HC Deb 14 March 1984 vol 56 cc376-8
2. Mr. McKelvey

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland what representations he has recently received from the Scotch Whisky Association regarding impending legislation on minimum volume percentages.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. John MacKay)

I have received representations in writing, and I have also met representatives of the association. They put to me the case for a minimum alcoholic concentration of Scotch whisky of 40 per cent. by volume.

Mr. McKelvey

Does the Minister agree with the representations that have been made? Like many Opposition Members, does he not feel that any dilution of the standard of Scotch whisky would be as unpalatable as the adulteration attempts by some of his hon. Friends to dilute the contents of the latest report of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs?

Mr. MacKay

I do not know what the latter has to do with the former. Perhaps one needs some of the former before one can stand being a member of the latter.

I and my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have had a considerable number of representations from hon. Members and bodies outwith the House. We shall take all those representations into account, and we hope to make a decision on this difficult matter as soon as possible.

Mr. Fairbairn

As one who represents consumers and producers of this substance, may I encourage the Minister to look more closely at the representations that he has had from those who wish the diluted percentage to be allowed? If this afternoon he cares to go into any shop or supermarket in Scotland and buy one of these brands of diluted whisky at its cheap price, he will discover that he is paying far more per percentage volume than is charged for brands at full strength.

Mr. MacKay

Those representations were indeed made to me. That is one of the aspects of the matter that I shall have to take into consideration. However, I have to say that anything below 40 per cent. has to be marked as being under strength and to have the alcoholic strength declared on the label.

Mr. Foulkes

Does the Minister accept that he is able to take action against weak continental whisky if the minimum is set at 37 per cent., not 40 per cent.? Does he further accept that if the minimum is set at 40 per cent. that will harm some United Kingdom producers, such as Glen Catrine in my constituency, and reduce the choice available to the consumer? How does he reconcile that with the Government's so-called principles?

Mr. MacKay

The hon. Gentleman has outlined to the House the representations that he and those in the under strength trade have made to me and to my right hon. and hon. Friends. These are matters that we will have to take into account, with the representations of the Scotch Whisky Association.

Mr. McQuarrie

Does my hon. Friend accept that if the volume content of whisky is reduced that will create considerable problems in the rural areas of Scotland, which are totally dependent upon the manufacture of good whisky, not that referred to by the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes)? The rubbish that is manufactured there is not acceptable, and the small print is not looked at by the people who purchase the whisky.

Mr. MacKay

As the Member of Parliament for the constituency which produces splendid Islay malts, I am all for the production and consumption of good whisky—[Interruption.] I must say to my hon. Friend, as I have said to other hon. Members, that all these matters will be weighed by my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and myself before we come to a final decision.

Mr. Dewar

I should first declare that I have no intention of entering the bad pun of the month competition.

Despite the levity, does the Minister accept that there is great anxiety about the growth in the sale of under-strength whiskies and that the labelling requirements afford the customer very little protection? In addition, such whiskies are often a bad buy. Will the Minister urgently consider the need to maintain a minimum standard alcohol content to protect consumer confidence in the product? Can we look for a very early announcement of the Government's intentions?

Mr. MacKay

I am well aware of the serious arguments involved. There has been a little levity this afternoon. However, hon. Members have made their representations and I am sure that they appreciate the seriousness of the issue. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am taking the problem very seriously.