Dr Richard Simpson stands his ground and keeps asking questions
The view from the opposition seats across to a majority government must, at times, seem a bit bleak. However, Labour’s shadow public health minister Dr Richard Simpson seems determined to ensure his opponents aren’t sitting too comfortably and he certainly appears quite at ease, having positioned himself as a deep-seated thorn in the side of his opponents. Be it over waiting times – “I’ve been banging on about this since 2008 and no one has really paid much heed to me because I keep getting batted away by the Government”, urging them to “come clean” over the number of nurses being cut from the health service and the pressure it is causing, or persistently accusing the Government of cutting hundreds of millions from the NHS budget at a time when it insists it is protecting health spending – Simpson clearly revels in agitating and asking awkward questions.
One of his longest-running and most ferocious battles with the SNP Government has been over minimum pricing. As a doctor and addictions specialist, Simpson has faced particular scrutiny about his decision to oppose the measure.
“I was opposed to it for the reasons I laid out very cogently in the Stage 2 debate in the last Parliament. I spoke for 20 minutes, it is the longest I’ve ever spoken in Parliament, and even then the chairman was cutting me off. I didn’t get to issues of cross-border sales, or internet sales or illegal alcohol, which will increase. I didn’t get to home brew that increased in Sweden hugely. I didn’t introduce any of these arguments. I did not use and will not use any of the arguments from the industry about tax overseas, etc. So I wasn’t using those arguments at all. I was arguing purely on the basis of the fact that the 18-24 year olds will not be affected – a tiny, tiny effect on them. I mean it is minuscule, 0.6 per cent. It is so small as to be almost invisible and that is the group that I think most people, the public, are worried about. Younger people going out and getting absolutely drunk.”
While these arguments successfully thwarted the proposal in its first outing, they were no match against a determined SNP Government who pledged to reintroduce the measure even before it was aware of the conclusive majority it would come to possess. Having consistently campaigned against minimum pricing in this session and the last, was Simpson disappointed to see the legislation finally pass earlier this year?
“Yes. I just don’t think it is the right measure. I know that they’ve said it is all party politics, but frankly, that level of argument is juvenile. There are cogent arguments about why minimum unit pricing will not work and that it is unfair.”
One of the factors that will determine its success will be the market response, he says.
“If the market response is to effectively put the price of all alcohol up then without the excise duty, the profits will all go to the producers and the retailers and that is still a major problem. But if the price of all alcohol goes up because the people who produce the premium brands want to keep the differential then by default it actually might work, but not because it is minimum unit pricing, but because of the market response.”
Having previously been joined in opposition to the policy by the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, Labour found themselves very much alone in opposing the measure by the time the legislation was being voted upon second time around. In the closing speeches many of their one-time allies on the matter expressed their utmost confidence that the policy would prove to be a success and Labour would come to regret their record on this issue. Does he hope, for Scotland’s sake, that he and his party are proved wrong and the measure succeeds?
“I hope that I am proved wrong in the sense that it will not be a serious burden on people who are moderate drinkers on lower incomes and that the industry will not use the additional income that they’ve got to reduce the price of alcohol above the level of the minimum unit price. But the way the law is written there is no guarantee in any of that.
“… I mean, I’m serious about tackling alcohol misuse. I wouldn’t be proposing a bill with 14 measures in it otherwise. But I just don’t think it is going to work. And it is worse than that. From April next year, if there is no appeal against it, a moderate drinking pensioner will be paying £100 a year extra for their drink. Why should they?”
Simpson criticised the Bill throughout for being “too narrowly drawn” and has argued that minimum pricing will not be the “silver bullet” that ends Scotland’s damaging relationship with alcohol. Together with his colleague Graeme Pearson, a former police officer and Director General of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency, Simpson has worked to develop a wide-ranging package of measures for tackling alcohol misuse that span public health and criminal justice policy. Among the proposals are plans to stop retailers from flaunting the new ban on bulk-buy promotions by tightening the loopholes in the existing legislation, as well as measures to introduce a legal limit for caffeinated alcohol, a clamp down on alcohol marketing in public places, and requirement that GPs are notified of any new conviction by patients where alcohol has been a factor.
The measures all strive to confront the individual who is getting into trouble with drink and make them face up to the reality of their alcohol misuse, Simpson explains, adding that the proposals are currently out to consultation until the end of the month and will be analysed during the summer recess before the party publishes its response in the autumn.
Another consultation that Simpson has taken a keen interest in is the UK Government’s consultation on plain packaging for tobacco products. He welcomes the consultation and says he is “quite happy to go along with anything for which there is an evidence base to curtail smoking”. Protecting children from the dangers of passive smoking is a particular concern. While he says there is no way you could possibly ban smoking in the home, he does believe we should be asking questions about whether we should be looking to introduce a ban on smoking in cars. Labour has previously said it will consider the issue and Simpson says that if there proved to be evidence that the measure would have an effect and would be enforceable then the party, when in government, would introduce legislation to that effect.
Simpson would also go further in striving to tackle obesity. While the Scottish Parliament has not been shy in debating radical measures for addressing alcohol misuse and smoking rates, it has been noticeably quieter on the issue of obesity. Here, Simpson believes that efforts such as Denmark’s so-called ‘fat tax’ and France’s tax on sugary drinks should be considered carefully.
“If Scotland drinks 20 per cent more sugary drinks, which it does, and if Scotland’s diet is significantly worse than the rest of the UK then we have to find a way of being able to address that.”
That is not easy, he acknowledges.
“Although I thoroughly approve of food cooperatives and communities working together to try and improve diets, I think that there may well come a point when we have to take this much more seriously because obesity is, I think, the next big, big issue that we’ve got to tackle.”
However, it is a source of regret and considerable anger to him that he feels Scotland’s efforts have been hindered by redundancies in the successful weight management programme, Counterweight, earlier this year, which he argues has seen valuable skills and experience lost to the programme.
“The thing I’m most angry about is the fact all Counterweight staff were declared redundant at the end of April. The Counterweight programme was being hailed at the beginning of May at the European congress as being a worldleading programme at the very moment that this government decided to hand it all to the health boards but didn’t give them the money until May which meant that all the staff were made redundant and we’ve lost them. So I think that is disgraceful, absolutely disgraceful, and that it is a sign of utter incompetence in the Government that they failed to support a world-leading programme and make sure that there was good transition to a period when the health boards had time to reflect and decide whether that is the programme they wanted.”
And with that final flourish, he is away. Off, no doubt, to demand more answers in equally plain terms.