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Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy

Volume 702: debated on Monday 23 June 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What further adjustments they will make to their alcohol harm reduction strategy following the publication of NHS Statistics on Alcohol: England, 2008.

My Lords, the best way of reducing the kind of everyday drinking that leads to ill health and other problems is to put into action our policy of identifying higher-risk drinkers earlier and providing advice and support. Our actions are guided by the best up-to-date evidence. We hope that the “Know Your Limits” and binge-drinking campaigns launched last week along with unit and health information on labels will help people to take responsibility for their actions and to make informed decisions.

My Lords, considering that the number of children and pregnant women who drink, the number of prescriptions and hospital admissions for alcohol-related disease and the level of violent attacks by people who have consumed alcohol have all increased sharply since the alcohol harm reduction strategy was first published in March 2004, do not the Government think that further action is necessary with a view to achieving specific reductions in these indices of harm? Will they publish a detailed response to the BMA’s recommendations in Alcohol Misuse: Tackling the UK Epidemic, in particular its advice on using the levers of price and availability?

My Lords, we expect retailers to behave responsibly and to uphold the law. We also expect the alcohol industry to label and to advertise responsibly. We have commissioned an independent review of the relationship between pricing, promotion and harm to provide us with the best evidence on which to make decisions. We are also monitoring our voluntary agreement with the alcohol industry. If we are not satisfied that the industry is behaving responsibly, we will take further action.

My Lords, has my noble friend considered the Scottish Government’s recent initiative to disallow supermarkets and off-licences to sell alcohol after a certain hour of the night?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. He will not be surprised to hear that we shall follow the Scottish consultation with great interest. We will shortly report on the results of independent reviews on alcohol and price promotion, as I mentioned. We have no proposals to raise the legal age at which alcohol can be purchased. The Government’s approach in England is strictly to enforce underage sales work with the alcohol industry to crack down on irresponsible promotions and to provide comprehensive information about alcohol to adults, young people and parents.

My Lords, what figures does the Minister have on the number of children whose welfare is adversely impacted by parental misuse of alcohol? Can she provide further information on the impact on child welfare of parental alcohol misuse?

My Lords, clearly, parental misuse of alcohol has a great impact on children. I do not have those figures to hand, but I will be happy to provide them for the noble Earl, because they are extremely important.

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that the alcohol industry is acting “responsibly”? I use my noble friend’s word.

My Lords, we are at this precise moment monitoring the effectiveness of the voluntary agreement that we have with the alcohol industry. As I said in your Lordships’ House when we debated the Alcohol Labelling Bill, if we are not satisfied that it is working we have every intention of taking legislative action.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is great disappointment in the Prison Service because, although drug rehabilitation has taken a great step forward recently, not much help has been forthcoming for the many people with alcohol problems?

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an important point and the House is aware of her interest in prisoners. This is a local spending decision. PCTs’ choices on spending on specialised treatment for drugs or alcohol are their decision, taken in line with locally identified needs and priorities.

My Lords, I urge my noble friend to be wary of following the Scottish example. Is it not much better to enforce our existing laws effectively than to penalise 18 to 21 year-olds for the actions of 13 to 15 year-olds who drink excessively? Surely it is stupid to suggest that by penalising students you will stop young teenagers drinking.

My Lords, my noble friend makes a valid point. We want to send a clear message through youth alcohol action programmes to the minority of young people who drink in public places that it is unacceptable to get drunk on our streets or in our parks and to behave in ways that make other people feel unsafe. I recommend that noble Lords look at the adverts that are on between 9 pm and 10 pm, during programmes such as “Big Brother”. They are hard-hitting adverts aimed at that age group. We are informed that they are having some effect.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the World Health Organisation report that shows that, in Europe and North America, Wales is the worst place for underage drinking, followed by Scotland, with England in fourth place? What overall UK-wide strategy does the Minister have in mind to tackle this problem seriously?

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that we take this extremely seriously. The good news is that the number of young people who have tried a drink is falling; it fell from 62 per cent in 2001 to 54 per cent in 2006. The proportion of 11 to 15 year-olds in that category is also falling, but the bad news is that those who are drinking are drinking more. We have to raise public concern and it is absolutely right that the public are concerned about this. The issue is not just young people buying alcohol illegally; it is more broadly about young people’s access to alcohol. We need the industry to refuse to sell to young people. We need to be clear that unsupervised drinking by young people is unacceptable. We need to work closely with parents, schools, health services and the police.

My Lords, we have had three speakers from each side—the Cross Benches and the government side—but in strict rotational terms it is the turn of the Cross Benches.

My Lords, is it the Government’s duty to deal with underage drinking? Is it not the parents’ responsibility to know where their children are, what they are doing and how much money they have so that they cannot go out drinking? Is it not time that we enforced this with the parents rather than the children?

My Lords, the noble Countess makes exactly the right point. Young people, with their parents, are best suited to take action, but the Government’s role is to make sure that the information is right. There is a lot of confusion about units of alcohol, for example, so it is important that we make it clear. Young people need to grow up learning how to drink sensibly and to know their limits. Parents know at what age people may drink, and the noble Countess is correct that they have to take responsibility.