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Deregulation Bill

Volume 759: debated on Tuesday 3 February 2015

Report (1st Day) (Continued)

Schedule 16: Schools: reduction of burdens

Amendment 22

Moved by

22: Schedule 16, page 185, line 11, at end insert—

“( ) After subsection (4) insert—

“(5) Governing bodies of schools seeking to make changes to dates of term and holiday times will so far as practicable consult local tourism organisations prior to determination.””

My Lords, I will not recap at length the points I made in Committee. Suffice it to say that tourism contributes 9% of all UK GDP and 9% of all jobs: 3 million people rely on it for work. Domestic tourism spending is a significant portion of this—79% of tourism spending across the UK. I made the point in Committee that domestic changes in school term times have a potentially massive knock-on effect for the UK tourism industry as a whole. In the US, there are numerous examples of states changing term times and the huge effect that has had, costing state economies hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

DCMS has admitted that there has been no evaluation of the policy’s effect on tourism. Tourism is heavily reliant on the weather, and it is not uncommon for summer trading to be ruined, for example, by two weeks of bad weather. Decreasing the length of the summer holiday to, say, four weeks would be far more devastating than a simple one-third reduction of the peak period. Diversifying the dates of holidays does not lengthen the peak period but simply spreads out the same trade while increasing operating costs.

Assurances have been given to the British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions—BALPPA—by the Department for Education, and indeed by my noble friend in Committee on 6 November, that the needs of businesses will be considered. However, does this actually amount to an assurance that consultation will take place before changes are made? Surely, at the very least, the duty to do so should be contained in guidance or, much better, enshrined in the Bill.

By their nature, tourism attractions bring people in from beyond the immediate locality. Often, they attract people into towns from the region and beyond. Changing school times throughout the whole of Manchester would, for example, affect attractions across the north-west, including those in Blackpool and Liverpool. There is concern that when schools want to use these powers, they will not have the concerns of local businesses in mind. We need to give the tourism industry more confidence in this legislation, which is viewed with a great deal of concern at the moment. The effect of changes to school terms and holidays is potentially huge for the industry. We should therefore make sure that school governing bodies consult when they propose to make any such changes. I urge my noble friend to accept the principle of this amendment and I beg to move.

My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy for what the noble Lord has just said. Indeed, we discussed this at some length in Committee. I have only one point and when the Minister responds I would be grateful if he could expand on the comments that he made in Committee. He said:

“I am happy to assure the noble Lord that the Government have agreed that their advice to schools will make clear that: schools should be considerate of the needs of parents and impacts on others by working with each other and the local authority to co-ordinate term dates as far as possible; and that all schools must act reasonably when setting term dates, including considering the impact of changes to term dates on small businesses that rely on tourism from families with school-age children”.—[Official Report, 6/11/2014; col. GC771.]

That is a very targeted comment and seems in many ways to answer everything that the noble Lord was saying, but I wonder what force this advice will have? Will it be in the form of a circular of some type? Can he expand on that? Will there be any sanctions for those who do not behave to the letter of the law, as so well expressed by the noble Lord the last time round? Particularly, would Ofsted be inspecting such offers made by schools?

I thank the noble Lord for those splendid comments. It is wonderfully nostalgic to read some of the material around this amendment. The British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions has sent me something that particularly mentioned Skegness, Hunstanton and Cromer. Those of us who, like, me can remember swimming off Skegness as a boy, will also remember trying to pretend that it was not as bitterly cold as it was. My children later gave me the LNER poster that used to hang in my room when I was an academic, saying “Skegness is so bracing”. That took me back to what as children we used to have as holidays, before the foreign holiday idea began to creep up on British families and affluence took us further away.

The Government believe as far as possible in devolution and autonomy, and we are providing advice to schools. This is not something that Ofsted is imposing on them, let alone is it an English Parliament deciding that English schools must each have the same holiday.

No, I was perhaps making an after-dinner remark that was a little outside my brief.

Those of us who live in the north of England are well aware that different local authorities have had different holiday periods for a long time. Blackpool would not have had the prosperity that it had if wakes weeks had not been staggered across Lancashire and Yorkshire in the 19th century. There was a degree of adaptability among different local authorities that worked extremely well. It is no longer necessary.

In arguing that the proposed amendment to Part 3 of Schedule 15 is unnecessary, I should therefore say that schools and local authorities have had a considerable degree of autonomy to change their holiday times in recent years. Very few have wished to do so, because there are powerful arguments for the existing system. School leaders are best placed to decide the structure of the school year in the interests of their pupils’ education and local circumstances. Schedule 16 therefore gives all schools responsibility to set their own term dates from this September.

Thousands of schools, educating more than half of all registered pupils, are already responsible for their term dates. Three-quarters of secondary schools and more than a third of primary schools are already responsible for their school year. There is a school in every local authority in England with this freedom, but without the proposed specific requirement, suggested by the noble Lord, to consult tourism businesses in place. This has not resulted in significant problems for the tourist industry. In practice, the majority of schools continue to follow their existing term dates, with a small number making changes where there is a compelling reason to do so. Where they make changes, schools take into account the needs of the local community. As noble Lords will be well aware, the needs of the local community in cities such as Bradford or Manchester often include the different patterns of different religious and ethnic communities.

Turning to the concern at the heart of the amendment, all schools must already act reasonably, fairly and transparently when determining term dates. This will include considering the impact on those likely to be affected by their decisions, including pupils, parents, staff, the local authority and businesses.

I am sorry to interrupt my noble friend, but these are very important details. Can he give me chapter and verse as to where these obligations to act reasonably, fairly, et cetera, arise?

My Lords, it may be somewhere deep in my brief. I am sure it is somewhere deep in the Box. If I go on for a short period, I am sure that the answer will magically appear for me. I am fairly sure it is in briefing and guidance. It is not something that is enforced upon schools because that does not seem necessary. When my children were in primary school in the early years of a Labour Government, I recall the head teacher of the primary school commenting that he received volumes and volumes of instructions each year on how to behave. We rather think we should try to avoid quite such a deliberate effort if we can.

The Government understand the noble Lord’s concern that it may not be immediately obvious to a school that its decision to change term dates could affect local tourism businesses. The Government have discussed this point with BALPA and agreed to assurances in the form of advice to schools. It is a general principle of law, I am assured, that is provided in guidance to schools, but we will write to the noble Lord with the exact chapter, verse and places where this guidance is set out.

I am pleased to reiterate that the Government have agreed that their advice to schools will be clear. Schools should be considerate of the needs of parents and the impacts on others by working with each other and the local authority to co-ordinate term dates as far as possible, and all schools must act reasonably when setting term dates; “reasonably” includes the impact of term dates on small businesses that rely on tourism. I will write to the noble Lord with the exact details of where the guidance is provided and the experience so far. I reiterate that the freedom that schools have had so far to alter term dates has not led to a huge revolution because the pattern of terms and holidays suits most parents, staff, businesses and others much better than any alternatives. With that assurance and my repetition that we are conscious of the way in which the short British summer and the needs of British tourist institutions interact with schools and school holidays, I hope the noble Lord will be able to withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, as I am sure my noble friend is very well aware, Groundhog Day was celebrated yesterday in the United States. I felt that perhaps we were beginning to celebrate Groundhog Day here in the House today. Until the very last point of my noble friend’s response, I felt that the response he gave me was pretty undercooked, quite honestly, as if the Department for Education had disinterred something from two months ago which was more or less in the same form. It did not have the detail that one might require on Report to an amendment that is much more specific than the one that was put forward in Committee. I really feel that it has not been given the seriousness that it should have been, and that the Department for Education, for which in this context my noble friend is speaking, is not really taking the concerns of the tourism industry seriously.

I fully understand the case that my noble friend is making, that to date we have not seen a great impact on local attractions and so on, but that is not the issue. The issue is the potential impact, and it is only by addressing the concerns of local tourism interest, by consulting with them and so on, that one is really going to be able to understand that.

My Lords, we have not so far seen any problem, and if the noble Lord’s criticism may be that the DfE is not paying enough attention to this problem, that is partly because it is not a problem.

My Lords, as I said, my noble friend has made the case that there is no existing problem, but the industry is extremely concerned that it could be a problem in future, because this will mean that the full range of schools—as opposed to a number of schools—will be able to change their term times by the decision of governing bodies. What the industry is quite reasonably asking is that the duty on school governing bodies to consult should be enshrined in law. My noble friend says, “It’ll be all right on the night, because they have a duty to act reasonably and fairly”, under something or other—whether it is guidance, advice or some other sort of way, no doubt, of communicating between the Department for Education and schools, I know not what. I look forward to my noble friend’s specific reply, which will be extremely helpful.

My Lords, just to add, in a Deregulation Bill, the Government are a little hesitant about imposing a new national regulation unless there is a good rationale for it. We have not yet seen the rationale.

My Lords, my noble friend was talking about an existing set of guidance advice, not something happening in future. Therefore, it would be extremely useful to know whether this is an umbrella set of guidance, which means that the concerns of BALPA and others should be entirely satisfied by a duty to act fairly and reasonably—then I shall be extremely happy. But no specifics have been given. I look forward to hearing about them.

I am rather disappointed by my noble friend’s reply, I think that something more specific could have been given, but in the mean time I look forward to the letter and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 22 withdrawn.

Schedule 17: Part to be inserted as Part 5A of the Licensing Act 2003

Amendment 23

Moved by

23: Schedule 17, page 187, line 25, at end insert—

“(5A) The alcohol must be sold for no less than fifty pence per unit.”

My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 24, 25 and 26. I start by expressing my gratitude to a range of people and organisations who have been in touch with me since I spoke to a series of amendments in Committee, and my thanks to those who have put their name to these amendments today, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, who managed to fly here from abroad to speak in this debate. The people who put their names down represent a substantial concerned body of health interests who are convinced that MUP—minimum unit pricing—is needed in England as well as Scotland, where people are trying to press it through. We also hear that the Welsh Government are now embracing and seeking to implement it. Its aim is to minimise alcohol harm to people’s health and harm to the NHS by reducing NHS costs, to cut public disturbances and the cost to the criminal justice system, to reduce domestic violence, to reduce accidents at work and on the roads, and to reduce—this is an important point—the hidden sugar in alcohol, which is quite a big contributor to the major health problem facing us, the growth of obesity in this country, a growth which has taken place significantly under this Government.

The argument for this change was made by the Government in a well produced alcohol strategy that they issued in 2012. Regrettably, when it came to the crunch, the Government ran away from the tough decision. They talk about taking tough decisions, but they have run away from this one, even though there is mounting evidence and support for it on a very wide front. I am particularly pleased that the Church of England is in favour in principle, and I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle, who regrettably cannot be with us because of a prior engagement but wished to speak strongly in favour, from the position of one of those who would be affected by this change in legislation.

On the new licensing regime that will cover community and ancillary businesses, I should express a word of gratitude to the Government. Following our debates in Committee, they ran a public consultation—there had not been one previously. In a sense, that was in recognition that this was not a deregulatory change, as I had argued, but a matter for new legislation. I think that this led them to recognise the need for a public consultation in November and December. Had there been a bit more time for that consultation, some of us would have been happy to give the Government some suggestions on how it might have been better run than was the case, but none the less they did it and it would be churlish if I did not express my gratitude to them for it.

One area that some of us—I have in mind other groups here—would have focused on would be establishing a basis for enforcing the scheme. Local government would have liked to have had proper powers to police it and ensure that it is effectively put in place. While the Government have suggested that a certain maximum number of units should be consumed by people participating in such events around the country, quite frankly, as we all know, there is no way in which one could enforce that if they exceed it or even supervise what is happening.

Minimum unit pricing at such events, which would put the cost of a unit of alcohol at a higher level than perhaps would normally be charged, could be seen as a restraining factor to try to limit the amount of drinking taking place—they could be events in communities, charities or in church affairs and so on. I should advise the Government that, if they were prepared to embrace this change, they would be well supported by a number of councils around the country. All 12 councils in the north-east of England want MUP introducing because of the problems which they encounter. They have written to me giving support to the amendments that I am proposing. They range from the councils in Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Durham—the big ones—to which then can be added, moving across to the other side of the country, all the councils in Greater Manchester, Lancashire Council and Leeds Council. Coming further south, Birmingham Council, too, is now pressing for MUP to be introduced because of the problems which it faces in the health service and with disturbances related to the criminal justice system. I understand from the Local Government Association, which has been giving me advice on this matter, that while many other authorities in other parts of the country have not as yet come out in favour of the principle of MUP, they are privately in favour of it and in due course will go on record as saying that they need it soon. These issues need to be taken into account in the context of what I am pressing for tonight.

I have also heard from numerous charities, which will qualify under the CANs for this form of licensing, saying that they would be very happy to be running minimum unit pricing. So we have a group that ranges over local authorities with their links, charities and the Church of England. I have also had conversations with the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, which was much quoted in debates in the Commons on where it stood. It does not have an official policy on MUP, but I guess that in the light of some of the arguments now being advanced by people of like mind on a wide front—the people who were prayed in aid so much in the Commons—the women’s institutes may come on board, too.

As well as upholding the principle of containing the amount of drink that people consume, all such groups see that there would be a benefit for them in having a higher yield from applying minimum unit pricing than perhaps they have had hitherto. They buy cheaper from the supermarkets and then sell at the higher rate there. It is a win-win situation as far as many of them see it, and one of the reasons why—as they are financial beneficiaries as well—they would be glad to see this come into practice.

This set of amendments really offers the Government an opportunity to trial minimum unit pricing in a limited area, administered in the main by people in groups which favour MUP. Amendments 24 and 26 provide a sunset clause. If this was not working after a period of three years it would allow the MUP to fail and fall away. I am trying to be as reasonable as I can and to accommodate the Government as best I can, given the objections that they have raised so far. If MUP were successful in achieving the objectives that we are after, the amendments would provide the opportunity to raise the minimum unit price from 50p to a higher rate that would be appropriate at that time.

Why are the Government going to object to these amendments? I rather suspect that I will be disappointed, as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, was with the previous amendment. I will take noble Lords through a series of points that have been made by Ministers in recent debates as to why MUP should not run. Ministers argue that MUP is only part of an alcohol strategy and that there are other elements to it. I agree with that. It is not a silver bullet: there are other factors too. However, eliminating cheap booze, as the Prime Minister himself put it when he first spoke in favour of minimum unit pricing as the heart of an alcohol strategy, has been tried and tested in other areas and has been quite successful in producing significant changes in other countries. There is also evidence to indicate that it would work very well here.

Ministers argue that careful consideration has to be given to any possible unintended consequences of MUP, such as the potential impact on the cost of living. That would be an effect that I would concede. When the cost of cigarettes was increased in an attempt to deter smoking them, there was an impact on the cost-of-living indices at the time. We are, of course, at the happy stage at the moment where we have the lowest level of cost of living increases that we have had for a long time. In any event, I asked the Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Bates, recently replied to me—what the impact would be on the cost of living in the UK if a 50p minimum unit price were introduced for alcohol. The reply indicated that, in spite of the Government saying that it would have such an impact and they were concerned about it, no such assessment has been made as yet. Will the Minister tell us why not? Will they do it before we get to Third Reading? When people start employing these arguments, they should at least have done the research in the first instance.

We then looked at the third factor. Ministers argue that a possible consequence might be an increase in illicit alcohol smuggling. That might be the case. I do not deny that this might happen. This risk will always exist, as it does with tobacco and cigarettes. However, without knowing the scale of such problems, that is not a counterargument for resisting a policy. A limited trial of the type that I am advocating would give the Government a chance to look at the extent to which those factors would come to bear and the extent to which they might need to look for resources to resolve those problems. We can stop smuggling and the illicit production of alcohol simply by monitoring it better and policing it better than we have done in the past. I know that involves resourcing and cost, but equally we have to take into account, when we look at alcohol, the costs that arise in the daily deaths of people, and the cost to the NHS to be set alongside that.

The Government have also argued that we must wait to see what comes out from the appeal at present in Europe against the Scottish decision to introduce MUP north of the border. The information I have—though who can say until the judge’s report—is that the indications are that it may go back to Scotland unresolved and be left to Scotland and its industry to sort out for themselves. It is possible that that may happen to us if we introduce this trial—that there would be an appeal against it. On the other hand, the Government might try to use their powers through their links with the responsibility deal with industry to persuade it not to do that in the rest of the UK. If it did appeal, we would have to stand up against that. I believe that the major consumer of alcohol in the UK should take a case to court—if a court case has to be taken—rather than a smaller country such as Scotland or possibly Wales.

All the foregoing matters relate to issues that were put to myself and other Peers when we have raised MUP latterly. I come now to the original decision taken by the Lib Dem Minister in 2012, Jeremy Browne—one of the noble Lord’s colleagues. He announced that the Government would not proceed with MUP because they did not feel they had enough concrete evidence that its introduction would be effective. That was notwithstanding, as I have said, evidence both here and abroad of so many places where it works. It even works in Putin’s Russia, where there has been a reduction in the amount of alcoholism because the price of alcohol has been increased.

Jeremy Browne went on to argue that the crucial point was to avoid penalising people who drink responsibly. Of course, they are already penalised by abuse of alcohol. They are the ones, along with the rest of the taxpaying community, who must find the money to pay for the NHS’s problems that arise from alcohol. They have to pay for all the other problems that arise that are linked to alcohol, so they are already paying in part. They face the prospect, according to the new CEO of the NHS, that there will be a £30 billion black hole in the NHS by 2020 unless some radical steps are taken to put right some of the problems we face. This is one issue where we could look to effect a change to reduce the abuse and harm that arises from alcohol and the number of people ending up in hospital or in care.

I suggest to the Government that they have the chance to run a trial here in a limited area with willing victims who want to operate it. At the end of the day, we could end up with a win-win situation for everyone concerned. If that works well, it could then be extended over a wider front so that we could endeavour to meet the desire that so many organisations believe is desperately needed. I hope the Minister will respond as positively as he can and give answers to some of these points that have been made incorrectly in defence of the current position by other Ministers. Otherwise, I will come back again at Third Reading. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, for introducing this group of amendments so clearly. They are amendments to which I wanted to add my name because alcohol is putting an intolerable strain on the NHS. There is no getting away from that.

We have 1 million hospital admissions a year related to alcohol. We all know that there are peak times in A&E departments when alcohol problems swamp departments. It is not at all times of the day but we also know that other parts of the NHS are put under chronic and severe strain because they have to deal with alcohol-related diseases. In fact, there are about 60 different medical conditions where excessive consumption significantly causes morbidity and premature death in the UK.

I declare that I am president of the BMA. At a recent BMA meeting a breast surgeon came up and begged me—I do not exaggerate—to do something about excessive alcohol consumption because he has seen more and more middle-aged women who have chronically high levels of alcohol consumption and then develop obesity and breast cancer. He said it is reaching epidemic proportions and that he has seen a significant change over recent times.

I return to the topic of the amendments. As well as the strain on the NHS the cost to the whole country is significant. The cost to the NHS has been estimated to be almost £4 billion a year, which equates to about £120 a year per taxpayer. The overall cost to the country is nearer £26 billion a year, which is between fivefold and sixfold, so I have estimated that this is probably about £750 per taxpayer, because we do not have a really comprehensive and effective alcohol policy at the moment.

The ban on selling alcohol below cost price, which came into force last May, is not, as far as we have been able to see, significantly reducing drinkers’ mean annual consumption. It is not really surprising. It was calculated that mean annual consumption would decrease by less than 1% overall. Minimum unit pricing has been shown in different models to have an effect and it stops higher alcohol-content drink being sold disproportionately cheaply and you get a more balanced spread of the way drinks are purchased and taken. The relative underselling of cider against beer, where cider has a higher alcohol content, becomes balanced out and the high consumption of spirits in particular, which have a very high unit content, then becomes spread across the spectrum of price.

It has been suggested that minimum unit price would unfairly impact responsible drinkers. There does not seem to be any strong evidence for that at all, but it will impact on irresponsible drinkers. It has been estimated that a minimum unit price of 50p would have major benefits. For example, it has been estimated that there would be more than 97,000 fewer hospital admissions a year, more than 42,000 fewer crimes, nearly 30,000 fewer cases of unemployment and more than 442,000 fewer episodes of absenteeism from work, which is frequently an alcohol-related problem. As we all know, it tends to occur on the days after high days, holidays and weekends. The saving on healthcare costs alone has been estimated to be £1,591 million a year. That is a significant amount of healthcare funding that can then be diverted to meet the needs of others.

There has also been evidence that increasing the price of alcohol reduces the rate of alcohol-related harms including violence and crime, deaths from liver cirrhosis, other drug use, sexually transmitted infections and risky sexual behaviour, as well as drink-driving deaths.

The impact of drinking is not only on the individual, of course, but also on all those who are bereaved, such as children who lose parents at a premature age. It also affects those who are on the receiving end of abuse and of violence and high alcohol consumption is also associated with high rates of suicide.

As a doctor, I fail to see why any Government have not grasped what would seem to be a fairly straightforward solution to a major social problem by implementing minimum unit pricing so that responsible drinkers could buy their drinks as they do now but those who want to buy to binge—and who then end up in A&E incurring large costs or damaging others through their irresponsible behaviour—would be deterred from being able to do so. The chronic overconsumption we are seeing in today’s world would also be affected because if you make alcohol a bit too expensive you build in a deterrent to drinking too much.

My Lords, it is perhaps fair to say that four years ago this amendment would have been tabled by the Government, as David Cameron was at that point in favour of minimum unit pricing, not necessarily at 50p but perhaps at 60p or some other figure. Given the Government’s change of heart on that, we have instead the amendments tabled by some of the country’s greatest experts on the damage caused by alcohol: two eminent doctors, a bishop who sees the problems caused to families as well as to the health of heavy drinkers themselves, and my noble friend Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, who has campaigned for so many years on this issue.

We debate this on the day that Professor Neil Greenberg, the lead on military health at the Royal College of Psychiatrists has said that the Government’s strategy for combating alcohol abuse in the Armed Forces is ineffective. As he says,

“we know that alcohol education doesn’t really work at all, and the evidence from the civilian population is that it’s a terribly ineffective way of stopping people from drinking”.

His words echo those of the Commons Defence Select Committee that the Government’s strategy has not made any noticeable impact on the high levels of excessive drinking in the Armed Forces. Critics argue that the problem is made worse by prices of less than £2 a pint in some military bars. That is, of course, £1 per unit for regular beer, but this amendment seeks a minimum of only half that amount.

Price by itself is, of course, not the answer, as my noble friend Lord Brooke said, and Labour has a wider vision for reducing alcohol-related harm. We want communities to be able to stop their high streets being overrun with new bars and a licensing system which enhances the voice of local communities in licensing decisions. We should look at whether councils should have more power to strengthen conditions on licensed premises and, importantly, we want to make public health a mandatory factor to be taken into account in all licensing. However, this was rejected by the Government when we proposed making public health a licensing condition in 2011.

Although at present local authorities can take account of the prevention of crime or nuisance, public safety and child protection in deciding on licence applications, they cannot consider public health consequences. Labour would make public health a licensing objective and include the director of public health as a key consultee in the creation of a licensing statement. We want public health engrained throughout the licensing system so that measures promoting health, which could include action against high-strength, low-cost products, are included in the licensing statement, and we want to tackle the public health problems associated with drinking by children, some of whom will be at the very functions at which the clause allows alcohol to be sold.

I look forward, as ever, to hearing the Minister trying to wriggle his way out of David Cameron’s decision to drop his commitment to minimum unit pricing. While he is on his feet, perhaps he could also explain why the Chief Medical Officer’s review of safe drinking levels, which was promised in the summer, has yet to appear. Perhaps that is another ducking of the issue. Most of all, I would welcome his assurance that, with hindsight, the Government accept the case for public health being a licensing consideration and his support for that objective.

My Lords, as I was having my supper, with my glass of water, it occurred to me that when I first joined the House of Lords, we often had the phenomenon of the after-dinner speech in which someone, very often from the Conservative side of the House, would deliver an extremely florid speech with high rhetorical flourishes. This Chamber has improved quite considerably over the past 15 years in its attitude to alcohol.

I am sorry to have to tell the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, that my noble friend Lord Gardiner tells me that President Putin has just announced that he is lowering the duty on alcohol in Russia, presumably for the reason that alcohol is what people wish to take refuge in when they are miserable for all sorts of reasons, and there are a lot of reasons why people in Russia are miserable at present.

I was not aware that the Government were thinking about lowering the duty.

The Government recognise that the whole issue of alcohol abuse is a very serious one for this country and that it feeds into public order, public health and a whole range of other issues. I travel into Leeds on Saturday nights, and there are many other cities in Yorkshire where, of a Saturday evening, I often wonder whether the younger generation will die of alcohol abuse or hypothermia first, since they wear almost nothing when they go out on to the streets. I do not know how on earth they manage to get drunk and not break their ankles when their shoes are so impractical. That is the sort of problem we face. I recognise, as the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, remarked, that we have a growing middle-age—or even over-middle-age—problem, but that binge-drinking among the young is one of the problems we have, and it feeds directly into A&E late on Saturday evening. I spent an afternoon with Leeds city police during which all that was made very firmly clear to me.

On the question of selling liquor below cost price, I think we are all aware that supermarkets are the biggest single part of the problem, as they sell loss leaders and cheap alcohol, be that cheap wine or cider below cost price. My answer on this set of amendments to this Bill is that, while I recognise the argument which we all need to have about how best to pursue further the Government’s alcohol strategy, and how we move towards minimum unit pricing, this is not the place to do it. Here, we propose relaxation in two specific small areas. The first is that of small hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation, where we are talking about a nightcap in the evening, which would probably be included in the overall bill—so at that point the question of the price is hard to get at. Then there are events of the sort which I occasionally go to in village barns or community centres, which usually have licences that allow them to sell alcohol only 12 to 15 times a year, when there is a community event. Therefore we are dealing specifically with ancillary sellers and community groups. That is not where alcohol problems come from.

In the part of Yorkshire in which I spend my weekends, there is a great revival of brewing, but of good-quality beer, which is not the sort of thing people get wildly drunk on. On a very cold Saturday last weekend, I asked whether the pub I had gone into had any “winter warmer”—which has a rather higher level of alcohol one can get at this time of year. However, they said, “No, we don’t brew that any longer”, but then offered me a great variety of extremely tasty local 3.5% beers, of which my wife and I consumed a certain amount. That is light years away from the problems that we have with large-scale alcohol abuse. Of course, the third element of alcohol abuse is abuse by those who are mentally disturbed or depressed, which is the Buckie or cheap cider end of the market.

I stress that the Government have not abandoned their alcohol strategy; minimum unit price was only ever part of that strategy. The noble Lord is right to say that the Government are watching the appeal in Scotland and waiting until that has been settled before we move further on minimum unit pricing within England. The Scots Government are themselves awaiting the outcome of the ECJ appeal. As an interim measure, the Government have introduced a ban on selling alcohol again in supermarkets—the biggest single part of the problem—below the cost of duty and VAT combined. Some were selling it as a loss leader below that level. The University of Sheffield has estimated that, in the first year of the ban on sales below duty plus VAT, there will be 100 fewer alcohol-related hospital admissions per year—and, as it got under way, 500 fewer per year, 14 fewer alcohol-related deaths per year, and so on. That is small beer—if noble Lords will excuse me—and a small achievement compared with what minimum alcohol pricing may offer, but it is a small step in what I hope noble Lords will recognise is the right direction.

Alcohol abuse is a real problem for this country. The question of alcohol pricing—in particular of loss-leader pricing—is one which we are much concerned about. This is not a matter for bed and breakfast and community events. It is a matter for city centre clubs at the weekend. It is a very serious matter for supermarkets. That is the direction in which the Government are looking. Therefore, on this particular issue, I cannot give the noble Lord much comfort, because we are dealing here with social drinking of a moderate level. The case where we need to look at minimum unit pricing and alcohol abuse is in a much broader context and in a different context from the average bed and breakfast in Upper Airedale or Upper Wharfedale, which is what we are talking about here—let alone the village barn in Cotterstock, or wherever it may be. For that reason, I am unable to satisfy the noble Lord on this issue.

Nevertheless, I recognise the deep concerns the noble Lord has about the alcohol issue as a whole. I would love to talk further with him about the development of alcoholic sorbets—which, I have to say, I have never yet seen, let alone tasted—and how those are being promoted. As we know, there are also some very serious concerns about the combination of sugar and alcohol in pop drinks for young people, which combines alcohol abuse and the making people obese at the same time. Let us continue to discuss those issues further. Those are the areas on which an alcohol abuse strategy needs to focus—not, I suggest, bed and breakfasts or community barns.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Hayter for her helpful words in the debate, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, who, as ever, is standing up and fighting the just battle that needs to continue to be fought. The Minister, in some respects, talked about movement and shifts towards a change in policy, which is gratifying. He made reference to what some of the Conservative speeches were like in the old days. It is quite interesting that when the Government have a Prime Minister who wants to do an about-turn, both in the Commons and in the Lords they put up Lib Dem Ministers to defend the position. They should reflect on that, given the association of the Lib Dem party with so many of those councils that I mentioned, which are now pressing for this change. But, as noble Lords would expect, I am not surprised that the Minister has declined to accept what I think is a civilised and reasonable offer for them to make a start. The real problem with this change is making the start. I freely concede that it is a precise area in which it would operate, and it may not be the major problem that we would face with alcohol.

The alcohol problems are not solely about Saturday evenings in city centres. They are increasingly prevalent right across the board, particularly with middle-aged people upwards, who are precisely some of the people who go to these community events—that is, recently retired people in their 50s and 60s. These people are now of increasing concern in terms of health issues, as the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, will confirm. There is a hidden growth in the incidence of diabetes linked to alcohol consumption because nobody knows the amount of sugar contained in the alcohol these people are drinking. No calorie or sugar content is shown on the labels. So far the drinks industry, which this Government support, has managed to avoid having to display that on its labels, yet we have a major obesity problem arising linked to the sugar content of alcohol.

I thought that I made the Minister an offer that was too good to turn down given that a group of people is willing to make a start on tackling this issue. Indeed, they are the kind of people who the Government normally worry about penalising when they decide to do an about-turn. They are the people running these organisations, particularly the community events—not so much bed and breakfast—who were prepared to embrace this change and see whether they could make it work. They would be happy to support it in principle and would benefit from it. I am sorry that the Government have not recognised the benefit of making a start on this issue. I will reflect on the Minister’s comments in Hansard and, following consultation with others, we will decide how we proceed at the next stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 23 withdrawn.

Amendments 24 to 26 not moved.

Consideration on Report adjourned.