Website survey

We want your feedback on the Scottish Parliament website. Take our 6 question survey now

Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig


Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 27 February 2018

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Healthy Weight Strategy, European Union (Withdrawal) Bill: Update, Point of Order, Business Motion, Decision Time, Scotch Whisky (Contribution to Tourism)


Topical Question Time

Alcohol (Minimum Unit Price)

To ask the Scottish Government what minimum price it recommends setting for a unit of alcohol. (S5T-00955)

Taking account of a range of factors, including the responses to the public consultation, the Scottish Government concludes that a minimum unit price of 50p per unit provides a proportionate response to tackling alcohol misuse, as it strikes a reasonable balance between public health, social benefits and intervention in the market. The Scottish ministers will now proceed to propose to the Scottish Parliament that a minimum price of 50p per unit be introduced from 1 May this year.

The Scottish Government commissioned the University of Sheffield to model the impacts of a minimum unit price policy, and a range of minimum unit prices were modelled that showed the levels of reduction in alcohol-related harms. The Scottish Government decided that a 50p minimum unit price would result in a level that is proportionate.

It is now broadly accepted that minimum unit pricing is a huge piece of the jigsaw in changing consumption behaviour, but, given that alcohol is linked to seven different types of cancer, including breast cancer and bowel cancer, and public awareness of that issue is relatively low, does the Government have any plans to implement a public health education campaign that highlights the risks of alcohol, which could sit alongside the implementation of this measure?

Jenny Gilruth is right to highlight the harm reduction that the policy will achieve. Over the five years of the policy, we expect 392 fewer alcohol-related deaths and more than 8,000 fewer alcohol-related hospital admissions.

Jenny Gilruth is also right to talk about the impact on cancer rates, for example. We know that alcohol use has been linked with breast cancer. Over the past few years, there has been very strong evidence of that.

The public health campaigns that we run generally link the harms that are associated with alcohol misuse to public health messages and try to get those across. An awareness campaign will go along with minimum unit pricing to raise awareness among retailers and the public about the introduction of the policy and ensure that everybody is aware of the details of the policy. The materials for that will go out very soon.

Will the rates that are set for minimum unit pricing be kept under review? Will any broader policy review, as permitted by the legislation’s sunset clause, be carried out by public health experts and not with the involvement of those in the alcohol industry?

As I said in my initial answer, we believe that a minimum price of 50p per unit strikes a reasonable balance between public health benefits and intervention in the market. We are committed to evaluating and monitoring the impact of minimum unit pricing on individuals, communities, the alcohol industry and Scotland as a whole. NHS Health Scotland will lead on that, and work is well under way on establishing and commissioning the various studies that will be involved in the evaluation programme.

As Jenny Gilruth mentioned, we inserted a sunset clause into the legislation, which requires the Scottish Government to report to the Parliament on the impact of minimum unit pricing no later than five years after it begins. The report will be debated in the Parliament, and a full vote will be required in order to continue the policy.

Will the cabinet secretary give more details about the timescale for when the Scottish Government intends to begin to evaluate the effectiveness of the 50p per unit minimum price? What mechanism could the Government bring forward to increase that rate in the future?

The evaluation will be on-going, which is right and proper. We will not wait until the end of the five years.

Of course we will keep the rate under review to ensure that it delivers the desired outcomes for the people of Scotland, but we believe that the 50p rate is the right one and, for two reasons, there are no current plans to change it. First, all the modelling has been done on the 50p per unit rate, and we want to measure what we thought would be the harm reduction against the modelling that the University of Sheffield has done.

Secondly, in the consultation that we have just carried out, a majority of respondents supported the retention of the 50p minimum unit price. We do not want any further delay—we want to get on with the introduction of the policy. Sticking to the 50p per unit price is the right way to proceed, and we hope that we will have Parliament’s support in doing so.

I am sure that the cabinet secretary would agree that minimum unit pricing on its own will not be a magic bullet that fixes the harmful relationship that many have with alcohol. We must also look at the deep-rooted causes of that relationship, including the links with inequality, poverty and ill health.

As it stands, the implementation of MUP would give a windfall to supermarkets. That money should be clawed back and invested in public health. Will the minister consider how we use the tax powers that we now have in Scotland so that we can introduce such a levy and enable the extra money to go to public services and to aid local people?

First of all, we are using our tax powers to deliver an additional £400 million into the health service in the coming year, of which £20 million has been earmarked for alcohol and drug services. We have invested more than £689 million in tackling drug and alcohol problems since 2008, so substantial resources are going into those services.

On the issue of revenues raised from minimum unit pricing, it is important to say that that will not be profit. We do not know who will benefit. Will it be the retailer, the wholesaler, the producer or a combination? In addition, we must set that issue against the likely reduction in the amount of alcohol that is bought. For example, the price of chemical cider will increase substantially and I think and hope that that will result in an impact on the sales of that product.

It is important to evaluate the policy to properly understand all those issues. We will keep matters under review, but let us get the policy up and running first and then we can evaluate the revenue aspect of it, too.

I am a Borders MSP. Does the cabinet secretary foresee booze cruises down the Tweed to Berwick being an issue, or white van man or woman driving down the A1 endeavouring to thwart the legislation?

It is unlikely in our opinion that the preferred price of 50p per unit would make it worth while for people to travel to buy alcohol because of the costs of fuel and their time. We think that a price of 50p per unit sets the right balance to avoid the scenario painted by Christine Grahame.

We acknowledge that how we buy alcohol has evolved in recent years, with online and telephone sales providing new channels for the purchase of alcohol. Minimum unit pricing will apply where alcohol is dispatched from within Scotland, but it will not apply if it is dispatched from England. That is a limitation, but we will consider what we can do to understand better the issues relating to online and telephone sales in the refresh of our alcohol framework. We will closely monitor the impacts of minimum unit pricing once the policy is in place, including those of cross-border and online sales.

I should have said in response to Anas Sarwar’s point that it is important, whether on that issue or cross-border issues, that this is only one of the 40 measures in the alcohol framework, which is being refreshed. It is important, but it is not the only measure that we are taking to tackle alcohol misuse, and it is part of a package that will help us to change our relationship with alcohol.

Railways (Edinburgh to Glasgow Peak Services)

To ask the Scottish Government for how long peak trains between Edinburgh and Glasgow will operate with reduced carriages. (S5T-00950)

First of all, I regret any reduction in capacity on any our services, let alone on our key arterial route between Edinburgh and Glasgow. The interim changes to peak-time capacity are due, as the member probably knows, to slippage in the introduction of the new class 385 fleet and the end of our contracts to lease four trains and 12 carriages.

ScotRail has made significant efforts to try to reduce the impact as it works with the train manufacturer Hitachi to introduce the new fleet as quickly as possible. Hitachi and ScotRail are working tirelessly on introducing the new trains, some of which are undergoing testing. However, it is important to say at this stage that neither ScotRail nor Hitachi—nor I—would be comfortable at all with compromising safety. We simply will not do that, so we must listen to drivers’ concerns about windscreens.

We are in close contact with ScotRail, to ensure that the impact of the short-term capacity problems is minimised and passengers are helped to plan their journeys, for example through the provision of clear information on services that have more capacity and the reduced fare on the Edinburgh to Glasgow route via Airdrie.

ScotRail has altered leases for diesel trains, to help to mitigate project delays, and every attempt is being made with other rail operators and leasing companies to prolong leases or secure additional trains as a short-term solution.

At a meeting of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee on 29 March last year—11 months ago—the minister told members:

“The introduction of the first—new, longer, faster and greener—class 385 train remains on schedule for autumn, with the full fleet becoming operational on the Edinburgh to Glasgow route during December.”—[Official Report, Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, 29 March 2017; c 64.]

The minister was pictured everywhere claiming credit for all that. Is he aware that the delays to the roll-out and the consequent reduction in carriages will have a major impact on the lives of thousands of commuters? It is not just about the drivers’ issue with the windscreen; there were delays long before that was made public.

I regret the inconvenience that has been caused to passengers—absolutely. What I am saying is that there are well-documented issues to do with the manufacture of the trains. There are other issues, and the member is right to allude to them, but it would be remiss of me not to point out that productivity in relation to the new United Kingdom plan and issues around the supply chain for Hitachi, which is a global company, have been the primary factors in the delay.

To be frank, I do not think that passengers care who is to blame. They want the new trains to be introduced, and that is what I am working to do. However, I cannot compromise safety. Some train sets have been built, as the member probably knows, and are undergoing testing in Scotland. However, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen is absolutely right to put forward its concerns and must be satisfied that safety issues have been resolved. I will not compromise safety, although I will put additional pressure on Hitachi and ScotRail.

The member is right to raise passengers’ concerns, which I do not dismiss in the slightest. My job is to try to mitigate the impact as far as possible. We have done that; ScotRail has managed to extend some leases and change its maintenance and refurbishment schedule so that the impact is not as bad as we first feared that it would be. Clearly, the sooner we resolve the problem, the better for everyone involved.

With carriages on peak services reduced by up to 50 per cent, commuters face the unenviable choice of getting on a train that is even more packed to the rafters than normal or going the long way round. Commuters have had to put up with a lot in recent years. They were promised faster trains and more seats, and the most recent debacle was not part of the plan.

Will the minister tell the Parliament whether he has set a deadline for the problem to be resolved and what the repercussions will be if the roll-out of Abellio ScotRail’s new carriages is not delivered in the timeframe that he sets?

The member tried to push me on that in the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. The reason why I did not give him an exact date is that I must give Hitachi and ScotRail room and time to work with ASLEF and drivers to come to a satisfactory conclusion on the windscreen issue and other issues. However, I promise the member that I am putting extensive pressure on Hitachi and ScotRail.

I think that the member is aware that high-speed trains will be introduced from May, which should mitigate some of the capacity issues that we face.

When the issues are resolved and the 385s have been introduced, and when the HSTs are in service as well, passengers will see an enormous amount of additional capacity. In the meantime, to mitigate some of the capacity issues that we face in the short term, there is the route via Airdrie and Bathgate, which is longer but costs £13 all day, including at peak times, and should help to minimise the overcrowding issue.

Five members have questions, and it will be impossible for me to get them all in before the next debate starts. If members ask a question without giving a preamble and the minister gives a succinct answer, I might get some of them in.

Does the minister know how many additional people are using the Airdrie to Bathgate line?

I will try to get that information and send it to the member.

When was the transport minister aware that there would be a problem with contracts for rolling stock coming to an end in the context of the delivery of new carriages? Is he aware of any further leases that are coming to an end, given that there are no available carriages anywhere in the country? Does he think that the situation is representative of a rail service that excels in its forward planning and its ability to deliver a reliable, comfortable service for commuters?

I will skip to the member’s last point before I answer the other questions that he asks. It is worth saying that we expected Hitachi, the train manufacturer, to deliver those trains last autumn. In fairness to ScotRail, it had built almost six additional months into the end of the leases. One would have to have had a heck of a crystal ball to envisage some of the problems that Hitachi has been facing as a global company—I am astounded at some of the problems that it has faced with regard to its supply chain and productivity at its new plant.

The problem has not been a lack of forward planning. ScotRail had built a number of months into the end of the leases and it has done its best to extend some of those leases but, clearly, in the case of four trains and 12 carriages, it has not been able to do so.

Of course we are aware of when trains are going off lease; we have a spreadsheet for that. ScotRail is also aware of when they are going off lease. It is continuing to plan for the best-case scenario for the introduction of the 385, but, prudently, it is also identifying the worst-case scenario and how we would mitigate that.

As for when I knew, I understand the criticism that is coming from Opposition members. I hope that they know that I have always been the first to come to Parliament and, indeed, right to the committee whenever I have learned about issues. It is better to be up front about matters and to try to find a solution to them. I promise the member that I will continue to keep Parliament and the relevant committee up to date.

The recent BBC documentary “Mind the Gap” revealed instances of passengers collapsing on increasingly overcrowded trains. Unions such as the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association are concerned over staffing cuts by ScotRail, which have left stations without a health and safety department. What recent discussions has the minister had with ScotRail specifically about health and safety, and can he give a categoric guarantee that passengers’ health and safety has not and will not be reduced as a result of the delay in the delivery of new trains, or as a result of staff redundancies?

The member raises a very important point. Health and safety in our transport network is my number 1 priority. I will be dealing with the weather challenges that we are facing in the next couple of days, and health and safety is absolutely paramount in everything that I do.

Members do not need to take my word for it. It is worth going to the independent regulator, the Office of Rail and Road—the ORR—which deems whether trains are safe, and our trains are absolutely deemed to be safe.

However, I say that not to take away from the point that Colin Smyth rightly raises around staffing. I had my quarterly meeting with the unions that are involved in the railways only last week. They continued to push me to push ScotRail on staffing issues. I am pleased to say that more recruitment for ScotRail is happening, which should help with some of the concerns that Colin Smyth raises.

The safety of our trains is absolutely our number 1 priority. As Colin Smyth knows, the issue of safety is one of the well-documented reasons for the delay to the introduction of the new rolling stock, as concerns about the windscreen have rightly been raised.

That concludes topical questions. I apologise to Mr Finnie and Mr McKee—I am afraid that we have no more time. We have already eaten into the next debate, and I am conscious that we have dropped speakers from and have cut back time for that debate.