Borders brewer’s plea as Westminster ready to set minimum drink price

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A BORDERS brewery boss has called for opposition parties in Scotland to review their stances over the introduction of a minimum unit price for alcohol.

As convener of Scottish Borders Licensing Forum, Alastair Mouat, former managing director of Broughton Ales, has told TheSouthern of his disappointment that Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives did not back the Scottish Government’s proposals to introduce a minimum unit price as part of the Alcohol (Scotland) Bill passed in November.

The Peeblesshire company, founded in 1980, produces 11 bottled beers, including an organic brew for Marks & Spencer, and 18 cask ales, sold throughout the UK.

Mr Mouat’s observations came after the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition in Westminster last week unveiled plans to set a base price of not less than duty plus VAT in England and Wales. This works out at 21p per unit for beer and 28p per unit for spirits – much less than the 45p minimum unit price which was rejected by 76 votes to 49 at Holyrood.

Mr Mouat commented: “At meetings of the forum, which is made up from a wide cross-section of the community to advise Scottish Borders Licensing Board, the topic of alcohol abuse and the devastating effects it can have on individuals, families and the community in general is often an item for discussion.

“The forum has considered the information relating to availability and cost of alcohol and has concluded that the availability of cheap alcohol is one of the major contributory factors to the problems associated with alcohol, particularly among the young.”

He went on: “We were disappointed the opposition parties did not back the Scottish Government’s proposals on pricing. The price of alcohol on offer during the festive period shows there has been no reduction in ‘irresponsible promotions’.

“Given the current activity on minimum pricing at Westminster, we would hope that all parties would review their stances and pursue this important topic through the Scottish Parliament.”

The impending ban on below-cost drink south of the Border is explicit in the Westminster coalition agreement which states: “We will ban the sale of alcohol below cost price.”

Home Office minister James Brokenshire. stated: “Duty plus VAT is a basic definiition of what the cost of those products is. We wanted something that was workable and compliant with competition law as well.”

The news was seized on by the SNP’s South of Scotland list MSP Christine Grahame who accused the Conservatives and Lib Dems north of the border of “hypocrisy”.

Ms Grahame, who chairs Holyrood’s all-party health and sport committee, went on: “The political decision to oppose minimum pricing in Scotland by the Liberals and Tories will cost lives. That is not just my opinion, but was supported in evidence presented to my committee by health experts and the police.

“It is a scandal that the Liberals and Tories in Scotland, who opposed these plans, did so for obvious narrow party political reasons. The announcement by the Liberal and Tory coalition in London exposes the hypocrisy of their party counterparts north of the Border.

“Perhaps they will now listen to their leadership in London and think again about their politically motivated opposition to these proposals in Scotland.”

But her comments were rubbished by Lib Dem MSP Jeremy Purvis who will lock horns with Ms Grahame at the Holyrood elections of May 5.

The member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale stated: “Ms Grahame is confusing the SNP minimum unit pricing policy, which was likely to be illegal, with the ban on below-cost-and-VAT selling that the Treasury is proposing.

“They are not the same and, as someone who has studied the issue during the Scottish legislation, Ms Grahame should know this. If she does not, then it is absolutely astonishing.

“She was exposed last year for misrepresenting the alcohol mortality figures in the Borders and was also exposed for claiming the SNP Government was behind piloting the minimum pricing policy in the Borders when no such plans were in place.

“It is also worth pointing out that Nicola Sturgeon [Scotland’s health secretary] has spoken out against the below cost and tax approach and now Ms Grahame is saying it’s the same thing. How very odd.”

And John Lamont, Conservative MSP for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, told us: “I warmly welcome this move by the UK Government for a ban on below-cost sales of alcohol in England and Wales. This is exactly what we have called for in Scotland for over a year now.

“The Scottish Conservatives recently wrote to Ms Sturgeon urging her to adopt this approach as well, but regrettably her response was lukewarm.

“So I repeat my call to the SNP: join with us and ban sales of alcohol below cost price in Scotland, so that the whole of the UK can take concerted action.

“In the mean time, we continue to press for further targeted action on problem drinks and more concerted help for problem drinkers.”

Councillor Gavin Logan, the Conservative chairman of the local licensing board, claimed the Westminster proposal should only be regarded as a starting point.

He said :“Even though this is a step in the right direction, it quite clearly demonstrates the lobbying power of the drinks industry. I am not surprised the medical profession is not over the moon, although it must be better to have some sort of minimum unit price than none at all.

“The Scottish Government should consider implementing the Westminster proposal although my own view is it does not go nearly far enough.”