Section 8A — Presumption against prohibition on off-sales to under 21s

Alcohol etc (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3 – in the Scottish Parliament at 3:30 pm on 10th November 2010.

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Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 3:30 pm, 10th November 2010

We come to group 5. Amendment 7, in the name of the minister, is grouped with amendment 46.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Amendment 7 seeks to remove section 8A of the Alcohol etc (Scotland) Bill, as was inserted by Richard Simpson at stage 2. Section 8A would amend section 6 of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 and place a restriction on the policies that licensing boards can set out in their policy statements. Section 8A would prevent licensing boards from including in their policy statements an intention to restrict off-sales alcohol to those who are over 18 but under 21.

As I said at the Health and Sport Committee at stage 2, section 8A will restrict local discretion to have certain policies and make it more difficult for licensing boards to tackle specific problems in their communities. I would much prefer that licensing boards retain the ability to take decisions in the best interests of the communities that they serve.

I accept that a national approach in respect of the off-sales purchase age did not find favour, and I accept that our alternative proposal to require licensing boards to assess any detrimental impact arising from off-sales to those under 21 was not agreed at stage 2. However, I strongly believe that section 8A would unnecessarily restrict licensing boards from having policies that are in the best interests of their communities. I am not convinced that we should be preventing licensing boards from stating in their policy statements that they would even consider raising the off-sales age if an area was plagued by antisocial behaviour or underage drinking.

In 2005, the Parliament deliberately gave licensing boards comprehensive powers to decide what is right for their areas; it is encouraging that boards are using the new powers to their full extent. Five years on, it would be wrong to impose the constraint that section 8A will create.

Amendment 46 would amend section 9, which will insert proposed new section 27A into the 2005 act. New section 27A will enable ministers to make regulations that prescribe matters in relation to which licensing boards may impose licence conditions as provided for by new section 27A. The amendment would prevent regulations from being made that would allow new section 27A to be used to impose licence conditions about the age for purchasing alcohol. That would mean that new section 27A could not be used to give licensing boards the ability to raise the purchasing age for alcohol in any part of their community by varying several licences at one time. I question the need for amendment 46, which seems to be unnecessary. Why should we prevent future flexibility and constrain Governments in the future from taking steps to increase licensing boards' powers?

I stress that section 9 of the bill contains no secret back-door power to implement a change in the off-sales purchase age. If any Government wished to enable licensing boards to use new section 27A of the 2005 act to impose conditions, ministers would need to make regulations to allow for that, and those regulations would be subject to affirmative procedure. I accept that the Parliament did not agree to our original or revised proposal on raising the off-sales age to 21. New section 27A of the 2005 act is not an attempt to reintroduce such a measure by the back door. However, we should not seek to prevent those who are elected to make local decisions from examining, testing and implementing solutions that are designed to tackle the problems that their communities face, and I see no good reason to constrain section 9 of the bill in that way. I ask the Parliament to agree to amendment 7 and to oppose amendment 46.

I move amendment 7.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour 3:45 pm, 10th November 2010

It is regrettable that one theme of the Government's approach to the bill has tended to be punitive and discriminatory. On the issue that we are discussing, the approach is certainly discriminatory. Along with the other Opposition parties, we have consistently opposed attempts throughout the bill process to demonise young adults. Such attempts are unfair and unworkable and are not evidence based.

The Government is making yet another attempt to introduce its discriminatory measure, having failed to obtain support for a universal ban on off-sales to under-21s. The cabinet secretary says that the bill has no back-door measure, but amendment 46, which is in my name, would ensure that under-21s could not be discriminated against.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

Given what Richard Simpson says, why did Labour feel that it was okay for boards to have in the 2005 act the powers that it seems set against now?

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

We were never in favour of discrimination against young people. We did and will support the universal application of challenge 25 as a positive step. The cabinet secretary tried to say that the issue was to do with underage sales, but it has nothing to do with that; it is about discrimination against people who are aged between 18 and 21.

We will support greater enforcement to tackle proxy purchasing and underage sales, as members will see from later amendments, which the Government now supports and has developed. We support greater enforcement of dispersal orders to prevent drinking in public places. However, we will not support discriminatory measures that seek to condemn all those who are under 21, in order to deal with the minority who abuse alcohol. If it is legal at 18 to drink in a pub or to serve or sell alcohol, purchasing alcohol for home consumption should be allowed at that age.

The Government called in evidence the two pilots in Armadale and Stenhousemuir, but when the eminent Professor Sheila Bird, who is a vice-president of the Royal Statistical Society, says that those pilots are not statistically significant, they should not be used as justification. However, the evidence is fairly clear for voluntary schemes such as that at St Neots in Cambridgeshire, where the whole community was engaged and the project worked well, without the need for a discriminatory ban by regulation or licensing board decisions.

By not supporting amendment 46, the Government has made even more definite our decision to oppose amendment 7, which would delete section 8A, and to support amendment 46. That might be a belt-and-braces approach, but it shows the determination of the Labour Party, which I hope will have the Parliament's support, to stop the attacks on young adults once and for all.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

The worst aspect of the original set of proposals on alcohol that the SNP Government brought forward was the proposal to raise the drinking age from 18 to 21. We believe that it is simply wrong to discriminate against 18 to 20-year-olds in this way. I can do no better than agree with the National Union of Students Scotland, which says in its briefing note that

"it is inequitable that individuals aged 18-20 who consume alcohol responsibly in their own homes may be prevented from doing so, or criminalised if they continue to do so, in a country which considers them mature and responsible enough to vote, to fight for their country and to raise children."

We would have the ridiculous scenario whereby a soldier who, on returning from active duty in Afghanistan, could not buy a bottle of beer to consume in his own home if he were under the age of 21.

I am pleased to say that the proposals were roundly defeated when the Government brought them forward previously. I remember leading a debate in the Parliament two years ago that saw the defeat of the original universal ban. The Government has since made various attempts to bring back the proposals by the back door, not least by giving licensing boards the power at local level. We do not agree with the proposals, which are discriminatory and offensive to young people and should be rejected. For the reasons that I have set out, we will oppose amendment 7 and, as a belt-and-braces approach, support amendment 46.

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

This Parliament is in agreement that underage drinking and the damage that it causes to communities need to be tackled effectively. However, allowing individual licensing boards the discretion to increase the purchase age of alcohol to 21 will not achieve that objective. Richard Simpson's amendment 46 would ensure that the age at which young people across Scotland can buy alcohol remains 18.

The Scottish Government wants to tackle underage drinking by creating an additional group of drinkers that it classes as underage drinkers when buying in an off-licence but not when buying in a pub. That is clearly wrong-headed. Increasing the age to 21 for off-sales will not solve the prevalent problems of enforcement or the number of very young people who access alcohol. The most challenging statistics that we have to deal with are that 52 per cent of 13-year-olds and 82 per cent of 15-year-olds have consumed alcohol. We need to enforce the current tough measures to crack down on off-licences that sell alcohol to children. We also need to make it clear that proxy purchasing will not be tolerated.

At the age of 18, a person is considered to be responsible enough for many things including voting, raising a family or even drinking alcohol in a pub. It is therefore ridiculous to tell an 18-year-old that they can have a drink in a pub but not buy a bottle of the same drink at the off-licence down the road. I know well the problems that underage drinking and antisocial behaviour cause, but I am not convinced that the measure would address those problems. Scotland is a small place. It would not be difficult for over-18s to buy alcohol, even with the measure. The policy is unworkable.

The Scottish Government has pointed to pilot projects such as the Armadale pilot, but research on the pilot showed that the police received five calls about youth disorder in the week before the trial and four during it. The Royal Statistical Society branded the statistics as "insignificant" and "disappointing". We cannot make legislation that will affect so many young people on the basis of such questionable figures. Underage drinking and youth disorder require a sensible approach that gets to the root of the problem and does not needlessly penalise scores of Scotland's young people. The views that I have expressed are shared by organisations including NUS Scotland. I recognise the contribution that it and others such as Young Scot have made to the debate.

I oppose amendment 7, in the name of Nicola Sturgeon, and support amendment 46, in the name of Richard Simpson.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

It is important to recall that the Parliament as a whole has already voted on the matter, at which point it roundly rejected any form of discrimination against people between the ages of 18 and 21. The proposal was further rejected at stage 2 of the bill. I have looked back over the matter and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that no discussion was had and no evidence led in the debate on the subject two years ago. Nothing was said that would have led any member to think that the proposition that lies before us would be progressed. Given that the possibility now exists—a possibility that was not examined previously—Liberal Democrats are happy to support Richard Simpson's amendment 46 and to reject the Government's amendment 7.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I have listened carefully to the debate. Amendment 7, in my name, is being misunderstood. It is not an attempt to reintroduce by the back door a policy that the Parliament has rejected in plenary session and at committee. It is simply an attempt to ensure that we do not restrict licensing boards in a way that, prior to the bill that we are debating today, they were not restricted. I believe that it is important to give those whose responsibility it is at local level to deal with the problems the maximum flexibility to do that in a way that they see fit.

Amendment 7 is not what some members have suggested it is. To demonstrate that, and having listened to the debate and come to the conclusion that amendment 7 will be opposed, I am happy to seek the Parliament's leave to withdraw it.

Amendment 7, by agreement, withdrawn.