Amendment 163

Health and Care Bill - Report (4th Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:23 pm on 16 March 2022.

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Baroness Finlay of Llandaff:

Moved by Baroness Finlay of Llandaff

163: After Clause 164, insert the following new Clause—“Alcohol labelling(1) The Secretary of State must, no later than one year after this Act is passed—(a) publish a report on alcohol labelling, assessing which elements should be mandatory on labels to improve consumer knowledge, and this should include, but not be limited to—(i) warning about alcohol harms,(ii) calorific and other nutritional information,(b) lay the report before Parliament, and a Minister of the Crown must arrange to make a statement to each House of Parliament setting out any steps which will be taken to implement the findings of the report.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment requires the Secretary of State to publish a report on alcohol labelling to improve consumer knowledge.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, we now come to an amendment on alcohol, and I declare that I chair the Commission on Alcohol Harm. This amendment is designed to get the Government to produce a report on labelling, which is long overdue. Some people in this Chamber have been asking for it for 20 years or so, and nobody can quite understand the delay.

My amendment looks at the feasibility of putting information on labels about the harms and calorie content, and it runs completely in line with the Government’s strategy on trying to do something about obesity across the nation. I know that some people in the alcohol industry have suggested that they would like to put a QR code on, but it seems almost impossible to imagine people going with their mobile phones along a supermarket shelf looking at all these QR codes. If they can put some printing on the QR code, they could put on some printing with proper health information, harms information and calorie information in a way that one can read it in a reasonably sized font.

Alcohol is the leading cause of death and ill-health among 15 to 49 year-olds. It is linked to more than 200 health conditions. Alcohol is highly calorific: two glasses of wine can contain almost the entire daily recommended sugar limit. If you have two glasses of some wines, you will have a calorific intake that is the same as that of a big burger. This is not small numbers of calories.

Currently, the only legal requirements on alcohol labels are alcohol by volume, the volume itself and the common allergens that may be present. This does not match up with other food and drink. Alcohol labels do not list ingredients, calories or other information such as health impacts. There is more information on a bottle of orange juice or a carton of milk than there is on a bottle of wine.

The Government have committed money for the drugs strategy. That is most welcome, but I hope it will not all get diverted into drugs of addiction and that it will actually be used to support alcohol treatment services. We know that, in the last few years, only about one in five dependent drinkers have been able to access treatment services for their alcohol addiction.

The problem for consumers when they start out is that they do not know what they are consuming. They do not realise how calorie-laden the drinks are, and they cannot make informed choices about their health. Nor can they make informed choices about the dangers they pose to others, which includes other people with whom they interact when they are intoxicated as well as the dangers in driving.

Voluntary labelling has failed. We have seen again and again that consumers will not get the information they need on alcohol labels unless it is required in legislation. Seven in 10 people think that the warning should be displayed on alcohol labels as a legal requirement. Even the symbol not to drink in pregnancy is so tiny that it is not getting the message across, and foetal alcohol syndrome featured on the “Today” programme just this morning.

I remind the House that we took forward the Domestic Abuse Act, and one in five people are harmed by other people’s drinking.

As for driving, the road death figures show that problem drinkers are responsible for many of the 2,000 seriously injured or killed each year in alcohol-related crashes. The long-awaited consultation on labelling must also look at lowering the blood alcohol limit to 50 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood, with its potential to reduce fatal alcohol-related crashes by 11%. There is good evidence that those with blood levels between 50 and 80 milligrams per 100 millilitres are six times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident than people who are alcohol free.

The Government’s intention to consult on including more information on alcohol labels is welcome if it is realised, but we have been waiting almost two years for the announced consultation to be launched. During this time, alcohol harm has increased, and deaths from alcohol reached record highs in 2020. Can the Minister tell us when the consultation’s report will be formulated and when it will appear? We cannot leave this unattended to, with consumers not knowing what they are taking whenever they take a drink. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat

My Lords, in moving this amendment, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, has emphasised its importance to improving personal and public health. The amendment requires the Secretary of State to publish a report on alcohol labelling, with the aim of improving consumer knowledge about the contents and potential harms of alcohol products. Surely it is in the interests of consumers for labelling on alcoholic products to meet the standards we have come to expect from food labelling.

The context really matters. As the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, said, alcohol is the leading risk factor contributing to ill health and death for 15 to 49 year- olds, and it is the fifth leading factor across all age groups. Drinking a bottle of wine is, for example, the equivalent of smoking 10 cigarettes, yet a packet of cigarettes must carry a health warning. Surely consumers should be entitled to know how many units of alcohol, how many calories and how much sugar is in a bottle or can. It is very clear that the alcohol industry’s self-regulation has failed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, said. Commitments were made a decade ago that labelling would improve in line with Department of Health recommendations, yet that has not happened.

I have concluded that the time has come to regulate properly. Food is labelled, showing calories, fat, carbohydrates, sugar, fibre, protein and salt. Much less is shown on alcohol. Wine can show little more than sulphites. Beer can show little more than calories and strength. However, the consequences of high alcohol consumption are there for us all to see. It surely is time for the Government to act. I signed this amendment because it is a very straightforward proposal which all parts of the House should be supporting. I hope very much that the Minister will accept it this afternoon.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Labour 5:30, 16 March 2022

My Lords, I support what has already been said and the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. I also declare an interest in that I was a member of the commission she so ably chaired.

I have been on this, along with others, for a decade. Back in 2011 we had The Government’s Alcohol Strategy, which was very good but regrettably fell by the wayside. I was heartened back in 2019 when the Government, while they are prepared to give details about sugar and calorific effects on almost anything we eat or drink apart from alcohol, were given cause to think about consulting on extending it to alcohol too.

We had a short debate last autumn with the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, who was then the Minister responsible, on calorie and labelling regulations. I was persuaded not to divide the House on the basis of promises given of change coming. The Minister said:

“I give the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and all those who have expressed concern about the issue this commitment: the Government will be consulting shortly on whether calorie information should be mandated on prepacked alcohol and alcohol served in pubs and restaurants. Covid-19 makes it more important than ever to support the nation to achieve a healthier weight, and the Government are taking action to help people to lead healthier lives.”—[Official Report, 22/7/21; col. 456.]

It is now 2022 and we still have not got the consultation, so the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, has posed a fairly simple question.

I think in their heart of hearts the Government know they have to do something on this; it is quite ludicrous that alcohol is out of step with almost all other drinks and food. It is time we brought it into line. Can the Minister please tell us when we are going move on this issue? When are we going to have some definite dates and when will the consultation be concluded?

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell Conservative

My Lords, I too support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. I declare my interest as my wife is a director of Diageo. There is no doubt that mandatory calorie labelling of alcohol is one of the most basic steps we need to take to make this country healthier. We have a moral obligation to give people the information they need to make an informed choice. We must take reasonable steps to prevent illness so that we can keep our spiralling health costs down. We must address the health inequalities the Minister has spoken about so thoughtfully on previous occasions. We should do all we can to nudge drinks companies to bring down the calorie levels of some drinks.

As the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, said, these measures have been promised for years. They were made in Tackling obesity: empowering adults and children to live healthier lives, published in July 2020. In October 2020, the then Minister responded to a Written Question, saying:

“we are committed to consult before the end of the year on our intention to make companies provide calorie labelling on all pre-packaged alcohol they sell. The consultation will also cover introducing calorie labelling on alcoholic drinks sold in the out of home sector, for example bought on draught or by the glass.”

The then Minister wrote on June 21 2021:

“We are committed to consult shortly on our intention to make companies provide calorie labelling on all pre-packaged alcohol they sell. The consultation will include further details about the proposed timescale for implementation of the policy.”

In the debate on calorie labelling regulation on 22 July 2021, when alcohol labelling was left off at the last minute by the then Minster, he said—well, the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, said what the Minister said and I will not repeat it, but it was pretty emphatic.

As the Minister who said and wrote all those words, I ask the current Minister to make the very specific time commitment the amendment seeks.

Photo of Lord Vinson Lord Vinson Conservative

My Lords, there is a sheer impracticality to this suggestion. Whatever the need to get people to drink less, there is the actual practicality of getting millions of bottles of wine shipped from all over the world pre-packaged with this label stuck on them, quite apart from the number of drinks, as has been mentioned, served in carafes or over the counter freely. This is not the way to tackle the problem. It goes to the heart of people’s freedom of choice. They may be overdoing it, but labelling like this is expensive, impractical and it does not work.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I feel I have to respond immediately to that. I intended to speak anyway, having attached my name to an amendment on alcohol advertising in Committee. I would have attached my name to this amendment both in Committee and on Report, had there been space.

The noble Lord, Lord Vinson, talked about freedom of choice. I do not know how many people know that a bottle of wine can contain anywhere between zero and 59 grams of free sugar per bottle. Surely the public do not have the freedom of choice to decide which wine they consume and which level of sugar they consume.

The noble Lord made a point about the difficulty of labelling. Bottles of wine are shipped to many different countries with labels in different languages. We have computers these days which can cope with these things quite simply and easily. It is clearly not beyond the wit of producers to achieve this.

The Government often like to talk about being world-leading. I point them to an editorial in the Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology titled Shining a light on international alcohol industry lobbying, showing just how powerful this incredibly wealthy industry is in influencing and damaging public health messages around the world. Would the Government not like to be world- leading in standing up against this industry lobbying, in the interests of public health?

Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Co-Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat Peers

My Lords, at the risk of being boring, I am one of those people who has been asking for this for the last 20 years. I started off asking for the number of units of alcohol in a bottle of wine. Every manufacturer of these alcoholic drinks knows exactly what goes into them. On the issue of labelling products from abroad, there are a lot of foodstuffs that come from abroad and they have to abide by British rules on labelling, so why not wine and spirits? It is time we did this. It is terribly important for public health, and I hope the Minister will say yes.

Photo of Baroness Merron Baroness Merron Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, for bringing forward Amendment 163, and thank other noble Lords for outlining their support for or concerns about it. The amendment refers to publishing a report on alcohol labelling to improve consumer knowledge.

Government data comparing pre-pandemic and post-pandemic figures has shown that sales of alcohol increased by some 25%. This is, as we know, a booming market and consumers need to be equipped with the right information to make informed choices. They have a right to know what is in their drinks and decide what and how much to drink. The consultation promised by the Government, with this in mind, remains something of a consultation in long-overdue waiting.

Currently there is no requirement for alcoholic drinks to include health warnings, drinking guidelines, calorie information or even ingredients. As my noble friend Lord Brooke said, this is very much out of step with any other information on what we consume. There is, as always, a balance to be struck between health improvement measures, consumer information and industry regulation, but this amendment supports a necessary move in the right direction and I hope the Minister will agree to it.

Photo of Lord Winston Lord Winston Labour

My Lords, as a doctor and a wine drinker, I have serious concerns about this amendment, particularly, for example, when it comes to the use of fine wine—I think there is broad understanding in the House of what that is—where, in every case, those bottles are labelled with the amount of alcohol. One has to accept that labelling bottles in this way does not change behaviour. We have had committees looking at behaviour change, and the only time we managed to induce behaviour change was with smoking—certainly never with labelling. That is the only time it happened and there were all sorts of reasons for that.

Much of the evidence for alcohol being harmful in minor doses is still dubious and, more importantly, there is real concern that a lot of the so-called evidence is not being put to the real test of whether it makes a difference to behaviour. I must say to the House that I think the noble Lord—I am afraid I do not know his name; my eyes are bad enough not to have been able to see his name on the screen—is right that this is unworkable. It would probably do all sorts of untold damage to what is, for me and no doubt many others, a very fine drink. We need to look seriously at whether we can simply label all bottles.

I just remind the House that there is one amendment that I could have put down. In in vitro fertilisation, embryos are cultured in culture media, which are in fact commercially made and a commercial secret—nobody knows exactly what the composition of those media is. My laboratory is looking at this at the moment. It is really interesting, because some of the products in those culture media may indeed be quite dangerous in terms of epigenetic effects. To me, that seems far more important to regulate than what we are trying to do here with bottles of wine, which is probably not really workable.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, this is an important topic, so let me start with an immediate reassurance to the House, which I hope will enable to the noble Baroness to consider withdrawing the amendment. The amendment calls on the Government to publish a report on alcohol labelling. The Government already plan to report on alcohol labelling, as it is a key part of our overall work on reducing alcohol harm. In no sense do we propose to ignore it and I undertake today that we will report on it. Part of what is taking the time is formulating what the proposals should look like, but I will come on to that.

As part of the Government’s tackling obesity strategy, published in July 2020, we are committed to consulting on whether mandatory calorie labelling should be introduced on all pre-packed alcohol as well as alcoholic drinks sold in the out-of-home sector. In addition, as part of our public consultation, respondents to the consultation will be able to provide suggestions and evidence for additional labelling requirements that they would like the Government to consider, including warning labels and nutritional information. In that sense, the consultation will be even more of a two-way process than perhaps noble Lords might have been expecting. Naturally enough, we make no assumptions in advance about any such proposals; they will have to be looked at on their merits. The consultation will be launched in due course and I can assure noble Lords that the Government will feed back the results to this House. Although, for reasons beyond my control, I have not been able to provide definitive news on the timing of the consultation—much as I would like to—I hope nevertheless that the firm commitment that I have given on the Government’s intention to carry out the consultation and on its scope will have provided the noble Baroness with sufficient reassurance to enable her to question whether she wishes to press her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 5:45, 16 March 2022

My Lords, I am very grateful to everyone who has spoken and I note the tone with which “in due course” was uttered, which is really disappointing. Some very important points have been made, particularly about people really having the choice to know what they are taking into their bodies in the name of alcoholic drinks. May I assure the noble Lord, Lord Winston, that I really do not believe that fine wines will be sacrificed on the altar of public health? Very few people drink fine wines; most people drink drinks bottled and labelled in this country—the obesogenic effect is really important.

However, I am a realist and I am aware that the chance of this being thrown out when it goes to the other place means that it would not remain in the Bill. I hope the Government will take the message back to the Secretary of State to empower him to grasp the nettle, provide leadership in public health and, for the first time, proceed to make sure that people know what they are drinking and what the harms are—they might prefer to go out with their family and eat a large burger than have two glasses of wine. Given that, and the reality of the situation we are in, we will hold the Government’s feet to the fire over what “in due course” means; I hope it is a very short course. On that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 163 withdrawn.