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INSIDE TRACK: Mixed messages on alcohol leave a bad taste

SCOTLAND:

a "nation of drunks" needing protection from the demon drink yet congratulating itself on its party-throwing prowess.

There's your problem there. That dichotomous profile enjoyed the alcohol trade, where increasingly prohibitionist tendencies clash with a hugely promoted "hospitality" sector.

Mixed messages? They're all over the place.

Yesterday I attended an annual gathering of some of the sharpest minds in Scotland's licensing sector: legal practitioners, trade lobbyists, civil servants and even a few senior police officers. It's an opportunity to review the past year and the impact of licensing legislation and its enforcement on an industry that employs hundreds of thousands and is worth hundreds of millions to the economy. And it's a grim listen.

Hot on the heels of criticising the whisky trade's democratic right to challenge minimum pricing proposals, it transpires the health lobby is continuing its boycott of Holyrood's platform to thrash out national licensing issues.

It's a tad unsettling that publicly funded bodies refuse to attempt to find common ground on the Government's National Licensing Advisory Group because of its opposition to the presence of trade representatives. (In fact, one boycotter stopped inviting me to conferences as I would seek trade comment - and thus balance - on what was discussed.)

No-one would ever doubt the social and health impact of alcohol abuse, but it is more than a little entrenched to see it only through the prism of accident and emergency statistics and a legacy of addiction, and refusing to listen to other opinions. Especially when the taxpayer pays your salaries and funds your organisation's existence; and when consumption and harm are on the way down.

The behaviour of elected members deciding the fate of businesses and livelihoods isn't much better. At a recent meeting of the licensing board in Stirling, a tourism epicentre with a vibrant student scene and where hospitality is a core employer, proceedings were suspended for several weeks. The reason for halting this quasi-judicial process? Inter-party disputes leading to members storming out leaving the board inquorate and applicants and their agents wondering what to do next. All very costly from those in political power. In the past decade, bizarrely with the original intention of streamlining the process, Scotland has introduced ream after ream of legislation around the sale of alcohol.

Adding to the red tape, last month saw another Bill, the somewhat misleading titled Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Bill, unveiled.

Yesterday's general view was that this was another missed opportunity, but nonetheless the vexing question of Angostura Bitters has been settled thanks to the Bill.

To quote one delegate: "This ruin of many a young man is now safely included within the definition of "alcohol" - relief all round. We're constantly told how important to the economy the licensed trade is and how far reaching the effects can be on society. If that's the case, then it would surely be in everybody's interests if the law could be readily accessible."

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