Labour’s new alcohol policy, same as the old policy

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By a Newsnet reporter

Scottish Labour has launched its proposals to tackle Scotland’s drink problem, the party still opposes the introduction of minimum alcohol pricing, and again proposes to introduce a cap on the amount of caffeine in alcoholic beverages.

The anti-caffeine measure featured in the Labour Party’s 2011 manifesto, when the party promised “to see action taken to limit the permitted levels of caffeine in pre-mixed alcoholic drinks”.  The measure would effectively outlaw Buckfast Tonic wine, but would have no effect on cheap large bottles of cider or other alcoholic drinks.

By a Newsnet reporter

Scottish Labour has launched its proposals to tackle Scotland’s drink problem, the party still opposes the introduction of minimum alcohol pricing, and again proposes to introduce a cap on the amount of caffeine in alcoholic beverages.

The anti-caffeine measure featured in the Labour Party’s 2011 manifesto, when the party promised “to see action taken to limit the permitted levels of caffeine in pre-mixed alcoholic drinks”.  The measure would effectively outlaw Buckfast Tonic wine, but would have no effect on cheap large bottles of cider or other alcoholic drinks.

A consultation called Shifting the Culture will accompany Labour’s Bill of 14 measures across public health and criminal justice policy.  The drive will be led by Labour MSPs Dr Richard Simpson, who is a former GP, and Graeme Pearson, a former director general of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency.

The policy puts Labour in Scotland at odds with the party south of the Border.  Labour’s UK shadow public health minister Diane Abbott has spoken of her support for minimum pricing for alcohol.  Speaking to the BBC in March 2011, Ms Abbott said that if a pilot study showed minimum pricing would reduce alcohol-related harm then she would be in favour of the move.

Ms Abbott said:  “It is wrong that very young children can get out of their skulls for less money than it takes to buy a bottle of Coca-Cola.

“I would be in favour of a pilot and if that reduces drinking significantly, particularly among young people, the case is unanswerable.  I would like to see legislation then.”

A joint strategy for minimum pricing for alcohol has since been adopted by the governments of the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, with the aim of introducing minimum pricing throughout the island of Ireland.  The idea has also been adopted by the UK government, leading the leader of the Scottish Conservatives Ruth Davidson to announce a U-turn on the policy and abandoning the previous Tory opposition.

However Labour in Scotland have again rejected any similar move, leaving them the only main party to oppose minimum pricing.  Speaking at the launch of the party’s Shifting the Culture consultation in Glasgow on Tuesday, Dr Richard Simpson MSP said:

“This is a complex problem that requires complex solutions.  That is why Scottish Labour are launching not just one idea – but a comprehensive package of measures that we believe will help crack the culture of alcohol in Scotland.”

Dr Simpson added that the combination of caffeine and alcohol is a “toxic mix” which can increase the likelihood of violence.

However the anti-caffeine proposal had previously been ridiculed by police representatives and others.  Commenting on the proposal when giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Health Committee in September 2010, Chief Superintendent Bob Hamilton of Strathclyde Police’s territorial policing unit, said: “We don’t attend many violent disturbances outside coffee shops.”

The launch of Labour’s consultation comes the day before MSPs are due to vote on the first of three stages needed to pass the Scottish Government’s Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) Bill.  The plan failed under the previous SNP minority administration but now has clear majority support at its second attempt.  The Scottish Government has said it wants consensus on public-health policies is willing to look at any ideas which may help solve Scotland’s problematic relationship with the bottle.

In response to the Labour policy announcement, the SNP has said it will work with anyone putting forward sensible measures, but this does not change the Labour Party’s refusal to back minimum pricing plans.  

Bob Doris, Deputy Convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Health and Sport Committee, says the SNP want consensus on public health – and urged Labour to unite with every other party in Scotland in supporting minimum pricing.

Mr Doris, SNP MSP for Glasgow, said:

“All parties in Scotland – with the exception of Labour who have refused to put politics aside – are on board with plans for minimum pricing.

“Even the UK Labour Party’s Public Health spokeswoman is calling for it to be introduced.

“The SNP is always willing to look at ideas to change our country’s harmful relationship with the bottle.

“But these proposals do not change Labour’s ridiculous stance on minimum pricing.  In fact, these proposals are just a rehash of the policy they had in their 2011 manifesto upon which they were soundly defeated.

“There is overwhelming evidence and support for minimum pricing, from the police, health professionals – including all four of the UK’s Chief Medical Officers – alcohol charities, the churches and many more.

“We have never said that minimum pricing is a silver bullet – that’s why the SNP Government has already put in place a ban on bulk discounts, and promotions in off-sales have been restricted.  But minimum pricing is still key to tackling irresponsible alcohol consumption.  Through a minimum price for a unit of alcohol, we can raise the price of the cheap supermarket white ciders, lager and value spirits sought out by problem drinkers.

“It is time for Labour to get on board to tackle the low price of high-strength alcohol – otherwise they will go down in history as the only party who voted against the most significant public health measure in Scotland since the smoking ban.”