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Alcohol: Minimum Unit Price

Volume 560: debated on Thursday 14 March 2013

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what is the Government’s policy on alcohol pricing?

I am aware that there have been a significant number of media reports and stories in recent days about the Government’s proposal to introduce a minimum unit price, and I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify the Government’s position.

The Government are determined to find the best way to diminish the misuse of alcohol. Over 44% of violent crime is alcohol-related. Fighting, antisocial behaviour and public drunkenness are familiar sights in many city centres, and there were 1.2 million alcohol-related hospital admissions in 2010-11. That is the context of our policy making and our inheritance from the previous Government. In March last year the Government published our alcohol strategy, which set out a range of measures to tackle the harms caused by excessive alcohol consumption.

The Government have already introduced a wide set of reforms to tackle binge drinking and the corrosive effect it has on individuals and our communities.  We have done the following: rebalanced the Licensing Act 2003 in favour of local communities by, for instance, removing the “vicinity test” to ensure that anyone, no matter where they live, can have input into a decision to grant or revoke a licence; introduced a late-night levy, making those businesses that sell alcohol late at night contribute to the cost of policing and wider local authority action; and introduced the early-morning alcohol restriction order, enabling local areas to restrict the sale of alcohol late at night in all or part of their area if there are problems.

The Home Office has also recently consulted on a range of new proposals set out in its alcohol strategy—this is a wide-ranging consultation—and it includes a ban on multibuy promotions in shops and off-licences to reduce excessive alcohol consumption; a review of the mandatory licensing conditions to ensure they are sufficiently targeting problems such as irresponsible promotions in pubs and clubs; health as a new alcohol licensing objective for cumulative impacts, so that licensing authorities can consider alcohol-related health harms when managing the problems relating to the number of premises in their area; cutting red tape for responsible businesses to reduce the burden of regulation, while maintaining the integrity of the licensing system; and the introduction of a minimum unit price.

The public consultation opened on 28 November— I imagine that all Members present contributed to it, given their interest in the subject—and closed on 6 February. We received a large number of responses covering a very wide range of views, including from members of the public, the police and licensing authorities, health organisations, alcohol producers and retailers, trade bodies and charities.

On minimum unit pricing, there were—and are, in my view—powerful arguments on both sides of the debate. We have to ensure that we base our decision on a careful consideration of all the representations we received. We are evaluating the data precisely and we will announce our decision when this careful evaluation is completed.

I asked what the Government’s policy was on alcohol pricing and I am still none the wiser. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said,

“we must deal with the problem of 20p or 25p cans of lager…in supermarkets”—[Official Report, 13 March 2013; Vol. 560, c. 307.]

But the Home Secretary has briefed that she has blocked minimum price plans. The Health Secretary said yesterday,

“Like the Prime Minister I believe there is a case for minimum pricing”,

but we have no idea what they are doing, and it seems that the Minister does not, either. And where is the Home Secretary? I have to say that I feel sorry for the Minister, who has been sent here to waffle to the world while the Home Secretary hides. She was skulking at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, and her office will not tell me where she is today. There is something Macavity-like about this Home Secretary.

What kind of mug is the Minister? War has clearly broken out between the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister, but while they hide in their trenches, the Liberal Democrats once again have been sent over the top. The Home Secretary was quick enough to come to this House when the policy was first announced. It was her policy; she supported it. When she set the price nine months later, she had no doubt. The Home Office document said that the Government are

“committed to introducing a minimum unit price. However, in other areas”

this consultation

“seeks views on the introduction of policies.”

So they were not consulting on the minimum price—they had made a decision.

We know that the Home Secretary has overruled the Prime Minister; it appears she has also overruled herself. It was her plan; she has announced it twice. She said she was committed to it; now, she says the opposite. It is clear that this right hon. Lady is for turning—just not for turning up.

Alcohol abuse is very serious: to public health, and to law and order. We said that the Government were right to look at minimum pricing, but they needed to make sure that supermarkets did not just get a windfall and that the pub trade would not be harmed. They needed to look at the evidence and make sure the policies were workable. Instead, we have chaos and political confusion, and I ask the Minister again: what is the Government’s policy on alcohol pricing? The Prime Minister’s authority is in tatters; the Home Secretary’s credibility is in tatters; and the rest of us, including the Minister, do not have a clue what is going on.

I read in the papers that the right hon. Lady fancies herself as the leader of her party. That was not a particularly impressive application. I am here as the Minister responsible for alcohol policy. She said she has no idea what the policy is, but I have just spent five minutes explaining it. There was a lot of barracking from Labour MPs because they thought I was explaining it in excessive detail—that was how I understood it. I have explained the policy carefully. There is a consultation on the areas that I mentioned. The question people want answered is: what on earth is Labour’s policy on this? [Interruption.]

Order. The House really must calm down. It is in a very excitable condition, from which I hope it can be relieved by the hon. Member for Kettering, Mr Philip Hollobone.

There is a range of answers. [Laughter.] There is a serious point here and it will emerge in this session, so let me address it. There are young people who drink cheap alcohol in excessive quantities and are price-sensitive when buying alcohol, so they are likely to be deterred from buying alcohol, to a degree, by minimum unit pricing. However, people on low incomes who consume alcohol responsibly would pay more under minimum unit pricing, and a number of representations have stated that the policy is unreasonable on that basis. We have to weigh up all those representations and points of view. The previous Government did not consider this matter at all. We are considering it carefully and will announce our conclusions when we are ready to do so.

Is the Minister not aware that the very low price of the alcohol sold in supermarkets and convenience stores is the fundamental problem behind the abuse of alcohol and that is not only, in turn, leading, as the university of Sheffield has estimated, to 10,000 unnecessary deaths over 10 years, but it is harming the decent pub trade and accelerating the closure of pubs? So this policy will benefit responsible drinking and also greatly reduce the health harm to a large number of young people. Why does the Minister not just get on and implement it? [Interruption.]

As is being said around me, the right hon. Gentleman seems to have made a good case for why he should have taken action when he was Home Secretary. He chose not to do that, but he has explained one side of the argument on minimum unit pricing, and a number of representations replicated the point he has just made.

Will my hon. Friend bear it in mind that we could have minimum pricing in Scotland but not in England? Will he condemn the irresponsible policy of the Labour party on Northumberland county council, which is that if that happens Northumberland should be promoted as a cheap booze destination for Scots?

Order. The Labour party’s policy in Northumberland is not a matter for the Minister of State—[Interruption.] Order. I do not require any assistance from the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry); she would not have the slightest idea where to start. The Minister may offer a brief view on this matter if he so wishes.

Mercifully, the irresponsible attitudes of the Labour party are not my responsibility, but I can assure my right hon. Friend that the sort of irresponsible behaviour that people have become accustomed to from the Labour party will not be replicated by this Government.

It is a shame that the Minister cannot confirm the reports that Ministers have given to the press about this policy being abandoned. If those reports are true, will he, on my behalf, thank the Home Secretary for and congratulate her on actually looking at the evidence? There is no evidence that a minimum price would reduce problem drinking, far more effective interventions are available and this policy would devastate the west country cider industry. Will he assure me that this sudden outbreak of evidence-based policy will spread to other Ministers, including the Chancellor?

The right hon. Gentleman, too, makes a strong argument, one diametrically opposed to that being made by the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), who is sitting two places down from him,. That shows precisely why we are having a consultation; it might help the Labour party to come to conclusions, as well as the Government.

The evidence from Canada and the university of Sheffield shows that the policy would have an impact, but minimum pricing should be just one aspect of tackling the problem of alcohol misuse in the UK. When Kent and Medway have almost 130 children under 17 receiving treatment for alcohol addiction, does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that minimum pricing is an essential way of getting some of our most vulnerable members of society away from access to high-strength, low-cost alcohol?

I know that my hon. Friend takes a close interest in these issues. It is undoubtedly true to say, regardless of what conclusion one reaches on this issue, that some young people with low disposable incomes drink irresponsibly and are price-sensitive when buying alcohol. They are a particular problem. The question that we need to resolve is whether minimum unit pricing is the best way of tackling that problem, but that is precisely why we are having a consultation, and we will announce our conclusions when we are ready to do so.

My right hon. Friend was not on the Committee so he was not part of that recommendation. Powerful arguments have been made by the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on health grounds. The Minister will also know it costs an extra £59 per person for the police to process someone who is involved in alcohol-related crime. Given the powerful arguments in the consultation and in the Cabinet, on either side on this issue, when will we have a final decision?

During my initial response, when Labour Members were sneering and jeering, I was explaining about early morning restriction orders and the late-night levy, which are precisely the types of measures that the Government have taken to address the problems the right hon. Gentleman raises. Of course there are health considerations as well, although one could make the case for an ever higher minimum unit on the basis that the higher the price, the greater the reduction in health harms. A balance needs to be struck, and we are seeking to strike it through the consultation. We will announce our conclusions when we have finished.

It is not only the entire medical establishment that backs minimum pricing on health grounds. I would like to read to the crime prevention Minister an e-mail I have received from a street pastor and to tell him what I am hearing from the special constables and police in my area. They say:

“There is no doubt that the availability of cheap alcohol enables people to get into the habit of being very drunk, very often.”

That has disastrous consequences on our streets. A third of people are unwilling to go out into their town centres.

What is the crime prevention Minister’s personal view? It would be a shame if he became the crime promotion Minister.

Again, I recognise the keen interest that my hon. Friend takes in these issues. I am aware that many people in the health sector share her view. The logic of their argument, as I have just said, is why stop at 45p? If we had a £1 minimum unit price, the health case would be made all the more strongly. The Government have to balance all kinds of competing concerns and other, also compelling, concerns about the affordability of alcohol for people on low incomes. They have to balance the role of the state and of the private individual and what choices the individual is free to make. Great tensions have become evident this morning in the Labour party, and the Government also have issues that they need to resolve.

The Minister will know that in Scotland we have our own plans for minimum unit pricing for alcohol to tackle our excessive consumption. It might surprise him to know that in Scotland the Labour party is opposed to the plans and will do all it can to thwart them. Will the Minister assure me that he will work closely with our Government to ensure that at least we can start to deal with our alcohol problems in Scotland?

The Department of Health in London meets Health Ministers and officials in Edinburgh and we are keen to try to ensure that the harm caused by alcohol across the United Kingdom is addressed seriously. I am distressed to learn that the Labour party is so inconsistent on this matter. I thought being a credible Opposition involved having credible policy positions, but we have not reached that stage yet.

Does my hon. Friend agree that more needs to be done to keep pubs open so that people can drink under some supervision? If we are to do that, the price of drink in pubs must be considered. Will he discuss the beer duty escalator with the Chancellor?

That is a consideration but there have been changes in how people consume alcohol. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the consumption of different types of alcohol, he will see that beer sales have gone down and wine sales have risen sharply. In many cases people are choosing to drink wine at home to a greater extent than would have been the case a generation ago. All those factors need to be borne in mind and that is precisely why we are ensuring that we get the details of the consultation right.

The Home Secretary said a little while ago that the price of alcohol was causing fighting in town centres and that the minimum unit price was the answer. Has the fighting died down, or does the Minister think that it has merely been transferred to the Government Front Benches?

The answer is that crime is at its lowest level since the independent crime survey of England and Wales began in 1981, 32 years ago. Crime is markedly lower—more than 10% lower—than it was when the Government came into office. The points the hon. Gentleman mentions about alcohol are all being considered as part of the consultation.

Does the Minister agree that minimum unit pricing would yet again mean that the responsible and law-abiding were paying for the irresponsible behaviour of others? Does he agree with the majority of my constituents who, although they recognise the complexities of the situation, would like to see a robust response from the police and courts?

My hon. Friend makes a strong argument that replicates to a degree the one made by the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw). Let us say, for the sake of argument, that an elderly person on a low income bought one cheap bottle of wine a week, on average, because they could not afford to buy a more expensive bottle. There is a strong argument against financially penalising that person by introducing a minimum unit price that would increase the cost of that bottle of wine when they are consuming the wine entirely responsibly and causing no wider social ills. Those are exactly the sort of issues that grown-up and responsible Governments must consider carefully.

The Prime Minister said yesterday that he would take action to stop the problem of 20p or 25p cans of lager being sold in supermarkets. How will he do that?

I remind Opposition Members that nothing was done about these problems—[Interruption.] The idea that alcohol suddenly became cheap in May 2010 and lots of social ills came about as a result—[Interruption.]

Order. Throughout this urgent question there has been too much noise. Frankly, there is too much noise from those on the Opposition Benches, and I have to say to the junior Health Minister that she tends to behave as though every exchange is somehow a conversation with her—[Interruption.] Order. Do not shake your head. If the Government had wanted to put the hon. Lady up to answer, they could have done. They did not. In all courtesy, I say to her: sit there, be quiet and if you cannot do so, leave the Chamber. We can manage without you.

Perhaps I should say in answer to the question from the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) that we are having a thorough consultation, which has finished. We are considering the results and the way in which we will arrive at the best outcome will be announced in due course.

The central problem appears to be the anti-competitive behaviour of supermarkets that sell alcohol below the cost price. Does my hon. Friend agree that rather than introducing a minimum price, a ban should be introduced on measures that distort the market?

My hon. Friend makes a strong point about anti-competitive practices. My personal view is that selling alcohol below cost price—leaving aside for a moment arguments about health harms and law and order considerations—is an uncompetitive practice, which is unfair on other retailers who cannot afford to subsidise their product. But a minimum unit price of 45p would lead to alcohol being sold considerably above cost price, so different considerations apply in that case.

I will give the Minister another chance at the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), pointing out that the Prime Minister said yesterday that he would take action to stop the problem of 20p or 25p cans of lager being available in supermarkets. Can the Minister give us clarity on how that is going to happen?

I am giving clarity. I am explaining that there has been a widespread consultation process. There are a large number of factors that a mature, responsible Government would need to consider carefully. That is what this mature, responsible Government are doing, and when we are in a position to announce the conclusions, we will do so.

Does the Minister agree that local initiatives to tackle alcohol misuse, such as the Crawley and Gatwick business watch scheme to label high strength alcohol and restrict its sale, have an important part to play?

Yes, I agree that localism has an important part to play. We have sought to reflect that in the way we have changed licensing regulations—precisely the sort of practical, locally responsive measures that appear to be treated with contempt by the Opposition but are welcomed by communities across the country.

Last year, in the foreword to the Government’s alcohol strategy, the Prime Minister stated:

“So we are going to introduce a new minimum unit price. For the first time it will be illegal for shops to sell alcohol for less than this set price per unit.”

When did that change?

I fear the hon. Gentleman is confusing two separate issues—cost price and a minimum unit price. A minimum unit price of 45p, which is what the Government consulted on—in Scotland the proposed MUP is 50p, but we consulted on 45p—would price a typical 12.5% bottle of wine at about £4.20. Obviously, many bottles of wine currently retail at less than £4.20 but are not sold at a loss. That, I think, is the point of confusion for the hon. Gentleman. I have already said that selling alcohol below cost price is anti-competitive, but whether an artificial price floor should be put in by Government is precisely what we are considering in the consultation.

May I thank the Minister for the way in which he has answered the urgent question? He has been exceptionally clear and he has been listening, like a great democrat. He is not in his Stalinist mode today. Does he agree that the last thing the people of Wellingborough want to see is alcohol prices artificially increased? Average families in my constituency are very concerned about a minimum price.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his characteristic warm reception for Liberal Democrat Ministers. There are two strands to the case being made against minimum unit pricing, both of which clearly have some force. One is about charging people who may have low disposable income more than they would otherwise pay for alcohol, even when there is no evidence to suggest that all those people are drinking irresponsibly. The second is a wider liberal or perhaps libertarian argument about the role of the state and the right of the individual to make choices that he or she wishes to make, free from a more prescriptive view by Government. Both cases were made to us during the consultation and are part of our considerations.

Given that the Home Secretary has announced her personal support for minimum unit pricing on two separate occasions, will the Minister confirm that she has changed her mind?

I am not in a position to announce the results of our consultation; if I were, I would be announcing the results of our consultation. There are genuine issues to be considered on both sides. I have tried to answer them as openly as it is possible for a Minister to do, but they are exactly the issues that we are weighing up.

As I am sure my hon. Friend agrees, judging by the questions coming from the Opposition, we are not sure what they are organising in a brewery on this issue. Given that the Health Committee looked at the evidence and came to the unanimous conclusion that it was in favour, does the Minister think that the House should have a free vote on the matter if we cannot come to a conclusion?

These are not matters that I am responsible for, I regret to say. On the point about the Health Committee, I am aware of its view. I suppose the only point I would make is that we would expect the Select Committee that was responsible for health matters to have a particular perspective on the issue. If we had a libertarian Select Committee, it might say that people should be free to drink even in ways that damaged their health, which would also be a legitimate point of view. I am not saying that, just because the Health Committee’s perspective is predictable, it is not relevant; of course it is relevant, but it is one of a number of points of view, all of which we are considering as part of the consultation.

As a member of the all-party group on alcohol misuse, I believe that minimum unit pricing is only one of a number of tools in the box. The Minister attended one of our meetings a number of months back. Can he explain why some of his views today have changed from what he said on that occasion?

I do not accept that they have. I enjoyed the conversation that I had and I recognise that there are harms caused by alcohol. In fact, at the beginning of my answer to the question, about half an hour or so ago, I talked about violent crime and how much of it is alcohol related, about the atmosphere in town and city centres—everybody in the House will know from their constituencies how disconcerting many of our constituents find such behaviour—and about the number of hospital admissions that are alcohol-related. I therefore recognise that there are serious concerns, but there are issues that need to be balanced. Otherwise, we would logically end up with the Government being urged to ban alcohol sales altogether—as far as I am aware, nobody is urging us to do that—or with a minimum unit price of, say, £5 rather than 45p. That would have a very big impact on alcohol consumption, but there are other, competing concerns that would not be addressed by going down that route. That is why a Government who govern responsibly for the whole country need to consider all these matters.

Order. These are extremely important matters and I am keen to accommodate remaining colleagues, but if we can have pithy questions and pithy answers, that would be helpful.

It is not media reports or the balance of representations that matters, but the weight of evidence, which includes the impact on the 2.6 million children who live with a hazardous drinker and the 705,000 who live with a dependent drinker. For the sake of the hidden harm to those children, can we follow not the loudest voices, but the increasing evidence from Europe and, recently, Canada showing that affordability, consumption and reducing harm are inextricably linked?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his vigilant championing of the interests of children in households where such disadvantages blight their upbringing. I take seriously the point he makes. There is a range of concerns. There is a serious issue—Labour Members and others might wish to mull this over—about whether someone on a relatively high income who drinks a bottle of wine every evening should be treated differently from someone on a low income who drinks a much cheaper bottle of wine every evening. The second person could face a dramatic increase in the price of a bottle of wine under minimum unit pricing, whereas the first person, with the higher income, will almost certainly be buying a bottle of wine that is already above the minimum unit price. These issues must be considered as well, because it is reasonable for a Government to consider the impact on all parts of society.

I genuinely feel sorry for the Minister, because he has been thrown into the trenches and then over the top into Opposition fire to try to deal with the consequences of the Prime Minister over-speaking at Prime Minister’s questions, which seems to happen quite a lot, but I must press him on this. The Prime Minister said yesterday that he would stop the problem of 20p or 25p cans of lager, but what are the Government going to do?

I would feel more sorry for myself if the Opposition could fire straight, but they seem to have formed a circle and been busy picking each other off, probably because the shadow Home Secretary showed a lamentable lack of policy clarity. [Interruption.] When she got to her feet, she seemed to have no idea what she thinks at all, so everyone on the Labour Benches—

Order. These exchanges are still very highly charged, but the Minister is entitled to be heard and must not be shouted down.

A member of my family is an alcoholic. Minimum unit pricing would not make one jot of difference, because 50p here or there would not break her addiction. Greater resources and co-ordination of support services are the priority; it is there that the industry and Government should be leading.

I am very sorry to hear what my hon. Friend says. I think that it is important, amid all the party political knockabout, that we realise and respect the fact that this is a very serious issue for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people across the country, and they want politicians to address it properly and with consideration. With regard to price sensitivity, there is good reason to believe that different people in different circumstances are more price responsive than others, which is why this is a harder issue to tackle than it might appear after cursory inspection. I accept his point that people who have become accustomed to drinking large quantities of alcohol as a matter of course might be less price sensitive than, for example, younger people who are looking to drink alcohol to excess for the first time. Of course, we need to take a range of different measures into account when trying to help people in those circumstances.

I have to say that I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), for a change, because I do not feel sorry for the Minister. I think that he would do well to remember that his Government have been in power for three years. Perhaps if he spent less time attacking the Labour party and more time formulating policy, he would not be in the mess he is in this morning. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), the Minister said—I think that he had better listen to this question—that the Government had not previously proposed a policy of banning the sale of alcohol below the cost of duty and VAT, but that was certainly my impression of their policy. Is he now saying that was never the Government’s policy and that it is not being considered in the consultation?

After the grown-up, and in many ways sad, representation from my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), I am sorry that the hon. Lady did not rise to the occasion a little more. Since the Government came to office in May 2010, crime has fallen. In fact, it is now lower than it was in any of the 13 years Labour was in government. Alcohol consumption overall has also fallen since 2010, but that could mask the fact that some people might still be consuming alcohol to excess. Around 40% of the alcohol consumed in the country is consumed by 10% of the population, so there might be great hidden harms below those headline figures.

On behalf of the responsible drinkers of Amber Valley, I thank the Government for reconsidering this excessive nanny state policy. Has he considered what the policy might do to encourage further the already serious problem of the illegal sale of non-duty-paid alcohol?

My hon. Friend makes a very strong point. The higher the Government set an artificial floor for legally acquired alcohol, the greater the profitability of distributing alcohol that does not comply with the Government’s own regulations. That is another of the points that make this issue a little more complicated, if one looks at it in a mature and reflective way, than it may appear if one looks at it from a cursory, party political perspective.

This is a serious issue, and the public take it seriously. They also take very seriously what the Prime Minister stands up and says at the Dispatch Box, where on more than one occasion he has spoken about reducing the impact of low-price alcohol in supermarkets. One assumes, therefore, that he is given policy advice from the Department of Health or the Home Office prior to coming to the Dispatch Box for Prime Minister’s questions. Perhaps the Minister will be willing to make that policy evidence public for the rest of us to look at so that we understand why the Prime Minister is taking that line.

We have published large amounts of evidence. As I said, we have had consultations on licensing regulations for local authorities, the late-night levy that has been introduced for local councils, and early-morning restriction orders. People are focusing on minimum unit price, but in our consultations we are also focusing on multi-buy promotions, licensing conditions, and the regulations—red tape, as I put it—that are affecting businesses. We are having this discussion in the House of Commons precisely because the Government have taken a leading role on this issue and have given it a profile that it was not previously given.

My local authority, Cheshire East council, strongly supports MUP. It has calculated that in that one local authority area alone the cost to the public of alcohol harm is some £190 million across the NHS, local government, the criminal justice system, and loss to business. MUP is one of a number of tools, but if we extrapolate that figure across the country is it not clear that if it is not introduced the cost to the public will be far higher over time than a few extra pence on alcoholic drinks?

My hon. Friend makes the case for a minimum unit price but, as I have said, it is not as straightforward as she implies. There are practical considerations. There are reasons to be concerned about people on moderate incomes who wish to buy alcohol at an affordable price and do not understand why the Government would wish to set an artificial floor that would make it more expensive for them to buy alcohol. There is a perfectly respectable libertarian argument that individuals should be free to decide how they live their lives without a prescriptive Government attending to the details for them.

Contrary to the settled view of the House, the Minister has read the responses to the consultation. Will he remind the House which health organisations have responded and what they have said about the cost to the national health service of cheap alcohol?

Large numbers of health organisations have responded. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who I am delighted to have here with me, has said that she will write to the hon. Gentleman specifically on who those organisations are, and I am sure that she will do that very speedily.

Does the Minister agree that the best way to deal with antisocial behaviour on the streets by drunks is strong action by the police and perhaps a few hours in the cells rather than piling extra tax on to responsible drinkers who are very often on low incomes?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. In quite a lot of countries elsewhere in Europe, the price of alcohol is lower than it is here, or certainly low, and yet they do not have anything like the number of problems that we have in relation to antisocial behaviour linked to alcohol consumption. There is a role for the police, but there is a wider debate within society about how we consume alcohol and how we behave after we have consumed alcohol.

The Minister will be aware that the European Commission has formally objected to the Scottish Government’s proposals on minimum unit pricing. What discussions has he had with the Commission and what reassurances has he received from it that his proposals will comply with European Union law?

The hon. Lady makes a reasonable point. The Scottish Executive wish to introduce a minimum unit price of 50p and we were consulting on a price of 45p in this part of the United Kingdom. There is a legal challenge and we have to be mindful of the legal context if we choose to go down the path of introducing a minimum unit price.

Will the results of the consultation be published so that people can see the strength of the arguments both for and against the proposal in different parts of the country? Did the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), or any other shadow Home Affairs Minister respond to the consultation, and if so what was their response?

First, yes the results will be published. I have given some of the arguments an airing this morning and they will be provided in much greater detail. Secondly, I am afraid to say that despite the millions of pounds of Short money paid by taxpayers in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend to fund the activities of the Labour party, it seems to be lamentably short of the requisite standard of a proper Opposition.

The Government ditched the proposed ban on the sale of alcohol below the cost of duty and VAT. Will they bring that back?

We have had a consultation and we are reflecting on its results. We will make further announcements to those we have already made on alcohol strategy when we are in a position to do so.