Scottish Parliament supports alcohol minimum pricing bill


Plans for a minimum unit price for alcohol have been approved in principle by the Scottish Parliament.

The Scottish government's alcohol bill passed its first major parliamentary hurdle without opposition.

After a debate at Holyrood, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats supported the legislation, while Labour abstained.

A first attempt by the SNP to introduce such a bill was defeated in the last parliament.

MSPs voted on the first stage of the Scottish government's Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) Bill on Wednesday afternoon.

The plans were approved in principle by 86 votes to nil, with 32 abstentions.

The Scottish government said it accepted that minimum pricing was not a "magic bullet" but was an important part of its strategy.

Speaking ahead of the vote, Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon told Holyrood that decisive action must be taken to "stem the flow of cheap high-strength drink".

She added: "It's not some sort of magic bullet that will solve all of our nation's problems with alcohol.

"However, it is essential if we are to make a significant contribution to reducing consumption."

Ms Sturgeon promised she would announce what the minimum price per unit would be before Holyrood's final vote on the legislation later in this parliament.

Labour has outlined 14 measures aimed at curbing Scotland's drinking culture, including a ban on alcohol advertising in public places and a limit on caffeine in alcoholic drinks.

They tabled an amendment to the government's alcohol bill calling on Ms Sturgeon to cancel out any "windfall" retailers might receive as a consequence of the plans.

The Scottish government has already unveiled plans to introduce a business rates supplement on larger retailers selling alcohol and tobacco, which they said would generate about £95m over the next three years.

Ms Sturgeon said she was "open to considering any proposal that is put forward, including those published yesterday by Labour".

But she added: "My fundamental point is this - no strategy will be complete without addressing price. The link between price and consumption, and between consumption and harm, is irrefutable."

Labour's Richard Simpson, a former GP who specialised in addiction, said that without inserting a clause into the legislation to claw back the additional profits generated from retailers, minimum pricing "risks doing more harm that good".

Dr Simpson said he accepted minimum pricing would have "some effect on some of the very serious harmful drinkers" but would also hit the poor hardest while failing to tackle problem drinking among young people.

'Sunset clause'

He questioned the Sheffield University research on which the policy was based, and claimed: "A man of modest means drinking 20 units a week will now pay a minimum unit tax of £200 a year. The less well-off, who are drinking safely and moderately, will have to pay a price for those who are drinking irresponsibly."

Conservative leader Ruth Davidson changed party policy to support the SNP plan on condition that a "sunset clause" is added to give MSPs a second chance to decide whether the policy has worked.

She said: "A five-year period will allow all of us to examine whether minimum pricing can have a material impact in Scotland.

"We must give this bill every chance to succeed in helping Scotland's alcohol problem - and assess its benefits rationally based on the evidence.

"If minimum pricing doesn't make the difference, it should not be left on the books; if it does, the next parliament will have the opportunity to refresh."

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said he had personally always supported minimum pricing, with the party backing the policy after he took over as leader following last May's election.

He said: "We've got to bite the bullet because of the devastation it (alcohol) is causing in communities.

"I would appeal to the industry - do not go down the route of the tobacco industry and fight this tooth and nail, because there is a will in this parliament to deliver it. I appeal to them: Let's get on with it."

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