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I am pleased to open the debate on the general principles of the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Bill. I do so with a sense of déjà vu, although I hope that that will be dispelled by reaching a different outcome this time from the one the last time the subject was debated.
I thank the organisations and individuals who have helped to shape our minimum pricing policy—some of them are represented in the public gallery. I thank Duncan McNeil and the Health and Sport Committee and its clerking team for the committee’s careful and robust scrutiny of our proposals and the considered conclusions that it reached in its stage 1 report. Similarly, I thank colleagues on the Finance Committee and the Subordinate Legislation Committee for the part that they played in scrutinising the bill. I am also grateful to the many and varied witnesses who provided invaluable evidence to the committees.
I offer final thanks to the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. I have many differences with them, but it is to their great credit that, since the last vote on the issue, they have decided to join the Scottish National Party and the Greens by giving minimum pricing a chance.
Before discussing the substance of the Health and Sport Committee’s stage 1 report, I will take some time to remind members why the measures in the bill are important. I make it clear at the outset, as I hope I have been clear all along, that the Scottish Government is not anti-alcohol. We are not against drinking, but we are very much against the problems that are associated with excessive consumption of alcohol.
The hard fact is that, over the years, Scotland’s relationship with alcohol has got increasingly out of kilter and needs to be rebalanced. Since at least 2000, enough alcohol has been sold each week in Scotland to allow every adult to exceed the recommended weekly limit for men. It might be uncomfortable for any of us to admit it, but sales figures suggest that we drink almost a quarter more than do people in other parts of the United Kingdom.
In the past 15 years, a significant shift has taken place not just in how much we drink but in where we drink. Nearly 70 per cent of alcohol is now sold through the off-trade, and that shift has been driven largely by price and affordability. In 2010, the average price of a unit of alcohol in the on-trade was £1.34, in comparison with just 45p in the off-trade. In real terms, the affordability of alcohol in the on-trade has remained fairly static, but the affordability of off-trade alcohol has shifted significantly.
As all of us know from our constituency experiences and from other sources, excessive drinking is taking its toll on every age group, every socioeconomic group and every community across the country. It places huge pressure on our national health service, our police service and our local authorities. The associated costs are immense, at more than £3.6 billion every year, which is £900 for every adult in the country.
The cost tells only part of the story. In human terms, too, we pay a heavy price. In the past few decades, rates of chronic liver disease have trebled, alcohol-related deaths have doubled and alcohol-related hospital admissions have quadrupled. Of course, we also suffer from alcohol-related crime and disorder. In 2009, half of Scottish prisoners and 77 per cent of young offenders admitted to being drunk when they committed their offence.
I have no doubt at all that if we are to achieve our ambition—which I believe everyone in the Parliament shares—of a self-confident Scotland in which alcohol can be enjoyed sensibly as a pleasurable part of life, we need to take firm action now to rebalance our relationship with alcohol.
It is also important to say again, as I have said all along, that our alcohol industry is an important part of our economy. As we do now, we will continue to offer support to businesses to grow, including in the export market, and we will work with those businesses to use all the levers that are at their disposal to assist in reducing alcohol consumption, including, for example, where appropriate, promoting lower-strength products.
I have made this point before but I will make it again. Does the Government share the view that we should also think about the ownership structure of the alcohol industry? We allow that industry to supply recreational drugs throughout Scotland. We should be much clearer about regulating that industry and taking back control from the hands of a tiny number of multinationals whose profits come from volume sales instead of quality.
The bill seeks to deal with bigger issues than that. Our alcohol industry has a great deal to offer our country and its economy and it is in the industry’s interests as much as it is in the interests of the rest of us to deal with the overconsumption of alcohol. I guess that my central point is that our plans for minimum pricing and the other measures that we are taking and a thriving drinks industry are not mutually exclusive. We all stand to benefit from the reduction of alcohol-related harm.
The other contextual point that I want to make is one that I have again made many times in the past and will make many times in the future. There is no single or simple solution to the problems that we experience with alcohol. If we are to tackle the problem effectively, we need to have a broad package of measures. I remind members that our alcohol framework contains 41 separate initiatives.
It is also true that the Government cannot do it alone. Each and every one of us has a role to play by reflecting on our own drinking, how it affects our health and how it impacts on those around us—children, family, friends, colleagues and communities. This is a cultural issue, and price is a part of that. In recent discussions that I had with Jackson Carlaw and Ruth Davidson, they rightly chose to stress the issue of culture.
We are making good progress and we must continue to make good progress in implementing our framework for action. I say openly to Labour that we are open to considering any proposal that is made, including those that Labour published yesterday, some of which we have discussed before. I remain open-minded about anything that can contribute to dealing with the issue and I look forward to having discussions about some of the proposals.
My fundamental point is, however, that no strategy will be complete if it does not address price. The link between price and consumption and between consumption and harm is irrefutable. When prices go down, people drink more and when prices go up, people drink less. The more that people drink, the greater the associated harm. We need to act decisively to stem the flow of cheap, high-strength drink. It is worth noting that that view is shared by a range of interested parties, such as doctors, nurses, academics, the police, children’s charities, faith groups and, indeed, other political parties. As I have said before, minimum unit pricing is not some sort of magic bullet that will solve all our nation’s problems with alcohol, but if we are to make a significant contribution to reducing consumption, it is an essential measure.
To those who say that we should be using alcohol duty to raise prices, I say that my argument against that is not just that we do not have the power to do that in this Parliament; even if we did have the power, my view is that it would not be as effective as minimum unit pricing. Duty impacts on all drinks and all drinkers, so those drinks that are already responsibly priced would be affected, as would all moderate drinkers. We would see prices in pubs, nightclubs and restaurants go up as well as prices in the off-trade. Minimum unit pricing targets the cheap, high-strength alcohol that is more favoured by harmful drinkers, so it is a more targeted approach than that taken by increasing duty, hence it is more proportionate.
I turn now to the stage 1 report. I am pleased that the committee acknowledged the need for our relationship with alcohol to be challenged and I am pleased that it endorsed the wider package of measures that we are pursuing. I am also delighted that the majority of the committee supported the general principles of the bill and were persuaded that minimum unit pricing has a significant contribution to make.
The stage 1 report highlighted a number of things that I have been asked to consider. I say again that I am open-minded to anything that would either improve the bill or help to support its implementation, particularly in relation to the evaluation programme.
Let me begin by addressing the report’s points about the merits of a sunset clause. We inserted a sunset clause in the previous bill and, in my evidence to the committee, I said that I was open to being persuaded to do so again. Having given the issue further consideration, I have come to the conclusion that it is right and proper for Parliament to have the opportunity to review the policy after five years. I know that Jackson Carlaw intends to lodge an amendment to that effect at stage 2 and I can confirm that the Scottish Government will support it.
On the specific minimum unit price, I am happy to reaffirm my commitment to the committee to announce the price and, indeed, the rationale for it before the stage 3 vote. I hope to do so during the stage 2 proceedings. We are considering all the evidence in relation to a specific minimum price and are mindful of the need to ensure proportionality. In setting a price, we will be impacting on the market, so we need to ensure that the impact is justified by the level of societal benefits that we will achieve. When we clarify the price, we will also say what we intend to do about future reviews of it, to ensure that it remains at a level that delivers the desired benefits.
The report also addresses the question of notifying the bill under the terms of the European Union technical standards directive. As I said in my evidence to the committee—I am happy to reaffirm this today—we are confident that the bill’s provisions are capable of complying with EU law and that the bill itself does not need to be notified. However, as I informed the committee last week, I intend to notify the order that will set the minimum unit price.
One of the stage 1 report’s constant themes is the need for effective evaluation of the impact of minimum pricing on different groups of the population, on business and on unintended consequences, such as illicit internet or cross-border sales. I assure the chamber that our existing and proposed plans for assessing the impact of minimum pricing are both comprehensive and robust. They will examine how minimum pricing contributes to a reduction in alcohol-related harm in the population as a whole and in different groups, and the extent and impact of any unintended outcomes or displacement effects, particularly those that affect health inequalities.
The impact on business is, inevitably, much more difficult to assess, not least because of the sensitivities about sharing commercially confidential information. However, we are happy to work with business interests in that respect and will consider carefully all of the areas highlighted at stage 1 to ensure that they are taken into account in our evaluation programme.
I again thank the Health and Sport Committee for its positive stage 1 report. As members will know, I deeply regret that our previous attempts to introduce minimum pricing were voted down, but I have always firmly believed that it is better, wherever possible, for political parties to reach consensus on public health policies, particularly when they are as important as minimum pricing. Tackling alcohol misuse is one of the most important public health challenges facing Scotland today. The fact that we now have a broad consensus across Parliament shows how serious we all are in our bid to reduce alcohol-related harm.
I hope that those members who have yet to pledge their support will, even at this late stage, reflect on their position and decide to back minimum pricing. I have great pleasure in moving,
That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Bill.
This is not the first time, nor even the second time, that alcohol excess has become a major issue of public alarm in Scotland and the United Kingdom—in fact, it is the third. As with the previous two periods of excess, the current one will not be overcome with a single measure. The precise character of each period of alarm has been different, but they have a common theme, which has been a cultural tolerance of excessive drinking. The second explosion of excess, which was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was overcome by growing public awareness and even resentment, coupled with a strengthening temperance movement. Those were aided latterly by a reduction in the strength of beer and by limitations on availability during the first world war, which, when combined, added to the lowering of consumption. The trend was well into a reduction when the magic bullet of the era came into effect, namely prohibition—and we all know the effects of that.
With the current wave, the main concern is not just the 45 to 55-year-old hardened drinkers; it is also the 18 to 24-year-olds who binge drink as part of a pub and clubbing culture, sinking shots until they are intoxicated or at least unsafe. Friday and Saturday nights stretch police and ambulance services, and accident and emergency units can look like war zones. In 2001, when I was the Deputy Minister for Justice, Labour recognised the problem and created the Nicholson inquiry, which led to the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005. As public awareness has grown, in part through the parliamentary debate that we have been having ever since that time, consumption has stopped growing. The number of deaths a year has declined by 15 per cent or 200 deaths—it is down from 1,546 a year to 1,318 over a four-year period, which is a decline of 40 a year. Self-reported hazardous drinking among men has dropped, from 28 per cent to 22 per cent of men. Although the hard number is almost certainly underreporting, the methodology of repeated health surveys is valid, so the trend, which is downward, is meaningful.
We all agree that something needs to be done. The Alcohol etc (Scotland) Act 2010 set about ending discounts that are based on volume, but we have now discovered that the Government was briefing that there was a loophole even before the act was introduced. I fail to understand why the SNP would undermine its own policy, especially when it had support across the political divide. We tried to amend the Alcohol etc (Scotland) Bill to tackle pre-mixed caffeinated alcohol. That measure has now been shown to be valid by America’s ban, which was introduced subsequently to that debate, and by Professor Stockwell’s support for caffeinated alcohol limitation and the support of Dr Laurence Gruer, a Scottish public health specialist.
I remind Dr Simpson that Labour’s attempt to introduce a measure on caffeinated drinks came very late in the day—I know because I was there. The Health and Sport Committee at the time had been given no evidence on that and therefore could not deal with the matter, which was made plain at the time.
I have said that we thought that the evidence was there, and that was confirmed two weeks after the debate by America’s ban. The evidence is now there.
We also tried to introduce alcohol treatment and testing orders, but that measure was blocked on the ground that it was beyond the scope of that bill. Those are the facts. Now that the SNP has a majority, it would have been good if it had offered a general discussion on how to tackle the problem.
I will come to that but the fact is that, since the election, we have not been offered any discussions on the problem at all.
The SNP has said repeatedly that minimum unit pricing is not a magic bullet, but it is an absolute fact that the SNP has introduced a bill that is so narrowly drawn that it is incapable of being significantly amended. I agree that we need to do more. I spent much of my career as a doctor working with people with alcohol addictions, so I would not oppose a measure if I genuinely believed, on balance, that it would be beneficial. The SNP has tried to use against me my careful words at the beginning of the debate on minimum pricing in 2008 but, as the Official Report shows, I said that the idea was a novel one, but it needed close examination before we decided whether it should be supported or rejected. After careful study, I recommended rejection to the Labour Party.
I will make my reasons for that clear but, before I do so, I point out that I accept that the bill will have an effect on some of the very serious harmful drinkers, such as those in Professor Chick’s study, who drink on average 200 units a week. However, those people constitute a small minority of the minority of 7 per cent of Scots who are harmful drinkers, which means that they drink more than 50 units a week. There are, I believe, better-targeted and more constructive ways of tackling those highly dependent, damaged drinkers.
Why have we opposed the Government’s minimum pricing proposal? The proposal is based on a single, untested, theoretical mathematical model—the Sheffield model. Yes, the model has been peer reviewed and is supported by many; nonetheless, there is no overwhelming evidence for it, only opinion. It is a model whose authors, in evidence last session, admitted that it was as reliable as weather forecasting—a model according to which, as Mary Scanlon pointed out, the real data applied retrospectively do not match its predictions. It is also a model that has not examined binge drinking, which is a particular concern of this wave, as I have said, and that, crucially, has not studied the response of retailers to the massive windfall profits of more than £100 million—a response that the Institute for Fiscal Studies has suggested could undermine the benefits of the policy. It is a model that shows clearly that the smallest effect will be on 18 to 24-year-olds.
Richard Simpson must take care not to misrepresent the Sheffield model. The Sheffield team found a slightly smaller but still significant impact on 18 to 24-year-olds. I know that he is engaging in fig-leaf politics today, but I think that he is taking it too far.
I am sorry if I am getting under the cabinet secretary’s skin, but it is important that we lay things out. I quote specifically from the Sheffield report and ask her whether she thinks that it is a good reduction. For 18 to 24-year-olds, a minimum unit price of 45p would result in a reduction of 0.6 per cent. For every 100 pints that young adults drink, they are predicted to drink one pint less. I do not regard that as being significant. It may be statistically significant, but I cannot believe that it is clinically significant.
Even the harmful drinkers who, according to the Sheffield report, drink an average of 58 units a week—29 pints or two bottles of vodka a week—will reduce their drinking, on average, only by 5 units, or two and a half pints. It was Ross Finnie who pointed that out last session. They will still be harmful drinkers. I accept that those are averages—of course they are. However, when the Sheffield study states that the average consumption for moderate drinkers is only 5 units—two glasses of wine—a week, I wonder about the model.
My concerns have gone further, as those who have listened know. The number of hazardous drinkers increases with each decile of increasing income, and it is that pattern of hazardous drinking that we have simply got to change. The proportion of cheaper alcohol in the basket of alcohol purchased is less in the higher-income groups but it is still significant, and minimum unit pricing will barely touch the wealthier 70 per cent of the population—they can absorb with ease any proportionate price increase that the cabinet secretary cares to name. Minimum unit pricing will punish those who are less well-off if they are moderate drinkers at a higher level. For example, a man of modest means who drinks 20 units a week—a bottle of vodka a week—will now pay a minimum unit tax of £200 a year, which I do not regard as appropriate. The less well-off, who are drinking safely and moderately, will have to pay a price for those who are drinking irresponsibly.
The cabinet secretary has referred to other concerns such as internet sales, cross-border purchasing and increased black market or counterfeit sales. Those are concerns, but they are lesser concerns. Nigel Hawkes, writing in the British Medical Journal the other week, said:
“a deal which gives the retailers, who are part of the problem, over 100 million pounds and takes away millions from the taxpayer is a deal not worth doing.”
We urgently need measures to change the culture. We must confront those who get intoxicated on our streets. We need a return to a culture in which getting drunk is not acceptable. A general taxation approach is preferable, building on Alistair Darling’s alcohol duty escalator, which the coalition is continuing, along with new measures from the coalition, which include changing the definition of cider and encouraging lower-strength beer. Those measures will have an effect. A taxation or levy approach would be much more equitable and would generate revenue for the public purse, not for alcohol retailers.
It is ironic that, despite complaining that it does not control alcohol duty, the SNP is refusing to implement the social responsibility levy that the Parliament passed. Labour still believes that introducing minimum unit pricing with no adequate clawback mechanism risks doing more harm than good by generating windfalls in excess of £100 million.
However, we are responding to the cabinet secretary’s welcome and more measured tone both at committee and today—with her agreement to notify on the legality and to insert the sunset clause—in the hope that she will also refer the research measures to the new chief scientist, Professor Andrew Morris. Therefore, despite our continued real reservations about the unintendeds of the bill, we have lodged our reasoned amendment, which I hope that the cabinet secretary will accept, to allow us to move forward unanimously.
On that basis, I move amendment S4M-02305.1, to insert at end:
“but, in so doing, strongly believes that the Scottish Government should bring forward proposals to eliminate the windfall to large retailers arising from the minimum unit price by means of the proposed public health levy or other targeted levy.”
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I apologise to you and the cabinet secretary for missing her opening remarks. There was a bit of confusion.
The eyes of the world are upon us. Several witnesses said as much during our stage 1 consideration of the bill. The Washington Post, RTE, the Chicago Tribune, Fox News and, would you believe, even The Guardian have been reporting on minimum pricing. The international scrutiny is welcome, but it is as much to do with our renowned affinity with alcohol as with the policy that has been proposed.
From the glasses that are raised at Burns suppers and the biggest hogmanay party in the world to the mischief of “Whisky Galore” and the lyrics of Gerry Rafferty’s music as he wound his way down Baker Street, drink plays a starring role in Scottish life. It is centre stage in so much of our culture, our sense of identity and our popular imagination, and hence in the image that we project to others. Whisky is one of the symbols most commonly associated with us. It is part of our identity, along with tartan and golf.
That is a gift in terms of global marketing, export sales and the strength of our economy. What country would not wish for such a calling card? However, increasingly we face the sobering reality that alcohol can be a destructive force for many people. I was shocked—like others, I am sure—to learn that at least 900 children in Scotland were damaged by alcohol before they were born, that thousands more children live with a drink-dependent adult, and that one Scot dies every three hours from an alcohol-related cause.
Children 1st told the Health and Sport Committee:
“Scotland needs to shift its attitude and behaviour towards and relationship with alcohol.”—[Official Report, Health and Sport Committee, 17 January 2012; c 878.]
We recognise that that will not be an easy change to bring about. Professor Tim Stockwell, a respected academic in the field, said:
“minimum pricing is felt to be an attack on individual freedoms; the right to drink is very dear to many people”.—[Official Report, Health and Sport Committee, 10 January 2012; c 786.]
Other witnesses spoke of the link between social deprivation and the incidence of drink and indeed substance abuse, which is a further complication.
The committee heard a good deal about the impact of alcohol misuse, not just on individuals but beyond that, on our health and social services, our justice system and the family members who bear the burden and are left to pick up the pieces. Alcohol Focus Scotland told us:
“It is very easy to point at young people and say how antisocial and irresponsible their drinking behaviour is, but all they are doing is reflecting the adult society that they see ... an environment that promotes access and excess and which saturates them in images of alcohol”.—[Official Report, Health and Sport Committee, 10 January 2012; c 760.]
That Scotland’s relationship with alcohol can rightly be described as unhealthy, damaging, problematic and dysfunctional is beyond question. The Health and Sport Committee is not alone in that conviction. Along with the Scottish Government, the medical profession, academia, the police, children’s charities, the drinks industry, retailers, civic society, media commentators and others, the committee believes that we must act to counter the generational harm that is caused by drink, for our misuse and abuse of alcohol are problems that not just merit our attention but demand our remedy.
Some people consider minimum pricing to be an integral part of that remedial action, while others are not so readily persuaded. The committee agrees that a range of initiatives must be pursued, from awareness-raising campaigns for young people and parents to interventions with individuals and packages of intense support. We believe that such a multifaceted approach is essential if we are to challenge and overcome Scotland’s booze culture.
A majority of the committee—boosted by one since last Thursday, or so it would appear—is persuaded by the assertion that the bill will help to reduce alcohol consumption. The members in that majority considered the evidence we heard to be overwhelming and compelling. In their view, minimum pricing can cut alcohol consumption by harmful drinkers and reduce the impact of alcohol misuse on public health, crime, productivity and the economy. Professor Stockwell told the committee:
“You will be doing something that—from the scientific point of view—will without a shred of doubt save lives, reduce healthcare costs, prevent death and injury on the roads, prevent birth defects, and reduce public violence”.—[Official Report, Health and Sport Committee, 10 January 2012; c 786.]
That majority believes the bill to be a significant contribution to the package of measures that is necessary to curtail Scotland’s dangerous affinity with alcohol.
A minority of the committee remains sceptical but is hopeful that the health and social benefits suggested by the Scottish Government may transpire. Some are still unconvinced by the ability of minimum pricing to produce the desired result, and they believe that a universal approach could have an unfair impact on moderate drinkers and those on lower incomes.
Among other concerns is the market response—“the big unknown”, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies puts it. It was not covered by either the Sheffield modelling or the evidence from Canada. We simply do not know how producers or retailers will react to minimum pricing, nor do we know the extent to which profits will be accrued from the policy by some businesses. As the Centre for Economics and Business Research told us:
“The retailers stand to make windfall profits at the expense of poor consumers”.—[Official Report, Health and Sport Committee, 10 January 2012; c 742.]
The question of legality in a European context is also an issue in the minority view. Much depends on the level at which the cabinet secretary decides to set the price and on the balance struck between market intervention and health benefits. I welcome her letter to me last week stating that she intends to notify the order setting a minimum price to the European Union. I shall file the correspondence under “P” for progress. The cabinet secretary’s recent pronouncement on the merits of a sunset clause was similarly encouraging, and the committee will no doubt consider that matter at stage 2.
I do not want to take on the committee’s convener, but I am going to. From the tone of his speech, I am not quite sure whether he is speaking for the committee, the majority of which I understood to be fully in favour of the bill, or with a tinge of Labour policy on the matter.
I regret the intervention and the inference that I am not responding correctly or appropriately to the committee’s report. The report laid out a majority view and a minority view. I am sure that I will be judged by my committee members at the end of the day, but I am confident that I have tried effectively to represent both views. If members will let me complete my speech, I will do so.
I want to highlight the positive and constructive nature of the committee’s work on this bill. We speak as one in stating that Scotland’s relationship with drink must change. A number of committee witnesses spoke about the link between social deprivation and drink and substance abuse. In written evidence, the Salvation Army said that
“people living in the most deprived areas of Scotland are eight times more likely to be admitted to a psychiatric unit with an alcohol-related disorder”.
It argued that there is a disconnect between those who live with poverty and those who do not. When life becomes a daily struggle, as it does for many, drinking can be seen as a coping mechanism in dire circumstances. This is a complex social and cultural problem, and all of us on the committee recognise the need for a range of actions.
We acknowledge the public health motivations behind the bill and endorse the wider programme for tackling alcohol misuse detailed in the Scottish Government’s framework for action. Certainly, what the committee heard in evidence, opinion and argument—a good deal of it alarming, most of it cogent and not all of it consensual—made clear that the time has come to throw off the stereotype of the drink-sodden Scot, to embrace the word “moderation” without fear of ridicule and to work towards the goal of a healthier and happier society.
Our stage 1 report details the committee’s consideration of the bill and sets out our conclusions and recommendations. I hope that it will also provide a solid contribution to the work that lies ahead to achieve the desired goal. There may be differences of opinion on the policy, but supporters and sceptics alike welcome further debate. We look forward to the cabinet secretary’s decision before stage 3 on the level at which she will set the minimum price.
Despite the cabinet secretary’s sense of déjà vu, the Scottish Conservatives approach this debate rather differently from our approaches to previous debates on minimum pricing policies for the 2010 Alcohol etc (Scotland) Bill. I feel that it is incumbent upon me to explain why that is the case.
We have always appreciated that many problems arise from the irresponsible use of alcohol. My area of Glasgow suffers from some of the most acute alcohol-related health and social problems in the United Kingdom. The fact that there is an issue that needs to be addressed is not seriously in dispute in the chamber, but when the state enters this arena, we should be mindful that many of the policies that we propose will come to very little if society is unwilling to move with them. We need a change in the attitude and relationship that many Scots have with alcohol. Price has a part to play—but only a part—and we hope that once minimum pricing is resolved we can move the debate on much further to changing the culture. That is why we must view minimum pricing not in isolation, but as a building block in a wider range of initiatives.
In 2010, Scottish Conservatives were sceptical. After all, new powers over alcohol misuse had recently been introduced, with little time to come into effect. The evidence that was presented to the Health and Sport Committee on the minimum pricing proposals was less than convincing. However, the updated Sheffield study goes some way towards demonstrating that the bill before us has the potential to provide meaningful benefits to Scottish communities. In addition, I recognise and welcome the evidence from Canada, which has been useful in providing some empirical rather than theoretical support for the Scottish Government’s position.
While the suggested benefits to Scotland are difficult to prove, conversely it is extremely difficult to suggest that minimum pricing will have no clear benefit for health and social problems. The case suggesting that lives may be saved, or that there may be a reduction in the enormous number of acute hospital admissions linked to alcohol, is worth pursuing. With such high stakes, it is reasonable that we are open minded.
In 2012, while we remain sceptical, we are prepared to support the bill, subject to several important caveats. First, we intend to introduce a sunset clause amendment at stage 2, which the Scottish Government has indicated that it will support. A five-year period will allow us all to examine whether minimum pricing can have a material impact in Scotland and will give us the data that Dr Simpson wants to see. However, that will happen only if we are prepared to allow a robust study of the policy’s impact. We have proposed that outcomes be measured against a control group from a similar area elsewhere in the United Kingdom where minimum pricing has not been implemented.
We must give the bill every chance to succeed in helping with Scotland’s alcohol problem and assess its benefits rationally, based on the evidence. If minimum pricing does not make the difference, the legislation should not be left on the books; if it does, the Parliament will have the opportunity to refresh it in the next session.
Are the proposals legal within EU law? The Scottish Government has stated that it is confident in its position that minimum pricing is entirely legal, but we favour further evidence rather than assertion, given the previous case load of the European Court of Justice and statements that the European Commission has made on the subject. We have therefore proposed that minimum pricing be subject to voluntary notification to the European Commission, which will in turn offer an opinion on its compliance with EU law. We are under no illusions that that opinion will be the last word on the matter. That certainty can be provided only by the European Court of Justice.
We would like quite comprehensive notification to the European Commission. In making a voluntary submission, we will have discharged our duty of full diligence in the legislative process.
I welcome the cabinet secretary’s agreement to voluntary notification, but I seek clarification today of the precise form that that notification will take; the detail of the timescale in which she intends to refer the matter; and an indication of the date by which she expects a response. This is not a side issue. I hope that the Government, having agreed to voluntary notification, will get on with it.
I have dealt with technical and procedural matters; let us turn to the substance of the proposals. Even if we assume that the policy will have a measurable impact, we are under no illusion that it will be a silver bullet. Underage people will still consume alcohol, there will still be crime and disorder, and drink-fuelled domestic abuse will still be a blight on our nation. There is no panacea for those issues, and we have realistic expectations of what can be achieved, even if minimum pricing is successful in meeting its objectives.
That is why, in the discussions and correspondence involving our health spokesman Jackson Carlaw, myself as the party leader, and the cabinet secretary over many weeks and months, Jackson Carlaw and I have sought to highlight the Conservatives’ commitment to further working in areas of education and community support and on further public health measures in order to effect a cultural shift across Scotland in relation to alcohol. I thank the cabinet secretary for her straight dealing with both of us in that time and for her recognition of our good faith while the discussions continued. We sought assurances from her that we can look beyond price and work on other measures to address the alcohol culture in Scotland. As a party, the Scottish Conservatives are committed to working more closely in that area with the Government.
Although the Scottish Conservatives remain healthily sceptical, particularly about the assertion that the duty system would be less effective, we sincerely hope that the policy will work. It has been a political priority for Jackson Carlaw and me, as the deputy leader and leader of our party respectively, for Conservatives to play our part in helping to tackle one of the gravest social concerns of our time, which costs this country hundreds of millions of pounds and has immeasurable costs in lives. To give the legislation the authority that only cross-party support can confer, and given the amendments that we intend to lodge and the assurances that the cabinet secretary has indicated that she is willing to provide, I invite other members who may as yet be unconvinced to reconsider their position on the bill.
We will take forward the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Bill as a majority Scottish Government. That brings certainty to the process. However, I am pleased that the Scottish Government seeks to maximise cross-party support for minimum pricing, irrespective of that majority. That is significant.
I welcome the backing of the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats for minimum pricing, and the more recent lending of support by Conservatives in Scotland. It is clear that nearly all the parties see minimum pricing as an opportunity to improve Scotland’s relationship with alcohol and to push forward with a much-needed public health initiative. The case for minimum pricing is so persuasive that even the Labour Party in England wishes to give it a go. That leaves Scottish Labour badly isolated, not just politically but in relation to almost every other group in society that has considered minimum pricing. Labour’s isolation is most dramatic in relation to the medical profession and the academic world.
SNP colleagues will address various aspects of the bill in the debate. Jim Eadie will talk about the legal position; Richard Lyle will speak about how he was personally influenced by the committee’s evidence as it was taken; and Gil Paterson will talk about business aspects of minimum pricing, including alleged windfall profits.
As the member knows, I supported the arguments for minimum pricing that the cabinet secretary put forward, and I still do. However, I found it rather odd that she did not refer to Labour’s amendment, which I also support. Will the member give either a personal view or the Scottish Government’s view of the sensible proposal in Labour’s amendment?
The Scottish Government always takes a sensible approach to taxing the supermarkets—something on which the Labour Party has not been consistent.
I want to discuss some of the evidence that has been used to underpin minimum pricing, much of which is contained in the work that was done by the University of Sheffield. The Sheffield study is not a single piece of evidence; it marshals a wide range of the evidence available to analyse the link between price and consumption, and between consumption and harm. All parties on the Health and Sport Committee, including the Labour Party, acknowledged that those links existed. Indeed, all parties agreed that the University of Sheffield’s modelling work was valuable and reliable.
There is direct evidence from here in Scotland to demonstrate just how robust that work was. The university was asked to do modelling work for the Scottish Government’s alcohol multibuy ban before it was introduced. The results predicted that beer sales would fall by 8 per cent; they did. They predicted that wine sales would fall by 6.1 per cent; they fell by 5 per cent. They predicted that the sale of spirits would fall by 2.7 per cent; it fell by 3 per cent. It is clear that the impact of the multibuy ban closely mirrored the predictions.
With that in mind, let us look at some of the predictions from the Sheffield study on the potential benefit of minimum pricing if the unit price is set at 45p in the first year. It is predicted that there would be 36 fewer alcohol-related deaths, 950 fewer hospital admissions and 310 fewer violent crimes, and that £36 million would be saved in related costs. Those are estimations of course—the real numbers may vary to a greater or lesser extent within a margin of error—but those are impressive statistics, which are backed up with robust evidence. Of course, no price can be put on the benefit to an individual whose life is not ruined by alcohol or to the family or community in which they live.
The committee took evidence from Canada, where various forms of minimum pricing exist. Strong evidence from Canada is already starting to emerge, particularly with regard to a dramatic reduction in admissions to hospitals in British Columbia because of alcohol-related incidents. In giving evidence to the Health and Sport Committee, Professor Stockwell, who is assessing Canada’s experience, said that the Scottish system was far better than the systems in Canada and that we can expect to see positive results once the bill has been implemented.
I do not have time.
I want to examine some of Labour’s misleading claims against minimum pricing, for instance in relation to binge drinking. The Health and Sport Committee heard that while minimum pricing may not reduce the frequency of bingeing, in all likelihood it will reduce the amount of alcohol consumed at each binge episode. Labour claimed that minimum pricing would not be effective with harmful drinkers. Not even the research that Labour cited substantiates that claim. The committee discovered that research from the Centre for Economics and Business Research did not look at the types of drink that each group of drinkers was consuming. It took no account of whether the drink being consumed was from the on-trade or off-trade, nor of the average price paid by each group for alcohol. Those are all key components of any modelling work.
Even with all those research deficiencies in Labour’s evidence, it still predicted that there would be an impact on harmful drinkers, although slightly less than for other groups. Every other piece of evidence, including the peer-approved, robust and reliable Sheffield study, said that harmful drinkers would be the most affected. Labour is in denial about the evidence.
In low-income groups, 80 per cent would be almost unaffected and only 20 per cent—the most harmful drinkers—may pay more. The price differential between those groups and higher income groups was just 0.7 per cent—a price worth paying for the social benefit that our deprived communities will reap from minimum pricing. Every party in the chamber except one is now on board for an opportunity to change Scotland’s relationship with alcohol. Now is the time for Labour to step up to the plate and support minimum pricing at stage 1 and throughout the bill process.
It is with some concern that I enter the debate. Over the decades, I have become used to the notion that when alcohol is present in any discussion it can cause violence and upset. This is the only chamber that I am aware of in which people get upset, tending towards violence, even when they are simply discussing alcohol. I hope that we are beginning to arrive at a sober conclusion as we take matters forward.
We are definitely dealing with a conundrum wrapped up in a quandary. A commercial business and industry competes to deliver higher volumes of its product to citizens who are determined in their endeavours to consume that product, while civic and public Scotland tire of paying the price for that consumption in terms of ill health—and, indeed, death—criminality, social disruption, family breakdown and the heartache that goes along with that.
The views that I have expressed thus far are based on my experience of nearly 40 years in law enforcement. The member is familiar with the debates that have taken place in the Parliament and I hope that he accepts that, although we may separate in our views on the way forward, our views are honestly held and the background to them is firmly researched.
We all know that we face a challenge that has caused problems for centuries, such as those depicted in Hogarth’s 18th century “Gin Lane”, which led to the creation of the Salvation Army, the Pioneers and Alcoholics Anonymous to name but a few. The problem is well known to us and is broadly recognised. The time is right to deliver some responses.
I welcome the cabinet secretary’s inviting of contributions to the strategy to deal with the abuse of alcohol. In that connection, on behalf of the Scottish Labour Party, I offer six proposals that are informing our considerations as we prepare for a bill that will include justice provisions that are designed to deliver a positive outcome on the issue.
The cabinet secretary is quite right to say that there is no silver bullet. No one is confident that the solutions are to hand. Those who abuse alcohol seem to be completely committed to destroying their lives by doing so, regardless of the evidence that is provided to them.
We suggest that consideration should be given to the introduction of alcohol bottle tagging. That development, which was piloted in Dundee city, was found to be most useful in identifying those premises that were the source of liquor for young people who abused it in a binge fashion in various public areas away from overall review.
We propose, and invite consideration of the idea, that alcohol fine diversion is a way forward. Rather than criminalise those who are found to be indulging in alcohol abuse, we should, at an early stage of their involvement with alcohol, divert them towards an education process involving a series of courses and support, much as we do with speeding drivers. That would give them the opportunity to consider their position before they become involved in the heartbreak of a lifelong indulgence in alcohol.
We propose the creation of an alcohol arrest referral scheme, alongside the drug referral scheme. That would allow people who sit in our cells regularly of a weekend at times of crisis to take the opportunity to seek advice and support.
Drinking banning orders could be applied to individuals who have been identified by the courts not only to have engaged in criminality, but to have abused alcohol in a public place. Breaches of those banning orders would bring them back before the courts. That measure would focus on the source of many of those people’s problems.
We also propose alcohol treatment and testing orders as an extension of the current drug treatment and testing orders. If we think that those who engage in drug abuse should be subjected to regular testing and that that has a significant effect in disciplining their lifestyle and bringing them back to a healthy way of living, why should we not apply the same rigours to those who engage in alcohol abuse, which kills many more people in our communities?
Those are all superb and worthy examples, but it would certainly be possible to have minimum unit pricing alongside the measures that the member very reasonably puts forward.
We are here to debate our way forward in that regard, and I have no doubt that, at the debate’s conclusion, we will all make our choices.
Alcohol offences information sharing is a final element of the proposal with regard to justice. It would be the courts’ responsibility to refer the details of those who are convicted of an offence to their general practitioner. There would be no need to share the detail of the offence, but an awareness that alcohol played a major part in the circumstances would allow for intervention.
Today we have the opportunity to progress legislation that will not only change the lives of the people of Scotland, but help to save the lives of our fellow citizens.
We have heard this afternoon that alcohol misuse is one of the greatest public health challenges—if not the greatest such challenge—to face our society. As the Health and Sport Committee makes clear, alcohol costs our society three lives every day, and more than 1,000 lives are lost to alcohol every year.
The damage, pain and distress that alcohol misuse causes—not to mention the crime and disorder that it engenders—are no longer acceptable. It is right that we as a Parliament take all necessary action to address the problem. No one is suggesting, as the cabinet secretary rightly reminded us, that minimum pricing is a silver bullet, but it is an essential and necessary weapon in our nation’s armoury if we are to tackle Scotland’s relationship with alcohol successfully.
We heard that message time and time again from the doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals who work in the field. They included those who work in alcohol or addiction services, and the staff who must cope with the consequences of alcohol misuse in accident and emergency departments week in, week out or in general practitioners’ surgeries day in, day out.
The evidence that the Health and Sport Committee received was, in the words of the committee report, “overwhelming and compelling”. The report went on to state:
“The Committee believes that there is strong evidence to link price with alcohol consumption and that there is a direct link between consumption and harm.”
There is no doubt that progress has been made in achieving consensus during the committee stage. In the previous session of Parliament, Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats each claimed that the evidence from the University of Sheffield had been discredited on the basis of a Centre for Economics and Business Research report that had been commissioned and funded by the alcohol industry.
This time round, the Health and Sport Committee agreed, on balance, that it was persuaded of the value and reliability of the Sheffield work. The meta-analyses, the observational studies, the econometric modelling and now the emerging empirical evidence from Canada all support minimum pricing. All the witnesses agreed that minimum pricing had a vital role to play.
As the addiction specialist Dr Peter Rice said in evidence to the committee, the bill will create a situation in which
“Instead of power lying in the hands of the retailers ... one of the very most important determinants of our health will be under the watch of the Parliament”.
Professor Stockwell from Canada addressed the issue of the supermarkets’ profits directly when he stated in evidence:
“On private profits, part of me thinks from a public health and safety point of view that it does not matter who takes the profits; rather, what matters is having fewer dead and sick people and more healthy babies.”—[Official Report, Health and Sport Committee, 10 January 2012; c 753, 794.]
Does the member recall that Professor Stockwell stated in evidence to the committee:
“Minimum pricing will be more in your favour if you can apply the levy that I thought was going to go ahead”.—[Official Report, Health and Sport Committee, 10 January 2012; c 797.]
Should we not agree to claw back the profits from the supermarkets?
In direct response to Jackie Baillie’s point, that is exactly what the Scottish Government has done: the measure is called the public health levy, and when she had the opportunity to support it during the budget process, she chose not to do so.
I would like to make further progress.
Just as the evidence that the Health and Sport Committee received supported minimum pricing, so too has the political support and momentum in favour of the policy grown in recent weeks.
The Liberal Democrats quite sensibly reviewed their policy and decided to support minimum pricing. I pay tribute to Willie Rennie for the leadership that he has shown on the issue. The Conservatives in Scotland were originally sceptical about the policy, but they have listened to the evidence, reviewed their position and changed their policy in light of the evidence. They, too, deserve credit for changing their stance.
That brings me to the Labour Party in Scotland. I pay tribute to former Labour health ministers, Susan Deacon and Malcolm Chisholm, for the lead that they have given by supporting minimum pricing. I also pay tribute to the convener of the Health and Sport Committee, Duncan McNeil, who has sought at all times to behave in a constructive and consensual fashion. However, when it comes to Labour’s official position, it will surely be for future generations to analyse the behaviour of Labour on this issue and to seek to understand why a progressive party of the left of centre refused to support a public health measure that had the support of every health professional organisation in the country, a policy that was backed by each of the four chief medical officers in the United Kingdom, a proposal that was endorsed by the medical royal colleges and a bill that was supported by many others across society. It beggars belief for Labour to proclaim not just that it knows best, but that it knows better than all those people and organisations.
This is a defining moment in public health policy in the UK. This is the moment when support for a policy that has been firmly established for some time in the wider policy community can finally be reflected by support for that policy from across the political spectrum. The Parliament must seize this opportunity to call time on Scotland’s relationship with alcohol and to do what the committee calls on us to do and support a measure that we on these benches are confident will save lives, prevent hospital admissions and improve the health of the people of Scotland.
I can only say that I agree with Jim Eadie. His remarks about the leader of the Liberal Democrats were absolutely spot on, and I will listen to him more carefully in future debates.
My dad was a grocer in Auchtermuchty and Strathmiglo, and I used to work in the shop in the evening after school and on Saturdays. The price of the drink that my dad sold—bottles of vodka and whisky—is not greatly different from the price of drink now, 30 years later. The evidence that has been produced for this debate shows that alcohol is between 44 and 69 per cent more affordable than it was at that time, which confirms my recollection of the prices at that period. The price of alcohol has gone up by 22 per cent, but incomes have gone up by 97 per cent, according to some of the studies, which means that alcohol is much more affordable than it used to be.
Those figures can be tied to consumption, which has risen by 22 per cent since 1980. The committee’s report says clearly that
“there is a body of evidence that links price to consumption, and consumption to harm.”
That is a simple, straightforward statement, and I agree with it.
When I worked in the shop, I saw alcoholics coming in. I could smell the drink on their breath and knew that they came in every day—sometimes at eight o’clock in the morning, buying their cans of Special Brew. They had serious problems with drink, even back then. The problem has multiplied since that time. When I was the MP for Dunfermline and West Fife, people would come traipsing through the door to ask about how they could get access to specialist support in hospitals for their severe alcohol problems. I saw a variety of other cases as well, including pensioners who were deeply concerned about antisocial behaviour outside their houses night after night.
The problem is severe. Since 1980, the annual alcohol-related death rate has doubled from 641 to more than 1,300. The evidence is clear, and we should accept that we need to put in place a serious measure.
There is a correlation between how difficult something is to do and the impact that can be made. Education is easy. Politicians can always call for more education. We can send out leaflets and give talks, but the impact of that is not great. The stuff that is hard to do politically is to rig prices, but that has the biggest impact. We have to bite the bullet. The devastation that cheap alcohol causes in communities—it sometimes has the biggest impact in the poorest communities—means that we have a duty to make an impact on the problem.
We have the evidence from the experts, who almost all agree with minimum pricing. The British Medical Association, Alcohol Focus Scotland and the Royal College of Psychiatrists have overwhelming evidence. Consider the time and effort that they have committed to the campaign and the number of doctors and nurses who write to me and say, “You have to do something about this.” That shows us their view. They have the evidence. There will be debates about the stuff on the edge, but if there will be fewer deaths—the evidence is there that there will be—we should support minimum pricing.
We have the expert groups on side, we know about the problem and we have part of the solution, which is to deal with price, so we need to get on with it. Even Tesco is on side. Lucy Neville Rolfe from Tesco stated:
“We can’t put up our prices because that would be commercial suicide, and we can’t act together to put up prices because that would be against competition law. The only safe solution is for the government to bring forward legislative proposals which Tesco and others in our industry can support.”
Tesco is asking for minimum pricing, although others disagree. I am pleased to say that some have now backed off and are not as vociferous as they were.
We have changed our position. I have personally always supported the minimum pricing of alcohol, because I thought that it was the right thing to do. For our party, the position was previously finely balanced, but I am pleased that I have persuaded it round to my point of view and we are now on the right track.
I think that everybody accepts that price is a factor. I think that even Labour accepts that price is a factor and we are now debating who gets the financial benefit. I am not sure why Labour has lodged an amendment that calls for the profit to come back to the taxpayer—I do not quite understand that aspect. If Labour is saying that price is not a factor, I take back my comment. Almost everybody else agrees that price is a factor. Even the Conservatives, when they were opposed to minimum pricing, wanted an alternative solution, which was to do the same through the use of duty. That implies that they thought that price was a factor.
No one disagrees that price has an effect. Our amendment is about the fact that nobody is looking at the market response. The Institute of Fiscal Studies says that the market response will have a significant effect on the policy by reducing price just above the level of the minimum unit price, so the basket will remain just the same.
The evidence that I have received from some of the supermarkets is that the differential will remain and that we will get rid of some of the very cheap brands and the others will remain. If Dr Simpson has another point of view, that is fine.
The Health Committee in the House of Commons has said that the policy should involve a combination of duty and price. The benefit of the UK coalition seeming to come round to minimum pricing is that we could perhaps find a solution using that methodology. We support such an approach.
I appeal to the industry not to go down the route of the tobacco industry and to fight the proposal tooth and nail, because there is a will in the Parliament to deliver minimum pricing. I appeal to the industry: let us get on with it.
I come to the debate as a lifelong non-drinker. However, I have no hang-ups about alcohol consumption; in fact, I like going into pubs because I enjoy the atmosphere and the chat. While I am there, I drink the other national drink: Irn-Bru. As they say in Paisley, alcohol is not my cup of tea.
During the recent parliamentary elections, I was asked, from time to time, about my views on minimum pricing. Of course, my answer was that I support it, based on my experience in business, which is that when the price of a commodity is increased, the result is a decrease in the amount of it that is sold. Although I was aware of the Sheffield study and the projected outcomes, I was already convinced by how markets work. My stock answer to people was that we had to give minimum pricing a go in any case, because of the serious effects of overconsumption of alcohol on people’s health and because of alcohol’s direct and indirect involvement in violent assaults and high levels of antisocial behaviour.
Supermarkets’ strategy is to identify products that they can pile high and sell cheap in order to entice more people into the store. Alcohol has been a dominant loss leader in that context, and when minimum pricing kicks in, the supermarkets will simply swap to another commodity to draw in the crowds. The only product that I know of that defies the laws of gravity—in the business sense—is shares. The more expensive they are, the more that are sold—particularly to financial institutions, which queue up to buy them.
Now that I have had the benefit of following the Health and Sport Committee’s work, my views have been reinforced. The vast weight of opinion that the committee heard was in favour of minimum pricing, and the best argument from people who are opposed to the approach has been that it will not work as well as we think it will.
We have been told that the introduction of minimum pricing will create a bonus for retailers—the alcohol windfall, as it is commonly known. That is a totally bogus claim that is without foundation; submissions to the committee never actually said that there will be such a bonus, but only that there might be such a bonus.
I will explain why I think the claim is bogus. When minimum pricing is introduced, consumption will fall. That means that production will fall and costs per unit will increase. Does any member who has a basic knowledge of market forces really think that manufacturers will be generous enough not to put up costs at the factory to compensate for lost revenues on sales? I do not think so. What will happen is that as margins are calculated they will be shared relative to costs. I predict a profit-neutral situation, within reason, for all concerned, whatever sector we are talking about. No one will get particularly rich as a result of the policy.
I find it extraordinary that Labour members who heard the high-quality evidence that came from Canada are still not in favour of minimum pricing. I acknowledge that there is a massive difference between the Scottish plan and the Canadian plan; the Canadians put the price up for financial gain and to increase revenue, whereas our policy is for the benefit of public health.
At any rate, differences to do with who and where do not matter; the research into what happens when the price of alcohol goes up is the defining evidence. Professor Stockwell has shown without a shadow of doubt that when price goes up consumption goes down and that, ultimately, harm goes down, too. In his evidence to the committee he said:
“Theoretically, you are in a much better position. Yours is the purest approach because you are starting from the public health aspect. Usually, minimum prices are introduced to protect Government revenue while health considerations, if they were ever there, are not at the forefront of people’s minds.”—[Official Report, Health and Sport Committee, 10 January 2012; c 792.]
He also said:
“Many people object to pricing strategies, but minimum pricing is perhaps one of the least objectionable strategies. I am sure that that is why you are considering it in Scotland. All pricing strategies have the most impact on heavy drinkers, but minimum pricing especially targets heavier and younger drinkers, because they mostly prefer cheaper drinks. Minimum prices can be adjusted so that they are higher for more hazardous products, which the Scottish Government proposes to do.”—[Official Report, Health and Sport Committee, 10 January 2012; c 785.]
Labour has produced a fig leaf to cover up the fact that it has ignored extremely high-quality evidence on minimum pricing, in particular from Professor Stockwell. However, I am sure that as the debate in England crystallises around the need for minimum pricing and Ed Miliband follows—as he is bound to do—David Cameron on the matter, Labour will do what it always does and follow orders.
As today is no smoking day, it is perhaps worth remembering the historic decision that Parliament took to ban smoking in public places, the effects of which have been well evidenced many times over and most recently in last week’s figures on premature births. When members made that decision, they did not just change the law that day—they changed Scotland’s culture. I do not believe that the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Bill provides a smoking-ban moment.
It is widely accepted by many members—and even by the Government—that minimum unit pricing is not a magic bullet. Labour’s position is clear and consistent: we cannot endorse a measure that will do more to boost retailers’ profit margins than it will to improve our nation’s public health. That is why the reasoned amendment that we have lodged is about recouping the increased profit for public benefit. If the Government accepts the amendment, we will accept that minimum unit pricing is a worthy experiment that is worth voting for.
I believe that support for minimum unit pricing comes from a desperate will to do something—anything—to address Scotland’s drink culture. There is no MSP who is not troubled by the country’s booze culture. I say to Bob Doris and Jim Eadie that it belittles Parliament and the stature of our debates to label any opposition to the bill as being driven by party politics. The fact that we disagree with the SNP does not mean that we care less. To suggest that is cheap and offensive and does nothing but reinforce the view that we as politicians are more interested in squabbles and point scoring than in improving the nation’s health.
My colleague tells me that we supported the measure. I was not a member then, of course.
It is perhaps worth mentioning that the Alcohol etc (Scotland) Act 2010 put the social responsibility levy on the statute books. The SNP Government intends to leave it there but has no plans to use it. [Interruption.]
The principles that I have described apply as keenly to the bill as they do to the debate, which is why we in the Labour Party are desperately disappointed that the bill is so narrowly drawn that it cannot be meaningfully enhanced or—realistically—amended.
Last September, when I spoke in James Dornan’s members’ business debate on alcohol, I said that the bill would do little to shift the alcohol culture in this country. I will discuss three groups of drinkers, the first of which is hazardous drinkers. People who live in Edinburgh or walk about in Edinburgh regularly will know that a group of hazardous drinkers sits in Hunter Square—or at least they used to, before the police moved them on. Those people drank all day, swore and caused antisocial behaviour before they were eventually moved on to Bristo Square, which is further up the road. In the university community there, they did the same drinking and swearing and caused the same problems, until they were moved on. Yesterday, I drove past those individuals as they sat on the grass at the back of the Dumbiedykes housing estate, which is just across the road from here. They are now out of sight and, therefore, out of mind. As Richard Simpson said, minimum unit pricing will do little for those people. A raft of alternatives could be used to help them.
Mr Eadie promised an intervention on the point that I had made. I was talking about people who are perhaps homeless and who are certainly marginalised in society, whom he knows well and walks past, too. Minimum unit pricing will do nothing for those individuals.
The Government and the SNP-Lib Dem council in Edinburgh have stripped back support services for such people by closing down crisis services and removing support workers from the people who need help the most. That is duplicitous and represents double standards.
Problem drinkers look like you and me, Presiding Officer. They hold down jobs and bring up families, and they go home and drink a bottle of wine, night after night. Minimum unit pricing will do little to change the impact of the cost of a bottle of wine and it is key to the cultural shift that we need in this country. Education is critical to that—not just education of adults, but of children. In the 1980s and 1990s, we ran campaigns such as smokebusters that got kids to go home and bin or hide their mum’s fags. We need a similar education campaign that tells mums and dads, “Please don’t drink that four-pack” or “You don’t need that bottle of wine tonight.” Education is critical to the culture change that we need in this country.
A couple of weeks ago, we had a cross-party group meeting in Parliament at which children and young people came together to talk about parental drug and alcohol misuse. Two young Prince’s Trust ambassadors were there, and they were heartfelt in their view that our education system should do more than just tell young people about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. They told us that our education system must teach young people how to cope with the misuse of drugs and alcohol by their parents. That is the type of intervention that I would like the Government to make. It is about a wider range of interventions to change the cultural framework and do so much more than simply looking at price, as in this narrowly drawn bill.
Finally, I want to talk about future generations of young people for whom price is not yet an issue. There are five, six and seven-year-olds who are watching their parents drinking, and seeing billboard and bus-shelter advertisements promoting drink as an answer to how to have a good time. We need to ban the advertising and do so much more to make sure that the generations who follow do not have the same problems with alcohol as the current generation has.
What a pleasure it is to speak in a debate on legislation that I am confident will be a major step towards creating a Scotland that is better able to address its deadly relationship with alcohol, which will result in a far safer, healthier and happier society.
To their credit, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives now realise the merits of the proposed legislation, but I am saddened to see that the Labour Party obstinately refuses to accept the overwhelming weight of evidence from the medical profession, the police, alcohol addiction services, and religious institutions. Richard Simpson is becoming the King Canute of Scottish politics with this issue; he is trying to hold back the waves of evidence that are being presented. If Labour members possessed a shred of humility, they would be ashamed of themselves and admit that they have got it wrong. A “Mea culpa” in politics is sometimes appropriate, and the Conservatives and Liberals will suffer no harm by accepting that the proposed legislation should proceed.
Of course, the vote is not until 5 pm, so I ask members, rather than just staying in the trenches, to think carefully and to listen to the arguments that are being made this afternoon before pressing their buttons this evening. The evidence about the impact of minimum pricing is compelling, and I do not want to go over again what colleagues have said about Professor Stockwell. However, NHS Scotland showed that setting a unit price of 45p would have an almost immediate impact and a growing effect over the years. A minimum price of 50p would be even more effective. In the first year of a 45p minimum price, we will see 50 fewer deaths and 1,200 fewer hospital admissions. In year 10, those figures will have risen to 225 fewer deaths and 4,200 fewer hospital admissions per annum.
Of course, it must be remembered that it is not only the health and wellbeing of drink misusers that will improve. Jon Stoddart of the Association of Chief Police Officers said:
“Research shows that as price has decreased, consumption has increased—the average person is drinking more than 11 litres of alcohol a year, more than twice the average consumption in the 1950s. The introduction of a minimum price per unit of alcohol would make alcohol less affordable thus reducing consumption and in turn the associated harm.”
The police know about the effect of alcohol misuse and they strongly support minimum pricing to reduce crime. We are talking not just about crimes of domestic violence and disorder but about serious crimes such as murder, which often have alcohol as a contributing component.
Earlier today, leaders of nine major children’s charities signed a letter calling on Parliament to back minimum pricing, pointing out how important it will be in reducing violence against children at home, and in tackling
“the physical, emotional and developmental scars of alcohol misuse during pregnancy”.
I have that letter in front of me, and it says that a pricing level must be appropriate and
“applied as part of a wider framework for action”.
Is Mr Gibson satisfied that the Government is doing enough?
We are working in a range of areas to deal with the issue. The problem with the Labour Party is that it will consider everything but minimum pricing, which is why it is condemned in the debate. What serious person can look anyone in the face and argue that the legislation will not tackle one of the greatest challenges to our society?
The Finance Committee, of which I am the convener, took evidence from the Scotch Whisky Association, the Scottish Grocers Federation and the team behind the bill. Paragraph 23 of the financial memorandum states:
“Alcohol misuse acts as a brake on Scotland’s social and economic growth, costing an estimated £3.56 billion each year ... For the mid-point estimate, this includes £866 million in lost productivity, a cost of £269 million to the NHS and £727 million in crime costs.”
That affects real people and real lives, and we are trying to do something about it.
The SWA said that a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol would impact negatively on global sales of Scotch whisky to the tune of 14.5 per cent. That would, however, require that dozens of countries create illegal trade barriers, as the bill team pointed out. The Scotch whisky industry is booming not because whisky is cheap to export, but because it is a highly sought after, high-quality luxury project.
The SGF claimed that minimum unit pricing is a regressive policy that would affect low-income families and individuals. It should be remembered, however, that the alcohol-related death rate in the most deprived 20 per cent of our population is five times higher than it is in that of the least deprived. Legislation to reduce alcohol consumption must be tried in order to help the most deprived section of the population, because they are most likely to suffer harm as a result of alcohol. The claims of the SWA and the SGF do not stand up to scrutiny.
The economic health benefits of the policy are clear and far outweigh any supposed adverse impacts. I, for one, am proud that this Government is taking action to tackle Scotland’s dangerous relationship with the bottle. The overwhelming majority in this Parliament will vote to create a safer, healthier, more prosperous and happier Scotland.
Labour’s feeble attempt to try to distract people from the bill with a members’ bill of its own, which will include just about anything but minimum pricing, will be seen for the desperate spoiling tactic that it is. I say that more in sorrow than in anger.
“so much a policy as a smokescreen designed to mask the party’s stupidity in allowing itself to be outflanked and ultimately isolated on this crucial aspect of social strategy.”
With regard to the nonsense about profits for supermarkets, Labour voted against the health supplement, which will bring in £95 million over three years from large retailers that supply alcohol. Let us forget Labour’s nonsense—it is against minimum pricing because the SNP has introduced it, and will be embarrassed when it is a success. I am astonished by the position that is being taken by Dr Richard Simpson—a member of the medical profession—on the issue.
I am wearing two hats today—my old hat represents my role as a convener of the previous session’s Health and Sport Committee, which heard all the evidence on minimum unit pricing, and my new hat represents my current role as convener of the Justice Committee. The evidence was, and remains, overwhelming.
I say to Kezia Dugdale, who is a lady who has merit, that she should not just look at the streets of Edinburgh, but read the evidence from all the professions, including the academic evidence on the impact of minimum unit pricing. It is not the be all and end all, but it is one part of a whole programme to reduce binge drinking and the alcohol-fuelled society in Scotland.
The great difficulty with the Labour amendment is that it refers to
“the windfall to the large retailers”.
From my recollection, apart from Tesco—there might be another one now—the large retailers are opposed to minimum unit pricing. If they were going to make a lot of profit from minimum unit pricing, they would be in favour of it. Therefore, if they oppose it, they are opposing an increase in their profits. Labour is exercising a strange logic.
Dr Richard Simpson mentioned that Labour will address caffeinated drinks in its bill, but when that issue was raised at the Health and Sport Committee, Dr Alasdair Forsyth told us:
“There is no research that suggests that mixing caffeine and alcohol is related to moods in any way—that it makes people either more or less aggressive.”
Moreover, Chief Superintendent Bob Hamilton said that
“we have no evidence that that type of caffeinated product is a cause of violence or increases violence.”—[Official Report, Health and Sport Committee, 15 September 2010; c 3308.]
Dr Richard Simpson is shaking his head, but that is evidence; it is not hearsay or something that I have just heard.
I am saying that the evidence that was presented to the committee by the police and academics was that caffeinated alcohol does not lead to aggression. When Helen Eadie asked about the matter, she was told that the issue is not really what people drink, but why they drink it, and that it is not so much the steady heavy drinker that we are concerned about in relation to violence in society, but the binge drinker who drinks anything that they can lay their hands on and, most important, the cheapest thing. The impact of that is that people stay at home to drink. They front-load before they go out, because they say that they cannot afford the prices in restaurants and pubs. Therefore, they buy the cheap stuff to get themselves going. The only reason why people do that is to bevvy themselves out of their minds.
Duncan McNeil clearly set out the results of that. I am sorry that he is not in the chamber now—I was a bit hard on him, but he deserved it.
He certainly deserved it, given the tone of his speech, which he was making as convener of the Health and Sport Committee. Perhaps he will learn. This is important, because he has a fine record on the issue. The committee report states:
“The Committee draws particular attention to the issue of protecting children who may be growing up in a household where alcohol is being abused and the detrimental effect that this can have on their care, development and wellbeing.”
I commend Duncan McNeil, as he has chased for 12 years the issues of the effects of alcohol and drugs on children in households. We are considering the impact on the next generation. To speak with my Justice Committee convener’s hat on, there is evidence that domestic violence is fuelled by alcohol. Even the loss of a football game can mean that some woman is sitting at home wondering what the consequences will be for her because somebody is fuelled by alcohol.
Graeme Pearson said a lot of grand things and set out good ideas, which is why I say to him that minimum unit pricing is only one of a range of measures. I say to the Labour back benchers, as one back bencher who breaks the party’s whip, that they can break the whip and survive if they believe in the principles. I know that Malcolm Chisholm has occasionally done that.
The cost to Scotland is not just on health issues. This could be a justice debate or one on homelessness—Kezia Dugdale mentioned homelessness among people who drink too much alcohol. Alcohol causes a range of problems in society. I say to Kezia Dugdale, who is new to the Parliament, that she should think hard on the evidence that two committees of the Parliament have heard. Everything rams home the fact that minimum unit pricing will, as part of a programme, have a serious and important impact on Scotland’s alcohol problems through the generations.
I support the amendment in the name of Jackie Baillie. I applaud everyone, of every political party and of none, who works to help diminish a problem that is without doubt the gravest concern of our nation today. No one in Parliament disagrees that excessive alcohol consumption is one of the biggest challenges in Scotland. However, in my judgment, there are two big objections to the Government’s proposal.
The first is that it will give away in excess of £100 million per year through what has become known as a windfall tax to the private profiteers. It is not only me who says that. That point was not challenged at any time in the evidence to the previous Health and Sport Committee, which I served on up to 2011. An Institute for Fiscal Studies report states that, if the measure were to be applied across the United Kingdom, a minimum alcohol price of 45p per unit
“could transfer £700 million from drinkers to firms”.
That is not conjecture; it is from the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
My second objection is about the lack of any definitive evidence or certainty from the European Commission. The Law Society of Scotland and the whisky industry have cast serious doubt on the proposal and have suggested that the Scottish Government could break European Union laws. The Conservative and Liberal Democrat members, whose parties are coalition partners at UK level, need to reflect on whom the Commission will find culpable if EU law is broken. Will Westminster be charged as having broken EU law, or will it be the Scottish Government? I know, from reading a research paper of the House of Commons library, that that question has exercised the minds of senior civil servants and has caused them a fair amount of activity. Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie need to read that research paper and speak again to their leaders. I am sure that they would not want to land either David Cameron or Nick Clegg in it by having such scant regard for EU law.
I will deal with the concern about the windfall tax first. Had the Government given a clear commitment in the course of its current bill that it would honour the commitment that it gave to the Health and Sport Committee when I served on it, taking evidence on the bill, then one of my biggest objections would have been addressed. It is clear, from the briefing that has been sent to members from the British Medical Association Scotland, Alcohol Focus Scotland and Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems—SHAAP—that those organisations have been seriously misled by the Government.
In the briefing, those organisations talk clearly about the Scottish Government’s proposal to introduce a public health levy on the big retailers who profit substantially from the sale of alcohol. Well, I have a newsflash for those organisations: there is no such proposal. The Government has changed its course from its work on the first such bill that came before Parliament, and those organisations need to speak urgently to the Scottish Government on those issues.
Nicola Sturgeon rose—
Do the BMA Scotland and SHAAP feel comfortable with the fact that the windfall of £100 million a year will go to the shareholders and not to the public purse through a social responsibility levy or a public health levy? To me, that has been a persuasive point, as I have stated. Do all the back benchers in the SNP, the Lib Dems and the Tories feel comfortable with that? I am not surprised that the Tories prefer that course of action.
I am sure that there will be some shuffling in their seats and discomfort among some of the back benchers of the other parties. If there is not, then shame on them. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the biggest beneficiaries will be Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s, as well as the stores that sell alcohol most cheaply—the discount retailers Aldi, Lidl and Netto. Waitrose, the Co-op and Marks and Spencer will gain relatively little because they do not sell much cheap alcohol.
Jim Eadie rose—
Some of the gains will be made not only by retailers, but by manufacturers. I was not elected to this Parliament to put money in the pockets of those who are already rich. I was sent here to tackle why people in my constituency who need treatment cannot get it because the already-strapped NHS budgets in Fife are being further starved of cash by cutting of treatment budgets—but, hey ho. Who cares if a highly respected nurse from Lochgelly cannot get her alcohol treatment as long as Tesco and Asda get their profits? Let her life crumble: it’s the rich what gets the profit, it’s the poor what gets the pain. Tartan Tories—that is what the SNP members are.
Other members have spoken about the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Centre for Business Research. One of the key points about the centre’s work was its finding that the Scottish Government has never undertaken an impact assessment on jobs—no one has—following what the whisky industry’s submission said. In shaping policy, that is just one facet, but it is not an insignificant aspect for Scotland. The Government is determining policy without knowledge of, or data on, the impact of the bill on jobs across the Scottish drinks industry. I concede that health must be a top priority, but the Government should not show what is perceived to be scant regard for that important consideration. [Interruption.]
I have been called many things in my life, but I have never been called a tartan Tory.
In her speech at the weekend, the cabinet secretary had a confession to make: she had got her prediction wrong about the number of seats that we would win in Glasgow—we actually won one more. In a spirit of honesty, I, too, have a confession to make. In my maiden speech last year, I welcomed the reintroduction of the bill but, to be honest, I did not support minimum unit pricing prior to coming to Parliament. However, after nearly a year as a member of the Health and Sport Committee, I have been convinced by the evidence of the benefits of the proposal, and I pledge my full support to the committee’s report on the bill.
It is the overall health and wellbeing of the people of Scotland that the bill addresses. Scotland faces many health problems, such as obesity, and we do not want alcohol abuse to add to them and continue to worsen the country’s health. Liver disease is already the second most common cause of death in the under-65s. Scotland has a noticeable problem with alcohol misuse compared with the rest of the UK, and we must acknowledge it as a concrete issue.
Off-licence sales of pure alcohol in Scotland increased by 52 per cent between 1994 and 2010, and off-licence sales of vodka in Scotland are almost 2.5 times higher than in England and Wales. If we consider that the Scottish population is minute in comparison with our English neighbours, those statistics are worrying enough to warrant the introduction of minimum unit pricing of alcohol as a disincentive for binge drinking and alcoholism.
The measure will benefit not only the younger generation, for whom binge drinking has become a culture, but those young people who have to deal with alcoholism in their families. It is estimated that 65,000 children live with a parent with an alcohol problem, and excessive drinking by a partner is cited as a contributory cause in one divorce case in three. We must consider not only the immediate health effects but the detrimental collateral damage that is caused by alcohol misuse.
Scotland has previously toyed with the idea of introducing a minimum price at less than which a unit of alcohol must not be sold, but the proposals have always been removed at the later stages of the consideration of legislation. That happened back in 2009. I believe that a significant proportion of the cases that are reflected in the statistics could have been avoided if the Government had been able to follow through with its plans at that time.
Feedback has been received from the variety of sectors that are involved. The committee issued its call for written evidence on 1 November 2011, and 95 submissions were received. Some 85 per cent were in favour, and 15 per cent against. Those who were in favour of the proposal were from the health, licensing and on-trade sectors, and those who opposed it tended to be from the alcohol manufacture and off-trade sectors. Although the committee recognises the manufacturers’ concerns, it is our job to see beyond that and listen to the statistics, which resonate loudly. They show us that Scotland has an alcohol misuse problem that is detrimentally affecting our health and our society, and minimum unit pricing might help us to tackle that.
Minimum unit pricing will be the most effective and efficient way in which to reduce alcohol consumption. That is why we propose—and I accept—that method over banning the sale of low-cost alcohol or increasing duty on alcoholic drinks.
As has been confirmed today, the bill already has the support of the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party. The Labour Party still opposes the bill and, although it has made an effort to present an alternative set of regulations, they would not combat the Scottish relationship with alcohol as effectively as the setting of a minimum unit price. It is the correlation between low prices and high-strength alcohol that has to be changed.
The relationship between minimum unit pricing and health benefits is supported widely in the academic world as well as the political world. Tim Stockwell, a professor at the centre for addictions research of British Columbia, when talking about a report on whether minimum pricing reduces consumption, concluded:
“This is significant information for policies to prevent the substantial toll of death, injury and illness associated with hazardous alcohol use”.
Some manufacturers are adamant that there is no correlation. However, empirical evidence—I like those words—has shown that minimum unit pricing has been beneficial. The Health and Sport Committee held a videoconference with Professor Stockwell and, although we agreed that each society reacts differently to policies so they cannot be directly compared, the evidence thus far shows that minimum unit pricing has led to positive outcomes both for health and in other areas that are connected with alcohol abuse, such as crime. Professor Stockwell assured the committee:
“Theoretically, from a purely public health perspective, the idea of pricing ethanol in such a way that the more ethanol someone purchases for their consumption, the more expensive it will be, what is proposed in Scotland is perfect.”—[Official Report, Health and Sport Committee, 10 January 2012; c 798.]
Therefore, as a back-bench MSP, I urge every party and every member to support this proposal to tackle alcohol misuse in Scotland.
I am a smoker. I did not support the smoking ban, and I was wrong. I did not support minimum unit pricing at first, and again I was wrong, but I now support the bill.
Many areas of consensus emerged from the committee’s consideration and scrutiny of minimum pricing per unit of alcohol. We all agreed that Scotland has a negative relationship with alcohol, and that that relationship should be challenged. That is a bold statement.
Through its production and sale, alcohol is an important and integral part of our economy. It is a part of life. We drink to wet the baby’s head and we buy pints for our friends, when—if not before—they reach the date of majority. We celebrate success with champagne—or some of us do—and some of us drink to unwind or to socialise in the pub on a Friday afternoon, or we go home to a glass of supermarket wine. After our debates in the chamber this afternoon, many members will head downstairs to mark Commonwealth day. An alcoholic beverage will be offered at the bottom of the steps and a proportion of members will accept a glass, some perhaps keeping an eye out for a second one. Alcohol creates jobs and sustains industries. We know that it is a popular part of life.
I do not believe that we need to ban alcohol from this building or from our supermarkets. The negative impact of alcohol comes because of harms that are largely a result of alcohol abuse and overreliance on drink—that is what separates drinking from smoking, at least to some extent. Tackling Scotland’s drinking problem, by which we mean tackling drinking that has become a problem, along with tackling the problems that lead to alcohol abuse and those that abuse can cause, is an issue on which we agree in the chamber. We do not need to divide on it, or imply any division or lack of commitment on the part of others.
As a committee, we agreed that tackling problem drinking requires a range of responses. I welcome and agree with much of the alcohol framework, which was written in partnership with experts, and I commend everything that the Government has done to advance that agenda. Similarly, I welcome the proposals introduced by my colleagues Dr Richard Simpson, who is a former consultant in addictions, and Graeme Pearson, who has served at every level of policing in Scotland. They are both much more expert than I am and, indeed, than many of the rest of us are. The Government believes, and the cabinet secretary has argued, that minimum pricing is the most pressing legislative change that needs to be made next, and now.
Before I came to this place, I had no strong view on minimum pricing, but I was certainly aware that my party’s opposition to it had not brought us any particular electoral advantage. Now I am here, and find myself a Health and Sport Committee member, and I discover that the majority view of committee members is that the evidence that we received in support of minimum pricing was “overwhelming and compelling”. The witnesses from whom we heard, and their range of views, were interesting, intriguing and persuasive in some cases, but that their evidence was overwhelming and compelling was not the conclusion that I reached.
Indeed, when the cabinet secretary gave evidence, she did not claim that an overwhelming and compelling case existed somewhere else in the world, or from hypotheses, to show that minimum pricing would definitely work exactly in the way that a theoretical model suggested, with no unforeseen consequences and no disproportionate impact on those with lower incomes. Instead, she argued, perfectly legitimately, that on balance there was a case for trying the measure, and she accepted that even if it delivered all that she hoped for it would not be a silver bullet. I ask Parliament to draw its own conclusions about how a majority of committee members managed to find the Government’s proposals even more impressive than the Government itself claimed them to be.
I do not dispute that there is a link between price and consumption, and I agree that overconsumption can undoubtedly lead to harm. The evidence for both those things is well understood and the world did not need a report from our committee to tell it that. My concerns are not based on the legality or otherwise of the measure, although witnesses did express such a concern. I would prefer notification of the policy to Europe, and I welcome the commitment to that. I would want to have a better idea of how the market might respond. I hope that a sunset clause and proper robust evaluation will help if the market responds in a way that makes things worse by changing pricing structures or the marketing of specific products.
However, those problems do not explain my unease about the bill. Increasing by law the price of goods in supermarket baskets will take money from consumers and pass it on to retailers. I hope that that is understood. If someone has money, that is fine, but if someone is on a low income, even if they drink moderately, safely and legally within all the guidelines, they will be disproportionately penalised by the minimum pricing measure. They will spend a higher proportion of their income on their weekly shop, which many of us already find hard to afford. Some, like Bob Doris, see that as a price worth paying to get a particular policy prescription agreed, no matter that heavier and problem drinkers and young drinkers are less likely to be price sensitive or that poorer people already drink less than wealthier people. If someone cannot afford the increased price of your safe and legal tipple, which they enjoy responsibly, then tough—it is a price worth paying because it might reduce overall consumption at population level.
I hope that we will all reflect on that when we go downstairs to our next reception or to the bar where we can use our salaries to buy a drink in the full knowledge that the minimum pricing measure will have no impact on us. For the reasons that I have given and others, I support the amendment in Jackie Baillie’s name, which calls for the totality of the windfall that will accrue to supermarkets from lower-income people as a result of the measure to be eliminated by a social responsibility levy, which is a measure that was accepted before.
The cabinet secretary has said previously:
“we suggested that we work together to use the social responsibility levy to claw back increased revenue for reinvestment in our services.”—[Official Report, 10 November 2010; c 30143.]
However, what is the Scottish Government’s position now? It has no plans to implement the social responsibility levy. Without a proper measure to claw back the windfall that will go to supermarkets, minimum pricing is not just a tax on the poor but a simple transfer of money from the poor to the rich.
There has been a lot of talk about the cost of alcohol and the culture of alcohol in this country. Unlike Gil Paterson, I am not a lifelong teetotaller. I used to be a typical west of Scotland drinker. I would go out on a Friday night with my mates, I would run football teams on a Saturday and I would go out on a Saturday night. I decided after one weekend that I was not going to do that any more. I reckon that for two years I was drinking as I always had for one reason only: because it was the culture and I was scared to stop. I was not scared to stop because I loved drinking, because to be honest I could take it or leave it. However, I wondered what I would do if I did not drink and where I would go on a Friday or what I would do on a Saturday.
I just kept on doing the same thing until I thought, “I’m not doing this any more,” and stopped it. Afterwards, the biggest problem was how my friends treated me, because they do treat you differently until they get used to it. The first thing that they do when you come in the pub is ask, “What do you want? What do you mean Irn Bru? Here’s a pint”—blah, blah, blah. It takes a while, but they get used to it and you move on.
That is the culture that we are up against in Scotland and which most or many of us have to face. There is no doubt that, if we really want to battle alcohol, we have to fight the culture. The bill is about minimum unit pricing, but a lot of the work that has been done by the Government, and even a lot of the work that Graeme Pearson and others have talked about today, is about changing the culture of Scotland. We have a very difficult task ahead of us and we should take it very seriously.
On the financial cost of alcohol to this country, my partner is a nurse who has worked in general nursing. She used to work in the medical receiving ward in a hospital that I will not name. She said that she hated the weekends because 90 per cent of the cases then were alcohol related. It was not just the problems that people came in with, which might include injuries from violence or liver problems, it was the fact that many people who were already in the hospital and needed treatment were not getting treatment because of the emergency cases that came in with what were almost self-inflicted wounds. The health service did what the health service does and treated everybody according to their needs and gave people a great service, but there was a bit of resentment among staff because they saw for example, a suffering old woman in hospital who was perhaps not getting the treatment that she needed because somebody else needed it.
We therefore have a real issue here and it upsets me to see politicians from a party that I used to support, which is meant to be based on looking after those who cannot look after themselves, who blindly refuse to support a position—I do not care what they say—only because it came from us. The cabinet secretary has bent over backwards to try to get the other parties on board. [Interruption.] I hear, “Rubbish!” from one of the Labour members. I suspect that that is because, if they close their ears, they will hear nothing.
This is an important part of the parliamentary process. Kezia Dugdale mentioned the smoking ban. That ban is, without a doubt, the Parliament’s greatest achievement, but let me give a wee history lesson. The smoking ban proposal started with Kenny Gibson; it then went to Stewart Maxwell, and then to Jack McConnell. I was working for Stewart Maxwell at the time. I assure members that the Labour Party did not support the smoking ban, but it saw the evidence, changed its mind, took the bill and strengthened it, and we got a better bill because of that. I would like the Labour Party to do that now. With the smoking ban, Labour members put aside the fact that a proposal came from us, took that proposal and made it theirs. The SNP and the Parliament supported the bill, and we got the best piece of legislation that it has ever passed.
It is not too late. Kenny Gibson said 5 o’clock. Oh, dear—a missed deadline. It is just after 5 o’clock, and Labour members have an opportunity to get together and vote on another piece of legislation that will make us proud.
The bill is not the end result. Graeme Pearson made a great speech, but his conclusion was madness. He took us right up to the line, and all that he needed to do was say, “All these things have to be in place plus minimum unit pricing,” and his contribution would have been perfect, and he would have been a credit to himself and his party. That is what we need.
Tim Stockwell said:
“without a shred of doubt” this will
“save lives, reduce healthcare costs, prevent death and injury on the roads, prevent birth defects, and reduce public violence”.—[Official Report, Health and Sport Committee, 10 January 2012; c 786.]
[Interruption.] Did Duncan McNeil say that?
Alcohol misuse and violence go hand in hand. A World Health Organization paper reports that economic modelling strongly suggests that minimum pricing will work, and that a 1 per cent increase in the price per ounce of alcohol would reduce the incidence of intimate partner violence against women by 5.3 per cent. Surely Labour members should support that.
In that case, I will not. I am sorry.
Labour members have, rightly and commendably, strongly condemned violence against women and anybody else. Surely anything that will tackle that problem should be supported.
The cabinet secretary has done everything that she can. There are a few minutes to go. I beg members to support the proposal; we can then move on to stage 2.
The cabinet secretary began with a round of congratulations to various people who assisted her in drafting the bill. I was reminded of a comment that she once made that made me blush in my early days in the chamber. She stood up and said that Jackson Carlaw could tempt her to do many things. My scepticism has surrendered to the concessions of her advances as the bill has progressed through the chamber.
I say to the cabinet secretary that not every Conservative is in a swoon at the prospect of supporting the bill. That is an important point. The two concessions of principle and substance that she has offered are therefore important to us. The first, which relates to the sunset clause, arises from the evidence of Professor Brennan, who is the author of the Sheffield study. He said:
“If minimum pricing turns out to be completely ineffective or a counterproductive policy, for reasons that are not included in the modelling and which have not been included elsewhere, that is evidence, and evidence should be included in policy making.”—[Official Report, Health and Sport Committee, 24 January 2012; c 919.]
The sunset clause is therefore a vital necessity in addressing the scepticism that still rests around the policy—which Dr Simpson and, in particular, Drew Smith detailed perfectly legitimately—but which some of us are nonetheless prepared to set aside to give minimum pricing its chance.
The second concession is the requirement to establish the legal position. The cabinet secretary has said that she adheres to the position that she is under no obligation, which we are happy to endorse, but that she will voluntarily notify the pricing mechanism to the European Union. It is important for the Parliament that that process should begin at the earliest possible date and that, before the Parliament considers the bill at stage 3, we are assured that we have done everything that we can to clarify the position with the European Union.
A number of points have been made and I want to respond first—in case I run out of time—by paying tribute to the performance of Helen Eadie, which I would characterise as quite magnificent. She was impervious to entreaties, from all round the chamber, for the chance to intervene. She asked the position of the United Kingdom coalition. I do not know the answer, but I hope that the coalition will follow Ruth Davidson’s lead and that London will be governed by the Scottish Conservatives from Edinburgh in supporting what I hope will be a policy that can be pursued across the whole of the United Kingdom. It is perfectly legitimate to raise the issues of internet selling and cross-border selling, but they could be set at rest if this policy were pursued across the whole of the kingdom.
Mrs Grahame always surprises me, and she does so again today.
For Gil Paterson to say that it was totally bogus to be concerned about the windfall was to overstate the case. In her letter to Ruth Davidson, even the cabinet secretary accepts that there might be a windfall and that it will have to be considered. I also sound a cautionary note to Gil Paterson: all those carbonated drinks could be bad for his teeth and could, at his age, give him quite bad wind. If I were him, I would have the occasional non-carbonated drink.
I agree with Jackson Carlaw because, just last week, I got my front teeth knocked out. He was not being clairvoyant.
No one in the committee was definitive: the words used were “may” and “could”, not “will”. The committee did not say that there was evidence on what exactly would happen. My argument may have been the opposite of someone else’s; I was offering a different perspective, that was all.
I understand, but I would rather not be so absolute. It is Parliament’s responsibility to anticipate what might happen and to find ways of dealing with it.
I enjoyed Mr Eadie’s contribution. Until this afternoon, I had not known that he was a comedian. He said that the Labour Party was cherry picking from the evidence, which I thought was a bit rich in the circumstances. However, Mr Eadie and Mr Doris take a step too far for me when they become evangelistas for this legislation. Why did Mr Eadie use the phrase “call time”? I thought that we had agreed that we would not. The determination to cull any scintilla of doubt does the legislation a disservice. Even the cabinet secretary accepts that we are embarked on an experiment. It is one that we all hope will succeed—and, in her case and in Mr Eadie’s case, believe will succeed. However, to try to will from the debate anybody’s scepticism is to raise an expectation in the public mind that may go beyond the scope of the bill in assisting in addressing the whole alcohol issue.
I am glad that we are going to draw a line and move forward. We must tackle Scotland’s cultural association with drink—and we have not even begun to scratch its surface. If you ask children where their eyes, nose, ears or mouths are, they can answer, but if I were to ask people in the chamber where their pancreas, liver or kidneys were—the organs that are damaged by alcohol—they would probably point to all the wrong places. People do not understand the difficulties that they are creating for their own health in later life—not necessarily through excessive drinking, but through the repeated, consistent and sustained drinking of alcohol. Dealing with the association between drink and Scotland is a battle that we have still to fight.
I asked the Labour Party to consider this concluding point. If the jury is out on whether this legislation can work, its chances will be all the greater for the authority that cross-party and all-party support will give it. Now is the time to give minimum unit pricing its chance, which is why we will vote with the Government tonight.
Across the chamber, we have all acknowledged the real concern that exists about the overconsumption of alcohol in Scotland. We consume 23 per cent more than our counterparts in the rest of the UK. As Jim Eadie rightly pointed out, the consequences of that can often be seen in our ambulances, our hospitals and our prisons. We need a range of actions to tackle what is a complex problem.
Parliamentary arithmetic means that the bill will succeed, so our focus has been to mitigate people’s genuine concerns about minimum unit pricing. I say at the outset that we have always agreed that there is a relationship between price and consumption—Labour members have never doubted that—but minimum unit pricing is simply one pricing mechanism. Our consistent preference has been for the use of targeted taxation measures on a UK-wide basis.
The University of Sheffield has estimated that a minimum unit price of 45p will generate a windfall of £103 million; at 50p, the windfall rises to £125 million; and at 55p, it is estimated to be £146 million. That money will be generated each year and all of it will go into the pockets of supermarkets and large retailers. Not one penny of it will go to alcohol education, enforcement or treatment. At a time of tightening budgets, when resources are scarce and when the alcohol treatment budget is being cut in real terms—it has been reduced by 7.5 per cent, which amounts to a cut of more than £3 million—the SNP Government is intent on giving the supermarkets increased profits through that windfall.
We need to consider what the supermarkets will do with the money. I understand that the cabinet secretary thinks that they will make bananas cheaper. I say to her, as gently as possible, that that is a very naive view of the way in which the market behaves. A recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report discussed some of the economic issues to do with minimum pricing. It said that we needed to have an understanding of the measure’s indirect impacts. How will retailers change the price of alcohol that is currently sold at a level above the proposed minimum price or the price of other products? How will manufacturers change the range of alcohol products that are available once cheap goods are no longer competitive on price? As yet, we do not have clear answers to those questions, but such secondary effects are extremely important in assessing the overall impact of minimum pricing.
We know that the sale of alcohol is important for the retail sector. Some retailers have sought to be creative to get round the discount ban, and they are likely to do the same with MUP. I can already picture some of the market responses and the unintended consequences—a depression in the price of premium brands and shelves and shelves of own-brand spirits.
We supported the social responsibility levy in the Government’s Alcohol etc (Scotland) Bill, but it is not to be implemented. During stage 3 consideration of that bill, Nicola Sturgeon said about the social responsibility levy:
“Next, they said”— by “they”, I think she meant us—
“that it would increase supermarket profits.”
That is true. She went on to say:
“They were knowingly misrepresenting the figures”.
That is not true, because the figures came from the Sheffield study, which the Government commissioned. She continued:
“but, even so, we suggested that we work together to use the social responsibility levy to claw back increased revenue for reinvestment in our services.”—[Official Report, 10 November 2010; c 30143.]
We agreed to do that, and that is what we did. What a shame that the cabinet secretary has made it clear that there are no plans to implement the social responsibility levy until the economic circumstances are right.
In a minute.
However, the Government has introduced a public health levy that is aimed at large retailers that sell alcohol and tobacco. We supported that measure in the Local Government and Regeneration Committee. When it started life, it would have taken £110 million from the supermarkets over three years, but that was reduced to £95 million. The profits for supermarkets that will arise from MUP over the same period range from £310 million to as much as £450 million, which is three or four times more than the public health levy would collect.
I wondered when someone in the Labour Party was going to talk about the public health supplement. Labour members voted against the budget that included it.
Will Jackie Baillie concede that she misrepresented the figures and that she has done so again? She always says that all the moneys would accrue to supermarkets when, in fact, they would be spread across the industry. Surely the key thing is that we should get minimum pricing working and then work together on these issues—that is what Labour should do instead of using them as a fig leaf for its opposition.
It is disappointing that raising genuine concerns about the efficacy of the Government’s legislation is apparently a fig leaf. We have been consistent on the issue, no matter how much the cabinet secretary may seek to deny it.
The cabinet secretary should feel free not to listen to me—she does not have a history of doing so.
The debate is not so consensual now.
Professor Stockwell gave evidence to the Health and Sport Committee in support of minimum unit pricing and on Canada’s experience of social pricing. However, the key difference is that there is a state monopoly in Canada, which effectively owns its off-licences. I am not suggesting that the SNP should introduce plans to nationalise Scotland’s off-licences, but Professor Stockwell expressed his disappointment to the committee when he said:
“Minimum pricing will be more in your favour if you can apply the levy that I thought was going to go ahead”.—[Official Report, Health and Sport Committee, 10 January 2012; c 797.]
How disappointing it is that the levy is not going ahead.
We have lingering concerns about the legality of minimum unit pricing. I note that the cabinet secretary is offering to notify the price-setting order to the European Union, but she asserts that there is no need to notify the bill. Others disagree, and argue that notifying only the regulations will not allow for full and proper scrutiny. The bill describes how minimum pricing will be applied and contains the mechanism for calculating the price of products on the market, so it sets an important context.
Ruth Davidson is right: there is no indication at which stage notification will be made. The cabinet secretary should surely just notify the whole bill and end any doubt and uncertainty. I am sure that that is what the Tories wanted, but it is not being delivered in full. The Law Society of Scotland also has reservations on that point.
On the question of impact, I say to Bob Doris that there is little impact on young people and binge drinking, and no impact on caffeinated alcohol products such as Buckfast. Where consumption of particular drinks—namely wine—is increasing substantially, minimum unit pricing does not begin to touch it at all. Where consumption within a particular demographic—namely middle-class, middle-income women—is increasing substantially, there is virtually no impact at all.
In the Government’s early rhetoric, the policy was supposed to be a silver bullet and a magic solution to overconsumption of alcohol. Indeed, despite the Government protesting—as it is doing again—that this is not so, it has produced a bill that is so tightly written that it is incapable of being amended. Members should make no mistake about it: that was deliberate. [Interruption.]
I am conscious of time, but I must address what Christine Grahame and James Dornan said. Domestic abuse is not caused by alcohol. That is to misunderstand the nature of the abuse and its underlying cause—ultimately, it is an abuse of power. To quote the Government’s own rhetoric back at it, there is no excuse for domestic abuse.
What has always struck me is the question why, since the prices in Scotland and in the rest of the United Kingdom are largely the same, alcohol consumption is 23 per cent higher in Scotland than in the rest of the UK. It is clearly about much more than price.
I am genuinely disappointed in the SNP’s position. We on the Labour side of the chamber were prepared to meet the Government halfway. Our concerns were not a fig leaf, but a real opportunity for the Government to move forward collectively if it wanted to do so.
I simply cannot understand why the SNP is signing up to put hundreds of millions of pounds into the pockets of supermarkets such as Tesco, which reported a £3.8 billion profit last year—that is £10 million each day, and I have not even begun on the others. The SNP wants to give them more. I am bemused, and the people of Scotland will be too. We are prepared to support the Government, but the SNP is stuffing the pockets of supermarkets with gold—
The debate has been a good one on most sides of the chamber. There have been some excellent speeches—I will not remember everyone, but I single out Bob Doris, Jim Eadie, Willie Rennie, Gil Paterson, Ruth Davidson, Kenny Gibson, Christine Grahame and Richard Lyle. Jackson Carlaw, once he got past the first couple of minutes of his speech, made an excellent contribution.
The debate has illustrated how most members of the Parliament have managed to come together to do the right thing. The Parliament will now move on to the next stage of the bill, and for that I am very grateful.
Labour has been utterly and depressingly predictable. All that we have heard today are desperate attempts to find any excuse, no matter how weak, to justify a position that I am sad to say has little to do with public health and everything to do with petty party politics.
Jackie Baillie, in a speech that was all about covering up her embarrassment at her ineptitude on this issue, managed to get through literally the entire speech without mentioning the public health benefits of the policy. That sums up Labour’s position.
In his opening speech, Richard Simpson asked the rhetorical question, “Why does Labour oppose minimum pricing?” When we strip everything else away, the answer to that question is really simple. Labour opposes it because the SNP proposes it—end of story. That is why the reputation of a party with a once-proud record on public health is as low with the public health community as it is possible to get.
There are many flaws with Labour’s position, but today I will highlight three of them. One is its suggestion that we only have the Sheffield model—a suggestion that completely ignores the value of econometric modelling in the development of many other policies, including the minimum wage policy that Labour introduced at Westminster. It also ignores Professor Stockwell’s empirical evidence. I thought that one of the low points, if not the low point, of Richard Simpson’s opening speech came when he quoted Professor Stockwell as supporting action on caffeinated drinks. Jackie Baillie also quoted him as supporting a levy on supermarkets. However, both completely ignore his evidence when he says that minimum pricing is the right thing to do. That sums up how pathetic Labour’s position is.
The most depressing aspect of this debate is that Labour’s position seems to boil down to one of rejecting the proposal not only because it is an SNP proposal but because nobody else has done it first. Labour’s position is a recipe for doing nothing new about anything ever. It is a pathetic betrayal of responsibility on such an important issue.
The second flaw in Labour’s position that I want to address is demonstrated by what can only be described as Richard Simpson’s statistical somersaults and contortions, which he engaged in in an attempt to demonstrate that the impact on some groups is less than it is on others and might be less than it is on the population as a whole. I stress that he does not say that there will be no impact on those groups; just that it might be less. I will give members the statistics that they will not hear from Labour, which have been referred to by Bob Doris, Jim Eadie and others. Based on a 45p minimum price, consumption reduces by 3.5 per cent. That rate is 5.6 per cent for hazardous drinkers and 9.9 per cent for harmful drinkers. Further, by year 10 of the policy, alcohol-related deaths go down by nearly 200 a year; hospital admissions go down by more than 4,000 a year; there are 2,000 fewer crimes every year; and 20,000 fewer work days are lost through absenteeism. Those are the public health benefits of minimum pricing that Labour is blind to and is closing its eyes and ears to.
The third big flaw in Labour’s position is that it has absolutely no credible alternative. Speaker after speaker gets to their feet and says, “We know price matters and we accept there’s a relationship between price and consumption and consumption and harm”, but not only do they not support minimum pricing, they do not suggest any credible alternative, either.
Let me finish this point.
The best that we get is some vague reference to tax, which completely ignores the fact that this Parliament cannot introduce such a tax and, more important, the fact that tax is neither as targeted an approach nor as proportionate an approach as minimum pricing. On all those issues, and more that I am glad to say that I will come on to, Labour’s position is deeply flawed.
I remind the cabinet secretary of a little bit of history. Last summer, we brought forward alternative, worked-through proposals that were supported by the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. That is consensus. However, of course, the cabinet secretary does not understand the meaning of consensus.
If I do not do consensus, how is it that I have every other party in the chamber on my side and Ms Baillie is completely and utterly isolated? Jackie Baillie would not know consensus if it bopped her on the nose, because for her this has always been about opposing the SNP.
Labour’s amendment has to be the biggest fig leaf of all. I could say that Jackie Baillie is putting a blanket over her head on the issue—that would be better than her use of blankets to talk down our national health service.
Jackie Baillie and Labour’s latest fig leaf is windfall profits to the supermarkets. Labour ignores—conveniently, because this is an inconvenient truth for Labour—the fact that just a few weeks ago it voted against a budget that introduced a public health supplement that will raise £95 million over the next three years. The real flaw in this part of Labour’s argument is that although the Sheffield model shows that the alcohol industry as a whole will gain financially from minimum pricing, that includes producers, retailers and small corner shops as well as big supermarkets. It also includes the on-sales trade, because customers might return to the pubs that I think we all want to see survive and thrive across the country.
If the windfall issue that Labour raises is one that we need to deal with, we have mechanisms through the public health supplement and the social responsibility levy to deal with it, but it is not a reason not to introduce minimum pricing. We need to tackle price, and the evidence base shows that minimum pricing is the most effective and efficient way to do that.
If Labour was serious about the windfall issue, it would vote for minimum pricing and work with us to deal with it—if it needs to be dealt with—rather than use it as yet another pathetic excuse for its rather pathetic opposition on the issue.
Labour can go on as much as it likes about other measures. I have said that where it brings forward measures that amount to more than a rehash of things that it has failed to produce evidence for, this Government will consider them.
I thought that Kenny Gibson summed up the situation rather well. Whereas we accept that minimum pricing is not a silver bullet and that there has to be a package of measures, Labour’s position is that it is prepared to support a package of measures only if it has a great big hole in the middle of it where an effective pricing mechanism should be. That is the weakness in its position.
I accept that there are people who remain sceptical. That is understandable in relation to a policy that is groundbreaking, but all the evidence from the doctors, the nurses, the police officers and the public health experts is that the policy can work and that it will have an impact. In the words of Professor Stockwell, who Labour was keen to quote on other matters, the policy will “save lives”.
That is why it is time to stop the excuses, it is time to cast aside the fig leaves and it is time to get behind our front-line health professionals and our front-line police officers, who deal daily with alcohol misuse, by backing the policy, getting it on to the statute book and letting it start to make a difference. I am delighted that we have consensus among the other parties in the chamber. It is a shame that Labour remains in abject isolation.