SNP booze blitz steams ahead
MINISTERS are to press ahead with a crackdown on sales of cheap alcohol in a move that could be fast-tracked through Parliament in as little as six months, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.
In the biggest shake-up of alcohol laws for years, the Government is expected to confirm tomorrow that cut-price drink offers will be banned, minimum prices on alcohol imposed and a higher age limit set on off-sales.
Last night, there was growing speculation the SNP will now seek to fast-track the plans into law by using existing licensing powers. If successful, the measures could be enacted within months and hit shops by the beginning of September.
The Government claims alcohol misuse costs the Scottish economy 2.25bn a year as a result of crime and ill health. Despite widespread opposition from the drinks industry and claims they were preparing to back down, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill is expected to tell Parliament there will be no compromise.
The measures are set to spark a furious legal battle with the retail trade and alcohol industry, which claims the laws will hit customers' pockets, damage the industry, and do little to stop problem drinking.
If minimum pricing is introduced and promotional offers are banned, many of the offers at supermarkets and off-licences would be outlawed immediately.
A minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol, as advocated by health campaigners, would result in rocketing prices. A two-litre bottle of cider, currently priced at around 3, would cost 7.50. Wine would also increase in price, with a 3 bottle of wine possibly rising to a minimum of 5. Multi-packs of beer – which are regularly discounted – would also rise in price.
The moves are being pushed through despite concerns within the SNP that the Government should not seek to increase the financial burden on consumers and retailers during an economic downturn.
But while one plan to impose separate supermarket aisles for alcohol sales is expected to be dropped, ministers are said to have agreed that they should press ahead with all the other measures they want to include.
The controversial plan to increase the age limit for off-sales to 21 is to remain in the proposals, despite opposition from students. Ministers will publish a new Criminal Justice and Licensing Act this week which will include part of their alcohol crackdown.
However, Scotland on Sunday understands that ministers may seek to place some of the measures – such as the ban on "Buy One Get One Free" deals – in the existing 2005 Licensing Act, which is due to come into force in September.
The Act enshrines "protecting and improving public health" as a key objective of all licensing decisions, so the Government may argue that it gives the power to ban cheap drink offers. The same logic could also be applied to plans to impose minimum pricing.
Such a tactic would enable SNP ministers to push the reforms through more quickly, but it would also prompt accusations that they were deliberately dodging debate. One retail source said last night: "If they use the Licensing Act, it would be simply about rail-roading these plans in a bid to avoid proper parliamentary scrutiny. It suggests that Kenny MacAskill knows how unpopular it is to push up prices in this economic environment."
But Government sources remained tight-lipped last night about their plans. A 40-page "Alcohol Framework" document containing the full details of the measures will be unveiled by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill tomorrow morning.
Plans to raise the drinking age limit to 21 are unlikely to pass because of opposition from Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems. But other measures, such as minimum pricing and a ban on off-sales promotions are supported.
Richard Baker, Labour's justice spokesman, said: "On minimum pricing, we need to see the detail but we are prepared to listen on that." He added: "But these are all major changes which require full parliamentary debate."
The SNP has sought to highlight the damage being caused by drink in the last week, pointing to figures which show that hospitals are treating a record number of people for alcohol-related illnesses. Last year, 42,430 patients were discharged after being treated for illnesses linked to booze – a 20% jump in five years.
Other figures have shown that Scots drank the equivalent of 50 million litres of pure alcohol in 2007 – an average 42 bottles of spirits per person.
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