With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement on the Government’s response to the alcohol strategy consultation. Today we are publishing an analysis of responses to the consultation, along with a “next steps” document. Copies of both are available in the House Library.
Drunken behaviour and alcohol-fuelled disorder can make towns and cities effective no-go areas for law-abiding people, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights. In nearly 50% of the incidents of violence that took place in 2011-12, the victim believed that the perpetrator was under the influence of alcohol. Excessive alcohol consumption costs the taxpayer huge amounts of money: alcohol-related crime and health harms are estimated to cost society about £21 billion every year. The Government therefore have a role in seeking to curb excessive drinking. We have already increased duty on alcopops, and have introduced a wide-ranging set of reforms to tackle binge drinking.
We want fair and effective policies. We are not in the business of making laws that do not work. For that reason we have consulted widely, and have taken time to consider carefully the representations that we have received and all the relevant arguments. Our response identifies three kinds of action that are necessary. The first is targeted national action: the Government must deal with cheap alcohol, and the alcohol industry must strengthen its voluntary commitments to reduce alcohol-related harms.
There has been much speculation about the Government’s plans in relation to minimum unit pricing. That policy will remain under consideration, but it will not be proceeded with at this time. We do not yet have enough concrete evidence that its introduction would be effective in reducing harms associated with problem drinking—this is a crucial point—without penalising people who drink responsibly. We will tackle the most egregious examples of cheap alcohol by banning sales of alcohol below the level of alcohol duty plus value-added tax. That will come into effect in England and Wales no later than the spring of 2014, and will stop the worst instances of deep discounting that result in alcohol being sold cheaply and harmfully. It will no longer be legal to sell a can of ordinary-strength lager for less than about 40p.
We have decided not to ban multi-buy promotions. There is still a lack of convincing evidence that it would have a significant effect in reducing consumption. It would not be reasonable for us to introduce a ban, especially at a time when responsible families are trying hard to balance their household budgets. We will, however, make current mandatory licensing conditions more effective. We will enable tougher action to be taken to deal with irresponsible promotions in pubs and clubs, and will promote responsible drinking by raising customer awareness of the availability of small servings.
Our decision not to proceed with the introduction of minimum unit pricing at this stage gives the alcohol industry an opportunity to demonstrate what more it can do to reduce the harms associated with problem drinking. Our challenge to the industry is to increase its efforts, building on what has already been achieved through the public health responsibility deal. That includes improving education to promote safer drinking, reducing the availability of the high-strength products that cause the most harm for problem drinkers, and responsible marketing and product placement.
Secondly, we intend to facilitate local action. Targeted action by pubs and clubs themselves has proved hugely effective in curbing irresponsible drinking. Best Bar None, National Pubwatch, Purple Flag and community alcohol partnerships are all good examples of what can be achieved when industry works in partnership with local areas. We will build on this by identifying a number of high-harm local alcohol action areas and work with them to strengthen local partnerships, improve enforcement and increase good practice of what works locally, including how areas can make the most of available health data as part of local decision making.
The third area is promoting growth, by freeing up responsible business and community groups from unnecessary red tape, while maintaining the integrity of the licensing system. We will make it quicker and easier for community groups and those wanting to sell small amounts of alcohol as part of a wider service to do so via the community and ancillary seller’s notice. We will increase the annual limit for the number of temporary event notices that can apply to a particular premises from 12 to 15, and free up businesses that provide late-night refreshment by removing the requirement to have a licence where there is no need for one. We will abolish the requirement to renew personal licences every 10 years. We also plan to consult on whether to abolish personal licences altogether.
Taken together, the Government’s response to the alcohol strategy consultation represents a proportionate approach to tackling the worst excesses of alcohol consumption without penalising law-abiding people or responsible businesses. That is the right balance, and I commend this statement to the House.
May I start by thanking the Minister for giving me advance sight of his statement? He told us that the Government’s policy on alcohol is on track, and I wondered whether that was why I was sent his statement with the track changes still in place. After several months of speculation, we finally have confirmation to Parliament that the Government have performed a U-turn on their flagship policy, abandoning their intention to bring in minimum unit pricing and a ban on multi-buy deals. However, the Minister appears to have added in his track change—the “at this time”—which did not appear in the original Home Office statement.
As we know, this was the Prime Minister’s personal policy, and it was a policy that the Home Secretary was so keen to introduce that she made minimum unit pricing the first major policy announcement in the House on a Friday for more than a decade. Now she sends her Liberal Democrat deputy to announce the U-turn. The Government may pretend this is not a U-turn, but the evidence is overwhelming. The consultation was never about whether or not to introduce minimum alcohol pricing; it was about what level that should be at, and the Government chose 45p to consult on.
Here is what the Home Secretary said to this House last year:
“We will... introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol…We will consult over the coming months on the level of the minimum unit price and will seek to introduce legislation as soon as possible.”—[Hansard, 23 March 2012; Vol. 542, c. 1071-1072.]
The Prime minister said:
“I know this won’t be universally popular. But the responsibility of being in government isn’t always about doing the popular thing. It’s about doing the right thing."
Perhaps the Minister could explain why, if it was the right thing to do then, it is not the right thing to do now. Will he explain what representations Public Health England has made to him about this policy U-turn?
Labour has been calling for a complete package of measures to tackle alcohol problems, including dealing with licensing, education in schools and giving public health a bigger role. Labour has said all along that several issues with minimum alcohol pricing had to be addressed before implementation. We argued that it could result in a windfall to supermarkets, and we were concerned that it may not be compatible with EU law and also that it was not the magic bullet the Government were claiming. But we also clearly offered to work with the Government to overcome those obstacles. They chose to ignore all those concerns and pressed ahead with their flagship policy on minimum unit pricing. So, of course, Lynton Crosby has now ordered a U-turn, to get the barnacles off the boat, and minimum pricing, along with most of the rest of the alcohol strategy and other important public health measures, has been scrapped. MPs have been left to read about it in the press over the weekend, while Cabinet members compete to improve their standing in the Tory party by briefing the press of their opposition.
Instead, we now hear that the Government want to introduce a ban on the sale of alcohol “below cost”. That policy was first announced in a written ministerial statement in January 2011, so we have taken two and a half years to return to exactly where we started. The Minister claims that that proposal will ban cheap supermarket sales, but research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that such a ban would raise the price of less than 1% of the alcohol sold in the off-trade, with most of that sold in discount stores, not supermarkets.
The Government put minimum unit pricing at the heart of their approach and have now abandoned it, and many other policies are just not working. The late-night levy has not worked. Will the Minister confirm that no local authority has actually introduced a late-night levy and that the estimates on how much additional revenue it would raise for cash-strapped police forces will not materialise? Nothing has been done on education in our schools or on advertising. The alcohol strategy was meant to be about changing the culture of excessive consumption, but the level of binge drinking among 15 to 16-year-olds in the UK compares poorly with that in many other European countries. Mentor, the drug and alcohol charity, says that 60% of schools fail to teach drug and alcohol education more than once a year. And why is there no mention here of the role for health and wellbeing boards, set up by this Government, and why is public health not a licensing condition? We are also still waiting for the Government to make up their mind on full cost recovery for licence applications for local authorities, which are struggling with reducing budgets and having to take enforcement action.
Given the measures in the statement on personal licences and temporary events, it seems to envisage that economic growth in this country will now be powered by the late-night drinking economy—is this the Bullingdon plan for growth? After attacking the Licensing Act 2003, it is curious that Ministers now want more late-night drinking. Do I detect traces of lobbying on the Minister’s breath? After a two-year Whitehall farce over the Government’s alcohol strategy we have ended up exactly where we started. On minimum alcohol pricing, the Prime Minister, like the Grand Old Duke of York, has marched us up the hill and back down again. This is a Government who could not organise an alcohol policy in a brewery.
If the people sitting on the Opposition Front Bench suddenly find the conscience to get into apology mode, they might reflect on the fact that they introduced the liberalisation of the alcohol sales sector because they thought it would increase economic growth.
Let me deal with some of the points raised by the hon. Lady. She said that I was trying to conceal something in the text, so let me read out what I said in my statement only a few minutes ago. On minimum unit pricing, I said, “This will remain a policy under consideration but will not be taken forward at this time.” I could not have been more explicit, but no doubt her textual analysis was exciting in some ways.
On the consultation process, she gives the impression that there was an overwhelming response in favour of minimum unit pricing. However, we consulted openly and I can tell the House that 34% of respondents agreed that a 45p minimum unit price was a targeted and proportionate level and would significantly reduce harm, but 56%—substantially more—disagreed with that proposition. So we consulted on it and we heard what people had to say. We are, of course, mindful, in a way that some Opposition Members may not be, that introducing a minimum unit price has significant impacts on people with low incomes. It does not affect the Labour elite in north London, but it does affect some of the people who have traditionally voted for them.
What is Labour’s position on the minimum unit price? I understand that Labour voted against a minimum unit price for alcohol in Scotland, but here in England and Wales the party does not seem to know whether it is for it or against it. I have announced what the Government’s position is, but it would help to hear from the Opposition. We are spending millions of pounds of taxpayers’ of Short money every year on giving them a chance to formulate some sensible policies, but so far they have not been able to come up with any at all.
“we must deal with the problem of 20p or 25p cans of lager being available in supermarkets.”—[Hansard, 13 March 2013; Vol. 560, c. 307.]
What I said in my statement is that it “will no longer be legal to sell a can of ordinary- strength lager for less than about 40p”, which is higher than the 20p or 25p mentioned by the Prime Minister.
Let me make two final points in response to the hon. Lady. She says that nothing is being done voluntarily, but that simply is not true. The alcohol industry is making a substantial number of changes and taking products off the shelves that it agrees are irresponsible to sell.
I have never met Lynton Crosby and I have no idea of his views on this subject. The only impact that he had on my life was when he tried to stop me from getting elected to Parliament in 2005. I do know, however, that I have set out to the House a strong liberal package that promotes fairer competition, the deregulation of burdens on business and personal freedom.
Two people are admitted to hospital every minute as a result of alcohol, half of all crime is alcohol related and alcohol misuse costs England £22 billion a year. Canada has already implemented a form of minimum unit pricing for alcohol, and scientific studies show that minimum pricing has a clear and positive impact on reducing alcohol-related deaths. Does not that show that today’s decision to delay minimum pricing leaves our public health policy dangerously lagging behind and that it will ultimately cost lives?
I do not accept my hon. Friend’s point for two reasons: first, it is perfectly possible—we are seeing evidence of this—to effect positive change regarding alcohol harm through local action and industry initiatives; and, secondly, people have to exercise some personal choice. I know that that is not the opinion of every hon. Member, but it is a legitimate opinion, because the Government cannot determine every choice that people make in their lives. If that was the approach, why stop at 45p and why not have a minimum price of £1.45? We must get the balance right, and we should not unfairly penalise people who behave responsibly.
The statement is a huge disappointment. On
Again, I do not accept the right hon. Gentleman’s core premise. In response to the consultation, 34% of people favoured a 45p minimum unit price, but 56% disagreed with that proposal. The most commonly expressed concern was that such a policy would have an unfair impact on responsible or moderate drinkers. It is reasonable to make the point that a person who can afford to drink a bottle of Chablis every evening would not be affected by the right hon. Gentleman’s approach, yet a person without the means to buy Chablis, and who therefore had to drink a cheaper bottle of white wine every evening, would be affected. There are several reasonable considerations that we must bear in mind about the social impact of introducing minimum unit pricing.
The Minister is exactly right. Those who would suffer due to the policy would be not the nanny-state elite drinking an expensive bottle of claret in their posh suburb of Leicester, but the poor. Why should we price the poor out of alcohol and why should we not trust them?
There is a balance to be struck. We are introducing a floor involving VAT and duty to tackle the most extreme examples, while the industry is taking action by removing products such as White Lightning and Strongbow Black. I also note that Waitrose has removed its strong 8.2% cider brand. However, individuals also have to take responsibility for their choices and decisions, and we think that we are getting the balance right.
Given that almost half of all violent crime is carried out by offenders who are under the influence of alcohol, what action is the Minister taking with his colleagues in the Department of Health and the Ministry of Justice to ensure that there is a massive increase in the availability and provision of alcohol treatment for those in prison and on release?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The main crime statistics will be released tomorrow, but I should say to hon. Members that there has been a steady fall in violent crime over the three years of this Government, as has been the case for virtually every category of crime, which I welcome. He is right, however, that we need to ensure that prisoners who have been exposed to drugs, alcohol and other harms are rehabilitated, so we aspire to achieve that even more effectively in the prison system.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on setting out a sensible package of measures and resisting the call for the easy answer that we have heard from Labour Members. No one would deny that such things as binge drinking represent a real problem in many parts of the country, but is it not clear that that should be dealt with locally? Measures to empower licensing authorities to deal with problems where they arise represent the right way to address this, rather than adopting the simple blanket policy that some advocate.
Unsurprisingly, I accept my right hon. Friend’s point. Problems due to excessive alcohol consumption, especially at evenings and weekends, are much more pronounced in some parts of the country than others, which is because some towns have shown more imagination and initiative on dealing with social problems. However, those towns with particular problems have powers through which they can raise their game, so I hope that they will use them effectively.
Sunday’s edition of The Observer reported that the Faculty of Public Health had withdrawn from the Government’s responsibility deal. It has followed many other organisations, including Alcohol Concern. The president of the faculty, Professor John Ashton, said that many of his members would
“conclude that the government’s policies are putting the interests of industry ahead of improving people’s health.”
He is right, is he not?
Let me make a couple of brief points. When such consultations take place, respondents with a particular health perspective usually come from the angle of reducing health harms, but many contributors who want to retain the freedom to buy a wide range of alcohol without the state telling people how to behave will come from a different angle. Secondly—[Interruption.]
Order. I apologise for interrupting the Minister, but I say to Mr Barron that he is an illustrious figure in the House. He holds an extremely important position by chairing the Committee on Standards and the Committee of Privileges. I know that he feels extremely strongly about these matters, but he must not compete with other Members for the title of chunterer-in-chief.
My brief second point is that the right hon. Gentleman is of sufficient means that if he feels that he does not want to buy low-cost alcohol, I can recommend he does not do so.
May I welcome the scrapping of the vicinity test so that more people will be able to object to new off licences in their area? There was a case in Kettering of a person who wanted to object to a new off licence but was unable to do so because he lived just a few hundred yards away from the premises. By getting rid of the test, more people will be able to object.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about something that has perhaps not received the attention it deserves. There are many changes through Government policy to give local people in such circumstances more power and a greater say in their community. I am also pleased that we are relaxing the law so that it is easier for the community groups in all our constituencies that put on events that people enjoy in village halls and community centres to provide small amounts of alcohol in convivial circumstances. I am sure that many hon. Members will appreciate that, too.
The consultation was held across England and Wales. We received about 1,500 responses and, as I said, the majority of people disagreed with a 45p minimum unit price, while about 75% of people—three quarters—expressed concern that the policy would affect people other than harmful or hazardous drinkers. Such a concern has been expressed universally.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that 56% of respondents disagreed with a minimum unit price of 45p, but does he know how many thought it should be zero and how many thought it should be higher, for example 50p? What extra concrete evidence do the Government want before a decision can be made on this policy?
My hon. Friend makes a typically astute point. People were asked whether they agreed with a minimum unit price of 45p. The majority said that they did not and only about a third said that they did, but we do not know whether the majority disagreed because they thought it should be twice as high or half as high; they just disagreed with the figure they were given. I think that it is important to look at the evidence from the legal developments in Scotland, if it is forthcoming in time, and from Canada to see how the policy works in practice. There are some other points that are worth bearing in mind, which I have tried to touch on this afternoon, about getting the balance right between how many harms a minimum unit price would prevent and the restrictions on people’s ability to live their lives freely and make individual choices. That is the balance we have tried to strike in today’s statement.
Thousands of babies are born damaged by alcohol every year, many with permanent genetic damage. Will the Government give further serious consideration to introducing legislation making it compulsory for all drinks containers to have a written health warning aimed at women of child-bearing age, combined with a pregnant mother symbol?
The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point about the terrible foetal damage that excessive alcohol consumption can cause during pregnancy, although I think that it would be better directed at Health Ministers, rather than Home Office Ministers. I know that some warnings exist to alert expectant mothers to the risks, but no doubt the Minister for Public Health, my hon. Friend Anna Soubry, will take his word seriously and see what more can be done.
Given that the Government’s own figures show a 16% reduction in alcohol consumption since 2004 and the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts further drops over the next five years, should not the Government now be focusing on evidence-based solutions, for example proper enforcement and better education, and industry-led solutions such as community alcohol partnerships, which have led to a reduction in under-age drinking in tough areas such as Barnsley, where it is down by 30%, and Durham, where it is down by 37%?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Much of the criticism being directed at me is based on the premise that alcohol consumption and violent crime are going up, but actually both are going down. The one note of caution I would mention to him is that that is overall alcohol consumption across the population. The Government do not deny that there are problems with people drinking excessively or inappropriately. The question is how we deal with those problems. We have suggested many practical measures as a result of the consultation, which we believe will be helpful in that regard.
The Minister talks about improving education to promote safer drinking, something that everyone will welcome. Which of the Science and Technology Committee’s recommendations on that has he taken into account? Has he taken into account our evidence-based recommendation that there ought to be at least two alcohol-free days in the safety guidance?
Again, safe levels of alcohol consumption are more a matter for the Department of Health than the Home Office. With regard to licensing regulations, we have brought in quite a lot of restrictions. For example, it will no longer be possible to find the kinds of offers where a flat-rate fee is paid to enter a bar and one can then get unlimited free drinks, or where women are served free drinks but men are not. Such promotions, which we believe were irresponsible and encouraged irresponsible and excessive drinking, represent exactly the type of approach that we have been able to curtail using the lighter touch and more localised approach that I have recommended to Members this afternoon.
Although I welcome much of the Minister’s statement, does he not accept that the community pub is not the problem, but the solution to problem drinking? Does he not accept that drink bought in supermarkets at cheap prices is the problem, which the statement will do nothing to address? Does he honestly think that this policy will put prices up on the supermarket shelf?
I do not wholly agree with my hon. Friend’s conclusions. I will make three very brief points. First, I think that the measure will make a difference—I am not exaggerating its scale—by introducing VAT plus duty as the bottom threshold. Secondly, many supermarkets are taking voluntary action following the types of representations I have been talking about. Asda, for example, has removed alcohol promotions from the reception areas of its supermarkets, which some people thought were inappropriate. Thirdly, the Government reduced beer duty in the most recent statement from the Chancellor, which I hope will help pubs in my hon. Friend’s constituency and across the country.
I think that that is an offensive question. If not having a minimum unit price for alcohol meant that a Government were tacitly accepting that it was legitimate to be violent in the home, why did the previous Labour Government not introduce one? I just do not accept that. People have to make reasonable and rational decisions, and that is what we have done. We have not climbed down; we have put forward a package of measures that, as I have said, strikes the right balance between protecting people and reducing harm and protecting personal responsibility.
I do not have NICE’s specific representation to hand but, as I have said, the majority of respondents did not believe that we should go ahead with the 45p minimum unit price. As for the ban on multi-buy promotions, which we have rejected, the opinion was split about 50-50, but again the common concern—it was raised not just by institutions, but by ordinary people who want to live their lives without being micro-managed by the Government—was that moderate and sensible drinkers should not be unreasonably penalised, and I think they have a point.
If Carlsberg did statements, we just heard it from the Minister. It is unfortunate that this Government are not following the fine example of the Scottish Government in pursuing minimum unit pricing for alcohol and plain packaging for cigarettes. We will go ahead with that, because we have no Lynton Crosby and no right-wing Tories in Scotland. Will the Minister assure me that he will do all he can to ensure that the Scottish Government can get down to the business of tackling our health problems?
We have devolution, so nobody is suggesting that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues should not go ahead with that in Scotland, just so long as none of us sees him drinking anything down here during the week.
Is the Minister aware of the evidence from Sheffield that was published this morning and shows that the impact of having a threshold at duty plus VAT would be a decrease in consumption of one 400th of 1%? In other words, it will be meaningless. Meanwhile, doctors up and down the country, who are fed up with being lectured on how to reduce avoidable mortality in the NHS, see the one tool that they are asking for to reduce avoidable mortality through liver disease taken away.
I do accept that it will have a more limited impact than introducing minimum unit pricing, but it will of course have some impact. Fundamentally, there are two different ways we can see politics; I say this to Opposition Front Benchers. We can either believe that the state has primacy and should impose its decisions on individuals, or say that individuals should be given some discretion about how they live their own lives. I think that individuals should be free to make some personal choices. [Interruption.] Chris Bryant and the others who are shouting at me throughout this statement clearly disagree. [Interruption.]
Order. The wider point that the Minister makes about constant shouting is of course true. I have urged colleagues to calm down, and I hope that they will. We are getting towards the break, and a degree of tolerance would be appropriate. I do not think that the Minister has been notably provocative; he has just been giving his answers.
According to Balance, a fantastic organisation campaigning on alcohol issues, north-east England has the highest rate of under-18s in specialised alcohol treatment as well as the highest rate of alcohol-related hospital admissions in England. Why does not the Minister agree with every single local authority in the north-east and, it seems, every single health organisation in the country that a minimum unit price for alcohol is overdue and that the Government must not give in to the alcohol lobby in the way they have to the tobacco lobby?
It is up to local authorities and local areas to take action. If local areas are not taking sufficient action on alcohol licensing or public health in the hon. Gentleman’s part of the country, he should urge them to do so. He refers to under-18s, but it is not legal for them to buy alcohol or tobacco.
I am pleased that the blanket approach has not been adopted because the target is heavy, not moderate, drinkers. Does the Minister agree that there is little advantage in lining the turnover of supermarkets when local initiatives can adapt to local needs? With a coalition of retailers, police commissioners, pubs and, above all, local authorities, we can have more impact locally, where the situation is of course different from area to area.
My hon. Friend makes an important point and does so very well. I merely add that the position of Opposition Front Benchers who are shouting at me throughout this statement is, in effect, that they think that money should be taken from their poorest constituents and put towards the profits of supermarkets. That is an unusual position for Labour Members to take.
In the debate on the Loyal Address, I asked the Prime Minister a question in which I referred to a minimum price for alcohol. In his response he said:
“On minimum pricing for alcohol, it is important that we take action to deal with deeply discounted alcohol”.—[Hansard, 8 May 2013; Vol. 563, c. 24.]
The Prime Minister gave a commitment then, but unfortunately what we have today is selective unit price reduction. As alcoholism rises among young people with great vigour, as it has in the past, what steps will the Minister take, with Health Ministers, to initiate a strategy to address alcoholism among young people?
We are working across Government to tackle the harms caused by alcohol. I have described many of those actions in my statement and in response to questions. The Prime Minister specifically said that we must deal with the problem of 20p or 25p cans of lager being available in supermarkets. In dealing with that today, we are taking the type of action that many Members will approve of.
Government will do to tackle those who are not paying duty plus VAT and selling alcohol illegally? That puts a lot of money into the pockets of organised crime, as he well knows.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. This does impact on organised crime. Responsibility for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs lies with the Treasury, rather than the Home Office, and it is clearly keen to take ongoing measures to prevent public harms and to increase the revenue to Government. Duty plus VAT is a perfectly reasonable competition measure that the Government are introducing. It is an uncompetitive practice for supermarkets or others to sell alcohol below the level of tax that they have to pay on that alcohol. Anybody who has a free market perspective and does not want smaller retailers to be unfairly disadvantaged will see that as another reason to support this measure.
I speak as someone with a relative who continually battles with being an alcoholic. The vast majority of people who drink do so responsibly. Therefore, rather than hiking the price, why not place an appropriate levy on the industry to guarantee suitable help and support for those in need?
I am sorry to hear about my hon. Friend’s relative; I think he has raised that personal case before in deliberations of this type. The industry is taking actions that I have sought to outline in some detail during our deliberations. The problem that confronts all Governments, or anybody who has to make a political decision, is how much they restrict the liberties of the majority to protect the minority from inflicting harm on themselves. There is a balance to be struck. The majority of people who responded to our consultation did not want the individual choices of the majority of responsible drinkers to be unfairly penalised because some people use alcohol irresponsibly.