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Sturgeon admits min pricing legal difficulties

Scottish health secretary Nicola Sturgeon has conceded plans for a minimum unit price for alcohol in Scotland is “almost certain” to meet a legal challenge.

Answering quesitons from Holyrood’s Subordinate Legislation Committee, Sturgeon admitted she is working on the basis that the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Bill will be contested in court.

The majority of the SNP administration in government backs the proposal to set a floor price for alcohol in an effort to combat Scotland’s problems with alcohol abuse.

Facing MSPs, Sturgeon was asked why a specific figure for the minimum unit price is not included in the Bill.

She replied that any price figure will be added later under subordinate legislation which would not normally be debated by the whole chamber.

Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale said: “What would you say to pessimists that might think you are only waiting to put the price on at the subordinate legislation stage because you know a legal challenge is coming, and you want the law on the statute books before that happens?”

Sturgeon said such an argument is “illogical” because any legal challenge would come at the point when the legislation becomes effective, by which time a minimum unit price would be set.

She said: “Whatever price is set initially, that price will not stay as set forever and it is likely to change over a period of time. I think the Bill complies with law. Any price which is set by subordinate legislation would be required to comply with law as well.

“I guess I am just not convinced it is the right approach to set the initial price in primary legislation.”

Sturgeon added that the government will want to make sure any initial price is based on the “most up-to-date evidence”.

She said: “I think it is almost certain that the Bill will be legally challenged. Any piece of legislation that this Parliament passes is potentially subject to legal challenge. I work on the basis there will be a legal challenge.

“My job is to make sure that we have legislation that can meet that legal challenge, and I am confident that it can.”

The health secretary said the minimum price would have to be flexible to change over time and “it would not be considered reasonable to have to introduce primary legislation every time” it changed.

“In seeking to set the price by delegated powers we are not sort of seeking the ability to take it away and the government to do it without any reference to anybody, there is a very robust procedure that the affirrmative order would have to go through so that this committee, other relevant committees and parliament as a whole would have to satisfy itself about the various tests that we would require to have.

“So I know from previous experience the delegated powers provision is not a walkover, it is still a fairly robust procedure we have to go through.”

Responding to Sturgeon’s comments, Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said: “The minister is effectively telling us that she expects her legislation to be dragged through the courts.

“The essence of good government is that ministers bring forward legislation that will work and will not have unintended consequences, which is why I have repeatedly warned that the lack of evidence on this issue fatally undermines the Bill’s central proposition.”

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