[Relevant Document: The First Report from the Health Committee, on Alcohol, HC 151.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2010, for expenditure by the Department of Health—
(1) further resources, not exceeding £969,893,000, be authorised for use as set out in HC 257,
(2) a further sum, not exceeding £606,272,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to meet the costs as so set out, and
(3) limits as so set out be set on appropriations in aid.—(Helen Jones.)
May I begin, Mr. Speaker, by saying how much I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate? You will be aware that we published a report on alcohol in January. We are about to get a response from the Government, although sadly not in time for this debate.
Most hon. Members will know that the problem of alcohol goes way beyond the Department of Health and into many other areas of Government. We expect the Government’s response later this month but, given the election that is well on its way, it would have been wrong not to take this opportunity to debate the issue as it affects this country, in the light of the Health Committee’s report.
I do not want to go into too much detail today, but anyone who has read the report will know how wide the Committee went with the evidence that it took and the recommendations that it made. I have been concerned for many years that the House has looked at alcohol from the point of view of antisocial behaviour. That is quite right, as that aspect is very important: communities and neighbourhoods are being disturbed by people who are binge drinking and having too much to drink, and that has a major knock-on effect, in families, communities and town centres.
It was right and proper for the Government to take action to prevent that, but I and other members of the Committee have been worried about the consequences of excessive alcohol over time. In the report, we looked at what is happening now, at the beginning of the 21st century, but we also went back to Hogarth’s London and all the gin and so on that was drunk then. We took a look at the history of alcohol in this country.
There is no doubt that English drinking habits have been transformed over the last 60 years. In 1947, the nation consumed approximately 3.5 litres of pure alcohol per head; the current figure is 9.5 litres. General Household Survey data from 2006 show that 31 per cent. of men are drinking hazardously, consuming more than 21 units per week, and that 9 per cent. are drinking harmfully, at more than 50 units per week. The figures also showed that 21 per cent. of women are drinking hazardously and 6 per cent. harmfully, although the House will be aware that the unit size recommended for women is lower than that for men.
Although the consumption of alcohol has increased, taxation on spirits has declined in real terms, and even more so as a fraction of average earnings. I want to put it on the record this afternoon—it is stated in the report—that rising alcohol consumption and its consequences have become an increasing source of concern in recent years. The consequences include those not only of binge drinking, which causes many serious accidents, disorder, violence and crime, but of long-term heavy drinking, which causes more harm to health.
The president of the Royal College of Physicians gave evidence to the Committee and told us that alcohol was probably a significant factor in 30,000 to 40,000 deaths a year. The World Health Organisation has put alcohol as the third most frequent cause of death after hypertension and tobacco. UK deaths from liver cirrhosis increased more than fivefold between 1970 and 2006. By contrast, in France, Italy and Spain, the number of deaths shrank between twofold and fourfold. This country’s number of deaths from cirrhosis is now greater than that in all those countries.
The hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor), who is a member of the Health Committee, was a hospital physician for many years, and we once used a phrase in exchanges to the effect that 30 years ago cirrhosis of the liver was something that old men died of. We were talking about people probably between the ages of 60 and 70. Now we see in the media that young women and men in their 20s are dying of that disease, which is related to an accumulation of alcohol over time, or the quantities in their case. We as a country should not ignore what is happening to the health of those individuals. That disease—there are other similar diseases—is something that should concern us. It is not an old man’s disease anymore.
In 2003, the Prime Minister’s strategy unit estimated the total cost of alcohol to society at some £20 billion. Another study in 2007 put the figure at £55 billion. Faced by a mounting problem, the response of successive Governments has ranged from the non-existent to the ineffectual. In 2004, an alcohol strategy was published, following an excellent study of the cost of alcohol by the strategy unit, but I have to tell my hon. Friend the Minister that the strategy failed to take account of the evidence that had been gathered and was not implemented. The evidence showed that a rise in the price of alcohol was the most effective way to reduce consumption, just as its increasing affordability since the 1960s has been the major cause of the rise in consumption.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee on producing a consensual, constructive report, and I hope that they are successful in getting the recommendations implemented. Will he compare and contrast the consensual way that he and his colleagues approach the issue with what has happened in Scotland, where Liberal and Labour Members have acted as an oppositionist bloc to stop the very recommendations that he suggests? We could implement those recommendations in Scotland with the assistance of Liberal and Labour Members in Scotland. Will he give them advice? Will he help them and us to implement those recommendations?
The Health Committee is designated to consider England and Wales, not the devolved Assemblies. What the hon. Gentleman mentions is a matter for the Scottish Parliament, but I hear what he says. Whether other people hear what he says is a matter for them.
Let me go straight on to say that we note that minimum pricing is supported by many prominent health experts, economists and the Association of Chief Police Officers, which gave evidence to the Committee. Indeed, the chief medical officer in his latest annual report supports the introduction of minimum pricing. I will go a bit further into that detail in a few minutes.
How does the right hon. Gentleman reconcile the fact that alcohol is relatively cheap in France, yet the incidence of alcohol-related disease is declining there, as he said, whereas alcohol is relatively expensive in this country and we have a bigger problem?
In part, the answer is cultural and I will come on to that, as we need to consider it. However, we went to France to take some evidence last September, and we found that, instead of what was considered to be steady consumption, binge drinking by young people is increasing there. France may face the problems that we are experiencing in this country if it does not take appropriate action. I am not saying that we know what action should be taken at every level, but if France follows our pattern of binge drinking among young people—it looks as though things are moving that way—it will have to take more action. Certainly, we must take more action to try to overcome the problem.
On the price of alcohol, 40 or 50 years ago the death rate from alcohol in France was quite appalling. It was monstrous. Perhaps the French have learned from their terrible history that alcohol causes terrible health problems and death, and perhaps we have yet to learn that lesson properly.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I hope that the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) appreciates it. Anyway, minimum pricing needs to be looked at further.
A myth is widely propagated by parts of the drinks industry and politicians that a rise in prices would unfairly affect the majority of moderate drinkers. Precisely because they are moderate drinkers, a minimum price of, for example, 40p per unit of alcohol would have little effect. It would effectively mean that a woman who drinks the recommended maximum of 15 units a week could buy her weekly total of alcohol for £6. Of course, probably not everyone drinks industrial white cider only.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for sharing the Committee’s interesting report with us. Will he clarify, however, that the £6 figure relates to the off-trade and that no one could buy those units at that price in the on-trade? That is, of course, one of the big problems that we face, as the Committee acknowledges.
That is in the report, and I will deal with it later in my speech if the hon. Gentleman will allow me.
Opponents also claim that heavy drinkers are insensitive to price changes, but their consumption as a group will be most affected by price rises, as they drink so much of the alcohol purchased in this country. Minimum pricing would most affect those who drink cheap alcohol—in particular, young binge drinkers and heavy low-income drinkers, who suffer most from liver disease. It is estimated that a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol would save about 3,000 lives a year, and that a minimum price of 40p per unit of alcohol would save 1,100 lives a year.
Of course, minimum pricing would have other benefits. Unlike rises in duty, minimum pricing would benefit traditional pubs—the on-trade, as the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) suggested—so, unsurprisingly, it is supported by the Campaign for Real Ale, which also gave evidence to the Committee. We are all concerned about the closures of public houses in this country. They are closing for many reasons, not necessarily just the price of alcohol, but it is true to say that minimum pricing would be more likely to support local, traditional pubs than to do anything adverse to them.
I am following my right hon. Friend’s analysis closely. I am not sure whether it leads me to the same conclusion that we should interfere in the alcohol pricing mechanism across the board, but does he agree that the duty on white cider, which is often what those people who are most affected by alcohol are drinking, should be increased to the same as that on beer and that it is wrong that the duty on spirits has increased by only 20 per cent. over the past 13 years, compared with 50 per cent. for beer?
I was about to move on to precisely that issue. I understand that some industrial white cider, which is the most appropriate way to describe it, can be bought for 20p a unit in supermarkets. It is the stuff that we see young children and other people consuming on park benches. That has to stop, but it is not stopping. Indeed, it is being promoted in this country as we speak, and we have asked the Government to consider that in detail. I am talking about pricing, but other hon. Members may want to talk about the wider issues raised by our report.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way yet again. On the problem of supermarkets versus pubs, thousands of young people get tanked up on cheap booze from supermarkets before they go the pub. Does that not undermine the pub and encourage irresponsible drinking, too?
Yes. From the evidence that we took, I think it is called front-loading. Many years ago, when I was working in industry and went out to the club on Saturday nights, I often saw people bending down to bring out of their handbag little bottles of spirits to top up their drinks. Front-loading has previously occurred in one or two areas, but I suspect that the availability of alcohol in cost terms now means that people do not have to do that with spirits any more.
Minimum pricing would also encourage a switch to weaker wines and beers—the Committee emphasised that point. With a minimum price of 40 per cent. per unit, a 10 per cent. alcohol by volume wine would cost a minimum of £2.80, and a 13 per cent. ABV wine about £3.60. Some people pay £6, £8 or £10 for bottle containing six or eight units of alcohol. No one who buys wine at that level will be hurt in the pocket. A good exercise for Members to do the next time they go to the supermarket is to go along the shelves turning around the wine bottles to see how many units of alcohol they contain, which will give them a practical idea of the effect of what we propose. In my view, average drinkers, as we call them, would not be harmed by what we propose.
Of course, without an increase in duty, minimum pricing would lead to an increase in the profits of supermarkets and the drinks industry. Anyone who looks at our report will see what we said about how supermarkets in particular promote alcohol and about the mechanisms they use to do so—discounting and so on. I do not intend to discuss that this afternoon, but it is an important area for us to look at. To increase profits in that way would not be helpful.
We believe that alcohol duty should continue to rise year on year, but unlike in recent years, duty increases should predominantly be on stronger alcohol drinks, notably spirits. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) mentioned the situation in Scotland. The Committee learned that nowadays the spirit of choice in Scotland is the £5 bottle of vodka—we can compare that with what spirits cost 10, 15 or 20 years ago. Now, they are affordable to young people, and they are drinking them—we provide evidence of that in our report. It is deeply worrying.
According to Treasury calculations—hon. Members can intervene on me to show how hopeless my understanding is—the duty on a bottle of spirits was 60 per cent. of male average manual weekly earnings in 1947; in 1973, when value added tax was imposed in addition to duty, duty was 16 per cent. of earnings; by 1983, it was 11 per cent.; and by 2002, it had fallen to 5 per cent. According to calculations undertaken by the Treasury at the Committee’s request, for our report, if the duty on a bottle of spirits had increased since the early 1980s at the same rate as earnings, it would now be £62. If the rate had increased in line with the retail prices index and not with average male earnings, the duty on a bottle of spirits would now be £38.60. The Committee examined questions of licensing—who can sell alcohol—and accessibility in terms of where it can be obtained, but the accessibility of alcohol in terms of income has seen an extraordinary turnaround, especially that of the heavier stuff.
Has the right hon. Gentleman decided not to consider the question of advertising because this is an estimates debate and he does not want to go down that road? Does he have any concerns about the extent to which, through advertising, the excessive drinking of alcohol is glorified?
There is great detail on that in our report. The Committee did not talk only to the drinks industry but took evidence from people who act as their agents in promoting alcohol. Many years ago, when I was looking at the promotion of tobacco, the methods used in relation to various age groups, voluntary codes and so on, I probably had a firmer view on how tobacco was promoted and was strongly opposed to it. I am pleased that this House has legislated to get rid of it. The Committee did not make firm recommendations on alcohol advertising, but there are points on how alcohol is promoted and young people’s perceptions. There are voluntary codes—people under 25 should not be used in advertising and so on. The subject is in our report, and perhaps one or two of my fellow members of the Committee will say something about it. I decided to stick with pricing in my speech, but the hon. Gentleman raises an important matter. We spend public money on trying to educate people about being more responsible; does alcohol promotion act against our work on health education? I will leave that question for another day, but it should be asked, none the less.
I have said what the duty on spirits would have been had we not changed the mechanisms and dropped the links altogether in recent years. Neither I nor the Committee recommend an immediate leap to those levels of duty on spirits, but we should certainly make a start. Availability of alcohol, not just in terms of where it can be bought but in terms of cost, is, we believe, the reason for the increase in drinking in this country and in ill health caused by alcohol. We think that a start should be made. We recommend that duties on spirits be returned in stages to the same percentage of average earnings as in the past. The duty on industrial white cider should also be increased—there is no question about that. Industrial white cider is easily obtainable and cheaper per unit than other forms of alcohol, and is drunk by many binge drinkers, old and young.
Beer under 2.8 per cent. ABV can be taxed at a different rate. We recommend the duty on that category of beer be reduced. Now, only one beer—Welton’s Pride ’n’ Joy, which is praised by CAMRA—is in that category. The Treasury should consider how to set duties on drinks, not to encourage people to stop drinking alcohol—no one wants to make people stop—but to increase the availability of lower alcohol content drinks. That will help people to look after their health a little better, which I would like to be able to do. That is what the Committee arrived at, with Treasury decisions running alongside the wider issues.
Any prices increase must be part of a wider policy aimed at changing our attitude to alcohol. It has been said that France’s drinking culture is different from ours—children there aged five or six will have a glass of wine with meals and so on—but as I said, there is evidence of increasing binge drinking by young people. The French must be very aware of that.
I apologise for not being here at the start of my right hon. Friend’s interesting speech. From talking to parents and police officers, I have learned that in parts of our community there seems to be a culture of parents giving their children drink to take out on to the street—in fact, some give their children drink, then drop them off at certain known trouble spots, on the basis that they know where they are and what they are drinking. Is that not a terrible state of affairs? It makes the police’s job much more difficult. Do we not have to get a much stronger message to that section of the community that that is not the right thing to do, and to provide better education for them?
I agree entirely. Any parents in this day and age who are giving their children cans or bottles of alcohol, then dropping them off in a place where there is a culture of drinking, are not doing their children any favours. It could well be argued that what they are doing is potentially shortening the lives of their own children. That is not a responsible position for any parent to take. It was not the position that I took as a parent, although I cannot tell my children what to do now: they are all grown up and two have children themselves. Parents who do what my hon. Friend describes are doing no one, especially not their children, any favours, but it is happening. I do not have the statistics in front of me, but it is a well-known fact that under-age drinkers get much of their alcohol not just from somebody aged 18 buying it from the local shop and then handing it on to them, but via their family. Parents should be well aware of that.
We said in the report that the policy must be aimed at the millions who are damaging their health by harmful drinking, but it is time to recognise that problem drinkers reflect society’s attitude to alcohol. There is a good deal of evidence to show that the number of heavy drinkers in a society is directly related to average consumption. Living in a culture that encourages drinking leads more people to drink to excess. Changing the culture will require a raft of policies. This afternoon I am speaking about one of them—pricing—but there are many other aspects that need to be addressed.
One of the most interesting statistics reported to the Committee was that if people who drink in this country—there are quite a lot of us—drank no more than the number of units per week recommended for women and for men, alcohol consumption would be reduced by about 40 per cent. The alcohol industry was not happy to engage in the debate about that, but if those statistics are true, as we believe they are, they indicate the extent to which people in the UK drink beyond the guidelines recommended to protect their health.
Let me deal with the Government response to the report. As I said earlier, they are not in a position to respond in the usual form, but my hon. Friend the Minister put out a press release. I hope she was not planning to read it out this afternoon, as I shall quote extensively from it. She stated in response to our report:
“Alcohol is an increasing challenge to people’s health. We”—
that is, the Government—
“are working hard to reverse the trend and are constantly seeking better ways to tackle it.”
“Since 2004 this Government has adopted a strategic approach to tackle alcohol harms, from under-age drinking and binge drinking through to longer-term harmful drinking.”
That is true. It is also true that the tide is going against us. The policy is not working and there is no plan to make it work.
The Minister went on to say that
“current levels of alcohol-related hospital admissions, crime, and deaths are unacceptable.”
That is a very positive response to the publication of our report. The press release continued:
“Much more can, and will, be done to turn this around, but the change won’t happen overnight”.
Everybody accepts that. None the less, I was pleased that my hon. Friend went on to say:
“New and strengthened campaigns from this month will raise public awareness further on the link between drinking too much and poor health, and on the harm that alcohol can do to children.”
She pointed out that the Government
“have already taken new powers to tackle the worst irresponsible promotions such as ‘drink as much as you like for £5’.”
I understand that the Home Office is taking action against that.
First-year students at university—I have one in my family—are offered the chance to go into a nightclub and drink as much alcohol as they like for the price of the £10 admission fee. It is extraordinary that alcohol is so easy to access. When I was young, I lived in a working-class culture where young men went out drinking beer, even before they were 18. We would do that one or two nights a week. Although I was working, I could not afford to go out more than that.
The idea that young people now can go out and, for £10, drink as much alcohol as they want—spirits or beer, as I understand it—is frightening. Young people do not know everything, although they think they do from the age of about 16 onwards. The damage that such promotions may be doing to them, which may not be found out for years, is frightening. I am pleased to say that since our report, the Government are taking action, and I know that they were working on the matter before.
The Committee took evidence showing that in Southampton Tuesday is the night for students to go out drinking because that is the night they can drink as much as they like for £10. Will the right hon. Gentleman also condemn the drinking clubs such as Carnage, which target new students and organise pub crawls of all the pubs in town for a fee? That causes great distress to many local residents.
Indeed. I understand that some of those promotions are coming to an end, and quite right too, in my view. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us more when she responds to the debate. We as a society must get back to a more balanced approach to alcohol. Accessibility and cost are two aspects that must be tackled.
The Government also said in response to the Committee’s report:
“We will continue to look at how we can tackle the problems caused by cheap alcohol. We will consider this within a framework which respects the rights of responsible consumers whilst making a real difference to the types of excessive drinking that damage individuals and families and are a cost to our society.”
I agree entirely. The aim is not to punish the average drinker in any way—I rarely see average drinkers sitting round with bottles of white cider. The aim is to attack binge drinking, and minimum pricing is one method. The study that was done in Sheffield was carried out in the cultures that I have lived in all my life, certainly since the age of 8 in south Yorkshire. It concluded that minimum pricing would work in that situation to cut binge drinking.
I know that my hon. Friend will not be able to give us a definite answer about pricing structure, especially at this time in the political diary. We have a general election in a few weeks, and whoever comes into government must tackle the long-term damage to health being done by alcohol. The objective is not to stop people drinking, but to get them to use alcohol in a sensible and proper manner, as my generation and many before us were able to do.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron). I congratulate the Committee on an interesting and well put together report. Clearly, the key area that the Committee examined was pricing, and that is certainly one of the elements that should be tackled, as the right hon. Gentleman stressed.
We should start by acknowledging that there is a problem with people abusing alcohol. The focus should be on problem drinking. There are various definitions, some of which are helpful. We can have a debate about how many units people should drink per week or over a year, but by problem drinking, I mean drinking that leads to inappropriate, irresponsible behaviour, antisocial behaviour and crime, or drinking that damages health. The Select Committee report focuses, of course, on damage to health and what action the Government—any Government—can take to try to ameliorate that.
We should also acknowledge that the problem is not alcohol. I say to the Chair and the members of the Select Committee—I suspect they would agree with me, although this may not be sufficiently clearly stated in the report—that the problem is not even cheap alcohol. The problem is people abusing alcohol and drinking in an inappropriate way that leads to the kind of problems that we have heard about. That is cultural, and it is all very well saying that drinking patterns have changed, and all very well quoting the figures for how many people are drinking more, but if we look at those patterns, we find that the situation is not as simple as the figures suggest. As my colleague and chair of the all-party beer group, the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), knows, beer consumption is declining, so the issue is that of our culture shifting, not just that all Britons are drinking more. A group of people are drinking more than they should, and we must focus on them.
I agree fundamentally with the main conclusion of the Committee’s report, which is that we should introduce a minimum price for alcohol.
The hon. Gentleman is right to expect me to intervene at this point. If he agrees with minimum pricing, will he please get on the phone to his Liberal colleagues up in Scotland and tell them to support the Scottish Government, who are trying to get that very measure through in the teeth of Liberal opposition? It is not just opposition from individual Members of the Scottish Parliament, but whipped Liberal opposition, so will he get on the phone and convince them that they are wrong and we are right? Let us make sure that we have minimum pricing in Scotland.
What a very odd request from a member of the Scottish National party—to insist that I, a proud Englishman, get on the phone to tell my Scottish colleagues what to do. I shall treat that very odd logic with the contempt that it deserves. My Scottish colleagues in the Scottish Parliament deal with their own affairs and the hon. Gentleman would certainly agree with that. Under the circumstances, he would be appalled if I did otherwise.
The Liberal Democrat parliamentary party very much supports a minimum price for alcohol. The Committee Chairman has outlined some of these issues, but I shall give a stark example using figures that date back to May 2008. At that time, the average cost of a draught pint of lager in a pub was £2.75, which equates to £4.95 a litre. At the same time, however, supermarkets were selling lager with a strength of more than 4 per cent. for as little as £1.20 per litre, and weaker lager for as little as 52p per litre. Tesco was selling a 70cl bottle of “Value” vodka for £6.54. Of that price, £5.98 is taken in duty, and a further £1.14 is taken in VAT, totalling £7.12—more than the retail price. It is a scandal that alcohol is sold in an uncontrolled environment. It is easy for people to put such products in with their weekly shop and, potentially, for minors and so on to access it. That is a real problem, and I absolutely agree that minimum pricing is important.
However, politicians should not decide that minimum price. The Sheffield study was interesting but certainly not conclusive, and we need an independent body, made up of economists and industry and health specialists, to recommend not only a minimum price but how it should work, so that we tackle problem drinking without having any perverse impacts. The right hon. Gentleman talked about not having a detrimental impact on moderate drinkers, who would have to pay a little more for their bottle of wine or their pints of beer, and that may be true, but we have to consider other impacts.
I am slightly concerned about the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that politicians should not decide those matters. We certainly receive recommendations, and the chief medical officer recommended a price of 50p per unit, which would be a good start, but in the end this House will have to decide the price and ensure that it is enforced.
That is precisely why neither politicians nor the chief medical officer should say that they know the answer to the problem, or recommend a level. We have heard about some of the effects of 50p per unit, but not about its effects on the consumption of lower strength drinks or on pubs. There could be a perverse incentive, and we need to investigate the matter holistically.
I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman agrees with the Committee about introducing a minimum price per unit. He suggests what type of people should advise the Government, and he seems to be suggesting that politicians should not take a position on price. Does he not think, however, that we have to look beyond the advice that the Government take from different institutions? We have an increase in binge drinking and in alcohol-related deaths, and we have to look at new ways of solving that problem.
We do indeed, but I am not quite sure what point the right hon. Gentleman is trying to make. My point simply is that we should not say, “50 per cent. or 40 per cent. sounds right.” We need to look at the holistic impact of the measure. The principle is absolutely right, but we have not reached the stage where we know what the price should be, and it is important that we do not simply pick a figure out of the air.
Surely the hon. Gentleman accepts that Parliament decides—in fact, the Chancellor decides—on alcohol duty, so it is really not much of a leap to say that the House should take a strong view on minimum pricing. Does he agree that minimum pricing cannot possibly affect the pub or restaurant trade? No pubs in the country will sell alcohol for 50p per unit other than at those very strange times of binge drinking. He would be very lucky to find in his constituency a pub that would sell him beer at 50p a unit, so the measure would affect not the pub or restaurant trade but those people who consume vast quantities of very cheap alcohol that they can obtain from wholesalers or some supermarkets.
Once again, the hon. Gentleman proves my point precisely. He is quite right about the effect on the pub, but unfortunately a 50p minimum price for alcohol would make it impossible for many of our smaller breweries to survive, and that would therefore damage the brewing trade. We have to look at all those issues together. That is the sensible way to do it, rather than plucking a figure out of the air.
Again, that proves my argument. Hon. Members think that through minimum pricing they have the solution to binge drinking, and I agree with the measure, but let me make it absolutely clear that there is no silver bullet. It is rather naive to suggest otherwise. If there were a silver bullet, we would all accept it and pursue it. We would all have to deal with impacts of a minimum price, however, and they have not yet been properly assessed.
On the Committee’s secondary conclusion that we should therefore increase duty even more, I absolutely agree that we should look at duty levels. Industrial cider has been mentioned, and there is a clear discrepancy between that and beer; and the rather favourable treatment that spirits have received over the past few years has also rightly been mentioned. Beer duty, which has been increased and used as just a way of making money, has no relevance whatever to the debate about how to deal with problem drinking, but the Liberal Democrats reject increasing prices as a whole.
It is interesting to look at all the statistics, but some commentators lack common sense and an understanding of psychology. The reality is simple. Let us imagine that someone is going out to binge drink 10 alcoholic drinks, which is far more than they should. We could slap on an extra duty that increased the price by 10p per drink, and that would be a large increase, but is anyone seriously suggesting that it would stop someone drinking that amount? All we are talking about is it costing an extra £1—the equivalent of a bag of chips—to drink exactly the same amount. Is that really going to have the effect on behaviour some people suggest it would? I am afraid that it will not. It is just not realistic, and I repeat that there is no silver bullet. Pricing must be looked at, but it is not the silver-bullet solution that some people suggest.
I hate to disagree with my hon. Friend, but a lot of the evidence that the Committee took showed that in such a situation people, particularly young people, do not buy alcohol at the higher price. Instead, they buy cheap alcohol from supermarkets, pre-load and then go out and buy one or two expensive drinks. A lot of research has shown that most students go out with about a tenner in their pocket, so price is a factor. It is not the only one, but it is a critical factor in tackling the problem.
I do not think that my hon. Friend is disagreeing with me. Perhaps she does not like my suggesting that her Committee has not solved this problem; it might have thought that it had. I have made it absolutely clear that one of the problems is the price differential between the on-trade and the off-trade and the irresponsible supermarket selling of alcohol at unreasonably low prices, even below cost prices. Nevertheless, there will still be people who go to bars and clubs and are unaffected by that. Not to recognise that shows a lack of realism and a lack of understanding of human psychology. These things need to be looked at in a more holistic way.
It is important to focus on moving towards a minimum price—setting that level to stop irresponsible off-trade pricing to ensure that people are not able to access it—but that alone will not deal with the problem entirely. We have to acknowledge the culture. Although the Select Committee’s report rightly touched on the issue of pubs being an important place for sociable, controlled drinking, I am afraid that we all, as a nation, have to accept that a cultural change must also be considered. We are concerned not only about the changes that we have seen with regard to people drinking more at home, but about people buying alcohol from the off-trade, including supermarkets, and then drinking it in the park or on the street.
There has been a cultural change in the on-trade, too. The sector of the on-trade that is particularly suffering is the traditional community pub that has a particular role not only in being somewhere for people in the area to meet but in being a controlled sociable atmosphere where people of all ages will go. It is very regrettable how some sections of the on-trade industry—I use that word advisedly, because we are talking about some very large companies—have deliberately done away with community pubs and moved to vertical drinking spaces. They have deliberately pushed people away from a convivial, sociable culture where they sit down to one in which they are crammed in and there is loud music. It is not about chatting but about drinking and encouraging people to drink more. That change must be acknowledged, and it will not be dealt with by pricing alone.
The reason for vertical drinking establishments is to increase profits. The hon. Gentleman said that he did not agree with the Sheffield university report, which looked into the culture of drinking in England and made firm recommendations about how some binge drinking can be stopped. What aspects of that report does he disagree with?
I do not know where the right hon. Gentleman gets that idea from, because I have not said for a moment that I disagree with the Sheffield university report; it is very interesting, and I agree with many of its conclusions. My only comment in that regard has been that we are not at the stage of saying that we should necessarily adopt a minimum price of 40p per unit. It is an excellent report, which firmly focuses on that issue, as well as on price differentials in the off trade. I would have welcomed the Select Committee’s going into that a little more, but of course it was dealing with the issue specifically from a health perspective.
A cross-departmental approach is needed. There is a huge criminal justice side to this issue, which has to involve tackling problems with disorder as well as the health problems that have been recognised. I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman is keen to point out that cultural issues are important and that the pub, as a sociable, controlled drinking environment, is part of the solution.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about criminal justice solutions. During the passage of the Licensing Act 2003, I was amazed, as a member of the Public Bill Committee that considered it, that there were so few prosecutions of landlords selling alcohol to intoxicated people. That has been against the law for a long time. Enforcing that law—I see no evidence that the situation is improving—would deal with some of the disorder that we see on our high streets. Does he recognise and agree with that?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. As he says, there are adequate powers to deal with some of the abuses of selling alcohol and they are not currently used. That also applies to selling alcohol to minors. The existing system is there, and we do not need more laws and regulations: we just need to use the ones that we have. I agree with him from that perspective.
There is still an insufficient focus on education about alcohol. If we are to have a culture in which people are brought up to think that alcohol is to be respected, we will need more education, including in schools. Some very positive campaigns have been run over the past 18 months, and that has been a good use of Department of Health money to get the message across about binge drinking. However, there is a problem in simply talking about alcohol as a drug and about the dangers of alcohol. Other societies and nations have a different attitude towards alcohol. They do not just say, “This is a dangerous thing and you must make sure that you don’t abuse it”; they bring up their children to understand and respect it.
I take my hon. Friend’s point about education in schools; unfortunately, many young people think that they are invincible and tend to ignore what they are told. Does he support the use of alcohol-related arrest referral schemes, which provide information and counselling about the effects of alcohol to people who have been brought to the attention of the criminal justice system as a result of an alcohol-related disorder? Those schemes are being evaluated, but when they have been tried in the USA, they have been very effective in reducing repeat drink offences.
I thank my hon. Friend; I indeed support that approach. From a health point of view, I also think that people who have been admitted to accident and emergency with alcohol conditions should be put on to an alcohol rehabilitation course. That would do more to challenge problem drinking than some of the measures that have been proposed.
Schools have a role and a responsibility to provide education about alcohol, as do parents, although it is hard to educate the parents themselves. We have to bring up young people to respect alcohol. How many 16-year-olds understand how beer is brewed or how wine is produced? Why, in this country, do we continue to talk about alcohol merely as a drug? Why do we not do more to point out that alcohol, if respected and drunk responsibly, is something to be enjoyed? There are good alcoholic drinks and bad alcoholic drinks, but why do we never say that? We always bracket them together, as under the current duty regime, which is rather perverse given its treatment of cider.
We have to accept our culture and who we are, but we often fail to do that in these debates. The Committee was right to point out that the Government’s thinking was entirely naive and misplaced in trying to move suddenly to a continental café culture. We do not need a continental café culture, but a culture that respects alcohol more. That involves understanding what alcohol is and how it is produced, and accepting that good alcohol, when enjoyed responsibly, is an important part of our culture and our heritage. I invite you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and any other Members, to come to an event that takes place in my constituency every September—Otley folk festival, when every single pub in the town is thronged with people enjoying locally produced real ale and folk music. It is very much part of our English heritage and culture. Do we see disorder and problems? No, we do not, but I am afraid politicians are too slow to recognise that alcohol is an important and positive part of our culture and heritage, and that if enjoyed responsibly, it is to be celebrated.
It is rather lazy of politicians sometimes to talk about the “the drinks industry”, because that includes every single alcohol producer, from the huge business to the small microbrewery brewing perhaps for only one pub, and all the pubs, bars and clubs. That group does not form an industry, and the idea that everyone in it is somehow irresponsible is a lazy assertion. We need to focus on the companies that do not fulfil their responsibilities and that have clear profit motive for wanting people to drink irresponsibly. That applies to some companies but not to others, and certainly not to many pubs and small breweries.
The report is a useful step forward, and I hope it will make the Government seriously consider introducing a minimum price. After the election, I should certainly like whoever is in Government to take that forward as part of the solution to problem drinking in this country. However, we must remember that there is no silver bullet, and we have to accept that there needs to be cultural change. To some extent we have to go back to the years that the right hon. Member for Rother Valley talked about, when alcohol consumption was lower, but we also have to think about our approach to alcohol and the selling and marketing of it in those days. There are many lessons to learn. We do not need a new culture; we need a return to a responsible, sociable pub-related culture; and we need to focus on the individuals, retailers and companies that continue to abuse their position and that make it very difficult for responsible drinkers to enjoy alcohol by fuelling the problem drinking that damages our neighbourhoods and towns and people’s health.
It is very important that we are having this debate, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), who chaired the Health Committee admirably and enabled it to make an in-depth study of the whole issue of alcohol. We obtained some extremely valuable papers in evidence, which the Committee and our researchers found useful in producing what I believe is a helpful report.
It is important that we distinguish between ordinary drinking, which nearly all of us do, and the problem drinking of a minority, although a significant minority, of people in this country. Alcohol has always played an important role in our society. It has lubricated the wheels of politics and business for as long as anyone can remember and helped million of Britons to cement friendships and relationships. Even the British Medical Association, which is one of the most vehement critics of our drinking culture, recognises that. In written evidence for our inquiry, it wrote:
“Alcohol in moderation has some very positive social and personal effects. It is not true that the only safe route for most people is total abstinence.”
That is very well put.
Although we have always spent a long time as a nation thinking, speaking and writing about alcohol—I do not think any country has more expressions for being drunk than we do—we now fetishise alcohol in a way that was not apparent 50 or even 25 years ago. The alcohol industry now spends between £600 million and £800 million a year on drinks marketing and advertising. It has been phenomenally successful in implanting in Britain’s collective consciousness the idea that drinking alcohol is synonymous with social, sexual, physical and material success. It has succeeded brilliantly in tapping into our deepest and most heartfelt aspirations and desires, and suggesting that alcohol can help us meet them, even if just for a brief, escapist moment on a Friday or Saturday night. As a result of those efforts, alcohol is now seen by millions of young people as an essential lifestyle prop that can help confer instant glamour and open the door to success and popularity.
Nor, thanks to the drinks industry, is alcohol consumption limited to a few specific, well-defined periods in the week any more. As the British Society of Gastroenterology and British Association for the Study of the Liver pointed out in their written evidence, we have contrived in recent years to superimpose the southern European culture of regular heavy drinking to accompany food on our long-standing Anglo-Saxon culture of feast and binge drinking. We are now, as they put it,
“reaping the consequences in terms of liver deaths”.
In fact, there has been a gradual merging of drinking cultures across Europe. Only a few years ago French experts were confidently predicting that a binge drinking culture was unlikely to take root there, as alcohol was culturally integrated. They said that the French, having been introduced to alcohol at an early age, drank in a controlled fashion, if perhaps a little too regularly, and that getting visibly and audibly incapacitated was seen as neither cool nor particularly impressive. The French have always taken that attitude.
However, although the overall level of alcohol consumption in France is declining, as we have heard today, “le binge drinking” among young people has emerged as a real problem and a raft of legislation has been proposed to tackle it. In fact, the French have far more draconian advertising laws than we do. It is extremely difficult now for the French to advertise alcohol in any social context at all. They can merely present the brand, and that is all they can do. They cannot associate it with any particular culture or with glamour.
The French phenomenon has been described as part of a “globalisation of behaviour” evident in all 27 EU member states, with teenagers increasingly seeking instant intoxication as an end in itself. However, attitudes can change in the other direction as well. The best example that I can think of is in Germany, where beer consumption has declined dramatically in the past decade. It was the capital of Europe for beer drinking, but it has now lost its crown to the Czech Republic. Health considerations have certainly played a part in that decline, but the changing image of beer has been the most important thing. Beer drinking is now seen by many young people in Germany as a staid old man’s pursuit and distinctly uncool. Consequently, the Germans have shifted their drinking patterns far more towards alcohol such as spirits.
That shows that although we can never change young people’s desire to drink and to experiment with alcohol, the image of alcohol is very important in shaping what, when, where and—crucially—how much they drink. That is why we need to exert far greater control over how alcohol is marketed and advertised in this country. It is not an altruistic desire to support the sports industry or music scene that has led Carling, for example, to sponsor the Football League cup, Rangers and Celtic football clubs and, until recently, the Reading festival and various leading music venues across London. It is motivated instead by the company’s self-confessed desire to
“become the most respected youth brand”.
In sponsoring music events, for instance, Carling states that it wishes to “piggyback” on the success of the band—
“the heroes at the venue”—
and use them as a means of “engaging customers’ emotions”. As Professor Gerard Hastings, who advised our Committee, wrote:
“Sponsorship is a way of raising brand awareness, creating positive brand attitudes and building emotional connections with consumers. Its power comes not from direct advertising messages but through associating the brand with an already engaging event or celebrity, and gaining power and credibility in the process.”
That is a pertinent point.
A focus on football and live music is designed to grab the attention of young male teenagers and increase the likelihood of their making Carling one of their first alcohol purchases. In choosing voluntarily to remove its logo from child-size replica Rangers and Celtic shirts two years ago, Carling more or less admitted that the association between the clubs and the brand had a direct and positive influence upon young people’s attitudes towards the Carling brand. Mark Hunter, the chief executive of Coors, Carling’s parent company, said at the time:
“Coors and the Old Firm clubs have a long track-record in working together to champion responsible drinking. This means ensuring that sponsorship is not improperly targeted at people under the legal drinking age and using the combination of one of the UK’s leading brands and football to promote responsible consumption by adults.”
Carling is perfectly content, however, for that same group of young people to watch Rangers and Celtic on TV or in person at Ibrox or Parkhead, with every player’s shirt in the whole stadium festooned with the Carling logo. That apparently does not constitute “improper targeting” in the eyes of either Carling, the clubs or the football authorities. If there is logic there, I am afraid I cannot spot it.
In my view, the Government need to wake up to the way in which the alcohol industry is grooming potential young drinkers through music and sport. That flies directly in the face of the stated intentions of Ofcom, the Advertising Standards Authority and the Portman Group to protect children and young people from advertising and marketing.
The only sure way to tackle the problem is removing the alcohol industry’s ability to target young people in that way. Banning alcohol advertising and sponsorship from events that are attended by children and young people, or watched by them on TV, is one way to enable young people to develop a healthier relationship with alcohol.
When the Committee took evidence, we heard of the change in marketing practices towards viral marketing and the use of the internet as a means of getting the message across. We were assured by witnesses that there was protection for young people, because they had to access a privileged site, which was of course difficult to do. However, during the inquiry—in front of the witnesses—I used my internet-enabled phone to get on to the relevant website. I was asked to enter my date of birth to ensure that I was over 18, so I entered the date 30 February 1980 and was allowed entry. I entered a completely fictitious address, which could not possibly have been logical, but the site was happy with that. Therefore, those safeguards to protect young people clearly do not work. One can enter any date of birth, and site will be quite happy to allow access its content.
We need to ensure that when the industry says it is cleaning up its act, it is doing so and behaving responsibly. I do not attack the industry lightly, and I do not believe the whole of it is to blame, but it clearly needs to get its house in order if we are to protect young people. The market is changing, as is the way in which things are advertised, and there is far less control over internet and viral advertising, so it is even more important that firms act responsibly to ensure that young people are not exposed to the increasing glamorisation of alcohol, thereby leading themselves inevitably to increased health risks in future.
I was listening to a programme on Radio 4 earlier in the week about marmalade. It was said that marmalade was invented by the Scots in the 1740s to go on toast. Before that, they used to drink alcohol, in the form of ale, for breakfast, so imbibing ale in large quantities and at odd times of day is well known in British history. If one could go back to Hogarth’s times, or the industrial revolution, one would see that high alcohol consumption was always a factor. That was why there were always temperance movements, and strong feelings and debates as society developed.
The Chairman of the Select Committee on Health, the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), mentioned the difference in duty between 1947 and today. To some extent, alcohol consumption has increased because of affluence—people simply have more disposable income and more choices. It is also worth noting that people live rather longer than they did in 1947. One must take into account a range of factors concerning how people live today.
Clearly, there is a hard core of people who drink multiples of what they should. That is the problem of alcohol abuse. Sometimes they are older people, but they are not necessarily poor, and we also seem to have a problem with young people in some of our city centres. One need only go through the range of Sky channels on television and find a programme about city centre policing to see the problems and costs of alcohol on Friday and Saturday nights.
I believe that pricing is less of a factor than other hon. Members believe. It is a factor, especially when people buy from supermarkets, but it is also a question of supply. If we want to stop children getting alcohol, we must get alcohol out of the home. Almost any home, including mine, will have gin, whisky and various other things sitting in a sideboard somewhere, which will probably not be locked.
Some years ago, I was taken out one evening in a Dorset police van. The police were picking up schoolchildren aged 13 or 14, almost all of whom had alcohol, almost all of which came from the parental home. The police would take the children home and show the parents, most of whom were unaware that their kids had alcohol and that that alcohol was missing from their drinks cabinet. Therefore, the first thing we must focus on is parenting. How do we keep an eye on what children get up to because of peer pressure as they get older? Price would not affect that, because a youngster could easily take a bottle of gin from home. That is an important factor.
Another factor is that we need role models to persuade youngsters to act more responsibly. Sometimes, the footballers whom people aspire to be like these days are not always the best role models for youngsters.
The debate relates to the Health Committee’s report on alcohol. It ought to be said that the drinks industry is very important. There was an exchange earlier in the debate about Scotland: the scotch industry is important in areas of our country where alternative jobs might not be so easy to get, and it is a major exporter that creates wealth for our country; and the brewing industry involves more than 400,000 jobs. In my dealings with the industry as a Member of Parliament, and before that as a councillor, I have found that the vast bulk of it is responsible. The industry appreciates that it must be responsible—the House ought to acknowledge the Portman Group and other initiatives that have been funded to promote responsible drinking.
Sometimes the most powerful message on responsible drinking is sent by the industry itself. Following the changes in the licensing laws, police officers from Poole police station who go around the pubs and clubs say that there has been a tie-up between them, the drinks industry and many publicans. The drinks industry has helped to finance local policing and the training of landlords, which is important. As we have heard in this debate, part of the problem is selling via supermarkets. Most legitimate licensees act in a responsible manner, but they need training, support and investment from the drinks industry. We should not leave this subject without saying how successful the industry has been.
We must find a way to educate people about what they drink and how much they take in. I have always felt that showing units of alcohol on glasses or products is important in that way. In recent years, many wine bars have gone for larger glass sizes, and people do not always know what they are drinking. Another trend is that wine has become much stronger. The wine that people drank 20 years ago was a fraction of the strength of the wine we drink today.
As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, there has been good news on that. Following my campaign to reintroduce 125 ml glasses, which was supported by several hon. Members in the Chamber, the Government have announced that it will be in the mandatory code. Drinkers will therefore once again have the choice of having smaller as well as medium and large glasses—and, of course, there will be standard size.
Measurement is vital, and perhaps we ought to introduce some means of measuring alcohol in pubs and clubs. For example, a person could blow into a device that could tell them how much they had drunk. We must find a way to educate youngsters about the harm they are doing, which includes the antisocial behaviour that quite often follows in many of our inner cities.
Although I broadly sign up to the report, I have one or two reservations on what it says about advertising. It is easy to attack the advertising industry in reports, but after all, it simply gives consumers information, on the basis of which they make choices. Advertising can play an important role in getting messages about harm across to people. We should make friends with the advertising industry, because if we could galvanise it into starting to make points about harm, it would be a useful tool in educating people.
Some of the advertisers have raised concerns about the Committee’s suggestions. For instance, ITV and Channel 4 think that the changes could cost them up to £60 million in revenue. There will also be an impact on sporting events. We have to be much more targeted in our approach to this problem. We have to include parents and parenting, and we have to ensure that people know the number of units they consume and the long-term harm that can ensue.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about voluntary advertising codes, but the Committee heard lots of evidence that that was not working. We have been there before with the tobacco industry, which claimed that it could behave, advertise and promote responsibly—but that simply did not work. It flew in the face of common sense to think that it would, because what it was really interested in was making profits. In evidence submitted to the Committee, we saw campaign after campaign in which producers were not sticking to the spirit, let alone the letter, of the rules, including prohibitions on promoting to under-25s and not associating alcohol with glamour or success. This fond belief that the industry can promote itself does not bear much examination.
Well, I sometimes think that that approach is better than too much of a centralised approach. If we drive advertising off the airwaves it will go on to the internet, which is less controlled. If we have a proper code for producers to follow—and the vast majority do—even if it is not perfect, it is a better approach than clamping down on people, which can lead to creative methods of advertising that are less controlled. The worst examples we saw were from the internet, rather than the press or television. We have to be careful with that approach.
I did not talk about advertising in my speech, but I received an email today related to that issue. It states:
“The Committee expressed concerns about “gaps” in the regulation of digital marketing during your investigations. I wanted to let you know that this week the Advertising Association has finalised a set of proposals to shut this regulatory loophole, extending the Advertising Standards Authority’s remit.”
So things are happening in that area because of the report.
I am grateful to the Chairman for that point. The internet is where the worst examples can be found, and I hope that progress will be made in that area.
The vast majority of my constituents enjoy a responsible drink. We have seen a change in recent years, much of it because people do not drink and drive these days. As a result, they tend to purchase more alcohol in supermarkets and imbibe it at home, where it is very easy to open another bottle. Drinking in the home is more common, which often means drinking in front of children. Just as there are concerns that the smoking ban means that people smoke more at home in the presence of their children, there are concerns that people are drinking more at home.
The report is a useful contribution to the debate on alcohol and its consequences, and I hope that it will inform public policy. It may also get into the newspapers and draw to the attention of youngsters, who think that they will live for ever, the fact that they will face real problems if they abuse themselves by drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. I hope that we find the right solutions, but as I have said, I think that the industry is—broadly speaking—doing a good job. However, it can always do better, and we must also look to the high cost in terms of health of some of the abuses that occur today. It will be interesting to see what happens. I hope that we make progress so that people can enjoy a responsible drink, but we crack down on the hard core and redouble our efforts, especially among students and other young people, among whom there is a real problem. There is no magic bullet, but if we do not deal with that problem we will be dealing with its consequences for many generations to come.
It is obvious that Britain has a serious and growing alcohol problem, and successive Governments have failed to address it. What has been done so far is mere pussyfooting, and I hope that they start to take the issue seriously before we end up in the same situation as Russia, where the population is declining, largely as a result of alcohol consumption. The Russian Government have finally bitten the bullet and started to raise the price of vodka. We do not want to get to that stage before taking serious action.
We have heard some warm words about the drinks industry, but the malign influence of that industry on Governments has deterred them from taking the problem seriously and from taking proper action. I hope that the report, which I greatly welcome and strongly support, will help to press the Government to do the right thing. It is time that we said to the drinks industry, “We understand your position—you make drink to make profit. Our job is to protect the population and their health.”
For some five years when I first entered the House, I was the chair of the all-party group on alcohol misuse. I have also raised several questions about alcohol issues. We waited for a long time before the Government brought forward their alcohol strategy, and in the end it was not the most wonderful document and was not terribly effective. In the last Parliament, I also tabled an early-day motion that drew attention to the dramatic fall in the real price of alcoholic drinks as a proportion of disposable income—something on which the Chairman of the Committee focused. I welcome what he said, and I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) also made an excellent contribution. We need action now.
Other countries have different regimes. I was recently in Washington with the Select Committee, and it was Halloween, which is a great celebration in the US. Thousands of people dress up in fancy dress and go out into the streets. We were in Georgetown with thousands of young people in the streets and none of them was drunk. Indeed, they were all well behaved. That was because the Americans have a rigidly enforced minimum age for the consumption of alcohol of 21. Some of our staff in their 20s and even early 30s were challenged.
My hon. Friend is obviously very youthful looking. No one challenged me, I have to say, but other staff were challenged, and the age limit was rigidly enforced. Indeed, not so long ago, two British sisters were on holiday in Florida, one over 21 and one under. Their holiday flat was entered by the local police who found them both drinking. The older sister was sent to prison for corrupting a minor—that is how seriously it is taken. I am not suggesting that we should be so draconian, but there are countries that take the issue a bit more seriously than we do. We have a long way to go.
I cannot comment on that as I know nothing about cannabis, never having used it. I know that others have differing views on cannabis, but that is for another debate.
In Sweden, they have had serious problems with alcohol. They had typical northern European binge drinking—people would not drink for a fortnight but then get unconscious on two bottles of schnapps. At one time, everyone had a little black book and had to record the amount of drink bought—like a rationing book. That was abolished in the late 1950s, but they still have the systembolagets—the state-run off-licences that control the sale of drink. In Norway, which the Committee also visited, I was surprised to find that in the square by the Parliament building a pint of beer cost £5, so they have raised their prices. Northern Europe has long had a drink problem—it may be to do with the long winters.
I certainly thought about having more than one, but by nature I am a person of moderation, although I must say that I am an imbiber of alcohol myself—I enjoy good wine. The hon. Gentleman has talked about people stealing drinks from their parents, but if my son or daughter started stealing my good Burgundy, I would be very upset—but that is another story.
The UK is now awash with cheap alcohol, which causes appalling damage to lives: it causes death and violence in hospitals and homes. Domestic violence is always, it seems to me, associated with alcohol, as too, time and again, is violence. If we can reduce the excessive consumption of cheap alcohol, of which there are oceans, we can solve many other problems as well. My particular concern, however, is health—we are discussing a Health Committee report—and especially foetal alcohol syndrome, which is a subject that I have raised in the House before, and which has been raised in another place by the noble Lord Mitchell, who made a fine speech on 18 October 2004, and subsequently introduced a Bill to try to persuade the Government to put labelling on alcohol about alcohol damage to foetuses.
The problem first became evident in South Africa, where many women working on wine estates were paid, in part, in alcohol. Vast numbers of children suffered serious foetal damage: it changes the shape of the face and causes physical as well as psychological and mental damage. In extreme cases, it can be obvious, but of course there is a penumbra—a sliding scale—and a much lower level of damage of which we are not quite aware yet. We do not know how common it is. Who knows? All the problems of behavioural disorders among young children in schools, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, might be alcohol associated. Some research is leading in that direction. It certainly affects IQ, academic ability and the ability to concentrate—all things needed in school—and behavioural disorders might be a symptom as well.
The hon. Gentleman is making a lot of sense. Does he agree that the standardised labelling for alcoholic products is key, because it empowers people, including pregnant women? It gives them the facts so that they can take personal responsibility and make the right decisions.
The hon. Gentleman is right, and I will come to that point soon.
This week, the Herald Scotland reported on research conducted by Dr. Jonathan Sher, director of research, policy and programmes for the Children in Scotland study. According to the Herald Scotland, the
“study warns that Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and the less obvious Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)”—
what I was hinting at before—
“are entirely avoidable and completely incurable.”
If it is a self-regarding action—for instance, if a middle-aged man decides to drink himself to death—it is very sad, but he does it to himself. If, in doing so, however, a child is damaged for life, the action is against someone else as well. It is, no doubt, deeply worrying for many mothers. Is it not sensible that we warn people from now on that, if they drink during pregnancy, they could and, if they drink excessively, definitely will, damage their children for life? There is much detail in the report, into which I do not need to go now, but the sheer numbers in Scotland suggest that about 10,000 children in Britain have visible FAS problems. On foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, we are talking about hundreds of thousands and, who knows, possibly even more. This a very serious problem, so we need to persuade young women not to drink when they are pregnant, but unfortunately the two are associated, because lots of young women do drink to excess, and perhaps getting pregnant when young and drinking are related—they get pregnant because they have been drunk and taken advantage of by men.
Teenage pregnancy in Britain is six times higher than in Holland. In many ways, Holland and Britain are similar countries—in terms of culture and the ethnic mix—but we have six times more teenage pregnancies than Holland. Is that associated, possibly, with teenage drinking? I suspect that a lot of it is. However, not only does that cause a problem in terms of getting pregnant in the first place, but those young women continue drinking and then damage their babies before they are born. That is deeply worrying and something that I have been concerned about for a long time.
It is time to take serious action, and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to take my suggestions back to her colleagues in the Government and to start to think seriously about action. My minimum suggestion is for a seven-point plan—it could be eight, nine, 10 or 12 points. The first is for warning labels on all alcoholic drinks stating that if a pregnant woman drinks, she might damage or, if she drinks to excess, will damage her baby for life. That should be on walls in pubs and on all alcoholic drinks. We should have public information on television, radio and other media about that. Public information should be displayed wherever appropriate to ensure that all women know that, if they drink when pregnant, they are likely to damage their baby.
Absolutely. The Americans use wording that I have mentioned before to the hon. Lady—so I will not go into the details now—and I think that Lord Mitchell, in a debate in another place, referred to the American labelling too. I cannot put my hand on it at the moment, but they use specific wording that can be seen very clearly. However, a picture of a pregnant woman with a cross through it is one way of drawing the problem to people’s attention. Most women either are not aware of it or tend to pretend that it does not affect them because it is too inconvenient. That is deeply worrying, and we care more, I hope, about children than anything else. I am sure that that is true of most people.
The minimum price argument is overwhelming. The chief medical officer said that it should be a minimum of 50p per unit of alcohol. I would be happy with that. The great majority of moderate drinkers would not be affected at all and it would help the pub trade because people would not get tanked up on cheap alcohol before going to the pub—they would be drinking in the pubs instead. It would also save a valuable cultural feature of our society—the great pub—which is suffering greatly at the moment from cheap alcohol being drunk elsewhere. We should make all cheap alcohol sales techniques, such as happy hours, illegal, and enforce that rigidly.
Why does the hon. Gentleman insist that the vast majority of my constituents, who are perfectly moderate, decent drinkers who do not abuse alcohol whatsoever, should pay more for their alcohol from the supermarket in order to tackle a problem of youth drinking? Surely even he is not naive enough to believe that upping the price of a bottle of wine by 50p will eliminate youth drinking at a stroke.
Sometimes politicians have to take a responsible stand and argue the case. If anybody says to me, “It is my right to buy alcohol that is cheaper than a bottle of water in my supermarket. How dare you suggest I should have that right taken away?”, I would say that we are damaging children, people and our society by having cheap alcohol. We have to say that to people and be bold about it.
Does my hon. Friend think that the unreconstructed Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) would have done better to come in here at 1 o’clock when this debate started, rather than coming in here and throwing these lines about in Parliament as he has been doing since he was elected here? It would do himself some good, and be better for the people of Shipley, if he represented their needs as opposed to his prejudices.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I like to think that I am behaving in an orderly fashion, but I cannot speak for other colleagues.
There is an argument even for raising the minimum drinking age. In America, it is 21, but it is much lower in Britain. That is something that we should consider, and in time we may do so—but not at the moment.
I would also restore the former limits on licensing hours. I was unhappy about the legislation that our Government put through. I raised the matter with the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell), and met her twice to say that I was concerned. Eventually I voted with the Government, on the grounds that they were going to examine the evidence, see whether the change was a good idea and consider whether or not to restrict opening hours again. I suggest that those former licensing hours should indeed be restored.
There is a vast ocean of cheap alcohol coming through our ports every year. The white van brigade is bringing in alcohol and selling it cheaply to friends and neighbours. We should restore the former limits on alcohol imports that we used to have and rigidly enforce them. People could still bring in plenty: we are talking about the ability to bring in 90 bottles of wine for personal consumption. That was the kind of level that we had. Some people might say, “Well, it would upset the European Union,” but I am not terribly worried about upsetting the European Union if it means protecting the health and lives of our citizens. If the same people said, “I’m sorry, but it’s all about the free market. You’ve got to allow cheap alcohol to come in,” I would say, “Well, tough. We’re not going to.” We could have a derogation from the legislation or whatever we needed.
Those are some of the things that we ought to do. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to take those suggestions seriously. We need urgent action if we are to prevent another generation of children from suffering from the effects of the alcohol consumed by their mothers, and often innocently consumed by them without realising the damage that they are doing. Thousands of young people in our society have already been damaged by alcohol, and there are possibly millions who, having suffered marginal effects from the alcohol consumed by their mothers during pregnancy, are performing less well at school and so on. The problem is so serious that the Government should act now in all the ways that I have suggested.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), because nobody could ever accuse him of pussyfooting around. I strongly support his demands for urgent action.
Several hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), the Chairman of the Health Committee, have invoked history. I will go a bit further back. In “A History of the Norman Kings”, written just after 1066 and all that, William of Malmesbury said:
“The English…were accustomed to eat until they became surfeited, and to drink till they were sick. These latter qualities they imparted to their conquerors.”
We are therefore talking about an age-old problem—one that is as old as the hills.
The hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) did not do this, but my job in these debates is to terrify people. The only occasion on which I made somebody change their mind in this House was in the debate on smoking in public places. An inveterate smoker from the other side of the House came up to me afterwards and said, “You’ve scared me stiff. I’m giving up this moment.” Whether I shall be able to change anybody’s mind, and in particular the Minister’s, I do not know, but I shall certainly have a good go.
The hon. Member for Luton, North pointed out the problems in pregnancy, which are absolutely disastrous. If women drink heavily at the end of pregnancy, their babies can be born addicted to alcohol and will have to go through the withdrawal process. That is absolutely horrendous. Alcohol in excess is a drug of addiction. It is a poison in excess, leading to comas and things that, in the past, have led to deaths in police stations—the low blood sugar that is not recognised, so that people die of hypoglycaemia. People vomit and then aspirate their vomit. Alcohol is not a stimulant; it is a narcotic. However, it is a very poor narcotic, because it works as a diuretic, which obviously means that people cannot sleep because they have to get up to spend a large number of pennies. Alcohol disturbs the sleep pattern and worsens sleep disorders. The British National Formulary lists 36 drugs or groups of drugs with which alcohol interacts. It is therefore a dangerous substance in excess.
However, I am with everybody else: not consumed in excess, alcohol can bring a great amount of pleasure, and I would never miss out on the House of Commons claret, for example, or several of the other potions that we can have here.
Acute binges increase the risk of death, and of injury and criminal charges, either of which can ruin a young person’s life. We heard from ambulance drivers about what can happen after bank holiday evenings, and on Halloween or similar occasions. Not only do they have to ferry drunk people to hospital, but if those drunks vomit in the ambulance or vomit over them, they have to clean out the ambulance—it is out of service for ages—and change their uniforms. The effects of binge drinking are horrendous.
Chronic excessive consumption of alcohol can cause cirrhosis of the liver. Although I was never a liver specialist, in my day one had to do a little bit of everything, and the most distressing deaths were those from cirrhosis of the liver, with patients suffering from jaundice, cachexia, a grossly swollen stomach and distended veins, and vomiting blood. The original instrument of torture was still in use when I was working. The Sengstaken tube is a great big tube with two balloons on the end that the doctor would ram down the patient’s throat. The doctor blew up the distal balloon and pulled it back, preventing it from going back into the stomach. There was also a big balloon in the stomach that the doctor blew up to press the varices and try to stop the bleeding. There are better ways of doing that now, but cirrhosis of the liver is still an horrendous illness.
I shall not go into the costs to the NHS or the effects on families, because those have been mentioned, but what can be done? Education is certainly important, but it has been tried for a long time and it has failed. We were told about a project in St. Neots involving a community alcohol partnership, which introduced a system of stopping and searching teenage under-age drinkers. The results included a 42 per cent. decrease in antisocial behaviour in less than a year, a 94 per cent. decrease in under-age people found in possession of alcohol and a 92 per cent. decrease in alcohol-related litter at key hot spots. That was relatively simple and highly effective.
Quite a lot has been said about limiting advertising. We made several important recommendations in the report that I do not think have been mentioned. First, on early detection and intervention, we suggested that any doctor or nurse who has an interaction with a patient should be alive to the possibility that they are on the way to alcohol dependency. If that can be detected early, we can do something about preventing it. We also said, in recommendation 16:
“The solution is to link alcohol interventions in primary and secondary care with improved treatment services for patients developing alcohol dependency.”
From that we recommended a target. I know that lots of people are not that in favour of targets, but the target that we recommended was extremely sensible:
“Targets for reducing alcohol related admissions should be mandatory.”
That is so obvious.
Last week I had the great pleasure of judging a competition in the House in which five groups of A-level students, from five different schools and sixth-form colleges, each presented a party manifesto, with a logo and a motto. I gave the prize to students from King’s high school in Warwick. One of the suggestions in the health part of their manifesto said:
“We will introduce a three-strike policy for injuries caused as a result of alcohol, so that repeated attendances at A and E are paid for by the patient. Referrals to compulsory rehabilitation programmes are also made.”
That is an example of young people recognising the tremendous risks to their peers and making some very sensible suggestions. I am even thinking of putting them into my manifesto for the election that is coming fairly soon.
Another group has also underlined the importance of a minimum age for drinking. However, I believe that pricing is the real weapon, as many hon. Members have said. We have not yet decided whether measures should take the form of tax increases, minimum prices or both, but this is certainly important. I should like to enjoy another quote with the House. It is from “The Surgeon’s Daughter” by Sir Walter Scott:
“The burgesses of a Scottish borough are rendered by their limited means of luxury, inaccessible to gout, surfeits and all the comfortable chronic diseases which are attendant on wealth and indolence.”
Price is crucial. If people do not have the money, they cannot buy alcohol. Supermarket promotions must be stopped, because the pre-loading takes place at home before people go out and that is the end of it.
We must also aim the message at children. The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) mentioned parenting, which is extremely important, but if the parents are not doing the job, someone else will have to do it, and, to my mind, that has to be the state.
The hon. Gentleman might be aware of the Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Act 1997, which gave the police the power to confiscate alcohol from youngsters on the street. It also gave them the duty to report back to the parents what the youngsters were doing, so that the parents could take control of their youngsters. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the police should always use that power to inform the parents? They do not do so at the moment.
I thank my hon. Friend for that, and of course I agree with him. The parents must be told.
I approve of the Government’s impact assessment for the Licensing Act 2003 (Alcohol Mandatory Licensing Conditions) Order 2010. In their paper on it entitled “Summary: Intervention and Options”, they state that option 2 is their preferred option. It contains five elements:
“1. Restricting irresponsible on-trade promotions
2. Prevent the dispensing of alcohol directly into the mouth in on-trade premises
3. Ensure that an age verification policy/system is in operation in all licensed premises
4. Ensure smaller measures are available in on-trade premises
5. Ensure free tap water is available in on-trade premises”.
Those are all laudable aims, but I want the Government to go further and accept that price is one of the most important weapons.
No one is saying that the Health Committee has all the answers, but it is making suggestions that deserve some thought. Sadly, we are not all like Winston Churchill, who is quoted as having said:
“I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”
I am afraid that that is not the case for the majority of people.
I speak as yet another member of the Health Select Committee. I should like to echo the praise of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) for the Chair of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), who led this inquiry admirably. It is in no small part thanks to the way in which he and the Clerks of the Committee put it together that we got such an excellent report, and I am pleased that the House has the opportunity to debate it this afternoon.
I shall say only a few words, as many of my hon. Friends have made the important points already. I should like to say to the Minister that we have a Budget coming up, and that our policy has revolved around mixed messages for too many years. When young people are under threat from a particular danger such as alcohol, mixed messages are the last thing they need. If young people are going to avoid messages, they are certainly going to avoid mixed messages. The Government have not sent out clear messages on this issue so far.
One of the mixed messages involves the Government’s suggestion that this is simply a law and order issue, when it is not. It is a mistake to think that it is only a law and order issue and to hive it off to another Department of State. This is a health debate, and if we are to make the kind of progress that the report highlights, we must acknowledge that this is absolutely a health issue. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to take cognisance of that fact. I am sure that she is not entirely unsympathetic to that message.
I want to focus on two aspects of the report. The first is minimum pricing, and I agree with the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) that that is the key element in this debate. The second involves advertising and promotion. The House knows that we have been down this road before in our debates on how to deal with tobacco advertising and promotion, in the light of the health risks involved. Of course, alcohol is not the same kind of dangerous substance or the killer that tobacco is, but it is a killer, a dangerous substance and a nuisance none the less. I do not know whether it is helpful to express these thoughts in bald terms, but I will do so, because it might just help to point up where we are.
When the Government came to the view that tobacco advertising and smoking in public places should be banned, the Department’s original position was to propose a hybrid ban, under which smoking would be allowed in public houses that did not serve food. We then had a rather idiotic argument about that, before the House decided that there should be a complete ban on public health grounds, to protect the work force. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that we should not have any more idiotic little debates like that. We should send a clear message. The tipping point for the Government in the debate on tobacco, in health terms, was the number of deaths—120,000 a year—that were attributed to tobacco. They came to the view that that was unacceptable, despite the arguments about freedom of action.
The hon. Gentleman has suggested that the numbers of deaths made the House legislate for the smoking ban, but did it not also have something to do with the fact that the Scottish Parliament pioneered the smoking ban in Scotland? That ban was in place for a year before it came in here, and its success encouraged the House to legislate on that issue.
I do not want to gainsay that, but the Irish experience should also be considered. A ban was introduced there, and, I think, in Spain as well. There were other precedents, but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point.
I have said that alcohol is not the dangerous substance that tobacco is, but, as the Health Committee heard, the death rate from tobacco-related illness was 120,000 a year when the Government decided to take action to ban the advertising of tobacco products. The death rate from alcohol-related diseases is now about 40,000. Would the tipping point be 80,000 or 100,000? Is it only at that point that the Government would want to act? I would like to ask the House and the Minister to reflect on that, as we might prefer action sooner than that—if not quite to nip the problem in the bud, certainly to head off the problem and stop it getting worse. It is a sort of precautionary principle. It seems to me that 40,000 deaths a year are too many, in view of the tragedy that this means for the people involved and their families. I thus remind the Minister that we are now at the point where action needs to be taken.
There are comparator countries. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) has just mentioned the Scottish experience, and France is also interesting. As I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford mentioned in passing, the advertising of alcohol on television and in the cinema is banned in France. That provides a way forward, sending an absolutely clear cultural message to anyone susceptible to that advertising and to the drinks industry.
Finally, I want to deal with minimum pricing. It seems indisputable that minimum pricing has to be the way forward. The chief medical officer has recommended it and I know that the Minister would not readily want to reject such clear advice from such a respected source.
I thank my hon. Friend, but it is more sophisticated than that, as the price rise is aimed at those who are the most vulnerable. That is why this would be such a successful and discriminatory measure—discriminatory in the positive sense that it discriminates in the interest of those who need assistance to avoid the dangers that they are not presently able to avoid. I mean, of course, young people, who are bombarded with the availability of alcohol to a shocking extent.
I do not understand the Government’s objection and I ask the Minister to deal with it. Is it that 40,000 deaths a year from alcohol-related diseases are not enough to be a tipping point? Is it that they believe the interests of the moderate drinker would be unnecessarily prejudiced? If so, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley has dealt with that point, showing that the interests of the moderate drinker consuming the recommended units would not be particularly prejudiced. Is it because, as we approach a general election, with a Budget adjacent to it, the Government do not want to be seen as killjoys? Perhaps they see it as politically dangerous, so they do not want to do the right thing. I think I can assist the Minister on that point, too.
It would be helpful if the Conservative Front-Bench team made the point clearly in this debate, unlike Conservative members of the Health Committee who voted against minimum pricing. In a recent Statutory Instrument Committee, we considered the five new tests mentioned today by the hon. Member for Wyre Forest. The Tory Front-Bench spokesperson on that Committee said that it was absolutely the Conservative policy to support minimum pricing. So whether the reason for the reticence about this policy relates to party politics or the nanny state or bad timing, I can tell the Minister that it is no longer an issue. Let us hope that the hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), who I see is talking to a colleague rather than listening to the debate, will confirm that it is indeed Tory party policy to support minimum pricing, as was mentioned in the Statutory Instrument Committee. If she did, it would be a considerable step forward for the debate generally and it would help the Minister.
The House knows that I am stepping down at the forthcoming general election. I do not know whether this will be my last address to the House, but if it is, I could not have chosen a more important issue on which I would like to see progress made. I hope that what I and my colleagues have said today is not the last word, but the first word to start a process of moving forward on areas such as minimum pricing.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford), and I really hope that this will not be his last contribution in this place. If it is, it is a pretty good note to go out on. I warmly congratulate him on his speech. It was also a delight to follow the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) in his always pleasant tour around the instruments of death, pain and torture that he always shares with the House.
My contribution will be brief. I mainly want to congratulate the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), the Chair of the Health Committee, and his colleagues on what I think is a very good, if not excellent, report. It touches on all the salient points and makes a number of very useful recommendations. My one hope is that the Government are listening, and listening very clearly, to what the Health Committee says, as it gets to the heart of the matter. If the recommended approach were adopted, I am sure that many lives would be saved and the health of England would be greatly enhanced.
The report has touched on all the right issues to do with people’s corrosive attitude to and relationship with alcohol. We need to ensure that young people understand the key issues surrounding alcohol and, more widely, how to improve the general health of the nation, both north and south of the border. I really hope that the Minister has listened to the many excellent contributions so far from Health Committee members.
I acknowledge that very little of what the report recommends will affect me, the MP for Perth and North Perthshire, although a few things touch on my constituency. One important example is the minimum pricing issue. The Scottish Government will, of course, make up their own mind about minimum pricing. If it is to be used as a duty mechanism, it will of course affect Scotland as it is not possible to have different duty rates north and south of the border. I looked closely and carefully at the Select Committee’s report on duty and I believe there is a great case to be made for using duty as a mechanism for pricing, which should be explored further.
I am grateful for the many specific mentions that Scotland receives in the report. It acknowledges the work done by my colleagues in the Scottish Government—on the separation of the aisles in supermarkets, looking at whether licensing should be part of promoting public health, and the commitment to continue to examine opening hours. All these are important and it is good that the Health Committee report acknowledges the fine and good work done in that respect.
It is also heartening to see a consensual, cross-party approach to this issue. We do not have anything like that in Scotland. We have absolute partisanship when it comes to health issues there. It may surprise the House that not one Member of the Scottish Parliament from any of the London-based parties—Liberal, Labour or Conservative—supports minimum pricing. Not one! That is absolutely incredible. It is great for me to hear Liberal and Labour Members support minimum pricing, but I say to them, “For goodness’ sake, share your passion for that idea with your colleagues up the road!” There is legislation available that would enable us to improve the health of our nation, but the Liberal and Labour parties in Scotland are acting as an oppositional bloc to prevent it from being passed, which is shameful.
The position of the Liberals is absurd and bizarre. Two elections will take place in Scotland next year—one for this place in a few weeks and one for the Scottish Parliament in a year. Those who vote for a Liberal to become a Westminster Member of Parliament will be voting for a Liberal who supports minimum pricing, but those who vote for a Liberal to become a Member of the Scottish Parliament will be voting for a Liberal who will be against it. Although the devolution settlement implies different policies north and south of the border, for the Liberal party to espouse directly opposing policies is bizarre, absurd and appalling, and they should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. However, I suppose that that is what we should expect from our Liberal colleagues.
Why is there such opposition to minimum pricing? The same issues are involved, and, if anything, Scotland has worse alcohol problems than the rest of United Kingdom. Indeed, a report has shown that our problems are bigger and deeper. One would expect the Liberals and Labour to encourage us to do more, rather than encouraging us to do less. The British Medical Association, the Scottish physicians’ union, the nursing union and the chief police officers—the same people who support the report from the Committee chaired by the right hon. Member for Rother Valley—support what we are attempting to do.
It is the usual story. It is the retailers and those who produce cheap alcohol who oppose minimum pricing. The most scurrilous people, however, are saying that the opposition from the London-based parties in Scotland might have something to do with politics. I would not suggest for a minute that the Liberal party would dare to play politics with the health of our nation, but there are people who would suggest that that is exactly what is going on. The Liberals and Labour down here are anxious to deal with the issue, and the Liberals in Scotland know that minimum pricing would improve health, but they are—some people would suggest—playing politics.
As I said to the hon. Member for Wirral, West, the same thing happened with the Labour and Liberal Executive when we pioneered the smoking ban in Scotland. They do not want to allow the Scottish National party Government next year to say, “We were able to implement primary health legislation that will make a difference to public health.” They do not want us to have that opportunity. Their opposition is shameful, and I think they should take a good look at themselves.
I am passionate about this issue. I wish that the Health Committee’s report had gone to the Scottish Government, because we would have accepted it in full, with no reservations. It is a good report which contains everything that is required for a responsible Government to get on top of the issue. What a lot of nonsense we hear from those who oppose minimum pricing!
I represent three fantastic whisky distilleries in my constituency, two of which support minimum pricing. I do not see any behooded guys hanging around in the parks getting off their faces on a bottle of prime malt whisky. They drink cheap cider. None of them is going around consuming a good bottle of Edradour from my constituency. I wish more people would consume Edradour, because it is a very fine product.
There is no good reason why minimum pricing cannot be supported. It will improve the public health of our nation. I wish that the right hon. Gentleman’s report were lying in front of our colleagues in Scotland, but unfortunately it is not. Unfortunately every London-based Member of the Scottish Parliament is against what the right hon. Gentleman is trying to promote, and that is absolutely shameless.
I hope that England gets the health policy that it requires and deserves. I only wish that we could as well, and I wish that Labour politicians—two of whom have belatedly arrived in the Chamber—would go up there and ensure that their colleagues in the Scottish Parliament support these proposals.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). I will happily give way to some of my Scottish colleagues and friends shortly, when I deal with the issue of minimum pricing in Scotland. Let me say in passing to the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) that he underestimates his influence on the House and the power of his speeches to change minds. I shall certainly stick to no more than four units at the reception that I shall be attending tonight.
My main purpose today, as chair of the all-party parliamentary beer group, is to forge a grand Yorkshire alliance with the chair of the Health Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) on at least some of his proposals. I think that particularly fitting, because my right hon. Friend was born in Tadcaster in my constituency, the home of brewing in this country and the only town in England that contains three breweries. He also went there to make a speech on my behalf, long before I was elected. He may remember that he did so in a pub. I therefore think it especially appropriate for me to speak in support of some of his proposals in what will be one of my last speeches as the Member of Parliament for Selby.
Let me go straight to the issue at the heart of the debate: minimum pricing. I am glad to see another Yorkshireman, the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), in the Chamber. He may wish to speak later, but earlier he asked an important question: why should our constituents who are moderate drinkers be asked to pay that little bit more?
I understand that Opposition Front Benchers are now committed to outlawing the below-cost selling of alcohol. I welcome that, but I should be interested to learn whether that means a minimum price. Below-cost selling is quite difficult to define. Would the simplest way of outlawing it be to set a broad price for the purpose? The supermarkets themselves might welcome clearer guidance. A couple of years ago, I suggested that Sir Terence Leahy, the boss of Tesco—
A couple of years ago, I suggested that Sir Terence Leahy was in danger of becoming the godfather of British binge drinking, given the low prices at Tesco. Some alcohol was being sold more cheaply than water. The response was interesting. I have yet to learn that Tesco has come out in favour of minimum pricing, although my hon. Friend may have better information than me. It has, however, drawn attention to the difficulty of acting alone in a competitive market. If it did that, it could be accused of acting against the public interest, and could be in danger of infringing competition law.
This is not rocket science. It is within the Government’s power to pass an order under one of the Competition Acts, in this House and the other place, exempting the alcohol sector from those restrictions. I believe—this may answer the point made by the hon. Member for Shipley—that supermarkets would then begin to provide discounts on other goods, because the competitive pressures would still be there. Alcohol is not the same as baked beans, and I think it reasonable for it to be treated differently, as it is in other western countries such as Canada and the United States. There is much more regulation there. I met national beer wholesale representatives from the United States the other week, and they were surprised to learn how little regulation there is in this country.
Scotland has led the way on a number of public health measures. There was probably a Labour Administration at the time when smoking was banned. That was another occasion on which my right hon. Friend and I joined forces, because, although we approached the issue from different angles, we had a common interest. The health lobby, with which my right hon. Friend had connections, and many pub companies felt that, ultimately, a complete ban would be better than a partial one. That was at the time of the smoking ban debate, which within the United Kingdom was initiated in Scotland.
I hope that my colleagues in the Labour party and other parties north of the border will reconsider this matter. It would help if measures were taken in conjunction with the United Kingdom Government because, in terms of competition law, only this House—as I understand it—could exempt the Scottish Government or, indeed, the UK Government, from that law in a way that would make the position legally watertight. I hope that will happen.
While my hon. Friend is on the subject of Scotland, I appreciate that I came in at the end of the speech made by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), so he did not want to let me intervene. However, does my hon. Friend agree that the hypocrisy, at worst, or irony, at best, of the hon. Gentleman’s party’s position is that it says that it wants to raise the price of low-cost alcohol, which obviously comes within the incomes of the people who are earning the least in Scotland, but wants to exempt malt whisky, for example? That party says that nobody runs amok when they drink malt whisky, and the implication of that is that people on low incomes cannot be trusted with alcohol while people on high incomes can obviously be trusted.
As I understand it, any worthwhile system of minimum pricing must apply the minimum price to units of alcohol, whatever their origin. This debate must clearly be had in the Scottish Parliament and I am impressed, as an outside but interested observer, that in Scotland—although they might disagree on the detail—not only people from the medical profession but tenants, a number of police chiefs and the Campaign for Real Ale have come out in favour of minimum pricing. There is potential for a broad alliance.
The question in Scotland is not whether there is a health issue—there is no argument about that, as has been explained—but about how best to deal with it. We are not using the legislation as it stands. We should be talking about withdrawing licences from those who sell to under-age drinkers and using all the legislation that there is before we move to the second part of the process. It is not surprising that tenants and licensees want a minimum price because pubs now have the real problem of trying to ensure that they can offer a bargain. Minimum pricing actually helps the pubs; it is not surprising that they want it.
The hon. Gentleman must be really bemused by being caught up in this Scottish episode of the debate. Let me clarify: everybody in Scotland is for minimum pricing, whether they are health professionals, chief police officers and the licensing authorities. The only people against minimum pricing in Scotland are the Labour party in the Scottish Parliament, the Liberals in the Scottish Parliament and of course the Conservatives, as we would expect. They are the people against it and they are the people we need to persuade. I am glad that my two Scottish colleagues have turned up latterly—they might be able to listen to some of the debate and to hear hon. Members, such as his good self, explain why minimum pricing is necessary.
Perhaps I can conclude this section of my speech by saying that the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland), who spoke from the Liberal Front Bench, invited us all to the Otley folk festival earlier—an invitation that I shall happily take up. If I get any invitations to Scotland or to the Scottish Parliament, I shall happily take them up too. I also understand that there is now an active beer group in the Scottish Parliament.
Moving swiftly on, as I know that Members still want to contribute, I think that the absolute principle should be that the stronger—or more concentrated—the alcohol is, the greater the level of duty should be. Most people would see that as common sense. Unfortunately, we do not have that approach and, over the past decade, we have tended to increase duty on one of the weaker or more diluted forms of alcohol, beer, whose price has gone up by more than 40 per cent. in the last 10 years. The increase has been less on the very concentrated forms of alcohol, such as spirits, including whisky and vodka, even though spirits are a lot cheaper to produce. Fermenting beer is a much more expensive process at about 20p per unit than the 10p that it costs to produce a unit of spirits.
It is interesting that there is also an imbalance between the duties imposed on beer and cider. Mark Shirley of Rockingham Forest Cider asks:
“Does anyone know why there is currently such a difference between the duty paid on similar strength beers and ciders?”
Let me remind the House: the duty rate per pint on beer rises fivefold between 1.2 per cent. and 7.5 per cent. alcohol by volume. As the beer gets stronger, the duty goes up. That is not the case with cider. So, if we compare a can of Carling and a can of Strongbow of exactly the same size, the Strongbow has 33 per cent. more alcohol but 51 per cent. less duty.
I hope that when the Chancellor is preparing his Budget and when future Budgets are prepared, the duty on alcohol will be rebalanced. I am pleased that the alcohol industry, unlike last year, is not going united into the Budget debate. Last year, the industry and the various trade associations asked for an entire freeze on alcohol duty. I do not think that that is realistic, particularly given the budget deficit, but I think that beer has been particularly badly treated in recent years, to the extent that as the duty rises there is not the increase in tax take. We have reached the law of diminishing returns.
Finally, I hope that all parties will support the idea that there should be a lower rate of duty on draught beer, which would help pubs. When I was a boy, the difference between the price of beer in the pub and in the supermarkets was about 2:1, whereas today it is about 7:1. The European Union is reviewing the duty regime and it would be possible to argue that it might allow member states to have a lower rate of duty on draught beer in the same way as smaller producers of beer have a lower rate of duty.
It is worth noting that alcohol consumption is going down in our society. Some alcohol education is beginning to work. It is interesting to note that the National Union of Students is now pushing something called “social norm” education. That terrible phrase probably comes from the United States, but the basic idea is that getting drunk does not lead to social success and that the opposite is true. A lot of student unions are doing very good work and it is beginning to have an impact on alcohol consumption.
Licensing law reform has, on the whole, worked in our country. I do not think that anybody would want to go back to the magistrates’ taking charge of licensing. Local councils are much closer to where the problems lie. They have the powers to intervene and are much better at forging partnerships with publicans and so on than the magistrates ever were. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins)—I think that the idea of going back to 11 o’clock closing is not one that any main political party is likely to advocate as we go into the next election.
The Licensing Act 2003 is a good base from which to take other measures and I think that minimum pricing is one of the measures whose time has probably come. An awful lot of the industry supports it—Molson Coors points to the experience in Canada and is not opposed to the idea. Many others, as the debate takes shape, will come out and argue the case. The issue will be near the top of the agenda in the next Parliament.
I do not intend to detain the House for long. Let me start by apologising to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the Chairman of the Health Committee, the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), for coming late to the debate, but I have been able to follow most of it from a monitor. Given the Chairman’s lack of complaint about his own colleagues appearing and intervening in the debate, I suspect that his concern with me is not that I am contributing to it after having arrived late, but simply that he will not agree with what I am about to say. I am afraid that I am going to disappoint him again.
The report is certainly a useful contribution to the debate on addiction—not, unfortunately, on addiction to alcohol, but on this Government’s and the Health Committee’s addiction to the nanny state. They have already helped to dismantle the pub and club industry with their smoking ban. Pubs are closing at the rate of 50 a week—many because of the ban on smoking in public places—and the same fate is being felt by many clubs, such as working men’s clubs. It seems that the Health Committee, not satisfied with dismantling the pub and club industry, now wishes to direct its fire in other areas, such as at cinemas and commercial broadcasters, to try to close down those industries. Many sports will also be adversely affected if its recommendations are introduced.
All that would not be so bad if I thought that, in the end, if after all the Committee’s recommendations were introduced, its members would say that they were satisfied. The problem, however, as with all these matters, is that the report panders to the zealots in society who are never satisfied. I guarantee that if all the recommendations were introduced, Committee members would, within a few months at most, come back with further recommendations because the previous ones had not gone far enough. This lobby is impossible to satisfy.
My hon. Friend is making a typically robust contribution to this important debate. Does he agree that we should focus not just on the very narrow issue of alcohol pricing, but on the regulatory framework for pubs, given that hundreds of pubs have closed in the past few years for the reasons that he mentions? Does he agree that the kind of community resource that would have fostered sensible and responsible drinking within the community is disappearing? We need to consider that context and not just the narrow parameters of supermarket alcohol pricing.
My hon. Friend is right. I commend to him much of the speech of the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland), who made a number of telling points about the importance of pubs in local communities. I, too, would be happy to take up an invitation to the Otley festival, and I know that he comes along to the Saltaire festival in my constituency.
The problem with the political classes generally, particularly in this House, is that when they are faced with a problem—there is no doubt that there is a problem with excessive drinking of alcohol—the solution that they propose has to be constituted of two particular themes. The first ingredient in any solution that politicians propose is that it must show that they are doing something; they have to be seen to be doing something. The second ingredient, which we always see, is that the proposal must not offend anyone and must be superficially popular. Once again, that approach applies to many of the recommendations, most of which would not make a blind bit of difference to excessive or under-age alcohol consumption.
I was particularly struck by the speech of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who made the best speech that I have ever heard in support of a Scottish Parliament. I have never been particularly in favour of it in the past, but now that I have heard that there are so many sensible people in the Scottish Parliament who oppose his zealous drive for minimum pricing, I think that is a strong argument for it. Perhaps if the Scottish Parliament were closed down, however, we could have some of those people down here and then we might have a more sensible debate.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the nanny state earlier, but Scotland is becoming something of a dictatorial state. Is he aware that the Scottish Executive are now saying that cigarettes cannot be advertised or put on the counter and even that sweets cannot be put on the counter because they might damage children’s teeth? How much of a nanny state, or a dictatorial state, is that?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. My problem is that those are the sort of measures that his Government are keen to introduce as well. We appear to have a Dutch auction between the Scottish Executive and the Westminster Government as to who can introduce the biggest nanny state of all. I am afraid that both are going in completely the wrong direction. I agree with the sentiment behind his point, but I do not think that his Government are any less guilty than the Scottish Executive.
It is clear that the hon. Gentleman and I come from polar opposite positions, but he is making the classic freedom speech. He is saying that we have the freedom to do what we want, without intervention from the state. The same speech will have been made against the breathalyser, crash helmets, the compulsory wearing of seat belts and a whole range of traffic regulations that are designed to save lives. Freedoms affect other people, not just the person exercising them.
Those arguments have gone: we are debating alcohol now. I have a great deal of time and respect for the hon. Gentleman, but there is a problem with his logic. The argument appears to be—and the hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) seemed to be making it too, if I remember what he said correctly—that so many people die as a result of drinking alcohol every year that alcohol must be banned altogether. That is the logical conclusion of that approach, and I wonder whether it is in fact the agenda of the Health Committee or the hon. Members who make that point. If so, I would much prefer them to have the courage of their convictions. They should be prepared to stand up and tell their constituents that they want to ban them from drinking at all because it kills 40,000 people a year. However, if they are not prepared to go that far, I am afraid that all the measures that are considered to be so important are really just spitting in the wind.
Implementing these measures from the Health Committee will not lead to a huge reduction in the number of deaths, and I do not think that the Committee’s members really think so either. All of this is just spitting in the wind, and I suspect that the measures are really a cover from the real agenda, which is to ban people from drinking alcohol altogether.
A great many people in the House seem to want to do nothing else but ban everyone from doing all the things that they themselves do not happen to like. I do not think that I was brought into politics for that. In fact, I am speaking today as a teetotaller: I do not even drink alcohol, but I very much defend the rights of those who do. People who want to enjoy drinking their alcohol responsibly should not have to pay extra on their supermarket shopping just because a few yobs cannot take their drink of an evening.
Today we have the incredible sight of members of the Labour party—of all parties—standing up one after the other to argue that some of the poorest people in their constituencies should be forced to pay more for their alcohol. We are talking about pensioners, or people on benefits or fixed incomes, who usually go to the cheapest supermarkets. That is what Labour Members seem to want, even though the overwhelming majority of people drink their alcohol perfectly reasonably and derive some pleasure from doing so.
What kind of party is it that claims to speak up for the poorest people in society yet tries to make those people pay more? The richest people in the country will not suffer from minimum pricing, because they can presumably afford to pay a bit more for their alcohol. They will not care. It is the poorest people in our constituencies who will suffer, yet Labour Members seem very happy to stand up, one after another, and speak in support of these proposals. Where did they lose their way? How did they lose their roots? Which people in this country do they represent now? They certainly do not speak up for the poorest people in their constituencies, or for the overwhelming majority of people who like to drink their alcohol in moderation.
Minimum pricing will not stop young people going into town centres on a Friday and Saturday night with the intention of getting bladdered—or whatever term is in current usage. The price is irrelevant, because those young people set out to get bladdered. They do not set out to spend £15 or £20 on a night, they set out to get absolutely drunk. Making decent people pay a bit more for their alcohol in supermarkets will not solve that.
It is simplistic beyond belief for people to stand up in here and say, “I know, if we put an extra 40p on a bottle of wine, or 50p on a can of beer, the whole problem of youth drinking and people causing carnage in town centres is going to disappear.” I would be worried if anyone seriously believed that, because it would show how out of touch with how the world works they were—but I suspect that people who say that know full well that such a price rise will not make that difference, but it suits their argument to say that it will. I should like to get back to reality.
I support one part of what the Select Committee said. Following on from what was said by the hon. Members for Leeds, North-West and for Selby (Mr. Grogan), from anyone’s perspective in this debate, it would be absolute folly to increase duty on alcohol, because that would be yet another nail in the coffin for many pubs in our constituencies around the country. As the Health Committee very sensibly said, when a pub sells only alcohol, it must pass on to its customers any increase in the duty on alcohol, but supermarkets sell about 40,000 products in each store, so they can absorb any increase in duty, by offsetting it on to the other 39,000-odd products that they sell across the store. So an increase in duty would be absolutely calamitous for pubs, and I very much hope that, whatever the Government do, they do not increase duty.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) and the early-day motion tabled in my name last year that we should change the duty on draught beers and ciders, because that would assist local pubs and clubs in the community?
I am incredibly sympathetic to the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, because the duty is excessive for many pubs, many of which are closing or are on the brink of doing so, and we need to do something to help them.
I want to comment on some of the points made about advertising, and then I will finish. The whole approach to marketing and sponsorship is completely wrong and simplistic. I used to work in marketing, for my sins. I am sure that hon. Members are familiar with this, but it is a point worth making: marketing attempts to improve brand awareness and increase market share. For example, when Cadbury sponsored “Coronation Street”, I do think that anyone anywhere in the country leapt off the sofa the moment that Cadbury’s logo came up at the start of the programme, switched off the TV and rushed to the nearest confectioner to buy a bar of Dairy Milk. That is not the purpose of marketing. Its purpose is that the next time someone goes to buy a bar of chocolate they will buy a bar of Dairy Milk, rather than a Kit Kat. That is the whole point of marketing.
When I did my marketing for Asda, we did not expect anyone to get up following a TV advert and rush to the nearest Asda supermarket, much as we would have liked them to, no doubt; we just hoped that the next time that went to the supermarket, they would go to Asda rather than Tesco. All the banning of advertising, sponsorship and so on does not make a blind bit of difference to consumption overall, but it does make a big difference to how much of each brand people drink.
The classic argument used by tobacco and cigarette producers was that advertising was intended not to encourage people to smoke, but to encourage them to smoke one brand rather than another. We thought that that was nonsense: we dismissed it, and we introduced the ban on advertising.
There are long-term trends, and what is reducing smoking is not the ban on advertising brands, but the fact that fewer people are smoking anyway, as part of a longer-term trend. Alcohol consumption is going down. Alcohol consumption may drop after introducing such measures, but that does not mean that it has fallen because of them; it will probably fall anyway. The hon. Gentleman is right: minimum pricing and banning advertising will not make any material difference to people who want to go out and get drunk, despite all the problems that they will suffer as a result. However, there will be a big knock-on effect on many other people.
Let me explain why I think some of the proposed alcohol advertising bans are so simplistic. The Committee recommends a ban on cinema advertising in relation to films classified for under-18s. Superficially, that sounds like a sensible way to stop advertising to young people. The problem is that a film’s classification bears no resemblance to the age of the people watching it. I am happy for anyone to argue otherwise, but I suspect from reading the report, in which it gets only a passing reference, that that the Health Committee did not go through the idea in any detail. I bet that the age profile of audiences of films with an 18 classification is younger than that of the audiences of many 12 or PG-classified films. Many older people do not want to see an 18 film, because it is full of gore, violence and sex and all sorts of things that they do not want to see. Films classified 18 are often targeted at a younger audience than PG or 12 films. Allowing alcohol advertising only in relation to 18-classified films will probably ensure that more younger people see such advertising than the current arrangements allow. Superficially it seems like a good idea, but like much of the report, it appears that the Committee did not think about it in any great detail, let alone analyse it.
There is a recommendation that a 9 o’clock watershed should be introduced for television advertising, but that, too, is untargeted. The current rules already forbid alcohol advertisements in programmes targeted at under-18s, and those rules apply 24 hours a day. Given services such as Sky Plus and the ease of recording programmes, a watershed is meaningless. All such a measure will do is have a huge impact on the revenue of commercial broadcasters, many of which are struggling to keep going as it is. Huge damage will be caused, and if we are not careful, we will be left with a BBC monopoly, but we will have made no difference to the amount of alcohol consumed by people in this country.
The Committee recommends that
“No event should be sponsored if more than 10 per cent. of those attending are under 18 years of age.”
On what evidence was that based? Absolutely none. It is simply another way of introducing the nanny state. In fact, according to recent research by Cardiff business school, an alcohol sponsorship ban would have little effect on youth drinking patterns. That is the view of someone who has researched the subject—unlike the Health Committee, it seems, which is just scrabbling around for new regulations to introduce to increase the nanny state. It does not matter to the Committee if the measures make no difference; it just wants even more restrictions.
The study, which was published by the International Journal of Sports Marketing & Sponsorship, found
“no significant statistical correlations between sports sponsorship awareness and attitudes to alcohol use.”
Where is that mentioned in the Health Committee’s report? Did the Committee read that study? Apparently not, because it did not suit their prejudices. What such a ban would do—if the Government were daft enough to introduce it—is make a huge hole in the funding for many sports in this country. Presumably, the Health Committee is one of those bodies that is always banging on about how people should do more exercise, take up sports and so on, yet here it is proposing a measure which the people who have studied the subject say will make no difference to alcohol consumption, but will take a huge amount of funding—perhaps £150 million to £200 million—out of sports, much of which is used to promote grass-roots sport in our local communities. Where is the sense in that from a health perspective?
I think the hon. Gentleman is talking about one sport. I remember this argument being brought up years ago, when we decided to stop tobacco sponsorship of sport. The sponsorship of Formula One and other sports in this country by the tobacco industry was replaced by the promotion of far healthier products.
The people who have studied the proposal, which the right hon. Gentleman’s Select Committee seemingly has not done, came to the conclusion that there is no evidence that it would have any effect at all on alcohol use, yet his Committee is prepared, without any evidence, to siphon off—[Interruption.] That is what the Health Committee proposes—
“No event should be sponsored if more than 10 per cent. of those attending are under 18 years of age.”
That is virtually every sport one can think of.
Order. Interventions, as the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) knows, must be made from a standing position, and not as interjections from a sitting position.
I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for being drawn into the right hon. Gentleman’s sedentary interventions.
I know that we have other business to discuss today so I shall not detain the House any longer. I despair at the endless consensus that there seems to be in the House, which is for ever seeking to restrict people’s freedoms in this country, to try to stop them doing things that they do legitimately and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, without any problem. For hon. Members to lecture people constantly about what they may and may not do, and what they should and should not say, is depressing beyond belief. The report is more of the same—more of the nanny state.
I know for a fact that the moment the proposed measures are introduced, the zealots represented on the Select Committee will be back for more, and back for more again. They are never satisfied. The hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) said that he wanted the Government to go a little further and do a little more. Unfortunately, he and the people whom he represents always want the Government to go a little further and do a little more.
I wonder if the hon. Gentleman knows the good that the ban on smoking in public places has done. The incidence of heart attacks in Italy, in Scotland and in this country has dropped. We, as a Health Committee, do not act for selfish reasons of self-aggrandisement or any such thing. We are thinking purely of the health of the nation. When parents are not providing adequate control, the nanny state has a place, if it is thinking of the good of all the people.
The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me; I am grateful to him. I would never suggest that he or anyone else would make those recommendations for selfish reasons—but I think that they are making them for misguided reasons. The logic of his argument on smoking and alcohol is to ban them altogether. It can lead only to that conclusion.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Tobacco and alcohol are entirely different. I would ban smoking altogether if I could, but I would not ban alcohol because, as everybody has said all afternoon, drunk sensibly, it has tremendous benefits and is great.
I am incredibly grateful, because there we have the first member of the Health Committee to break ranks in terms of its real motives—in relation to smoking, at least. I commend the hon. Gentleman for being open and honest about what he wishes to do, and I look forward to him commending that approach to the other members of the Committee, so that they can stand up and be honest about their real ultimate agenda.
I fear that despite the hon. Gentleman’s moderate approach to alcohol, the arguments made by others that 40,000 people a year die from drinking alcohol mean that people want to ban that, too. They do not have the courage of their convictions, however, because they do not think that people in their local working men’s clubs will tolerate being told that they cannot smoke or drink any more. It is not what they believe that affects what they say; what counts is whether they think that it will be acceptable to people in their local working men’s clubs.
The hon. Gentleman has indicated that whatever measures are taken on any of those issues, the zealots will always want to come back for more; they will never, ever be satisfied. I therefore urge the Government to ignore those siren voices and base their decisions on evidence and the real world—and evidence and the real world alone.
I congratulate the Health Committee Chairman, the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron). It was a privilege to serve under his chairmanship when I was elected to the House, and I know that he achieved a personal ambition with the robust report on smoking in enclosed public places. He was right about that issue, and he is right in his ambition to make a similar impact on alcohol. However, I differ from him on some of the ways in which it can be achieved.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) on highlighting the wider context of the debate and, in particular, the issue of access to alcohol: “Your granny’s got a bottle in her cupboard,” that’s for sure. He made an important point and mentioned the value and increasingly important role that parents and parenting plays. He mentioned also the drinks industry and those who are more responsible than others. In that vein, I pay tribute to the licensees in my constituency, who have gone to considerable lengths to be responsible. Many have joined in with efforts to ensure that people can go out and have a good time in Guildford while also maintaining law and order and not letting things get out of control.
The hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), who is not in his place, talked at length about foetal alcohol syndrome, and about the licensing laws. Foetal alcohol syndrome has not had much of a mention, and I do not think that it was mentioned in the report, but it has been a long-standing problem and continues to be a serious one. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is about damage that women are doing to their children, perhaps unwittingly and unknowingly. They may be unaware of the impact of alcohol.
The hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) made a valiant effort to scare us. His description of tubes was quite effective for some of us, and I congratulate also the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) on his real passion. I do not profess to know a great deal about Scottish politics, but I have learned a little more today. The hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) and many others mentioned the significant issues for pubs, given the huge discrepancy between their prices and the supermarkets’, and the impact of that on pubs.
I know, and I think we all know now, that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) feels very strongly about this issue—about the nanny state and the public health police. The issue is about balance—[Interruption.] I am an eternal optimist, so I always try to achieve some balance. My hon. Friend is right about one point, however: we often have a knee-jerk reaction to such issues. It is terribly important to ensure that measures are robustly supported by evidence, but it is very easy to take the simple route and think, “Oh well, that’s all right, we’ve now done something about it.” If the evidence does not bear out the measure, however, we end up having no effect at all.
Some time ago, my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) wrote to the chief medical officer—he has not had a response to that letter—asking why he had specifically mentioned a 50p minimum price for alcohol. Although I agree, and Conservative Members agree, that pricing and taxation can play a role in market changes, there appears to be no real—
Order. The hon. Gentleman must not have a second attempt at his speech now; I trust that he will put a question.
Last week, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) said in terms, in a Delegated Legislation Committee, that the Conservative party positively supported minimum pricing, and that that was its policy. There was an exchange about that, and he was absolutely clear. In my speech, I asked the hon. Lady to clarify whether that is the Conservative position, and I think that it would help this debate if she could come straight to that point now.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I certainly meant no offence to him in not mentioning him specifically. His speech added to the debate, and I am sure that the Minister will make due reference to it and right the balance should any offence have been caused. I have to admit that while he was on his feet I had to leave the Chamber for a comfort break, so I did not hear his entire contribution. I will certainly deal with his point as I progress, but I have only just started. I do not want to disappoint him with the belief that I will go on for too long, but I have a few other things to say. I did not attend the Delegated Legislation Committee that he mentions, so I have no specific knowledge of what my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) said. I can, however, ensure that I clarify the Conservative position.
As I said, my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire has not had a response from the CMO. We agree that pricing can have a significant role to play in reducing alcohol consumption, but there is a lack of empirical evidence about the effects in terms of market changes, the economic well-being of low-income groups, and illegal trade. If we really want to tackle alcohol, it is very important that the measures taken are evidence-based. If not, we risk bringing Government action into disrepute, having no real impact on alcohol consumption and, yet again, being left with the negative impact of the unintended consequences of ill-thought-out legislation.
Our debate started with the Chairman of the Health Committee giving us a run-down of the figures, and it may be timely to remind ourselves of a few of the particularly striking ones. In 1947, we drank 3.5 litres of alcohol per head in this country; now, the figure is well over 9.5 litres. The British Medical Association believes that we have some of the heaviest levels of alcohol consumption in Europe; if that were causing us no harm, there would be no problem. A 2009 survey found that young people are drinking twice as much as they did in 1990, and that a third of men and a fifth of women are drinking 21 units per week.
Alcohol policy has always been difficult for the Government to deal with. The hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) took us back probably as far as I have ever heard any Member take us in describing how deeply ingrained alcohol is not only in our British culture but in causing the problems that we now see. It is accepted in a way that other mind-altering drugs are not, and successive Governments have had to strike a difficult balance, encouraging people to drink responsibly while not punishing the responsible drinker. I do not believe we have got that balance right, and there is a heavy cost to that failure.
The president of the Royal College of Physicians estimates that there are 30,000 to 40,000 deaths a year because of alcohol, and liver cirrhosis increased more than fivefold between 1970 and 2006. The number of under-18s hospitalised for alcohol misuse has increased by nearly 40 per cent. since 2002-03, to more than 12,000 in 2007-08, and the number of adults hospitalised increased by 80 per cent. to nearly 200,000 in the same period.
We have a big problem, and any doctor will tell us that it is causing them serious concern. It has a huge impact on the NHS, and it is estimated that alcohol misuse costs the NHS about £2.5 billion every year. At a time when we are looking to get the most out of the NHS, getting to grips with alcohol abuse will not only save lives and prevent illness but save millions of pounds that we can reinvest in improving services.
The link between alcohol and crime is well established. According to the British crime survey of 2008-09, the victims of nearly half of all violent crimes believe the offender to have been under the influence of alcohol. That is a staggering figure. Alcohol misuse has an impact on countless family breakdowns, mental health illness, poor sexual health and even obesity—it is the cornerstone of poor public health in the UK. For every person who is drinking too much and suffering harm, I can guarantee that four or five family members or friends around them will be suffering as a result of their excessive drinking.
There are clearly many options open to Governments for how best to tackle alcohol abuse, and one that the Health Committee has recommended is minimum pricing. The report highlights evidence showing that a rise in the price of alcohol is the most effective way of reducing consumption. We have known about the link between price and consumption for years, but of course there are powerful lobbying groups that are keen to say that minimum pricing will not reduce alcohol intake. We can consider our own anecdotal evidence. When I was younger, my parents would have an occasional whisky in the evening and having a bottle of wine was a rare treat. They could not afford to have one often, but now I might go home and have a couple of glasses of wine because it is a great deal cheaper.
Both the Government and Opposition Members want to increase the price of alcohol, because we believe it will have an impact. The question, as hon. Members have said, is what is the most effective way of doing that. We must consider what we need in place to get the outcomes that we want. We believe in a targeted approach via an increase in duty on problem drinks—alcopops and super-strength beers—and a ban on the sale of alcohol below cost price. Similar approaches have succeeded in reducing the consumption of problem drinks in Australia and Germany, and Alcohol Concern has stated:
“Strong cider, strong beer and alcopops are some of the most irresponsibly priced and problematic alcoholic drinks available in Britain. Measures of this kind would be a positive step towards making them much less attractive to teenagers. It may also encourage production of low alcohol products, increasing consumer choice for responsible drinkers.”
In support of an increase in duty rather than minimum pricing, I shall quote the Health Committee’s report. It states:
“The main case for higher sales duties rather than minimum prices is that minimum prices would lead to higher profits for producers and vendors of alcohol, assuming that any fall in sales would be more than offset by the increase in revenue from each unit. In contrast, a rise in duty would avoid this, producing not additional profits but extra money for the Exchequer. A rise in taxes can also be justified, as we found in Scotland, on the basis of recovering the costs imposed by alcohol…the duty on alcohol currently raises far less.”
I have mentioned other potential advantages of increasing sales duties, one being that it would allow us to target stronger drinks. Minimum pricing is regressive in that the capital made by increasing the price of alcohol will go straight to the supermarkets and shops that sell the alcohol. Instead, why not tax the alcohol so that the profits of any increase can, as the report says, go back to the Government to help to balance the books or—in an ideal world—for reinvestment in alcohol prevention and treatment?
The debate on minimum pricing might in any case be entirely immaterial, owing to a recent ruling from the European Court of Justice. Will the Minister clarify this? The court decided that minimum pricing legislation on cigarettes in France, Austria and Ireland infringed European law. According to the European Commission, that legislation
“undermines the freedom of manufacturers and importers to determine the maximum retail selling prices of their products and, correspondingly, free competition.”
I see no reason why alcohol would be treated differently from cigarettes, so I fear that the Government are behind the curve, which is not a new problem. As the Health Committee report states,
“the response of…Governments”
has sadly lurched
“from the non-existent to the ineffectual.”
The evidence may suggest that minimum pricing is the answer, but it might not be possible because of that ECJ ruling.
There is no doubt that we need radically to change how we view alcohol and that we need to attack on several fronts. On price, licensing and education, we need attitudinal change and, crucially, overarching, funded public health programmes delivered through ring-fenced public health boards, to which the Conservatives are committed. We need not only to utilise current legislation, but a tougher licensing regime that will give local authorities and the police much stronger powers over licensing, including the ability to remove licences from, or to refuse to grant them to, any premises that are causing problems.
The hon. Member for Luton, North mentioned what the Health Committee report says about the Licensing Act 2003. It states:
“The worst fears of the Act’s critics were not realised, but neither was the DCMS’s naive aspiration of establishing cafe society: violence and disorder have remained at similar levels, although they have tended to take place later at night. The principle of establishing democratic control of licensing was not realised: the regulations governing licensing gave the licensing authorities and local communities too little control over either issuing or revoking licences, as ACPO indicated. KPMG examined the alcohol industry’s voluntary code and found it had failed.”
My hon. Friend touches on an important point. The regulations governing licensing consultation under the 2003 Act are very prescriptive for local councillors and Members of Parliament, as I have found. She is also right to talk about the product pricing within individual establishments. We still have offers such as “Men pay, women drink free,” and “Drink as much as you like for £4.99,” which is not acceptable. We need to take rigorous action using the existing legislation.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is right, and any Member of Parliament who has a night-time economy in their constituency will know that we are not really getting to grips with that continuing issue. It is a complex problem. This debate, especially towards the end, has focused on price and reducing consumption, but it is naive to think that it is that simple. As we know from smoking, changing people’s attitudes takes a long time and one’s approach has to be very targeted.
I shall give hon. Members more of an idea of what a Conservative Government would do. We would ban retailers from selling alcohol below cost price. We want also local councils and the police to have a much clearer right of veto over new licence applications and the ability to amend existing licence applications. We want to remove the presumption in favour of granting licensing applications and to give councils the power to control the development or expansion of licensed premises that have a negative impact on local residents. We also want to give the police stronger powers over applications and give clearer guidance to the courts about when an appeal against a council decision can be allowed. We would give councils the power to remove licences from individuals and premises that are breaking the law. Importantly, we would also allow elected representatives and community representatives—ward councillors, school governors and residents associations—to make representations or objections to a licensing application and to initiate a review of a problematic venue. Licensing authorities need the explicit power to control the closing time and licensed capacity of premises by changing the relevant statutory guidance, and we also want to introduce a simple mechanism to allow local councils to make licensed premises that open late at night contribute to the additional cost of policing and cleaning up those areas, which is significant in some places. We also want to see tougher penalties for licensees who break the law.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the laws are already in place, certainly in Scotland, to address the problem and we do not need new laws? A publican or a member of bar staff should not serve someone who has obviously had too much to drink. People also have to be 18 before they can go into a pub or supermarket and buy drink.
Incidentally, the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) said earlier, if I understood him correctly, that he is a teetotaller and was shocked to see sex in films when he was 18. When I was 18, I was looking for sex in films.
The hon. Gentleman is right that one of the problems is that we have a lot of legislation that is not used or enforced. We do however need to change the Licensing Act 2003. One of the most important changes would be to allow more say by local residents. At the moment, we have a mismatch between the night-time economy, and licensees who are not responsible, and local residents. In some areas, the licensees are very responsible—I do not want to tar everyone with the same brush—but we need more democratic accountability on this issue.
This is a massive issue in terms of its impact on health and in its complexity. The danger with a debate such as this is that anyone who is watching or who reads the report in Hansard tomorrow will think that we have not addressed huge chunks of it. We have not touched in detail on the issues for people with mental health problems who have a dual diagnosis with alcohol and/or drug abuse. We have not touched on the issue of alcohol-related violence towards children, to which the Committee refers in the report. There is a considerable amount of domestic violence towards children, women and, indeed, men that is associated with alcohol.
We have not touched upon the need to improve our children’s education. There is a lot of talk about children’s physical health, obesity, sport in schools and making children less obese, but there is not a great deal of talk about children’s mental and emotional health and well-being. We have not talked about the need to improve young people’s self-esteem and raise their confidence. Why do they go out on the town and fill their throats, stomachs and heads with alcohol? It is about self-esteem and how they view themselves. We need to ensure that young people grow up with a strong sense of themselves, and with the high self-esteem, confidence and skills necessary to make good decisions about themselves and their health. They have to deal with complex issues, and they need the help, support and education to give them the skills to make those complex decisions.
That is particularly hard because one of the joys of being a young person—I am not old enough yet to have forgotten—is the wonderful immortality that one feels. That same point is made in discussions on sexual health. I listen to health professionals saying, “Young people need to be more responsible”, but young people love being irresponsible! It is hard to make young people behave responsibly when, to some extent, they are revelling in that sense of growing freedom and irresponsibility. So we have to be very sophisticated and clever about how we change those attitudes and get young people not to go out on the town and do what all their friends are doing. They need a very sophisticated set of skills, so we need to get this right. Government action will focus on stopping drinking among those who are already drinking too much, but at the same time we must get those public health messages right. If we are serious about improving the nation’s public health, we must view reducing alcohol misuse as one of the key drivers of change.
Absolutely no one in the House wants to prevent people from having a good night out or a friendly drink. However, we must ensure that the Government send a clear message to the public about the damaging effects that the abuse of alcohol can have. I am not convinced that minimum pricing is the right approach; we need a targeted approach, including targeted duty. Furthermore, as I have said, it is crucial that funding for public health is ring-fenced and delivered by public health boards, about which my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire has talked. Public health boards would work with local authorities, the police and all the other local players, because to improve the public’s health, including in terms of alcohol consumption, we also need social and economic change.
I thank the Chair of the Health Select Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), and all Committee members for the detailed and thorough inquiry, to which I was pleased to give evidence. We are grateful for the Committee’s report. It recognises the scale and complexity of the challenge that we face. We are looking closely at the report and its recommendations and, as my right hon. Friend acknowledged, I have confirmed that we will be responding shortly. I am glad that he has welcomed the tone of my initial comments in public on the report.
I have listened carefully to the varying views and opinions of right hon. and hon. Members. We have had a colourful and extensive debate, and I will attempt to pick out the main themes. First, however, I shall set out the Government’s position. We take seriously the harm to health that alcohol may bring, and we have in place a comprehensive and evidence-based plan to tackle that harm, to provide information to make healthy choices easier and to support those who need help through the national health service. Yes, we can improve, yes, we want to continue to do so, and yes, the Committee’s report will assist us in doing so.
As today’s debate has generally confirmed, there is no one action that we could take to change overnight our culture or the situation in which we find ourselves. Action on alcohol requires close working by industry, community services and Departments across Government. It also requires a careful balance in protecting the rights and the health of individuals and communities.
Recent figures show that we are making a difference on alcohol consumption and awareness. The latest studies suggest that awareness of the units system, the NHS daily guidelines and the health risks is definitely increasing. Figures from the Office for National Statistics indicate that overall consumption might be levelling off. Average weekly alcohol consumption fell from 14.3 units in 2005 to 12.3 units in 2008. However, it is too early to draw any conclusions or comfort from those figures, although given that alcohol use has steadily increased for the past half-century, any indication that changing attitudes to alcohol are translating into lower consumption is nevertheless a welcome sign.
This Government were the first seriously to consider alcohol as a public health issue. We published the first alcohol strategy in 2004, which we updated in 2007, based on three main approaches, the first of which was to inform and educate people about units, the NHS guidance on alcohol, and the health risks of regularly drinking too much. Secondly, the strategy sought to create an environment in which the healthy choice is an easier choice. Thirdly, we sought to deploy the experience, capabilities and professionalism of the NHS to provide treatment and support to those who have lost their health or happiness to alcohol, and also to help to prevent that in the first place.
We have made great strides in educating and informing people, which a number of right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned. Earlier this year we launched the Alcohol Effects campaign, graphically bringing home the truth about the reality of alcohol misuse. Our approach is about working with people to change attitudes, just as we did on seatbelts and smoking. Across Government, our “Know your limits” and “Why let drink decide?” campaigns have gathered significant attention and made the messages about health and the consequences of alcohol real for many adults and young people.
There is evidence that those messages are getting through. According to the ONS, nine in 10 adults are aware that alcohol is measured in units, while three in four have heard of daily limits and half know their personal recommended maximum. Awareness is even higher among those drinking more heavily. On recognition of the units system, I was interested in the support given by the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), who is no longer in his place. However, I regret that the Conservative policy would be to change the units system and to seek a new awareness of centilitres. That would be misguided, given the progress that we have already made.
We are also taking action to create the right environment around alcohol, which means ensuring that it is possible to choose an alternative. For example, the Government will now introduce a requirement to make free tap water available in bars, pubs and clubs, and to ensure that smaller measures are available, which a number of right hon. and hon. Members have welcomed today. Taking action will mean doing everything that we can to cut out the practices that drive excessive drinking, as we have also heard in this debate. That means, as the Home Secretary recently announced, banning the most irresponsible promotions from next month and enforcing age verification. I was glad to present awards at the Best Bar None evening in Lincoln recently, which celebrated best practice across the city in encouraging responsible drinking when people are out and about.
Customers need to be presented with the key facts when making a choice. We will follow through on the recently launched consultation on labelling by doing whatever is necessary to get industry to co-operate on this important matter.
In response to points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) and the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor), the options— whether voluntary or mandatory—will cover the issuing of a pregnancy drinking warning. We very much want to see that happen, and will consider the best way of delivering it, to improve on what we have now. Under the current voluntary agreement, some 40 per cent. of labels already include such a warning, but we want to go a lot further.
My hon. Friend rightly draws my attention to that proposal. The important thing is to get the information to the right people in the right way, in order to make a difference. We are constantly striving to find new ways of doing that. The consultation on labelling is particularly important, because it reflects the fact that insufficient progress has been made under the voluntary agreement and that we want to go further.
The hon. Members for Poole and for Shipley (Philip Davies), and my hon. Friends the Members for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) and for Luton, North talked about advertising and sponsorship in different ways. The Advertising Standards Authority has recently consulted on the rules on alcohol advertising as part of a more general review, and it will publish its response in the coming months. Protecting children and young people is rightly a priority for the Government, but we also need to find evidence for any changes and ensure the proportionality of any controls. The ASA is considering a range of issues that will be relevant to this debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford talked about the sponsorship of TV programmes by alcohol companies. That is already covered by the broadcast code of advertising practice, and it is subject to the same rules that we have brought in on TV advertising. For example, alcohol advertising cannot take place alongside programmes that are popular with children. The sponsorship of sports events is self-regulated in a similar fashion through the Portman Group. We will keep all the rules on alcohol advertising under review, and we will be interested to see the results of the consultation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North and the hon. Member for Poole raised the issue of our relationship with the industry, and I know that the Select Committee report identifies that as a matter of concern. I do not believe, however, that the Government are unduly influenced by the alcohol industry. Our relationship is rather different: it is understood that the Government set policy, and also that, when possible, we work constructively with the industry to ensure that it meets its responsibilities. If we did not work together in that way, we would be denying the industry the responsibility that it knows it has in respect of the effects of its products. The hon. Member for Poole was keen to point out that the industry had recently agreed to fund the Drinkaware Trust, an independent charity that highlights the dangers of alcohol misuse. The industry has committed to paying £5 million a year for the next three years to support the trust.
Let me make it clear, however, that having a working relationship with the industry does not preclude us from taking action when necessary; nor does it drown out other voices. We continue to work closely with a wide range of other partners, including academics and members of the medical profession and the third sector. Most recently, we have worked closely on the Alcohol Effects campaign with the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and the Stroke Association, and I am grateful to those organisations for their contributions.
There has been a great deal of discussion on the important matter of pricing. Let me say at the outset that we believe pricing does matter, and we are already taking action on cheap alcohol. As I said earlier, we have used the mandatory code to ban the most irresponsible and harmful promotions from next month. They include the “all you can drink” offers, the dentists chairs, free drinks for women, and speed-drinking possibilities.
Action on alcohol pricing must of course be based on evidence. I note that the Select Committee report pays tribute to the quality of some of the Department’s analysis, such as the review of the effects of alcohol pricing and promotion in 2008. The Home Office is researching the links between pricing, crime and commerce, and we are particularly concerned about the sale of alcohol at below the cost price, which has been raised a number of times in the debate.
Of course price is an issue and it is one that we continue to explore. I believe that a serious discussion on pricing is important because I want to ensure that we do what works.
It is too early to be drawn on an exact response, but I want to assure my hon. Friend that we understand the difficulty it creates and the need to address it. We are looking for the most appropriate way to deal with it, and the same applies to minimum pricing. I respect the views of a number of right hon. and hon. Members on that.
Specifically on minimum pricing, we want to know more about the impact it would have on the industry, about the effects of regional variations, the effect on particular social groups and individuals. It is also the case that we do not want to penalise those who drink responsibly, particularly at a time of economic difficulty. The issue is one that we look at, but it is not one on which we have reached the same conclusion as the Select Committee.
When both parties tackled the problem of drink-driving, we attacked the drivers and said that their licences would be forfeited if they carried on with that behaviour, and they changed. What is the appropriate thing to say to people who abuse alcohol and behave violently or in an antisocial way in our town and city centres at night? Surely that should be the target of our debate.
That is an interesting point, but if the right hon. Gentleman had been in his place throughout the debate, he would have heard a whole range of discussion points. I would say that pricing took up a very substantial amount of our time, and that is what I am seeking to address now. I have already said several times that no one single measure can be taken to deal with the problems that the right hon. Gentleman identifies.
Alcohol duty was mentioned by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley and my hon. Friends the Members for Wirral, West and for Selby (Mr. Grogan), to whose role as chairman of the all-party beer group I pay tribute. I have been pleased to be a part of its previous efforts.
I will of course raise the issue of alcohol duty with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. I am sure the House is well aware that alcohol duty rate decisions are indeed a matter for him and that the primary purpose of duty is to raise public funds for public finance purposes. It is also worth saying, however, that the decisions made in this regard draw on advice from other Departments, including the Department of Health in respect of the health harms from drinking and the Department for Children, Schools and Families in respect of the harms caused to children, and so forth. As I recently mentioned to the Select Committee, we have been pushing hard to ensure that health impact assessments are better considered across all Departments when decisions are being made.
The hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) asked a question about the European Court of Justice ruling on minimum pricing. There is no clear line from the judgment on the implications for alcohol, but I am happy to keep the hon. Lady informed and will let her know of any further developments.
When my hon. Friend has her discussions with the Chancellor, will she ask him not to go down the road that the Scottish Executive seem determined to follow? Will she ask him not to raise the price of cheaper alcohol to take it out of the price range of people on low incomes while freezing the prices of more expensive alcohol such as Scotch whisky, thus ensuring that the rich can still afford to drink but the poor cannot?
What I am sure the Chancellor knows about are all matters Scottish in this connection, but I will certainly raise with him the points that have been made today.
I realise that there are concerns about licensing. That is why we listened and created new powers for local councillors, which came into effect on 29 January 2010. Those powers will make it quicker and easier for councillors to tackle problem premises by calling for a review to restrict or remove a licence without having to wait for police or local residents to complain. Local authorities already have extensive powers, but they are not always fully used. The Home Office has provided guidance on how to use the powers available.
The NHS can play a role in influencing decisions by working closely with the police and councils. It can also provide support for those who need it. When alcohol use develops into alcohol abuse, the NHS must be ready to help people to get better and get back on track. Understanding how local provision can change to match local needs means much smarter monitoring and better commissioning. When I visited the Lincolnshire drug and alcohol team in Newland, Lincoln, the staff and service users told me that Government investment had transformed the service, and I am sure that many Members throughout the House have heard similar accounts.
Two years ago, we created the first ever incentive for primary care trusts to prioritise alcohol services through the vital signs indicator, which tracks hospital admissions. The response from the NHS has been impressive. Two thirds of PCTs have adopted alcohol as a local indicator, including 46 of the 51 PCTs with the highest rates of alcohol-related hospital admissions. We have also created the alcohol improvement programme, which gives front-line staff the tools and guidance that they need to assess local needs and commission effective services.
Has the Minister considered the suggestion that people admitted to accident and emergency departments as a result of excessive consumption should be billed for the service that they receive?
Another issue that arises, particularly in A and E departments, is violence against staff, often fuelled by alcohol. There have been precious few prosecutions of people who have assaulted staff. Has the Minister any plans to strengthen hospitals’ powers?
Abuse of staff, whether physical or otherwise, is always unacceptable. We will continue to take all possible measures to tackle it, working with local NHS trusts.
The hon. Member for Wyre Forest made an important point about the role the NHS can play in helping to prevent health problems caused by alcohol by means of identification and brief advice. I am pleased to say that that is happening increasingly throughout the country.
It is well known that the earlier we can identify the people who drink too much, and the sooner we can provide even brief advice from GPs and hospitals, the more we can help people to reduce their drinking and improve their health, and in the end, of course, save lives. My Department is strongly encouraging the roll-out of such interventions through training and a directed and enhanced service that we have funded to the tune of about £8 million a year. It provides what could be described as a tap on the shoulder when people are at their most receptive, and is increasingly delivering excellent results.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way yet again. On this point about the health service and intervention, do health services, maternity services and GPs regularly and routinely give advice to mothers who are seeking to get pregnant or who are pregnant not to drink during pregnancy?
Indeed they do.
In drawing the debate to a conclusion, let me say that the scale of the challenge before us is clear. We know that there have been generational increases in consumption and harm, with 1 million of us regularly drinking more than we should. Hospital admissions caused by drink are rising and the latest estimates suggest that alcohol costs the NHS some £2.7 billion and causes at least 9,000 deaths every year.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I wanted to leave this intervention to the end, because I wanted to see whether she would mention public health. Does she not accept that public health budgets have been raided to fill short-term budgetary deficits? Until we ring-fence public money and do things differently on public health, we will not make any real progress.
No, I do not accept that. My whole speech has been devoted to the improvement of public health. This Government have invested more in the national health service than any Government and will continue our commitment to do so. We will have an NHS that is not only good at helping people to get over ill health but one that will continue to prevent ill health. That is the subject to which we have devoted ourselves today.
We have heard many interesting and varied arguments and I commend right hon. and hon. Members for the tone and content of their speeches and the range of issues that they have brought to today’s debate. The one thing that we agree is that changing the drinking culture in our country is not something that we will achieve overnight. It will not be simple to achieve and we will not achieve it by a single approach.
By bringing together Government, communities, the third sector and industry we can educate and inform, create the right environment around alcohol and support those whose lives it has blighted. I believe that we are on the way and that the Health Committee’s report will assist us still further.
Order. I shall call the right hon. Gentleman to speak as the Chair of the Committee, but he is aware of the time constraints that we are now under.
I am indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
With the leave of the House, I want to thank all the people who have taken part in the debate on the Select Committee’s report. Someone said just a few minutes ago that we have not debated all aspects of the report. The report was not about finding solutions: if there were simple solutions to binge drinking and ill health owing to alcohol, we would not have those problems in our society. Clearly, we have tried to open up the whole issue.
I want to thank all Members who have taken part in the debate. It is true that the pricing of alcohol has been mentioned up by practically everybody. There might have been a consensus on minimum pricing—that is a start—but we think that even if a minimum price per unit of alcohol was introduced, other duties should be considered at the same time. The representatives on both Front Benches mentioned considering duty as a means of encouraging people to drink lesser strength alcohol, and that will be to the general good. Such types of duty have hardly moved for years, so I thank them for their support.
I have two further points to make. First, the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor), who is a member of the Committee, and two other speakers who intervened on the Minister, mentioned A and E. The hon. Gentleman said that he had had some students who had said that there should be a “three strikes and you’re out” policy in A and E. If people go to A and E for a third time with an alcohol-related problem that has effectively been self-generated, the A and E should think about charging. I am not there yet on that point, but if hon. Members look at the Library note for this debate they will see that binge drinking or misuse of alcohol costs the national health service and therefore us as taxpayers £1.7 billion a year. The note states:
“Around 70 per cent. of A&E attendances between midnight and 5am on weekend nights are alcohol-related.”
I do not think that my parents’ generation argued for a national health service for it to become a comfort to people who act irresponsibly and expect taxpayers to pick them up off the street and pick up the bill for doing so. My hon. Friend the Minister will have heard me say these things before, and I say them as an individual, not necessarily as the Chair of the Health Committee.
The second point concerns EU competition policy, which has been discussed by Front Benchers on both sides. We looked at that issue in relation to introducing minimum prices per unit of alcohol, and we discovered that people often use it as an argument against minimum pricing. Clearly, the Scottish Government wanted to introduce minimum pricing in Scotland, but it does not look as though they can convince their Parliament to do so at this stage. They have considered the issue thoroughly and they strongly disagreed on this point, as our report states:
“The Scottish Government, which has examined this issue thoroughly, strongly disagrees and EU Competition Law does provide for a public health exemption. This exemption has been successfully used by the French Government to ban alcohol advertising and sponsorship in certain circumstances”—
indeed, the Committee took evidence on that in France—
“winning a number of cases in the”
European Court of Justice
“which were brought by the alcohol industry.”
So there are public health exemptions from EU competition law. If Front Benchers are looking at that issue, I say to them that we should not shy away from making the changes if there could be a public health gain.
I was convinced by the evidence in the Sheffield report. Clearly, not everyone in this debate has been convinced by it, but this issue will not go away. At some stage we will have to take action, possibly on pricing, to restrict the availability of alcohol and to lower levels of consumption among many of our fellow citizens because those levels are harmful to their individual health.
Question deferred (Standing Order No. 54 (4)).
Department for Transport