I am pleased to open the stage 1 debate on my Alcohol (Licensing, Public Health and Criminal Justice) (Scotland) Bill, although I regret the brevity of the time that has been allowed for the debate.
This is a multipurpose bill with 10 different strands, all of which have the aim of addressing the effects of alcohol overconsumption. The common purpose of most of them—as I emphasised throughout the Health and Sport Committee’s evidence sessions—is not to address the needs of the serious dependent drinker, which, to be fair, the Government has made significant attempts to tackle, but to intervene at an early stage when individuals may be at risk of developing a dependency and to assist in preventing it from progressing. I think that there is universal acceptance that Scotland needs to go further than it has done so far to tackle alcohol overconsumption.
I continue to believe that most of the proposals in the bill can yield real benefits and deserve the Parliament’s support. I am very disappointed that the Scottish Government has signalled its opposition to all 10 measures in the bill, alongside the majority of the Health and Sport Committee, although I am grateful to the minority of members of the committee who supported eight out of the 10 proposals.
Before I discuss some of the details of the bill in the very brief time that I have, I take the opportunity to thank the Finance Committee and the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee for their considered scrutiny of the bill. In particular, despite my disagreement with the conclusions of the majority of the committee, I thank the Health and Sport Committee for its thorough scrutiny and for recognising that we all share the common aim of searching for the best ways of tackling Scotland’s problematic relationship with alcohol.
My thanks are also due to all the organisations and individuals who responded to my consultation and subsequently gave evidence to the committee.
I would especially like to put on record my thanks to the Parliament’s non-Government bills unit, without whose prodigious efforts and support the bill would never have been lodged. It is the longest-running member’s bill since the Parliament started in 1999.
I lodged the draft proposal in March 2012, partly in response to the Government’s acknowledgement that minimum unit pricing, its core proposal for tackling alcohol, was, in its words, “not a magic bullet” and the fact that it was in some doubt at the time because of the case going to the European Court of Justice. I hope that that issue will be resolved in June when a Scottish court makes the final decisions.
The original proposal included 14 different measures but, following consideration of the responses to the consultation—which were broadly supportive in the main—and discussion with the Government about alternative routes to achieve some of the bill’s objectives, I decided to focus on the 10 measures that I believed would be most effective. In May 2014, the final proposal received cross-party support. The length of time between the original consultation and the final submission was partly due to the delay when I was off for a year for cancer treatment.
In line with the terms of my final proposal, the aims of the bill are to promote public health and reduce alcohol-related offending through restrictions on the retailing and advertising of alcoholic drinks; changes to the licensing laws; obligations on the Scottish ministers to issue guidance and report on the Government’s alcohol education policy; and directing certain offenders towards treatment or towards restricting their alcohol consumption.
As part of a comprehensive approach, the bill is about both tackling health issues and revising the criminal justice system to focus properly on those whose drinking is causing problems for themselves and for others.
Prior to the publication of the Health and Sport Committee’s stage 1 report, I reflected on some of the evidence that had been presented to the committee. I recognised that some of the measures were not unanimously supported, or that they could reasonably be modified, and I subsequently wrote to the committee to share developments in my thinking in a number of areas.
My intention was that the adjustments that I proposed would leave the bill stronger and with the more generally supported measures in place. The bill was always a series of incremental measures. The revisions represented a further reduction in the number of measures from my original draft proposal. I wrote to the committee setting out the proposed revisions. Most significantly, I advised that I would be prepared to withdraw the strands that related to alcohol education policy statements, because I recognised that there was already scope for monitoring and evaluation of the alcohol framework for action and that there was only limited support for my proposal.
I strongly believed in the measure for notification of offenders’ general practitioners; nevertheless, both the courts and the general practitioners did not support it and I therefore decided that it would be appropriate to drop the measure at stage 2, if we reached that point.
The restriction on alcohol advertising for off-sales premises within large retailers is already largely covered by legislation, so my proposal in section 8 would not add much to the bill. It was therefore reasonable to decide to withdraw the proposed measure.
I drew the committee’s attention to the fact that, in a multistrand bill such as this one, it should be possible to remove any measure by amendment at stage 2 if the Parliament felt that it was inappropriate to support it. Even if the committee had supported only a minority of the 10 proposed measures, it could still have recommended that the general principles be agreed at stage 1 in order to allow the measures that are broadly supported by the public and specialist organisations to proceed to the amending stages. I am disappointed that neither the Health and Sport Committee nor the Government has chosen to follow that course of action.
Frankly, the message is clear that the Government is not in a hurry to act. I urge the members in the chamber today to reverse the decision on the bill and vote in favour of the general principles so that those measures that have received a favourable reception might still be taken forward in legislation.
I turn briefly to some individual measures in the bill, but I will use my closing speech to examine some measures in greater detail. I will deal just now with the measure on the minimum pricing of packages of alcohol. The Parliament made it absolutely clear that it wanted to end the practice of volume discounting in both on-sales and off-sales. However, the retailers have quite legitimately and legally got round that by selling multiproducts on the basis that they are not selling a single container of the same product, which means that they continue to have multibuys in beer and cider. It is much more difficult to do that with wine, and there has been a substantial reduction in its consumption—along the lines of the Sheffield report—as a result of the measure that we introduced in the Alcohol etc (Scotland) Act 2010.
My proposal in the bill would still not close off completely the retailers’ practice on beer and cider, because it is very difficult to do that, but it would mean that someone would not gain a substantial advantage by buying a 12-pack or an 18-pack of beer rather than a four-pack. At the moment, the 18-pack is discounted to a huge degree, which means that people who are more able to afford it can go ahead and buy it.
The second measure that I will address is the banning of age discrimination against under-21s. It is clear from the research that the problems associated with the consumption of alcohol are not about 18 to 21-year-olds but more about 21 to 25-year-olds, who have a greater disposable income. When the law says that 18-year-olds can buy drink, any discrimination against under-21s is inappropriate. We tried to close that loophole in the 2010 act, but it was not completely closed. Indeed, advice from the Government to licensing boards indicated that they could decide on a licence-by-licence basis; the 2010 act banned age discrimination only on a wider basis.
I have amended my proposal on caffeine levels in alcoholic drinks to allow ministers to bring in a limitation rather than a total ban on caffeine, as occurs in America. The research on the issue in America is very clear. I accept that the research here is not as clear, but there is no doubt that there is a cultural problem in the west of Scotland in relation to pre-mixed alcohol-caffeine drinks, which cause considerable criminal problems. Some limitation therefore seems appropriate.
The proposed bottle-tagging measure was well supported by the police. I think that the evidence that was given to the committee about the operation of a similar measure in Newcastle was very positive in the sense that it was not about punishing retailers but about supporting staff in retail outlets to reduce the amount of proxy purchasing by giving the police the intelligence that they need to follow it up. Proxy purchasing is not being handled well in Scotland at the moment. That is nobody’s fault, because the problem cannot be managed unless we have the intelligence.
Through the proposal on ensuring that communities have greater involvement in licensing decisions, I wanted to ensure that areas that do not have a community council, which are mainly deprived areas such as those in John Mason’s constituency—I think that he mentioned that issue in a previous debate—would have the right to have a say on the variation of licences. I think that that is an entirely appropriate measure.
The last measure that I will talk about is the restriction on advertising. We have a restriction at the moment on the areas where alcohol can be advertised. However, denormalising alcohol is one of the World Health Organization’s objectives. Within the limited powers that we have, to ban such advertising within 200m of schools would mean that, in effect, we would be banning the billboard advertising of alcohol in Scotland. That would be a small step towards denormalising alcohol.
There are other measures in the bill, such as drink banning orders, that I do not have time to address. I note that the fixed-penalty diversion scheme is already working in Fife and Newcastle. We propose having a pilot in an urban area to test whether it works there. We know that it reduces reoffending, and I cannot see why the Government would oppose that measure—that is regrettable.
I deeply regret that we have not had time for a fuller debate, which might have enabled me to consider some of the measures in greater detail, but I still hope that the Parliament might, at the end of the day, allow the bill to go forward to stage 2, in order that some of the measures, at least, could be introduced.
That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Alcohol (Licensing, Public Health and Criminal Justice) (Scotland) Bill.