22 June 2010

Facing up to Scotland’s problems

Discussing somebody’s troubling relationship with alcohol is never an easy thing, but how much harder do things become when it is a nation rather than an individual that has a problem with dangerous drinking? In fairness it has long been the case that Scotland’s relationship with alcohol has been widely recognised as damaging and spoken about in those terms, however it seems reasoned discussion is still far from easy when it comes to trying to find a solution.

The societal and economic cost of alcohol to Scotland is staggering. Alcohol misuse annually costs the Scottish economy in the region of £3.56 billion, an eye-watering sum in these difficult financial times which works out as the equivalent of £900 for every adult in Scotland. The human cost, however, is simply incalculable.

One in twenty deaths in Scotland are attributable to alcohol, the devastating consequence of Scots having the eighth highest alcohol consumption rate in the world. In our prisons, half of all offenders were drunk at the time of their arrest. We need radical action if we are to address this problem, which is why the Scottish Government has brought forward a bold range of measures aimed at improving the situation.

The Alcohol Bill, which recently passed its first parliamentary hurdle, contains a variety of elements that will provide new tools to fix the damage caused by damaging levels of drinking. It will introduce restrictions on discounting and drinks promotions which will bring the off-licence trade into line with licensed premises and make it harder for alcohol to be sold as a loss leader to attract people into shops to purchase other items. It will introduce a Social Responsibility Levy which will help raise money for local authorities to deal with the costs of alcohol misuse while rewarding good practice amongst retailers.

The most talked about measure, however, is the plan to introduce a minimum price per unit for alcohol sales. As alcohol prices have dropped over the years, consumption levels of alcohol in Scotland have risen along with the associated health and justice problems. The best academic information available shows that minimum pricing would reduce alcohol consumption rates, which is at the absolute heart of tackling the problem which sees enough alcohol sold in Scotland to allow every adult to exceed their weekly recommended limit every single week of the year.

Studies show that harmful drinkers spend far less per unit then moderate drinkers do, so a minimum price would have its greatest effect on those it is intended to reach. A moderate drinker would expect to see an increase of around £10 per year as opposed to £126 for a harmful drinker, while the anticipated reduction in hospital admissions would be most marked amongst harmful drinkers too.

Minimum pricing is of course not a silver bullet for all of Scotland’s problems with alcohol, but it is an important tool that should be utilised. This is why health professionals, chief police officers, the licensed trade, the Church of Scotland and even Tennents and Tesco have all made their support for the proposals clear. It is a radical measure for a serious problem, but what is disappointing is the refusal to engage in serious discussion by other parties. With no credible alternatives to offer, flatly opposing the measure seems at best like a failure to take Scotland’s alcohol problems seriously and at worst like partisan game playing with the health of the nation. It is unacceptable and Scotland needs better if we are to make a dent in our alcohol epidemic.

8 June 2010

Making criminals pay

The damage that those who make their living from criminal activity do to their communities is far reaching and insidious. Whether it is through the supply of drugs or other activities, those affected can spread far beyond the area where criminals live.

There is little more galling to honest, hard-working people than others accumulating money and power at the expense of the law abiding majority. That is why I welcome recently announced figures which show that in the last year more than £5.5 million has been seized from criminals and used to fund worthwhile activities in communities across Scotland.

The Cashback for Communities scheme has seen projects the length and breadth of Scotland receive funds that have been seized from criminals and put to work to benefit the communities that have been blighted by crime. It is an approach that I am sure people support across Scotland, and particularly in those areas that have seen that money used to try and repair some of the damage that criminals have done.

Yet combating organised crime is far from an easy task, which is why Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill recently launched a new public campaign to encourage ordinary people to help make criminals pay for their illegal activities. Where people have suspicions that something just doesn’t add up about a person’s lifestyle and wealth, they will be able to provide information anonymously which could be the vital bit of intelligence that lets the police disrupt a criminal empire.

By sharing information in this way, ordinary members of the public can help make Scotland a harder place for criminals to operate and protect our communities from their illicit activities. The police have made significant strides in the fight against organised crime recently, but with the help of individuals and organisations across Scottish society more can be done to make Scotland a safer, stronger place for everyone to live in.

Record low NHS waiting times

My last column dealt with the importance that the Scottish Government places on protecting the funding that the NHS receives during these difficult economic times. The incredible efforts that NHS staff go to in order to help people across Scotland is something that we have all experienced, but recent statistics show that people are receiving treatment faster than ever before.

They show that 99.5% of patients referred for inpatient and day case treatment are now waiting less than the target of nine weeks; that 99.9% of all patients were waiting less than the targeted twelve weeks for new outpatient appointments; that 99.8% of patients were waiting less than four weeks for key diagnostic tests, compared to the target of 6 weeks and that 96.6% of those attending Accident and Emergency are seen within four hours.

These figures are the best ever performance by the NHS in Scotland and show that waiting times have reached an all time low. When people need medical treatment, it is in nobody’s interest to face the stress and anxiety of unnecessary delays so these latest improvements are welcome news and demonstrate what the resources going to the Health Service are delivering.

The Scottish Government is determined to build upon this progress and has set even more challenging targets for coming years. However, even in these financially difficult times I am confident that the dedication and professionalism of NHS staff will be able to deliver further improvements to the service that patients in Banff & Buchan and across Scotland receive from the NHS.

Stewart Stevenson
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