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Alcohol: Minimum Pricing

Volume 736: debated on Tuesday 27 March 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what practical issues they considered with respect to the establishment and regulation of a minimum price for alcohol.

My Lords, as I said in my earlier Answer, the Government will launch a consultation on the level to be set for a minimum unit price for alcohol. The Government will consider a range of issues in detail as part of this consultation.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister. Perhaps I might add to the points made very usefully in answers to the earlier Question tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter. I understand well the need to combat binge drinking, but does the Minister agree that the minimum unit price proposals are very hard to understand or measure? For example, I read in the Guardian last Thursday that one unit is 10 millilitres of pure alcohol and that is equivalent to half a glass of wine. There are big glasses, large glasses and small glasses, and that does not tell us nearly enough. Does the Minister accept that more explanation is needed of this public intervention that is so very important?

My Lords, I am sorry if my noble friend finds these matters hard to understand and measure. That is one of the reasons why we are mounting this consultation. It depends what my noble friend drinks, but he might be aware that it is possible to buy a can of lager in a supermarket for as little as 20 pence, or a 2 litre bottle of cider for as little as £1.69. We think that those sorts of prices, charged particularly in the off-trade, are encouraging drinking that can lead to very severe anti-social behaviour. That is why we think it is important to look at the possibilities of a minimum unit price and consult on the appropriate level.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the main beneficiary of the Government’s proposals for unit pricing will be the drinks retailers? Does he agree that the issue of excessive drinking involves all social classes in the United Kingdom? Could he perhaps tell the House how doubling the price of White Lightning in supermarkets would affect the activities of organisations such as the Bullingdon Club?

My Lords, I accept that it is possible that a minimum unit price could lead to extra profits for the retail industry, particularly for the supermarkets, but I am sure that they will find other ways to compete. We do not think it is right that they should be competing by means of low-priced alcohol that leads to the disorder of the sort we discussed earlier.

Does my noble friend agree that the Government are to be congratulated on their strong stance on the obesity epidemic, declaring that the answer was to eat fewer calories and drink less alcohol? Will they go further and declare openly that although alcohol is a very pleasant poison to drink, it is nevertheless a poison?

My Lords, we do not want to stop people drinking alcohol in a perfectly legitimate manner. I accept my noble friend’s medical advice that it is a poison, but it is one that we have grown accustomed to over the years. What we want to avoid is excessive consumption of the sort that leads to disorderly scenes in some of our town centres, which I referred to in my answers to the earlier Question.

My Lords, does the Minister recollect that in replying to the first Question, he very sensibly said that the price of alcohol was only one weapon in the armoury of the Government in seeking to tackle alcohol abuse? Is it the case, as I believe it is, that for the last 100 years or so it has been a criminal offence on licensed premises for drink to be sold to or for a person who is already inebriated? If that is the current law, has it not fallen into desuetude? Will the Government concentrate on that? It could be a very potent weapon.

The noble Lord understands the law very well. He is absolutely correct in that. These are matters for enforcement and we think that they should be taken up by the police and, subsequently, the licensing authorities. It is possible to remove the licence from an individual or a pub if it sells alcohol to someone who is obviously inebriated.

My Lords, have the Government considered achieving the minimum price by raising the tax rather than the price? If you raise the tax, we all benefit. If you raise the price, it is a windfall for the drinks industry.

My Lords, I have to be very careful about what I say about changes to the taxation regime. It is slightly more complicated than that in that you would have to even out the tax rates on different forms of alcohol, which vary a great deal. That is one of the reasons why sometimes you find the two-litre bottle of cider that I mentioned earlier being so much cheaper than equivalent forms of alcohol. At this stage, we are looking at minimum pricing but no doubt it would be possible to look at other matters as well.

My Lords, have the Government considered the 24-hour drinking introduced by the party opposite? Is that not partly to blame for what we are suffering socially now?

My Lords, certainly the consequences of the changes made under the previous regime were not exactly what we were led to believe would be the consequences. It did not lead to the European-style drinking culture—the cafe culture—that the then Prime Minister thought that it would lead to. That is why we made a number of changes to the licensing regime, which, again, is part of our overall strategy on alcohol.

My Lords, we all know the dangers of excessive use of alcohol, which is a terrible thing. However, in the interest of balance of all these questions, does the Minister agree that sensible consumption of alcohol, or “poison” as it was called, can be very enjoyable and has been an integral part of western civilisation for millennia?

My Lords, I absolutely agree with the noble Lord in those remarks. He will remember from his naval experience—I do not know how far he goes back—that originally a tot of rum was provided to all serving naval officers and ratings. That was removed because of the increasing complexity of ships and the technology on board, and the thought that it might not be a sensible thing for them to continue to drink. But, quite rightly, the Navy did not go dry in the style of the United States Navy. The noble Lord is right to make the point that there is a sensible balance to be drawn on this matter.