My Lords, last week the Government published their response to the recent consultation on the alcohol strategy. This sets out our next steps for reducing alcohol-related harm. These include banning the sale of alcohol below the level of duty plus VAT and tightening up restrictions on irresponsible promotions. Minimum unit pricing will not be taken forward at present but it will remain a policy under consideration.
My Lords, alcohol has been shown to be much the most harmful of all the addictive drugs if one takes into account its social as well as its physical impact. As the latest figures show, the physical impact is becoming more serious and it seems likely that liver disease will soon overtake heart disease as the biggest killer. In 2008, the Government’s own research department showed that increasing the price of alcohol led to a steep decline in alcohol consumption and was a most effective way of dealing with it, and lots of other research confirms that. Why, then, have the Government changed their mind? They announced their intention to increase alcohol pricing and it was widely welcomed. Why do they ignore the evidence on this urgent issue when there is scientific evidence showing that action would save lives, reduce hospital admissions and reduce crime?
My Lords, the Government are not ignoring the evidence; in fact a study published recently by Sheffield University is very interesting in this subject area. That is why the Government have introduced the whole business of duty plus VAT—so that, for example, low-alcohol beer cannot be sold below 40p a can and strong lager below £1.15. This has been a long-standing problem which Governments of all types have not been prepared to deal with. This Government have a strategy now to deal with it and I hope that it has the support of the House.
My Lords, my interest is as chair of the Board of Science at the British Medical Association. I understand that research commissioned by the Department of Health shows that this policy on its own will not have any impact. How much of an increase in price does this new policy represent? I estimate that the policy will mean a minimum shop price of 21p per unit for beer and 28p for spirits—considerably less than the 45p minimum unit price previously being considered.
My Lords, I have some figures that might inform the House. In 2008—the latest figures that I have available—retailers sold 220 million litres of alcohol below cost. Six out of seven supermarkets sell alcohol below cost. That is what we are tackling with duty plus VAT. It is part of a combination of strategies to reduce alcohol and binge drinking in this country.
My Lords, that is a slightly different issue from alcohol but I can see the relation between the two. As for Mr Lynton Crosby, I have no doubt that Australians have been able to give lessons to all of us. I am sure that the Labour Party is taking great note of its sister party in Australia as regards how to deal with the party leadership.
The evidence is quite clear that minimum unit pricing has two dramatic effects. First, it cuts the level of alcohol-related deaths and sharply reduces admissions to hospital, as my noble friend has said. Equally importantly, it drives drinkers steadily towards lower-strength alcohol from high-strength alcohol—which has nothing to do with the Minister’s proposal about VAT and all the rest of it. Given the latest evidence from Saskatchewan and from Sheffield University with regard to the United Kingdom, will the Prime Minister and the Cabinet readdress this issue, at a time when many thousands of English and Scottish people suffer from the effects of serious alcohol, including not least in domestic violence?
I reiterate to my noble friend that the minimum unit pricing policy remains under consideration. It has not been shelved.
My Lords, I am surprised by that answer. On several occasions I have asked the noble Lord from this Dispatch Box about this so that I might understand why the Government have moved from absolute certainty that they would introduce minimum alcohol pricing to equivocation and a consultation, and now seem to be moving to total rejection. Following David Cameron’s evasive answers at the weekend, the lobbyist and Prime Minister’s adviser, Lynton Crosby, has stated that he has never spoken to the Prime Minister about plain packaging for cigarettes. Can the Minister give us the same assurance about minimum alcohol pricing? Do the Government consider that Mr Crosby should now declare all his lobbying clients?