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Alcohol: 15 and 16 Year-olds

Volume 709: debated on Wednesday 1 April 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to reduce consumption of alcohol among 15-16 year olds, in the light of the finding by the European School Survey Project about levels of drunkenness and alcohol consumption in the United Kingdom among that age group.

My Lords, although overall alcohol use by young people, including for 15 to 16 year-olds, is falling, unfortunately those who do drink are consuming more alcohol more often. Our youth alcohol action plan, launched last year, set out the steps we are taking to tackle the harms caused by young people's drinking, through a combination of enforcement, action with industry, and improved education and information for young people and their parents.

My Lords, we have had an alcohol harm reduction strategy for the past seven years, yet the levels of alcohol harm in terms of ill health, crime and social dysfunction have certainly got worse over that period. Apart from consultations and discussions, what can the noble Baroness tell us about actual measures that the Government are taking to reduce the amount of alcohol consumed by young people, particularly in this age group?

My Lords, it is certainly true that the recently published report shows that the UK has among the highest levels of alcohol use for binge drinking—the third highest, after Denmark and the Isle of Man. It is also true that we can see some improvement in a fall in the number of young people drinking at all. But many youngsters regard getting drunk as normal and acceptable, which is deeply worrying. The fact that a third of youngsters are getting alcohol at home from their parents is also a matter of grave concern. The youth alcohol action plan aims to tackle this problem. In addition, we are introducing a new offence of persistently possessing alcohol in a public place and amending the police’s powers to confiscate alcohol from young people who have it in their possession. We are also legislating for a new mandatory code of practice for alcohol retailers with compulsory national conditions, aiming to ban the most irresponsible practices and promotions which encourage people to drink excessively or to promote binge drinking. In addition, we are making drug and alcohol education statutory as part of the PSHE for young children and providing further guidance and advice for parents.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Professors Chris Day and Chris Record of Newcastle upon Tyne have reported a most alarming increase in the incidence of cirrhosis of the liver in young adults, resulting, almost invariably, from heavy alcohol consumption beginning at an early age? Many of the young people in the age group referred to in the Question have no difficulty in obtaining alcohol, purchased for them by friends or relatives from cheap offers in supermarkets and off-licences. Is it not time that the Government considered carefully the proposal from the Chief Medical Officer to impose a minimum price on alcohol?

My Lords, the noble Lord is completely correct, as ever. Deaths from liver disease are now occurring at younger ages. Alcohol abuse in adolescence can damage not only children’s lives but also their brains and long-term memory. The Chief Medical Officer has said that the education of children, young people and their parents is vital. He recommends that young people under 15 should have no alcohol and that those over 15 should have very small, infrequent amounts, under adult supervision.

On minimum pricing, the Government have not ruled out taking action on very cheap alcohol, because it is so clearly linked to people drinking more, resulting in subsequent harm and death. The mandatory code for the alcohol industry will include measures on irresponsible promotions. However, we believe that the actions should be appropriate and our decision should take into account the wider economic impact during this difficult time. It would not be right to penalise the overwhelming majority of responsible drinkers.

My Lords, what has been the cost of the alcohol reduction strategy for England? Does the Minister accept that the Government have so far failed to address the serious problem of under-age drinking in this country? How much of the £61.8 million given to local authorities to highlight the problems related to under-age alcohol abuse has been spent?

My Lords, I do not have in front of me the total cost of the youth alcohol action programme, but I shall make sure that it is sent to the noble Baroness. Under-age drinking is a problem that we face along with all the countries of Europe, and the Government are taking it extremely seriously. We are dealing with it through ministerial-level committees, and we are determined to work across government with law enforcement and education, and through responsible licensing. However, it is not a problem that will be resolved immediately.

My Lords, will the Minister accept that there is some evidence to suggest that the worst problems of alcohol consumption are among the adult middle classes? Will she accept also that we could help young people by having a slightly more disciplined approach to alcohol in the adult community?

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate points to the issue of parenting: it is parents who raise their children, not the Government. We believe that parents are best suited to take decisions about young people, but we recognise that it is our responsibility to provide young people and their parents with clear information and guidance on the harms associated with young people drinking. The Department for Children, Schools and Families is also taking seriously the issue of what children and young people, particularly the 15 to 16 year-old age group, do on Friday and Saturday nights, and where they go. We are therefore investing in youth clubs and recreational facilities to provide alternatives to binge drinking.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that some of the responsibility for our problems rests with the drinks industry? How is the voluntary code on alcohol labelling working in the industry as she sees it? Is she content with the progress being made? If not, what steps are the Government taking to make sure that the drinks industry implements the voluntary code? If it does not, are the Government prepared to legislate to make sure that it does?

My Lords, we think that information on labels is being used only to a limited extent. No, we are not happy. We are reviewing it for a second time. We shall take action through legislation if we feel that we cannot make more improvement.