- The Deputy Presiding Officer (Alasdair Morgan):
The next item of business is a debate on alcohol misuse.
- The Minister for Public Health (Shona Robison):
The Government is ambitious for Scotland, which is why, last week, we launched "Changing Scotland's relationship with alcohol: a discussion paper on our strategic approach". The document outlines a comprehensive package of measures for tackling alcohol misuse in Scotland. The Government is not anti-alcohol, but we are anti-alcohol misuse. The stark truth is that our relationship with alcohol is holding us back, as individuals, families and communities and as a nation.
The statistics make sobering reading. More than 40,000 people are hospitalised each year with an alcohol-related illness, and Scotland has one of the fastest-growing rates of alcohol-related liver disease and cirrhosis in the world. An audit of Scottish emergency departments found that at least 70 per cent of assaults may be alcohol related.
Alcohol misuse does not affect only the misuser; it costs us all dearly. Recent figures suggest that the total cost to Scotland of alcohol misuse is a staggering £2.25 billion a year. However, the personal cost to shattered families and individuals is unquantifiable. In one in three divorces, excessive drinking by a partner is cited as a contributory factor; around 65,000 Scottish children live with a parent whose drinking is problematic; and a quarter of children on the child protection register are there because of parental drug or alcohol misuse. Many of us experience the effects of alcohol-related violence and antisocial behaviour in our communities, and almost half of prisoners report being drunk at the time of their offence.
We have to dispel the myth that alcohol-related harm affects only people with chronic alcohol dependency or so-called binge drinkers. Anyone who is regularly drinking too much can be putting their health and wellbeing at risk and affecting the lives of people around them. This is not a marginal problem. The uncomfortable truth is that many of us—and probably many of us in this chamber—fall into that category. Up to 50 per cent of men and 30 per cent of women are regularly drinking more than the amount specified in guidelines on sensible drinking. Those people place themselves at increased risk of being involved in accidents, of becoming a victim or a perpetrator of a crime, of contributing to family break-up, and of developing cancer or liver disease.
We believe that something has to change. We want to put an end to the daily deluge of reports telling us about the negative impact of alcohol misuse on Scots and Scotland. We want to foster a self-confident Scotland where alcohol can be enjoyed sensibly as a pleasurable part of life, and we want to stimulate discussion and debate across the chamber and across Scotland about how we can best achieve that. I think it is fair to say that we have already been quite successful in kick-starting the debate. I am sure that we will hear more about that today. We welcome all views on the package of measures that we have proposed, which, taken together, can begin to change our relationship with alcohol for the better.
There are those who suggest that taking action to tackle alcohol misuse is somehow at odds with support for our indigenous alcohol industry. That is certainly not the case. We will continue to champion the Scottish drinks industry and we recognise the valuable contribution that it makes to Scotland's economy. Indeed, last week we launched our national food and drink policy to champion the best of Scottish produce. Our national drink is a key element of the year of homecoming 2009 celebrations.
However, the evidence is clear: if we are to fulfil our ambitions as a country, we must rebalance our relationship with alcohol. It is clear that no single, simple solution exists. We do not believe for a moment that simply raising the purchase age is a solution to all Scotland's alcohol problems.
- Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con):
Will the minister take an intervention?
- Shona Robison:
I will in a moment.
Alcohol misuse is a complex problem, and an effective alcohol policy is one that encompasses a range of interventions designed to support a fundamental shift in culture. That idea is supported by the international evidence base. For example, the World Health Organization recommends adopting a package of measures—including policies controlling the price and availability of alcohol; drink-drive measures; and brief interventions for those who are drinking at harmful and hazardous levels.
- Murdo Fraser:
I want to ask about the age at which people can purchase alcohol in an off-sales. The minister will know that the Government's policy is to reduce the voting age in Scotland to 16, and I therefore presume that she supports the proposition that, at 16, children become responsible adults. Does she not see the illogicality of increasing to 21 the age at which young people can buy alcohol? It would be five years before those supposedly responsible adults would be able to purchase alcohol in an off-sales.
- Shona Robison:
There are already different ages at which people can do certain things. For example, people can get married at 16 but they cannot drink alcohol or buy cigarettes at 16. I believe that people should have the vote at 16, as that would allow them a say in what their Government decides to do on these or any other measures. That is democracy. We believe that 16-year-olds should have the right to have a role in deciding the Government of their choice.
Our package on alcohol misuse is bold, and we make no apology for that. The response must be proportionate to the scale of the problem.
- Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green):
Will the minister take an intervention?
- Shona Robison:
Not just now.
Our consultation paper seeks views on whether the minimum legal age for off-sales purchases should be raised to 21. We accept that, for many people, that is a controversial issue, but we are asking an open question and we will listen to all views. In Scotland, the short-term harms associated with alcohol misuse are higher among young people and the impact of their drinking in public is felt by the communities in which they live. International evidence shows that raising the minimum age can reduce alcohol sales and problems among young drinkers. Alcohol is much cheaper and more widely accessible in off-sales. Raising the age in relation to off-sales should reduce the amount of alcohol being purchased by young people and should act as a particular deterrent for those under 18 who are more likely to purchase their alcohol from off-sales.
I commend the responsible attitude of local retailers in Armadale, West Lothian, who—recognising the problems of alcohol-fuelled antisocial behaviour in their community—agreed to take part in a trial to limit the sale of alcohol at weekends to those aged over 21. The success of the pilot in reducing antisocial behaviour, youth drinking and vandalism is encouraging and cannot be ignored by any member.
We strongly believe that the scale of the problem is such that we need to have a mature and constructive debate about the age at which alcohol can be purchased. We are seeking views and we are prepared to listen, but we must not forget that alcohol is an age-restricted product with the potential to cause great harm.
We are, of course, doing all we can to ensure that the existing licensing laws are more effectively enforced. For example, we are already reaping the benefits of the roll-out of alcohol test purchasing. Figures obtained from the Crown Office suggest that the number of reports has increased significantly since October 2007, which we can safely assume is the result of the roll-out of alcohol test purchasing. That may lead to an increased number of prosecutions, but, more important, it is already resulting in licences being suspended, which, as we know from the pilot evaluation, is a much greater deterrent for licence holders than prosecution. Here in Lothian, for example, where the first phase of alcohol test purchasing began in West Lothian in December, 71 premises have been tested to date, of which 17 failed the first test. Three of those failed for a second time, resulting in all three having their licences suspended. Moreover, we are considering giving local authority trading standards officers an enforcement role in relation to off-sales and, more specifically, allowing them to assist the police in the conduct of test purchasing operations. That will greatly increase enforcement capacity.
The evidence base tells us that levels of alcohol consumption are closely linked to the retail price of alcoholic drinks. As alcohol becomes more affordable, consumption increases, and as it becomes less affordable, consumption decreases. When Finland cut tax on alcohol by a third, in one year alcohol consumption increased by 10 per cent, and liver cirrhosis deaths were found to have risen by 30 per cent. Alcohol is 62 per cent more affordable today than it was in 1980, which is why we have included further proposals to take action to end three-for-the-price-of-two type promotions, which encourage impulse buying of extra alcohol that consumers were not intending to buy. If we buy more drink, the consequences are there for all to see.
We are consulting on the principles of a minimum pricing scheme for alcohol products. We believe that it is unacceptable that alcohol is often sold more cheaply than water. I ask members to consider whether they believe that the price at which some alcohol is sold is acceptable. In some cases, cut-price selling means that strong cider can cost 16p per unit and vodka can cost as little as 24p per unit. Any system of minimum pricing that is introduced needs to be clear, fair and transparent. We believe that a system that relates the price of an alcoholic drink to its relative alcohol content is the best way to achieve that. Any such system would have the benefit of encouraging the greater promotion of low-alcohol products.
I will leave Kenny MacAskill to deal with other elements of the plan. In addition to our record £85 million increase in funding for alcohol prevention, treatment and support services, ours is a package that is designed to begin to turn around our unhealthy relationship with alcohol. As I said, there is not one magic bullet; this is a package of measures on which we want to consult. We hope that we will hear constructive proposals from members.
- Pauline McNeill (Glasgow Kelvin) (Lab):
In government, the Labour Party helped to change the country's mood by asserting that too many Scots had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. We also helped to change the terms of the debate by identifying the fact that our culture is too tolerant of excessive drinking. As we know, alcohol misuse is an issue of the greatest magnitude; it is a social ill that cuts across all ages and classes.
Labour brought in the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 and started down the road of taking tough measures. We took a tough stance on changing attitudes to alcohol misuse. Now, in 2008, it is time to review the act to determine which measures in it are working and which are not working. The Parliament must decide whether it is necessary to toughen up further, and the Labour Party is up for that. We will participate fully and constructively in the consultation and will give the Government a serious debate about alcohol misuse. We will support action that can be shown to work and which is truly evidence based, workable and practical.
However, we note that there have been no pre-consultation discussions with the Opposition parties and no attempts to achieve consensus on the subject beforehand, as happened in the drugs debate. We can live with that, but we ask that the Government climb down from the crusade mode that some ministers were in at the weekend. It does not help the tone of the debate; neither do analogies with child pornography. We ask that the Government get down to the serious business of convincing the country on its proposals for changing attitudes to alcohol misuse and demonstrating why they will make a difference. The tone of the debate matters; we want to be part of a debate that has the proper tone, not a crusade against alcohol. Some of the Government's proposals are in danger of being seen as extreme and not evidence based; one or two of them are considered a bit of a gimmick. We want to hear what the Government thinks of its suggestions. Will it defend them? Is its strategy to throw out every available idea simply to get a reaction? We hope not.
Alcohol consumption is linked to harm—not only individual harm, but harm that has an impact on communities. We know that it affects levels of violence, crime, antisocial behaviour and illness, to mention a few of the things about which the minister talked. We agree that there is no single solution, and it goes without saying that we must change attitudes with a comprehensive and coherent strategy.
However, we must make a concerted effort to tackle underage drinking and, indeed, problem drinking in every other age group. We need to enforce existing laws before we make new ones. I am interested in the figures that the minister announced today. Young people under 18 are a key target group and we support alternatives to alcohol, but the Government promised and voted for a summit on underage drinking, and we want to know when that will happen.
Labour members are concerned about the lack of emphasis on enforcement in the discussion paper. We draw attention to page 21, which seems to say that the enforcement role in relation to off-sales licences will switch to trading standards officers. In our opinion, that would take us in the wrong direction. Government backtracking from a strong enforcement agenda on antisocial behaviour is a recurring theme. Labour believes that, if we are serious about stopping underage drinking, we must be tougher on people who knowingly sell to, or purchase alcohol for, under-18s. Labour is concerned about the poor levels of prosecution and proposes that, if licensees break the law, they should risk losing their licences for up to three months in the first instance, for up to six in the second and possibly for life thereafter.
- Bill Aitken (Glasgow) (Con):
If Ms McNeill is looking for a fight with me on that issue, she will not get it, because I largely agree and, as she will confirm, I suggested similar measures some time ago. However, under the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976 and the 2005 act—which, in part, has not yet been implemented—there is a facility for permanently withdrawing the licence of a licensee who has sold drink to an underage person for the first time. Therefore, her proposal does not toughen the law but, arguably, dilutes it.
- Pauline McNeill:
We think that the 2005 act needs to be reviewed. We want to toughen the law. There are indeed measures in the act that still need to be implemented, but the low level of prosecutions suggests that the law is not being taken seriously. If, as ministers say, the Government wants to have a constructive debate, I hope that it will consider our proposals for tougher measures involving the removal of licences from people who sell to underage drinkers.
Before we create another set of underage drinkers, new offences and new offenders, an effective critique of the proposal to raise the purchase age for off-sales to 21 as a public health message is that it does not pass the test of being evidence based. The general restriction of a minimum drinking age of 21 in the United States does not provide a direct comparison for Scotland. Other countries that are used for the purposes of comparison in the consultation document have completely different cultures from that of Scotland, and such comparisons do not inform us—that is not an evidence-based approach.
If the public health message is that Scots of all ages misuse alcohol, targeting only the 18 to 21 age group sends out the wrong message. There is no evidence that that age group presents the most significant problem. Most of the references in the consultation document concern 15-year-olds. It strikes me that, although there are problems with younger people drinking to excess, that is not confined to the 18 to 21 age group. There is a danger that, if we bring in new laws to control the drinking environment for people aged 18 to 21, that might send the wrong public health message, given that we are trying to promote such a message to people of all ages.
- Shona Robison:
I am a little confused: Pauline McNeill's initial comments seemed to be fairly supportive of the proposal, but she seems to have changed her mind. More specifically, what does she have to say about the evidence from Armadale that has been brought to light?
- Pauline McNeill:
We have had a chance to examine the detail of the consultation, and I have said where our concerns lie. I will come on to the Armadale project.
A bad law will be ignored if people think that it is unfair, and they might feel justified in getting round it. There are serious questions to be asked about the proposal.
Given that the minister asked, I advise her that we are keen to examine in detail the pilot project in Armadale in West Lothian. The Government is selling that project as part of a different message about antisocial behaviour. We want to hear what lessons can be learned by giving local licensing boards more control in the context of antisocial behaviour. It must be borne in mind, however, that the six-week pilot project had significant resources to help bring about the results that were achieved. We do not think that a blanket approach will work. We would like the Government to come back to us when it has assessed the pilot project.
We should of course consider pricing policies, although there are real inconsistencies in the arguments that have been voiced so far. Alcopops and Buckfast would not be covered by the proposals, yet those products play a significant role—they are the drink of choice for many young people. That could drag down a pricing policy, and ministers will have to think about that. We need to ensure that the measures that we finally adopt provide the right balance. If we do not carry the support of the people whom we represent, the message will be lost. There are detailed questions to be asked about whether the right message is being given out on pricing policy.
I do not have enough time to discuss the question of separate alcohol checkouts, but the idea seems a bit of a gimmick. I would like to hear more about the Northern Ireland experience. It seems that shoppers could end up queuing three times, if they are also asked to queue up for tobacco. There needs to be credibility around the proposals, or the message simply will not get across.
Finally, we seek clarity on the Government's legal advice on pricing policy, before it takes us down that road.
- Mary Scanlon (Highlands and Islands) (Con):
I am pleased to discuss Scotland's relationship with alcohol. The Scottish Conservatives have no doubt that the issue should be a priority on the political agenda. Some months ago, we addressed the drugs issue in Scotland. That debate was broader than the norm, leading to Audit Scotland's investigation into what works and the drugs strategy "The Road to Recovery". We seek an evidence base to support the proposals for the alcohol plan, following the present consultation.
Alcohol is, of course, a legal substance for people over the age of 18, which often means that the intervention points become quite blurred.
There is an important factor that is rarely highlighted when we consider alcohol misuse. It was brought to my attention this week that there are huge costs to the fire service, both in lives and in financial terms. Those are, of course, included in the criminal justice costs, but I was told at a meeting in Tain on Monday night that alcohol is a large contributory factor in up to 90 per cent of deaths from house fires. We think about alcohol misuse in connection with health and justice, but we should also focus attention on the fire service and what can be done there.
The majority of people in Scotland drink responsibly. It should not be assumed that, if three bottles of wine are sold for the price of two, people will drink three times as much. The truth is that, for most people, the wine purchase will simply last three times longer.
I highlight some of the mixed messages that were raised by children in Scotland earlier this week. One of them is the advice to pregnant women. The Government advice from Health Scotland is that drinking one or two units once or twice a week is unlikely to do any harm. I welcome the survey of the incidence of foetal alcohol syndrome, but we have to be clear about the matter. Some will think, "If people are saying one or two units once or twice a week for nine months, well, that's probably the minimum. I can probably take a bit more." I ask the minister, in developing the strategy, to look at the websites and the advice that is given.
We are told that red wine is good for the circulation, and on a recent visit to the University of Stirling, Jackson Carlaw and I were told that red wine can prevent and delay dementia as well. There are a lot of mixed messages out there.
- Shona Robison:
The important point is that the discussion paper is about the misuse of alcohol. We are not saying that alcohol is dangerous in itself. It is the misuse that is dangerous. I do not think that there is any contradiction in that.
- Mary Scanlon:
Either we say to people, "Alcohol is dangerous, and this is the minimum amount," or we do not. Especially in the case of pregnant women, we have to be careful. That is what I was referring to.
Rather than just noting the 1.5 million accident and emergency attendances, we could take advantage of people's presentation at A and E to give brief interventions of advice. That idea is mentioned in the discussion paper, and we support it. We should make such interventions available systematically and routinely throughout the national health service, with possible support and follow-up advice through NHS 24. That is one of the most sensible proposals because it addresses the issue at the time of the problem.
Paragraphs 112 to 115 of the discussion paper mention designated places of safety for people who are in a drunken state. Such places have been tried and tested and there is an excellent evidence base for them. Beechwood house in Inverness and Albyn house in Aberdeen, which are run by the Church of Scotland, provide exactly the brief interventions that are needed. Any repeat visits from clients give staff the opportunity to address the persistent drinking of people who are becoming a risk to themselves and others.
Annabel Goldie has raised the issue of parental support, which is much needed, particularly given that more than 19,000 referrals to the children's hearings system last year were due to a lack of parental care, and more than 4,500 of those were partly or mainly due to alcohol abuse. Investment in that area would benefit not only the current generation but future generations and the wider community. Again, we would like to know what works and we would like to see the evidence base, but we are certainly committed to progress in that area.
- The Deputy Presiding Officer:
- Mary Scanlon:
Gosh. I wanted to say a few words about people of different ages. The discussion paper seems to be about targeting young people, as Pauline McNeill said, but the statistics show that six times as many 40-year-olds visit their general practitioner compared with under-40s, and that nine times as many women in their early 40s visit their GP compared with younger women. In communities in the Highlands where there is a problem with drink, it tends to affect 12 to 15-year-olds and not 18 to 21-year-olds.
Finally, the group I met in Tain raised what it considered to be the main issue: why people drink to excess. It had its own answers from years of experience, but one that ranked highly was the low self-esteem of many people—low confidence and a low feeling of self-worth. As that was being discussed, one lady described how she had been told at her grandson's school that he was hopeless and would not go far in life and that teachers could see no future for him. When it comes to promoting a consistent message, we need to be sure that teachers and schools are playing their part.
- Ross Finnie (West of Scotland) (LD):
I am pleased to take part in this debate on alcohol. We welcome the Government's taking the issue seriously.
Alcohol misuse is significant, and there are clearly different aspects to it, many of which are set out in the Government's discussion paper. Some of what the Government has included in that document is not new or original, but it has been collated in a reasonably coherent fashion and much of it is supported by the Liberal Democrats. We are very supportive of the two large sections of the report that deal with support for individuals, families and communities, and with additional investment in support for those who have become addicted to alcohol. That is all welcome.
We also welcome the sections on education. If we agree that alcohol misuse is, as is generally acknowledged, a cultural problem, then education must be at the heart of our attempts to turn the culture round. The drink-driving limit is not within the competence of the Scottish Parliament, but we support calls on the Westminster Government to change it.
In the brief time that is available to me, I want to concentrate on pricing, retailers' sales practices and underage drinking. On pricing, there is no question but that deep discounting and offers are important. We can point to who buys the alcohol and their responsibility, but medical evidence and the evidence that is adduced in the report are clear that pricing has a significant impact in terms of increased alcohol consumption. We welcome the prospect of doing something about that, of using the existing powers in the law and, if need be in relation to off-sales, of extending those powers. I would also like longer to consider the detail of the proposals for minimum pricing, although there is some merit in that idea, especially when it relates to alcohol strength.
There are two groups that we need to bring onside. First, supermarkets are enormous organisations that by and large make great efforts to act responsibly, for example to improve the quality and nutritional value of food, but I find it disappointing that those big organisations, which claim to have corporate social responsibility, appear to ignore the fact that they sell alcohol. I hope that the Government will take more seriously the idea of trying to bring the supermarkets onside.
I have looked at supermarkets' corporate social responsibility reports over the past year or so. I found only one major supermarket that even acknowledged that it sold alcohol. That supermarket said:
"Our approach to healthy living also encompasses the responsible retailing of alcohol".
However, on reading a Daily Mail article with the headline, "When £20 buys you 60 bottles of strong lager, how can we take a crackdown on drinking seriously?", I found that the same supermarket was selling another brand of beer at 60p per pint and its own brand at 30p per pint. If any supermarket believes that that is corporate social responsibility, it is not good enough. However, we must bring the supermarkets onside—we should not simply castigate them or paint them into a corner. I urge ministers to try to bring them on board as they could play a significant role if they took their corporate social responsibility more seriously.
I turn to retailers and the sale of alcohol to under-18s. I understand perfectly the point that we must use the current legislation: Bill Aitken's intervention on Pauline McNeill was telling in that he pointed out properly that two existing provisions in the current legislation are not properly deployed. As the Cabinet Secretary for Justice is here, we hope that he will say in his closing speech that much more effort will be made to use the law as it stands. There is merit in what Liberal Democrats north and south of the border have proposed, which is to be far tougher on those who break the law on selling alcohol.
Liberal Democrats want to bring the supermarkets onside—the same applies to under-21s. To react to a problem in a progressive society by saying that we do not want to transform young people who might be part of the problem into part of the solution is misguided. The evidence on 18 to 21-year-olds is flimsy at best. The Liberal Democrat approach is to appeal to that age group to be part of the solution rather than to castigate it as being part of the problem.
- Stuart McMillan (West of Scotland) (SNP):
Will the member take an intervention?
- Ross Finnie:
- The Deputy Presiding Officer:
I ask Stuart McMillan to be quick, as Ross Finnie is in the last minute of his speech.
- Stuart McMillan:
Last week, pupils from St Stephen's high school in Port Glasgow visited the Parliament. When I spoke to them about the proposal to increase the purchasing age to 21, they agreed that it is good. Does Ross Finnie agree?
- The Deputy Presiding Officer:
Ross Finnie must wind up now.
- Ross Finnie:
I disagree with that proposal. I have received lots of e-mails and correspondence on the matter. I understand that some evidence was adduced from an experiment, but we have also experimented previously with curfews. The reaction of 18 to 21-year-olds as a whole was that such measures castigated them and did not address the problem. I and other Liberal Democrats appeal to 18 to 21-year-olds to improve the campaign for responsible drinking and to bring onside their peers and under-18s. The Government should not introduce legislation to raise the purchasing age.
- The Deputy Presiding Officer:
The member must conclude.
- Ross Finnie:
- The Deputy Presiding Officer:
No, the member must conclude now; I am sorry.
- Ross Finnie:
- Christine Grahame (South of Scotland) (SNP):
The debate is important. We are aware of the shocking statistics which, as we all appreciate, severely underestimate the reality of the problem. I am pleased that the debate is open, so that free individual contributions are allowed. I have not been whipped, so members will know that the views that I express are my own.
The proposals are bold—indeed, they are controversial—but we must robustly test proposals for legislation. Many measures in the consultation paper are worthy of consideration. We all appreciate that no single, simple solution exists. There is no road map, or we would use it, and we cannot simply transplant from other cultures and countries a single solution. Scotland has different problems, of which we are aware.
Measures such as reducing consumption through tackling loss-leading prices and introducing a minimum retail price are certainly worthy of consideration. I support what Ross Finnie said: if people go home with crates of beer or many bottles of wine, many of them—but not all—will be more likely to reach for the corkscrew and take that extra drink because it happens to be to hand.
I welcome the survey of the incidence of foetal alcohol syndrome. The chief medical officer has made it plain that we must start with the state of our children in the womb.
I also welcome support for some third-sector organisations. The Up2U project in Peebles is worthy of a ministerial visit. It involves fourth, fifth and sixth-year pupils at Peebles high school going into primary schools to talk about matters such as sensible drinking of alcohol and sexual activity. That project is successful. Members will all know about such initiatives in their patches.
It is high time we considered the role of trading standards officers, which I have pursued. It is illogical that it is trading standards officers who look for underage tobacco sales, but it is the police who look for underage alcohol sales. The shops are generally the same shops, so combining those activities would be a worthy use of trading standards officers' time and would release police for other duties.
So far, so good. However, I am not persuaded that we should raise to 21 the minimum age for purchasing alcohol. I ask what principle is in operation, because law should be based on principle. We propose a voting age of 16—I heard the minister's response about that—and the age for marriage is 16, which is a historic point. People must be 16 to join the armed forces, but 18 to serve in combat. We have just raised to 18 the age at which cigarettes can be purchased, and a proposal has been made to raise the age at which alcohol can be purchased to 21, but what principle is in operation? What is the age of civic responsibility? I would like members to think more widely in this debate—which should be open—than about alcohol misuse only, and to consider the age of civic responsibility. I think that I am correct in saying that, in criminal law, there is a presumption that a person can be criminally responsible at the age of eight. We have accepted that presumption, so perhaps we should consider an age of civic responsibility.
People may say that the end of reducing underage drinking justifies the means—I expect that response—but that is not happening now. Half of all 15-year-olds who have been drinking in the past week have deliberately tried to get drunk, as has already been mentioned. I can merely suspect, so I may be wrong, that raising the age at which alcohol can be purchased will not change the attitudes of 15 and 16-year-olds. There is something else going on out there in this complex issue.
There are practical issues. If there is only one sales point, I presume that some people could not be employed to serve there because one must be over 21 to serve alcohol in a supermarket. I agree with Pauline McNeill that there might have to be three tills in some places.
I have not been won over by the broad-bush approach that has been taken. There are rural areas in my constituency that have only one shop attached to a post office, 20 or 30 miles away from a supermarket. Such shops sell cat meat, wee bottles of wine and so on. A couple aged 20 with children would not be able to buy a bottle of wine from such shops to sit down with after their kids have at last gone to bed and the last whimper has been heard from upstairs. They would not be able to share in a glass of wine. Such issues exist in rural areas.
Evidence exists, but it is in bits. The West Lothian experiment was grand, but short lived. One thing that the Health and Sport Committee has learned from various witnesses is the need for extensive and robust research before social legislation is proposed. Anyone who tries to engineer social change should do their research first.
I hope that other members will be as open in their speeches as I have been, as I suspect that there is a diversity of views across the parties in the chamber. The issue is not party political and deserves robust consideration.
- Mr Frank McAveety (Glasgow Shettleston) (Lab):
I thank Christine Grahame for her honest appraisal of the issues that we are discussing.
I am known as someone who does not normally take a drink, but the debate might eventually drive me to it. I was frustrated by some of the language that was used in last week's debate, particularly about the concern that members of all political parties and none have about antisocial behaviour. We need first to address fundamental questions about the terms and tone of the debate before we go into the details, which members have rightly said we need to do.
I am concerned about the right of 18 to 21-year-olds to make informed health choices. Rhetoric has been utilised in the chamber on the subject of men and women choosing whom to have on health boards, for example. Lowering the age at which people can participate in direct elections to health boards has been recommended. If young people are informed, articulate and able enough to choose who should sit on a health board, I would like to think that they are informed, articulate and able enough to make choices that relate to their health.
I read that the minister said at the weekend that
"Sometimes you have to take actions that do impact upon people who have not done anything untoward."
I do not think that such action necessarily has to be taken. The cabinet secretary will have a chance to respond to what I am saying. There are fundamental issues to do with tackling alcohol misuse. I represent an area that is well up there in statistical terms with respect to foetal alcohol syndrome problems, underage teenagers consuming alcohol and violent incidents resulting from that consumption. Members might, therefore, have thought that I would say that what is proposed is the right course of action.
I also have personal experience of alcohol misuse in my family and know the challenges that it presents to people's development and life experiences. However, even with all that knowledge of alcohol as a brutalising influence in people's lives, I am not persuaded of the approach that the minister has articulated over the past week. The minister tried to qualify that approach in an interview in one of the Sunday papers. However, if he is going to compare the consumption of alcohol to access to porn—involving children or whoever—at home and say that the two might be equivalent, he needs to think carefully about the language that he uses.
We should examine the evidence base for the group that could be most affected by the proposals—the 18 to 21-year-olds. The American evidence from Wechsler seems to indicate that binge drinking is not predictable on the basis of access to alcohol at a certain age. We need to interrogate the evidence base rigorously, as members have said. If we do that, we might begin to address the fundamental issue in Armadale, the east end of Glasgow and other parts of small-town Scotland, of the excessive misuse of alcohol by a small minority of people. Interestingly, recently published statistics from Dumfries and Galloway show that people who leave hospitals with alcohol-related problems are mostly over the age of 21.
Let us also talk about another issue, which I know affects Glasgow—city-centre drinking. That is not about off-sales or alcohol that is bought from the supermarkets on Saturday evenings; it is about licensees, pubs and clubs engaging with young people and making alcohol available to them through promotional offers. I welcome the debate about how we can tackle such promotions, but I regret that that is being conflated with arguments against the legitimate choices that should be available to individuals in an open and pluralist society.
I will conclude with two points that Pauline McNeill, among other members, touched on. First, we already have powers to tackle some of the problems that we face. I have listened carefully to what Kenny MacAskill has said over the past week and all the issues about which he has expressed concern—about which I have similar concerns—can be addressed under existing legislation through more effective enforcement and policing. That has been proven through the example of what has happened in Armadale. By using the police more effectively, targeting individuals more effectively and working with retailers more constructively, we can address the issues. However, can the cabinet secretary give us a guarantee that the same level of resource will be made available throughout Scotland? I would like that to be part of the debate, as well.
The debate is not about saying that everyone over the age of 18 and under the age of 21 is likely to exhibit the behaviours that we all know are problematic in our communities. In fact, the evidence suggests that it is people under the age of 18 and adults over 21 who engage in excessive and persistent daily misuse of alcohol.
I hope that the debate is an open and honest one, and I hope that the door is not closed on any constructive proposals that are made in the Parliament. I remind the cabinet secretary that there is a minority Government, and that Parliament is made up of 129 members who have the chance to scrutinise that Government's proposals. I hope that the eventual proposals will be markedly different from what is being put to us at the moment.
- Michael Matheson (Falkirk West) (SNP):
So far in the debate, there is consensus that Scotland needs to change its relationship with alcohol. As Shona Robison said in her opening speech, that relationship with alcohol is holding back our country. It will probably take at least a generation to change Scotland's cultural associations with alcohol—it takes a considerable time effectively to change a society's culture. We have to ask whether we are the generation that is prepared to take the action that will start that culture change and allow it to take place. The consultation document has certainly stimulated the debate that is necessary for engagement in that process.
I turn to the issue that has drawn most of the media attention and has caused quite a bit of today's debate: increase of the minimum age for purchasing alcohol from an off-licence. The cabinet secretary is aware that I raised that issue with him almost a year ago, because I support increasing the minimum age for the purchase of alcohol from an off-licence from 18 to 21. I recognise that some members oppose that idea as a matter of principle because they believe that there should be an age of civic responsibility.
I can see where Christine Grahame is coming from, along with others who argue that the minimum age should not change because there should be a single universal age of civic responsibility. That would mean that we would have to consider whether we should raise the age of consent for sexual activity, to drive a car and so on. I am comfortable with the idea that we accept that people are given different responsibilities at different ages.
- Mike Rumbles (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD):
Will the member take an intervention?
- Michael Matheson:
Mike Rumbles did not bother to come in for the earlier part of the debate, so I am certainly not going to take his intervention.
- Mike Rumbles:
I missed one speech.
- Michael Matheson:
He missed three speeches, actually.
I do not accept that there being different minimum ages for different responsibilities creates confusion. We have always had different ages for different things. We should also acknowledge that a number of supermarkets currently have a minimum age for purchase of 21; some in my constituency have a minimum age of 25. Those who are protesting about the possible change should be protesting outside the supermarkets, where they will see a very different reaction from the communities that support the initiatives that I am talking about and that are now being taken in my constituency. We must change the minimum age because we must tackle the antisocial behaviour that is fuelled by alcohol. We must ensure that where people are consuming alcohol, they have that experience in a supervised setting in a pub, as they can do at the age of 18, before they can do so outwith the pub.
- Mr McAveety:
Could the member elaborate on why there is a difference between being able to purchase alcohol at a local supermarket and being able to consume it at the age of 18 or 19 in a city centre?
- Michael Matheson:
I fully accept that point. The best bar none initiative in my constituency has several bar owners using a minimum purchasing age of 21 because of the problems that they have experienced. We need to look at more such initiatives for tackling the problem in town centres.
We have heard a lot about the Armadale experience. The public relations machine for Lothian and Borders Police must be given some credit for the way in which it has gone about pushing that pilot. The first pilot was in Larbert and Stenhousemuir in my constituency. It has been running for three months and will run for a further three months.
Today, I got an e-mail from the sergeant who is running that initiative for Central Scotland Police, and he said:
"I can say that there has been a reduction in Antisocial behaviour crime types and calls received concerning such matters over the 3 month period so far. Vandalism occurring between the specified times has also reduced."
One of the most interesting things that he said was that none of the participating off-licences has said that it has experienced any loss of income, but they are advocating that the initiative be rolled out in other parts of the area. That evidence demonstrates that progress has already been made through that initiative. We have a responsibility to listen and act upon that evidence, rather than to ignore it, as some individuals would like to do.
During the course of the consultation exercise, we must ensure that the voices of those who suffer from the problems that are associated with antisocial behaviour fuelled by alcohol are not drowned out by sophisticated campaigns that are organised by interest groups and other organisations that want their views to be heard and carried. Communities' views must be heard during the consultation.
On enforcement, members will recognise the frustrations that are caused by the problems that we have with our licensing boards accepting that they have a role to play in taking robust action against those who breach the terms of their licences. It is an issue that causes frustration in communities and in the police, who, when they take complaints to the licensing boards, find that the boards are not prepared to take action. They must recognise that they have a clear responsibility to take action where it is merited.
- Mary Mulligan (Linlithgow) (Lab):
Like other members, I welcome today's debate. From all the statistics that we have heard, it is quite clear that misuse of alcohol is causing problems not only in our families and communities but to people's health. The problem concerns not only those whose health suffers because of such misuse: as I will discuss, children and young people, even including unborn babies, are affected.
A key issue that is not suitably covered by the strategy on alcohol is the effect of alcohol abuse on children who grow up in households where it is an issue—children's charities are concerned at their lack of involvement in drafting the strategy. Government reports estimate that about 65,000 children are in that position, but many children's organisations put the number between 80,000 and 100,000. Whatever the number, such figures are shocking, given that the effect on each young life can be devastating. When children and young people live in households in which alcohol is misused, their education can be affected, their social and emotional development may be hindered and their life chances and experiences can be seriously diminished.
Much is said about how we should support the alcohol abuser, but we must also identify children who are affected and support them. I accept that that is not as easy as it might sound, because we do not have good data on where those children and young people are. Health professionals may be unaware of them and teachers and social workers who may be aware might be unsure how to intervene. Alcohol's status as a legal substance can also make any such intervention challenging.
One of the most shocking statistics that I have heard recently is that, of 9,000 calls that ChildLine received, 31 per cent raised concerns about alcohol misuse. By comparison, 10 per cent of callers raise concerns about domestic abuse and 7 per cent mention drugs. Clearly, alcohol misuse is a huge issue for many of our children. There are also clear indications that alcohol misuse contributes to physical abuse.
The minister and other members will also be aware—Mary Scanlon mentioned this—of the problems that are associated with misuse of alcohol by pregnant women. The most extreme resulting problem is foetal alcohol syndrome, but foetal alcohol spectrum disorder can also be debilitating for the child. It would be helpful for the Scottish Government to collect data on the incidence of FAS and FASD. The Government should co-ordinate a strong message and ensure that training is available so that health professionals and others can identify problems. Perhaps the minister will say a little about how the Government will do that.
The Armadale pilot in my constituency has been mentioned again today. I referred to the pilot in some detail in last week's youth justice debate, but let me add another couple of comments. First, the pilot was an antisocial behaviour measure and, as such, has been successful. However, it was not intended—and never will be—to be a health measure and it does not address the culture of drinking. The best that can be said is that such restrictions might delay young people drinking, but they do not go further.
Secondly, as I mentioned last week, a good thing about the pilot was that it ensured that young drinkers were referred to West Lothian Drug and Alcohol Service for counselling. However, because of funding problems, some staff at WLDAS have been issued with redundancy notices and others are leaving before theirs are issued. This is not the first time I have raised the issue in Parliament. If ministers are serious about addressing alcohol problems, perhaps they can tell us how they will resolve the problem that faces the very people on whom we depend.
- Shona Robison:
I accept what Mary Mulligan is saying, and that we need to work through the problem. However, will she also accept that we have made record investment in tackling alcohol misuse?
- Mary Mulligan:
I accept that the minister mentioned £80 million today, but I am not sure against what criteria it will be spent. It is unworthy of the minister to pass the buck—as, it seems, is probable yet again—to local authorities.
Last week I also mentioned that students at Armadale academy are supportive of the pilot, because they see it as reducing the availability of alcohol. Clearly, they feel pressured to drink on some occasions. As Pauline McNeill and others have said, let us use existing powers and let us use the test purchasing scheme more. When stores fail under the scheme, we should remove their licences, which means that we must ask licensing boards to act appropriately. Let us also review how many licences are issued in the first place. Finally, let us get tougher with public houses that sell alcohol to people who are obviously drunk. I accept that that can sometimes be difficult for bar staff, but proper support and training would help.
Parliament has consistently set aside time to debate concerns about alcohol abuse, but the frustration for many of us is that we do not appear to be making significant progress. I ask the Scottish Government to resource solutions properly when problems are identified, to use the powers that are available to enforce laws and regulations, to take seriously the effect of alcohol abuse on children and young people who are living with it, and to act accordingly.
- Jackson Carlaw (West of Scotland) (Con):
I would be very surprised if any contributor to this afternoon's debate had not acknowledged in some way not only that Scotland has a problem with alcohol, but that Scotland's problem runs deeper than that of its partners in the union. Moreover, although many will note that Scotland's relationship with alcohol is as old as Scotland, the stark fact with which our political generation must wrestle is that the problem has escalated dramatically in the past 15 years or so—in terms of consumption, incidence of chronic liver disease, mortality generally, drink-related offences and hospital admissions, and with the young.
How do we account for what has happened? A generation ago, that would have been simple for many members in the chamber—it would all have been Mrs Thatcher's fault. Indeed, I imagine that for some that explanation will still do perfectly well. The Government has published a timely and worthwhile consultation that draws together in its presentation some of the harsh reality that often appears in a more piecemeal format in different political disciplines—health, justice and education. The document was long rumoured, and some speculated that it was subject to indefinite delay. In the event, it is not an easy read and is not lacking in political courage. Whatever fate may befall some of the proposals that it contains, both the Minister for Public Health and the Cabinet Secretary for Justice deserve to be congratulated unreservedly on initiating this substantive consultation.
Two proposals have attracted widespread attention and have been commented on this afternoon. The first is the proposal to increase to 21 the age at which it is legal to purchase alcohol from an off-sales, which many have castigated for various reasons. Although the argument that refers to the contradiction between the ages at which different things become legal is important and was well made by my colleague Murdo Fraser with respect to the Government's proposal to reduce the voting age to 16, I do not find it compelling in itself. No party is proposing to standardise the age at which people can marry, drive, smoke or drink, and why would it? There may be anomalies, but so what? We have all lived with such anomalies, and although they may make for an amusing debate, no practical difficulty has arisen in understanding or living with them. To me, age consistency is less pertinent than the merit of the suggestion.
Although I do not dismiss out of hand the notion that at some point I could be persuaded that the legal age for purchasing alcohol from an off-sales should rise, that will happen only after it has been demonstrated convincingly that all other measures have been tried and existing laws have been enforced properly.
- Mike Rumbles:
There is a different inconsistency. The issue is not the age at which people can drink. Twenty-year-olds would be able to buy drink in pubs and clubs, but a 20-year-old father with a child would not be able to have a tin of beer in the safety of his home. Surely that is wrong.
- Jackson Carlaw:
A 14-year-old may sit in the back seat of a car but not in the front—they are still allowed to sit in the car. There are age inconsistencies on a range of issues. That point in itself does not undermine the argument for raising the age at which alcohol may be purchased. However, given that in 2005-06 proceedings for purchasing alcohol were commenced against only seven people under the age of 18 and that only 86 proceedings were commenced for proxy purchasing, it is plain that the existing legislation is not being enforced.
- Mike Rumbles:
The member will not listen.
- The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman):
Mr Rumbles, you may not intervene from a sedentary position.
- Jackson Carlaw:
From September 2009, the sanction of removing the licence from a premises rather than an individual will be available; if that is enforced, it will surely have an impact.
The seat belt legislation of the 1970s was introduced to combat fatalities and injuries, many of which were avoidable, particularly among young children; it was not proposed simply that individuals be banned from sitting in cars until they were 21. No: a legislative requirement to wear a seat belt was established, then the legislation was rigorously enforced. Before we consider altering age limits, we should be completely satisfied that the existing laws and those that are pending are being, or will be, rigorously enforced. For the present, I believe that the proposal to raise the age limit is counterproductive. It will initiate a campaign that, over the summer, might overwhelm the broader issues that the Government is trying to have discussed.
The second proposal relates to pricing. Again, I have some sympathy with the Government because undoubtedly the increase in consumption has been matched by an increase in the relative affordability of alcohol as a product. Compelling as that is, I do not see how the Scottish Government's proposals could be implemented, even if they were appropriate. We acknowledge that pricing is a factor, and Conservatives at Westminster have made detailed proposals—costed and evaluated by Grant Thornton—for a restructuring of duty, which would see increased duty on alcopops and super-strength ciders and beers, with reductions on lower-strength varieties. However, such changes would be made within the United Kingdom marketplace and would not be prejudicial to Scotland in particular, which I fear the Scottish Government's proposals are. In any event, how would cross-border shopping sprees, or internet or telephone sales by companies based in England, be avoided? It is also true that we share commercial pricing points with supermarkets in England, but that Scotland has a bigger alcohol abuse problem than anywhere else in the UK, so pricing on its own is not the issue.
One of the features of research on this subject is that it shows how countries across the world have and deal with alcohol problems in a hugely variable and contradictory way. Again, this is a bit like the inconsistency in age limits to which I referred earlier and I am tempted to ask—regarding the experience of other countries with the social impact of alcohol—so what? The French and the Italians are, after all, French and Italian. Other countries have a different climate, history, social environment and daylight hours. Although I am agnostic, I am aware that, in many of those countries, the church continues to have a far more profound influence than it has in the UK, where I fear the church has lost much of its moral resonance, especially with the young.
Compare the attitudinal differences to drink of the young generally with young Moslems, for example, or with a more church-attending continental or American youth. All of that points to the deep-seated nature of the historical Scottish cultural relationship with drink. Scotland's relationship with alcohol is not maturing; it is deteriorating and we all have a stake in the outcomes. The libertarian refrain, "Leave them to it," is woefully misplaced. We are all paying a price, directly or indirectly. One way or another we must engage the will of Scots generally and not just that of politicians, professionals and health boards. We should commend the Government for having started this conversation afresh.
- Margaret Smith (Edinburgh West) (LD):
Everyone agrees that tackling alcohol misuse is a difficult and complex challenge that requires a comprehensive strategy and an holistic approach, because there is no magic bullet or simplistic solution. While there are a number of proposals in the consultation paper that we can welcome, I believe that other elements are misguided and unworkable, and several do not appear to be particularly evidence based.
We must always remember that alcohol is a legal substance that the majority of people partake of without getting into any trouble. However, it is also true that the damaging effects of alcohol are wide ranging and affect people across all age ranges and social groups. We need to change Scotland's drinking culture to encourage people to think more about alcohol and to educate them to make better choices about their health and lifestyles. We need to increase awareness of the content of, and potential harm caused by, alcoholic products.
The Scottish Government must not allow itself to be tempted by ideas that will make headlines but achieve little. Separate displays for alcohol products in supermarkets are a good way to reinforce in people's minds the difference between alcohol and other groceries. We have supported that approach to date. However, having a separate queue for purchasing alcohol will be unworkable and costly for many retailers and is likely to be ineffective in reducing consumption. People will not be put off buying alcohol by the introduction of separate tills. That indiscriminate measure will inconvenience the majority who drink sensibly and buy alcohol as part of their weekly shop.
The consultation paper says:
"Excessive consumption is not limited to particular sections of society but is common across different age and socioeconomic groups."
In fact, the paper goes on to say that consumption is greatest among middle-aged men. However, we are confronted with plans not to stop middle-aged men buying beer but to raise the minimum age for purchasing alcohol in off-sales, which discriminates against young people between 18 and 21 as a whole. That measure is not targeted to impact on those young people who engage in antisocial behaviour or other criminal activity; it is designed to hit each and every young person between 18 and 21. Not only will it penalise and demonise a whole group of young people, worsening their relationship with government and the police, but it could lead to increased alcohol misuse among some young people.
- Dr Richard Simpson (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab):
Will the member give way?
- Margaret Smith:
No, I want to make progress.
It has been said before, but it is worth saying again that it cannot be right that a 20-year-old can get married, vote, serve and die in the armed forces but cannot buy a bottle of wine at the off-licence to take to their mother's for dinner. Where will it end? If the Government is motivated by a belief that the end justifies the means, is the next step to prevent all pregnant women from buying alcohol?
Constituents have asked me about the impact on young people who work in shops of increasing the purchasing age for alcohol. I am keen to have clarification on whether the minimum age for checkout staff who sell alcohol would have to be raised. The Wine and Spirit Trade Association thinks that the measure could result in a number of young people losing their jobs.
We are convinced that, instead of introducing new legislation that will impact on young people and the retail industry, it is time properly to enforce the laws that we currently have. Answers to parliamentary questions that I asked recently revealed that only 70 out of 357 licence holders who were caught selling alcohol to minors were prosecuted in 2006-07. The Scottish Grocers Federation said that in 2005-06 only 86 people were proceeded against in the courts for proxy purchasing and only seven people under 18 were taken to court for purchasing alcohol—that is not to mention the derisory number of licensees who lose their licences for selling alcohol to underage drinkers or to people who are already totally inebriated.
- Shona Robison:
Does the member accept that, as I said, test purchasing was rolled out properly only towards the end of last year and the figures that are emerging demonstrate that we are moving in the right direction? The figures to which she refers are fairly old.
- Margaret Smith:
The minister is perhaps relying a little too much on very new figures. I do not disagree that there is a direction of travel with test purchasing, which we have advocated and supported for some time.
The Government must focus on enforcement of the age restrictions and other laws that we have, instead of dreaming up new ways to demonise and discriminate against young people. It is vital that irresponsible retailers are forced to face the consequences of their actions and that they lose their licences when that is necessary. The Liberal Democrats propose bottle marking schemes, to help to identify and punish retailers who sell alcohol to children and to help to reduce antisocial behaviour. We welcomed the recent extensions to test purchasing schemes that identify people who sell to underage purchasers.
There is a lack of detail in much of the consultation document. For example, it is not clear how the social responsibility fee, the purpose of which would be to compel some alcohol retailers to pay for the damage that misuse causes, would work. We see some merit in the comments about pricing, because it is widely accepted that increased prices can discourage alcohol consumption, but it is not clear how we can increase prices, given the legislative framework in which we operate.
Alcohol misuse is a serious public health issue in Scotland and a comprehensive range of measures is needed to tackle its impact. Ill-thought-out solutions cannot be the answer. We urge the Scottish National Party to take on board the concerns that have been expressed in the debate and to remember this key question: why do people misuse alcohol in the first place? I echo Christine Grahame's comments about research, which must be at the heart of our approach. Good though the figures from Armadale are, we need much more evidence before we decide that discriminating against an entire group of young people is the way forward.
- Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP):
Like 95 per cent of Scots, I acknowledge that alcohol is a problem for Scotland. I welcome the Scottish Government's evidence-based proposals. The complexity and sensitivity of the issue are such that it has often been swept under the rug in the past, so I applaud the Government for taking important steps in the right direction.
It was established recently that every day in Scotland 18 young people below the minimum age for alcohol purchase are hospitalised for alcohol-related problems—that is 6,500 young people every year. It is unfortunate that in our culture the younger a drinker is, the more likely they are to drink with the intention of getting drunk, which is evidenced by the fact that a fifth of 15-year-olds attempted to get drunk during the past week. Such indulgence leads to dependence and other alcohol-related problems later in life. As is the case with smoking, the earlier that a person starts to drink, the earlier they become addicted.
I disagree with Mary Mulligan's comments about delaying the age at which people start to drink. I acknowledge that people in their 40s are nine times more likely to go to their doctor as a result of alcohol problems, but that is often because the problem has built up over a period of many years, if not decades, and it has taken a long time for its existence to be recognised. I acknowledge, too, the comments that Mary Mulligan and Mary Scanlon made about foetal alcohol syndrome, which represented a positive contribution to the debate.
Everyone would accept that alcohol abuse has significantly hindered Scotland's fulfilling of its potential. In a 2007 National Statistics report on alcohol-related death, 15 of the 20 worst-performing local authority areas in the UK were in Scotland. In my area of North Ayrshire, there have been 218 such deaths over the past five years. In addition, there have been numerous reports of Scotland's sub-par performance against other indicators—often those that have a positive correlation with alcohol consumption.
I will not go into the results of the Armadale study, which has been done to death already. As Michael Matheson mentioned, a similar trial began recently in Falkirk. Thus far, as was the case in Armadale, licensees have responded to the proposals and citizens have noted a significant decrease in antisocial behaviour. We accept that it is early days, but things are moving in the right direction. That is not surprising, given that the Scottish Government's proposals are backed by years of extensive research, as well as by independent professional bodies.
Strong evidence has come from the United States, where raising the age of purchase reduced consumption levels in young people and all levels of alcohol-related problems. Over the past 25 years, since the age at which alcohol can be consumed was raised to 21, consumption has decreased in every age group. It is interesting that the US introduced such legislation not to tackle antisocial behaviour, but to reduce the number of deaths on the road.
Alcohol-related road deaths are a subject that has not yet been mentioned. Since 1982, the number of 16 to 20-year-olds in the US who are killed in drink-driving accidents has decreased by a whopping 63 per cent. Even just reducing the permitted blood alcohol limit from 80mg to 50mg, as my SNP colleague Dave Thompson proposes, would prevent an estimated 65 deaths a year. Alcohol is a multifactorial problem. A conservative extrapolation of the results of the Armadale trial suggests that if the minister's proposals were implemented throughout Scotland, there would be an annual reduction of 3,700 in the number of reported assaults and of 62,000 in the number of cases of vandalism.
It is easy to see how much alcohol abuse costs Scotland in cash terms, but we cannot possibly measure the human impact. We cannot afford to watch as more people's lives are ruined. That is especially true of young people, whom we have a duty to protect. It has been interesting that different age limits have been mentioned for different activities. I might be wrong, but I understood that in Louisiana, certainly until recently, someone could get married at 14 but could not have a drink until they were 21. I might be wrong about that, but there are wider variations in other societies than there are in ours.
The Scottish Government estimated recently that last year alcohol was a key factor in 449 rapes or attempted rapes, 1,200 fires, 55 homicides and 31,267 minor assaults. In total, alcohol has been identified as a key factor in at least a quarter of all crime.
The youth of Scotland has suffered most from the abundance and accessibility of alcohol—6 per cent of 15-year-olds report that they have had unprotected sex as a consequence of alcohol consumption and 7 per cent of them report that they have tried drugs while under the influence of alcohol. Those teenage drinkers are much more likely to develop a dependency later in life, whether on alcohol or other drugs, and to suffer serious alcohol problems. I have three young children, the oldest of whom is 15, and I care very much about that age group. My children are coming to an age at which they will experiment with drink.
The Scottish Government's proposals will have a proportionately large effect on the number of young people who are injured in drink-driving accidents. Among the 17 to 19-year-old age group, there is an average of 24 drink-driving accidents per 100 million miles driven. That figure is 50 per cent higher than that for the age group that suffers the second highest number of such accidents, and 600 per cent higher than the average figure. In the UK, members of that age group accounted for one ninth of all casualties who sustained injuries as a consequence of alcohol consumption. If applied to Scotland, that would imply that there would be 110 casualties and three fatalities in that age group each year.
Excessive consumption of alcohol is not limited to particular sections of society, but its effects are most visible among younger people. Since 1994, there has been a 50 per cent increase in the incidence of drinking by 13-year-olds and a 33 per cent increase in the incidence of drinking by 15-year-olds. Those trends are unacceptable and comprehensive action is required now. It must be admitted that the Government's proposals are hardly a vote winner, and the Government must be commended for having the courage and determination to make progress on the issue. That is necessary if we are to take a stand for Scotland's youth and to build and sustain the future of our country.
- David Whitton (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (Lab):
I, too, welcome the debate. Alcohol misuse and abuse is a major problem in Scotland and action is needed. Like other members, I have seen at first hand the effects on society of alcohol misuse in my community. Only a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity, along with local councillors, to accompany the police on a Friday night patrol. Time and again, we came across the effects of alcohol misuse by young people. Groups of youngsters, many of them 16 to 18 and even younger, were caught drinking. In many cases, it was difficult to tell the ages of the young girls who were involved in the drinking, so I have sympathy with shopkeepers on that. The police told me that, on one prior occasion, they had stopped 90 youngsters and taken 30 litres of alcohol from them. That was in the town of Kirkintilloch, which used to be dry only 30-odd years ago.
I am not sure what purpose the SNP hopes that the strategy will fulfil. Is it working towards improving public health, or is it attempting to reduce crime and antisocial behaviour? If it is both, I welcome that. However, if the strategy is a public health measure and the SNP wants to reduce alcohol consumption, it should target everyone, not just 18 to 21-year-olds, as we have heard from other members. There is no evidence that simply raising the minimum purchase age to 21 will in itself improve public health. The strategy simply attempts to link alcohol misuse in the general public and its public health implications with the antisocial behaviour that results from underage drinking.
That brings me to tackling underage drinking and the irresponsible retailers who sell to underage drinkers. I remind Mr MacAskill of a comment that he made in The Herald in August 2005, when he stated:
"We don't want to criminalise 17 year olds having a surreptitious drink on the way to the school dance".
From reading the discussion paper, it seems that things have moved on apace since 2005. Nowadays, it is 13, 14 and 15-year-olds who take a few drinks prior to going out on the town. Figure 8 in the paper shows the scale of the problem, with 40 per cent of 15-year-olds in 2006 having sampled alcohol.
Pauline McNeill mentioned Labour's call for action against irresponsible retailers, with our three-strikes-and-you're-out policy.
- Shona Robison:
I ask the member to clear up a bit of confusion in my mind. As I understand it, with licensing boards' new powers, they will be able to take a one-strike-and-you're-out approach if they so wish and if that is deemed appropriate. I cannot understand how the member can argue that his suggestion would be a stronger measure. Will he explain that?
- David Whitton:
I will do my best. I was trying to do that by explaining that even I found it difficult to say whether a certain girl was 14 and not 18, because she looked 18. I sympathise with a shopkeeper who finds himself in the same situation—he could make a mistake. Under our proposal, if he did that once, his licence would be taken away for three months; if he persisted, it would be taken away for six months; and if he did it again, his licence would be gone.
I fully support the views that Michael Matheson expressed about the need for licensing boards to take tougher action. A shopkeeper in Bearsden in my area persistently sold cheap alcohol to underage drinkers. No matter how many complaints residents made to the police, he maintained his licence, until action was eventually taken against him last year and his licence was taken away. The situation was so bad that he was even selling pre-mixed vodka in 2 litre cola bottles—after closing time, he would drive to where kids were hanging out to sell the bottles from his van. Eventually, he was shut down, but that took time. Not all alcohol retailers are like that. The new owner of that shop regained the licence for the premises, with the blessing of the community. Cheap alcopops have been removed and there is no more Buckfast, Mad Dog or whatever the latest fashionable drink is. The owner imposed a minimum purchase age of 21, which made a difference to the selling of alcohol in the area.
I listened with interest to Christine Grahame's comments about the experience in rural areas, where there may be only one shop. However, my question is why we have so many licensed premises in urban areas. Why do so many chip shops and even garages sell alcohol? There is simply no need for anyone to be able to buy a bottle of Buckfast with a haggis pudding supper and there is certainly no need for them to be able to buy 2 litres of cider with 20 litres of unleaded. Mr MacAskill may be interested to know that a garage close to the former Low Moss prison had a licence and that that was the first place that prisoners headed to when they were released.
The SNP has taken no action to enforce the current minimum purchase age of 18. The Parliament must start with greater enforcement of existing laws. However, we need to consider the strategy that the Labour Party has proposed, with careful scrutiny of the three-strikes-and-you're-out policy. Given the consensus in the debate so far, I hope that the minister will consider that point carefully.
- Ian McKee (Lothians) (SNP):
So far in the debate, we have dealt with this subject mainly as a law and disorder problem, but I ask the Presiding Officer's indulgence in allowing me to draw on my experience of caring for people who are affected by alcohol—the drinkers themselves, and the people around them whose lives are blighted.
As I see it, there are three main fields in which alcohol affects people's health. Each has its own particular hazards and each requires entirely different management techniques. First, there are the binge drinkers—often young or very young people. Those are the people we have mainly been talking about. I do not want to get into the technicalities of defining a binge drinker; I refer to the people we see staggering around our streets, getting into fights, vomiting in shop doorways and walking in front of passing cars. They are a public nuisance; they are at risk of accidents, injury, rape, unprotected casual sex, sexually transmitted diseases and other hazards.
Next there are the people who are alcohol dependent. Often, a single drink will set them drinking non-stop for days. Getting the next drink becomes a major obsession. Perhaps with fate genetically determined, the individual risks job loss, marital breakdown, poverty, homelessness and death. We have not talked much about those people today.
Finally, we come to the regular heavy drinkers. They may seem perfectly normal to the outsider, with only a few tell-tale signs being apparent to the trained observer. They can hold down jobs and lead normal family lives, and they can be the pillars of their local communities or even members of the Parliament, yet they regularly drink more than is healthy for their bodies. The sort of people I am talking about are those I used to see when I was canvassing in the evenings in middle-class housing estates—people slumped in front of television sets with a takeaway and a bottle of chardonnay within easy reach. Such people use alcohol to relieve stress or to gain social confidence, or simply out of habit. As time goes by, the amount of alcohol that is needed to achieve the desired effect steadily rises.
So how do we tackle those problems? Most young people will get drunk at some time or another—that is a fact of life. We need to have the means of protecting them from harm, and in that regard a service such as a designated place of safety at the likes of Albyn house in Aberdeen seems a much better way of coping with the problem than flinging people into a police cell and giving them a criminal record.
- Dr Simpson:
Albyn house was threatened with closure but was saved. However, staff there have now been told by the national health service in Grampian that their funding is temporary and that the situation is being reassessed. Is the member aware that, although the service seems to be very successful, the local NHS does not seem to be offering the staff any sense of permanence?
- Ian McKee:
I spoke to the staff of Albyn house yesterday and I am pleased to say that they seemed proud that the future of their service was secure. I cannot say any more than that, but I spoke to the staff yesterday.
A service such as that which is offered at Albyn house is well placed to detect a chronic drink problem before the pattern gets too established. As far as prevention is concerned, education obviously has a place. I am impressed by the statistics showing the relationship between price and availability on the one hand, and levels of consumption on the other.
Chronic alcohol dependence poses an entirely different problem. The frustration that I felt when in practice—it was felt by relatives, too—was when someone with that problem decided that the time had come to seek help but all I could offer was an appointment with an alcohol specialist nurse some weeks hence. Moreover, of course, the patient had to turn up sober. Voluntary organisations do a marvellous job, but what is needed is a strategy to provide immediate grass-roots support at primary care level so that help can be given when the person needs it and is prepared to accept it, not later when the opportunity has been lost. I hope that some of the new money flowing into alcohol management will find its way to where it is desperately needed.
The regular heavy drinkers are the least obvious, but paradoxically they pose the greatest public health risk. Initially, excess alcohol makes the liver inflamed and swollen. A period of abstinence will settle things down again, but if drinking continues some liver tissue dies and becomes scarred. The liver is a versatile organ—severe damage can take place without any obvious effect—but one day so much scar tissue may be formed that the picture changes. The natural progression of a scar is to shrink; if there is enough of it, the process will actually strangle what remaining healthy liver there is. That condition is what we call cirrhosis, which is irreversible, always expensive to manage, and often deadly. In Scotland, cirrhosis mortality has increased by more than 100 per cent in the past 10 years—the steepest increase in western Europe—and our mortality rates are now among the highest in western Europe. Unless action is taken, those figures will deteriorate still further.
What action should we take? The initiatives that we are discussing today may help, and the Scottish Government is to be congratulated on focusing the debate, but this is not just a matter for the Government. Everyone in Scotland needs to be aware of what is happening in our society and the danger we face. It is for families, friends and individuals, as well as Government, to take on board that message and to act before more damage is done to our health and to our society.
- Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD):
I congratulate Dr Ian McKee on a thoughtful contribution to the debate. I sincerely hope that he will be involved in the Government's deliberations.
It would be unlike me not to mention a headline in The Press and Journal this week:
"Drams may be banned on tours of distilleries".
To be fair, I realise that the Scottish Government says that that is not the intention. However, it is necessary to protect the practice of handing out little 5ml samples of whisky at Highland games and other such events all over the Highlands.
- Shona Robison:
I say for the record that those practices will not be affected by the proposals. I am glad that Jamie Stone recognises that.
- Jamie Stone:
The devil will be in the detail of the Government's plans to design a net that will allow those practices to be protected while at the same time addressing the core of the problem.
Culture has been mentioned. The word whisky comes from the Gaelic uisge-beatha, which means the water of life. That illustrates how much drink is part of our culture. I have lived and worked in two other cultures: Italy and the Faroe Islands. Italy and France have already been mentioned and there is no doubt that a liberal regime prevails in Italy. Although alcoholism is a problem there, it is on nothing like the scale that we face in Scotland. In the Faroes, there may be a connection between drinking and the amount of daylight—that issue has been mentioned—which in turn is a result of the latitude. When I lived there, one of the most draconian regimes I have ever known was in place. One could not buy alcohol under the age of 21, and even then one could buy it only quarterly, when one paid one's taxes. When the booze came in from Copenhagen—the Carlsberg Elephant and the aquavit—I saw people I worked with get not just drunk, but deadly blind drunk for days on end, until the booze was finished. I have seen people walking, yet nearer to death than I thought was possible. The draconian regime did not work and a different regime prevails today. My plea to ministers is to consider closely what happens in the Faroes and in Sweden, Norway and Finland, because it is relevant to our discussion in Scotland.
As my colleague Ross Finnie said, we support a great deal of what the minister said. Alcohol can result in individual and family breakdown, and we particularly welcome support in that area. I echo my colleague Ross Finnie's plea about the supermarkets. It is crucial that we have them on board in this endeavour and that we appeal to their sense of corporate social responsibility. That way, we will advance together.
I have two examples on age and alcohol, one from my life and one from my constituency. There are two elderly gentlemen in my constituency who live next door to each other in council houses. For donkey's years, they have regularly got drunk and thumped each other in their gardens. It would be funny if it was not so tragic. They are gradually killing themselves with drink. That is an example of drinking among old people.
I will probably be killed for saying this, but at the age of 15 my son woke up in Raigmore hospital having had his stomach pumped. He had fallen over after taking too much drink. I ask members not to mention that to my son and perhaps to destroy all copies of the Official Report. I would rather he did not know that I mentioned that episode. In the past three days, I have been on the north coast of Caithness and Sutherland. At Invergordon academy, the fifth and sixth-year higher modern studies class took grave exception to the idea of raising the age at which alcohol could be purchased from 18 to 21.
The points about age have been raised, particularly by my colleague Margaret Smith. It is about soldiers going abroad and dying, about lowering the voting age to 16 and about ordinary people—not drunks, just ordinary people—going about their working lives.
Christine Grahame is right about the rural issue. One of my constituents told me that she had had both her children by the time that she was 19. She and her partner are under 21 and the only shop is in town, far from where she lives on a croft. Are we seriously saying that she cannot go and get a bottle of wine or that her mum, who lives far away in Wick, has to go and get it for her?
Jackson Carlaw mentioned seat belts and Kenneth Gibson rightly said that the Government might be unpopular for its proposals. The great danger is that the Government will not take the people with it. Instead of working with the 18 to 21-year-olds, as Ross Finnie said, the Government could end up alienating that generation, which would be entirely counterproductive and could put back what we are trying to do by many years.
- Kenneth Gibson:
Will Jamie Stone give way?
- Jamie Stone:
I apologise to Kenny Gibson, but I am in my last minute.
We must take people with us. If we do not, it will be counterproductive. Issues come and go but, if my radar is switched on properly, this is a big issue in my constituency. If we get it wrong, it will hang around not only the Scottish Government's but the Parliament's neck for many years to come.
- Bill Aitken (Glasgow) (Con):
The fact that this debate is taking place indicates that there is agreement throughout the Parliament that we have a problem. As the minister said, something must change, although it will not be easy.
I will be philosophical for a moment. In a couple of weeks, I will go on holiday to one of the Greek islands, where one can frequently see families—the youngest members are 16 and the oldest are in their 80s—out having a drink and nobody seems to want to fight. Perhaps there is something different in the Scottish psyche, but it is disappointing that so many of our people are unable to use alcohol responsibly and moderately.
However—I say this as courteously as I possibly can—the Government has got it wrong under a number of headings. Its approach to age is inconsistent, and Margaret Smith and Christine Grahame articulated that well. I like and respect Christine Grahame, although we seldom agree, and some of the points that she made today were certainly worthy of consideration.
The Government has also got it wrong in taking a scatter-gun approach, which will not resolve the difficulty. One does not introduce new measures until one has absolutely exhausted the possibilities of the existing measures working, but—I say this with the greatest respect—that has not happened and other members were correct to highlight the difficulties.
Leaving aside the legal niceties, Pauline McNeill has seen where the problem is and, to some extent, the Government has seen it too. The main problem of underage drinking does not come from public houses, or even clubs, but from off-sales and off-licences. Therefore, it is important that the enforcement of the law on the sale of drink to underage people be stepped up. The sanctions exist, but they are not being used. We really must consider that.
- Christine Grahame:
Would Bill Aitken support the proposal that trading standards officers should police the sale of alcohol as they do the sale of tobacco? Would that introduce a measure of greater enforcement?
- Bill Aitken:
That is one of the proposals that Christine Grahame made in her speech that is worthy of further inquiry, and we will no doubt undertake that inquiry as the debate widens in the months ahead.
The Government should appreciate that considerable difficulties confront it on alcohol. I am a politician; if the Government wishes to do something that makes it unpopular, I should encourage that, but we will get nowhere if we alienate sections of society. Although the Government is attempting to introduce a measured debate, what it proposes will alienate 18 to 21-year-olds, who will have something taken away from them. The proposal has not been thought through.
The Government is also alienating business—I accept that there might be a vested interest there. It is alienating old-age pensioners, for example, who might take advantage of three-for-two offers and of the cheap drink that is available. The existence of such offers does not mean that people will drink more. If they buy, say, 12 cans for the price of six, that does not mean that they will actually drink the 12 cans in the same time that it would take them to drink six. That simply does not happen.
- Shona Robison:
Does the member accept the link between price and consumption?
- Bill Aitken:
That is worthy of further inquiry. Clearly, if drink is cheap, people will buy more. I suggest, however, that there is no evidence at all that price impinges upon the habits of people who drink moderately. For those people who are prepared to drink irresponsibly, perhaps it does. The evidence is fairly mixed.
Shoppers who look for cheap deals will not be best pleased to have that possibility taken away from them, nor will those who buy a normal supply of drink be particularly impressed by the hassle of having to queue at a separate purchase point. That is where the proposals are going wrong: everybody is being punished for the actions of a few irresponsible drinkers.
There are things that can be done on the health side. Let us have counselling, and let us get hold of those people who are admitted to accident and emergency with drink-related injuries and tell them that they will have to get a grip on things, and that we can offer them assistance. I am afraid that the cabinet secretary's policies in other directions simply do not provide a suitable deterrent against people who cause trouble through drink-induced behaviour. It is only when we consider the comprehensive measures that will be necessary that we appreciate the need for a much tougher approach in certain directions and a more realistic and interventionist approach under a health heading. We would certainly support that.
The Government's approach, well intentioned as it undoubtedly is, will not achieve what we all seek to achieve.
- Dr Richard Simpson (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab):
The Parliament has welcomed and supported the main thrust of the discussion paper, which is that Scotland faces an almost unique alcohol problem. The measures of harm from alcohol and the associated numbers, to which many members have referred, are generally moving in the wrong direction. Although there are some exceptions, the speed at which those figures are moving in the wrong direction is worrying.
There are a number of elements to the discussion, including affordability, availability, licensing law and its enforcement, and education, information and advertising—strangely, advertising has not been referred to, but that is perhaps because it is a reserved matter. There is the question of the culture of drinking, to which Bill Aitken referred, and there are also the matters of diagnosis, treatment and support.
Specific groups of people have been referred to in the paper and in members' speeches, including pregnant women in connection with foetal alcohol syndrome. How children are affected by alcohol has been raised, as has adolescent and young adult alcohol misuse. Ian McKee mentioned hazardous, harmful and dependent consumption and the question of how we tackle it, and there are issues around offenders.
In an eight-minute speech, it is not possible to do justice to the subject—its complexity makes that impossible—but I will try to deal quickly with some of the issues that I have mentioned. First, there is the question of affordability. The one thing on which there is clear international evidence that we must accept, is the fact that price and consumption are inextricably linked. Given that the evidence on the policy is clear, we must support a close examination of the concept of minimum pricing.
I would like to know what the legal advice is, but the idea of a unit pricing system is worthy of consideration. It has been considered in other areas. Personally, I believe that it should be considered on a UK and European Union basis, but if that cannot be done, we should certainly consider it. Pretty much all members agree that minimum pricing, which is associated with unit pricing, should be considered.
The banning of loss leaders and the gifting of free alcohol with other products that are on sale are covered in the provisions on irresponsible drinks promotions in schedule 3 to the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005. The powers exist for the Government to deal with the issue. I am sure that it will gain general support in dealing with deep discounting and the inappropriate promotion of alcohol, which needs to be tightened up. There are still some problems with sales, particularly in relation to internet sales, but that is perhaps a matter for another day.
I have discussed affordability, but what about availability? Licensing boards have new powers, and I do not think that the importance of the licensing forums was fully brought out in the debate. They are crucial to the delivery of what communities want, as Jamie Stone said. What we do must be effective, but it must also be acceptable, and we can ensure that that is the case by fully empowering the licensing forums. They have been established, but the Government has not re-established the national licensing forum. A number of people in the field are calling for it to be re-established and I hope that when he sums up the Cabinet Secretary for Justice will accept that that should happen.
The concept of requiring all alcohol to be in one section of a supermarket seems sensible, and we could support that. The introduction of standard measures will be slightly more difficult, but the idea has merit in relation to the educational aspect of people knowing what they are drinking. People assume that a glass of wine is one unit, whereas even the standard, old-fashioned, 125ml glass is now 1.5 units. Understanding what one is drinking is crucial to being able to deal with it.
In part, availability will be better managed by the roll-out of the ServeWise training programme. Indeed, some student unions have received awards for their training and delivery on the matter.
The proposal that grabbed the headlines is the banning of off-licence sales to under-21s. Labour has taken the initial position that we want to examine the idea. We do not want to give an immediate reaction to it because we want to consider why and on what basis the proposal has been made. We were unclear about whether it was a public safety issue, a community safety issue or a public health issue. Having read the documentation and considered the Cleveland and Armadale experiments, we are still unclear about the wisdom of imposing a national ban on one particular aspect of purchasing, based on what were experiments in community safety. We also heard about the examples in Falkirk and elsewhere.
The licensing forums and licensing boards, supported by public health bodies and the police, should discuss with local retailers the imposition of specific bans in specific areas as part of measures to tackle antisocial behaviour, but the step should not be taken as a public health measure. As many speakers said, the problem is not specifically about 18 to 21-year-olds. It is about the drinking of all adults. That is the difficulty.
What about licensing and enforcement? Implementation of the 2005 act is moving forward, but we are not there yet. The figures that the Government has given are welcome, but people have the general impression that we do not yet have tough enough enforcement in relation to illegal sales. We need to ensure that there is a clear, strong public message on the matter. Labour has spelled out what it thinks should happen, and that will now be a matter for discussion. However, we are pretty much agreed that the existing provisions need to be enforced.
Other measures that are relevant include antisocial behaviour orders, dispersal orders and the use of community wardens. Indeed, dispersal orders, the taking home to their parents of intoxicated youngsters and arrest referral were important aspects of the Livingston experiment. Perhaps the banning of drinking in public places should be covered in a national law rather than just in bylaws. I will not discuss the drink-driving issue, which Kenneth Gibson mentioned, because it is a UK issue, but there is merit in the proposal.
Education, information, advertising and culture are difficult areas, but they are important. Universal education does not work, except perhaps by creating a general atmosphere in which other policies can be introduced.
On workplace involvement, the report does not mention the Scottish centre for healthy working lives, or what used to be SHAW—Scotland's health at work. Engagement with the centres would be important.
I will not deal with treatment because I do not have time, but I will make one comment, and my earlier intervention may indicate where I am coming from. There is an absolute need to consolidate existing alcohol services: too many are hand-to-mouth and temporary.
There are two areas in which the report is weak, and we should revisit them. First, as Mary Mulligan mentioned, the only reference to children affected by alcohol misuse is to a survey on foetal alcohol spectrum disorder—and I am not sure how that will work. There is a need to spell out more specifically and widely the effects of alcohol misuse on children. That may be done in other areas, but we need clarity. Secondly, the report is weak on the question of prisoners and offenders. There are only two or three paragraphs on that and criminal justice needs to be covered in greater depth.
In conclusion—this is my last sentence, Presiding Officer—everything that we do must be evidence based, but it must also be based in our culture, not that of other countries, so there is a need for pilots and research before we introduce substantial new policies, and what we do—
- The Deputy Presiding Officer:
How many clauses does this sentence have?
- Dr Simpson:
—must be clear in purpose, enforceable, practicable and acceptable.
- The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Kenny MacAskill):
This has been a wide-ranging and thoughtful debate, with some excellent contributions, in particular from Ian McKee, who brought home the fact that alcohol misuse raises health issues and is not simply a question of antisocial behaviour. Jackson Carlaw also made a thoughtful contribution. It did not necessarily support the Government line, but it indicated the complexity of the issue, and I welcome that.
At the outset, let me restate the Government's position, which was put by my colleague Shona Robison earlier. We are not anti-alcohol. As a Government and as a country, we are proud of our fine whiskies and brews and we recognise that the pub culture in Scotland is there to be enjoyed. Pubs have improved immeasurably over the years, and they are part of the social fabric of our communities, both large in urban areas and smaller in rural Scotland. We recognise the importance of alcohol and the fact that the problem is not alcohol itself but, sadly, how far too many Scots have abused it.
Alcohol misuse is most certainly one of the major issues of our time. I do not think that the Government should have continually to restate the motion, but it is appropriate that we point out the problems. Mr Aitken may feel that we should have tough enforcement; we believe that we should have tough measures to address problems before they arise.
Let me restate for Mr Aitken's benefit that 50 per cent of those who commit a murder or are murdered are under the influence of alcohol at the time. The true figure is probably greater than that as many assailants are not apprehended and bodies are not discovered until the alcohol is out of their system. More than 40 per cent of those in our prison system admit that they were under the influence of alcohol when they committed their offence. We do not need to bang people up for three days, three weeks or three months; we need to stop the availability of cheap alcohol. That will address many of the underlying problems. As well as ensuring that those who commit crimes are suitably punished, we must address the root problems.
It is not simply a question of antisocial behaviour, as Ian McKee correctly pointed out. The problem will overrun our health service—indeed, it is already affecting it. Alcohol misuse is detrimental not simply on a Friday and Saturday night, when those who have suffered a heart attack or serious injury in a road traffic accident face accident and emergency departments that are awash with people who are drunk and incapable, but across the spectrum of the health service. That cannot go on without undermining the NHS that we cherish and which has delivered for our people for 60 years. It will not be able to function properly because it is drowning under the problems that are caused by the abuse of alcohol.
As the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing notes in the foreword to the discussion document, alcohol misuse costs us more than £2 billion as a nation. It is affecting our ability to function as a viable economy in the modern world. As we face times of economic turbulence, we cannot have people who are unable to turn up for their work on a regular basis because they have been abusing alcohol. From the perspective not simply of criminal justice but of health and the economy, we must tackle alcohol misuse.
We must address several matters. Mary Scanlon was correct to say that we must be clear about the problem of alcohol and pregnancy. The chief medical officer's advice is that alcohol should be avoided by women who are pregnant or who are trying to conceive and the advice is the same throughout the UK.
I say to Pauline McNeill that we propose to hold a youth summit, to which a commitment has been given. That will be part of the consultation process and will be held in early September.
- Mary Scanlon:
The chief medical officer's advice might be not to drink alcohol during pregnancy, but I quoted advice from the NHS Health Scotland website that was given to those of us who attended a briefing by Children in Scotland earlier this week.
- Kenny MacAskill:
I am grateful for that point. We will ensure that the message is consistent, but the guiding principle that we will follow must come from the CMO.
As for reviewing the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005, we must review it after it comes into force properly on 1 September 2009. To review it before then would be premature. However, we can monitor the situation, because measures are being introduced in the transitional stages.
We have addressed alcohol not simply in today's debate; for example, it has taken up much of my day today. This morning, I met the parents of a young man who was under 18 and who was killed after drinking with his peer group. When stumbling home, he went on to railway tracks and tragically paid for his error with his life. He was a good young man who did not regularly abuse alcohol and he was not in trouble. Sadly, we can say that there but for the grace of God go many parents and many young lads.
I also met Shetland's licensing board and Tavish Scott to discuss problems that are faced there. We recognise the importance in our communities, and particularly in our rural communities, of socialising and of the community hall. We will seek to work out the situation. That drives home to me the fact that we must achieve the right balance between preserving the village hall—whether it is in Yell, Unst or wherever—and stopping the tragic slaying of young men through the abuse of alcohol and the errors of their ways, which should not be wished on any young man or any parent.
Let us be clear that we as a Government raised the issue and that some members do not like it. People say that the issue is the culture and that education is needed. We do have to change Scotland's culture and tackle education, but we have said that since I was a boy and the situation is worse now than it was then. In the Sunday papers, Professor Devine made it clear that such matters are cyclical. We have gone through such a situation before—we can go back to the abuse of gin, which was known as mother's ruin. Governments before us have had to change taxation policy, fiscal policy and legislation, because we require to take steps to change the culture and deal with education.
We accept that members might not welcome all our proposals, but I tell them that it is insufficient simply to say that we need a cultural change or education, because that has been said for generation after generation and the situation has become worse. We must address that.
We are more than happy to ramp up the response to problems, but we must remember that we follow 18 years of Tory government, 11 years of Labour government down south and eight years of Labour-Liberal Executive rule north of the border. We seek to enforce the law strongly and strenuously and we will ensure proper resourcing. Before introducing new legislation, we will enforce the existing legislation. However, we must recognise that we must go above and beyond that.
Particular problems relate to age. It is surprising that some people suggest an age of civic responsibility. Nobody suggests that we increase the age for sexual relationships or reduce the driving age—indeed, arguments to the contrary are made. Arguments have related to our soldiers who serve in Iraq. People go on about strict enforcement, which I support, and I have said on the record that I admire how the United States enforces laws against alcohol abuse. When 19-year-old men return from serving in the United States Marine Corps in Iraq—19 was the average age of a serviceman in the Vietnam war—they don't get no bottle of Bud in San Diego barracks, because the drinking age is 21. People cannot have it both ways.
Market forces operate. I tried to get my son to drive when he was eligible to do so at 17. Could he drive my wife's car? No, because it had an 1800cc engine and market forces said that the driver of such a car had to be at least 21 and have a full licence. He has now obtained his licence, because I downgraded to a 1200cc car. Could he now go out at the age of 19 and buy a car with a 2.5 litre engine if he had the money, which he does not? The short answer is no, because market forces dictate otherwise. It is not simply a matter of Government regulation; there is an array of things that people can do only when they reach a certain age, such as 16 or 25. A person can get their driving licence at 17, but they cannot get a BMW until they are 25—if they are lucky—and they had better not get any points on their licence, or they will be in trouble. Such problems exist.
I want to be clear. Education and culture must change, but we have said that for generations. Now is the time for action. If members do not agree with each and every one of our proposals, that is fine, but they should tell us what they think should be done. It is no longer acceptable to do nothing.