Alcohol etc (Scotland) Bill

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:00 pm on 10th November 2010.

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Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 5:00 pm, 10th November 2010

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-7362, in the name of Nicola Sturgeon, on the Alcohol etc (Scotland) Bill.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party 5:08 pm, 10th November 2010

For the purposes of rule 9.11 of standing orders, I advise the Parliament that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Alcohol etc (Scotland) Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interests, so far as they are affected by the bill, at the disposal of the Parliament for the purposes of the bill.

I genuinely thank the Health and Sport Committee and its clerks for all the incredibly hard work that they have done on the bill. It has not been the easiest of bills, as I am sure that the convener would testify to, but they nevertheless did the job extremely well and I am grateful to them. I also record my thanks to my bill team, which has worked tremendously hard to take the bill forward. I owe the team, which has done a fantastic job, a great debt of gratitude.

It is with some regret and sadness that I stand here today to say that we are debating a bill that, although worth while, is not as strong as the Government would have wished it to be. We are debating a bill that will have some impact on our relationship with alcohol, but not as big an impact as it could have had. We are trying to kick-start a change in our alcohol culture. Without minimum pricing in the bill, we have to do that without addressing a fundamental part of that culture: the availability of high-strength and low-cost alcohol.

We have already heard today the case for minimum pricing and the opposition to it. I will not rehearse all the arguments. At all stages of the bill, the Parliament accepted that a pricing intervention was part of the solution to tackling alcohol misuse. That is encouraging. However, with some honourable exceptions, the Opposition was unwilling to agree to the only specific policy that was brought forward—a policy that the Government and so many outside the chamber regard as robust, targeted, legal and fair. More important, it is a policy that would have reduced consumption and harm—a policy that would have saved lives.

The most perplexing feature of the whole exercise is that, as support for minimum pricing across the country has grown and continues to grow, some members—even some members in parties that previously supported minimum pricing—could not bring themselves to back the policy today. Support for minimum pricing has, quite rightly, crossed the political divide in the country. It is regrettable, therefore, that it did not manage to cross the political divide in the chamber. I was very struck by a comment that Councillor Rod Wallace, a Conservative councillor and convener of the licensing board in Dundee, made in The Publican magazine:

"The opposition parties at Holyrood (including the Tories) were against minimum pricing purely on political grounds".

Members of the public will draw their own conclusions from today's debate about who is really serious about addressing one of the biggest public health and social challenges that we face, and who is not.

The bill process has highlighted once again the extent to which our ability to take action is constrained by the Scotland Act 1998. For example, at stage 2, we had to oppose good amendments from Rhoda Grant and Richard Simpson. We agreed with the policy intention behind those amendments, but could not support them because they touched on reserved issues. Throughout the debate, some have said that low prices should be tackled by taxation, not minimum pricing. There are flaws in that argument, but the current constitutional arrangements mean that we do not even have that option. That is not an acceptable position to be in.

It is disheartening that the Parliament has voted to reject, for now, minimum pricing. It is equally disheartening that other parties who said that they would bring forward an alternative failed to deliver that alternative.

However, I will focus on more positive areas in which there is agreement across the chamber—in the fervent hope that we can continue to build on the consensus that exists around the other measures in the bill and in "Changing Scotland's Relationship with Alcohol: A Framework for Action".

The debate on alcohol has, on the whole, become more mature in recent years. There is now general acceptance that the scale of the problem requires leadership and an innovative approach. If we do what we have always done, the problem tomorrow will not only be the same as the problem today; it may well be even worse. The assertions that are still made in some quarters that the sole focus should be on young people and antisocial behaviour no longer hold water. Alcohol misuse in Scotland affects Scots of all ages. It damages unborn children and debilitates older people.

We have heard that an approach that is targeted at harmful dependent drinkers is required. However, the bulk of the harm is experienced by those who drink just a bit too much, not those who are dependent. For too long, our relationship with alcohol has been brushed aside or, worse still, laughed off as part of our culture. We are ignoring the massive damage that alcohol misuse is doing to our country and economy. When we published our alcohol framework for action in 2009, it represented a break from all that. The framework acknowledged for the first time that we need fundamentally to change our relationship with alcohol. It recognised that to do that a whole-population approach was required—an approach in which we use all the tools that are available to us. The progress that we have made in implementing the framework takes us well down that road.

I will touch briefly on the other measures in the bill that have attracted broader support. The quantity discount ban that the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 put in place is extended to off-sales, which means that three-for-two promotions, discounts of 25 per cent when people buy six bottles and similar promotions will end. That change brings the off-sales sector more into line with the restrictions that are already in place in the on-sales sector.

The bill proposes further restrictions on the way in which alcohol can be promoted in licensed premises or their vicinity. Those build on the separate display area requirements that are already in place.

The bill makes an age verification scheme such as challenge 25 a mandatory licence condition. We were happy to amend the bill at stage 2 to embed the role of health boards in the licensing process.

Most of us seem to agree that the concept of a social responsibility levy is right and that those who sell alcohol and other licence holders should contribute to dealing with the harm that alcohol causes. On that basis, we need to take forward the levy and to work on the detail.

We need a concerted and sustained effort to reduce alcohol consumption in Scotland. If we do that, we will reduce harm and the massive burden on our communities, families and the economy. The bill is part of that effort.

There is no doubt that our efforts to drive change and reduce harm will be hampered at times by a refusal and an unwillingness to take difficult decisions and to try new approaches. However, we should make progress where we can and continue to build the case and evidence for and to champion a policy that we believe to be right.

The bill represents progress, but I will continue to make the case for minimum pricing because I fundamentally and passionately believe that it is the right policy.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Alcohol etc. (Scotland) Bill be passed.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour 5:17 pm, 10th November 2010

I thank the Health and Sport Committee and its clerks for all the work that they have undertaken to scrutinise the bill. I also thank the cabinet secretary, the Minister for Public Health and the bill team. They have raised the level of debate on alcohol, which has contributed substantially to people's awareness of alcohol and the harm that it can cause when it is taken to excess.

Despite what some commentators have said, there is much on which we have agreed: the ban on quantity discounts, the restrictions on promotions, the age verification measures and, helpfully, at the end, the social responsibility levy.

I will touch on two of those measures. The ban on quantity discounts changes fundamentally how alcohol is sold. According to the University of Sheffield study, it is likely to have an impact that is almost equally significant to the impact of minimum unit pricing. Almost half the benefits that are set out in the Sheffield study in relation to the number of deaths and reducing violent crime are attributable to the quantity discount ban.

However, the approach that has been taken to the bill has been unfortunate. I recognise that the proposals were not included in the Scottish National Party's manifesto, but it is about two years since the Scottish Government signalled its intention to bring forward measures on alcohol, including minimum unit pricing, in "Changing Scotland's Relationship with Alcohol: A Framework for Action". The proposals went from being part of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill, where they experienced some difficulty, to being part of a health bill, which was published in autumn last year.

We have been debating alcohol for 21 months. That is ample time to get the measures right, to win support for them and to arrive at a consensus. It is therefore disappointing that little detailed work has been done on substantial areas of the bill.

From the start, we have supported the Government in principle on the social responsibility levy, but we have called consistently for more detail. The Health and Sport Committee echoed that call. How will the levy operate, to whom will it apply, how much will it be, and how will the Government ensure that the revenue that is raised goes to health or policing to deal with the consequences of alcohol abuse? We were told that the Government was in dialogue with the industry and that they would work out matters collectively. How disappointing it was to be told that the working group had met but a handful of times and that the previous meeting before we raised the issue was in August 2009, some 14 months ago. That is not the way in which to proceed. The Government must take a more collaborative approach to the matter in future.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I do not want to rehearse arguments that we have been through this afternoon, but Jackie Baillie is lecturing me about the need for a collaborative approach. Can she explain how it is consensual, collaborative or trying to build agreement for people to decide on day one of a debate that they are opposed—come what may? That is exactly what Labour did on minimum pricing.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I can indeed give the cabinet secretary an explanation, as I will now turn to the subject of minimum unit pricing. There was a lot of common ground that we could have exploited. We all agreed about the scale of the problem; we all agreed about the need for action; and we all absolutely agreed that price is part of the solution.

I have previously set out our reasons for not supporting minimum unit pricing. It is not effective, it is potentially illegal and it puts £140 million into the pockets of supermarkets.

The cabinet secretary has spoken about consensus, but she has behaved very differently. She knows the content of the discussions that she had with me and with Cathy Jamieson. They were not about achieving consensus. I have to tell the cabinet secretary that I do not think that Cathy Jamieson or I are the problem.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

No.

From the start—and for 21 months—no attempts were made to negotiate or genuinely to build consensus.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I fear that an untruth may just have been told.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

Having been party to those discussions, I feel that it is not right to mislead Parliament in this manner.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

Order. Members must not accuse other members of misleading the Parliament. There are many ways in which they can make their points, but that is not one of them. Members should be very clear about that.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I have thought very carefully about what I am saying to the Parliament, and there is no attempt to mislead.

There was no attempt to negotiate or genuinely to build consensus. Over the summer, Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems convened a meeting with the cabinet secretary to try and achieve a consensus. We set out the initial basis of a proposal that sought to put in place a different pricing mechanism: a floor price plus duty and VAT, with the cost of production added in. In France, a method involving the cost of invoicing is used, so a pricing mechanism is already out there, and it is not dissimilar to the approach that was set out by the cabinet secretary in the Scottish Government's response to the United Kingdom coalition Government's consultation on alcohol pricing. However, the cabinet secretary did not wish to work in consensus with us. Consensus is not about waiting until we all agree with the cabinet secretary; it is about how we come together to work out solutions in the Parliament.

Our actions are not motivated by crude politics. The people who have been braying in the chamber this afternoon have not been on our benches, but on the Government's benches. The failure to arrive at a consensus has not been on our part. It is not every day that Ross Finnie, Murdo Fraser and I agree, but we did so in order to propose an alternative approach that could have merit.

We did not take our decision to oppose minimum unit pricing lightly. In fact, we were the last of the major political parties to express a view on the matter. The Tories said no to minimum unit pricing right at the start, in February 2009. In March 2009, Mike Rumbles said that the Liberals would not support minimum unit pricing. We waited. Cathy Jamieson considered representations. I sought out opinion from Alcohol Focus Scotland, the British Medical Association and other organisations. We also considered the University of Sheffield report very carefully.

We came to our decision nine months later, after the initial framework had been published and after all the evidence was out in the public domain. I assure the Parliament that, in all that time, there were no genuine attempts by the cabinet secretary to arrive at any compromise or any consensus.

I regret the view that the Parliament has arrived at today regarding caffeinated alcohol. I respect that view but, needless to say I will continue to pursue the matter. I hope, eventually, to convince all members of our proposed approach, as the evidence for it is there—in our prisons, in our communities, on our streets and on the faces of the many young people who have been scarred by Buckfast bottles.

Labour has a proud record on public health. We introduced the smoking ban, with the support of the Parliament, and the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005. We will work with all those who want to take action on alcohol, because the people of Scotland expect nothing less. However, they also expect that such action should be effective. Today, we continue to make progress, and I congratulate the cabinet secretary on that. We are building on the 2005 act, and the bill will help to make a difference in tackling the overconsumption of alcohol in Scotland. I urge support for the bill.

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative 5:24 pm, 10th November 2010

The Health and Sport Committee, of which I am a member, is currently working on four bills. I am relieved that we have got to the end of at least one of them. I acknowledge the thanks that have been expressed to committee clerks and others.

I do not intend to go over all the arguments for a minimum price but I will briefly mention the matter in the context of the committee's cross-party trip to France and Finland. The French could not understand why we would want to give more profits to retailers and producers, rather than give more income to the Government. We had a bit of difficulty trying to explain the policy to them. It was crystal clear that when Finland tried having a minimum price the result was an increase in booze cruises to Estonia. When the price fell, demand increased, but when the price rose again, demand stayed the same. The evidence is there.

In Scotland, we have a complex relationship with alcohol. The prices and promotion of alcohol are the same in Scotland as they are in England, but in Scotland we consume almost 25 per cent more alcohol. That is not simply about price.

Scottish Conservatives share the concern about the drinks culture in Scotland. There is no single magic bullet, but many things could be done better, including enforcement of existing laws. We have often asked why on earth a bad licensee should pay a social responsibility levy; the question is whether they should have a licence at all. Perhaps we need to ask licensing boards to be much more rigorous.

Despite what the cabinet secretary said, we need more robust evidence taking and research. Everything must not be based on a single piece of research. I hope that today marks the start of consideration of a far better evidence base, as Nicola Sturgeon said.

I mentioned our complex relationship with alcohol. We drink it when we are happy and to celebrate occasions. We drink it when we are sad. Psychologists who came to the Parliament recently told us that for elderly people wine is the new cup of tea. We need to look much more closely at the age and income groups who are the greatest consumers of alcohol. People tend to assume that we are talking about 15 to 18-year- olds. The opposite is the case; we are more likely to be talking about 50 and 60-year-olds.

We need to try to understand why young people binge drink. Why do young people want to go out and drink to the extent that they suffer memory loss? Does anyone understand that? The issue was not covered in the Sheffield report. We also need to examine price, income and cross-price elasticity of demand.

I am sorry to make a negative point—although the two previous speakers did so—but I must put on record that I find it offensive and insulting that the cabinet secretary should accuse Health and Sport Committee members of making up their minds without looking at any evidence. If that were the case, I could have saved myself hours and hours of reading and a lot of time attending committee meetings. If my mind had already been made up, I would not have needed to go to Finland and France or even turn up at committee meetings. I say to Nicola Sturgeon—respectfully, because I respect her as Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing—that even when Opposition members of the Scottish Parliament disagree with the Government, there is no need to criticise their commitment or the conscientious approach that they take. There is no justification for that.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I hope that Mary Scanlon accepts that at no point did I accuse the Health and Sport Committee of making up its mind before it heard the evidence. I thought that the committee's report was balanced and helpful, and we attempted to meet as many of its recommendations as possible. What I said, and I am happy to repeat it, because it is true, is that the parties took their formal positions prior to the committee hearing evidence. As I think that Jackie Baillie has just demonstrated, that is a matter of record.

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative

I represent my party as a member of the Health and Sport Committee, so the points that I made still stand.

It is also unfortunate that the social responsibility levy was included in the long title of the bill, as that did not allow members to lodge amendments to remove it.

No one on the Conservative side of the chamber would laugh off concerns about Scotland's high consumption of alcohol. I find that idea offensive, too. More unites us than divides us.

We will support the bill, as amended. We look forward to further evidence and information about, and understanding of, our drinking culture.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat 5:30 pm, 10th November 2010

The bill has been difficult for a variety of reasons. As a member of the Health and Sport Committee, I am fully aware of the complexities that we faced in assessing it. I take the opportunity to thank publicly the clerks to the committee for their enormous support of that work.

The bill was promoted with great energy. That is understandable because, if Government ministers do not promote a bill with energy, who on earth will be persuaded by it? Nevertheless, there were difficulties.

For instance, the concept in Sheffield study was not easy to get one's head around. Indeed, I found unhelpful the lack of understanding on the part of public health officials, who seemed to assume that I would understand in fairly great detail the basis of a mathematical and epidemiological construct. I confess that I did not find that to be easy.

I was not helped by the fact that, although the data in the study were no doubt put forward in good faith, they nevertheless did not include the possibly more up-to-date statistics on conditions in Scotland. One could say, "Ah well, we only have to work out the principles," but if those principles are not applicable, that makes the argument rather complicated.

I also found unhelpful the absence of a minimum unit price. The cabinet secretary would again be entitled to say that we are talking about principles, not specifics. We could say that that is all right, but the ranges in the Sheffield study indicate that, even if we thought that minimum unit pricing was a good principle, it would not work at all at a given price. There were other considerations, but that was one of them. We also required more information to assess whether the policy would be legal. Therefore, the beginnings of the process were complicated indeed.

I found one or two matters that were not resolved. Mary Scanlon touched on one of them. We had evidence of a connection between price and consumption. That was not really in dispute, but it was more difficult to try to get a handle on the relationship between the two when considering the impact of a falling price and the impact of a rising price. For the members of the Health and Sport Committee who had the opportunity to interrogate the matter in Finland and France—I was one of them—the answer to that question was profoundly unsatisfactory. In my view, the matter remained unresolved.

The impact on the low-paid was addressed in larger measure towards the end of the process. Nevertheless, it was unfortunate that we did not have a more detailed and comprehensive view of the impact on not only the low-paid but those in the particular categories of harm about which we were concerned.

That led to the third issue for simple, humble souls such as me: the impact of minimum pricing on harmful drinkers, on 18 to 24-year-olds and on those whose drinking habits are clearly a matter of concern but who are in an income group that, it appeared to me, would be almost entirely unaffected. Those matters remained unresolved, and I found it difficult to believe that we had found a satisfactory answer to our searching inquiry into whether the policy should be adopted.

On caffeinated alcohol, I say directly to Jackie Baillie that I am genuinely disappointed. I brought the issue to committee, but what seemed to be almost an offer from the committee to take the matter forward and examine the evidence was effectively rejected by Jackie Baillie, as she simply insisted on moving her amendment at stage 2.

The bill nevertheless contains important aspects. It brings the off-sales and on-sales trades into line in relation to quality discounts, bearing down heavily on promotions and introducing the challenge 25 concept. I do not yet know whether it is the right or the wrong thing to do. There is the prospect that a social responsibility levy could play an important part, but that is as yet wholly unspecified, so I reserve our position on it. We will, however, support the bill at decision time.

Photo of Anne McLaughlin Anne McLaughlin Scottish National Party 5:36 pm, 10th November 2010

I had hoped right up until 2 pm today that members might come here willing to listen to arguments on minimum pricing. Alas, they were not willing, and they did not listen. They should have listened to Scotland's doctors, nurses and health professionals, and to our children's charities, and they should have acted in Scotland's interests. There are few societal battles that we are currently losing as badly as the one against alcohol.

My cousin is a fantastic person. She is intelligent, funny and articulate—people here would really like her. She is also an alcoholic and, five years ago, she had her last alcoholic drink. Many deeply traumatic events happened in her lifetime that would explain the difficulties that she had in being able to stop drinking. However, if she had not started at the age of 14 and it had not become a normal way of life for her at such a young age, it probably would not have been the first thing that she thought of when the traumas occurred.

There is no way in the world that she would have been buying alcohol at the age of 14 if we had had minimum pricing; it simply would not have occurred to her and her friends. It occurs to young people because it is easy, and it is easy because it is cheap.

I spoke to an 18-year-old constituent last night about her experiments with cheap potent alcohol from the age of 14. Her favourite tipple was Frosty Jack's cider, which she said that she liked because it got her

"very drunk, very quickly for pennies".

Today I tried to buy some Frosty Jack's, but the supermarket had sold out, unsurprisingly. Instead, I got this 2-litre bottle of cider that I am holding up; I have emptied it down the sink to comply with the Presiding Officer's request. As it had 8.5 units of alcohol in it, its minimum price, if we had passed that part of the bill today, would in future have been £4.05. Today, the total price was £1.20. That is acceptable to members on all sides of the chamber except for those in the Scottish National Party.

That young woman told me that her priorities at 14 and 15 were sweets and magazines, but she said that if she had a few pounds left over, she thought she might as well use it on alcohol.

The arguments about problem drinkers are false. Minimum pricing is primarily about tackling drinking before it becomes a problem. That involves taking access away from young people who do not have the physical maturity to cope with it or, in many cases, the emotional capacity to prevent it from becoming a problem.

It is so easy for MSPs for sit in their contemplation pods, staring vacantly at Arthur's Seat and pondering how best to hinder the SNP Government's bills. However, the next time they do so, I ask them to think about their own personal experiences. Have they ever watched someone destroy themselves with alcohol? Thousands of families are doing that right now, and they were relying on us to do something.

That is the worst thing about watching an alcoholic: the helplessness and the hopelessness of not being able to do something. We were able to do something today—about violent crime, for example, as the Sheffield study predicted that minimum pricing would result in 400 fewer violent crimes per year. Labour Party members behave as if they are the only ones who care about the victims of crime. However, they and others made clear today that, given the choice between doing something that would mean 400 fewer violent crimes and therefore at least 400 fewer victims of violent crime, and doing nothing, they would rather do nothing. The victims of violent crime will not forget that.

Is it not a little odd that all those Opposition members, including their solitary general-practitioner-turned-MSP and supporter-of-minimum-pricing-turned-opposer, happen to know better than the BMA, the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Royal College of Nursing? I could go on; instead, I will just hold up the advert in support of minimum pricing from this week's Sunday Herald, which had 150 signatories, most of whom are real as opposed to self-appointed experts.

What has happened here today brings to mind the words of Edwin Morgan when he was asked what he thought the people wanted of the Parliament. He concluded:

"A symposium of procrastinators is what they do not want."

Unfortunately, that is what they have got today, and for that we should be thoroughly ashamed.

Photo of Helen Eadie Helen Eadie Labour 5:40 pm, 10th November 2010

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate.

One point on which we are all united is that an extraordinary amount of hard work has been done by the Government and inside and outside the Parliament. There is no doubt that people across Scotland have risen to the challenge. The Alcohol etc (Scotland) Bill has been perhaps the most controversial of any bill that has been introduced in the Parliament. After today, happy hours may prove to be less cheerful in the future.

I agree with every word that Mary Scanlon said about the position of the parties and of individual members of the Health and Sport Committee. I came to consideration of the bill not knowing the first thing about minimum unit pricing but, like other members of the committee, I worked extraordinarily hard to try to understand what the issues were. By the time I had listened to hours, weeks and months of evidence, I really did understand the issues.

I must go further than that. People in my group know me. They know that I am not someone who just kowtows and says yes to everyone. My colleagues respect my opinion and will listen to it. I participated in debates with my colleagues behind closed doors. They heard my views, which were taken into account, along with those of others. Many different views were expressed, so people must not jump to any conclusions or make assumptions about where the Labour Party was. We arrived at our view in an informed way and we worked hard to do so; it was not a prejudiced view. I take the same offence that Mary Scanlon did at what the cabinet secretary and the minister had to say in that regard.

The same energy should have been put into accepting that everyone was united on the issue of price. Why was it that the Scottish Government was thirled only to minimum unit pricing? Why did it not think of looking at the broad range of pricing mechanisms that were available? Europe said that there was an issue with minimum pricing, as did Westminster and the parliamentarians on the Health and Sport Committee, so why did the kind of collaborative approach that Jackie Baillie said should have been led by the Government not happen? That is the shame on which this Government must answer to the people of Scotland.

Alcohol policy is one of the hardest and most important issues that our nation must take up and run with.

Photo of Helen Eadie Helen Eadie Labour

I may let the minister in when I have finished my point.

I was astonished to read last night, as I prepared for the debate, that the duty on spirits per litre of pure alcohol was 60 per cent of the average annual earnings of males in 1947. In 1973, when VAT was imposed, it was 16 per cent of earnings; by 1983, it was 11 per cent of earnings; and, by 2002, it had fallen to 5 per cent of earnings.

We need to put the cabinet secretary on the spot. How many meetings has she had with the Treasury? How many times has she raised that issue with it? How many meetings has she had in Brussels on the subject? What discussions has she had about all the work that has been done in Brussels on the issue? How has she taken forward those wider debates? She never reports back to this Parliament on any meetings that she has had in any of the Brussels forums that she claims to attend. Richard Lochhead is the only minister who ever responds to this Parliament on European issues. The cabinet secretary says that she is passionate about minimum pricing, but I get the impression that, instead of adopting a collaborative approach, she has thrown the rattle out of her pram. When she eventually starts to push prams around—

Photo of Helen Eadie Helen Eadie Labour

This Government has let down the people of Scotland big time. Had it been serious about addressing the issue, it would have taken a totally different approach.

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party 5:45 pm, 10th November 2010

Like other members of the Health and Sport Committee, I begin by offering my thanks to our able clerks for their work during our consideration of the bill and to the witnesses who took the time to submit evidence to the committee.

Tackling Scotland's relationship with alcohol remains a serious public challenge for our nation. I have no doubt that every member in the chamber has, at some point, witnessed at first hand the great damage that alcohol misuse is causing in our society. From the time that I have spent with the police in my constituency, I have seen the damage that it causes to communities, individuals, families and property and the subsequent financial costs to policing, justice and health.

Although we might all recognise the scale of the problem, we also recognise that there is no silver bullet, quick solution or single policy that will have the impact that is necessary to change the problem quickly. That is why I supported the bill when it was introduced. It provided a comprehensive package of measures to tackle the problem more effectively. If we are serious about trying to create the culture shift that some people keep lecturing us about, we need such a comprehensive package of measures.

Even though the bill still contains some important parts, I regret the removal of minimum unit pricing. I fail to understand why we, as a Parliament, have chosen to remove one of the strongest elements that we could have had in our toolbox for dealing with the issue. Many of the arguments on minimum unit pricing have been well aired today and I, too, do not intend to rehearse them again. However, in almost 12 years in the Parliament, I have never witnessed such unified support outwith the Parliament for something that was being debated by its politicians. It united GPs, consultants, children's charities, the churches, some of those who are involved in alcohol production and those who are involved in the licensed trade. Of course, during our consideration of the bill, a number of different views were expressed.

During the past few years, I have noticed the rather underhand way in which some within the alcohol industry have gone about challenging aspects of the proposed legislation. I was recently chatting to a medic who is involved with public health, and he drew a close parallel with the way in which the tobacco industry used to behave 20 or 30 years ago when measures were being proposed to curb the use of tobacco. The tobacco industry divided opinion, misinformed and undermined measures in order to undermine the possibility of any agreement being reached. Those in the alcohol industry who have behaved in that way during the past few months and years have done themselves no favours, and their behaviour will be recalled by a number of us in the years to come.

In passing the bill in its amended form, we provide a partial answer to the nation's problem with alcohol. However, the elephant remains in the room—cheap booze. Until the Parliament is serious enough to face up to that challenge, we will continue to struggle to tackle what is a serious public health problem in our society.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 5:49 pm, 10th November 2010

I begin by recognising that the focus of the Scottish Government and the Deputy First Minister's attention on the enormity of Scotland's alcohol challenge has undoubtedly raised the profile of the issue among the general public and made a worthwhile contribution to changing cultural norms and attitudes to alcohol in Scotland and to, as Nicola Sturgeon rightly said, kick-starting a change of culture. A change of culture is the key and central issue in the debate, and price is only one part of that issue, as is shown by examination of different alcohol habits in Scotland, England and other European countries.

After stage 3, the Alcohol etc (Scotland) Bill contains a number of worthwhile provisions, in particular to ban irresponsible price promotions and to introduce the mandatory age verification scheme. Broadly, the provisions for the off-trade build on the solid reforms in the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005, which was passed by the Liberal Democrats and Labour in government before that date. It is worth saying that the broader social role and powers of licensing boards provided by that act are a much-underrated tool that will demonstrate its worth in years to come.

I observe in passing that probably the only person in the past 100 years to reverse the problems of excess alcohol successfully was Lloyd George, who nationalised the pubs and watered the beer. There are perhaps lessons to be learned from that today.

The Scottish Government clearly yearned after a totemic health policy that would match the significance of the smoking ban that was passed by the previous Scottish Government. Had it identified such a policy, Liberal Democrats would have backed it, as we have done with the other provisions of the bill, with the tougher enforcement of existing laws and with the innovative community alcohol approach, which we have also pressed.

The Government got off to a bad start by presenting the proposals in a justice bill, which did not help its case when it later tried to move the focus to health. The bill was also marred by a clumsy attempt to reduce the rights of young people under the age of 21 for no significant advantage. Eventually, the Government accepted Liberal Democrat demands and put the main proposals in the current bill, but still with the same statutory instrument arrangements.

The proposals for a social responsibility levy, which might have attracted broader support, unfortunately remained somewhat half-baked to the end, which is a matter of regret. The minimum pricing proposal was also subject to issues of legality, marginality and the extent of unintended consequences. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing would not even identify the proposed unit price until after stage 2, and consequently its effects could not be examined by the Health and Sport Committee. On any view, that was insouciance bordering on recklessness and, unsurprisingly, it made her problems worse, as it is the Parliament's job to pass competent and workable legislation in an effective form after close examination of its likely implications.

I conclude on behalf of the Liberal Democrats by making what ought to be an unnecessary point. All members recognise the problem of alcohol, and I am personally ready to recognise that there are genuinely held views on these issues throughout the chamber that differ both within and across parties. However, it is a sign that a Government has totally lost the plot when ministers resort to questioning their opponents' motives and accusing them of playing politics with the issue, as this Government has consistently done throughout the long months of debate. For my own part, I was not, and I am not, persuaded that the Government has made the case for minimum pricing or the social responsibility levy.

The issue remains a vital one. Today's bill will undoubtedly not be the last word, but it makes a modest contribution and I urge the Parliament to support it tonight.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative 5:53 pm, 10th November 2010

I join others in thanking all those involved in the legislation, the bill team and members of the Health and Sport Committee, who spent many hours looking at the evidence, preparing the committee report and considering the bill at stage 2.

For my own part, although I have been my party's health spokesman for only a few months, I feel that the Alcohol etc (Scotland) Bill has taken up a huge amount of my time. I am sure that other members, not least the cabinet secretary, will feel the same. On a personal level, I think that it is only fair to pay tribute to the cabinet secretary for her personal commitment to the issue. We may have disagreed on minimum pricing, but nobody could doubt her personal conviction and the interest that she has taken in pursuing the issue.

The discussion on the bill has allowed us to have a national debate about Scotland's problem with excess alcohol consumption. The reasons for that are complex, and there is no point in trying to pretend otherwise. I believe that the consumption rate of alcohol per head in Scotland is equivalent to that in France, but in France the health outcomes are much superior because the French consume alcohol differently, which suggests that there is a strong cultural issue. In that respect, Scotland is akin to other small northern European countries with dark, cold winters and long winter nights, as a result of which we seem to consume a lot of alcohol. There are more issues at play than simply the question of price. It is a real pity that minimum unit pricing dominated the debate and prevented a broader discussion about the causes of excess alcohol consumption.

I am also concerned about the somewhat sanctimonious tone of some members, not so much in the debate today but in the wider debate. We must remember that, consumed in moderation, alcohol is not just harmless but beneficial. It is also a vital part of Scottish industry and Scottish exports. We must therefore be wary of introducing unproven measures that might well jeopardise the future of vital industries that employ many thousands of people throughout Scotland.

I was pleased to hear the cabinet secretary say that she does not regard minimum unit pricing as a magic bullet. To his credit, Michael Matheson took up that point. Unfortunately, the point seems to have been lost on Anne McLaughlin, who seemed to suggest that that is exactly what it would have been. There is a relationship between price and consumption but, as Ross Finnie fairly said, it is not a simple one. As Mary Scanlon said, the prices in England and Scotland are the same but consumption per head of alcohol is 25 per cent higher in Scotland than in England. It is a complex issue. Moreover, in recent years, consumption per head in Scotland has fallen. If price were the major driver, that would not have been the case.

We have said all along that we would prefer a UK-wide approach and that we want to see increases in tax and duty on a targeted basis. That would have an important impact in that it would apply across the UK and would get around the problem of cross-border trade—an issue that has been dismissed too easily by the Government in the debate. We buy our wine over the internet, and I am sure that many thousands of other Scottish households do the same. It would be far too easy to avoid minimum unit pricing if it were introduced only in Scotland.

Even without minimum unit pricing, this is still a worthwhile bill. It will clamp down on irresponsible promotions and the challenge 25 measures will be extremely valuable. However, we continue to have concerns about the social responsibility levy. We do not believe—and never did—that blanket measures should be applied to everybody; we always believed that the measures should apply only to irresponsible traders, in whatever way that could be formulated. We await the regulations coming to the Parliament under super-affirmative procedure so that we can consider them.

Although we have reservations about that aspect of the bill, it is, on balance, a good bill and one that we will support today. It is an important step but not the end of the story.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour 5:58 pm, 10th November 2010

We all agree that Scotland, along with many northern European countries, has, as Murdo Fraser said, a problem with alcohol. In some respects, our problem is much more serious. We must recognise that there has been a 20 per cent drop in the number of alcohol-related male deaths since 2005 and a stabilisation of the number of female alcohol-related deaths, but we must also recognise that that still leaves us with an unprecedentedly high number of deaths, which needs to be tackled.

As I have said many times, when I began this journey I thought that minimum unit pricing was an interesting concept that was worthy of consideration. I spent a fantastic length of time—far too long, really—reading not just the summary of the Sheffield report but the 400 papers in the Sheffield study's literature review. I came to the conclusion that it was not just an untested and untried policy, but one that lacked a serious evidence base. That was a worrying conclusion.

I was a researcher—I had my own research department at university—and I recognise that the Sheffield model is extremely complex. I do not believe that many people understand it. What do we do with a model? We apply the existing data retrospectively and see whether it actually works. That is what led to the comment about weather forecasting that Dr Petra Meier made in all honesty: when she was asked why, when the existing data from the past few years are applied to the model, it does not do what it says on the tin, she said that it is because it is like weather forecasting. That does not make it a nonsense—weather forecasting is vital and important, just as this model is extremely interesting and makes a valuable contribution to the debate—but it is completely unacceptable to found an entire policy and debate on it, which is what the Government has done.

In March 2009, in the alcohol strategy debate in the chamber, I said that the Sheffield approach was a serious issue and that the Australian colleges approach, which we have never debated, was a serious issue. I ended up by saying, and I quote—

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

Why not? I said:

"Labour is up for this debate and is prepared to try to reach agreement on issues. However, it must be a careful and mature debate."—[Official Report, 26 March 2009; c 16232.]

What did we get? We got slammed. From day 1, all the Opposition parties were told, "Because you don't agree with us on minimum unit pricing, you're irresponsible and you're playing party politics." That was a totally non-consensual approach and it is why we have ended up with a bill that tackles some problems well and others not so well.

As I said earlier, I set a number of tests for the bill. Will it tackle the hazardous drinker in the 18 to 24-year-old age group? Sheffield says that it will not. Will it tackle problems across all age groups? Again no. Will it tackle problems across all income groups? No. Will it harm moderate drinkers who are perfectly responsible? Yes. The example that I gave, which no one has refuted, concerns a couple on an income of £200 a week who drink a single bottle of vodka a week—26 units, which is well within responsible and safe levels. Indeed, it is probably within the healthy levels that Murdo Fraser mentioned. They would be taxed £200 a year. I would not suffer from minimum unit pricing, but those people would be affected. And as if that is not enough, the proposal would give the thick end of £100 million to the supermarkets—leaving aside the fact that the end of discounting would also result in more profits for them—and money would be taken away from the Treasury.

The bill contains some significant principles. One is that, as the World Health Organisation says, alcohol is not like any other commodity. It is a principle that we should not sell alcohol on a volume discount basis. People should not be able to say, "If I buy more alcohol, I'll be able to get it at a cheaper price." That is the major achievement of this bill.

The second achievement could be the social responsibility levy but, regrettably, the Government was so focused on minimum unit pricing that it has failed to provide any detailed description of the proposal, which means that we will be able to approve only the principle today. I understand colleagues' concerns about the fact that we will need to consider the detail of the proposal. Thank goodness that the super-affirmative approach will enable us to do so, once the Government gets around to thinking about it instead of the issue that has preoccupied it up to now.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party 6:03 pm, 10th November 2010

I want to start with Anne McLaughlin's speech, because she demonstrated visually much better than we can ever do in words what the practical effect of Parliament's decision to reject minimum pricing will be. That two-litre bottle of cider will still be on sale for £1.20. That is what Parliament has voted to continue today.

I do not know whether Murdo Fraser understood the irony of his speech. He said that one of the problems is that, in Scotland, we drink differently from the way in which people drink in, say, France. He is absolutely right, but one of the reasons for that is that we can access lots and lots of strong alcohol extremely cheaply. That is the problem. It is the cheap booze, folks. That is what Parliament has so dismally failed to recognise.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Does Nicola Sturgeon accept that, if she goes to France and many other southern European countries, she will find that alcohol costs much less there than it does here?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I am sure that I would not find the same number of young people drinking the kind of product that Anne McLaughlin showed us tonight.

I say to Jackie Baillie that I will not get into a tit-for-tat discussion about what was said in meetings, partly because it would be pointless but, more important, because it would betray the confidence of members who are not in the chamber. My meetings with Cathy Jamieson were always very positive and constructive. Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether that is why she has ceased to be shadow health secretary. I will go to sleep in bed tonight absolutely certain in my mind that I have done everything in my power to reach agreement and build consensus.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Not just now.

I succeeded in reaching agreement and building consensus with people outside the Parliament. It is a shame that people inside the Parliament have not been persuaded and have not been open to being persuaded. We have compromised and sought compromise on every issue and at every stage, whether on the legality of our policy, the profits, low pay issues or the concern that the policy has never been tried and tested.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

The nub of the issue is that it gets to the stage at which it is hard to reach compromises with people who simply do not want to compromise.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Jackie Baillie has had her say.

The issue was prejudged. I say to Jackie Baillie that it is not a convincing defence of the fact that she made up her mind on day one of the discussion to say that others did so even earlier than that. All that that proves is that all the main Opposition parties prejudged the issue. That was wrong. I point again to the large coalition of experts outside the Parliament who support our policy. Those people are not easily swayed and they did not reach their positions lightly. They know about the problems and harm that alcohol causes from the experiences that they have every day of their working lives. We ignore them at our peril, and it is to the shame of the Opposition parties that they have ignored their expert opinions.

For the remainder of the time that I have to speak, I will be more positive. Notwithstanding our deep differences over minimum pricing, the bill that we will pass is worth while and will perform a useful function. We have moved away from resigned acceptance that alcohol misuse is something we have to live with to recognising that we can and must kick-start the culture change that we need. It is encouraging that members accept what the scale of the problem is and that it affects all age groups, all socioeconomic groups and every part of Scotland. I hope that, in the not-too-distant future, we will be able as a Parliament to match that acceptance with the action that we take.

There is a mood swing in Scotland for change. The damage that alcohol misuse is doing is all too visible, and the public expect us to show leadership and to take forward policies that will have a real and lasting effect. When people see the harmful effects of alcohol, they look to the Government and the Parliament to pick up the pieces, but they also look to us to create real and lasting social and cultural change. That will not happen overnight. We are on a journey that is challenging many of us to rethink some of our deeply held assumptions. I know that, as we have gone through the process, many of my views and perceptions have changed.

The bill can and will help to drive and support a change in our relationship with alcohol. I hope that it will enable us to enjoy a better relationship with alcohol and to release the brake that alcohol misuse puts on our economy. However, Michael Matheson is fundamentally right: until we are prepared to face up to the demon that is cheap booze, such as the type that Anne McLaughlin brandished, we will always have one hand tied behind our back. Consideration of the bill may have come to an end, but the debate has not. We will continue to support real and sensible action to tackle the relationship between alcohol price and consumption.

We have an opportunity to vote for a bill that is not perfect, but is nevertheless good. We have an opportunity with that bill and we will, I hope, have opportunities in the future to be innovative and creative and to respond to the mood swing in Scotland.

I invite members to agree that the Alcohol etc (Scotland) Bill be passed.