Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:58 pm on 18 October 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Falkner of Margravine Baroness Falkner of Margravine Spokesperson in the Lords, Children, Schools and Families 12:58, 18 October 2007

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Avebury for initiating this debate. He is an undisputed expert in this area, as the Minister will be aware, being familiar with his Questions and interest over many years. He is an indefatigable campaigner on the issue and a source of enormous expertise to the whole House. This debate is close to his heart and has been a long time coming.

In particular, I hope the Government will look more closely at my noble friend's reference to research on teachable moments and brief interventions. There are clearly examples which need to be looked into of moments when people are at a certain point of vulnerability and it is possible to achieve a great deal more than it would be at other times. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, said, one of the problems with teachable moments is that you very often do not have enough alcohol counsellors to deal with the problems that arise. When the time is ripe, you need to have that ability.

My noble friend Lord Falkland spoke about his years of looking at the problem, not least through the work of the All-Party Alcohol Misuse Group. In preparing for this debate I have looked at a little of that group's excellent report. I was particularly touched by my noble friend's anecdote of his son Charlie's experience. As the parent of a child who is reaching that risk-category age, I empathise hugely with the problems that today's parents face with the issue.

The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, told us some shocking figures from Wales and drew our attention to the importance of availability, as did almost all other noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, warned us of the irresponsible use of statistics; hence I will use them here with trepidation. In fact, now that she has spoken, I will cut out most of them from my speech. But while she has been upbeat about movement being in the right direction compared with statistics from some years ago, I hope she will agree that, for persistent drinkers among children, the figures are not promising. We need to do a huge amount of work there. That is the angle on which I will concentrate my own few remarks in this debate.

The Government's own research acknowledges how intractable the problem is. While there has been a drop in the overall number of children drinking—and the Government are to be congratulated on that—we know that the problem is getting worse with a persistent hard core. According to the latest NHS report, from early September, looking at secondary school pupils in 2006, almost 21 per cent of 11 to 15 year-olds are drinking more than 10 units a week. Of the children who drank in the last week, boys drank 12.3 units and girls drank 10.4.

We know that changing habits and lifestyles is an uphill task in public policy, but we also know that we have good experience in that area. If we take smoking as an analogy, as the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, briefly referred to, it has taken several decades to arrive at the situation where almost everyone, including smokers, is aware of the damage caused to their health and the health of others. We have engaged in public health information campaigns, the science has been definitive and its message has been clearly understood. It is no longer acceptable to expect to smoke in social situations in other people's houses.

We may need to undertake a similar effort with regard to alcohol. I suspect, though, that this will be rather harder because of the prevalence of drinking that is embedded in our culture. Gone are the days when people had a drink on high days and celebrations. Woolworths, for example, has recently been able to market champagne at £5 a bottle along with a range of mix-and-match sweets. It is sending out a clear message that champagne is not for high days but for every day. When that message comes from a national retailer that admits that its customers are mainly among young people under 18, it is doubly worrying.

Leaving aside drink retailers, though, the point I am making is that Britain and some other Anglo-Saxon societies seem to see alcohol as an essential component of leisure and pleasure. Whether it is a quick drink in the pub or wine bar on the way home from work or being curled up on the sofa watching a football game, the indispensable element appears now to be beer or wine. That is clear from the Government's own research, which shows that the problem of alcohol abuse in Britain is deeply rooted and has manifold repercussions in its social costs.

Culture can change over time, however. I will focus on three areas we need to address. First, it is clear that children and young people have easiest access to alcohol in the home. Better parenting is the remedy proposed for a range of social issues, but would it not be better for the alcohol awareness campaign vis-à-vis children also to be directed to parents? My suggestion here is that many parents may not be aware of the extent to which alcohol harms vital organs and children's development and growth in these crucial years. Have the Government commissioned any research into the level of knowledge adults have about the physiological impact on children's health of alcohol consumption?

I know, anecdotally, as the parent of a child in that group, that the social acceptability of children's drinking is an issue on which parents need much greater clarity. The middle classes in Britain have long harboured the view that Continentals are much more liberal about children drinking, and that if only we emulated the so-called Continental lifestyles and allowed our children to drink, they would grow up to be responsible drinkers.

The reality, of course, is that levels of drinking, in adults as well as children, in many countries on the Continent are significantly lower than in Britain. We nevertheless have examples—I am sure that other parents can testify to this—where one goes to lunch or a family party at a weekend and an 11 year-old is allowed a bottle of beer or glass of wine. I have seen it on many occasions. While there are many social problems where the Government are not best placed to bring about social change, this is perhaps an area where there is a role for them to make certain kinds of behaviour unacceptable. Just as smacking children is now socially unacceptable, so, likewise, should we make it socially unacceptable for children to drink with our approval and in our presence.

We know that self-declaration is deceptive as a measure of consumption of alcohol; it is about as deceptive as it was with smoking. The Government's strategy paper states that that is because people may not be aware of the amount they consume, as information about units consumed is not easy to translate into real amounts consumed. Perhaps we need to acknowledge that a parallel labelling system might bring clarity to the debate. An example could be to label bottles of wine and beer more clearly to state the health implications of drinking two, three or six glasses of a given drink. In other words, we need a harder-hitting, clearer message.

One cannot avoid, as many noble Lords have mentioned, the relationship between price, availability and consumption. We know from a recent campaign to stamp down on sales of alcohol to under-age drinkers that 22 pubs and off-licences face fines of up to £10,000 and three-month bans after being caught repeatedly serving under-age teenagers. A further 224 licensed premises were caught twice during the sting operation. That enforcement campaign ran 10 weeks and found, according to the accompanying press release, that "only" 15 percent of pubs and shops were prepared to sell alcohol to teenagers. I would argue that 15 per cent is way too high. If a short campaign resulted in those figures, the problem may be more severe during seasons when drink consumption rises across the board.

We therefore welcome the Government's commitment to a review. As the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, reminded us, the evidence exists in spades; now we need to act on it. There may also be a case for greater consultation with parents and communities on their preferences for availability of alcohol. Last year, Massachusetts held a referendum at the time of local elections on whether to extend the availability of alcohol in retail outlets on Sundays. After vibrant campaigning on both sides of the debate, the public were much better informed and voted a resounding "no". Perhaps the lesson here is that simply supplying information is not enough and that we need to engage people in decisions about the kind of society that they want. I suspect that that engagement will show, as polls have done, that people are concerned but perhaps impotent in terms of voice. We need to take this campaign forward in many different ways.