Powers to raise the legal age for buying alcohol in shops in Scotland may be handed to local authorities, in order to side-step opposition in Parliament, insiders believe.

Opposition MSPs last night (2 October) voted down a plan by the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) to raise the legal age from 18 to 21 for off-trade alcohol purchases.

The vote, while not binding on the government, indicates the level of opposition the SNP would face to introduce the measure, which is part of its strategy to tackle alcohol-related crime and harm. 

Sources close to the situation have told just-drinks that ministers are considering a "face-saving" compromise deal, which would see powers to raise the age limit delegated to individual local authorities.

One source said that it was possible that Labour, the second largest party in Parliament, might be prepared to support such a move. Labour members united behind fellow opposition MSPs in last night's vote.

The UK drinks industry and ministers in Westminster, London, are watching events in Scotland closely, with an alcohol strategy for England and Wales also in the pipeline.  

Plans in the SNP's draft alcohol strategy also include minimum pricing for alcohol and tight restrictions on drinks promotions. It says that alcohol abuse costs Scotland GBP2bn annually.

Tom French, co-ordinator of the student-led pressure group Coalition Against Raising the Drinking Age in Scotland, said after yesterday's age limit vote: "I hope the Scottish Government will learn a few lessons from this charade, and will now concentrate on introducing sensible, evidence-based measures to tackle the serious problem of alcohol misuse in Scotland."