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My Lords, we are currently reviewing all aspects of the responsibility deal, including for alcohol. Partnership working continues to play an important role and the Government remain committed to its principles. We will continue to engage with the alcohol industry to encourage it to take action to reduce some of the harms caused by alcohol.
My Lords, I am grateful to hear that the Government have decided to review the responsibility deal after its operation for the past five years. During that time, we have seen obesity grow; we have seen no increase in the activity undertaken by individuals; and we have seen more people presenting in hospital with alcohol problems. Will the Minister tell us whether he is sticking to the principles that guided the previous partnership, which was not, in fact, supported by the health industry? What will be the changes in the future to ensure that there is some real pace and real change taking place and that the mechanism of a voluntary approach is not used to delay?
My Lords, we have asked the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to review the impact of the responsibility deal, which it will do later in 2016. There have been, however, some benefits from it on alcohol, to which the noble Lord referred particularly. The number of units not sold as a result of it is 1.3 billion and the package labelling on alcohol products has improved substantially.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would be better named the “irresponsibility deal” and that it is time for effective policies to be introduced, including a minimum unit price; zero tolerance for drinking and driving; and clear and unequivocal advice for pregnant women not to drink?
My Lords, I think that is an incorrect labelling of the responsibility deal. It might not be perfect, but it has achieved some benefits, not just in relation to alcohol but in salt reduction and other areas. On drink and driving, the social argument has been won, and the number of deaths through drink and driving—although still far too high—has gone down from some 1,640 in 1979 to 240. So improvements are being made.
My Lords, I am not sure who considers alcohol to be habit-forming and hallucinatory—whether it is my noble friend or others. I think it depends very much on the quantities in which it is taken.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that the 1.3 billion unit reduction in alcohol consumption of which he spoke represents a reduction of only 2%, and that the alcohol industry itself cannot be relied on to assess objectively the scientific evidence that points strongly towards the need for things such as minimum unit pricing and for alcohol taxation to be proportionate to the alcohol content of drinks?
My Lords, as I say, an independent assessment of the responsibility deal will be done by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. It is important that the assessment is independent and certainly is not undertaken by the industry or, indeed, by the Department of Health. It is worth noting that the consumption of alcohol seemed to peak in 2005 and has declined slightly since then. I am not in any way minimising the appalling damage that alcohol does to the lives of many people, but consumption is coming down slowly.
My Lords, the BMA concluded that the Government’s alcohol policy had been weak and ineffective due to an overreliance on working with the alcohol industry. Does the Minister concur with the BMA’s judgment that the responsibility deal has pursued initiatives that are known to have little effect in reducing alcohol-related harm and that the responsibility deal should now be abandoned?
My Lords, I can only repeat that we will have an independent review of the responsibility deal, at which point we will have objective evidence on which to assess it. I agree entirely with the noble Baroness that the health world, including the BMA and many of the royal colleges, takes a very strong view about alcohol. Many doctors see the appalling impact that it has on individual lives day in and day out, so we take their views extremely seriously.
Can I ask my noble friend the Minister if he agrees that the report from the Institute of Alcohol Studies is purely polemical in character and not a research report at all? Actually, its argument is based on a flawed proposition, which is that the pursuit of voluntary agreements through the responsibility deal prevented the pursuit by government of minimum unit pricing. Does my noble friend agree that from the very outset of the responsibility deal, it was made clear to the industry that its pricing of alcohol andindeed the Government’s attitude in terms of tax and pricing were no part of the responsibility deal, and that within government no discussion of minimum unit pricing was affected by the fact of the responsibility deal?
My Lords, I agree entirely with that. Pubs, clubs and restaurants are a vital part of a happy and cohesive society, so I am very happy to agree with those sentiments.
In Scotland the permitted number of milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood was reduced from 80 to 50, and we will be following that change with great interest. If it results in a significant reduction in the number of deaths on the road, I am sure that we will wish to take it on board.