New Clause 42 - Alcohol product labelling

Health and Care Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:30 pm on 28th October 2021.

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“The Secretary of State must by regulations make provision to ensure alcoholic drinks, as defined by the Department for Health and Social Care’s Low Alcohol Descriptors Guidance, published in 2018, or in future versions of that guidance, display—

(a) the Chief Medical Officers’ low risk drinking guidelines,

(b) a warning that is intended to inform the public of the danger of alcohol consumption,

(c) a warning that is intended to inform the public of the danger of alcohol consumption when pregnant,

(d) a warning that is intended to inform the public of the direct link between alcohol and cancer,

(e) a full list of ingredients and nutritional information.”—

This new clause requires the Secretary of State to introduce secondary legislation on alcohol product labelling.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to bring forth a consultation on introducing calorie labelling on alcohol products, for which we have been calling for some time, but I do not think there is a need to wait for this to be introduced in order for alcohol products to display the chief medical officer’s low-risk drinking guidelines, health warnings, ingredients and nutritional information, which is what the new clause asks for, mirroring what clause 127 does for food.

As it stands, there are no legal requirements for alcohol products to include health warnings, calorie information or even basic information such as ingredients. I am aware of the research by the Portman Group, which says that nearly half choose to do so. However, it is not quite cutting through. Consumers have a right to know what they are consuming and the associated risks, but many people are unaware of the calorie content in alcohol. About 80% of people are unable to identify the number of calories in a large glass of wine. Furthermore, beyond the most obvious risks of drinking alcohol, many people are unaware of the broader risks. Only a quarter of people are aware that alcohol is linked to breast cancer.

Similarly, despite alcohol’s link to worse pregnancy outcomes and serious lifelong impacts on a baby, one in three people are unaware that it is safest not to drink while pregnant, and it is estimated that 41% of women consume alcohol during pregnancy. That is a serious matter, and the issue of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder is not well known enough in this country. Especially in communities such as mine, I suspect that it has a profound impact on child development, which I know we will talk about shortly. My predecessor, Graham Allen, was a very strong proponent of a national study into FAS, and I echo his call. I really hope that might be something the Minister addresses, because it would have profound outcomes for child development and some of the care services that we might need in communities such as mine.

The public have a right to know what is in what they drink and eat and to make informed choices. I will not go round the bars snatching bottles of beer or glasses of wine out of people’s hands—I could not credibly do that, but I also have not inclination to do that. However, people should have a free and full understanding of the impacts of drinking alcohol and make their own judgments based on that. A recent survey conducted by YouGov found that 75% of people want the number of units in a product on the label, 61% want calorie information and 53% want the amount of sugar to be displayed. Again, this is what people want. Notwithstanding the research on some of the good things that the industry is doing voluntarily, which I pointed to earlier, we are still in a situation whereby that is not happening enough.

The Alcohol Health Alliance did a review of 424 alcohol product labels in London, the south-east and north-east of England, Wales and Scotland, which revealed that 71% of labels did not include the chief medical officer’s low-risk drinking guidelines. More than one quarter of labels included incorrect or misleading information that was either out of date or from other countries, 72% of labels did not list the ingredients and a majority had no nutritional information. Just 7% of labels displayed full nutritional information including calories, which is what we called for.

Photo of Philippa Whitford Philippa Whitford Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe) 12:45 pm, 28th October 2021

Many of the labels simply say, “Drink responsibly” or, “Drink aware”, but, as the hon. Gentleman is highlighting, the lack of information on labels introduces quite a complex step of that person having to go and look up the risk of harm or the unit measures. Yet we have just been debating the need to have warnings on cigarettes. Alcohol introduces harm both to the individual and, if they are heavy drinkers, to those around them, and therefore we should be taking this seriously. We have tried to do so in Scotland with measures such as minimum unit pricing, but information to the consumer is the first step.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

I am grateful for that intervention. I would certainly not talk down including the very broad messages that the hon. Lady mentions; I know that in an overwhelming number of cases that is available, but, as she says, that is not enough. People are conscious of that message and we should keep reinforcing it, but the jump-off point is, “So what? What am I going to do differently, or what do I need to understand differently?” At the moment, we are not helping them in that process.

This new clause, mirroring clause 127, asks the Secretary of State to introduce secondary legislation to compel the inclusion of this sort of information on products. It is a relatively modest ask, but it promotes informed choice, which in this area would be a very good thing. I do not think we should miss the opportunity to put it in the Bill.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

As has been set out, this new clause would make provision to ensure that alcoholic drinks display the chief medical officer’s low-risk drinking guidelines, a warning intended to inform the public of the danger of alcohol consumption, a warning intended to inform the public of the danger of alcohol consumption particularly when pregnant, a warning intended to inform the public of the direct link between alcohol and cancer, and a full list of ingredients and nutritional information.

First, let me say that alcohol labelling is an important part of the UK Government’s overall work on reducing alcohol harm. We believe that people have a right to accurate information and clear advice about alcohol and its health risks to enable them to make informed choices for themselves about their drinking. However, we feel that the new clause is unnecessary, because the Government are about to launch a consultation on these matters.

As part of our tackling obesity strategy, published in July last year, the Government committed to consulting on whether mandatory calorie labelling should be introduced on all pre-packaged alcohol, as well as alcoholic drinks sold in the out-of-home sector. The Government have worked with the alcohol industry to ensure that labels on pre-packaged alcohol reflect the UK chief medical officer’s low-risk drinking guidelines, and the industry has made some progress towards achieving that.

To make further progress, as part of our public consultation on alcohol calorie labelling we will also seek views on whether provision of the chief medical officer’s low-risk drinking guidelines, which include the various specific warnings that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, such as drinking in pregnancy and the drink-drive warning, should be mandatory or should continue on a voluntary basis. Respondents to the consultation will be able to provide suggestions for additional labelling requirements that they would like the Government to consider, such as nutritional information. As I said, that consultation will be launched shortly.

Clause 127 confers a power on the Secretary of State in England, and on Ministers in the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales, to make improvements to and amend or repeal articles of European Union Regulation 1169/2011. This EU regulation currently prohibits mandatory calorie labelling on pre-packaged alcohol that is 1.2% alcohol by volume and above. The passage of this legislation will therefore enable Governments to introduce changes such as mandatory calorie labelling on pre-packaged alcohol labels through regulations.

If a decision is made to mandate those labelling requirements following the consultation, the Bill will support the Government in being able to make the necessary changes through a new power in the Food Safety Act 1990. Consistent with the Government’s obligation to consult on matters concerning food law, before any regulations are made, a consultation with interested stakeholders must take place. Therefore, as there is a statutory duty to consult on introducing mandatory labelling requirements and as work on improving alcohol labelling is under way, we do not believe that a separate clause in the Bill is necessary at this time. I encourage the shadow Minister to be reassured by what I have said and to consider not pressing his new clause to a vote.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

I am grateful to the Minister for his response. Any measure, as with that in the new clause moved by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham, again relies on us waiting for consultation. It feels like an awful lot of consultation, which is of course an important part of doing the process right, but we should never confuse it with action. We have spent an awful lot of time in this space, and it feels as if there is a danger that we are into soft-pedalling territory, rather than action territory. Nevertheless, I heard what the Minister said, that it is an active process, so on that basis I will not press for a Division. We will reflect on the issue on the Labour Benches but, widely among those interested in the area, there is a growing sense of impatience. I hope that us giving the Minister and the Government space to continue the process is not confused with us being content that we are going quickly enough—I feel strongly that we are not. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.