Alcohol: Minimum Pricing — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:31 pm on 24th July 2013.

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Photo of Lord Taverne Lord Taverne Liberal Democrat 3:31 pm, 24th July 2013

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the number of alcohol-related deaths among women in their 30s and 40s, whether they will reconsider their policy on alcohol unit pricing.

Photo of Lord Taverne Lord Taverne Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as a trustee of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs.

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

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.

Photo of Lord Taverne Lord Taverne Liberal Democrat

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?

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

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.

Photo of Baroness Hollins Baroness Hollins Crossbench

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.

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

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.

Photo of Lord Morris of Handsworth Lord Morris of Handsworth Labour

My Lords, in the light of the number of substance-related deaths, will the Government consider returning to the policy of requiring cigarettes to be in plain packaging? The House will recall that this is the policy on which Mr Lynton Crosby has never lobbied the Prime Minister.

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

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.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Crosby Baroness Williams of Crosby Liberal Democrat

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?

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I reiterate to my noble friend that the minimum unit pricing policy remains under consideration. It has not been shelved.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

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?

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The noble Baroness has been in government and I am sure that she knows the procedures and the way in which Ministers behave in relation to advisers. I give that assurance in the knowledge that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister will vouch for that himself.