MSPs pass Alcohol Bill without minimum drink pricing

From Democracy Live: MSPs debate the Alcohol Bill before passing the legislation

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New laws to tackle Scotland's historic alcohol problems have been passed by MSPs - but without plans to bring in minimum drink pricing.

The SNP government's Alcohol Bill aims to help tackle an issue said to cost Scotland more than £3bn a year.

But key measures, including raising the purchase age for off licence sales, failed to find enough support.

The bill will ban "irresponsible" drink promotions at off licences.

This aims to end the sale of alcohol at heavily discounted prices, as well as offers such as two-for-one deals. Specific measures are expected to be in place in the spring.

The bill, which was passed unanimously will also pave the way for the introduction, in future, of a "social responsibility fee" on retailers who sell alcohol.

And licensed premises will be required to operate tougher proof of age rules, based on the age of 25, rather than 21.

The government brought forward the Alcohol Bill saying radical action was needed to tackle problems with alcohol-fuelled violence and related health issues.

Start Quote

Isn't it depressing that the two major parties in this debate are throwing the same argument against each other to vote down amendments, rather than working together constructively”

End Quote Patrick Harvie Green MSP

Ministers said a wide range of professionals, including senior police officers and health experts, backed plans to set a minimum price per unit of alcohol at 45p.

But Labour, the Tories and Lib Dems said the move would penalise responsible drinkers and could be illegal under European competition law.

As MSPs debated the bill for the final time, Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon attempted to re-insert minimum pricing into the legislation after it was removed at an earlier stage, but parliament opposed the move.

As emotions ran high in the chamber, Ms Sturgeon accused opposition MSPs of opposing it for party political reasons, adding: "This is a sad day for the parliament.

"If this parliament refuses to take action to deal with a monumental problem and I think, in the fullness of time, Scotland will judge those who vote against this policy very harshly indeed."

Analysis

Vigour, passion, serious scrutiny - but ultimately little in the shape of substantial change as MSPs finally decided their position on measures to curb alcohol this afternoon.

The health secretary, Nicola Sturgeon, was at her blunt, outspoken best.

She had plainly concluded that there was no point in trying to wheedle her opponents into voting for minimum pricing.

So instead she accused them of making up their minds not on the content of the measure - but on the party allegiance of the minister advancing it.

That provoked angry responses from her opponents who said they were against minimum pricing because it was possibly illegal, would not deter problem drinkers and would merely add to supermarket profits.

Ms Sturgeon countered all three points - but the votes went against her.

But, dismissing the attack, Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said: "We oppose minimum unit pricing, not on political grounds, but because we do not believe it works - and that is a view that is shared by the main opposition parties in this chamber.

"There are three main concerns. It is untried and untested, it is possibly illegal and it will put £140m per year into the pockets of supermarkets."

Deputy Tory leader Murdo Fraser also said minimum pricing would hit the whisky industry and could be got round by buying alcohol online and "booze runs" to Carlisle, just over the English border.

Mr Fraser also ridiculed a full-page advertisement in a Sunday newspaper which backed minimum pricing, featuring "luminaries and health experts such as Ruth Wishart, journalist, and Elaine C Smith, actress and comedienne, telling us what to do".

He went on: "Whatever next - are we gong to ask Dawn French for advice on university funding or Susan Boyle to give us advice in prison policy? Although I daresay she'd do a better job than the current justice secretary."

Liberal Democrat health spokesman Ross Finnie said the bill was "one step" on the road to changing Scotland's relationship with alcohol, adding: "Liberal Democrats support moves to crack down on irresponsible alcohol promotions."

But Mr Finnie said the SNP had "failed to make the case for minimum pricing" and claimed the social responsibility fee had become a "punitive" measure.

Alcohol Bill - Key measures

  • Extend ban on irresponsible drinks promotions to off licences
  • Tougher proof of age requirements
  • Social responsibility fee for alcohol retailers

Government plans to allow local licensing boards to raise the age for buying alcohol from off licences from 18 to 21 were dismissed as "discriminatory" by opposition parties.

Elsewhere, a Labour amendment to restrict the caffeine content of alcoholic drinks to not more than 150 milligrammes per litre of alcohol - which would effectively ban the tonic wine Buckfast - was defeated.

Green MSP Patrick Harvie backed both minimum pricing and caffeine limits in alcohol, telling parliament: "Isn't it depressing that two sides of the two major parties in this debate are throwing the same argument against each other to vote down amendments, rather than working together constructively."

The Tories failed to find enough support to insert a "sunset clause" in the legislation, which would have required a review of its main measures after five years.

Alcohol misuse in Scotland

Social impact Health impact

Sources: Statistics from a variety of NHS and Scottish government official statistics

In 2007, 50 million litres of pure alcohol was sold in Scotland.

In 2003, 2,882 people in Scotland died due to an alcohol-related condition.

In 2008, nearly half (49%) of all prisoners in Scottish jails said that they were drunk at the time of the offence, with the figure rising to 76% for young offenders.

Scotland has one of the fastest growing rates of liver cirrhosis in the world which has doubled since 1990 and is now twice that of England and Wales.

Between 1990 and 2004 the percentage of 13-year-olds who had been drinking in the previous week rose from 10% to 20%.

Male mortality rates relating to liver cirrhosis in Scotland more than doubled between 1987 and 1991 and between 1997 and 2001. Between 1997 and 2001, the male mortality rate in Scotland due to liver cirrhosis was more than double that of England.

The cost of alcohol misuse to Scottish society in 2007 has been estimated to be between £2.47bn and £4.63bn.

Scotland now has one of the fastest growing rates of liver cirrhosis in the world.

In 2007 in Scotland, 17,021 alcohol licences were operating. This equated to 42 licences per 10,000 people over the age of 18

In Scotland in 2006-07, there were an estimated 111,200 consultations with GPs and practice nurses for alcohol misuse.

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