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Cheap Alcohol (Health Consequences)

Volume 468: debated on Thursday 6 December 2007

The Minister for Public Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), would very much have liked to open this debate, but she is in Brussels representing the UK at an EU Council meeting.

Alcohol has been part of human life since time immemorial, but our relationship with it has never been straightforward. In moderation, it can be a social lubricant and have health benefits, but in excess it can damage health and cause wider personal and social harm. The way in which alcohol is managed in a free society raises questions about the role of the state and about individual and family responsibility. Those are questions it is not always easy to grapple with, and views in the House will vary, across political lines.

Levels of alcohol consumption depend on a number of factors, including affordability, social acceptability and availability, but evidence suggests that affordability and social acceptability play a more important role than availability. Consumption in the UK has grown steadily over the decades as we have become richer. In 1947 a bottle of whisky cost the equivalent of £50 today. When I was growing up, there was drink in the house only at Christmas and on special occasions, whereas nowadays many people drink regularly, even daily. Excess alcohol consumption can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer. If we look at a graph of liver disease over the past 30 years, we see that the UK was near the bottom of the international league 30 years ago. In other countries liver disease has been falling, but in the UK it has been steadily rising. If trends are not reversed we will soon have more liver disease than France, which used to have the worst levels of liver disease in the world.

Government action can make and has made a difference. Since our first alcohol harm reduction strategy was published in 2004, general levels of alcohol consumption have fallen, as has violent crime, which is often alcohol-related. The proportion of young people under 16 drinking has declined to the 1992 level.

My constituent, Mr. Barry Haycock, has rung me three times this week about young children who have got cheap alcohol from the local shop, sometimes by stealth and sometimes by stealing. They are making the retailers’ lives an absolute misery. That is a real issue in Rushden. Can the Minister give me any reassurances and say what might be done to help?

Such behaviour by local retailers is disgraceful, and I urge the hon. Gentleman, or his constituent, if they have not already done so, to report the matter to the local police and trading standards officers.

If I understand correctly, the Minister’s point is that the price of alcohol has come down in recent years in relative terms, yet binge drinking and the crime associated with it have come down. Does he conclude that limiting the opportunity for supermarkets to sell alcohol at a discount would make no difference to binge drinking or crime levels?

I will come to that point in a moment; it is exactly for the reasons the hon. Gentleman mentions that we are reviewing the matter. The Government’s renewed alcohol strategy “Safe, Sensible, Social”, which we launched in June, aims to build on the progress that I have outlined. Three particular groups give rise to the most concern: young people under 18, to whom I have referred; 18 to 24-year-old binge drinkers; and older, harmful drinkers.

In his comprehensive spending review statement in October, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a new Home Office public service agreement—the first relating to alcohol—to produce a long-term, sustainable reduction in the harm caused by alcohol. It will include a new national Department of Health indicator to measure changes in the rate of hospital admissions for alcohol-related harms. Again, that will be the first ever national commitment to monitor how the NHS is tackling harm caused by alcohol. We plan to achieve that through the inclusion of alcohol in the new NHS performance framework, the details of which we shall announce soon. Local health trusts will set targets and priorities against that framework. The new indicator will encourage general practitioners and hospitals to identify people who drink too much and to intervene earlier with advice and support. We are also about to embark on the biggest ever information campaign to drive home the message about daily drinking guidelines, how people can estimate how much they are drinking, and the risks of drinking too much. That will be launched next April.

In that propaganda, will my hon. Friend emphasise, particularly to children, the dangers of addiction? We are talking about a drug that is not just damaging but very addictive, and that is an underlying cause of the problem.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The campaign is important because there is a lot of misunderstanding about the units system. For example, many people do not realise that the units being talked about are the equivalent of half a pint of 3.5 per cent. beer or cider, whereas a lot of the beer and cider sold today is 5 or 6 per cent. The same is true of wine: one unit means one small glass of wine at 9 per cent., but these days it is quite difficult to find wine that is below 11 or 12 per cent., and much of it is served in much bigger glasses. There is a serious perception problem; people think that they are consuming less than they are, and a contributory factor is that they often do not realise that units are smaller than they imagine.

The Minister refers to the bleak local and national figures. Cases of cirrhosis of the liver have doubled in the past seven years, and have gone up by more than a third in the past two years. Does he not think that we ought to have a much more widespread and effective public health campaign? Notwithstanding the comments of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), the availability of cheap alcohol at national chains with names like Bargain Booze says an awful lot about us as a nation, does it not?

I am not quite as gloomy as my hon. Friend, for the reasons that I highlighted earlier: since the first strategy was announced in 2004, there has for the first time been a reversal of the historical trend of increased consumption. He is right: alcohol has become cheaper, relative to income, but since the early 1980s, the price of alcohol has risen 24 per cent. higher than general retail prices. However, there is a relationship with price.

I do not underestimate the size of the problem, which we all see in our constituency surgeries, but I am not persuaded of the extent to which price is a factor. I stay out of supermarkets, but the place where I, and most of my constituents, buy alcohol is the public house, and we find it expensive enough. Will the Minister reassure us that we are not being softened up for a great hike in taxes?

The hon. Gentleman is right: the picture is complex, and that is exactly why we are holding the review that I described.

May I just finish this point? Madam Deputy Speaker, I seek your advice; do I get injury time for every intervention?

But do interventions add time to my 10 minutes? [Hon. Members: “Yes.”] The hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) is right to point out that the situation is complex. The World Health Organisation says that it is clear that price is a factor, but Italy and Spain, whose alcohol prices are significantly lower than ours, also have lower consumption, so there is a strong cultural factor.

I will give way one more time to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), and then I really must make progress.

I must make some progress, but I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford).

I am obliged to the Minister for giving way, and I welcome the fact that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), is also sitting on the Front Bench. The hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) mentioned price, but I strongly disagree with him. There is a link with price. I brought a matter to the attention of my Front-Bench colleagues. I do not know whether hon. Members can see what I am holding, but it is a card that is delivered to the estates in my constituency. It is headed—

It is headed, “Not drunk enough”. It is an offer of cheap booze, which one can phone up for, like a takeaway. Does my hon. Friend deprecate that method of selling alcohol?

I deprecate that, but as I explained earlier, the issue is complex, and that is why we are reviewing it.

Obviously, this Christmas the Government are discouraging people from going to pubs and clubs, and encouraging them to drink at home by penalising such drinks as the yard of ale. People are likely to face a fine for drinking a yard of ale in any pub or club outside the House of Commons. Does the Minister not accept that it is better to encourage people to drink in controlled circumstances? Under what the Government call the responsible alcohol sales campaign, if people are argumentative—that includes a lot of hon. Members, I presume—they are deemed to be drunk, so serving them would be an offence punishable with a fine of up to £80.

I do not agree with that. Serving drunks is a serious matter, and it leads to increased violence. Some people have claimed that the new licensing laws have contributed to the problem. There is no evidence to support that. As I said earlier, the latest figures actually show a recent reversal in the long-term increase in alcohol consumption. Serious violent crime is down by 5 per cent. during the evening and at nights, and less serious wounding is down by 3 per cent. Accident and emergency departments have seen a 2 per cent. decrease in serious violence. I know from talking to the police in my own constituency of Exeter that the staggering of closing times for nightclubs has helped to reduce the problems associated with everyone pouring out on to the streets at the same time. Councils and the police are using their new powers, and I would urge them to use them more.

We remain concerned, however, about the practice by shops and supermarkets of deep discounting promotions, often as loss leaders, and at below cost price, of alcoholic products. We have therefore announced, as I said, an independent review of the evidence of the relationship between harm and the pricing and promotion of alcohol. Depending on the review’s findings, which are expected next summer, we are prepared to change the law.

The Minister has moved on from an analysis of the impact of the licensing liberalisation, but is it not the case that those figures fail to take account of hidden harm in the home, such as the increase in domestic abuse? Hospital admissions have increased—perhaps not because of violence, but they may be alcohol-related—by 2,000 since 2002.

I urge the hon. Gentleman to be cautious about those statistics, because the collection of statistics in the health service on alcohol-related injuries is extremely patchy. The evidence from official health service data is that the sort of injuries that one would expect from drinking alcohol have declined since the Licensing Act 2003 came into force. However, he is right to suggest that there may be a hidden problem that requires further examination and exploration.

I am grateful to the Minister, who is most generous with his time. When the review takes place, will he ensure that it looks at a problem for local authorities? Under the Licensing Act, they are not allowed to impose a blanket condition on licences regarding cheap drink promotions. They can impose conditions only on individual establishments, if they can demonstrate that a problem has been created on, or in the vicinity of, the premises. However, if supermarkets sell cheap drinks, which people take away, the local authority has no powers to act.

The review is independent, so it is entitled to look at whatever it likes. If the hon. Gentleman would like to suggest that it look at that issue, I am sure that it will take his representations seriously.

We have introduced measures to tighten the rules on advertising. Since the Advertising Standards Authority changed its code in 2005, we have more stringent guidelines than ever before on alcohol’s appeal to young people, the sexual content of advertisements, and irresponsible or antisocial behaviour. Polling evidence already suggests that that has reduced young people’s exposure to alcohol advertising. The Advertising Standards Authority and the recent report by the regulator, Ofcom, have shown that young people are exposed to fewer alcohol advertisements on television. In addition, the Committee of Advertising Practice and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice will undertake a full review of all advertising codes in 2008.

It is in everyone’s interests to reduce the harm to health and the costs to society of excessive alcohol consumption, while avoiding unnecessary or nannyish restrictions on adults who wish to enjoy a legal product. I believe that the Government have got the balance right, and with the measures already undertaken and those planned for the future I hope that the picture will improve. I look forward to listening to the views of other hon. Members during the course of this debate.

We must all accept that alcohol is society’s drug of preference. It is almost hard-wired into our social life—arguably, more than ever. Like most drugs, it has sought-after effects, such as the social lubrication to which the Minister referred, as well as noxious and toxic effects. Some of those effects are social rather than physiological, and we all know what they are.

As with all drugs, obtaining the sought-after effects and avoiding the noxious ones is a question of controlling the dosage. That control is a matter and, indeed, a learning curve for individuals and societies. The risks are greater for people who have not been exposed to them before, such as young teenagers and native cultures that have never previously encountered alcohol. The social know-how that has developed to deal with that drug of preference varies. Latin countries assume that social patterns and customs largely provide the means for managing the problem, whereas in Nordic countries, we rely more heavily on regulation, prohibition and fiscal disincentives. Both strategies can work, except when Nordic folk go to Latin countries and suddenly find that the sangria is freely available, is all too cheap, and is as plentiful as water.

Regrettably, Nordic cities from Moscow to Glasgow and Stockholm cannot manage without compensating legislation and a degree of Government paternalism. We therefore have legislation and licensing, which have recently varied—arguably to no appreciable effect, because alcohol-related crime has not gone down significantly, although some of it is committed a little bit later than before, which puts pressure on police services that were unprepared for the change. Taxation has varied recently— arguably to no good effect, because we have some of the highest taxation rates in the EU as well as some of the highest rates of consumption. It is easy to blame the licensing laws. I shall not endeavour to do so, because pub sales have not rocketed. I assume that when the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), the chairman of the all-party beer group, speaks he will address that serious problem. Pub sales have not gone up.

I do not want to take up too much of the hon. Gentleman’s time, but is not one reason why pub sales are not as buoyant as they were the fact that young people buy vast quantities of cheap alcohol in supermarkets and tank up before they go to the pub?

That is precisely the explanation. Home and street consumption—the latter is a hidden area—has gone up quite remarkably in the past decade. The principal beneficiary is the supermarket, not necessarily in increased profits, but they have maximised their customer base and such sales attract more people into the shop. I accept that alcohol accounts for less than 10 per cent. of their sales, but they certainly endeavour to use it to produce sales elsewhere.

This Christmas, in my town, as surely in every constituency, there will be the usual sad litany of alcoholic excess of one kind or another: antisocial behaviour, fights, road accidents and possibly deaths. If we look back over the past decade, we can see that consumption has increased, although it has dipped a bit lately; bingeing has increased, although it, too, has dipped a bit lately; liver disease has gone up inexorably; unwanted conceptions and sexually transmitted diseases, which are alcohol-related, have increased; and alcoholism itself has increased. The Government can have an impact on that, although I am not entirely certain how much. They could usefully ban dumping or loss-leading sales of alcohol by supermarkets. They could vary the fiscal regime to encourage better drinking habits. They could increase the penalties— in fact, they are planning to do so—for alcoholic excess.

Ultimately, there is no substitute for long-term change in our cultural habits. Almost any device that we come up with can be subverted by a new marketing strategy by the drinks companies. We have a cultural problem as well as a health problem, and the depth of that problem is shown by the fact that if behaviour that was previously considered dangerous, sad and reckless is exhibited by a celebrity and reported by a newspaper it is considered amusing, normal and fun. That is a clear cultural change of a highly negative nature. No one these days bats an eyelid at the fact that female drinking patterns resemble those of the rugby club. That is not a Government problem—it is not fair to blame them—and it is not simply a pricing problem, but it is a profoundly corrosive social tendency.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s focus on the need for cultural change, and I welcome role models such as Lewis Hamilton, who has tried to promote responsible drinking. Should not cultural change extend beyond celebrity role models—some of them are good, but some of them are bad—as it should take place in the family, and should encompass the example that fathers and mothers can set?

I agree. There is a masked problem of too much drinking in the home, although I will not dwell on that. There is a role, too, for good social education in schools, although they cannot do the complete job, because children do not start to drink until they are in the later stages of their school career. There is a case for good public health education—and the Government have stated it—but powerful levers are operated by the media and by the drinks industry.

My hon. Friend said that there was too much drinking in the home. Does he share my concern that someone who recently drank a single pint in Birmingham was told that he was drunk and threatened with a fixed penalty notice? That drives people from a controlled drinking environment into the home, where they drink cheap alcohol in larger quantities.

It would surprise me if I found that people were, in general, driven out of pubs, where they feel they cannot drink, into the home, where they feel they can. It is not a social trend that I have observed.

My conclusion is that the problem is a whole-society problem, which requires a whole-society response.

Order. May I remind Back Benchers that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on speeches from Back Benchers.

I remind the House of my interests. I am the honorary adviser to the Federation of Licensed Victuallers Associations.

I am the person who suggested this as a topic for debate, and I think I was right to do so, given the lively way in which the debate has begun and the information being exchanged across the House. We can see already that there are different levels of knowledge about alcohol consumption in the United Kingdom. Overall it is falling, but cheap alcohol is available, usually in supermarkets. I take on board what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) said. There may be too much drinking in the home, in an uncontrolled environment. People are moving away from pubs and clubs, where the sale of alcohol is falling, mainly because the price in pubs and clubs has remained reasonably expensive, compared with supermarkets.

The issue is topical, so close to Christmas. I do not want anyone to consider me or any other hon. Member a killjoy for debating the subject of cheap alcohol and criticising its availability. On my part, that would be a little hypocritical. However, it is right that we should examine the issue of excessive uncontrolled drinking, especially among younger people—the 18-to-24 age group, who are likely to buy alcohol in a supermarket, drink it before they go out for an evening, and drink again in a pub later in the evening. If they fall into bad behaviour, the pub usually gets the blame because it is their last place of drinking.

What is the hon. Gentleman’s opinion of the extent of the problem of youngsters not drinking in the home or in pubs, but buying drink from supermarkets and drinking on the streets?

That is probably worse than drinking in the home, because in the home there is at least the chance of some parental advice, guidance or control. The kids who buy alcohol from the local off-licence or the local paper shop—I have that in my constituency, at the end of my street—go round the corner and drink it on the street. Hopefully, that is a minority. As I said, overall alcohol consumption in all groups is falling. We are working towards that.

Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a serious problem with access to alcohol by young people from the corner shop or the paper shop, as he describes? One of the reasons why that is a problem is that that alcohol is being sold by people who may not be much older than those who are buying it. Unlike the supermarket environment, there is a difficulty because people who are on duty on their own in a corner shop are pressurised to sell alcohol when they should not.

That is a good point. There could be all manner of pressures on someone selling in a shop like that, especially if a group of kids come into the shop and a young girl or young woman is serving behind the counter. There is pressure on that person, but I do not want the House to run away with the idea that the corner shops are all selling irresponsibly. There are codes of practice throughout the industry. The Wine and Spirit Trade Association particularly made that point. We should not condemn all corner shops.

I welcome the remarks that the Minister made in opening the debate, and I shall not repeat what he said about the alcohol strategy. I welcome the steps that the Government are taking, and I hope that they will enable us to find a way of rebalancing the argument. From my point of view, that means rebalancing the argument between the supermarkets and the cheap sales, and the pubs and clubs which are suffering.

Can the hon. Gentleman explain why my constituents and no doubt his constituents, the vast majority of whom buy their alcohol in the supermarket and drink responsibly, should pay more for their alcohol simply to cover a minority of people who are drinking irresponsibly and may well continue to do so anyway?

My wish is that they did not have to. If we did not have the problem of excessive drinking and bad behaviour, they would not need to. The reason that the hon. Gentleman is looking for is that the price of alcohol in supermarkets and other retail outlets is artificially low. I shall come to that.

The difference between controlled and uncontrolled drinking is having an effect on the pubs and clubs, where prices have continued to increase in line with inflation. In the supermarkets, the price of alcohol has not risen because they are selling it at less than the wholesale cost.

As I mentioned, most of the organisations dealing with alcohol in the UK have codes of practice. The Federation of Licensed Victuallers Associations has its social responsibility standards, which include promoting responsible drinking, avoiding any actions that encourage or condone illegal, irresponsible or immoderate drinking, taking reasonable precautions to ensure that people under the legal purchase age cannot buy alcoholic drinks, and avoiding any forms of marketing or promotion that have particular appeal to young people.

Those are the guidelines applicable to pubs. The British Beer and Pub Association has a document on point-of-sale promotion. BBPA members are committed to the responsible management of licensed premises and the responsible promotion of their brands. There is a substantial document which places conditions on the licensed trade to act in a responsible manner. If a young person is drunk in a pub, the licensee, by the terms of his licence under the Licensing Act 2003, has a responsibility not to serve him and to remove him from the premises.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s mention of the industry’s voluntary codes of practice. We should all welcome what the British Beer and Pub Association and others have been doing. Does he not find it odd that in the guidance on the licensing regime, section 10 specially says that it is okay for a local authority to encourage the adoption of an industry code of practice, but local authorities are forbidden to promote their own locally determined code of practice? Is that not a huge anomaly?

Indeed. I listened to the hon. Gentleman’s point to the Minister earlier. The Government could look into that as a way of trying to resolve the problem of irresponsible drinks promotions. In my constituency we had a case a couple of years ago when the police intervened. A nightclub was offering a £10 entrance fee which allowed people to drink all they wanted all evening. The police took action to persuade the nightclub owners not to pursue that promotion. There are various examples of that throughout the industry. The pubs and clubs industry is to a large extent regulated by its own codes of practice.

With his expertise from dealing with the Federation of Licensed Victuallers Associations, I am sure the hon. Gentleman has heard the concerns of members of that association about the uncertainty of the definition of the word “drunk” in the 2003 Act. According to the guidelines issued by the Home Office, difficulty in paying attention and not understanding what is said is a sign of somebody being drunk and could therefore result in a fixed penalty. I would argue, although the hon. Gentleman may not agree, that that could be said of many Ministers, who cannot understand what is said. The difficulty is that in Birmingham, very low level drunkenness has been deemed sufficient for fixed penalty notices.

That is for the licensees and the police, I suppose. The fact that the hon. Gentleman mentions fixed penalties suggests that the police have been brought into the premises at the licensee’s behest. It is one aspect of the new licensing laws that we can consider.

I turn to the availability of cheap alcohol in supermarkets. This week premium spirits—gin, scotch, vodka—are on sale at £10 per litre in Tesco and £20 for 2 litres. Supermarkets are selling 70 cl of these spirits at £9.98. A litre is £10, so for 2p extra, one gets the other 25 cl. In Asda, a person can buy three cases of 18 440 ml cans of John Smith’s, Foster’s or Carlsberg for £20, or two cases for £16. Such promotions are advertised on TV and in newspapers. The Daily Mail, one of the newspapers that rails so much against binge drinking and irresponsibility in this country, runs those adverts promoting cheap alcohol. There is a little hypocrisy on the part of the press.

Somebody mentioned historical prices. I have a price list from 1986; in that year, Tetley’s bitter cost 68p per pint. If we adjust that for the changes in VAT since 1986 and apply inflation at 119 per cent., that price should be £1.51 a pint today. Someone going to a pub in my constituency today would pay £2.40 per pint; the cost of a pint of Tetley’s is 59 per cent. more than the retail prices index would imply. That is how much the price of beer in a pub setting has increased. In 1986, a can of Tetley’s beer in a pub, on and off sale, was 79p; today, in a supermarket, a can of Tetley’s costs 55p. That is the answer to the question raised by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies): beer prices are artificially depressed.

I have promised to be careful about what I say in respect of my next point, because a major brewer has threatened legal action against the FLVA. An invoice from that brewer to Morrison’s shows that the supermarket was selling cases of beer at prices lower than the brewer was charging. Those prices are artificially depressed. I want some form of rebalancing of the situation between our supermarkets and pubs because pubs are a controlled environment.

As the Minister said, a lot of the beer on sale in supermarkets now is much stronger than beer served in a pub, for example; we can buy much stronger beers and spirits. The Licensing Act 2003 brought in “24-hour drinking”, but we should remove that phrase because it is a complete myth. Some 9 per cent. of pubs, bars and nightclubs applied for a 24-hour licence. In total, that involves just over 500 establishments. However, some 18 per cent. of supermarkets have a 24-hour drinking licence, so in my constituency, the kids can go drinking in the town centre on a Friday night, and when the pubs have closed they can go to the supermarket on the way home, get a few cans of beer and use the free phone in the supermarket to call a taxi. Some 65 per cent. of hotels have 24-hour drinking. There is very little 24-hour drinking in this country.

Although I welcome this topical debate, it seems a bit bizarre that the Minister is not given the opportunity to respond. I doubt whether any hon. Member is going to stand up and say, “Isn’t it wonderful that we are all getting sloshed?” [Interruption.] Am I being advised that the Minister will respond?

That is just as well; there is no point in a topical debate unless the Minister can say, “That hon. Member made a good suggestion.”

I listened carefully to the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), when he opened the debate, but I am afraid that none of what he said washes with me. His picture of what the Government have been doing is a million times removed from the reality of life in Britain today. This Government are strong on strategy but very weak on delivery. All this is typical of the Government. If anything is to blame for the problem that we are debating, it is the relaxation of licensing laws. In the same way, if we had had casinos in every town, we would probably have had a topical debate about people gambling too much. There is no doubt that the relaxation of licensing laws has made the situation much worse.

I am a tea-aholic; I enjoy cups of tea. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is a teetotaller, but I am not—I enjoy alcohol. I drink not to drown my sorrows but to increase my pleasure and I shall certainly not join the hon. Members who condemn all cheap alcohol. I go to stores and like my three bottles for £10 and all that. Surely we should be talking about the fact that young people—who should not be drinking in any case because it is illegal for them—are drinking too much.

The Minister and the Government do not recognise life in Britain today. The situation is absolutely out of control. We turn on the TV and see yet another reality programme glorifying everyone getting sloshed. It is no good Members saying in the House how dreadful it is; what is important is what the House is going to do about it. I will be honest and say that I do not have a magic solution to the problem although as I have said, the relaxation of our licensing laws has been a disaster.

During the course of the Health Committee’s inquiry into obesity, some of us argued that the calorific content of alcohol should certainly discourage young people, who are figure-conscious, from over-imbibing.

My hon. Friend made a good point about under-age drinking. Does he agree that there has been too much focus on increasing penalties for people serving at checkouts and shopkeepers, who often find themselves in difficult situations and try to do the right thing? Much less has been done to tackle the people who know that they are breaking the law—the young people themselves. Perhaps there should be tougher sentences for the under-18s who try to buy the alcohol in the first place. That is the only way to tackle the problem; we should not for ever clobber hard-pressed shopkeepers and checkout operators, who are trying their best under difficult circumstances.

I understand, Madam Deputy Speaker, that if I keep giving way my speech will be longer, so I shall not give way to anyone else or others will be squeezed out of the debate. I say to my hon. Friend that the police do not work as volunteers; we pay them to do a job. I very much regret the terrible example that Sir Ian Blair is setting at the moment. Frankly, I do not want the police to clean up after people who have drunk too much; I want them to do the real job of policing, although I agree with what my hon. Friend said.

Nowadays, the toughest job in the world is being a parent. The situation for those of us who are parents of young or youngish children is very different from how it was for our equivalents 20 or 30 years ago. We do our best for our children and try to point them down the right path, but my goodness, they face terrible challenges. It is no good hon. Members coming out with clichés; we need a solution. One positive idea relates to calories. There is the ridiculous idea that young ladies want to be size zero, but those of us with Dolly Parton earlier this week thought her figure quite welcome. I ask the Government to consider whether the calorific content of alcohol might put young people off.

In contrast to what I think the Minister said, excessive drinking among young people has led to a 20 per cent. rise in hospital admissions in England in the past five years. I should say to the Minister that I got my information from the House of Commons Library. Ian Foster of the north-west ambulance service, which covers Cheshire and Merseyside, one of the worst-hit areas, said:

“It’s not unusual for a child to have drunk a litre of vodka. That would have me on my back for three or four weeks.”

Let me clarify this for the hon. Gentleman’s benefit. It is true that young people under 16 who drink are drinking more, but fewer of them are doing so. There is no contradiction in what I said. One of the main planks of the new strategy is to deal with young people under 16 who are drinking too much, although thankfully there are fewer of them now than there were five years ago.

Okay, I have listened to the Minister, but I am sick to death of strategies to get out of bed in the morning and go to bed at night. A strategy just gives advice—there is no legal enforcement behind it.

Ministers have been coming under growing pressure to tackle the issues of under-age and binge drinking, with claims that supermarket promotions mean that it can be cheaper to buy alcohol than water. There is no way in which the Government are going to take on the biggest supermarkets in the country—that is an absolute joke. This Government work hand in glove with the big supermarkets on every single issue: “Get your free tokens to get a computer”; “Work with the council and you get a new road put in.” It is codswallop to say that they will take on the supermarkets—they will not.

Last week, research for Ofsted suggested that a fifth of 10 to 15-year-olds regularly get drunk. That is the reality that the Government need to get wise to. We are talking about human beings. The House should be worried about this, or what is the point of being an MP? Certain supermarkets have been selling alcohol as cheaply as 22p a can, but the Government will not do anything about it—they will just say, “Isn’t it dreadful?”

Alison Rogers, chief executive of the British Liver Trust, recently said:

“We are seeing an alarming increase in people suffering serious liver problems as a result of alcohol. The United Kingdom is the only developed nation”—

I say this to the Minister—

“with a rising rate of liver disease.”

Why is that? We need an answer from the Government.

The hon. Gentleman keeps saying that the Government will do nothing. Does he accept that they could at least enforce existing legislation? It is illegal to sell alcohol to somebody who is already drunk, but there have been fewer than 60 prosecutions in the past nine years. It is illegal to sell drink to somebody who is underage, but a Government survey recently showed that of the premises surveyed 40 per cent. were selling to at least one underage person.

I am now glad that I gave way to the hon. Gentleman, who is absolutely right. What is the point of our putting legislation on to the statute book when none of it is enforced?

That is not true. In the 12 months for which we have the latest figures, 92 licences were revoked, 91 licences were suspended, and some Tesco stores were banned from selling alcohol for three months following the sale of alcohol to a 16-year-old test purchaser. We would like the law to be enforced better, but it is being enforced.

We will have to have a private argument later with the Library, but the Minister was right to respond.

A further study by the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores university shows that more than half of all young adults consume cheap supermarket drinks at home before a night out. That happens all the time. Youngsters get sloshed before they go out for the evening because they cannot afford the drink prices in the clubs. The study showed that those who drink large quantities of cheap alcohol before a night out were four times more likely to drink more than 20 units a night and two and a half times more likely to become involved in violent offences. According to the Alcohol Health Alliance, 13 children are taken to hospital every day as a result of alcohol misuse.

Cheap alcohol is fuelling bingeing. The figures are alarming, especially in relation to children. Health effects include burst bladders, long-term liver damage, injury as a result of alcohol-fuelled violence, liver cancers and mental health problems. Young people have mental health problems as a result of alcohol, just as with the Government’s stupid relaxation of the laws on cannabis. Strokes are caused, as well as an array of other serious health problems. Nearly 5,000 cancer deaths per year are attributable to alcohol. I welcome this topical debate on underage drinking and cheap alcohol, but enough is enough. The Minister and the Government must get real to what is happening in society and give us some deliverable solutions.

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). He spoke with typical flamboyance and style, and he was provocative as well.

I speak as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on beer. It is a tough job, but someone has to do it. My oldest mentor in politics said to me once, when I was a much younger man, “Whatever you do in politics, get photographed with contented-looking pensioners and eager youngsters, but never get photographed with a pint of beer in your hand.” As chairman of the all-party group, I have often been photographed with a pint of beer in my hand—the only time I made it into the Sunday tabloids was in a particularly unflattering photo when MPs’ expenses were published for the first time. The headline of the story was “Hard to swallow”. Nevertheless, I would like to make a contribution to the debate.

It is with regret that I say this, but I want to charge Terence Leahy, the boss of Tesco, with being the godfather of British binge drinking. I do not make that claim lightly. I want to give some evidence for it, because I know that some hon. Members are sceptical. Representatives of the supermarkets have come before the all-party group, and earlier this year they argued that it is impossible to produce figures on below-cost selling of alcohol. However, the Competition Commission, as part of its inquiry, produced such figures. In its first go, it said that during the World cup last year, Tesco underpriced beer to the extent of £43.2 million and wines and spirits to the extent of £48 million. Those figures were quickly withdrawn and reduced to £15.1 million for beer and lager, and £100,000 for wines and spirits.

I understand that Tesco argued not that they did not underprice during the World cup, but that they underpriced all the time. Those figures were applicable not just to the World cup but throughout the year—Christmas, Easter, the World cup, the rugby world cup. There is always an excuse to do it. We are talking about selling alcohol at a lower cost than water. We are not talking about baked beans; there has to be a bit of a different attitude. Everyone else has recognised that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) so eloquently pointed out. Pubs, clubs and the brewers themselves have all recognised that they have to address the issue, but Sir Terence Leahy still has not. He went into Downing street last week, and the only idea that he came up with—the only one reported anyway—was that the age at which people can drink in the home should be brought down. I do not know how he intends to police that, although I think that a modest amount of alcohol consumption in the home can be a way of introducing people to sensible alcohol consumption.

The hon. Member for Southend, West referred to the study from the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores university that talked about the concept of pre-loading. To underline what he said, those who drink excessively at home before they go out are four times more likely to consume 20 units of alcohol in an entire night, and about two and a half times more likely to get into a fight and get into trouble with the police.

Will the hon. Gentleman answer the question that I put to the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley)? Why should my decent, law-abiding constituents, and those in his constituency, be forced to pay more for alcohol that they buy in supermarkets and drink moderately at home in order to deal with the issues that he raises, which may not be dealt with by that solution anyway?

I want to say two things to the hon. Gentleman about that. First, there is a wider social context to this matter. It does not do our society any good if the cost of alcohol is lower than that of water. Secondly, there is an economic impact on small shopkeepers. The Association of Convenience Stores is annoyed because their stores just cannot compete, and small brewers are annoyed because their British beers cannot compete with the massive discounts on things like Stella. The hon. Gentleman has a good point. I do not think that politicians should set the price of beer, and I shall suggest a couple of very modest measures that the supermarkets might like to consider. However, there is a wider context to the issue.

Student unions are even losing out in this process. They are running into deficits because many students are drinking at home before they come out. I mentioned smaller brewers. Simon Buckley of Evan-Evans, a small brewery in Wales, has produced figures for me, which I shall pass on to the Minister, that indicate the impossibility of the supermarkets covering costs at the sort of prices they are charging. It is well worth considering the situation in Scotland. The new Administration have started to address the issue. The new Justice Secretary told Alcohol Focus Scotland that he intends to take a number of measures to deal with it. He said that any promotion that provides alcohol free or at a reduced price on the purchase of one or more of the product—or another product—will be outlawed. He also said that shops should have separate alcohol display areas to help challenge the perception that alcohol is no different to juice or water—or baked beans.

A number of things can be done. I have two suggestions—both of which have been hinted at by other hon. Members—for Sir Terence Leahy and the supermarkets to consider, if they are really serious about the problem. First, given the importance of the issue, they should say that they will abandon the practice of selling alcohol below cost. That would show hon. Members that they are taking it seriously. Secondly—they could start work on this tomorrow—they could work out a code of practice similar to the one that the pubs have, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central suggested. They could use words such as “outlawing irresponsible promotions”. The pubs have done that; there is no reason why the supermarkets cannot. Sir Terence Leahy must address the issue. The big supermarket bosses must stop putting their heads in the sand. We want some leadership from those powerful individuals.

I hope that the hon. Member for Southend, West is wrong. The issue is coming nearer to the top of the political agenda. Although there may be no need to call Sir Terence Leahy the godfather of binge drinking, Ministers’ credibility depends on ensuring that he comes to the table, deals with Ministers and takes some modest measures that will help to deal with the issue.

If Sir Terence were to take the hon. Gentleman’s advice and price his goods accordingly, how could that be policed? How would we know that he had done that?

The Competition Commission suggests that economists can work such things out. I have no doubt that the commission’s economists, or others, could produce such figures. To some extent, it is a question of trust. The pubs and so on have made enormous strides. They have watchdogs that monitor them and industry associations that improve standards. The problem with the supermarkets is that they are pretending that there is not a problem when there is. We need to deal with it.

I did not intend to speak in the debate until, following my earlier intervention, the Minister seemed to challenge some of the figures that I used. I thought that it might be helpful to refer to the figures that the Minister challenged.

First, however, the debate has been fascinating. Although I would never want to be critical of any of my hon. Friends, my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) referred to the fact that people from Nordic countries had to go to Latin countries to find places where sangria was as cheap as water. He only has to go to my local supermarket to find that sangria is cheaper than the bottled water that they sell.

The issue is important. Whatever statistics we all throw—the Minister has thrown some, while others have thrown others—many people fear to go through the streets in our towns and cities because of the hooligan behaviour of far too many people who have had far too much to drink. Whatever the statistics show, the reality on the street surely means that we have to find measures, and find them quickly, to address the problems that we face.

It is worth reflecting that back on 23 November 2005 the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), said:

“We are determined to tackle alcohol related violence and anti-social behaviour in all its forms and crack down on those who encourage it by irresponsible retailing.”

That was two years ago, but all we have heard from the Minister so far is that we will have a further review to see what measures can be put in place. During those two years, we have seen increases in the number of problems with cirrhosis of the liver and in the number of admissions to the accident and emergency units of our hospitals after alcohol-related incidents, while the police have said that they are being diverted from other tasks over a much longer time because of some of the changes in the licensing legislation. Clearly, something needs to be done as a matter of urgency.

As well as the many measures that we should consider, such as those suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport and the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), who chairs the all-party beer group—we congratulate him on his work—surely we should ensure that existing legislation is properly enforced. I suggested to the Under-Secretary that there was a problem with enforcing the rules that prevent the sale of alcohol to people who are under age. He challenged me about the figures, but they are Government figures from a recent report. It is entitled the “Tackling Underage Sales of Alcohol Campaign”. It shows that, of the 2,683 premises targeted, children could buy alcohol at 40 per cent. of them on their first attempt. A parliamentary answer to a question from me a few months ago showed that only 62 prosecutions were brought for that offence.

The Under-Secretary then challenged my other set of statistics about establishments that sell alcohol to people who are already drunk. I note the difficulties, which have been mentioned, of defining that. I accept that it is difficult for the police to prove conclusively that the person was drunk before the last drink that was sold to them. Perhaps the person was sober at the time but was then hit by the fresh air outside. However, the Under-Secretary appeared to challenge the figures, yet they derive from a parliamentary answer given to me as recently as 29 October. They show that throughout the country, in the past nine years there were only 52 convictions of a licensee for permitting drunkenness or riotous conduct on the premises, or selling liquor to a drunken person. Two existing measures are clearly not being enforced.

No one would defend irresponsible retailers, but it is easy to be an armchair critic. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has worked on a checkout or behind a counter at a local Co-op. As someone who has worked on a supermarket checkout, and worked for a supermarket chain for many years, I know at first hand the lengths to which supermarkets go to prevent under-age sales. People are often put in difficult circumstances. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that there is perhaps more mileage in giving more severe sentences and punishments to the people who try to purchase alcohol before they are 18 than in attempting to clobber those who are often trying to do the right thing?

I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Earlier, he made a fair point about the difficulty for people, perhaps especially those in smaller shops, who are left alone to do their job. We welcome the work of the chains, of which many small shops are members, and that of the organisations that the hon. Member for Selby mentioned, such as the British Beer and Pub Association, which set out codes of conduct and offer advice and support to people who work in such establishments. I acknowledge that things are not easy. I have already commented on the difficulty for the police of defining drunkenness. However, the figures that I cited show that there are problems with existing legislation not being fully implemented.

It is critical to give our local authorities far more powers to tackle problems in their local communities. Our local authorities understand the difficulties presented by specific circumstances in their area. It is therefore especially disappointing that the Licensing Act 2003 and the guidance issued under section 182 leave local authorities without many of the powers that they would like in connection with cheap alcohol.

Paragraph 10.38 of the guidance states:

“Licensing authorities”—

which are now local councils—

“should not attach standardised blanket conditions promoting fixed prices for alcoholic drinks to premises licences or club licences or club premises certificates in an area as this is likely to breach competition law. It is also likely to be unlawful for licensing authorities or the police to promote generalised voluntary schemes or codes of practice in relation to price discounts on alcoholic drinks, ‘happy hours’ or drinks promotions.”

That takes a lot of the power to address the issue away from local authorities. What is bizarre, however, is the anomaly in paragraph 10.39, which says:

“However, it is acceptable for licensing authorities to encourage adoption locally of voluntary industry codes of practice which cover irresponsible drinks promotions such as that produced by the British Beer and Pub Association”.

I fail to understand how it can be acceptable for a local authority to promote a code of practice that has been brought forward by an industry organisation, for example, but it is not possible for a local authority to promote a scheme in its area that it has brought forward itself.

When I recently raised the issue with the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who is responsible for licensing, he kept telling me that that was because of the Competition Act 1998, yet surely if a local authority accepts and promotes an industry code of practice, but the local authority next door does not do so, that is the same problem as an authority with its own local scheme. I simply do not understand, so I hope that before we conclude, some hon. Member who contributes to this debate will shed some light on that peculiar anomaly, which prevents local authorities from having any real say in a key issue that affects so many authorities and the people who live within them.

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate. As many hon. Members will know, I represent the capital of brewing, Burton upon Trent. I therefore know that it is the wish of the brewing and pub industries that we should have sensible drinking. It is important that we should recognise that most people do indeed drink sensibly.

At a time when there are young people developing alcohol-related health problems that were previously associated only with older people, it is interesting to note that overall beer sales through pubs and the off-licence trade are at their lowest levels since 1969. In fact, according to the British Beer and Pub Association, the volume of beer sold through pubs is now at its lowest level since the great depression of the 1930s. We need to take action to prevent the misuse of alcohol; but we need to do so in ways that do not impact further on our traditional brewing industry. We have already seen 10 per cent. of brewing industry jobs lost in the past two years. There are now 7 million fewer pints of beer a day sold than in 1979. Alongside that, the costs of raw materials—barley, malt, glass and aluminium—are soaring. The BBPA reports that brewing companies earn a profit of only 0.7p per pint, compared with the average 33p per pint paid in beer duty.

I do not believe that increasing duty on beer is the answer to problem drinking. It could also produce less revenue for the Exchequer. Since 1997, beer duty has increased by 27 per cent. while consumption per head has decreased by 11 per cent., whereas the duty on cider has increased by 11 per cent. and consumption has increased by 30 per cent. Duty on wine has changed by 16 per cent. and consumption has increased by 46 per cent., while consumption of spirits per head has increased by 20 per cent., with duty increasing by only 3 per cent. An increase in beer duty would serve only to damage beer sales in our pubs, as other hon. Members have mentioned.

In our pubs, people drink in a relatively controlled environment, compared with off sales. Moreover, any duty increase would be unlikely to affect the price at which beer is sold in the supermarkets, because despite the 27 per cent. increase since 1997, there have been no increases in beer prices in supermarkets. It is clear that the off trade is causing most damage to people’s health, whether it be young people getting alcohol from the corner shop or bulk supplies being brought into their homes, sometimes by their parents or older siblings, and usually from supermarkets. Purchases from the off trade are also causing damage to older people, who are drinking more wine than is recommended, for instance, in their homes.

I believe that we should stop supermarkets selling alcohol at below cost prices as a way of bringing shoppers into their stores. As my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) said, supermarkets advertise booze in the same way as they advertise baked beans. In fact, they do not seem to see that there is any difference. We should also look at how much space is taken up by alcohol products in supermarkets, and where they are positioned in the store.

There are opportunities for the Chancellor to raise increased revenue while at the same time discouraging irresponsible drinking. The strength of wine has considerably increased in recent years, to levels as high as 15 or 16 per cent. alcohol, yet all wines are taxed at a flat rate, unlike beer, which is taxed according to its strength. Cider, similarly, is taxed at a flat rate, whatever its strength. Cider duty is 15p a pint. Beer duty is 31p a pint for 4 per cent. alcohol, rising to 58p for 7.5 per cent. alcohol. Cider sales have increased by 41 per cent. over the past two years, taking that share from beer sales. In the off trade that increase is greater, at 60 per cent.

Under-age drinkers on our streets go for cider, rather than beer. They go for what is cheapest and strongest. A litre bottle of super-strength cider contains 15 units of alcohol and can be bought for just £2.99. That is less than 20p a unit. The duty paid on that cider is 52p. If it were beer, the duty would be £2.06. If cider duty were brought into line with beer duty, the Chancellor could raise an extra £277 million in revenue.

There is a problem with super-strength 7.5 per cent. alcohol ciders that can be bought for 59p, but does my hon. Friend accept that there is also a problem with super-strength lagers, which are often on sale for £1 and contain 4.5 units in a single-serve container? That amount is above the Government’s recommended daily limit.

I agree that we ought to encourage people to drink lower-strength alcohol in general.

During this festive season, it also seems right to mention another health consequence relating to alcohol—that of drink-driving. I commend the pubs in Burton for offering free soft drinks as part of a campaign to discourage revellers from drinking and driving during the festive season. The campaign, which is called “I’ll be Des”—that is, the designated driver—is supported by Burton Pubwatch, and I hope that similar initiatives will be launched elsewhere in the UK.

I have only a few minutes in which to make my speech, but I am pleased to have this opportunity. I have raised these issues with successive Leaders of the House and I am pleased that the present one has granted us this debate today. I have constantly emphasised the importance of alcohol and health yet, until recently, it has been either the Home Office or the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that has looked at alcohol issues. I believe that the primary issue is the effect of alcohol on health, and I am pleased that we are having this debate today.

I tabled an early-day motion about three and a half years ago on the subject of reducing alcohol-related deaths. This followed a report by the Academy of Medical Sciences which found that a 10 per cent. increase in the price of alcohol would lead to a drop in all alcohol-related deaths of 28.8 per cent. for men and 37.4 per cent. for women. Those are enormous reductions, given the relatively modest price increase. The academy produced a thorough report, which showed that price is crucially significant in this regard.

The Minister said earlier that he was considering restricting the advertising of alcohol. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if advertising by certain manufacturers were further restricted, they would invest their marketing budget in reducing the price of their products still further, thus totally negating the point that he is making?

I accept what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I want to emphasise to the Government that we need price control. There should be a minimum price level for all alcoholic drinks. I would like to see their price in supermarkets raised towards the level that pertains in public houses. That would help public houses and depress the sales of cheap alcohol.

Apart from the supermarkets, another source of cheap alcohol is the vast ocean of it that is brought in from the continent of Europe. I should like to see tighter restrictions and lower levels of imports for personal use. A white van-load of beer is not for personal consumption; it is for selling illegally, usually off the record and in the poorer areas of Britain. People make vast sums of money out of doing that.

I really want to talk about alcohol and health, particularly about an issue that I have successively raised in parliamentary questions and called for us to debate—foetal alcohol syndrome and the damage caused to babies before they are born because of their mother’s drinking. There is a lot of evidence that the amount of damage caused by alcohol to babies when they are born is far and away above all the other birth defects put together. I am not talking only about serious foetal alcohol syndrome, but about rather lower levels of damage that can inhibit babies’ intelligence, perhaps leading them to perform less well at school or to have behavioural problems.

Although a great deal more research needs to be done, there is already considerable evidence that mothers’ drinking is having serious effects on babies. It seems very unfair on pregnant women—I am pleased to see the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Claire Ward), on the Front Bench today—but it is a serious issue. Men do not suffer from the same problem, which is very unfair, but when women are seeking to become pregnant and during the early stages of pregnancy it is absolutely vital for them not to drink, because small foetuses do not have very large livers and they cannot cope with the alcohol. They are damaged by any alcohol that their mothers consume. There has been considerable obfuscation about this issue recently, perhaps deriving indirectly from the drinks industry, but the evidence is there.

I want to see supermarkets reined in and the price of alcohol raised in them. We heard earlier about the level of alcohol in particular drinks, so why not directly relate the price and tax levels to the amount of alcohol in the drink? That would help us to overcome the problem, as there would no longer be an incentive to buy cheap, strong cider as opposed to beer. The constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) would no doubt benefit because beer sales would rise relative to those of cider.

I wanted to raise several further points, but I am rapidly running out of time. One other important point is the cost of alcohol to the economy. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has estimated the cost of alcohol-related problems in Britain at about £20 billion a year—a vast sum of money, which we should be spending on things other than the effects of alcohol.

I recently returned from a Select Committee visit to Washington in America. We were there for Hallowe’en and it was a real delight to see hundreds and thousands of young people in the streets in fancy dress; they were all completely sober because they are allowed to drink alcohol only when they are 21. That is rigidly enforced with fierce penalties for drunkenness. Anybody who looked vaguely in their mid-20s was checked before they went into a bar to be served alcohol. They take alcohol very seriously indeed in the USA. I do not necessarily admire everything America does, but it is right about that. I suspect there would be a riot if we tried to go as far as the Americans do in these matters, but we should move in that direction and take the problem more seriously. There are hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of people in Britain who are suffering to some extent from alcohol problems. We ought to face those difficulties properly and not tinker at the edges, which is what we have been doing up till now.

I was chair of the all-party parliamentary group on alcohol misuse for five years, and year after year we asked Ministers to bring forward their proposals for an alcohol strategy. However, year after year we were made promises that were not fulfilled. We are now starting to do something about it, but we are still taking it far too lightly. I think that we need to take much stronger action.

I refer Ministers to the correspondence I recently received from Alcohol Concern—I will continue to correspond with the organisation—about the role of relative prices in respect of alcohol problems. I would like to see my Front-Bench colleagues take the issue more seriously and take action that is commensurate with the seriousness of the problem.

May I state from the outset that a very sensible debate has taken place for the last hour or so? I would like to start with some comments on the contributions so far. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), who brings a wealth of experience from his previous chairmanships. I, too, believe that there is an important debate to be had about the damage caused to foetuses from alcohol. That is so important that we should have a separate debate on it. I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that an educational process needs to take place throughout the country, not least in pre-natal classes.

The hon. Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) defended the brewing industry fantastically well. Perhaps I should declare an interest at this stage in that I occasionally feel the need for the odd pint of Burton ale, even though my preference is for Guinness. I declare that interest at the outset. What concerns me slightly, however, is that the decline in pubs and pub sales is not just about beer but about what goes on in pubs. The sale of cider, for instance, is a bit of a fad at the moment and should not be addressed in the same way as the sale of beer.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), whose letter, I believe, prompted the debate. I know that he raised this important issue at Prime Minister’s Question Time the other day. If we are not careful, we will no longer have the great British pub where we can go and have a beer and enjoy a social life, which is very worrying. So many people come to this country and talk about our pubs, but a frightening number of pubs have closed over the past 20-odd years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) brought a wealth of knowledge to a typically robust speech from his experience of representing a seaside town. Having lived in that seaside town for some 15 years myself and served as a fireman in the area, I can tell the House that the knowledge gained from living in a seaside town outranks any other. Southend needs day trippers, but I think it wants to keep only some of them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Selby—[Interruption.] I apologise. The hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) now represents the all-party parliamentary beer group. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) represented it for many years, but clearly the hon. Gentleman has ousted him. That event must have been a sight for sore eyes. I understand that the hon. Gentleman represents the beer group very well. Apparently I am a member of it, although no one told me. [Interruption.] That is quite nice; I shall be along later.

I meant to refer not to the hon. Member for Selby but to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who has a wealth of experience in the retail industry and defends his position very well, although I disagreed with most of what he said.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) made some extremely important points, not least in defending his figures to the Minister but also in making it clear that if we really want localism—which, I think, is the way politics has to go in this country—we must respect the elected local representatives and trust them to run their areas in the way they feel is appropriate. It was right to give them more powers to look after licensing and invoke what local people want.

Having declared my personal interest in the odd pint, I think it important to add that social, sensible, safe drinking is part of the British culture and something that we want to encourage and keep going. I fully recognise the danger that the minority will spoil things for the majority, but we must not underestimate the damage to the nation’s health that is caused by alcohol. Although I agreed with much of what the Minister said, I believe that the Government are sending mixed messages. One example is, of course, the legislation allowing 24-hour licensing.

As the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central pointed out, very few public houses allow 24-hour drinking—only 460, I believe. However, plenty of off-sales establishments open for 24 hours a day, and the problems that that causes have been raised. A new fad has developed in drinking. I have observed it for myself when I have been out on patrol with my local police, and, sadly, I have seen the results in local accident and emergency departments, as well as in the A and E departments around the country that I have visited in my new capacity.

The practice is commonly called pre-loading. Young people aged 18, 24 or 30 get half-cut before they go out, and they do it on very cheap alcohol. One of the excuses is that when they reach the pubs and clubs they find the alcohol very expensive. The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central mentioned the £10 litre bottle of vodka. Shortly before the debate started, I asked in the Library what the duty and VAT on that would be. The answer was £9.31. Someone is losing an awful lot of money, and I do not believe it is the distillers, because they tell me that they are not. Somewhere along the line, there is an encouragement to sell alcohol very cheaply. In what are often large supermarkets that are open very late there is an encouragement not just to sell booze cheaply—the supermarkets would go bust very quickly if that were the case—but to get the footfall in the store and to encourage people to purchase other products while they are there; this is a loss-leading practice. While it is not for any Government to tell Tesco, Asda or Sainsbury’s how to run their supermarkets, they have a moral responsibility to this country, and selling alcohol so cheaply—sometimes, sadly, to under-age people—is morally wrong.

The cost to this country is not just to do with fashion, or some of our town centres being no-go areas at night, or our pubs changing. There is also the cost to the NHS and the cost to the health of the people of our country. The estimated current cost to the NHS of alcohol misuse is £1.7 billion, while at the same time we have hospitals and accident and emergency departments around the country closing. How much better could that money be spent within the NHS?

Sadly, last year some 4,000 children—under-16 year olds—were treated for alcohol misuse. Those Members who go out on patrol in their constituencies with the police will have seen those children. They are the same age as many of our children. I went along with the police recently and they found a young lady lying on the local village cricket green. She was lying next to a bottle of vodka and several bottles of alcopops. There was no one else in sight because they had seen the police coming, but she was out of her brains so they left her. It was very dark, and if we had not seen her she would have lain there throughout the night unconscious from alcohol, and if she had vomited she would almost certainly have died. That shows that this is such a serious issue that we cannot just leave it alone and say, “This has nothing to do with Parliament and Government.” It is a fundamental role of this House and Government to do something about that. Violent crime is a matter that all Members have experienced in their constituencies. It is one of the subjects that people come to my surgery to talk to me about the most; it is one of the biggest worries of my constituents. Half of violent crime is alcohol-related.

May I defend some of the staff in the pubs and clubs of this country? According to the figures I have, 83 per cent. of assaults on bar and club staff are the result of their having said, “No”—that is, they are the result of them having done their job. I completely agree with Members who have said that the way forward is for the penalties for those trying to purchase alcohol in such circumstances to be as great, if not greater, than for those who sell it, because that is a big problem. Those who buy alcohol covertly for others, and those parents—I say this as a parent—who happily let their children go off to parties with half a bottle of vodka, should think about that; they should think about the damage they do to their families and the future of this country, because we know that addiction to alcohol often leads to addiction to other things.

I therefore urge the Government to examine their drug strategy. Drug strategy units do fantastic work, but every time I visit one of them anywhere in the country the people who work there say to me that they cannot do their job without help from the Government to address the alcohol problems in the country. We cannot address drugs in isolation. We must deal with drink and drugs together, educate the community, and give the necessary powers to the people who are doing the work for us, so that we have a better society to live in.

I agree very much with the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) that this has been a sensible and important debate. Frankly, it could have degenerated into a shouting match, with Members screaming at each other and trying to score points, but all Members have made intelligent contributions and tried to deal with the problems we face.

I will not be able in the few minutes I have left to me before 3.28 pm to reply to the points that have been made in the depth that I think many Members would like. I therefore propose to read the Hansard report of the debate and, with my officials, to compose letters to send to every contributor answering the specific points they have made. They may not agree with the response, but I shall send one that tries to deal with all the issues that have been raised, and I hope that is acceptable to hon. Members. If I do not take that approach, I shall simply not be able to address many of the points raised and, given the quality of the debate, people deserve a better response than that.

We try to work with everyone on this matter. Considerable debate takes place with residents, the police, the industry, pubs and clubs, the off-trade, the on-trade, health groups and voluntary organisations, and I thank them all. One of the themes running through this debate, and one of the fundamental underpinning principles of the “Safe, Sensible, Social” alcohol strategy that we published in June, is that there is not just one solution. Alcohol poses different problems: the problem of children consuming alcohol; the problem of binge drinking, which usually is discussed in terms of 16 to 24-year-olds, but let us discuss it in relation to 18 to 26-year-olds to keep things legal; and the harmful effects of alcohol on people who drink considerable amounts—they may be of any age. Unless I have misunderstood the comments that have been made, I think any strategy worth its salt must address the different needs involved.

The hon. Members for Bath (Mr. Foster) and for Hemel Hempstead mentioned the importance of local people. They will know that the alcohol strategy includes a requirement for each area to produce a local alcohol strategy to try to address the particular problems that it faces.

Several hon. Members mentioned that not only is it illegal to sell alcohol to under-18s, but it is illegal for someone under 18 to try to purchase it. Some of the rebalancing that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) discussed is important in this regard. Both he and the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead touched on 24-hour licences. Although this issue makes a good debating point for people, the reality is that only 0.5 per cent. of all licensed premises—5,100 premises in England and Wales—have a 24-hour licence.

A huge number of other points were raised, not least of which were the need for a cultural change, cited by the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh); people’s concerns about pricing and promotion in supermarkets, which we are examining; and the whole social responsibility standards agenda, which we know we need to implement. I have only a few seconds left available to me, and I have not been able to do justice to all the contributions. I reiterate that I shall write to all hon. Members in response to the points that they have made. They may wish to enter into a written dialogue with me or meet me. I include my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) in that, in respect of the all-party group on beer—

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings, the motion lapsed, without Question put.