Minimum Unit Price for Alcohol

– in the Scottish Parliament on 18th November 2021.

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Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

5. To ask the First Minister what consideration the Scottish Government has given to increasing the minimum unit price for alcohol. (S6F-00467)

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

We are absolutely committed to ensuring that, as we move forward, we have in place a level of minimum unit price that remains effective in reducing alcohol harms. At the point when minimum unit pricing was first introduced, we did not know that we would be facing a pandemic, which has had an impact on the use and consumption of alcohol. Prior to the pandemic, however, we were seeing early and very encouraging signs of a reduction in alcohol sales and in alcohol-specific deaths.

The evaluation of minimum unit pricing is on-going, and a final report from Public Health Scotland is expected in 2023. Of course, any change to the level, or to any detail, of the minimum unit pricing policy must have a robust evidence base.

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

I remind members that I am a member of Moving On Inverclyde, a local addiction service.

The First Minister will know that the most recent statistics indicated that Inverclyde had the highest level of alcohol-related deaths during the peak of the Covid pandemic. Every death is a tragedy and I offer my condolences to the people affected.

It is clear that minimum unit pricing was having a positive effect but, due to inflation, the effectiveness of the 50p unit price will have declined. Bearing in mind the fact that alcohol was 64 per cent more affordable in 2017 than it was in 1980—particularly in supermarkets and off-sales—will the First Minister consider increasing the minimum unit price in line with inflation or even slightly above that in the upcoming budget? Will she also commit to setting up an external commission to consider when future increases should occur and what level they should be?

The First Minister:

I will consider any suggestions of that nature and will take Stuart McMillan’s suggestions into account.

It is really important that we do two things, which are obviously related. First, we should properly and robustly evaluate the policy of minimum unit pricing. Indeed, a commitment was given to do that when the legislation was passed and the policy was introduced. That process is under way and we will know the outcomes of the Public Health Scotland evaluation in 2023.

It is also important that we keep the level of the price under review and take account of factors such as inflation, because the level of the price is critical to ensuring that the policy continues to be effective. There were encouraging signs pre-pandemic that it was being effective, and we need to take account of changes since then. Those issues will receive on-going, careful and evidence-based consideration by the Government.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

Stuart McMillan is right. It has been a decade since the 50p rate was first set, inflation is rising dramatically and the sunset clause is coming into effect soon. The First Minister and I agree on minimum unit pricing but I am concerned about the lack of urgency in her answer. We need to move faster on increasing the rate. Today, 28 organisations spoke out to say that it should be 65p. Will she back the science?

The First Minister:

I hope that Willie Rennie and others accept that there are few people in the chamber more committed to the policy of minimum unit pricing than I am. I was the minister who took the legislation through the Parliament. We then had a lengthy court challenge and have been committed to the policy throughout, including at times when few people were prepared to predict that it had any chance of becoming operational. Therefore, I take those points extremely seriously.

We need to consider all the points carefully and we are doing so. I do not want to sound in any way complacent about the matter. Minimum unit pricing will have the desired effect only if it is set at an effective level.

There is one other complicating factor right now—I say this as a statement of fact, not for any other reason—and that is the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020. Any changes in the price, whether by inflation or any other level, could engage that act. That is a source of great concern for us and one of the many reasons why we raised such profound concerns while that act was going through the Westminster Parliament.

I hope that, as we take forward the work on minimum unit pricing, members will engage rightly and properly on the detail of where the price should be set. That must be evidence driven. I hope that we will have the support of members around the chamber if we find that the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 is a serious obstacle to ensuring that minimum unit pricing remains effective, because that would be deeply regrettable, given the policy’s history and how difficult it was to get it into operation.

Photo of Gillian Mackay Gillian Mackay Green

Sadly, alcohol-related deaths in Scotland rose by 17 per cent in 2020, to 1,190. Those devastating figures emphasise the point that action must be taken and that a range of methods, including minimum unit pricing, should be implemented to tackle harmful alcohol consumption.

I know that the Government plans to consult on the marketing of alcohol. Will the First Minister consider implementing other measures, such as mandating nutrition and health information on alcohol labels and placing a social responsibility levy on alcohol retailers?

The First Minister:

Without commenting on the specific suggestions that Gillian Mackay made, although they are both important, I say in general that we remain open minded to every action that can help us to deal with the harm that alcohol misuse does. In fact, when we first proposed minimum unit pricing, it was one of, I think, 40 different actions that were put forward in our alcohol strategy.

Minimum unit pricing is important but it is not the only initiative that needs to be taken. We will consider other initiatives and very carefully consider their evidence base. Within the powers that we have, that includes the suggestions that Gillian Mackay made.