Chisholm breaks ranks with Labour on alcohol price bill

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By a Newsnet reporter

The SNP has welcomed the passing of the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Bill at stage one in the Scottish Parliament.  86 MSPs voted in favour of the Bill, including former Labour Health Minister Malcolm Chisholm. 

Mr Chisholm was the sole Labour MSP to support the minimum pricing bill, 32 Labour colleagues abstained.  

Mr Chisholm’s decision to break ranks with his party on the issue throws more doubt on the viability of Labour’s alternative alcohol strategy, which was launched yesterday.  The party wants to introduce a raft of measures to bring binge drinking under control, including the proposal to cap the amount of caffeine in alcoholic beverages and restrictions on alcohol advertising.  However in their new proposals Labour yet again set out its opposition to minimum pricing, leading to criticisms that the party was opposing the measure simply because it had been introduced by the SNP.

Labour in Scotland is now the only party which opposes minimum pricing.  The Labour party in England is more open to the idea, with shadow Public Health Minister Diane Abbott recently speaking in favour of trialling the measure.  Minimum pricing for alcohol is supported by major health organisations including the BMA and the Royal College of Nursing, the police and ambulance services, and many leading charities.   

With Mr Chisholm’s support for the bill, Labour in Scotland no longer presents a united front on the issue of alcohol pricing.  SNP MSP Bob Doris said that the former Health Minister’s decision illustrated how his party colleagues were “putting party politics ahead of public health”.

Despite significant concessions by the Scottish government to meet the demands of opposition parties, including a commitment to a review after a few years and measures to prevent supermarket chains and other retailers from profiting from increased alcohol prices, Labour refused to back the bill.  

Prior to the vote, Labour tabled an amendment to the government’s alcohol bill calling on Health Minister Nicola Sturgeon to cancel out any “windfall” retailers might receive as a result of higher alcohol prices.  However the Scottish government has already announced plans to introduce a special business rate for large retailers selling alcohol and tobacco.  The Scottish government says that this measure will bring in around £95m over the next three years.

Speaking before the debate, Ms Sturgeon said she was “open to considering any proposal that is put forward, including those published yesterday by Labour”.

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.”

Speaking after losing the vote, Labour health spokesperson Jackie Baillie claimed:  “People will not understand why the SNP are going out of their way to stuff the pockets of supermarkets with gold, when budgets across the public sector are tight and the alcohol treatment budget is being cut.”

The Alcohol Bill could become law before the summer, although a minimum price has yet to be set.

SNP MSP for Glasgow, Bob Doris, vice convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Health and Sport Committee, welcomed the support the bill received in Holyrood and said:

“This is the next step in tackling Scotland’s harmful relationship with alcohol, and I’m delighted that the majority of parties backed the bill at stage one.

“Addressing the link between price of high-strength alcohol and consumption is vital, and we will be able to do this through minimum pricing.

“Labour’s fig-leaf proposals do virtually nothing to address pricing, and their incoherent position was laid bare today.  They are completely isolated, with their heads buried in the sand.

“As a former Health Minister, Malcolm Chisholm recognises the importance of minimum pricing and voted for it – which just reveals the extent to which Labour as a whole are still putting party politics ahead of public health in refusing to back minimum pricing.

“There is overwhelming evidence and support for minimum pricing. –Labour have to explain why they think they know better than the BMA, the RCN, all four UK Chief Medical Officers, the Police, the ambulance service, children’s charities, the churches, and countless other experts.

“There is still time for Labour to support this measure at later Stages and avoid being remembered as the only party not to support this ground-breaking measure.

“We have said that it is not a magic bullet that will solve all of our alcohol problems, but it is a vital part of addressing the issue of Scotland’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol.”