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Children: Alcohol Harm

Volume 757: debated on Monday 17 November 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will review their policies to protect children from alcohol harm.

My Lords, the Government take very seriously the sale of alcohol to those under the age of 18. The Government have brought into force much tougher punishments for the offence of persistently selling alcohol to children and more powers for the police and the licensing authorities to take action locally. Last month, the Government introduced further changes to strengthen requirements on retailers of alcohol to carry out age verification checks.

My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister’s reply and the progress that has been made. Is it not true, however, that the number of children presenting drunk at A&E departments went up substantially in 2013? Is it not also true that the Government have responded to the industry’s pressure to remove the law that currently deters the sale of liquor to children in other forms in food? Because the sale of alcohol in liquid form has been declining, the industry is now seeking to extend the areas in which it is selling alcohol in other foods, particularly those available to children such as ice cream or sorbet containing vodka. I have written to the Government to seek their intervention on this, but they have declined. Why have they responded solely to the industry’s pressure to repeal that law—the only one that protects children—when nobody else, including parents and the Chief Medical Officer, has asked the Government to do this?

My Lords, I shall try to answer all those questions. On admissions to A&E, I do not disagree with the noble Lord, but we are working with health practitioners to ensure that there is a model and a guidance procedure not just for treatment but for follow-up care for children who present. I do not agree with the noble Lord that we have bowed to the industry. I was just reflecting on that point about liquor in chocolates: I recall that when I was a child, the one sweet that would never be eaten were the chocolate liqueurs because they were so revolting. Should a child decide to eat them, however, they would have to eat vast quantities of chocolates in order to have the equivalent of one glass of wine. As for the ice cream and sorbet, about which the noble Lord was concerned, they are subject to the same rules as alcohol itself and cannot be sold to children under the age of 18.

My Lords, the damage to the foetus from maternal drinking, especially in the first three months, can take the form of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, which includes heart defects, learning difficulties, kidney defects and other impairments. Will the Minister encourage the Home Office to consider a publicity campaign as hard-hitting as the “Don’t drink and drive” campaign to make prospective mothers aware of the problems?

I thank my noble friend for raising that point: it is an incredibly worrying trend. While we believe that adults should take responsibility for their own actions, the number of cases of this disorder is rising; I understand that there is currently a case in court on it. We certainly are very keen to promote health awareness in this area.

My Lords, has the Minister, as I have, heard of the child of an adult alcoholic speak about being home for his mother when his father returns from the pub, so that he can get between his drunk father and his mother? It can be a catastrophe for children when parents drink too much or are alcoholics. In that light, is it not regrettable that the Government are not moving forward as many have wished in respect of minimum standards for alcohol pricing, or have I missed their change in direction here?

My Lords, minimum alcohol unit pricing is still under consideration. I totally agree with the noble Earl: it is a tragedy and it would be even more of a tragedy if both social services and other local agencies were not on to such families where children are basically being abused.

My Lords, will the Minister take a moment to respond to the question that my noble friend Lord Brooke asked her about the impact of lobbying from the drinks industry? Can she tell the House whether any other group or individual apart from that industry has asked for the deregulation that is in the Bill to which he referred?

My Lords, I answered three of the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke. On the point of lobbying by other industries, I do not know of any industries that have lobbied the Government, but I can write to the noble Baroness and confirm that. The Government have requested the drinks industry to take responsibility, or else we will.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the advice given to pregnant women not to drink alcohol is as old as the hills—3,000 years old? The mother of Samson was told when she was pregnant not to have alcohol.

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister would like to reflect on a couple of the answers that she has given. She said that the Government are considering minimum alcohol pricing, yet the Home Secretary said that—no ifs, no buts—the Government would introduce it. I would also like the Minister to clarify the point that she made in answer to my noble friend Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, who raised the issue of alcohol being able to be sold in forms other than liquid to those under 16. Will she confirm, as she implied in her answer, that that is not the case and that the Government’s proposals in the Deregulation Bill will not make any changes in that regard?

I said that minimum unit pricing was “under consideration”. It is, and the case of Scotland is being closely watched. On alcohol in forms other than liquid, the rules set a limit of 0.2 litres per kilogram of confection. That is to stop vast quantities of alcohol being put into food. That is the situation as I understand it.

Is my noble friend the Minister aware that all good PSHE courses contain some alcohol education and should be taught in every school? Does she agree that when children become involved in sport, they become very aware of their bodies’ efficiency and the effect of alcohol and are much less likely to drink more than a minimal amount? Therefore, what are the Government doing to encourage all schools to teach PSHE and children to take part in sport?

I agree with my noble friend. Good PSHE in schools will certainly refer to that. Schools have a duty to teach children about the harms of drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse. I fully endorse her point about sport, although that seemed to go out the window with my son when he reached the age of 18.