Minimum pricing for alcohol is no longer too hard to swallow for Newtown

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WHAT a difference six months and a landslide SNP election victory makes when it comes to Scottish Borders Council’s view on the introduction of a minimum unit price (MUP) for alcohol in Scotland, writes Andrew Keddie.

In September last year, councillors voted 14-11 against a motion from SNP councillor John Mitchell calling on leader David Parker to write to the then-minority regime at Holyrood urging that a 45p MUP should be included in the Alcohol (Scotland) Bill – the move having been rejected by Tory, Lib Dem and Labour MSPs at earlier stages of the proposed legislation.

The debate at Newtown betrayed a political split, with Lib Dem frontbenchers Graham Garvie and Vicky Davidson and the Tory chairman of the licensing board Gavin Logan, breaking ranks with Mr Parker’s administration to support Mr Mitchell.

But other senior councillors demurred, including Tory Sandy Scott, the council’s so-called champion for health, who stated: “This will hit too many sensible drinkers and discriminate against people on low incomes ... it will, however, put an extra £40million and £230million respectively into the coffers of Lidl and Tesco.”

The council thus backed an amendment from another Tory Len Wyse, “that Mr Parker should write to the Scottish Government encouraging it to work in partnership with the Westminster Government to develop a UK-wide scheme that will generate finance from the sale of alcohol which can be used to fund initiatives to encourage responsible consumption.”

Three months later, that letter was finally sent, although the contents of any response, if any, is unknown.

Last week, in the wake of the Holyrood landslide, Councillor Logan, who admitted last year he was “disappointed” in his party colleagues at Newtown, tried again, proposing a motion for today’s full council meeting to “instruct Mr Parker to write to the Scottish and UK Governments to express our support for a minimum unit price for alcohol of at least 45p”.

And on Tuesday came the news that SBC’s ruling administration had met in private and agreed to support Mr Logan’s motion with the additional request that “both governments commit the licensed trade to invest any increased income generated into alcohol-related support programmes”.

And with support of the SNP and Borders Party councillors assured, SBC will today finally deliver its unequivocal message.

The clandestine volte-face came the day after the SNP at Holyrood confirmed it would reintroduce its plans for a 45p MUP in September and expected it to become law within a year.

Mr Logan told us: “I am very happy at this turn of events ... increasing the minimum price for alcohol is a step in the right direction to reduce this country’s booze culture. The negative impact on people’s health and society in general cannot be ignored.

“This move will help tackle incidents which occur as a direct result of alcohol, including widespread violence and domestic abuse.”

Councillor Mitchell told us: “The SNP group at the council has no wish to gloat, so all I can really do is welcome this change of heart on behalf of the administration. I am glad they have finally come round to our way of thinking and I commend Councillor Logan – who, as chairman of the licensing board, knows his stuff – for sticking to his guns.

“It’s a case of better late than never.”

Not so happy, however, was Independent Hawick councillor David Paterson who said Tuesday’s decision by SBC’s administration was “very undemocratic to say the least”.

“The electorate will probably never know which councillors voted for or against minimum pricing,” he told us. “I suspect Parker and company are trying to take the credit away from the SNP because it was their baby.”