on our health, our families and our society, we have begun to accept high levels of alcohol consumption as normal and I believe it will take bold steps to change this pattern."

His view is backed up by BMA Scotland, which states:

"Alcohol kills six people every day in Scotland".

"Whilst drinking in moderation can be a source of pleasure, the effect of excessive alcohol consumption on our health and the related social and economic impact is significant."

The BMA Scotland briefing also states that

"There is a clear health and social impact of alcohol misuse in Scotland. It is evident that no single approach can tackle Scotland's drink problem. A comprehensive strategy that encompasses pricing, availability and access to alcohol will be the most effective approach by Government."

I strongly believe that raising the age at which people can buy alcohol from shops will play a significant part in such a comprehensive strategy, but it will be just one part. Never before has alcohol been promoted more relentlessly and ruthlessly to our young people. Corner-shop store wars, supermarket loss leaders and commercially backed pub crawls are just some of the methods. Excess has become the norm in our young people's relationship with alcohol, and getting tanked up on cheap booze at home before heading out for the evening has become a routine part of a night out. Is that what the Tories want to encourage by what they see as a cheap political hit? Where is their sense of responsibility?

I believe that a ban on the sale of alcohol in off-sales to under-21s would have a positive impact in tackling the kind of underage drinking problems to which I referred earlier. There is no doubt that people in the 18 to 20 age group often help younger people by buying drink for them. The proposed ban would serve to cut off that supply. It would not limit the freedom of people aged between 18 and 20 to enjoy a drink in a pub or restaurant, but would have a significant impact on the hugely damaging excesses of our burgeoning drinking culture.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour 11:15 am, 2nd October 2008

The debate and the way in which the Government has approached it are not good because they distract us from the central problem. I believe firmly that, if we are to move ahead with tackling what is undoubtedly our most serious health problem next to tobacco use, we should do so on the basis of consensus. However, the proposal to raise the age for buying alcohol from off-sales from 18 to 21 gets in the way of consensus and of tackling a serious problem.

Dave Thompson's speech had only one phrase in four minutes with which I disagreed—he said that the Government's proposal would make a significant contribution—and I agreed with what he said in the rest of his speech. Indeed, many of the speeches from the SNP, which have not focused on the issue—

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

No, I am sorry. The time is so short that I cannot give way. The cabinet secretary can deal with my speech in his summing-up speech.

Nobody will disagree when SNP members say that alcohol misuse is a big problem, so let us move on from that.

Parliament has just achieved clarity and parity over the age restriction of 18 for alcohol and tobacco purchase, but the Government's policy proposal confuses that. The Government is not clear whether the proposal is a public health measure or a public safety measure. If it is both, it fails on the public health test and on the public safety test the jury is still out, as Sheila Bird has said. However, if the law currently allows local communities to undertake the sort of experiments that have been undertaken in the name of public safety, I for one am not concerned if they continue, with the agreement of all the stakeholders. However, a blanket policy that attacks everyone between 18 and 21 would be counterproductive.

On the experiments, I was involved in alcohol work in the late 1970s, and my group undertook a study of 14-year-olds and drinking in Stenhousemuir. I must report to members that 14 per cent of those 14-year-olds were drinking regularly. We must tackle the underage drinking, not the 18-to-21 group. If the Government needs further evidence on that, there is clear evidence from the Scottish schools adolescent lifestyle and substance use survey—SALSUS—that the number of underage drinkers is huge.

The other point is where they drink. The figure for those who drink outside has risen from 39 per cent to 45 per cent, so let us use the public-place ban more. I welcome the fact that Fife has just introduced such a ban for another nine communities, starting in October. However, the ban on drinking outside should be universal.

Test purchasing is important in addressing underage drinking. Evidence gleaned from a parliamentary question in April 2008 showed that we have made only 632 test purchases—there are 17,000 off-sales—and 14 per cent of the premises that were tested failed. If we implement the current law, we will achieve a much greater response.

If the Government needs further evidence, it can consider the fact that 60 per cent of 18,000 young offenders who were discharged from prison admitted that their offence was related to drink, and 45 per cent said that they would have a problem with drink when they went back into the community. It is that hard-core group of under-18s whom we need to address and not the 18 to 21 group.

I plead with the Government to drop its policy and to co-operate with opposition parties. I am sure that we will all co-operate with the Government in trying to achieve change in the drinking culture. I ask the Government to note that the community—

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

I am sorry, but the member's time is up. I can give Patrick Harvie a minute and a half.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green 11:19 am, 2nd October 2008

I am grateful, Presiding Officer.

I hope that this debate ends our bad habit of too often adding a dash of puritanism to our debates on alcohol. The stage 3 debate on the Licensing (Scotland) Bill in the previous session was the worst example of that. Speech after speech talked about the need to save our communities from the demon drink, then MSPs sauntered downstairs where huge trays of free booze awaited us all.

The reality is that drinking—moderate drinking—involves society's recreational drug of choice, and people do it because it is fun. It is fun now, it was fun on that Thursday evening of the stage 3 debate and it was fun when we were 20 years old. To police that in the same way as we police problem drinking, whether we define that in public health terms or crime and disorder terms, is simply absurd. That is the first objection to the Government's proposal.

The proposal discriminates between young and old people, but it does not discriminate between problem drinking and moderate drinking. It tells young couples who celebrate a civil partnership or a wedding that they cannot share a bottle of wine to commemorate that until their fifth anniversary.

The Government's proposal would create another set of criminalised young people. We would create the same failed attitude that has resulted in other—

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

I am sorry, but the member's time is over. We now move to the winding-up speeches. I call Robert Brown, who has four minutes. I will enforce the time limits.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 11:21 am, 2nd October 2008

This has been a worthwhile debate, and there will be an opportunity tonight for the Scottish Parliament to express a clear and decisive view on the SNP Government's ill-conceived plans to ban adults who are under 21 from buying alcohol in off-licences. The motion for debate is a well-chosen and focused one on a particular aspect of a broader problem. Claire Baker made the good point, with which I agree, that the emphasis ought to be on finding a solution. John Lamont, too, made a good point, which was that the policy has illogicality and messiness built into it.

No one in the chamber doubts that the excessive consumption of alcohol in Scotland is a substantial, worrying problem. Many people have made the point that it is a cultural issue, which affects all age groups, not just those aged between 18 and 21, many of whom drink responsibly. The point is easily made—and impossible to answer—that a 19-year-old soldier can be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan to risk his life for his country, make adult judgments and decisions, and meet extremely grown-up challenges, but is to be forbidden when he comes home from buying a bottle of wine or a couple of cans of lager in an off-licence when he wants to watch a game of football or a film on the television.

The peak age for alcohol consumption is, in fact, from 45 to 64, with men between the ages of 17 and 24 accounting for only 3.4 per cent of alcohol consumption. I wonder what the logic of the SNP position would be if it took some of the facts into account rather than the theories on which it seems to base its policy.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I am sorry, but I have only four minutes.

Changes in cultural attitude are difficult to bring about. They require the full involvement of university and college student unions, for example, in encouraging responsible drinking—much good work has been done in that connection—and there is work to be done on prices and labelling. The SNP Government makes a severe mistake if it thinks that there is a single magic solution to this complex, historic and deep-seated challenge—there is not. I make the point seriously to the cabinet secretary that there is no equivalent of the public places smoking ban in this area of policy, and there is no totemic answer that will win the SNP plaudits for being more far-sighted than the rest of us. What is worse, the policy will alienate young people who have to be our main allies in helping to change public attitudes to alcohol.

Let me say to the cabinet secretary that he should not underestimate the potential of the new generation to develop new ideas and attitudes, and to influence their peer group by example on what is fashionable or right, as it seems to them. That is how impossible challenges are met and negative cultural attitudes changed, because a new generation decides that the old ways will no longer do.

Instead of working with the grain of all that, the First Minister, supported by people like Michael Matheson—with the face of repressive nationalism much to the fore—runs the severe risk of making the problem worse and entrenching excessive consumption of alcohol as being an anti-establishment, fashionable and trendy thing to do. In a small way, the SNP wants us to be forced to learn the lessons of the prohibition era all over again.

Let me come back to the principles of the Liberal Democrat approach to all this. I am not one of those who are obsessed by a standard age of majority, but it is a little odd—is it not?—to argue for a reduction in the voting age to 16 on the basis that young people of that age have the maturity, knowledge and judgment to exercise the franchise, while at the same time reducing the freedom of those a little older to purchase alcohol on the basis that they do not have the maturity, judgment and knowledge to exercise that choice.

Young people over 18 are, by any view, adults. They are entitled to make the same adult choices as anyone else: to marry, to vote, to smoke, to drive and, yes, to buy alcohol. The issue is not age, but responsibility. The role of the state is to help informed decision making, and to encourage wise choices and responsible drinking. I hope that the SNP Government recognises that and accepts that its proposals are a busted flush.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour 11:25 am, 2nd October 2008

I agree with the point made by many members that alcohol abuse—by young or old—is unacceptable, as is the antisocial behaviour surrounding it. Mary Mulligan pointed out that Labour brought in the Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Act 2004, the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 and the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003, which contained measures to deal with the challenges that face our communities as a result of the unacceptable behaviour fuelled by alcohol.

Alcohol retailers who sell to under-18s need to get the message that their behaviour will not be tolerated. If we are to be serious about tackling alcohol abuse among those who are under age, we should take on board Claire Baker's point, and ensure that we hit the suppliers. Labour does not need to respond to consultation documents to make such points. We are parliamentarians, and we are elected to debate issues such as this in Parliament. The minister should listen to our points. It is good enough for the minister to launch consultations outside Parliament, so we can make our points and develop them in Parliament.

In his consultation, the minister should take forward the idea that if a supplier is found selling alcohol to people who are under age, on the first offence, we should ban them for three months; on the second offence, we should ban them for six months; and on the third offence, they should lose their licence.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour

I do not have time. I hope that the minister can deal with the point when he sums up.

More important, we want to name and shame such retailers on a central website, which is another issue that the minister could take forward in his consultation document. Why should the reputable retailers be tarred with the same brush as the unscrupulous ones? Such a website would allow residents in local communities to decide not to shop in outlets that sell alcohol to underage minors—a practice that is unacceptable.

We also want to name and shame adults who sell alcohol to young people. There can be no more grotesque a crime than an adult who purchases alcohol to sell to a minor. I was involved in introducing amendments to the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 that allow us to imprison such adults for up to 6 months. We need more detection—a point that a number of members made—and to name and shame those individuals.

As other members have said, the proposal to raise the age to 21 is inconsistent. The only thing that is consistent in the debate is the tough-guy spin from the minister. If he wants to be taken seriously, he should be serious about what he proposes. Simply seeking to make us believe that he is taking action to deal with alcohol abuse is not good enough.

Labour led on legislation to tackle antisocial behaviour and to modernise our licensing arrangements. We will take no lectures from SNP members, who grudgingly supported the Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Bill and Labour's proposals on licensing. They also opposed my polluter-pays amendment at stage 3. It is time for the Government to stop playing with the issue and to take it forward.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party 11:29 am, 2nd October 2008

A great many members have concentrated on the pilot schemes in Armadale and Stenhousemuir. We heard an excellent contribution from my colleague Michael Matheson, the MSP for the area incorporating Stenhousemuir, who spoke from experience, having talked to communities and police officers in the area. We also heard speeches that uniformly trashed the pilots—pilots that have been welcomed by police and communities. Some of the contributions, such as those from the Baker family and John Lamont, were shameful. I signed off a letter to John Lamont yesterday, and his one contribution to the debate was to ask about extending the opening hours for a variety of premises in his community. Far from tackling drinking, his obsession is the liberalisation of access to alcohol.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

Not at the moment.

I have spoken to police officers in central Scotland who say that they would like Bo'ness to have the same pilot as Stenhousemuir because it has addressed the issue. When the pilots ended, criminal offending went up. The pilots were welcomed by communities, which is why we support them.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

Police officers in Stenhousemuir and Armadale have said that it was not possible to distinguish whether it was the increased resources or the under-21 ban that made the impact. There is still no evidence to support the point that the minister is arguing.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

There were no increased resources. From the chief constable down to the beat bobby, the police welcomed the pilots, which they said made a significant difference. Rather than provide the solution, Labour wishes to spend days trying to find out what the problem is. We want to provide a solution as part of a broad package. Dealing with Scotland's alcohol problem means broadening out—not simply tackling the problem of off-sales but tackling problems elsewhere.

When I have chatted to people in Armadale and Stenhousemuir, many youngsters have welcomed the ban. They face intimidation on Friday and Saturday nights, when they want to go dancing, hang around with their pals or play football. They face the old culture of "Have a drink. You're Scottish", and victimisation and assault.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

Not at the moment.

Statistical evidence shows that many youngsters welcome such bans. We cannot ignore the problem. There was a story on a BBC web page yesterday, headed, "Teenagers admit six figure damage", about two teenagers who set light to changing rooms in Edinburgh. According to the story, what did the lawyer say?

"Gordon Stewart, defending, said alcohol had been 'a major factor'" in the behaviour of one of the defendants, and the other accused, Whyte, "had also been drunk".

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

They were 16.

Where do members think that they got the drink? Kenny Gibson made a similar point. Carry-outs are bought for them, primarily by 18 to 21-year-olds. The youngsters then go drinking at the back of the changing rooms. As night follows day, mischief happens, and those two young men now face the possibility of a severe and lengthy custodial sentence for idiocy and bad behaviour fuelled by alcohol. Members of the Opposition say that nothing can be done about it.

Members:

Oh.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

Oh yes. The Opposition has made no contribution to the debate. The only contribution from Mr Martin was his suggestion that we soften the position on those who are given the right to sell alcohol and who abuse that trust. He wants to give them three months' suspension. The current law, which we want to enforce, says that if someone breaches it badly, they should be suspended forthwith, indefinitely and forever. Why should we curtail that? We will drive on with it.

The contributions from the Opposition have been sadly lacking in that they have focused on one aspect of the debate and have failed to recognise the requirement to address the alcohol problem. Members paid lip service to the extent of the problem that the Government inherited and now faces. Under the Tory Government, there was a 31 per cent increase in off-sale provision, and we are now reaping the consequences. The Government is acting on that, in support of, and in conjunction and agreement with partners such as the health service, the BMA and the police. When I went to meet the ambulance service in Lothian and Borders—I noticed that no Tories were there—what was the biggest single problem? Alcohol abuse. We recognise that as a Government we must tackle the problem we face with alcohol. It is affecting our health service and our criminal justice system, and it is undermining our economy. It has to be a whole-population approach, across the board. We cannot underestimate the problem that we face.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative 11:34 am, 2nd October 2008

In the next few minutes, the First Minister will stand up from the very seat in which Mr MacAskill is now sitting and laud his Government's achievements over the past 18 months. There is now another achievement for him to laud. At a stroke, the SNP Government has managed to unite every Opposition member in the chamber and, at the same time, to alienate a wide range of groups in society, including big business, students and even the SNP's own youth movement. That is indeed an unprecedented achievement.

I have been terribly disappointed by the Government's response today. Aside from releasing the attack dogs—Messrs Gibson and Matheson—it has not made a single constructive contribution that would encourage any member in the chamber who is listening in a detached manner to vote against the motion.

Richard Baker is correct to describe the Government's proposals as illogical. He and other members mentioned the Armadale experiment, which has been comprehensively rubbished on the basis of the statistics that John Lamont provided. So much of the Government's policy in this area is predicated on evidence that is incomplete, spurious and selective, where it exists at all.

Of course we have a problem, and it is clear that we must react to it. However, any Government would surely satisfy itself that the existing law is being enforced before rushing to legislate, and that simply has not happened. The figures that Murdo Fraser provided at the start of the debate, which show that only seven people under the age of 18 have been prosecuted in Scotland, indicate that the present law is not enforced, as no-one seriously suggests that that is the extent of the problem.

Although Paul Martin slightly misdirected himself at one point with regard to law, he is correct to underline that those who are prepared to sell drink in an irresponsible manner to underage people should meet the full rigour of the law—and, indeed, the rigour of the licensing boards. The loss of a licence is a more appropriate disposal than any court fine, and certainly concentrates the mind.

Kenny MacAskill twice repeated his views on the question of off-sales provision. I draw his attention to the fact that, although the wicked Tory Government might have been responsible for many things, the granting of licences is a matter for licensing boards. There is a rule on overprovision that many of the boards do not follow, so he should argue with them rather than with Conservative members.

We need to examine the issue. I am attracted by some of the ideas that have emerged and the measures that individual local authorities have enacted. Richard Simpson said that the main problem is the 16 to 18-year-olds who are drinking outdoors. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice may well have to consider a comprehensive, Scotland-wide ban on open-air drinking in bringing forward legislation.

A case can be made on the issue of pricing but, again, the Government's response was disappointing. There is a possible legal impediment to its proposal, but when I asked an appropriate parliamentary question about whether the cabinet secretary would share with members the legal advice that he had received, he said no—he was not prepared to share that advice. [Interruption.]

Mr MacAskill says that all Governments may do that, but if we wish to extend the argument to enable us to make a reasoned contribution under that heading, we require the legal advice.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

What about the legal advice on the Iraq war?

A

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Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

Frankly, Mr MacAskill is clutching at straws. It is rather pathetic that that is the only contribution that he can come up with.

The proposed legislation is discriminatory and affects a section of the population that is not really causing the problem. It is time to call time on this ill-thought-out and absolutely nonsensical proposal.