By Jack Cummins
It transpired, however, that the headline writer had failed to read the story.
Public health professionals had found themselves disagreeing with the Scottish Government, but not because they have been “left off” a review group. Instead, they had resigned from the National Licensing Advisory Group (NLAG). “Licensing hours” had nothing to do with the matter.
The background to the group is a bit of a muddle. Responding to the views of consultees, the Nicholson Committee took the view that licensing legislation ought to be kept under review.
Drinking habits and associated public health problems could change quickly and it was important that reform could be introduced without delay.
A body comprised of licensed trade organisations, social workers, directors of public health and Alcohol Focus Scotland (among other interested parties), would be in an ideal position to give informed advice to ministers.
That recommendation was embraced by Holyrood and a National Licensing Forum was put in place.
But, for reasons which were never really explained, it had only a very short life.
So far as I can ascertain, the NLAG was intended as a replacement of sorts, but one which would not be “owned” by the Scottish Government.
Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill told SLTN (January 24, 2013): “We’ve never felt that we should set [a forum] up, because there are things where they might disagree with us.”
Asked if the trade would be invited to participate, MacAskill said: “If the trade wasn’t there, there would be a real problem. This has to be a partnership – it can’t be a diktat”.
He considered that where there was a clear reason to speak to licensing board convenors, “the absence of the trade would frankly be a bit daft”.
In the end, the NLAG was comprised of licensing standards officers, licensing lawyers, board convenors, Police Scotland, licensed trade figures and public health specialists.
It must have been possible to find some common ground to inform alcohol policy.
The group’s remit was to develop a national perspective on alcohol licensing, with a focus on minimising alcohol-related harm and a drive towards better regulatory practice.
However, the health professionals felt that the constitution of the group was fundamentally flawed.
According to Alcohol Focus Scotland (AFS) there was “an inherent conflict of interest in having producers and retailers of alcohol involved in determining the conditions of their own regulation”.
Instead AFS proposed an alternative structure: the group would be led by those responsible for alcohol regulation, thus protecting the public interest.
No interested party would be excluded; other stakeholder representatives would participate as and when requested by the revised body.
That approach was rejected by the Scottish Government, with MacAskill adhering to his view that the group “offered a valuable fresh perspective”.
The health representatives then resigned.
This is a pity.
While it was unlikely that the group would reach agreement on a number of key issues, surely it must have been possible to find some common ground which could usefully inform alcohol policy.
I respect, but do not agree with, the position of AFS.
However, I do not respect – in fact, I deplore – the view expressed by the writer of a letter to the Sunday Herald (April 27) following that paper’s coverage of the disagreement.
The paper’s correspondent vehemently disagreed with MacAskill asking, “What planet is he from?” and adding: “When issues around banning smoking in public places were hammered out over many years, no [involvement] of the tobacco barons was contemplated, let alone allowed”.
Alcohol industry figures compared to “tobacco barons”?
On this occasion at least, I’m with MacAskill.