Alcohol Strategy

– in the Scottish Parliament at 10:21 am on 26 March 2009.

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Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 10:21, 26 March 2009

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-3778, in the name of Bill Aitken, on alcohol strategy.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative 10:27, 26 March 2009

I rise to speak to a motion on a debate that has been running for some months. In one respect, at least, we are making progress. Only two days ago, the Government seemed determined to railroad its measures through the Parliament in subordinate legislation regulations, but it has now thought better of following that anti-democratic line. I have to say that not since Saul went on his celebrated excursion to Damascus has there been such a conversion. Indeed, some might think that it is a deathbed conversion.

Having dealt with the process, we now need to deal with the practicalities. We should start on the basis of a common agreement not that Scotland's relationship with alcohol is problematical, but that some people's relationship is highly problematical and that we require to apply our minds to ways of resolving or at least improving the situation. That will not be done by taking a scattergun approach. We need to consider seriously whether we are using all available tools prior to considering further measures.

The one truth is that the existing law is not being applied with the necessary vigour. It is an offence to serve drink to people under the age of 18 and it is an offence for those under that age to seek to purchase drink. It is an offence to enter licensed premises while drunk or to be in licensed premises while drunk, and it is an offence to serve a drunk person. The number of prosecutions for those offences has been derisory, and only with test purchasing have any significant moves been made to combat underage drinking and the difficulties that it causes.

The weak approach that has been adopted by licensing boards has not helped. Sellers who persistently or recklessly sell drink to young people should forfeit their licence. Licensing boards require to get real. However, licensing boards do not need to have the buck passed to them by the Scottish Government, which is what is happening with regard to the ban on 18 to 21-year-olds buying drink from off-sales premises. That crass policy should be scrapped, and the aim of imposing that duty on local authorities is a device simply to keep face rather than to recognise the reality.

We need to consider how we can get all agencies and the public to co-operate. Some excellent work has already been done by the licensed trade in combating underage drinking, but more needs to be done. We are attracted to the community alcohol partnerships that have been piloted down south, particularly in Cambridgeshire, where information sharing between off-trade retailers, the police and trading standards officers has made a significant contribution. For example, in St Neots, it has delivered a 42 per cent decrease in antisocial behaviour incidents over a six-month period. The way forward is through cooperation, not diktat.

We have to recognise that problematical drinkers in Scotland represent a minority of the population, and we must take action that is properly targeted and effective.

"We do not want the responsible, sensible majority of moderate drinkers to have to pay more or suffer as a result of the excesses of a small minority."

In that respect, I do not claim that the Conservatives have the monopoly of wisdom on this matter. Indeed, I am prepared to accept that there might be some criticism of the words that I have just used and that they might lack the eloquent phrasing and clarity of expression that one would expect from a speaker from this side of the chamber. However, they are the precise words that Gordon Brown used last Monday morning at a press conference in Downing Street. My authority for that is no less an organ than The Guardian, which, as people such as Cathy Jamieson might expect, is not my preferred reading.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

Does the member recognise the worryingly high level of people who consistently drink more than the recommended limits? Does he think that that is a problem or not?

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

I think that it is a problem, and that those are the people who require to be targeted. We must target the problem drinkers and the problem drinks. We can target the problem drinkers, as is happening in Glasgow, by an approach that uses much more hands-on policing and involves licensed premises being visited with the aim of ensuring that the existing laws are obeyed in full. We can deal with the problem drinks by working with the Westminster Government to increase tax on some of the products that do the most damage, such as super-strength ciders and beers. Targeted duty changes are the answer, not across-the-board price increases.

The Scottish Government has got it all wrong. In formulating an alcohol policy, we should work with the trade and the public, insist that the police and the Procurator Fiscal Service play their part, and let the public see for once that we are attacking those who are the source of the problem and not attempting to deal with the matter in an unrealistic and simplistic manner.

The health service has a role to play, and we have to ensure that there is greater education in schools. We have to offer alcohol counselling to those who are admitted to accident and emergency units as a result of alcohol incidents, and we have to encourage the drink trade to ensure that 125ml glasses, for example, are provided. However, above all, we have to recognise that only by working together are we going to get the result that we all seek to achieve. We cannot rule by diktat.

I move,

That the Parliament welcomes the decision of the Scottish Government to incorporate its proposals for reform of the law relating to the sale of alcohol into a new health Bill, which will facilitate democratic accountability and greater parliamentary and public scrutiny of its proposals; calls on the Scottish Government to place greater emphasis on a much more rigorous application of the existing licensing laws and to recognise that any changes can be introduced only on the basis of a wider and meaningful consultation with the licensed trade and Scotland's communities, and believes that any measures taken to tackle binge drinking and underage drinking must be properly targeted and effective so that the responsible, sensible majority of moderate drinkers do not have to pay more or suffer as a result of the excesses of a small minority.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party 10:33, 26 March 2009

I do not know whether the Tories were trying to be helpful—I suspect not—but I welcome this debate, because it gives us an opportunity to reflect on the scale of the problem and set out our determination to show bold and clear leadership.

Members might want to reflect on the fact that today is the third anniversary of the ban on smoking in public spaces, which is a perfect example of what can be achieved when parties are prepared to come together and show collective leadership. However, I am sure that the fact that the Tories initially opposed that progressive social change as well will not be lost on anyone.

There is no doubt that alcohol misuse is holding us back. As today's Audit Scotland report reminds us, it is costing us £2.25 billion a year—a staggering figure that amounts to £500 for every adult in the country. However, the human cost in health harms is even more alarming. More than 40,000 hospital admissions a year are due to alcohol-related illness and injury, and we have one of the fastest growing rates of liver disease and cirrhosis in the world. We have a major health issue on our hands, and it ranges across social groups and ages. The Tories must recognise the number of people who regularly exceed the recommended limits and acknowledge that that is not just a minority problem. We all have a responsibility to tackle the issue. The question is how we do that. As our alcohol framework makes clear, cultural change, education, preventive measures and better treatment and support are all essential. Indeed, only within that broader context will the more far-reaching measures that we propose be effective.

It is also right to say that we should focus more on ensuring that there is better enforcement of the current laws, and we are doing that. The test purchasing programme has already resulted in a tightening up of sales to underage young people. That work is continuing and it will be reinforced as the licensing regime comes fully into force in September with the mandatory "no proof of age, no sale" provisions. We will monitor the effectiveness of the new regime and continue to work closely with stakeholders, including the licensed trade, to identify what more we can do.

However, given the scale of the problem, we believe that we must go further. That is why we set out such a far-reaching range of proposals in our framework—a ban on promotions, a duty on licensing boards to consider increasing the off-sales age to 21 and a right for the police to ask them to do so, a social responsibility fee for some retailers, and, yes, minimum pricing for alcohol.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

The minister mentioned the proposal to ban off-sales to under-21s. She made the point that there was cross-party support for the smoking legislation and that the Parliament's voice was known. The Parliament has made its voice known on the proposal on under-21s, but the Government is not listening.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I did mention that proposal. If Mike Rumbles reads our framework, he will see that we have listened and substantially modified the proposal. People have a duty to reflect on that.

I will say a little about minimum pricing. We are convinced that we need to tackle pocket-money prices. The evidence shows that increases in health harms are driven by increased consumption, which in turn is driven by price. Alcohol is nearly 70 per cent more affordable than it was in 1980 and consumption has increased by about 20 per cent since then. There have been claims, mostly from the alcohol industry, that a minimum price would be illegal, but those claims are unsubstantiated, because they lack detail and a crucial piece of information—that is, what the minimum price would be. As the Parliament would expect, we have carefully considered the legal issues and will continue to do so as the proposal is taken forward. We want it to succeed, which means we must do things properly and carefully.

We have also heard claims that minimum pricing will hit the majority of responsible drinkers in their pockets and punish them for the habits of a minority, but the products that will be most affected are the low-cost, high-alcohol products, which tend not to be consumed by moderate drinkers. That is why the research on minimum pricing shows that a minimum price of 40p a unit would require moderate drinkers to spend, perhaps, only an extra 11p a week.

We believe that minimum pricing has a big part to play, but we also recognise that, on this issue, as on all our proposals, we have a need and a duty to take people with us as far as we can. We are a minority Government, and I therefore recognise the need to work with other parties in the Parliament. Our willingness to listen to others' views was, I hope, well demonstrated this week by our decision on the parliamentary route that we intend to take for our reforms. We will now bring the measures together in a single health bill to be introduced later in the year. The bill will include the full package of reforms that we outlined in our framework and it will allow for extensive scrutiny and debate.

Let me be clear: I want to work with others, but for that approach to be productive it requires other parties also to be prepared to act. To that end, I welcome Labour's indication earlier this week that it will support some of our key proposals. I hope that we can make some common cause with the Liberals and even with the Tories. However, let me also be clear that the bottom line is that the Government is determined to show leadership. We believe that our package of measures provides the bold but effective response that is required to tackle what has become a major health challenge for Scotland, and a challenge that we believe everybody in the Parliament has a responsibility to face up to and meet.

I move amendment S3M-3778.2, to leave out from "binge drinking" to end and insert:

"harmful drinking and underage drinking must be workable and properly targeted so that, while the responsible, sensible majority of moderate drinkers are not unnecessarily penalised, wider issues of excess consumption contributing to huge costs to Scottish society are effectively addressed."

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 10:40, 26 March 2009

This is an important debate in terms of its merits and the Parliamentary issues that lie behind it.

The Scottish National Party Government has rightly identified the problem of alcohol—Scotland's shame, one might say—as a key challenge. It is interesting that we now have "bold" policies in the health realm and "tough" policies in the justice realm. One sometimes wonders whether the words and the presentation are more important than the substance. The reality is that the SNP Government has made a right hash of putting in place the policies to tackle the problem of alcohol. It is rightly inspired by what happened with the smoking ban, but its search for a totemic idea first led it to suggest that young people were the heart of the problem and that all would be well if the age for the purchase of alcohol from off-sales premises was increased to 21. At that point, everyone in sight rounded on the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, including the trade, the public and even the youth wing of his party. The policy was clearly a dead-parrot policy.

Attention then switched to his other big idea, which was minimum pricing. Unfortunately, he had the clever wheeze of trying to slip the measure through the Parliament in subordinate legislation rather than exposing it to public and parliamentary scrutiny. That was a constitutional outrage that undermined the whole point of having a Scottish Parliament. The policy had other problems, too. No details were produced of how it would work.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Now that we have got the process argument out of the way, I wonder whether the Liberal Democrats will tell us where they stand on minimum pricing. Does Robert Brown believe that Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and the Liberal Democrat health spokesman at Westminster are wrong to support minimum pricing?

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I was going to give some of the background to the matter. We are talking about the problems with the SNP Government's policy.

We do not have the details of the minimum pricing policy, but the examples suggest that it would hit the Scottish whisky industry at home and abroad. It seems that the general public would pay for the policy, yet one study predicts that it would change the drinking levels of hardened drinkers by only 2.3 per cent. That is hardly the totemic answer. The SNP Government has managed to produce not bold and clear leadership, as the cabinet secretary suggested, but a mix of policies that will cause the maximum controversy and hit the average citizen and many businesses hard with both higher costs at a time of great economic crisis and greatly increased bureaucracy. The policies seem likely to have the least beneficial effect.

However, I am sure that the Parliament will want to give credit to the SNP Government for bowing, if belatedly, to the criticism that has been levied at the process and announcing that it will proceed by way of a health bill in the autumn, thus meeting the demand that I made of it in my motion on 9 March. Why it did not do that in the first place is, frankly, beyond my comprehension. The result is that, for the second week in a row, an Opposition motion has been pre-empted by an SNP Government strike. Last week, that involved Labour and police numbers—again, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice was involved—and this week it is the Tories and alcohol. That is clever politics but poor statesmanship. The manoeuvres reveal growing problems at the heart of the SNP Government.

Let us examine the position further. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice's position on police numbers has been all over the place. He is the grand old Duke of York of police numbers, marching his troops up and down various hills to no good effect. The cabinet secretary got his fingers burned on a legislative consent motion on data sharing under the Coroners and Justice Bill. He appeared not to have read the documents and was ready to surrender wide-ranging powers to Westminster. At best, he had not recognised the obvious scorpions that were lurking in the grass. He has now been relieved of control over a key policy that he had made his own but which has mutated seamlessly, without change of substance, from being under the control of the justice department to suddenly being included in a health bill that will apparently be taken forward by the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing. One wonders what sin Nicola Sturgeon has committed to be handed this poisoned chalice.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

No. I need to make some progress.

In short, we have an SNP Government that has demoted its justice secretary and stripped him of key functions. The Government has lost its way on one of its few remaining flagship policies. It has delayed the whole process by six months and it still lacks the coherent policies that are needed to tackle Scotland's alcohol challenges. It is a Government without clear direction or the strength of purpose to act in Scotland's interests.

Nevertheless, there is good will in the chamber to come to the aid of a drifting Government on this key issue. Today's debate can help to give a bit of direction and focus to the necessary policies. The motion and the amendments contain elements that we can all agree with. The motion focuses on the parliamentary process, the need to consult various relevant interests and the absolutely necessary requirement to enforce the existing laws more rigorously. The Liberal Democrats have loudly led calls on such matters and have been supported by all parties. However, I take slight issue with the thrust of the rest of the motion. It properly targets binge and underage drinking and the rights of moderate drinkers, but it fails to identify the fact that problem drinking exists as part of a more widespread culture in all age groups in Scotland. I agree with some of the cabinet secretary's comments in that regard. That culture is different from and more deep-seated than the culture in the rest of the United Kingdom or across Europe, and it is at the heart of the issue. Changing our culture requires to be at the heart of our approach.

Earlier, I said that the mix of policies has to be right and that the SNP minority Government is still not fully listening. If, as appears to be the case, its health bill includes its watered-down version of the under-21 ban, its arbitrary social responsibility fee or the bureaucratic minimum pricing proposal, it will be difficult for the bill to obtain parliamentary support. Lots of time and public money could be wasted on developing proposals that might have to be dropped at the end of the day. The sensible way forward is to dump them now and concentrate on things that can obtain parliamentary support, such as the highly innovative idea of the youth commission on alcohol, on which work is proceeding. That work will have enthusiastic Liberal Democrat support. The proposals to limit irresponsible alcohol promotions and the initiative on wine glass sizes can also obtain parliamentary support.

In conclusion, the Liberal Democrats stand ready to work positively with the Government and to contribute our ideas to tackle the challenges of excessive alcohol consumption and problem drinking—which have evil effects on violent crime rates and result in burdens on the national health service—and the central need for cultural change.

The Government has had a false start, but it now has a chance to do things properly. The Conservative motion as amended by the Liberal Democrat amendment would identify the right target and strike the right balance. I hope that our amendment will attract support.

I move amendment S3M-3778.1, to leave out from "any changes" to end and insert:

"tackling Scotland's complex relationship with alcohol will require significant and long-term cultural change, and believes that any proposals for reform of the law should be targeted and evidence-based, introduced on the basis of strong public support and following meaningful consultation with all relevant interests and stakeholders to ensure that measures to address problematic alcohol consumption do not unfairly penalise the majority of individuals who enjoy alcohol responsibly."

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour 10:47, 26 March 2009

I hope that we will have a mature debate today and in the coming weeks and months so that we can tackle a serious problem. Indeed, I hope that the debate will be more mature than the relationship that Scots have with alcohol, which is anything but mature. We have a very uneasy—indeed, sometimes a dangerous— relationship with alcohol. At times, we have promoted a hard-drinking culture and people have assessed how much they have enjoyed a night out at the weekend by how little they can remember of it. We cannot be proud of that in Scotland. We must change that culture.

We must acknowledge what the Audit Scotland report that was released this morning identifies. We need greater focus on a number of issues. We must focus on how our spending patterns follow what needs to be done to treat people who have alcohol problems and misuse alcohol and to prevent alcohol problems arising in the first place. The Audit Scotland report contains salutary points about the balance between the money that is spent on treatment and the money that is spent on prevention.

We must recognise that more women are drinking far more than the recommended levels of alcohol and that many of them perhaps do not realise the dangers that they are putting themselves in by consuming what they might think are relatively small amounts. Such women probably do not get drunk or binge drink, but they are nonetheless putting their health at risk. We must also recognise the strain on our accident and emergency units, not only on Friday and Saturday nights and not only because of teenagers who overindulge; others also put strain on those units. Violent crime and other issues go along with problem drinking. The status quo is not an option. We cannot simply say that we are not going to do anything.

I welcome the cabinet secretary's shift of emphasis from considering implementing proposals by regulations that will not be properly scrutinised to having a full and proper debate and consultation. We support the amendment in the name of the cabinet secretary—indeed, I lodged an identical amendment last night—because we want to build consensus, and the way to do that is to involve as many people as possible in the debate. The cabinet secretary must bring together industry representatives, work on a cross-party basis and work with the communities and those who are affected on the front line by having to deal with the problems of alcohol misuse. In building that consensus, I hope that she will recognise that some of her proposals have not found universal favour and that she will be prepared to compromise.

I want to raise a couple of issues about which we need to have a serious debate. Nicola Sturgeon talked about the pocket-money prices of alcohol, the relative cheapness of some alcohol products, and the possible need to introduce minimum pricing. Many people—the family that cannot afford an expensive night out at the pub or in a club, for example—will wonder what risk is posed by a £10 meal deal that includes a bottle of wine, which a minimum pricing regime potentially would outlaw. A unit pricing regime could mean that the price of some premium products that our whisky industry exports would increase while nothing would be done to tackle the problems caused by alcopops and other drinks that are favoured by those who cause mayhem on our streets. Communities that are plagued by antisocial behaviour would wonder whether the balance was right. People who could go online and order drink from south of the border if there was no minimum pricing regime there would, of course, have an advantage over people who go to the corner shop. Those issues are real and serious. That is not to say that we do not have to do something; rather, we must address those real and serious concerns if we want to move on.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I agree with much of what Cathy Jamieson says. I want to build consensus and look forward to working with her. However, I ask for her views on two issues. First, does she agree that, although consensus is important, sometimes politicians must lead public opinion and not just follow it? Secondly, does she acknowledge that we have given absolute assurances that the meal deals that she mentions will be excluded from the proposals?

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

It is important that politicians of all parties lead public opinion, which is why it is so important that we try to build consensus. Changing public opinion is not simply about stating a case, refusing to move and refusing to consider what the public have to say. I welcome the cabinet secretary's assurance that so-called meal deals will be excluded. We must have debates on such issues, because surely we should be able to talk to and educate people about drinking responsibly.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

I am sorry that I do not have time to take further interventions.

We should not have a situation in which only people on the lowest incomes think that they are being squeezed when others, particularly those who cause the mayhem on our streets, find that they are being let off the hook.

I make a plea once again: the issue is too important for any one political party or individual to think that they have all the right answers. We have not arrived at the right answers yet or at a public or political consensus. If the cabinet secretary is willing to work at building consensus, I will support her. However, that is not to say that we will agree with everything. I hope that she takes what I am saying in the spirit in which it is intended.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

We now move to the open debate. Speeches should be of around four minutes.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour 10:53, 26 March 2009

There is no doubt that we are facing a serious problem in this country. This morning's Audit Scotland report highlights some of the significant issues.

I congratulate the Cabinet Secretary for Justice on the way in which he has raised the temperature in the debate. I understand why he has done that. We had to have a debate and we must confront serious problems. I am also pleased that ministers' emphasis has shifted towards the health problem, to some extent.

Although Bill Aitken is absolutely right that the alcohol-related behaviour of a minority of people in this country causes problems and it is right that we use enforcement and preventive measures with justice-related powers and responsibilities, he did not dwell significantly on the fact that the health of too many people is beginning to suffer because of the hidden consumption of alcohol at home, which is perhaps not so hidden on a night out. We have to realise that many people who do not necessarily pose problems with antisocial behaviour and crime, or who might not regard themselves as problem drinkers, have a growing problem with alcohol. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing documented well some of the significant impacts that such a problem is having.

Bold measures are absolutely necessary—Robert Brown was right to point out the distinction between justice and health, in terms of the language that is used—and Kenny MacAskill was right to raise the debate in the way that he did, but in a Parliament of minorities, it is not enough to talk about agreement and consensus; we need to deliver it. To be frank, there is no party-political advantage to be gained on this matter, and no party-political argument should be advanced to score points over one party at the expense of another; we are in this together. Nicola Sturgeon is right that, as politicians, we should take the lead on the issue. Sometimes there is a question about whether we attempt to lead public opinion, but we cannot do that by trying to ram ideas down the throats of other parties in this Parliament of minorities.

On alcohol policy, above all others, we need a cross-party approach. We should be looking back to some of the historic work that was done by Strathclyde Regional Council, for example, and the officer/member working group reports on which all parties came together to make bold, imaginative and radical suggestions to advance social policy. If either of the cabinet secretaries here today wants to be bold, the bold measure on alcohol policy is to implement a mechanism whereby all parties can come together to work on the issue and come up with some agreement.

The last thing that we need in trying to deal with the alcohol problem is parties trying to score points against one another or fraying at the edges as the argument develops. If we cannot work out together a solution to the problem, the present generation of Scots will suffer and future generations will continue to suffer. We are dealing with too big an issue for us to revert to our party-political dogma and political bunkers. I appeal to the cabinet secretaries to reach out to other parties and I appeal to other parties to approach the problem in the way that it demands—to rise above our political perspectives and come together to work out a solution that will have a lasting effect. It might require radical and bold solutions, but the problem needs that type of approach. For once, can we not do the right thing in this Parliament?

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party 10:58, 26 March 2009

I congratulate Cathy Jamieson and Hugh Henry on their thoughtful speeches, which show Parliament at its best. However, Robert Brown's speech was rather glum. I tried to prise some substance from his speech, which was larded with metaphors, but he kept dancing on the head of a process pin. I think that he has misjudged the mood of the Parliament in this debate.

I turn to Bill Aitken. Moving the debate to being about health has made it an entirely different debate, in which I hope there can be consensus. Mature members of the Health and Sport Committee, rich in life and parliamentary experience and for whom I have high regard, will take on the burden of hearing the evidence.

One problem that we have not addressed is that some of our young Scots suffer from alcohol even though they have had no part in taking it. I am speaking of foetal alcohol syndrome, which was raised with the chief medical officer when he briefed the Health and Sport Committee. It is a great tragedy, not only for the mother but for the staff who deliver a baby who already has alcohol withdrawal symptoms. It is trite but true to say that the healthy mothers who have healthy and responsible pregnancies give children the best start, which continues throughout life. I welcome the survey on foetal alcohol syndrome that is proposed in the framework because it will be a wake-up call to society. Nobody can sit back and say that society should sustain a situation in which babies are born with alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

As members know, when we first discussed the ban on the sale of alcohol to those under 21 I did not agree with my Government, which was pursuing a national policy that I felt was unjust. I very much welcome localisation, whereby the remit is with the local police and licensing boards. I do not think that we will see a geographic purchasing shift from one area to another, but if that happens, the licensing board can adapt to the situation.

I come to the buy-one-get-one-free offers and minimum pricing, which is a thorny issue. The subject was first raised by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice when he was a shadow minister and I was in my great days in the shadow cabinet. I did not agree with him at that time and thought that the policy would penalise those on lower incomes. However, after a great deal of thought I have come round to the view that we must go down the road of minimum pricing, because I do not accept that it is just the young who are purchasing alcohol.

I have great concern for the hidden numbers behind the net curtains of Scotland, who are putting alcohol in their supermarket trolleys on buy-one-get-one-free promotions when they would not normally buy it; because alcohol is within easy reach, they are taking it in the way that they used to drink a cup of tea at night. There are concerns that we will never be able to investigate that situation, and perhaps only the supermarkets can tell us from their stock control the constituency of people who are buying alcohol. It is not just the young and that is where Bill Aitken's targeting argument loses its place; we must look at the whole of society and not just the young, who buy a different type of alcohol.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I am interested to hear the views of the convener of the Health and Sport Committee on promotions. The cabinet secretary said that offers such as the Sainsbury's £10 deal would not be affected by the new approach, although we want to affect other deals. How can one possibly differentiate between such deals in legislation?

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

The cabinet secretary appears to disagree with Mike Rumbles's comment, so I will let him clarify the position in summing up.

In Scotland, we could take the alternative approach of using taxation to deal with the problem, but we are not doing that. Taxation might be a way to tackle it, but pricing is the route that we must take.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

I will conclude, if I may.

We accept many things in life for the greater good—income tax, national insurance and council tax, which finance services that we might not need. In the case of alcohol, society should consider minimum price levels as a burden to bear for the greater physical and mental health of our community and for those babies, who we hope are born without foetal alcohol syndrome.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour 11:03, 26 March 2009

All of us realise the toll that alcohol misuse takes on Scottish society, so I welcome the opportunity to debate once more that concern in this chamber. I also welcome the Scottish Government's change of heart on full parliamentary scrutiny of the alcohol framework.

In advance of the publication of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill, we called for it to be divided into two separate bills. It is clear that to have debated those major policy proposals only as regulations would have been wholly inadequate, so the fact that they will be decided on in a separate bill is a move forward. However, that is not the only change that must come.

The Conservatives are right to highlight the genuine concerns about enforcement of the current licensing laws. Last year, there were 576 recorded offences of underage drinking and only 88 of them were proceeded against. That is not good enough. There should be a three-strikes-and-you're-out policy for licensees who sell to those who are underage. For ministers to have credibility in introducing their framework, such issues must be addressed properly, particularly as we are discussing further policy initiatives when many of the new provisions in the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 are yet to come into force. There must be further changes in the way that the Scottish Government takes forward its proposals on alcohol.

We in the Labour Party genuinely wanted to see more details in the final framework than were in the consultation document, which would allow us to make informed choices about the kind of issue that Mr Rumbles raised. However, additional detail was hard to find, and we still do not know how irresponsible promotions will be defined or how legislation will be framed. It is vital to know that, because there are serious questions of legality.

However, as Hugh Henry said, that does not mean that we should not consider bold measures. Some alcoholic drinks are sold too cheaply, and we are well aware of the scale of the problem of harmful drinking, which is clear from the Audit Scotland report. Nevertheless, whatever the Parliament does has to be legal and workable.

Scottish Labour held a summit to discuss the proposals with a range of organisations but, up until now, the Scottish Government has failed to engage properly with stakeholders on the issue. It is no wonder that the responsibility for this area has been removed from Mr MacAskill and given to health ministers, because the case for the measures to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour has not been made. I refer not only to the flawed proposal to ban 20-year-olds from purchasing at an off-licence—a localised injustice—but to the key proposal on minimum pricing, which will not touch the price of certain alcoholic products that have been identified again and again not only with antisocial behaviour, but with violent crime.

It is right that we have been challenged not simply to criticise and question the Government's policies but to produce our own, which we have done. Our proposals for a mandatory challenge 21 scheme and for alcohol treatment and testing orders have received wide support, but ministers rejected both proposals out of hand for spurious reasons. To do justice to this issue of real concern for Scottish society, the debate must move on and real efforts must be made to reach consensus on policies.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

I agree with much of what Richard Baker said, but he has skipped over the point about minimum pricing. We need clarification from the Labour Party. Is it in favour of minimum pricing? Does it repudiate the views of Gordon Brown, which I included in the wording of our motion?

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

Yes, there needs to be action on pricing, but such action must be explored and considered properly through the bill that we now have before us. It would be wrong to pre-empt that. I welcome the fact that Mr Aitken is reading The Guardian . Who knows where Tory justice policy will end up as a result? Just as Mr Aitken's reading The Guardian is very much out of context, the words of the Prime Minister are very much out of context in Mr Aitken's motion. That is our concern.

If the Scottish Government is prepared to embrace a consensual approach, we can make progress. Attitudes to alcohol in Scotland will not change overnight and laws on their own will not make the difference. We know that whatever we do now will be done after careful consideration and full debate. I hope that the real victory will be a Scotland with a better and more mature relationship with alcohol.

Photo of Nigel Don Nigel Don Scottish National Party 11:08, 26 March 2009

As I look at the notes that I have made for my speech, it occurs to me that I do not recall ever seeing a page quite as cluttered—perhaps I need some help from Jim Mather. However, my cluttered notes show just how complicated the debate will be. I am very glad that we will have the debate in the context of a health bill, rather than having a perhaps shorter debate in the Justice Committee. I also think that the Justice Committee is overworked, despite our wonderful convener's attempts to keep us in order, and I am therefore absolutely delighted that some of its work will disappear to the Health and Sport Committee, which I am sure will bring wisdom to it.

We are talking about two very different issues and we will help ourselves if we separate them in the debate. The first issue is the alcohol misuse that is evident on our high streets and in our town and city centres on Friday, Saturday and, increasingly, Sunday nights, when people respond in public to their overdrinking. The police, and all manner of other folk, including our A and E departments, have to deal with that. Most of the folk who have been overdrinking have come out of pubs and clubs and, therefore, the comments that Bill Aitken made about enforcing the licensing laws are entirely to the point. We must ensure that everything possible is done to minimise the difficulties that such behaviour causes.

However, in the meeting of the cross-party group on drug and alcohol misuse, which Mary Scanlon, Richard Baker and I attended yesterday evening, it became clear that the vast majority of the health problem relates to those who are in middle age and who probably do most of their drinking at home. I sense that that is the essence of the health issue. I respectfully suggest to all parties that we must separate that issue from the public order issue. If we allow ourselves to confuse the two, we will not have a sensible debate. My plea is that we distinguish between those issues, so that we recognise which issue we are trying to address and where measures are targeted.

Unlike some others, I congratulate Robert Brown on his performance. I thought that it was a wonderful tribal dance; he managed to dance all the way round the subject without getting anywhere near it. It was a wonderful example and I will look up his speech later to learn the lessons from it.

The wonderful thing about the Liberal Democrat amendment is that it uses the phrase "evidence-based", which I have not found in the motion or the other amendment. I point Robert Brown and his colleagues to the evidence that was presented yesterday evening. As it happens, no one from the Liberal Democrats was at the meeting; I know how busy we all are and I do not mean that as a criticism. A lot of the evidence was produced by Petra Meier at the University of Sheffield last year.

We have to look at the academic evidence on which of the various interventions will have an influence on drinking and its consequences. I will persuade the Health and Sport Committee to look at that evidence, although I do not think that it will require much persuading. I do not think that it will be terribly difficult to work out what we should be doing.

There are a few other issues to pick up. Bill Aitken referred quite properly to policing issues around St Neots. I suggest that those who are not familiar with East Anglia look at the map. I had to check this, but I found that St Neots is 10 miles from anywhere. I have nothing against St Neots, but I think that it is relatively straightforward to police somewhere that is 10 miles from anywhere on not-very-good roads. I question the lessons that our larger cities can learn from the St Neots experience, although I recognise entirely that it might be relevant in the Borders and other remoter communities.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour 11:12, 26 March 2009

I thank members for bringing forward the debate. Rather belatedly, we can have an honest discussion on a fundamental issue, about which I do not think that there is any disagreement. We must try to deal with alcohol much more sensibly and effectively.

However, I am concerned that some of the language that predated the debate was alarmist. The policies that members of the Government were advocating before being held to account today—I hope that they will be held to account after today—demonised the taking of alcohol, whereas the real issue is the culture of binge drinking at home and the exhibition of binge drinking in public places throughout the towns and cities of Scotland.

I have a philosophical concern. I acknowledge that the debate we are having is the beginning of a fundamental debate. However, I am concerned that some fundamental issues are not being addressed properly. I worry when I hear the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing say in response to some speeches that our responsibility is to show leadership and to lead public opinion, rather than follow it. Tackling alcohol is substantially different from tackling smoking and to try to equate the two shows a level of sophistry that is beyond belief, given the debate that we should have.

Nigel Don mentioned tackling the issue of isolated drinkers. I come from a family in which the males had substantial problems with alcohol misuse. The reality of my experience growing up was that if the price of alcohol was increased, people would find ways of getting round that to access the alcohol; they would find alternative drinks or a different way of acquiring the alcohol in the first place. The debate has been about absolutes, when the real experience of those who have family experience of alcohol abuse is quite different.

We have been here before. Although the debate in Scotland is not equivalent to the prohibition debate in the United States of America following the first world war, the language is similar. The anti-saloon laws of 1916 in the USA were an attempt

"to improve health, solve social problems and to reduce crime"

Herbert Hoover called prohibition the noble experiment. The legislation was debated in the House of Representatives on a single day. More than 16 hours were given over to a debate on one of the most important and well-known decisions of the House of Representatives in the 20th century. During the debate, one member said that, in tackling alcohol misuse, the Government

"might as well have been trying to dry up the Atlantic with a post-office blotter."

The reality of the debate in Scotland is similar: how do we take a measured view on tackling alcohol misuse, which is an issue that people across the country know about only too well.

I welcome the Government's change of approach on the 18 to 21s, but I am not convinced by its proposals, which might lead to a postcode lottery on access to alcohol off-sales. I question whether its proposal is the most appropriate way of doing things.

I turn to two important issues that have not been raised in the debate thus far, the first of which is our contradictory relationship with alcohol. Everyone, including cabinet ministers, needs to reconcile themselves to that. Indeed, our national rugby team was sponsored by an alcohol product and the Scottish rugby union, two major football clubs and our biggest music festival are all sponsored by alcohol products. The debate with the industry on that sponsorship and how to tackle alcohol abuse is legitimate. Demonising alcohol serves only to jeopardise the private sector sponsorship that is necessary for such sport and events to happen. None of them happens because of public sector investment; they happen as a result of private sector commitment. We need to address the issue.

Secondly, the point about alcohol being cheaper than bottled water is sometimes repeated. Perhaps the question should be why bottled water is so expensive.

We need to have a much more measured debate on the issues. I hope that that is what we will hear today in the summing up, and over the weeks and months ahead in the Parliament.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat 11:17, 26 March 2009

The Liberal Democrats welcome the SNP Government's decision to bring forward a bill on its controversial alcohol proposals. On this matter, it has dropped its take-it-or-leave-it attitude to lawmaking in Scotland.

We are glad that the Government has seen sense. It has realised that it will not get away with trying to bulldoze its controversial proposals through Parliament by way of regulations that Opposition MSPs cannot amend. Four of the Government's six proposals—minimum pricing per unit of alcohol, alcohol promotions, limiting the use of marketing materials, and regulating the size of wine glasses—were put forward in such a way that they could not be amended by Opposition MSPs. Only two measures—the sale of alcohol to under-21s and the social responsibility fee—were to be examined in a parliamentary bill. That is despite the fact that the Government lost a parliamentary vote on the proposal to raise the purchase age to 21—yet here we are again with the same kind of proposal.

Unfortunately, the Government's change of heart on process came about neither as a result of reasoned argument, compromise and co-operation nor—to use the First Minister's fine words—because it is a "listening Government" but because the Liberal Democrats, the Labour Party and the Conservatives made it clear that we would simply vote down the undemocratic method that it was intent on using to push through the measures. Let us have no more nonsense from this SNP Government about it being a "listening Government"; let us instead have a reality check.

The SNP Government is very slow to learn. Just yesterday, it came to light that it was using another parliamentary tactic to try to stop Opposition MSPs lodging amendments to the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Bill.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Wait a minute.

In order to stop that Government tactic and misuse, I had to come to the chamber yesterday afternoon and, with the support of my Labour and Conservative colleagues, request a special meeting of the Parliamentary Bureau. This is a minority Government with a majority ego. It wants to stifle proper debate and prevent Opposition MSPs from lodging legitimate amendments to its legislation. What a way to treat Scotland's national Parliament.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Whatever the member thinks about our motivation, we have conceded that there should be a bill, so surely that should bring an end to the argument on process. Will Mike Rumbles do what Robert Brown signally failed to do and tell us where the Liberal Democrats stand on the substance?

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

It is clear that the Government wants to forget about the mistakes that it has made so far with its proposals on alcohol. It does not want us to talk about using the Scottish Parliament properly and having a proper debate about all the issues. It wants to forget about all of that. The Government has seen sense over the way in which it will put its proposals on alcohol to Parliament. I had hoped that ministers had learned their lesson, but yesterday's shenanigans over Opposition amendments made it clear that it has learned nothing.

Although Bill Aitken did not use this phrase, I took from his speech that he opposes the position that the Government knows best. I rather agree with him.

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing falsely compared the Government's alcohol proposals with the smoking legislation. How wrong could she be? The smoking legislation was radical and it was accepted across the chamber. It was not made into the sort of partisan issue that the SNP has made its proposals on alcohol.

In a very good speech, Cathy Jamieson highlighted concerns over minimum pricing and the missing of Government targets. She questioned why, although some promotions need to be stopped, the Scottish whisky industry should be damaged in the process. That was a good point.

When I intervened on Christine Grahame about the outlawing of alcohol promotions, she could not answer the question that had been put earlier to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing. I think that this is important. How can the cabinet secretary say that a £10 meal deal from Sainsbury's that includes a bottle of wine will not be outlawed when other offers will? What about unintended consequences?

The Government says that it will take over six months to work up the detail of its bill proposals—well, what a surprise! Has the Government not done that work? Did it not bother to do the detailed work for a piece of legislation that it wanted the Parliament to rubber-stamp and to either take or leave? It is a disgrace. We cannot operate a Scottish Parliament in that way. We cannot have a Government coming to the Parliament with such ill-thought-out plans and ideas. It is not sufficient for the Scottish Government to ask the Parliament to legislate on such important issues when the Government does not have a clue about the detail.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour 11:22, 26 March 2009

Unlike my Liberal Democrat colleagues, I welcome the Government's acceptance that the issue should be moved to the health portfolio and that there should be proper debate on it. The issue is too serious to do anything else.

I am wearing four hats in the debate: as shadow public health spokesperson, as a member of the Health and Sport Committee—as Christine Grahame said, the committee will have an important role to play in all of this—as the chairman of the cross-party group on drug and alcohol misuse, and as a former psychiatrist who dealt with the alcohol problems with which we are confronted.

As Frank McAveety said, the problem with debating alcohol as a justice issue is that it runs the risk of demonising drink. The difference between drink and smoking is that smoking is totally pernicious—there is no benefit—whereas drinking in moderation is a health benefit. We run a grave risk of demonising drink and of being perceived by the public to be doing that, and some of the debate on justice aspects has contributed to that.

In the sort of thoughtful speech that we have come to expect from Nigel Don, he said that we have to separate out the issues. As other members rightly said, the central problem in the debate is excessive drinking by a very substantial minority and not the public safety issue that we have all seemed to concentrate on and which has taken up much of the debate in the press.

There has been a massive rise in cirrhosis among the over-40s. Also, 11 per cent of emergency attendances are associated with alcohol, and they relate mainly to the over-40s. Indeed, the most significant growth is among over-60s. We need to tackle the group of people who have developed an inappropriate cultural approach to alcohol over a long period of time.

We also need to look at the growth of alcohol consumption among women, which has been even greater than the growth of consumption among men.

What we do in Scotland has to be the subject of debate in the Scottish Parliament. Why? Because the problem is hugely greater in Scotland than in England. Over the past few years, there has been a marked rise in alcohol consumption in England, but England has reached only the European Union average for cirrhosis whereas the figure for Scotland is 2.3 times that average, and rising. We need to find Scottish solutions to what is essentially a Scottish problem.

Labour will not act in haste. We did not do so on the proposal to raise the off-sales purchase age to 21—we took a few weeks to examine the evidence before saying that, as a public health measure, it was a non-starter. We will consider proposals carefully and take the opportunity that has been afforded by the Government's change of heart to enter into a debate. That is reflected in the fact that, for the first time in this session, we produced an amendment that was identical to one lodged by the Government.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

I am afraid that I do not have time to take an intervention.

Last night, we looked at the issue of minimum pricing and heard a presentation by a consultant psychiatrist who favours the measure. A representative of the Scotch Whisky Association told us that there might be problems with what he called commoditisation—at some point, I will look up the word to find out what in heaven's name he meant by that. We need to balance the industry's concerns with those of clinicians, who definitely favour minimum pricing. However, there must be no doubt that the consumption of alcohol is price sensitive; all the papers, including those from Sheffield and the Australian medical colleges, are clear on that fact.

We need to have a debate but, as Cathy Jamieson said, we must ensure that we are not seen to punish impoverished moderate drinkers. We need to achieve a balance. When we see that alcopops and Buckfast are not affected by minimum pricing, we realise that we have a job of work to do. Undoubtedly, some of the problems are not price related but cultural.

Thirty-nine of the 150 sections of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005, which was Labour's attempt to move us forward on the issue, have not yet been implemented. Those include sections relating to drunkenness and to the consideration by licensing boards of overprovision of licensed premises. It is important not only that we implement all sections of the 2005 act but that we enforce them. So far, enforcement of the legislation has been tragically weak—it needs to be reinforced.

Labour is up for this debate and is prepared to try to reach agreement on issues. However, it must be a careful and mature debate.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party 11:27, 26 March 2009

We welcome the debate. There is a great deal of consensus around the chamber on the problem that we face. Two strands—the problem and the process—have run through the debate. I thank Richard Simpson for his comments on the process; the Liberal Democrats should have taken those points on board. It would be churlish of me not to say that the procedures that were suggested for many issues were introduced by Tavish Scott and George Lyon. However, at the end of the day, we want to resolve differences over process so that we can concentrate on tackling the problem. We will do so through a health bill. Hugh Henry and Cathy Jamieson acknowledged the huge damage that alcohol misuse is causing to our society. We hope that we can draw a line under debates on process and start addressing the problem that so many speakers have highlighted.

Bill Aitken spoke about a road-to-Damascus conversion. Perhaps the biggest such change in the Conservative party is its recognition that there is such a thing as society. Speaker after speaker recognised that alcohol misuse is damaging our communities. Clearly, it is not simply a criminal justice matter, as the effects of alcohol misuse are not limited to problems with behaviour. Frankly, it is killing far too many of our communities and damaging individual citizens. We must move on.

Issues to be considered include the action that must be taken, enforcement and education. More can and should be done on enforcement. Richard Simpson referred to the 2005 act, the provisions of which are being rolled out. There will be a big bang in September, when many of the changes will kick in. At that point, licensing boards will have more power to take appropriate action. We are surprised that some people wish to restrict licensing boards to a policy of three strikes and you're out. We want to ensure that boards can adopt a policy of one strike and you're out; if there has been a flagrant breach, licensees should not be given the opportunity of further culpability. That is why we ask members to support the action that is being taken to give boards the power to adopt such a policy.

Enforcing provisions against underage drinking is problematic for the police. Reference has been made to pocket-money prices. If we impose fines on our children—as some seem to be suggesting—those fines will be taken out of their pocket money, because some of the youngsters whom the police are taking in as drunk and incapable are not 16 or 17-year-old laddies who are in work or apprenticeships, but 12 or 14-year-old young girls who, if they are lucky enough to have pocket money, are blowing it on alcopops. We accept that enforcement is necessary and will work with members to ensure that appropriate action is taken. The Government will ensure that the police, procurators fiscal and licensing boards are joined up and communicate with one another, and that licensing boards are aware of who is offending.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

One of the things that disappoint me most is the Government's failure to follow through on the work of the national licensing forum, which provided essential support to local boards, and to monitor the extent to which support for boards varies. The Government said that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities could do that job.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

We have met COSLA and Alcohol Focus Scotland and have made clear that we think that such a forum is appropriate. However, it would be better for it to come from them than from us because, as today's debate has shown, there may be issues on which they disagree with the Government. We will support COSLA and Alcohol Focus Scotland fully in setting up a forum that is able to deal with Government, but it should come from them, because they are distinctive stakeholders with particular interests in the area.

We have addressed the issue of process; the Liberal Democrats must address the issue of what they will do about the problem and, as Christine Grahame indicated, the substance. We have a rather perverse situation, given that the Liberal Democrats are a federal party that recognises that devolution should allow one part of the United Kingdom to go in a particular direction to deal with particular problems. As Richard Simpson and Cathy Jamieson pointed out, the problem of alcohol abuse is greater in Scotland. The irony and shame for the Liberal Democrats is that they do not want to act in the part of the United Kingdom where the problem is significantly greater than it is elsewhere. I compare that position with the courageous steps that have been taken by Christopher Huhne and Nick Clegg.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

It is clear that the Government does not have a clue about the detail of the legislation that it intends to introduce. Surely the most important point is that it should provide us with that detail, so that we can examine it properly. The Government has not done that.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

It is rather tragic that, whereas Nick Clegg can make proposals that this Government supports fully, in the part of the United Kingdom where the Liberal Democrats wish to make a difference and where the problem is significantly greater than it is elsewhere, they take no action.

We recognise that issues will have to be worked through and that we must work with the trade. The Scottish Licensed Trade Association is squarely behind the Government on many issues. We will work with the appropriate stakeholders to make clear that the suggestion that the meal deals and offers will be affected is spurious.

We must take action. We recognise the problems that Scotland faces and accept that there is not one quick-fire bullet that will solve them. It is about enforcement, education and making changes. Three years after the smoking ban, we can change the situation. However, we need legislative change to ensure that we deliver cultural change.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative 11:33, 26 March 2009

As we have heard from a number of speakers in today's debate, excessive alcohol consumption is a major issue for Scotland. We all agree on that point and acknowledge the health concerns that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing set out in her speech. Research has revealed that Scotland is eighth in the world for alcohol consumption per head of population. One in three men and one in four women in Scotland exceed recommended daily alcohol limits.

As our motion states, we welcome the Scottish Government's U-turn on railroading its alcohol proposals through the Parliament by regulation, which was an attempt to sneak through a deeply unpopular policy in the most undemocratic manner, by avoiding proper parliamentary scrutiny. However, we remain concerned that the Government's proposals penalise responsible retailers and consumers and fail to address overconsumption.

I will address a couple of issues that were raised in the debate, beginning with the minimum price proposal. The Scottish Government's plans for a minimum price for alcoholic drinks will adversely affect many of the communities and local economies that we represent. What is more, the proposal sends out confusing messages and fundamentally fails to target the problem drinks that contribute so significantly to Scotland's alcohol problem. Retailers have suggested that the cost of problem drinks such as alcopops and high-strength spirits, which are often used as shooters, would not be affected by a minimum price.

J D Wetherspoon was recently criticised for selling a pint for £1, but if minimum pricing were applied to the on-sales trade, that pint could be sold at no profit for as little as 70p. The minimum price plan would primarily increase large volume cider prices; most single bottles or cans would remain unaffected. The pricing plan would have the biggest impact on wine, which is a drink that I—and many members, I am sure—occasionally enjoy responsibly. Minimum pricing would raise the price of 19 per cent of the wine and 15 per cent of the spirits that are currently sold in Scotland.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

Does the member agree that we should be wary of a minimum pricing strategy that would put money into retailers' pockets but not into funding additional nurses, doctors or police officers? Does he agree that we should consider a United Kingdom-wide strategy that involves a more effective and equitable taxation system?

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative

I agree. The way forward is to tax problem drinks. Nearly half the young men who were charged with an offence in 2007 revealed that they had been drinking Buckfast immediately prior to committing the offence. Conservatives think that the Scottish Government should be working with Westminster to put forward proposals to address alcohol abuse by taxing problem drinks such as alcopops, strong beers and ciders and Buckfast, while reducing the duty on low-strength beers and ciders, to maintain cost neutrality.

Blanket minimum pricing would penalise responsible drinkers and could have unintended consequences. I am concerned that the Scottish Government's proposals would create a booze-trip culture in the south of Scotland, which could hit traders in my constituency in the Borders. A trend could be started whereby responsible drinkers travelled across the border to places such as Berwick and Wooler to purchase cheaper alcohol, which would have a clear effect on traders in the Borders. I wanted to make that point during Christine Grahame's speech. Has the Scottish Government thought about the issue and would it allocate additional resources so that it could be policed?

All members know that opinion polls are important bedtime reading for Alex Salmond and the SNP Government. What do opinion polls say about the Government's plans? When 10,000 people were asked what they thought of the Government's proposals for a minimum price for alcohol, 61 per cent were opposed to the idea. When they were asked what they thought of the proposal to ban three-for-two and other multibuy promotions, 67 per cent opposed the proposal. What does the Government think about the overwhelming public opinion against its proposals?

There is no amendment from the Labour Party and, from what we have heard, it seems likely that Labour members will vote for the SNP amendment. It is important to record that, if that happens, Labour members will be voting to remove from the motion words that were used by Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Perhaps someone from the Labour Party will tell us whether Labour members intend to vote with the SNP because the motion expresses Gordon Brown's view in his own words.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

We are in a devolved Parliament. In Scotland, the level of alcoholic cirrhosis is more than twice the EU level and we have a much more rapidly developing problem. Along with the SNP Government, we will seek a Scottish solution to our problems, and I hope that there will be a consensus in that regard.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative

I wonder how out of touch Gordon Brown is. He is a Scottish member of Parliament, so I would have thought that he would be fully aware of those points and would be more than happy to back Scottish Labour's proposals, although we have yet to hear what they are.

Rather than pursue ineffective and unpopular proposals, we should be enforcing existing laws on licensing and the sale of alcohol, as Bill Aitken said. Police and local traders and other stakeholders should be working much more closely in community-based alcohol partnerships and we should learn from how that model is working in Cambridgeshire, London and many other parts of England. Work is needed in our communities to help to tackle alcohol abuse through education and counselling. We should not punish people who drink responsibly; we should work towards legislation that will address the problem of alcohol abuse in our communities. Conservative proposals to target problem drinks through increased taxation should be pursued. We need responsible and reasoned legislation, which will properly address alcohol abuse in Scotland. I hope that that can be achieved through further debate.