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Volume 734: debated on Thursday 2 February 2012


Asked by

My Lords, we will set out the Government’s approach to tackling alcohol-related harm in the forthcoming alcohol strategy. It will address the full range of harm from alcohol, both health and social impacts, and will describe the respective future roles of central and local government, the third sector, other agencies and people.

Today’s British Liver Trust report shows that 28 per cent of deaths in 16 to 24 year-olds and almost 9,000 deaths a year in this country are alcohol-related. Do the Government recognise that there is now a need for social strategies that look at issues such as minimum pricing and licensing controls of home delivery services that provide night-time party top-ups when parties have run out of alcohol and people are already drunk, as well as criminal justice controls so that breathalysers can be used compulsorily, given that 45 per cent of violent crime and 37 per cent of domestic violence are alcohol-related?

My Lords, the Government fully recognise the adverse effects on society of alcohol misuse and the devastating consequences that it can bring to individuals. That is why we feel it is so important to issue the alcohol strategy that I mentioned in my initial Answer. I understand that there are no plans in government to widen the use of breathalysers, but we are clear that irresponsible sales of alcohol need to be controlled, and that area will be covered in the strategy. On the noble Baroness’s particular question on pricing, we recognise that the irresponsible sale of alcohol at a loss to gain wider trade can lead to binge drinking. That is clearly undesirable for all sorts of reasons. We are committed to ending the sale of heavily discounted alcohol, and that will send a message to retailers and, indeed, the public that we take the issue very seriously.

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether the answers he has been giving fit in with the order that my noble friend Lord Strathclyde has on the Order Paper for later today?

My Lords, has the Minister seen the letter today from the churches and charities to the Prime Minister asking that there should be a minimum price on alcohol? Will he agree with that recommendation and do that rather than rely on the industry in this case?

My Lords, as I have already said, we recognise that the irresponsible sale of alcohol at a loss or heavy discount is undesirable. We know that price is important in this equation but we also know that it is not the only factor that affects demand for alcohol. We need to find ways to change people’s relationship and behaviours with alcohol. We do not believe that the only way to do this is by more rules and regulations but the issue of price will be addressed in the forthcoming alcohol strategy.

My Lords, the Sheffield University report to NICE in 2010 pointed out the extreme importance of price rises. It came to the conclusion that a 10 per cent price rise would, among other things, reduce hospital admissions by something like 50,000 a year, crimes by something like 96,000 and absenteeism from work by something like 500,000 per annum. Very similar huge social benefits would also come from introducing a minimum price. Does the Minister agree that price rises are probably the most important single weapon in dealing with this social matter?

My noble friend makes a very good point, which is why the Government have taken action on tax. We will be raising alcohol duty by 2 per cent above inflation every year to 2014-15. We introduced a new additional duty on high-strength beers to address the consumption of cheap super-strength lagers and a reduced rate of duty on low-strength beers to encourage consumers to switch to those brands.

My Lords, there is time for both noble Lords. Perhaps we may start with the noble Lord, Lord Imbert.

In the light of the 60,000 alcohol-related calls answered by the London Ambulance Service alone and the 18,500 alcohol-related crimes of violence in London alone in one year, does that not mean that we should introduce a compulsory alcohol sobriety testing scheme which magistrates can use to sentence in order to reduce this awful number of offences?

The noble Lord is right to point that out. Proposals of the kind he suggests should be considered. As I am sure he will recognise, there is no single solution to the complex challenge of alcohol misuse. We need to look at licensing, pricing, health promotion, the criminal justice system, the role of local authorities, early engagement by the NHS and labelling, and the list goes on. But I am very happy to feed in the noble Lord’s ideas to my department in the work that it is doing.

My Lords, what impact does the Minister think rising unemployment may have on alcohol consumption? He has not mentioned unemployment, which is an important issue. I declare an interest as the chairman of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse.

My Lords, the evidence is that the population’s overall consumption of alcohol tends to fall if incomes are depressed. Particular groups in the population, including some who are unemployed, may consume more alcohol as a result of being unemployed but the evidence does not enable us to quantify this effect. This is one aspect of health inequalities which we are determined to reduce, as we stated in Healthy Lives, Healthy People, a document we published last year.