13 Jun 2010

Speech in the debate on the Alcohol etc. (Scotland) Bill 10 June 2010

I regret the comments from both the cabinet secretary and Maureen Watt about party politics, because, as far as I can hear, not only today but during the course of the debate, the only people who have tried to introduce party politics into the debate have been members of the SNP, who have consistently refused to listen to and talk and work with members of other parties.

Indeed, for the past two years, I and others have called for a consensual approach and joint party working to try to come up with a solution to the problem. However, the minister and the cabinet secretary have refused to meet and work with the other parties to bring anything constructive forward.

Nicola Sturgeon: Hugh Henry might like to reflect on the last thing that he said, because I have met other parties and have always said that I would work with them on a range of proposals. Does Hugh Henry accept that there is a consensus on minimum pricing, which includes not just the SNP but doctors, nurses, the police, the royal colleges, the chief medical officers and a host of children's charities? There is a consensus—the problem is that Labour is not part of it.

Hugh Henry: The cabinet secretary may well have met people individually. The point that I have made consistently for the past two years is that there should have been a cross-party initiative or working group to meet with experts to come up with something sustainable. I commend ministers for their initiative in stimulating an alcohol debate but, unfortunately, they have refused to engage constructively with others in the Parliament, which I regret.

As others have said, the extent of our problem with alcohol is a matter of record. We now have one of the highest cirrhosis rates in western Europe—it is much higher than the rate in England. Over the past 30 years, UK cirrhosis mortality has risen by over 450 per cent across the population, with a 52 per cent increase in alcoholic liver disease between 1998 and 2002. In Scotland, chronic liver disease mortality more than doubled between 1982 and 2008.

No one can doubt the need for action. Indeed, I agree with Maureen Watt's point about the alcohol-related problems for our NHS and the impact that they have on others. The BMA has said that, in 2008-09, there were 41,922 alcohol-related discharges from general hospitals in Scotland. I know of the problem from personal experience because I remember that when my elderly father—God rest him—fell and broke his hip on Christmas eve, he had to wait nearly three hours for an ambulance. The ambulance staff were apologetic about the length of time that it had taken, which was because of the drunkenness and mayhem that they had had to deal with on Christmas eve. That is the human consequence of the problems that we face.

We face a growing impact, too, from women drinking to excess, and Richard Baker and others have spoken about the law and order problems that excess alcohol consumption causes. In that regard, I and some of my colleagues in the west of Scotland met the chief constable of Strathclyde this week and heard about the 14 murders that were alcohol related. The chief constable was right to point out the mayhem in towns and cities across Scotland every Friday and Saturday night, which we need to address. We need to have a view in this country that that kind of public drunkenness is just unacceptable and will be dealt with. We need to stop being frivolous and making jokes about drunkenness being okay and something to aspire to. We also need action to remove licences where that is appropriate. We need more rigorous testing of alcohol sales, as Richard Simpson, Richard Baker and others have said, to ensure that young people do not have access to alcohol. I support, too, Richard Baker's call for the problem of caffeine-based alcohol drinks to be addressed, because that is a chronic problem.

I agree with the concept of the polluter paying and with social responsibility payments. However, the mayhem on the streets is not necessarily caused by pubs and other small establishments. Many young people drink before they go out. Why should the publicans pay for the problems that are caused by cheap alcohol that is sold by supermarkets? Indeed, if we are talking about the polluter, surely the polluter is the intelligent drunk person with money in their pocket or purse whose drunkenness and loutish behaviour costs the rest of society dearly. They are the people who need to be challenged and penalised for the pollution that they cause. We need more action against public drunkenness and bad behaviour.

I agree that the cost of the alcohol that is sold in supermarkets is an issue. Michael Matheson posed the point that stopping discounting would surely just put more money in the supermarkets' pockets. Well, the way I understand marketing to work is that stopping discounting reduces sales, reducing sales reduces revenue and reducing revenue reduces profits, so stopping discounting does not have the impact that he and the cabinet secretary tried to suggest.

I am also opposed to the idea of giving local authorities the ability to vary the age at which alcohol can be purchased from off-sales within their areas. In my part of Renfrewshire, would it be sensible to say that young people could buy alcohol in Johnstone but not in Linwood? What would that mean in terms of young people buying drink in other communities?

Even if the legal age for off-sales was allowed to be varied between different local authorities, would it be sensible that young people could buy alcohol in Penilee, which is in Glasgow, but not in Ralston, which is in Renfrewshire? What would be the effect in places that lie on the borders between two local authority areas? Those sorts of inconsistencies would arise.

Although others have highlighted the issues with minimum pricing, one issue that has not been addressed in detail is the fact that not only would there be an increase in cross-border and internet sales but, in many communities, the criminal fraternity would then be able to sell cheap alcohol along with tobacco and drugs out of white vans. We should not underestimate the impact of that.

I hope that there is still time for us to come together as a Parliament and have a sensible debate on alcohol. I commend the cabinet secretary and her colleagues for what they have done so far, but it is time for them to face up to the fact that they should listen to the will of Parliament.