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Alcohol: Minimum Pricing

Volume 744: debated on Thursday 14 March 2013


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat an Answer given by my honourable friend Mr Jeremy Browne to an Urgent Question in the House of Commons earlier today. The Answer is as follows:

“I am aware that there have been a significant number of media reports and stories about the Government’s proposal to introduce a minimum unit price. I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify the Government’s position. The Government are determined to find the best way to diminish the misuse of alcohol. Over 44% of violent crime is alcohol-related. Fighting, anti-social behaviour and public drunkenness are familiar sights in many city centres. There were 1.2 million alcohol-related hospital admissions in 2010-11. So in March last year, the Government published their alcohol strategy, which set out a range of measures to tackle the harms caused by excessive alcohol consumption.

The Government have already introduced a wide set of reforms to tackle binge drinking and the corrosive effect it has on individuals and our communities. We have rebalanced the Licensing Act in favour of local communities by, for instance, removing the “vicinity test” to ensure that anyone, no matter where they live, can have input into a decision to grant or revoke a licence. We have introduced a late night levy, making those businesses that sell alcohol late at night contribute towards the cost of policing and wider local authority action. We have also introduced early morning alcohol restriction orders, enabling local areas to restrict the sale of alcohol late at night in all or part of their area if there are problems.

The Home Office has also recently consulted on a range of new proposals set out in its Alcohol Strategy, including a ban on multi-buy promotions in shops and off-licences to reduce excessive alcohol consumption; a review of the mandatory licensing conditions to ensure that they are sufficiently targeting problems such as irresponsible promotions in pubs and clubs; health as a new alcohol licensing objective for cumulative impacts so that licensing authorities can consider alcohol-related health harms when managing the problems relating to the number of premises in their area; cutting red tape for responsible businesses to reduce the burden of regulation while maintaining the integrity of the licensing system; and the introduction of minimum unit pricing.

This public consultation opened on 28 November and closed on 6 February. We have received a large number of responses covering a very wide range of views which included those of members of the public, the police and licensing authorities, health organisations, alcohol producers and retailers, trade bodies and charities.

On minimum unit pricing, there are powerful arguments on both sides. We have to ensure that we base our decision on a careful consideration of all the representations. We are evaluating the data in a precise way and will announce our decision when this careful evaluation is completed”.

I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. I know he sought to clarify the position but I am not sure he really has. In the final paragraph of the Statement, he said:

“On minimum unit pricing … We have to ensure that we base our decision on a careful consideration of all the representations”,

in relation to the consultation. That consultation document states:

“In the Strategy, the Government committed to introducing a minimum unit price. However, in other areas, this consultation seeks views on the introduction of policies”.

It refers to “other areas”. The consultation was not about minimum unit pricing. Less than a year ago, the Home Secretary said that,

“the problem is now so acute that we need to go further. We will therefore introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol”.—[Official Report, Commons, 23/3/12; col. 1071.]

There were no ifs, no buts, no qualification and no equivocation. So determined were the Government, they even refused to consult on the principle. What changed?

I think I can reassure the noble Baroness that a thorough consultation has taken place. We needed to consult on a clear proposition, which the Government presented in their consultation. We needed, in other words, to understand people’s views on a proposal, which was the whole purpose of the consultation. We have had a large number of responses, which I think I have indicated were finely balanced, from a range of correspondents and they need careful consideration. No decision has been made.

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the Government give higher priority to the health of the nation, particularly to those young people who are so much addicted to binge drinking, or to the profitability of the UK drinks industry?

I think the noble Lord would admit that that is a rather loaded question. However, I am prepared to answer it because of course health considerations are extremely important. There are huge economic costs, as well as the social costs, in the excessive consumption of alcohol. That is clear. What might well divide the House in debate would not be that issue but the question of what is the most effective way of dealing with it.

My Lords, excess drinking is a public heath disaster, costs the nation a fortune and wrecks families. Implementing minimum alcohol pricing is evidence-based, easy to implement and easy to understand. Will the Minister tell the House what arguments could be used not to do it?

As my noble friend will know, the Scottish Government have legislated to provide for minimum unit pricing in Scotland. Unfortunately, that has been challenged in the courts. This is not an easy measure to bring forward and that is why, in their consultation, the Government wanted to make sure that they took the views of all sections so that they were able to formulate an answer to this issue that was satisfactory from the health point of view and would lead to an enforceable and workable system.

My Lords, I share with the Minister the grave disappointment in my own NHS trust on hearing the decision not to pursue this. The noble Lord and others have already described this but in our A&E department—not just on a Saturday night but on many other nights—lots of young people are there in a very bad state of health, which obviously impinges on the other people who are trying to be seen. The Prime Minister said that he will do something about it. Can he please let us know what that is and how quickly that might be done?

I reassure the noble Baroness that no decision has been made. Nothing I have said today should imply that a decision has been made. We are in the process of evaluating the consultation procedure. As I say, we have had a great number of responses. On an issue of this importance, it is only just that we seek to get it right, and that is the position of the Government.

My Lords, having brought the licensing laws through this House in 2011, which at the time had support across the House because there was recognition that the abuse of alcohol that is outlined today is really a very serious problem, I ask my noble friend not to be deflected in any way from putting together a package of changes—it needs to be a package—that will address this problem. Having observed how this Question was introduced in another place earlier this morning, I very much regret the party-political slanging match that it turned into.

My noble friend is perfectly correct that this demands a serious discussion and debate. The Government’s proposals for the consultation are in the form of a package of different measures, all of which are designed to reduce the health impact of excessive alcohol consumption. My noble friend makes a very good point.

My Lords, in the general turn of groups, it is the turn of the Labour Benches. I suggest that since the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, has been patient, it might be his turn next.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness. Does the Minister agree that behaviour change is extremely difficult to influence, as has been shown by our Select Committee? Does he also agree that the one thing that has been clearly shown by research to really work is changing the pricing of a commodity?

That is why this proposal was originally put forward. That is the premise under which we operate, but it is not the total answer. I think the noble Lord would admit that there are other elements besides price, such as availability. As the noble Lord will know, we face a much more liberal licensing regime as a result of the previous Government’s determination to extend licensing hours, so availability is another factor. But he is right to point to behaviour, because there are huge differences between those of us who live in Nordic countries, where alcohol consumption per capita is very high, and those who live in Mediterranean countries and the like, where there seems to be better self-ordered restraint on the consumption of alcohol.

My Lords, while accepting that it is utterly laudable that any Government should pay very great attention to the possibility of curbing alcohol abuse by pricing, I urge upon the Minister an alternative consideration as well. As the Minister will remember, the current Licensing Act has a provision—I think in Section 157, but I could be wrong—to punish publicans for serving alcohol to persons who have already had too much to drink. Will the Government concentrate very much on this aspect as well? If proper sanctions are fully and practically applied, this could be a very powerful weapon against alcoholism.

Indeed, the discipline that needs to be shown by those who retail alcohol, whether in shops, supermarkets or bars, is a very important part of the solution to this problem. We know that local authorities are taking the issue of underage drinking much more seriously than has been the case. The responsibility must lie with the person selling the alcohol to make sure that it is not made available to people who clearly have had enough.

My Lords, many of us have some anxiety about what appears to be the disproportionate influence of lobbyists in Whitehall. Some time ago the Prime Minister expressed his anxiety about the growth of the lobbying industry and the possible susceptibility of politicians to lobbying. Will the Minister say what the Government are doing to ensure that as civil servants develop policies for the consideration of Ministers, they are appropriately and robustly independent of disproportionate influence from outside on behalf of sectional interests?

This is another issue, but a very important one. I can truly say that when it was presented to me some time ago—I believe I had a Question on it in this House—there was no suggestion whatever that the officials presenting the alcohol strategy to me were in any way influenced by pressures from any particular quarter. It has certainly not been my experience. The issue raised by the noble Lord is very serious, but I do not think that it is a factor in this case. Indeed, I would not countenance it myself.