Page last updated at 15:40 GMT, Friday, 27 March 2009

Grasping the thistle on alcohol

By John Knox
Political reporter, BBC Scotland

fridge
Parties united in a bid to tackle the "demon drink"

When Hugh MacDiarmid wrote "A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle", back in the 1920s, he was not only penning one of Scotland's longest poems, he was perpetuating one of Scotland longest running problems... the demon drink.

But the joke about the tipsy Scotsman is wearing thin.

As Labour's Cathy Jamieson said, in the most significant speech in parliament this week: "The status quo is not an option, we cannot simply say we're not going to do anything about this problem."

She was signalling Labour's willingness to look at the thorny, not to say thistly, issue of alcohol pricing.

Ms Jamieson promised Labour's help in preparing a new assault on alcohol abuse.

In return the SNP dropped its plan to add its drink control measures to existing legislation.

Desired effect

Instead there is going to be a new health bill in the autumn which will give all parties the chance to fully debate the measures involved.

A report out from Audit Scotland this week has concentrated minds.

It found that drug and alcohol abuse costs the economy £5bn year in lost days at work and NHS costs.

It also found little evidence that the £77m spent on drug treatment and the £26m spent on alcohol treatment was having the desired effect.

"Drug and alcohol-related death rates are among the highest in Europe and have doubled in 15 years," the report says.

In 2007, the figures were 1,399 deaths from alcohol abuse and 455 from drug abuse.

I don't myself see the point in mixing drugs and alcohol, so to speak.

cathy jamieson
Cathy Jamieson hinted that minimum pricing may have a place

They seem to me to be very different problems.

Certainly the emphasis of the new health bill will be on addressing the issue of over-drinking, not alcoholism or drug addiction.

It's also worth recording that the Scottish Parliament does not have a happy record in the field of drink legislation.

I'm old enough to remember the chaotic scenes in November 2005 when the last licensing bill was going through the chamber.

But another brave attempt is to be made.

The SNP plans include a minimum price for alcohol, a ban on special promotions, a power for local licensing boards to raise the age for the purchase of alcohol from an off-licence to 21, and a social responsibility charge on problem retailers.

The Conservatives want the existing licensing laws enforced more rigorously and they favour higher taxes on targeted low-cost drinks.

Public opinion

The Liberal Democrats want to reduce the size of wine and beer glasses.

Labour though are prepared for tougher measures.

Cathy Jamieson hinted that minimum pricing may have a place, provided it did not include so-called "meal deals", and was set at the right level to avoid punishing the moderately-drinking poor and harming the whisky industry.

Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon said she would be happy to work with all parties but she warned that "politicians sometimes have to lead, not just follow public opinion". And she cited the smoking ban.

At first minister's question time on Thursday, Alex Salmond agreed to a Conservative request for an alcohol summit but he said the emphasis this time had to be on "delivery" not talk of vague principles.

Labour's Iain Gray stayed off the drink.

Instead he issued the SNP with a school report: "Teacher numbers - failed. Class sizes - failed. School building programme - failed. PE in schools - failed. Free school meals - failed. Nursery school teachers - failed."

The first minister said all of these were the immediate responsibility of local councils who had been given a record amount of funding, up 5.5% this year, compared with 4.2% in Labour's England.

Tavish Scott asked what the Scottish Government was doing to save the fishing industry
Tavish Scott asked about the fishing industry

The Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott asked what the Scottish Government was doing to save the fishing industry, which he said was in its worst state for 15 years.

Boats were being forced to fish in the dangerous seas off Rockall.

A fisherman from Macduff was only allowed to fish for three weeks out of eight and his nets had been made obsolete by a sudden change in the rules.

"Fishermen are angry. How can they make a living out of that?"

Mr Salmond said the Scottish Government had tried to make the fishing regulations more flexible and had partially succeeded.

"But we will always stand up, as we always have, for the Scottish fishing industry."

On Thursday morning there was a debate on the use of the private sector in the NHS.

It followed an announcement on Wednesday from the health secretary Nicola Sturgeon that the NHS in Scotland is to be allowed to enter into deals with the pharmaceutical companies over the introduction of new medicines.

Climate change

She also announced new guidelines on the issue of "co-funding", where patients pay for the medicines of their choice.

But she made it clear the SNP would never allow the NHS's free health service to be undermined.

"The private sector will only be used at the margins, tactically not strategically," she said.

Finally, on Friday the parliament's climate change committee held a conference in the chamber to examine the government's climate change bill.

Experts from all over the world were there...the American ocean explorer Dr David Guggenheim, officials from the flood risk countries of Bangladesh and the Maldives, Paul McAleavey from the European Environment Agency.

It was a suitably stormy day outside. And inside the government's target of 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 was suitably blown about.

The environmental organisations said it may be the best in the world - as the climate change minister Stewart Stevenson claims - but it's not good enough without an annual target, starting next year.

Actually, there's a modest start this weekend, with the Earth Hour campaign.

The Scottish Parliament is one of the many buildings across the globe where the lights are being turned out for an hour, at 8.30pm on Saturday night.



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