Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:29 pm on 18 October 2007.

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Photo of Viscount Falkland Viscount Falkland Liberal Democrat 12:29, 18 October 2007

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Avebury for giving me the opportunity to debate with other noble Lords this problem of alcohol in our society. I pay tribute to his work—of which noble Lords may not be aware—having worked with him on the recent, dismaying alcohol Bill and seen the amount of badgering he did of Ministers, officials and police officers, and the amount of information he got. He is probably one of the major figures in the fight to reduce alcohol harm in our society, and a difficult job that is too.

Any of us who have had any sort of military training, however slight—in my case, being in the cadet force and in the Army for a short period— learnt very early on that a strategy has to have clear fundamentals and aims. Any Government face great difficulty in trying to produce a strategy to reduce the overall harm in our society. I do not blame them for trying to do it, but each of the many components of the problem—the constraints of time do not allow me to go through as many of them as I would like—requires a different strategy and different tactics to enable the strategy to be carried out.

I always think of myself as a young man, but I realise that I have been speaking in this House on alcohol since I joined the All-Party Group on Alcohol Abuse—now the All-Party Group on Alcohol Misuse—22 years ago. During that time, we have had some excellent chairmen and I have learnt a lot, but what has been achieved in dealing with the harm alcohol causes in our society has, for all kinds of reasons, been very slight.

One area where there has been a cultural change is drink-driving, but to my dismay I find that that is faltering a little. Whether it is because of a new generation coming along, new patterns of policing or whatever, the reduction of harm from drinking and driving has evened out. That is very worrying. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, made an excellent speech which referred to that, but she did not recommend what I would recommend: that the Government think again about coming into line with other countries and reducing the amount of alcohol that drivers are allowed to drink. I do not know why we stand out and stand firm on allowing what is nowadays a comparatively high level. It is much higher than that in France, which, through a combination of that lower level and the quite draconian policing introduced by the new President, Mr Sárközy, when he was at the Ministry of the Interior, has seen considerable reductions in accidents on the roads as a result of drinking.

It would be invidious to select an individual chairman of the All-Party Group, but Alan Milburn, when he was chairman, set up an inquiry into the institutions—police, prisons and so on—to see what the problem was. We took considerable evidence and produced a very good report which was greeted politely but is now gathering dust somewhere in the Home Office. Of course, these matters are now not necessarily dealt with in the same way by the same departments of state. If that report were dug out and taken seriously, it would give a great deal of information about what happens in prisons, referred to by the noble Baroness, in the Probation Service and in hospitals.

One of the most memorable events during those 22 years was taking evidence in a hospital in Liverpool. A nurse in the accident and emergency department told us about the extraordinary change in juvenile drinking resulting in children being brought in by their friends when found in a coma after taking enormous amounts of alcohol in the course of an evening's revels. That alarms their friends to the extent that they take children to accident and emergency wards, where they must be attended to very quickly to deal with the alcohol poisoning and to prevent permanent brain damage and possible death. That struck me very forcefully. That is an ongoing problem: juveniles drink more than they used to and young women drink to an extent that they did not use to.

On that subject, I think—and have done so for the past 20 years—that a number of measures have been quite pointless. One is illustrated by my 15 year-old son, my youngest son. One afternoon, I was sitting exactly where I am standing now quietly listening to a debate. I got a vibration on my mobile and there was a message from his housemaster at school which said, "Sad news, I am afraid. Charlie has been found in possession of a forged proof-of-age card". I got very concerned about that; I knew that his mother would be very concerned about that. On further inquiry, I found that every child who has the nous to do it as a forged proof-of-age card. They get them off the internet. His fault was not the fact that he had a proof-of-age card, it was the fact that he was caught. The message further said to me, "We decided to go to look at his locker, where we found that he had a store of Strongbow cider". He was not drinking the cider, he was trading it, which I think was a good point; he is obviously a budding entrepreneur, so his rather patchy academic life may not be so important as he is showing some skills not only in drawing and painting, which is his main forte, but in dealings. So I have great hopes for him, but not much hope for the proof-of-age card.