MSPs pass Alcohol Bill without minimum drink pricing

New laws to tackle Scotland's historic alcohol problems have been passed by MSPs - but without plans to bring in minimum drink pricing.

The SNP government's Alcohol Bill aims to help tackle an issue said to cost Scotland more than £3bn a year.

But key measures, including raising the purchase age for off licence sales, failed to find enough support.

The bill will ban "irresponsible" drink promotions at off licences.

This aims to end the sale of alcohol at heavily discounted prices, as well as offers such as two-for-one deals. Specific measures are expected to be in place in the spring.

The bill, which was passed unanimously will also pave the way for the introduction, in future, of a "social responsibility fee" on retailers who sell alcohol.

And licensed premises will be required to operate tougher proof of age rules, based on the age of 25, rather than 21.

The government brought forward the Alcohol Bill saying radical action was needed to tackle problems with alcohol-fuelled violence and related health issues.

Ministers said a wide range of professionals, including senior police officers and health experts, backed plans to set a minimum price per unit of alcohol at 45p.

But Labour, the Tories and Lib Dems said the move would penalise responsible drinkers and could be illegal under European competition law.

As MSPs debated the bill for the final time, Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon attempted to re-insert minimum pricing into the legislation after it was removed at an earlier stage, but parliament opposed the move.

As emotions ran high in the chamber, Ms Sturgeon accused opposition MSPs of opposing it for party political reasons, adding: "This is a sad day for the parliament.

"If this parliament refuses to take action to deal with a monumental problem and I think, in the fullness of time, Scotland will judge those who vote against this policy very harshly indeed."

But, dismissing the attack, Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said: "We oppose minimum unit pricing, not on political grounds, but because we do not believe it works - and that is a view that is shared by the main opposition parties in this chamber.

"There are three main concerns. It is untried and untested, it is possibly illegal and it will put £140m per year into the pockets of supermarkets."

Deputy Tory leader Murdo Fraser also said minimum pricing would hit the whisky industry and could be got round by buying alcohol online and "booze runs" to Carlisle, just over the English border.

Mr Fraser also ridiculed a full-page advertisement in a Sunday newspaper which backed minimum pricing, featuring "luminaries and health experts such as Ruth Wishart, journalist, and Elaine C Smith, actress and comedienne, telling us what to do".

He went on: "Whatever next - are we gong to ask Dawn French for advice on university funding or Susan Boyle to give us advice in prison policy? Although I daresay she'd do a better job than the current justice secretary."

Liberal Democrat health spokesman Ross Finnie said the bill was "one step" on the road to changing Scotland's relationship with alcohol, adding: "Liberal Democrats support moves to crack down on irresponsible alcohol promotions."

But Mr Finnie said the SNP had "failed to make the case for minimum pricing" and claimed the social responsibility fee had become a "punitive" measure.

Government plans to allow local licensing boards to raise the age for buying alcohol from off licences from 18 to 21 were dismissed as "discriminatory" by opposition parties.

Elsewhere, a Labour amendment to restrict the caffeine content of alcoholic drinks to not more than 150 milligrammes per litre of alcohol - which would effectively ban the tonic wine Buckfast - was defeated.

Green MSP Patrick Harvie backed both minimum pricing and caffeine limits in alcohol, telling parliament: "Isn't it depressing that two sides of the two major parties in this debate are throwing the same argument against each other to vote down amendments, rather than working together constructively."

The Tories failed to find enough support to insert a "sunset clause" in the legislation, which would have required a review of its main measures after five years.

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