Tory U-turn as Ruth Davidson backs SNP on minimum drink pricing

THE Conservatives have announced they will back SNP plans for a minimum alcohol price, marking the first big policy shift since new leader Ruth Davidson took over.

It follows a “major review” of policy, with the Tories insisting they secured key concessions from the SNP. A “sunset clause” will see the legislation assessed after five years to see if it is working, while European authorities will now be notified of the plans, amid concerns they do not comply with EU trade laws.

Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats had all opposed the SNP’s attempt to bring in minimum pricing in the previous Parliament, with the parties joining forces to defeat the Nationalists on the issue.

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But the Liberal Democrats and now the Conservatives have since given their backing to the measure.

Ms Davidson said: “Support for alcohol minimum pricing represents a major policy shift for the Scottish Conservatives. It follows my commitment as leader to undertake a widespread review of policy.

“I am delighted that we have managed to secure two major concessions which will reassure the retail industry following productive negotiations with the Health Secretary.”

The U-turn brings the Scottish Tories in line with the party south of the Border where David Cameron has indicated he backs the measure and recently overruled doubts among Cabinet colleagues. The Prime Minister rejected concerns that the poorest will be hit hardest and is to push through the plans by the next election, it emerged earlier this week.

Ms Davidson added: “While we retain our scepticism, with the security of a sunset clause we have resolved to give minimum pricing a chance to succeed. If it works then we will be delighted that we aided that success. If it fails then we have secured the mechanism by which it can be dropped.”

The Nationalists’ landslide election victory last year means that minimum pricing will become law later this year. Ministers want to curb the sale of cheap wines and ciders which sometimes cost less than bottled water.

Health secretary Nicola Sturgeon welcomed the Tories’ support, saying they had “added their names to the list of doctors, nurses, academics, politicians and growing numbers of the general population who recognise the harm alcohol is doing to our communities and the benefit minimum pricing will bring”.

She said: “I firmly believe that it is far better for political parties to reach consensus on public health policies.

“Tackling alcohol misuse is one of the most important public health issues Scotland faces and a consensus across the Parliament shows how serious we all are in our bid to reduce the damage alcohol is doing.”

Dr Evelyn Gillan, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland:

“Minimum pricing is an effective policy because it targets the drinkers causing the most harm to both themselves and society, whilst having very little effect on the spending of moderate drinkers.”

Labour is now isolated over minimum pricing for alcohol but the party’s public health spokesman Dr Richard Simpson remained sceptical yesterday.

He said: “We do not believe the SNP government’s proposal is the answer as it will deliver a multi-million windfall for big supermarkets without providing a single extra penny for our police or the NHS, it will not target problem drinks and big questions remain over whether these plans will be struck down in the courts.”