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Alcohol: Young People

Volume 699: debated on Thursday 6 March 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

In the light of their announcement not to alter the licensing laws allowing 24-hour opening, what assessment they have made of the impact on young people of greater access to alcohol.

My Lords, the proportion of young people who are drinking has declined in recent years, but those who do drink are consuming more alcohol more often. That is why the Government’s renewed alcohol strategy, Safe. Sensible. Social, set out a package of measures to tackle alcohol-related harm among target groups, including young people. We have committed to producing clear guidance for parents later this year about safe and sensible levels of drinking by young people based on the latest available evidence and advice from an expert panel of academics and clinicians.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. As he will be aware, a document produced by the Home Office reported a 25 per cent increase in serious violence between 3 am and 6 am in 2006. Does he seriously suggest that that has nothing to do with drink being served 24 hours a day?

My Lords, there is an element of displacement with regard to serious crime, which is at quite a low level in the early hours of the morning but nevertheless needs to be tackled. What has declined is the overall level of crime throughout the night. That reflects the fact that we have a great improvement in crime levels before three in the morning. The noble Lord is right that there is some displacement of crime to that time, and we need to address that.

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that the new legislation transfers tremendous powers to the police and to local authorities? Does he agree that the answer is to enforce the legislation and to hit deviant outlets where it hurts—in the pocket?

My Lords, my noble friend is right that the Licensing Act permits much more stringent controls and the question is one of enforcement. We are strengthening those measures and making it clear to licensed premises that, if they break the law by selling to underage shoppers, they can expect forthright action by the licensing authority.

My Lords, in their revised national alcohol strategy, the Government said that they would launch a social marketing campaign in April 2008 to help to create a culture in which it would be more socially acceptable for young people to choose not to drink or, if they did, to do so more safely. Will the Minister confirm that this campaign will be launched next month, what its budget is and whether its impact will be evaluated over a realistic timescale?

My Lords, I can answer positively two of those three questions. The campaign will be launched and monitored, but I have not got the budget for the campaign. We must recognise, in tackling the particular problem among young adolescents, that the issue is not where they buy the alcohol. I am afraid that friends and their own homes provide the alcohol and it is there that we have to educate young people about the dangers of consuming more alcohol.

My Lords, if I heard the Minister’s original reply correctly, he said that advice would be given to parents later in the year. Why does it have to wait until later in the year? Why can it not be given now?

My Lords, the comments made by the Secretary of State earlier this week were part of that general advice. However, we want to target the advice. We are producing a programme for schools and it is proper that that programme is thought through and that it works when it is addressed to young adolescents. We need to get that programme right.

My Lords, will children and young people be involved in the drawing-up of that strategy? Young people are often most effective at peer education in these matters.

My Lords, that is a valuable point. Only a small minority of young people drink to excess. As the noble Baroness indicated, they often have greater respect for advice from their peer group than for that from adults. There are areas in which it is clear that we need action by authorities and it is that action that we are co-ordinating, making a major push as far as schools are concerned later in the year.

My Lords, have the Government considered increasing the age at which young people can buy alcohol to the level in the United States? I have observed in the university world that young American students coming to this country are amazed at the alcohol consumption of our undergraduates.

My Lords, that is certainly so. It is also the case that Americans have to show some identity when buying alcohol, even at quite an advanced age. On increasing the minimum age for purchase, much of our problem already relates to those who are underage. The issue is not the age limit but how we enforce the law and how we encourage a culture in which young people recognise that the overconsumption of alcohol—and any consumption by very young people—can be dangerous.

My Lords, the Minister talks about enforcing the law on underage drinking, but is he aware that, according to the British Beer & Pub Association, the majority of licensees keep no records of refusals to underage drinkers or to people who are drunk and have no policy for helping staff to distinguish such people? Will the Government pay more attention to the Royal College of Physicians’ report that says that drinking is putting major burdens on the health service, particularly on A&E departments?

My Lords, it is certainly having that latter impact, but that has not greatly increased the overall burden on A&E in recent years because the overall consumption of alcohol is not increasing. On the noble Lord’s earlier point, it is important that we recognise that the approach to alcohol consumption is a very varied issue, to which the operation of licensed premises is a small contributory factor.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that cheap cider is a problem and that many parents do not realise that it is as dangerous as many other alcoholic drinks?

My Lords, will the Minister reflect on the comparison that he has just made with American practice? Many of our people start drinking underage at 16 or 17, whereas in America you have to be 21 before you can start purchasing alcohol and there are severe restrictions on where you can take it. I think that we need a fundamental review of just where we are going with our strategy. Age and cost are factors that need to be revisited.

My Lords, my noble friend may be talking about increasing the age limit as a way of dealing with the problems of underage drinking, but underage drinkers do not go into licensed premises to buy their alcohol. A small number do, but most get it from home or friends or from someone else who purchases it. The idea that sales promotions result in very young people going into our big supermarkets to buy 24 cans of alcohol is a myth. That is not how they access alcohol, which is why a restriction on licensed premises is only a very small part of the answer.