Alcohol (Minimum Pricing)

– in the Scottish Parliament at 10:10 am on 5th November 2009.

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Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 10:10 am, 5th November 2009

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-5118, in the name of Murdo Fraser, on the minimum pricing of alcohol.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative 10:16 am, 5th November 2009

A policy of minimum pricing for alcohol is wrong because it will penalise responsible drinkers, may well be illegal under European Union rules and will cost jobs in our vital spirits industry. It is also wrong because, by focusing on that single measure, the Scottish National Party Government loses the opportunity to build a true cross-party consensus on measures that we need to take to tackle the scourge of alcohol in Scottish society.

As our motion states, alcohol misuse costs an estimated £2.25 billion per year. Too many people drink more than the recommended maximum level per week. That is not a problem for everyone, but it involves a sizeable minority of men and women. For that reason, it is right that we have a debate on alcohol policy and what needs to be done.

The Scottish Conservatives believe that we should concentrate on the areas on which we all agree that action should be taken. I am sure that we all agree that we need better enforcement of the current laws, particularly in restricting sales to people who are under age. I am sure that we all agree that we should have much better education on the adverse health effects of alcohol. I am also sure that most if not all of us agree that we need to clamp down on irresponsible promotions by retailers, which is why the Conservatives support a ban on retailers selling alcohol below cost price. We also support targeted alcohol taxation: a rise in excise duty on alcopops, as well as on super-strength beers and ciders.

The measures that we propose, which many others support, are properly targeted, evidence based, effective and legally competent. They stand in sharp contrast to the SNP Government's proposals on minimum pricing, which pass none of those tests.

Minimum pricing is wrong because, unlike our policy, it will penalise responsible drinkers. Based on a minimum price of 50p per unit, the policy would lead to an increase in the price of Stowells of Chelsea wine while the price of Buckfast would not go up by a penny. I do not know which of the two is the weekend drink of choice for the neds in constituencies like that of the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing, but I wager that they do not neck down a nice Stowells of Chelsea merlot at the start of a night out.

Secondly, minimum pricing is wrong because it may be illegal. Just last week, there was a ruling from the European Commission on minimum pricing for tobacco products, which has clear consequences for a similar policy on alcohol.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I am sure that Murdo Fraser does not want to mislead the Parliament, so I ask him to confirm that it was not a ruling but an opinion and that it was based on the specific wording of a directive that does not apply to alcohol.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Nicola Sturgeon is playing the same game that Alex Salmond played last week at First Minister's question time, when he quoted selectively from the opinion that was given. It was made perfectly clear in the answer that the European Commission gave to Catherine Stihler MEP that a minimum price may have an adverse effect and thus constitute an obstacle to the free movement of trade in the internal market. There is a clear risk in that to the SNP's policy. It is instructive that, in its briefing for the debate, even Alcohol Focus Scotland—a body that enthusiastically supports the SNP's minimum pricing policy—says:

"it is impossible to say that minimum pricing of alcohol would definitely withstand a challenge in the European Court of Justice".

We have called previously for the Scottish Government to publish its legal advice on whether minimum pricing of alcohol would breach EU rules. If the Government is to be taken seriously on the issue, it must publish that advice without delay and not just share it with Jackie Baillie, which is what the First Minister promised at First Minister's question time last week.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

There we go—yet another broken promise.

The third reason why minimum pricing is wrong is that it will do immense damage to the vital spirits industry in Scotland. The Scotch Whisky Association estimates that whisky exports alone could fall by in the region of £600 million per year as Governments across the globe sought to copy the Scottish Government's lead and increased duties on whisky. The Scottish ministers consistently argue that, because Scotch whisky is a premium product, minimum pricing will not affect it, but that is not the view of the Scotch Whisky Association, Whyte and Mackay, Pernod Ricard UK—when it is not being bullied by the First Minister—or the other whisky producers, and I know whom the public are more likely to believe.

If we needed to know what the Government's attitude towards the Scotch whisky industry was, all we had to do was read yesterday's press release from the health secretary, in which she said:

"I would call on everyone who cares about Scotland's health to listen to the real evidence about the benefits of minimum pricing, rather than being swayed by lobbyists whose only concern is their own profits."

There we have it: the Government and the health secretary think that all the vital Scotch whisky industry—which supports thousands of jobs throughout Scotland and earns hundreds of millions for the Scottish economy from exports—is concerned about is its own profits. What a disgraceful attack on an iconic Scottish industry that is.

Opposition to minimum pricing is widely shared throughout Scotland and among politicians from all parties. Gordon Brown and the Labour Government at Westminster rejected the policy, arguing that it is important to take properly targeted and effective action. I am delighted to welcome as the new Labour health spokesperson Jackie Baillie MSP, the same Jackie Baillie who states on her website—a print-out of which I have with me—that she is

"Working Hard for the people of Dumbarton".

Her website also states:

"Jackie believes more can be done to enforce the legislation already in place instead of bringing in new measures, such as minimum pricing, when there is insufficient evidence that this will work."

When I read those words, I expected that the Labour Party would be out in force in full support of our arguments, which are entirely in tune with the views of Gordon Brown, Jackie Baillie and even, as we learned this morning, Jack McConnell. Alas, Labour continues to equivocate and sit on the fence.

I had hoped that Jackie Baillie's appointment would bring some much-needed backbone to the Labour front bench, but I have been sorely disappointed. To be frank, we have seen more backbone in a filleted jellyfish than from the Labour Party in Scotland. It is in danger of being had up under the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 for calling itself an Opposition party, so feeble has been its response on the issue. I say to Jackie Baillie that she needs to get her party sorted out and tell Ian Gray who is boss. Her views should prevail, not his. She would never have got that treatment from Wendy Alexander.

I have set out positive proposals for how the Conservatives would tackle alcohol misuse in Scottish society. They are serious, targeted, effective and legally competent proposals, which should command the support of all members. I urge all members to join us in supporting them and to reject a policy of minimum pricing, which is neither properly targeted, effective, evidence based nor legally competent and will do huge damage to our spirits industry and cost jobs throughout Scotland.

I move,

That the Parliament recognises that alcohol misuse cost Scottish society an estimated £2.25 billion in 2006-07, with almost one in three men and one in five women exceeding the recommended maximum level of consumption per week; believes that Scotland needs to examine its complex relationship with alcohol; further believes that to address this problem action needs to be taken that is properly targeted, effective, evidence based, and legally competent, and, accordingly, rejects the Scottish Government policy of minimum pricing on the basis that it will penalise responsible drinkers and damage Scotland's vital drinks industry.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

I call Nicola Sturgeon to speak to and move amendment S3M-5118.2. You have six minutes.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party 10:24 am, 5th November 2009

I thank the Tories for bringing the debate to the chamber, even if Murdo Fraser's opening speech was rather long on assertion and short on any hard evidence. I will deal with some of the assertion in my closing speech. In this speech, I want to set out the positive case for minimum pricing.

The previous debate on alcohol was back in March, shortly after we published our alcohol framework. At that time, there was broad consensus in the chamber about the scale of our alcohol problem and the fact that alcohol misuse is not a minority issue and does not affect just young people, hazardous drinkers or some parts of the country; it impacts on all of us and on our economy to a very real extent. I was pleased to hear Murdo Fraser confirm and accept that alcohol misuse costs us in Scotland £2.25 billion every year, because Bill Aitken hotly disputed that fact earlier this year. We are therefore making progress in persuading the Tories, and I hope that we continue to do so.

It was recognised in our previous debate that effective enforcement of current laws is vital, as are education, brief interventions and record investment. There was also a desire for a consensual approach, and a very strong commitment by Government to consider new ideas that other parties wanted to pursue. Let me make it clear that that commitment still stands.

Since that debate, our proposals for minimum pricing have continued to attract attention and support, not just here in Scotland but internationally. The modelling work that the University of Sheffield carried out for us, which is the most detailed and wide-ranging investigation of its kind, showed that minimum pricing, combined with an off-trade discount ban, could prevent thousands of deaths, illnesses and crimes and save Scotland almost £1 billion over 10 years. It showed a fall in hospital admissions of 1,600 in the first year and more than 6,000 a year by year 10, which is a reduction of almost 10 per cent. It showed a fall in crime of more than 3,000 offences every year, nearly 30,000 fewer work days lost through absenteeism and 1,250 fewer people unemployed because of alcohol misuse every year.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Can the cabinet secretary explain why the drop in alcohol consumption between 2003 and 2008 has not resulted in all the benefits that she talks about?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

The member should recall and reflect on the fact that the consumption figures to which he referred are based on self-reporting, so there is a degree of underreporting. However, Robert Brown will perhaps be reassured to know that the University of Sheffield study was based on the most up-to-date information that was available. We have asked the university to re-run the study on the basis of new information so that we have the best evidence to inform our minimum pricing policy.

However, the evidence is compelling. The study shows that alcohol-related deaths would fall by almost 20 per cent. Total alcohol consumption would fall by 5 per cent, with a concentration on hazardous and harmful drinkers, whose consumption would fall by 9 per cent. Above all—the Tories should listen to this point—the study confirmed that minimum pricing would be a targeted policy, not a blanket policy. The greatest impact would be on strong, cheap alcohol, which is favoured by harmful and hazardous drinkers, and not on moderate drinkers, nor on mainstream and premium products.

Those are the facts, and it is because of those facts that our proposals are backed by a powerful coalition of opinion in Scotland: doctors, nurses, police, the chief medical officer for Scotland and, indeed, the Scottish Licensed Trade Association. The proposals have strong support outside of Scotland as well. The World Health Organization highlights minimum pricing as one of the most effective interventions in tackling alcohol misuse. The policy is supported not just by our chief medical officer but by chief medical officers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat

The cabinet secretary mentioned medical officers in England. Does not the presence of the border with England fatally undermine the minimum pricing proposal, because anyone who lives near the border will just pop across to Carlisle and fill up their van?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

That is one of those assertions that has absolutely no evidence to back it up. If we want to have an informed debate, let us deal in facts and evidence, not simple assertion. Even the Tories now accept the link between price, consumption and harm, even if they have not yet come up with a coherent policy to tackle it. We welcome all those contributions to the debate.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

Would the cabinet secretary like to explain why the SNP, through its approach of minimum pricing, prefers to increase the profits of the drinks industry rather than take a taxation-based approach that would enhance the Exchequer's revenues and give her more money to spend on the national health service?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

If David McLetchie is arguing for the Scottish Parliament to have tax powers, I warmly welcome that conversion. However, he must address this point: taxation on alcohol has gone up in recent years, but that has not always been passed on to consumers, so it has not had the effect of reducing consumption.

In the last few seconds that are available to me, I want to address the point about legality. I will put to one side the irony of the Tories suggesting that we should somehow meekly submit to a one-sided view of EU law instead of arguing for our national interest. We have always said that challenges will have to be overcome in introducing minimum pricing. To be compatible with EU law, minimum pricing needs to be proportionate, non-discriminatory and to achieve a clear health benefit. It is emphatically not the case that the EU prohibits a policy of minimum pricing, and members should not assert that it does.

The minimum price policy can save lives and reduce illness and crime. I want the Parliament to have an open and informed debate on the issue. I am open-minded; in return, I ask all members to be open-minded as well.

I move amendment S3M-5118.2, to leave out from "action" to end and insert:

"effective enforcement of existing laws is needed, as is further action that is properly targeted, effective, evidence-based and legally competent, and, accordingly, is willing to examine, consider and debate all evidence and representations presented to it in seeking support for minimum pricing and the other measures in the Bill that will be introduced later in 2009."

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

I call Jackie Baillie to speak to and move amendment S3M-5118.1. [ Applause. ] Order.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour 10:31 am, 5th November 2009

I am sure that I will not be greeted with the same applause when I am finished.

Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor Cathy Jamieson for all her work in the health portfolio and in particular for her considered approach to the subject of minimum pricing. I intend to continue that approach Since my appointment as shadow cabinet secretary nine days ago, I have been inundated with briefings from those who passionately favour minimum pricing and briefings from those who are passionately against it. I thank all those organisations for their efforts. Labour's amendment does not close down any option at this stage.

I must say that I am delighted that Murdo Fraser takes so much interest in my website, but I say clearly to him that I want to listen to the views of those with expertise on the matter and, over and above that, I have already arranged to meet the cabinet secretary to discuss the Scottish Government's position.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

No, not at this stage. Maybe the member should listen.

This is a serious issue that deserves thoughtful consideration, and I intend to do it justice. The Parliament has always prided itself on taking an evidence-based approach to its policy making, and that should continue to guide us in this debate.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I am grateful to Jackie Baillie for setting out for members why she has an open mind on the subject. When did her closed mind, which is clear from the statement on her website, become an open mind?

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I have a responsibility as the new shadow cabinet secretary for health to consider all matters in the round. We should not play politics with an issue as serious as this.

Let me set out, because I think that it is important to do so, where I believe there is agreement across the chamber. There is no question about the scale of the problem. Rates of death from alcohol cirrhosis in Scotland are now twice the EU average, and almost twice those of England. The age at which alcohol problems emerge has got younger. Rates of alcohol-related hospital admissions have gone up and rates of alcohol-related crime are rising. The statistics are frankly appalling.

Labour members do not disagree that we need to tackle Scotland's unhealthy relationship with alcohol. That is a significant public health challenge, which the previous Labour and Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive recognised, and much of the groundwork for action was laid with the passing of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005. Many of its provisions came into force only in September of this year. We need robust enforcement of existing legislation, alongside any consideration of new measures.

There is a clear link between price, the level of alcohol consumption and harm. I was interested to find out the experience of other countries. For example, in Finland, prices were lowered, then subsequently raised. Consumption rose when alcohol was cheap, but dropped when the price was increased, in a very short space of time.

However, I regret that the entire debate appears to be polarised on the issue of minimum pricing. That ignores the swathe of measures that are already in our armoury and other approaches that have been suggested. Let us be clear that minimum pricing is no silver bullet. Scotland's relationship with alcohol is complex and deep-seated. We have more than one problem group: we have the young adult binge drinkers, with public nuisance and antisocial consequences; we have those with a habit of drinking in excess of safe limits, who are storing up future health problems such as cancer and diabetes; and we have those at the extreme, who are critically alcohol dependent. No single action will provide the solution for all those groups.

The University of Sheffield research is persuasive, but I recognise that some criticisms have been made about the modelling. Equally, members will have received a copy of the Centre for Economics and Business Research study that analyses the potential impact of minimum pricing on jobs and the economy. There is claim and counter-claim and acres of text of legal opinion.

Concerns have been expressed about whether the recent European Court of Justice ruling on minimum pricing for tobacco has a read-over to alcohol. Can article 28 of the Treaty establishing the European Community be set aside if article 30 is engaged? Will the Government's proposals meet the test of proportionality that is set out in article 30? Those questions need to be answered. If the SNP is serious about its proposals, it should simply share the substance of its legal advice with all Opposition party leaders. There is at least one precedent for doing so in the actions of the previous Scottish Executive. [Interruption.] Failure to share the legal advice will leave wide open the question whether we can actually implement minimum pricing.

From a sedentary position, the cabinet secretary asked, "What is that precedent?" My understanding is that a precedent is provided by the Shirley McKie case. If she reconsidered the matter, we would be keen to engage with the Government.

Labour has suggested a variety of measures and we are keen to engage in the debate. I know that the cabinet secretary wants to achieve a consensus, but my idea of consensus is not simply waiting until others come round to one's own point of view. No party has a monopoly on the desire to rid Scotland of the problems that are caused by alcohol abuse, so it is incumbent on us all to ensure that we introduce the most effective set of measures to deliver the step change in culture and consumption that we all seek.

I move amendment S3M-5118.1, to leave out from "rejects" to end and insert:

"looks forward to considering the evidence of all the different approaches that can help to tackle the misuse of alcohol, and urges the Scottish Government to share the substance of all of the legal advice obtained."

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 10:37 am, 5th November 2009

There is a common will in the Parliament to tackle the various harms that are caused by alcohol, which is a legal and perhaps even benign product when used in moderation but the precursor of big individual and social harms when taken to excess. As well as causing high levels of chronic liver disease, excess alcohol consumption is a major causal factor in crimes of violence, a regular factor in domestic abuse and a major destroyer of young lives, whether by way of parental abuse or teenage excess. Each one of those situations represents a life destroyed, therefore I will not argue that the challenge is overstated, as I believe that it is entirely right that the Parliament debates the issue at a high level of intensity. However, we are not only entitled but obliged to intensely debate what to do about the problem and whether the current policy proposals are right.

The central Liberal Democrat proposition is that tackling Scotland's alcohol scourge is about changing culture and feeding into responsible individual and personal decisions in consequence. Unlike in many other countries and cultures, getting drunk, staggering about out of one's mind and binge drinking are not just tolerated and accepted in Scotland but to some extent approved of. That is really not an acceptable position in modern, 21st century Scotland.

Today's debate centres on one proposal for tackling the problem that is based on the acknowledged link between price and consumption. In my view, minimum pricing has been overhyped by the Government in its search for a totemic policy to rival the ban on smoking in public places that was introduced in the previous parliamentary session. However, even taking the most optimistic view, minimum pricing is not such a policy. Even the two University of Sheffield studies said that the effects would be small—equivalent to one or two pints a week.

A disadvantage of the focus on minimum pricing is that, in practice, it has diverted attention away from how we change culture. In today's short debate, I do not have time to go into those other issues, but they will continue to come through in wider debates in future, not least—as Jackie Baillie rightly mentioned—as the enforcement measures under the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 come on stream. Nevertheless, my view on minimum pricing is straightforward: I believe that the policy is well-intentioned but marginal at best, badly targeted, irrelevant to the aim of changing culture and probably illegal.

Understandably, a powerful medical and public health lobby has swung in behind the idea of minimum pricing. I am not sure why they have hung their colours to that particular mast, given that wider issues follow from the link between price and consumption. However, although such lobbying has undoubtedly influenced the debate, my sense is that the 22 October ruling by the advocate-general of the European Court of Justice on minimum prices for tobacco might well mark the point at which the Scottish Government lost the argument on minimum prices for alcohol. The Government's attempt to suggest that the ruling—which, admittedly, falls short of a court decision—is irrelevant to alcohol seems to be not just poorly based but almost certainly definitively wrong.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

If Nicola Sturgeon will now put in the public domain the basic information about the matter, I am happy to give way to her.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I will return to the legal issues in my summing-up speech, but I have a simple question for Robert Brown. I understand—although I do not agree with—his position on minimum pricing, but can he clarify the Liberal Democrats' position on banning off-sales discounts and promotions? The Liberal Democrats previously supported such a ban. Do they still support it?

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Yes, we support that direction of travel. Below-cost selling is a central issue that we need to tackle, but such a ban would be slightly different from the minimum pricing that the Government has proposed.

As we heard earlier, there are issues with the reply that the First Minister gave last week. In such matters, it is important that we stick to the facts.

Whatever the broader arguments, the Government's policy on minimum pricing is dead in the water on legal grounds unless it can come up with proposals that are a whole lot more persuasive than what we have seen so far. Even if a case can be made, the minimum pricing policy will be tied up for a pretty long time while it is challenged in court. It is time for ministers to put the legal advice into the public domain. They must tell us precisely why the advocate-general's judgment will not apply.

Today's debate is important, but it will not be definitive, because Labour members cannot make up their minds on the issue. I hope that the debate will focus ministers more on the challenge of how to change the culture and less on devices such as minimum prices that sound spuriously attractive but are in fact just fiddling about on the edges.

I am happy to move amendment S3M-5118.3, to insert at end:

"and fails to recognise the role of individual responsibility or meet the key test of bringing about fundamental, rather than marginal, cultural change".

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

We move to the open debate. I can give members five minutes each.

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party 10:41 am, 5th November 2009

Clearly, Scotland has a long-standing and deep-seated problem in its relationship with alcohol. Some argue that the problem has reached such an extent that alcohol has started to form part of the Scottish identity. The question that parliamentarians must ask is whether we are prepared to allow many of the problems that are associated with the misuse of alcohol to be seen as part of Scotland's modern identity.

The facts lay bare the extent of our nation's difficulty with alcohol. Some 42,000-odd hospital admissions per year result from alcohol-related problems. Over the past 30 years, the incidence of liver cirrhosis has increased by 450 per cent. One in 20 of all deaths recorded by the national health service are directly attributable to alcohol. Those figures illustrate the extent of the health problem that we now face as a result of our overconsumption of alcohol. The financial costs to our society have also been recognised: some £2.25 billion, through health and justice spending and through lost productivity, can be associated with alcohol. According to the World Health Organization, alcohol is now the third-highest risk factor in ill health—after high blood pressure and unhealthy diet—in developed countries.

As a society, we must be prepared to implement the necessary measures to deal with the issue. Consumption of alcohol is driven by two clear aspects: availability and price. Clearly, the liberalisation of licensing laws over many decades has resulted in alcohol being much more available now than it has ever been. Alongside that, the price of alcohol has dropped dramatically in the past 15 years, at a time when average incomes in the United Kingdom are estimated to have increased by some 50 per cent. That combination of increased availability and lower price is clearly fuelling the ever-rising number of people who overconsume alcohol.

What are the best options for dealing with the issue? I agree that health interventions have an important part to play. I fully agree that education has a key role to play, although I also recognise that quite a body of international research highlights that education is one of the least effective measures for dealing with those who have long-standing alcohol consumption problems. I agree that enforcement has an important part to play, although some of the comments that have been made about it are misleading. Minimum pricing is not simply about trying to deal with underage drinking in which enforcement has a clearer role to play; it is about trying to deal with the wider problem of alcohol consumption in our society.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Will Michael Matheson comment on the cross-border problem that Jamie Stone touched on earlier? We know that a quarter or a third of people in southern Ireland travel to Northern Ireland to shop, with consequent effects on trade either side of the border.

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

I hope to come to that very point later in my comments.

The issue is complex and it will require a complex strategy to deal with it. However, we cannot avoid the fact that price is a key driver in the consumption of alcohol. There is no big-bang approach to the problem and no silver bullet, as Jackie Baillie stated. Instead, we have to look at the evidence base.

Robert Brown raised the possibility of people crossing the border to purchase alcohol. It is interesting that research from Canada, where eight out of 10 provinces have introduced minimum pricing, shows clearly that those people who live in provinces with no minimum pricing policy do not cross the border with the intention of purchasing alcohol.

We now need an opportunity in this Parliament to consider the evidence base for alcohol minimum pricing. I regret today's attempt by the Tories to force a decision on what are the best measures to deal with the problem into an hour and a half's debate. That is why we should have an opportunity to consider all the evidence and all the issues when the bill is considered in committee and the chamber.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour 10:46 am, 5th November 2009

There is no doubt about the need to take effective action to tackle the scourge of alcohol in families and communities throughout Scotland. I do not intend to go into the damaging effects that excessive alcohol consumption can have—they have been spelled out by other speakers and in many articles prior to today's debate. I hope that we can rise above our differences on the subject and come together to take effective action.

Although the cabinet secretary and her colleagues have made a well-intentioned proposal—and I commend them on the vigour that they have introduced to the alcohol debate—as we know, the road to hell is often paved with good intentions. My concern about the debate today is that the SNP has not addressed many of the concerns and criticisms that have been levelled. I am here to be persuaded that minimum pricing would have a positive effect and achieve the desired result, but so far I have heard nothing to persuade me.

We heard today about the legal issues and I do not intend to go into them, but they undoubtedly need to be addressed. We heard of the worry about the damage to the Scottish whisky industry, not just in Scotland but potentially internationally. That needs to be addressed, although it is but one small part of the wider argument about tackling Scotland's significant alcohol-related health problems. Murdo Fraser rightly mentioned some of the damaging products that are available in our communities but would not be hit by a minimum pricing policy. That point needs to be answered.

I encourage the cabinet secretary and her colleagues to reflect on some specific issues. Michael Matheson mentioned cross-border trade and Canada, but there is a difference between what is happening in the Republic of Ireland and Canada. By my estimation, one could near as damn it fly from Glasgow to Toronto as quickly as one could fly from Toronto to Vancouver. Opportunities for short cross-border journeys are not exactly available in Canada. Recently, along with other members from this Parliament, I spoke to politicians from the north of Ireland and the Irish Republic. The TDs who represent border areas in the Republic said that something like over 60 per cent of all alcohol sales in Ireland are now made in the north of Ireland. Although the cabinet secretary and her colleagues might suggest that other shopping is done when people go to the north, it is nevertheless true alcohol is a major influence on that pattern.

The cabinet secretary, I and others who are well paid, have internet access and credit cards, have the opportunity to go online to do our shopping and have deliveries made from Carlisle to Glasgow. Such facilities are not necessarily available to the poorer in our communities so the policy has a prejudice in favour of the better-off. It would create the opportunity for booze runs to Carlisle, not only for those such as me with the means to do that, load up the car and have a day out. It would also create opportunities for those with white vans who sell tobacco illegally in our communities to load up and return to sell the alcohol along with the tobacco. Many such people are also associated with the drugs trade, so we should worry that what we do has the potential to reinforce criminality. We should also worry about the impact on Scottish retailers.

My final point is that the proposed policy will not put a penny towards paying for extra health or addiction services or putting extra police on our streets. Although I favour using pricing to limit the consumption of alcohol, in a country such as the United Kingdom it should be done on a consistent basis whereby there are no anomalies, it is done through taxation and the revenue is invested in the facilities and services that we need.

Even at this late stage, I appeal for consensus. This debate shows the best and the worst of the Scottish Parliament. It shows the best in that we can address fundamentally important issues; it shows the worst in that we take up entrenched positions and will not reach out to achieve consensus on a matter that vitally needs it.

Photo of Nigel Don Nigel Don Scottish National Party 10:52 am, 5th November 2009

I echo others' comments about the shortness of time available to us for this debate. I do not blame the Tories for raising the subject in a short debate—it is an important matter that we need to discuss—but I am not alone in believing that we do not have enough time to do it justice today. It is a subject to which we will have to return.

I agree with other speakers that minimum pricing is not a magic bullet. I will address some of the points introduced by Murdo Fraser and then draw in some facts from elsewhere. I endorse entirely the view that we need better enforcement of legislation, and I take the point that much of the relevant legislation is recent and will take a while to bed in. I also endorse the point that we need education, but I echo the comment made by my colleague that education is not enough. Esteemed professors tell us that education is not enough—it just does not change a culture.

I note that the Conservatives suggest that we should ban sales below cost price. That approach might have the same effect as minimum pricing, although it would not have the same characteristics. The Conservatives assure me that their proposal is legally competent. At some stage, although not through an intervention, I would like clarification as to why that approach is legally competent when minimum pricing is not.

The Tories make the point that minimum pricing would penalise moderate drinkers. That must be absolutely clear: anybody who buys a drink at a set minimum price will pay more for the drink. That is frankly inevitable, but it does not necessarily mean that it is not worth doing if we are clear that most of the people who are going to be penalised will change their behaviour for the better.

I will not talk about illegality beyond saying that of course we do not know what the European court will rule. We do not know until we get there. That is precisely like every other legal decision and it should not surprise us.

The Conservatives made the point, which was put to us originally by a certain part of the industry, that there will be immense damage to the export trade if we have a minimum price in this country. However, a minimum price is not a restraint on trade; it raises the bar for every importer and gives them more scope for offsetting their transport costs in order to import into this country. It does not act as a restraint at all on international trade. I would be enormously grateful if somebody could explain to me the mechanism by which it causes huge damage to export trade.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I suggest that Mr Don should read the evidence that has been presented by the Scotch Whisky Association. It is extremely concerned that, if the Government in Scotland imposed an extra duty on spirits on health grounds, that would be a green light to every other Government in the world to do exactly the same. We know that countries such as South Korea have tried to impose punitive taxation on whisky imports in the past to protect the domestic market. The Scotch Whisky Association is concerned that that could happen elsewhere.

Photo of Nigel Don Nigel Don Scottish National Party

I am grateful to the member for that explanation. Perhaps he could further explain at some stage how it is that a sovereign state needs an excuse to impose taxation, as it can do so anyway without the health requirement. [ Interruption. ] I stand by my question. Sovereign states can impose taxes, which is undoubtedly what the Tories will do if they take over running the United Kingdom next year.

That takes me to my final point. I would like to read what Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems has said about minimum pricing—I can give members a reference for these comments. SHAAP has said:

"It is claimed that minimum pricing for alcohol will do little to tackle alcohol abuse, however, the evidence points to the contrary. A recently published study exploring the drinking habits of patients referred to alcohol problems services in Edinburgh in 2008/09 found that the lower the price a patient paid per unit of alcohol, the more units they consumed."

That is unremarkable. It continued:

"Most of the alcohol the patients consumed was bought from off-licences where the cheapest alcohol can be accessed."

We know that.

SHAAP also said:

"The study concluded that because the average unit price paid by this group of chronically ill patients was considerably lower than the average for the rest of the Scottish population, then it was likely that the elimination of the cheapest alcohol sales would result in reduced overall consumption by this population of drinkers, with a fairly immediate reduction in serious alcohol-related illnesses in our community."

That is the real point about minimum pricing. Its effect will be on those who drink far too much and can ill afford to do so. We cannot stop those who can afford to drink themselves to death, but minimum pricing will have a considerable effect on those for whom money is significant.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative 10:57 am, 5th November 2009

This debate is not as polarised as some might claim. I think that we all recognise that excessive alcohol consumption is a significant issue in Scotland and that it must be addressed by a mixture of practical policy and the effective enforcement of the existing laws.

Scotland's relationship with alcohol is damaging. The figure of £2.25 billion that has been referred to is an estimate. Perhaps the cabinet secretary was a little bit naughty. I have merely queried the figure—I said that it had not been robustly tested. Indeed, Robert Brown shared that view at the time.

Let me be more constructive: no one is suggesting that we should do nothing; it is clear that we must do something.

Yesterday, The Sun printed a series of pictures that showed a number of people—they were largely young people—lying around drunk and incapable in our city streets. That highlights the problem of enforcement. The law is quite clear. It is an offence to enter licensed premises while drunk, to be on licensed premises while drunk or to refuse to leave licensed premises when asked to do so, and it is an offence for the licensee to serve someone who is drunk. People do not get drunk within the flick of a finger. The people in question had been in licensed premises and had broken the law. The law had not been enforced.

Lest it be thought that I am being purely negative, I should say that things are getting better. Because of the 1,000 additional police officers whom the Conservatives forced on the Scottish Government, we are now seeing increased police patrolling. That activity has had positive results, although that is not yet, of course, showing in the figures.

That said, the figures are pretty damning. It is clear that there is a problem, but only a handful of licences have been forfeited to Scotland's 38 licensing boards, and very few people have been convicted of drink-related offences, particularly the offence of supplying drink to an underage person through an agent—in many cases, parents are involved.

A cursory glance at the Scottish Government's minimum pricing proposals suggests that they would reduce alcohol misuse, but deeper analysis reveals the flaws in such a policy. Advocates of minimum pricing may argue that the additional costs are a necessary evil to reduce alcohol abuse, but they operate on the assumption that heavier drinkers—those who are causing the problems—are more responsive than moderate drinkers to price changes. However, there is no direct correlation between alcohol misuse and consumption. On the contrary, it could be argued that responsible, moderate drinkers would be more likely to mind their wallet and abstain from buying alcohol at increased prices than those who regularly abuse alcohol. In addition, an unintended consequence could be that those who cannot afford to purchase alcohol will obtain it by theft or by other dishonest means—we have seen that with drugs.

It is important to recognise that a minimum pricing policy would largely penalise responsible drinkers by blindly raising alcohol prices for everyone in Scottish society. Such a scatter-gun approach cannot be right. The policy is a crude tool to punish those who are not a problem while doing nothing to combat those who are a problem.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

I am sorry. I do not have enough time.

We must do something. The sensible approach is to use taxation, as we have suggested. Let us target the problem drinks: alcopops, heavy lagers, ciders and the other drinks of choice of those who cause so much trouble in our communities. We can do that through the taxation system.

Let us also recognise the potential damage that minimum pricing could cause to the Scotch whisky industry, which is vital to our economy. The industry is worth £3 billion a year in exports, and overseas sales of whisky account for 20 per cent of all Scottish export manufacturing earnings. The Scotch whisky industry also supports more than 40,000 jobs, including 700 jobs in Jackie Baillie's constituency—that is probably what prompted her comments. We must recognise that that industry could be damaged.

I found Jackie Baillie's response in the debate tremendously disappointing. She normally knows what she is talking about. The image of her sitting on a fence is perhaps uncomfortable for us all, but that is what she has been doing. She and Gordon Brown got it right first time. Let us think about what we are doing.

As I have said, perhaps there is more to unite us than to divide us. Let us speak about the matter and find out whether we can bring something forward. However, we should not, please, adopt a damaging scatter-gun approach.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour 11:03 am, 5th November 2009

I welcome this debate, but it is disappointing that our focus is on minimum pricing. I want to consider the wider debate.

I will be clear. I remain to be convinced about minimum pricing, not because I do not think that there is a problem to be tackled but because I think that it is a blunt instrument. It would punish the whole community for the excesses of the minority, which will remain unaffected. People who are addicted will feed that addiction, regardless of the cost. I do not believe that every person who is addicted to alcohol will turn to crime, but I believe that minimum pricing would impact on families and diets. We all know that alcohol consumption has a greater effect on the health of people with a poor diet than on the health of others.

Minimum pricing would mean increases in the outgoings of people on a fixed income, such as those who receive a state pension, who would have to cut their consumption accordingly. It does not take into account our cultural issues with alcohol. Why do Scotland and other northern countries have an attitude towards alcohol that is different from that of our Mediterranean cousins? If minimum pricing worked, surely Norway would have no issues with alcohol to deal with. I raise such issues because they need to be answered if the policy is to succeed.

As I said, I wish to explore the wider issues in the debate. I am concerned that many other matters need to be tackled before we adopt such an all-encompassing policy. I am clear, however, that we need to tackle our drinking culture and ensure that people are diverted from their potentially harmful behaviour before it becomes a health issue.

In our culture, we drink both to celebrate and to commiserate. Many of our social interactions are based around a pub culture. That culture makes it difficult for people with drink problems to socialise, and it makes it very difficult for people who are addicted to tackle their drinking without feeling excluded from society.

Many aspects of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 have recently been implemented, but we have not yet had the opportunity to measure how those measures are impacting on our drink problem and the wider drinking culture.

Bill Aitken spoke about enforcement of the laws that are currently in place. They are not being enforced. He seems to think that enforcement has started, but I disagree. Where I live, I see people staggering out of pubs all the time. Nobody has tried to stop them drinking while on licensed premises.

We need to invest more in education, equipping young people with the information that they need to make themselves aware of the health problems that stem from excessive alcohol consumption and allowing them to make informed choices.

Nigel Don said that education does not work and will not change our culture. How, then, does he explain our change of attitude to drink-driving? When I was young drink-driving was the norm; now, it is totally unacceptable.

We need to provide adequate support for people who find themselves dependent on alcohol. I often hear about people with drink problems who seek help but find that none is available. Where help is available, there are long waiting lists. As with any addiction, help needs to be available when the person is ready to accept it. A delay can lead to deterioration in their condition or, indeed, to a change of heart as the addiction prevails.

It is disingenuous of a Government to propose to tackle alcohol abuse by ticking the minimum-pricing box while sitting back and letting establishments such as Beechwood house in Inverness fold. Beechwood house provides support and counselling for those with alcohol problems, and it is often oversubscribed. It also provides a place of safety where the police can take people who have been picked up for being drunk and incapable. That means that there is less pressure on accident and emergency services, and that the people concerned do not find themselves in police cells. As we have seen in the past, locking up people who are very drunk in police cells has led to deaths. Beechwood provides a safe place for them to go, and it allows their excessive drinking to be addressed.

The loss of Beechwood house would have a huge impact on the lives of people in the Inverness area who have drink problems and whose drinking has reached dangerous levels. If the Government is serious about tackling harmful drinking and saving lives, it needs to get real about facilities such as Beechwood, not just by ensuring that they are funded but by providing increased capacity.

If minimum pricing was the only avenue left to tackle alcohol abuse, I am sure that I and everybody else would support it. My concern is that steps that could make a real difference are being ignored because of their complexity. Minimum pricing is a headline-grabbing concept, but I remain to be convinced that it will change our culture, let alone save lives.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party 11:08 am, 5th November 2009

Every member in the chamber agrees that alcohol misuse is one of the biggest problems facing Scottish society, and I welcome the recognition in Murdo Fraser's motion of the need to take action. I am puzzled, however, by the Conservatives' decision to reject offhand one aspect of the Government's alcohol strategy: minimum pricing. Even before the bill has been published and had the chance to receive parliamentary scrutiny, the Tories have brushed it aside.

The claim that the policy is not evidence based is absurd. The international evidence about increased affordability, particularly among heavy drinkers, is compelling. I would prefer to listen to the experts who have to pick up the pieces of Scotland's relationship with alcohol. Organisations such as the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing, the World Health Organization, the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, Alcohol Focus Scotland and SHAAP—to name but a few—have all stated that minimum pricing can make a difference.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Will Shirley-Anne Somerville take an intervention on that particular point?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

I am about to move on to another point.

We heard from Bill Aitken that the policy will not tackle the problem with Buckfast and alcopops. He might be correct to say that it will not reach certain drinks that are particularly associated with teenagers, but the policy does tackle a high proportion of the drinks that problem drinkers choose to consume in large quantity, such as cheap cider, vodka and lager. There are other approaches to tackling the specific Buckfast culture—the proposed measure is just one part of a broad range of policies. We should remember that alcopops account for only 1.6 per cent of total alcohol sales in Scotland—the problem with alcopops is not a reason in itself for us to ignore an entire policy.

Minimum pricing is common sense, not just to me but to Scotland's chief medical officer, Dr Harry Burns, who called tackling the price of alcohol "a no-brainer". Indeed, the policy of minimum pricing is supported by all four CMOs in the UK.

Even some Tories have seen the light, from Boris Johnson—it is not often that I quote him in a speech—to Councillor Jim Millar, chairman of the Angus licensing board, who recently said:

"I was amazed at how much alcohol ten pounds bought. This is the type of drink that seems to be favoured by underage drinkers which is a contributory factor in the anti social behaviour that is making the lives of so many people a misery."

He went on to say:

"The main cause of complaints to us as councillors continues to be young people indulging in anti social behaviour which is invariably fuelled by alcohol that can be bought for next to nothing.

This is a situation that has to be brought under control".

I could not agree more with Councillor Millar on that.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I am confused as to why the member thinks that that message is in support of minimum pricing; it could equally well be in support of increased taxation on alcopops and problem drinks, which is exactly what the Conservative proposal is.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

It certainly could, if taxation was seen to work, but in most cases the increase is not passed on to the consumer. I would be intrigued to know how a targeted approach to certain alcopops fits with a policy that must, under EU law, relate to all alcohol—rather than having members picking and choosing what they might want for their press release on a given day.

During the summer I visited a number of projects in Edinburgh, including the Junction in Leith, which provides excellent support for young people. The staff there told me about 12 and 13-year-olds who already have a serious drink problem, and many more who have a disturbing attitude towards drinking and who get involved in violence because of their attitude to the drink. Minimum pricing will not stop overnight those young people—or folk of any age or social class—drinking, and it must of course be part of a package of measures, but something needs to be done, and it needs to be radical. It must be based on evidence, but it must be radical nonetheless.

The time for strong words and no action is over. The Scottish Government is trying to take a lead on the issue, and every member has a responsibility to find their own solution if they cannot agree that minimum pricing is the way forward. We have not heard that the solutions from the Tory party will have the same impact as the proposed minimum pricing legislation.

We are already paying the price—hardened drinkers, responsible drinkers and teetotallers alike—and that includes the price to the health service and the crime in our communities. The Parliament has an opportunity to live up to the reputation that it has established of taking a leading role in tackling Scotland's public health record. It is an opportunity that we should not miss.

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour 11:13 am, 5th November 2009

There is broad agreement across the Parliament about the impact that alcohol has in Scotland. As many members have said in the debate, and as many lobbying organisations have pointed out, cirrhosis rates in Scotland have rocketed compared with those in England and Wales. In many European countries, those rates have begun to drop.

It is clear that we have a Scottish problem, and that is reinforced by the fact that enough alcohol is consumed in Scotland for every adult to be over the safe limit in terms of units of alcohol consumed. In addition, the number of deaths that are attributed to alcohol in Scotland is much higher than the number for the UK. In my constituency the number is 238 per cent higher than the UK rate.

Whatever the precise figure, that has an impact on the economy. There can be no doubt about the health impact, taking into account the number of people who require to be seen and treated by the health service. As a knock-on effect of alcohol-related illness, people are sometimes not able to attend work or even continue in work. That has an impact on the economy at a time when we want our economy to be strong and vibrant.

In addition, as Bill Aitken has outlined, there are also clear impacts in the justice arena. There is no doubt that many serious crimes, including murders, are committed as a result of alcohol-related incidents. Those of us who represent urban constituencies are only too aware of the impact that alcohol plays in crime and antisocial behaviour. In addition to that, the report on fire deaths that was published earlier this week showed that alcohol has a role to play in some of the fire deaths in Scotland.

It is against that backdrop that the minimum-pricing proposal has been brought forward. Some have pushed the argument for minimum pricing strongly, and there is no doubt that there is a case for considering it. However, some issues around minimum pricing must be addressed before it can be taken forward.

I remain genuinely confused about the various views that have been set out with regard to the legality of the policy. We need a better understanding of the legal opinion that the Scottish Government has.

Another problem with the policy that must be addressed is the fact that it would boost the coffers of retailers. There is no doubt that that is one reason why the Scottish Licensed Trade Association supports the proposal. There is some way to go before we can be convinced about minimum pricing.

We have to ensure that the existing laws are more effectively enforced. As others have said, the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 has just been introduced, and we need to monitor how effective it is with regard to combating alcohol addiction. We need to consider measures such as the test-purchasing scheme, and we must combat the use of agents in the purchasing of alcohol for under-18s. Other measures must be addressed, such as the use of alcohol treatment and testing orders to deal with problem drinkers. In addition, it is worth thinking about a mandatory challenge 21 scheme and tougher sanctions on those who break the licensing laws.

Overall, we need to change our culture. There is no one policy that will solve the problem. We need to reduce our consumption of alcohol. We need an in-depth and constructive debate on the issue so that, as a Parliament, we can put forward a comprehensive set of solutions that will tackle a major problem for Scottish society.

Photo of Mike Pringle Mike Pringle Liberal Democrat 11:18 am, 5th November 2009

Although I agree with what the Government is trying to achieve, I cannot support the proposed legislation in its current form; Scotland's destructive relationship with alcohol is complex and cannot be solved simply by increasing its price. Effective policies must seek to foster cultural change.

The proposals still face several challenges in relation to what they seek to achieve and their legality. I am concerned that a minimum price at the suggested level of 40p per unit would not have a substantive material effect on problem drinkers. That is borne out by the Sheffield study that has been mentioned by several members. It is suggested that a minimum price of 40p per unit would reduce consumption among harmful drinkers—who are defined as those women who consume more than 35 units a week and those men who consume more than 50 units a week—by only 3.7 units a week. If those people did not reduce their consumption, the proposal would leave them £139.20 out of pocket every year, which is only £2.68 a week. I suggest that that sum is hardly likely to change what is for many a long-standing and culturally ingrained habit.

Nigel Don is right to say that we cannot second guess what the European Court of Justice will decide when it deliberates on the issue, if it has to do so, but the Scottish Government has brushed off as irrelevant the court's recent ruling on minimum prices for tobacco and failed to address the relevant issue of whether minimum pricing of alcohol would distort the market in the way that it was deemed that the setting of tobacco prices would.

What is the alternative? The Liberal Democrats believe that an effective programme of action to tackle alcohol misuse must involve vigorous enforcement of the existing law, especially with regard to underage and proxy purchases and selling to drunks. That must be supported by a focus on supporting cultural change from the bottom up, which involves providing better education, responsible alcohol marketing campaigns to inform the public of the risks and early intervention schemes to divert young people away from developing bad habits with alcohol.

I am not suggesting that there is no role for legislation—I agree with Jackie Baillie that minimum pricing is not the only way to tackle the issue and suggest that we try to tackle it in other ways first. I am strongly supportive of a one-strike-and-you're-out policy for retailers who sell alcohol to minors. We need to crack down hard on those people. I reiterate that the Liberal Democrats also support a ban on the sale of alcohol below the cost of duty, plus VAT, which would put a price floor in place to end the reckless practice of loss leading, and efforts to tackle irresponsible promotions.

I am sorry that Bill Aitken is not here, because I agree with him—on this rare occasion—that most of the existing law in the area is not being enforced. The police and our licensing boards should enforce it. Our licensing boards should embark on a strong and proactive campaign to target landlords and other owners of licensed premises who sell to underage drinkers. The point about kids going into shops to check out prices has been made. I think that that has been quite successful, where it has been tried.

It is vital that any reform of the law is targeted and evidence based, and that it involves meaningful consultation with all the relevant interested parties and stakeholders. I agree with the member who said that they have never received so many pro and anti messages on any other subject since they became an MSP; I have about 40 e-mails on the matter and I can say that opinion is divided. We need to take account of all of those opinions and must not jump to rash conclusions.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

The member is just about to finish.

Photo of Mike Pringle Mike Pringle Liberal Democrat

Our clear objective will be to bring about a tipping point at which it becomes no longer socially acceptable regularly to drink to excess.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour 11:23 am, 5th November 2009

Mike Pringle's comment, that we should keep the situation open, is exactly our position. I welcome that late conversion in the debate.

We all agree that there is a problem. I do not have time to rehearse all the issues, but we know that alcohol-related deaths have increased—we are now at twice the European average—that the age of onset of problems is younger, that people are dying of alcohol-related problems younger and that alcohol is one of the most significant factors that contribute to premature death, alongside suicide, accidental death and, indeed, death from cirrhosis of the liver.

We must address three problem groups: the young adult binge drinkers; the increasing number of adults who are drinking above safe levels, which leads to ill health, including cancer and diabetes; and those who have an alcohol-dependency problem.

Not only do we all agree that there is a problem, we all agree that price would appear to be relevant and important. As Michael Matheson said, availability and price are the two major factors that affect alcohol consumption.

The peculiar situation in Scotland is that the level of problem drinking has increased very sharply and significantly in the past 20 years. Around 80 years ago, we had a culture in which we elected teetotal MPs—one of whom defeated Winston Churchill—on the basis that they were teetotal. During a period of 70 or 80 years, there has been a slow but significant change in culture, and the culture is the central problem that we must address.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

I am sorry, but I do not have time.

Other countries have experienced significant problems with alcohol. France had a massive problem, and yet the number of deaths from cirrhosis in that country has now reduced significantly without the introduction of minimum pricing. France has begun to change its culture by tackling two things: advertising and drink driving. Those have been the main drivers of change in France—they began at a level which Scotland is now reaching, and they are now approaching the EU average, so France is moving in the opposite direction to Scotland without introducing minimum pricing.

The other important factor in the debate, as many members have stressed, is that a new licensing act—the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005—has only just been introduced and we do not yet know what its effects are likely to be. We hope that the licensing boards will have the guts, the teeth and the determination to tackle one of the central problems, which is supermarkets stacking 'em high and selling 'em cheap and displaying alcohol all around the store, which makes a major contribution to the cultural fact that drink is a massive part of our diet and makes the situation more difficult.

I do not have the time to rehearse the various arguments for and against minimum pricing, but it is clear that the health lobby, the police and the on-trade are in favour of it. There is evidence from Canada that it may have some effect, but there is also evidence from Finland that a price reduction has an adverse effect, particularly on deprived communities and those in the 40 to 50 age group.

There is the University of Sheffield study, although it has been criticised. One major criticism I have is that the study's definition of moderate drinkers falls well below the level of safe drinking, so the study does not model the right groups effectively. Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems says that changing the price would affect the very heavy drinkers, but I remain to be convinced of that. We definitely need to address the arguments about price and achieve a consensus on the matter.

There is also the central question, which really must be addressed and cannot be brushed off, about whether the legal opinion on the new tobacco legislation has no bearing on this issue. I see that the cabinet secretary is looking at me again—she has shaken her head every time the issue has come up. We need to develop a clear understanding on the matter, which must be shared by all parties if possible. Without such a consensus, the policy will not be passed.

Hugh Henry made the argument about the cross-border trade between Northern Ireland and southern Ireland, which is important and must be considered. The important issue of internet sales—which are increasing—has not been addressed, and the issue of illegal trafficking must be considered. The issue of Buckfast has not been tackled at all.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

You should finish now, Dr Simpson.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

We need to consider all the issues in the round, as a complete package. I admit that I come from a health community that is more in favour of minimum pricing than against it, but nevertheless I believe, along with Jackie Baillie, that the arguments are not yet conclusive. We need to sit down together and work out how to tackle the problem in an effective way.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party 11:28 am, 5th November 2009

This has been a high-quality debate, and I agree with Jackie Baillie that we are discussing a serious issue that deserves serious consideration. Richard Simpson is right: it is positive that we have a welcome consensus on the scale of the problem and—I think—on the fact that price has a big part to play in the solution.

I do not believe that it reflects badly on Parliament that we do not yet agree on minimum pricing, but I believe that it will if we approach the debate on the basis of assertion rather than evidence. All of us, including the Government, have a duty to ensure that we do not do that, and I will now deal with some of the assertions that have been made today.

The first assertion is that minimum pricing would be a blanket policy rather than a targeted policy. Bill Aitken called it a "scatter-gun approach"; Rhoda Grant used similar terminology. I invite members to look closely at the University of Sheffield study, which I believe demonstrates exactly the opposite. It shows that a policy of minimum pricing would, in financial terms, cost harmful and hazardous drinkers significantly more than moderate drinkers. It also demonstrates that while overall consumption would fall by around 5 per cent, consumption among harmful and hazardous drinkers would fall by closer to 9 per cent. The study therefore demonstrates the targeted nature of the policy.

The second key assertion that has been made today is that a policy of minimum pricing would damage the whisky industry. I will put on record, as I have done before, the fact that I value the contribution of the whisky industry to Scottish culture and the Scottish economy. A policy of minimum pricing does not target whisky, as whisky is a premium product. Almost every recognised brand of whisky on the supermarket shelves already retails above an illustrative minimum price of 40p per unit.

Minimum pricing affects large bottles of cheap cider and vodka, which are often the drinks of choice for those who drink at harmful levels.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I will take only one intervention, from Robert Brown, as I do not have much time.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Many whisky products in the supermarkets are sold at prices that are below the minimum price. Minimum pricing would affect those products and have a substantial effect throughout Scotland, particularly on distilleries.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

The majority of Scotch whisky is sold above the level at which a minimum price might be set. The products that fall below that price are the products that are very strong and cheap. That is exactly the type of product that minimum pricing is expected to tackle.

Before I move on from the whisky industry, I will deal with another assertion that has been made. The Scotch Whisky Association says that other countries will discriminate against Scotch whisky because of minimum pricing. No member has referred this morning to the fact that the SWA also says that more than 100 countries around the world already discriminate against Scotch whisky. It is not true to say that discrimination will be caused by minimum pricing; discrimination already exists. The Government will back the industry against discrimination vigorously at all times, but we cannot allow the illegal actions of other countries to stop us from taking the right action for our country.

We have heard plenty of assertions, but no evidence, that minimum pricing will put jobs in the whisky industry at risk. We have plenty of evidence, however, that cheap drinks cost jobs in the pub industry and the smaller off-sales trade. Members should recall the announcement last week by Haddows, in which jobs were put on the line.

I must say to Richard Simpson that I have never brushed aside the important issue of legality, but it is disingenuous to use an opinion that is based on the specific wording of a tobacco directive to draw definitive conclusions about alcohol. For those who have not read the tobacco directive, I should say that it gives tobacco manufacturers the discretion to set maximum retail prices for tobacco. The opinion says that setting a minimum price would fetter that discretion, because manufacturers could not set a maximum price below the minimum price; it is specific to the directive.

Jackie Baillie is correct to say that the opinion comments on articles 28 and 30 of the EC treaty, but we know from the answer that Catherine Stïhler received that the EC is quite clear that minimum pricing is not prohibited. The policy has to pass hurdles, but that can be said about any matter in which EU law impacts on domestic law.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

The cabinet secretary does not have time.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I will finish on the point about legal advice. I want to work with other parties on the issue, but we are working within the same constraints as the previous Administration. I have acres of quotations from previous ministers, including Jim Wallace, on why legal advice cannot be shared. Jackie Baillie says that there are precedents such as the Shirley McKie case, but I have not been able to substantiate that. On Sunday, Iain Gray said unequivocally that legal advice was shared on the smoking ban, which is simply not true. If there are precedents, I am willing to discuss with Jackie Baillie and members from other parties the ways in which we can provide reassurance on these important issues.

This is a serious issue, and I hope that all members will approach it seriously. I hope that we can keep party politics out of it, because the health of our country is too important for us to allow the debate to become party political.

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative 11:34 am, 5th November 2009

The cabinet secretary said that she has acres of quotations. We are looking not for acres of legal advice but just for some legal advice. I quote what the First Minister said last week in response to Jackie Baillie:

"I hope and believe that such information can be made available to members to enable us to discuss and address the issue in a serious way."—[Official Report, 29 October 2009; c 20682.]

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative


The Sheffield study is an academic study; it cannot be called evidence. As Richard Simpson said, the modelling for the report is questionable, and it certainly does not prove the case for minimum pricing.

Despite being short, the debate has been interesting, informative and useful. We have heard wide-ranging views from all sides. I particularly endorse Hugh Henry's speech, which was excellent. It was thoughtful, considered and exceptionally well balanced. It was first class.

Nigel Don needs to read the general agreement on tariffs and trade; every country has to abide by the GATT articles as well as by EU rules.

I thank Rhoda Grant for highlighting the fact that, in the Highlands and elsewhere, the issue is not just what the Government does to address the problem. Many people who have an alcohol problem want to address it themselves but, as she said, when they seek help it is not available. That is a major point and I thank her for making it.

James Kelly made an honest and sensitive speech, as did Mike Pringle and others.

We can agree that there is a problem with alcohol—as we state in our motion—and we can surely also agree that we need the right proposals to tackle it. As Robert Brown said, the purpose of the most recent legislation on alcohol, the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005, was to address excessive or illegal alcohol consumption and to protect and improve public health, but there have been unintended consequences: in Shetland, Orkney and Moray, one third of alcohol licensees have not renewed; in the Highland Council area, there have been 345 fewer applications. Who has not renewed? Village halls, small shops, guest houses, tearooms, National Trust for Scotland and Historic Scotland properties, famous jewellery companies, visitor centres, distilleries and breweries. We can hardly agree that those are likely places of excessive or illegal alcohol consumption.

As our motion states, Scotland has a complex relationship with alcohol and minimum pricing would penalise responsible drinkers. Surely the correct principle is that any policy on alcohol misuse should address those who have the problem, not the majority who do not. A good start would be to ask a question that Robert Brown and others asked: why do young people in southern Europe go out to socialise whereas so many young people in Scotland go out to get drunk. Also, why do we not have enough brief interventions, which have proved to be successful when someone is picked up drunk and incapable from the street?

I also compliment Bill Wilson, who had an excellent members' business debate on the social norms around the issue. International findings as well as research by the University of Paisley demonstrate that most people overestimate the alcohol intake of their peers and that that misperception of social norms leads to increased consumption. The Government has not addressed that issue, which was raised in Bill Wilson's first- class debate.

As Murdo Fraser said, the Conservative team at Westminster has proposed significant tax increases on problem drinks, a ban on selling alcohol at below cost price and a tougher licensing regime. That approach tackles the problems of drinking and antisocial behaviour while leaving responsible drinking unaffected. We can compare that with the Government's proposed blanket minimum price of 40p per unit, which equates to about one glass of wine or a pint of lager a month. Under the Sheffield calculations, an 18 to 24-year-old binge drinker would have to pay an extra 46p a week. That is hardly likely to deter them from alcohol consumption.

As our new ally Gordon Brown stated, it is important

"to take action that is properly targeted and effective ... We do not want the responsible, sensible majority of moderate drinkers to ... pay more or suffer as a result of the excesses of a small minority"

That was his rejection of blanket minimum pricing. I also compliment the wisdom and experience of our former First Minister, Jack McConnell, who said:

"the strategy of making alcohol more expensive for the decent majority of people rather than concentrating on enforcement and stopping the lawbreaking and abuse of alcohol is a flawed strategy."

I appreciate that I am getting close to the end of my time, but I have a couple of final points. When we consider someone who is alcohol dependent, we are facing an inelastic demand.

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative

I am young enough to remember when the SNP's call for separation was based on revenues from whisky. No one expected the SNP to deliver such a crucial and critical blow to our iconic industry.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

That concludes this morning's Conservative party business.