20 March 2012

Unfinished Business

During the last session of parliament when the SNP was in a minority administration, we brought forward a series of measures aimed at making progress on tackling Scotland’s hugely damaging relationship with alcohol. Every year, excessive alcohol consumption costs Scotland £3.56 billion or about £900 for every adult in Scotland. The scale of this cost, which forms a huge part of health and policing budgets, is immense and does not even take into account the severe human cost of seeing loved ones lives ruined by alcohol abuse.

The most publicised measure that we brought to parliament during the last session was our plans to introduce a minimum price per unit for alcohol. The weight of evidence makes clear that the cost of alcohol is a key factor in how much of it is consumed and this would have had the effect of raising the price of the dirt cheap ciders and spirits favoured by problem drinkers.

The price we proposed was for 45p per unit which to put in some kind of context would have made the minimum price for an average bottle of wine £4.05 while a normal strength can of lager would be 90p. Clearly this is little change from what a supermarket already charges for these items, but what would change markedly is how much is charged for own label spirits or bottles of high strength cider which can in some cases be bought just now for less than a bottle of water.

The evidence underpinning the plans shows that within 10 years there will be around 200 fewer alcohol related deaths, thousands fewer hospital admissions, more than 300 fewer cases of violent crime and 19,600 fewer days missed from work. It will reduce the costs to health, crime and employment by £606 million over 10 years.

In the event, the opposition parties which outnumbered the SNP in the last parliament stripped minimum pricing out of the legislation that was passed. While we have never claimed it was a silver bullet, it was and remains an important tool that will help us to tackle the problem of alcohol abuse. It is telling that it is supported by a host of health professionals, the police, the licenced trade and indeed several well-known drinks producers including Tennents and Molson Coors.

That is why we regarded this as unfinished business and promised to bring back this measure now that we are in a majority situation at Holyrood. Recent days saw us do just that with the legislation necessary to introduce the measure passing its first hurdle in Parliament. This time around, opposition parties dropped their previous resistance with Lib Dems and Tories voting for the plans while most Labour MSPs abstained.

The change in attitude at Holyrood reflects the direction of travel across these islands, with the UK Government signalling its support for its own version of the measure while the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have entered into talks over introducing a similar plan.

By its very nature, a minimum price has the biggest effect on those who buy and consume the most alcohol. With alcohol sales in Scotland 23% higher than in England and Wales and staggering financial and human costs accompanying our troubling relationship with alcohol, this policy is a tool we desperately need to get our hands on.

I welcome the progress that has been made in parliament on this issue and look forward to the positive impact that I am sure it will have once it completes its passage into law

Stewart Stevenson
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