Alcohol (Licensing, Public Health and Criminal Justice) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 4th February 2016.

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Photo of Duncan McNeil Duncan McNeil Labour

I want to begin with some verse—a risky business, I suppose.

“Oh, thou demon Drink, thou fell destroyer;

Thou curse of society, and its greatest annoyer.

What hast thou done to society, let me think?

I answer thou hast caused the most of ills, thou demon Drink.”

Although questions might be asked about the quality of William McGonagall’s verse and his advocacy of the temperance movement, some of the sentiments that were expressed more than 100 years ago regarding alcohol remain true today.

As a society, we are still wrestling with the demon drink and how best to tackle Scotland’s relationship with alcohol. The Health and Sport Committee is in agreement that we must continue to strive to reduce our high alcohol consumption rates in Scotland and that we must also tackle the resulting detrimental impact that they can have on antisocial behaviour levels and on people’s health.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who gave written and oral evidence to the committee on the bill. I also thank Newcastle City Council and Northumbria Police for facilitating a useful visit to Newcastle, which enabled us to get a better insight into its policies on and approaches to alcohol.

The committee has considered in detail each of the 10 provisions in Dr Simpson’s bill. Time does not permit me to cover them all this afternoon, but I will share with the chamber our headline findings.

A majority of the committee does not support the general principles of the bill, is not persuaded that the bill is an effective and workable package of measures to tackle alcohol misuse, and believes that the Scottish Government’s forthcoming updated alcohol strategy offers a more effective route to consider changes to alcohol policy.

In contrast, a minority of the committee believes that the general principles of the bill should be supported and that the bill would introduce a series of useful additional tools and approaches to support the current alcohol policy regime in a way that would further tackle alcohol misuse in Scotland.

One area on which the committee is unanimous is that, irrespective of whether the bill proceeds, the Scottish Government should address the merits of all the proposals in the bill as part of its alcohol strategy, and we have asked it to do so.

An examination of some of the specific provisions in the bill provides further insight into the difference of views among committee members. In relation to the provision on minimum pricing of packages containing more than one alcoholic product, the committee acknowledges that there is a loophole in the current legislation that means that the ban on bulk purchasing discounts can be side-stepped for beer and cider. A majority of the committee did not support the provision in the bill and agreed that it could have unintended consequences. In contrast, a minority of the committee agreed that action should be taken to address the problem and support the provision.

Another of the bill’s proposals is to introduce drinking banning orders. The committee agreed that alcohol is a contributing factor in a significant level of disorderly, antisocial and criminal behaviour. A majority of the committee agreed that there are a number of tools, including antisocial behaviour orders, that perform the same function as Dr Simpson’s proposed drinking banning orders, and a majority agreed that DBOs were not needed. In contrast, a minority of the committee agreed that drinking banning orders should be introduced as they would be a useful additional measure.

In our report, we ask for further information on the number of ASBOs issued by local authorities that include a ban from licensed premises. I thank the minister for providing those statistics in advance of today’s debate. In the past five years, across all 32 local authorities, 23 ASBOs have been issued that have included a ban from licensed premises. Will the minister confirm today what percentage that figure is of the overall number of ASBOs that were issued in that five-year period? The figures are considerably lower than Dr Simpson’s estimate that there would be around 25 drinking banning orders a year. I am keen to seek clarity on the matter in order to get an assurance from the minister that those ASBOs are serving the same purpose as the proposed drinking banning orders. It would be helpful if the minister could respond to that point in her speech.

Another provision considered by the committee was the bill’s proposals for restrictions on the advertising of alcohol. Again, a majority of the committee did not support the bill’s proposals on advertising. A majority agreed that alcohol advertising and marketing should be considered in the context of the Scottish Government’s alcohol framework. A minority agreed that the provisions should be supported as alcohol marketing can lead to increased consumption.

Regardless of whether the bill progresses, the committee believes that the time is right to give further consideration to the regulation of alcohol advertising and sponsorship in Scotland.

I welcome the minister’s comment in the response to our report that the Government is engaging a network of international experts in the field of advertising and sponsorship. Is she able to provide further information this afternoon on the work that the experts are doing for the Government and the timescales for that work feeding into the next phase of its alcohol framework?

The demon drink remains an on-going issue, because of the detrimental impact that it can have. The majority of the committee, while supporting the legislation’s aims, could not support the detail of the proposals. However, a minority of the committee agreed that the bill should progress.