Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy

– in Westminster Hall at 2:00 pm on 5th May 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Professor Ross Cranston Professor Ross Cranston Labour, Dudley North 2:00 pm, 5th May 2004

I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Mrs. Roe, because you have taken a close interest in this subject for many years. I appreciate the support of hon. Members, especially those who are members of the all-party group on alcohol misuse. I should also mention the charity Alcohol Concern, which so ably services the group, and I commend its fine work.

The Government are to be congratulated on developing the alcohol harm reduction strategy. Any criticism that I may make during the next 20 minutes or so will be a caveat to my welcome for that important document, which puts the issue on the agenda as never before. It is a great pity that the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety cannot be here, because she played an important part in bringing the strategy to fruition, and I would have liked to thank her. She has heavy responsibilities for the police and community safety—and now for security, too—but I know that she is committed to putting the strategy into effect. I hope that those other responsibilities will not detract from the task in hand.

I am pleased to see the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, my hon. Friend Mr. Browne here today. I know that his presence is fortuitous, because the Minister who will answer the debate has not yet arrived, but his shoulders are broad and he will, I am sure, be able to reply to many of the points that I, and others, make.

Preceding the alcohol harm reduction strategy was an extremely valuable document—the interim analytical report. Published late last year, it set out the range of important facts on which the strategy was built, the first of which is the enormous cost of alcohol-related harm. The figure put on that by the interim report is £20 billion. Of that total, £7 billion is incurred in relation to crime and social disorder—I shall return to that later—and the cost to the health service is £1.7 billion. It is important to get that £20 billion in perspective: although the Treasury raises billions of pounds in duty, that is not comparable to the cost of alcohol-related harm to the community.

The second important feature noted by the interim analytical report is that levels of alcohol consumption are rising. About 6 million people now drink more than the recommended daily guidelines. The document also identifies the serious phenomenon of binge drinking. In particular, young people drink twice as much now as they did 10 years ago. The document points out that those young people face an increased risk of accidents, and of alcohol poisoning. Men are more likely to be victims of violence, but are also more likely to commit violent offences after binge drinking. Also, especially important for women, there is the risk of sexual assault.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud

I am sorry to have missed the first few words spoken by my hon. and learned Friend; I had to attend a Select Committee.

I have evidence from Victim Support showing the growing problem of people who are both perpetrators and victims of violence—a problem that needs sensitive handling. It shows the degree to which alcohol is responsible for crime. Does my hon. and learned Friend wish to say something about that?

Photo of Professor Ross Cranston Professor Ross Cranston Labour, Dudley North

My hon. Friend is right. One part of the strategy document focuses on domestic violence and violence associated with alcohol. Interestingly, it makes the important point identified by research that some victims become dependent on alcohol to deal with the violence. The issue is complex, and there are no easy solutions to some of the more complicated problems of social behaviour.

Photo of Jim Cousins Jim Cousins Labour, Newcastle upon Tyne Central

May I bring my hon. and learned Friend back to the important issue of sexual assaults, which he raised before the intervention by my hon. Friend Mr. Drew? Given the busy night life of Newcastle, the police have now set up a sexual assaults referral centre in my constituency. It does not operate from police premises, and has a special team of dedicated staff. It is greatly welcomed that the police have gone about dealing with the problem in such a wise and sensitive fashion. However, does that not also illustrate that there is a serious problem to be dealt with, which imposes personal, psychological and financial burdens on the police service?

Photo of Professor Ross Cranston Professor Ross Cranston Labour, Dudley North

My hon. Friend is right. I commend his police service for setting up that centre. We need to roll out good practice nationwide. In certain areas there is good practice, of which my hon. Friend has given us an example. His other important point was that there are enormous social costs. In some areas, the police are finding it difficult to cope with the violence and social disorder associated with the excess consumption of alcohol, and they have had to take human resources away from other areas that need policing to deal with the problem that is especially associated with the night-time economy.

The four pillars of the strategy are education and communication, treatment, alcohol-related crime and disorder, and the duties of the drinks industry. My hon. Friend Mr. Hopkins, who is a member of the all-party group on alcohol misuse, apologises for not being present today. He wants me to draw attention to what he regards as the fifth pillar, which he calls the Treasury aspects. The strategy refers to price, although it describes the relationship of supply with price as too complex to deal with by raising the price of alcohol to deter consumption. I am sure that my hon. Friend also wishes me to identify resources, and we need money to address the problem—a matter to which I shall return if I have time.

It is necessary that each of the four pillars be given equal weight. As the strategy document rightly states, if the Government are to intervene, their action must be coherent, sustained and strategic, and outcomes must be measured. It is especially important for children that the Home Office and the Department of Health should work with other Departments. For example, the Minister for Children has an important responsibility, as I shall describe in a few moments.

The strategy identifies three important factors in the first pillar of education and communication, the first of which is ignorance. The strategy uses the evidence from the poll that was conducted last year, which showed that only 7 per cent. of men know what the Government's recommended level of alcohol consumption is. Women are slightly better: 22 per cent. of them know the safe limits. The second point is that massive sums are spent by the industry on advertising. Alcohol Concern cites the recent international rebranding of Smirnoff, which cost two and a half times the £95 million that we spend annually on treatment services. The third aspect is the culture, which is that to have a good night out one must drink to excess. Advertising creates a glamorous image associated with alcohol, and also, unfortunately, in some respects it advances the message that drinking to excess is acceptable.

Those are three factors that we must contend with in relation to education and communication. How do we do that? In a debate on the Floor of the House on 5 January this year, I set out what I thought should be done about labelling and advertising, and that can be found in column 130 of Hansard. I will not say anything more about that, but I will make two further points.

First, as revealed in a written answer on 19 April, since 1997 the Government have spent nothing on advertising the dangers of alcohol misuse. Clearly, we must do something. I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Caroline Flint, who has just arrived, because she may have some thoughts on my second point about how we get the message across in schools. There have been successes in her work against drugs. How can we do the same with alcohol. There is tremendous peer pressure on young people. Obviously, there must be more training, but how do we get the message across? I welcome the strategy document's commitment to get Ofcom to review advertising. As I said in the earlier Adjournment debate to which I referred, the code provisions are far too lax and have not been properly enforced, and we need to do something about irresponsible advertising.

The second pillar is treatment. The strategy says that one in 13 people in the adult population of the United Kingdom are dependent on alcohol—3 million people. It also says that of an average of 360 hazardous and harmful drinkers who visit each general practitioner every year, seven or fewer will have their drinking addressed. Obviously, we must do something in terms of screening and identifying those with problems. One omission from the strategy is any mention of the GP contract. The way in which that is changing means that GPs will have even less incentive to identify people with drinking problems.

On treatment, I also want to highlight the issue of resources. Earlier, I gave the figure of £95 million a year, in contrast to the £1 billion spent on drug treatment. That is despite the fact that twice as many people are dependent on alcohol as on illegal and prescription drugs combined. I know that drugs are different and that they give rise to different, and in some cases more serious, problems. None the less, that disparity in resources means that something must be done. That means an increase in funds in the near future.

However, the strategy document identifies the notion of an audit; we have to audit treatment services around the country before we can do anything—but that could introduce planning blight. Those who are commissioning treatment services for alcohol dependency will not be able to do anything while the audit is carried out over the next 12 months.

I mentioned domestic violence and treatment. Now I want to talk about children. The interim analytical report said that some 780,000 to 1.3 million children were affected by parents' alcohol problems, including violence, and the psychological problems of dealing with someone in the family who is alcohol-dependent. I know about those problems from personal experience. My grandfather was an alcoholic and my mother suffered terribly as a child, which is one of the reasons why I have taken up this subject. Specialist services must be more widely available to cater for the families of those with dependency problems. As I said, the Minister for Children has a role to play. Social services and children's centres must address the problem of alcohol misuse. The "Every Child Matters" framework must introduce the issue of concern for children in this context.

The third problem is crime and disorder, which my hon. Friend Mr. Cousins and other hon. Friends, such as my hon. Friend Ms Russell, take very seriously. We may talk about an urban renaissance in which people return to town and city centres to live, but they will not do so if there is violence and disorder, which may be petty and take the form of harassing people on the streets and minor criminal damage such as the destruction of bus shelters, or may be more serious and involve personal injury.

The strategy points out that there is a raft of legislation, such as penalty notices, to deal with that issue. I was pleased when my hon. Friend the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety said last week that we must enforce those provisions. She has promised a blitz during the summer on alcohol-related violence, which I welcome. However, we have not done enough. Since 1997, only 12 landlords a year have been prosecuted for allowing drunken or riotous behaviour on their premises. The strategy identifies a code of good practice, and mentions the need for the code to ensure that soft drinks and water are readily available on retail premises. It also identifies the need for a local fund that could, for example, support police and community support officers, which I very much welcome.

Last week, the British Beer and Pub Association said that it wanted action to be taken against publicans who extend happy hours and promote binge drinking. I welcome that, too. We need to do something about binge drinking if we are to tackle the problem of crime and disorder, but we must also be more creative in the design of premises. Modern premises are not like the old-fashioned pubs to which one goes for a quiet drink; they are often designed with a view to encouraging the rapid and sometimes excessive consumption of alcohol.

Fourthly, the industry has a social responsibility. The strategy says that the industry must become more socially responsible, which I welcome. The Portman Group, for example, is supported by the industry and already does a great deal of good work. I have been critical in some respects of its enforcement of its code, but it does do good work and provides very useful information. However, we must acknowledge the fact that the drinks industry is a multinational operation that makes enormous profits. It must recognise and acknowledge its responsibility for the way in which alcohol is sold down the chain, and it must have a responsible attitude in developing new products. Alcohol has recently been sold in jellies in test tubes. Such gimmicks are, frankly, unacceptable.

We will need statutory underpinning if the industry does not meet its social responsibilities quickly. I welcome what the strategy says about a charter of social responsibility, and the welcome idea that the industry must make some financial contribution. The strategy advances the idea of a central fund to collect about £25 million a year, which is to be welcomed. Will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary tell us more about how plans to introduce that fund are going?

I welcome the strategy, although I am a little confused by some of the phraseology, such as "light-touch" central arrangements. I also welcome the notion that we have to monitor progress and identify indicators to track the progress of the implementation of the strategy. Will the Under-Secretary tell us to which Cabinet Sub-Committee my hon. Friend the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety and the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend Miss Johnson will report? The strategy is a welcome document, but the harm associated with alcohol abuse will be properly addressed only when it is implemented in full.

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Shadow Minister, Defence 2:21 pm, 5th May 2004

I congratulate Ross Cranston on securing this timely debate. I, too, welcome the Government's decision to bring the strategy forward, although they have done so somewhat later than some of us might have hoped or expected. Nevertheless, it is welcome.

Many people probably consider my constituency to be a nice, sleepy area that a lot of people visit for its beauty. We usually welcome a growth industry, but the growth of this particular industry in my constituency has had significant effects on more people than most of us realise.

There has been a growth in the number of licensed premises. People can obtain alcoholic drink at both on and off-licence premises. A greater number of premises are applying for the opportunity to sell alcoholic drink. The way in which premises sell such drinks has changed. Not so long ago, supermarkets kept their alcoholic drink behind a separate counter, but one can now simply pick up such drinks and wander to the checkout.

Over recent years, there have been several erosions in controls over the way in which alcohol can be sold. Unsurprisingly, that has led to a huge growth in the number of people drinking and the amount that they drink. It has also led to a change in the age at which they start drinking. I refuse to believe that the availability of alcohol, the proliferation of premises and the way in which alcohol is sold have nothing to do with that.

Most of us are concerned by the amount of drink that young men and, increasingly, young women consume, and the fact that they are starting to drink at younger and younger ages. I regret that, last summer, on far too many occasions, children as young as 10 or 11 were picked up by local police and taken to the station, from where their parents were asked to come to collect them. The children did not, of course, purchase the drink themselves. Their brothers, their friends' brothers or others who they knew were old enough—or at least appeared to be old enough—bought it. They then consumed it in the local park or on the streets.

It is no secret that there has been a huge increase in alcohol-related crime and disorder. That results in more police time being taken up. Many hon. Members will have been out with their local police on a Friday or Saturday night. The scenes in large cities at such times are replicated in relatively small rural towns.

There has been a growth in street violence. That violence is against not only the person but property. Several shops in towns in my constituency can no longer get insurance for their windows. I suppose that some might consider it to be very funny and a great prank for people to be pushed on to large plate glass windows, but the windows have to be replaced as soon as a big crack appears in them and they are not cheap. In one of the holiday resorts in my constituency, there is a Chinese restaurant that has to maintain a curved window because it is in a conservation area. The window is listed, it is wonderful, but it regularly has to be replaced at phenomenal cost.

Injuries also occur. I expect that many hon. Members have visited their local accident and emergency departments and have seen people being brought in to have glass removed from their person, or to have other injuries treated that are the result of having been in a fight. That is a big problem in holiday resort areas. Some of the worst excesses occur not only in Ibiza but in seaside towns in Cornwall and other places. I am sometimes pleased that I do not represent Newquay, because it has suffered considerably from the consequences of excess alcohol use.

These are important issues. I am particularly pleased to take part in this debate because I cannot think of a subject that has arisen more often in surgeries and meetings with constituents over the past year or so than the antisocial behaviour, mainly of drunken youths, in our towns. That is caused by two things—availability of alcohol and its price. Increasing availability at a lower and lower price will only encourage more consumption. It is impossible to get away from that fact. Whatever we may like to believe from all the reports and statistics, greater availability at a more affordable price will lead to increased consumption. Therefore, although I appreciate and support many of the report's recommendations, I think that we should pause a little and consider our current regulations for licensed premises and our current taxation system on alcohol.

When I travel around my constituency, I often think that we have got to the point where we do not need any more licensed premises. We need more that are more responsible in how they sell alcohol, but I am yet to be persuaded that we need more licensed premises. Therefore, when there are applications for new licensed premises, it is important to think about whether they are really needed.

When I was a local councillor some years ago, I was very proud of my council when, for the first time, it took a stand and decided to object to another off-licence because there were already enough by far in the town and it would be close to the local youth club. We were supported by numerous organisations, including the youth department of the county council. I stayed all day to attempt to put across our case, but it was clear that there was no chance of sustaining our objection, and the off-licence was granted permission. We ought to consider more closely what we need, and each and every new application must demonstrate that there is a need.

Those who enjoy the opportunity of a licence to sell alcoholic drink should be made more responsible. I have already referred to the situation in holiday resorts. I fully recognise that many pubs and clubs derive significant income from the holiday season trade, but that puts greater responsibility on them.

In the fairly recent past, we saw a great petition to close down a burger and pizza bar because there were always fights outside it. The fights had nothing to do with buying pizzas and the like. People were fuelled by alcohol from pubs in town and decided to have their fights not outside the pubs but outside that particular eatery. The outlet was obviously open, but I am not certain that it was responsible for what went on outside. The responsibility lay primarily with those who were intoxicated and, perhaps more so, with those who sold the alcohol.

We ought to consider a penalty points system on licences, so that people begin to value what they have and recognise that to hold such a licence is a responsibility. If certain pubs are seen as places where people regularly over-indulge, and we are subjected to the sort of behaviour that we see, there should be a warning system. Such places should contribute more to the local pot to fund the police time that is taken up because of irresponsible drinking by what I accept are relatively few people. Their behaviour has enormous implications, in particular for police budgets and time.

Finally, the price of alcohol has come down relative to everything else. It is far cheaper than it used to be. If we believe that we should put additional tax on tobacco because of its health implications, drinking clearly has health implications and assistance is needed in that regard, too. There is a very good alcohol and drug rehabilitation centre, Broadreach house, in Plymouth adjacent to my constituency, which has done a superb job, but it is living almost hand to mouth trying to secure money from local authorities, individuals and appeals. I am sure that there are similar places up and down the country that are in need of relatively modest sums of money. Bearing in mind the totality of the drink trade, they should be assisted in rehabilitating those who have become alcohol-dependent.

Taxation is a way forward. I am not advocating draconian increases, but many would not object to modest increases in the taxation of alcohol to fund the services that I have outlined. As the Government examine their alcohol strategy, I hope that they will consider the problem more widely and deeply, as it has become a much greater problem than when they began considering the strategy five or six years ago.

Photo of Jim Cousins Jim Cousins Labour, Newcastle upon Tyne Central 2:34 pm, 5th May 2004

I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend Ross Cranston—not for Dundee, North, as I thought I heard someone say. No disrespect to Dundee, but I think the views of Dundee might be different from those of Dudley. I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend on bringing this matter to our attention. It is an extremely important topic, and it is important that we strike a balance in our judgments and views. There can be no doubt that the growth of the leisure industry and the leisure economy—certainly in a city such as Newcastle—has brought huge benefits both to the city and to most of the people who live in it.

We are talking about problems of excess, discipline and management. Such problems are, of course, the most intractable and the hardest to solve. I was looking at some figures for my constituency, which reminded me of the growth of employment in service industries. My inner-city constituency is in the top 25 constituencies for having reduced unemployment over the past 12 months. That is a huge achievement, and the growth of the leisure industry, although it has not played a major role, has played some part in that. We should acknowledge that and see what contribution the leisure industry can make to regeneration.

Unfortunately, such developments can go too far. A balance must be struck. Many of the licensing and planning regulations are clumsy, obsolete and out of date. They do not give us the basis for the modern methods of control that we should be looking for. Under the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987, the famous class A3 covers bars, licensed premises and restaurants. That means that it is perfectly possible to convert a small café in which there was some licensed drinking into a vast drinking area, without applying for a change of use.

Only this week, I learnt of a case in my own constituency, on Newcastle's quayside. The premises concerned were used as a health club and swimming pool, which were of huge benefit to people in the area—all sorts of people, from the council estates behind the quayside as well as from the yuppie flats on the quayside frontage. The proposal is to convert that health club and swimming pool into a casino with a bar that will be open until 2 o'clock in the morning. There will be no change of use, because bars, casinos, health clubs and gyms are all in the same use class.In such a situation, one of the obvious methods by which people can control and contribute to the effective management of their community is denied them. I urge that we look at the use classes order to see how we can manage things better.

Another issue is the historical separation of the apparatus for licensing from the local authority planning system. The Government's proposals in the Licensing Act 2003, which will shortly be put into effect, will go some way towards bringing a cohesive approach to consideration of the issues. That is to be welcomed. However, at the moment vast numbers of licence applications are being bunged through before the Licensing Act is put into effect, and that is unsettling for people. Restaurants are being converted into bars and then into nightclubs; pubs, which had a capacity of perhaps 60 people seated and standing, are being converted into vast drinking premises with an agreed capacity of 800 or 900 people. The focus of our attention should not only be the number of licences, although that may be an issue, but the change in the nature of licensed premises.

I pay tribute to Chris Record and his liver health team in our local hospital in Newcastle, who have mobilised British hepatologists and gastroenterologists into making representations to the Government for a clear labelling system. What is missing from the alcohol harm reduction strategy is the enforcement of proper labelling. There is widespread belief that a glass of wine or beer equals one unit. However, drinks are being transformed into higher voltage liquids; a modern American or Australian wine has a greater alcohol content than a 1970s liebfraumilch.

People do not realise that the alcohol by volume content of what they drink has doubled over the past 20 or 30 years. Whereas a glass was one unit in the 1970s, now it is 1.8 or 1.9 units. Some supermarkets are beginning to use their own brand labelling to bring the matter to people's attention. However, it should be a requirement; people must understand that the content of their drinks has changed. Then they could use self-discipline, because self-management is the most effective type of management.

We should not overlook the consequences for health, to which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North rightly drew attention. There is a huge collateral effect on health from what might be called drink-related activities: 70 per cent. of people attending the major walk-in centre that the Government have provided in the west of my constituency are there because of drink-related problems such as fights, falling down and motor accidents, and I have already mentioned sexual assaults. We need to invest even more in such health services.

Let me bring to the Minister's attention some specific problems. I have here the draft guidance under the Licensing Act 2003. There is not time to go through all the difficulties found in such a substantial document. However, it has one central defect: it does not show forcefully enough the link between activities that occur in licensed premises and those that occur on the street outside.

As a result of the local legislation that I had the privilege of guiding through this House, we have a doormen's—or rather, doorpersons'—licensing scheme, and national legislation is to follow. The consequence is that much of the disorder is pushed off the premises into the street, where it becomes the responsibility of the police. There has been an enormous increase in the demands on our local police service as a result of growth in the leisure industry, but that is not recognised in grant allocation schemes. We urgently need a mechanism—perhaps a district leisure scheme—through which responsible licensees and owners of hotels, nightclubs and bars can contribute to the extra costs of policing and the use of street wardens. It is Government policy to introduce such wardens, but we are left with the question of how they are to be funded.

We need clear national guidance on the management of happy hours and the discounted drinks that go with them, together with a national proof-of-age scheme that does not rely on local initiatives, welcome though they are. We also need to consider how we can regulate the security industry that is now growing up around the new leisure industries.

Huge social changes are going on, and many of them are positive, but we require much clearer regulation and management, to enable local people to play their part in the management of their communities, and to deal with the relevant issues. We look to the alcohol harm reduction strategy, which is presently rather permissive, to introduce the specific regulations required to bring the problem under proper management and contribute properly to the life of communities.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Conservative, Broxbourne

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind hon. Members that I shall call for the wind-up speeches at 3 o'clock.

Photo of Christine Russell Christine Russell Labour, City of Chester 2:46 pm, 5th May 2004

I, too, congratulate my hon. and learned Friend Ross Cranston on securing an important debate. Although she is not here, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety for her huge commitment to tackling the problem of antisocial behaviour, drunkenness and disorderliness in town and city centres and the contribution that she has made to that effort in the past few years.

I shall focus on the vision of an urban renaissance. It is central to the Government's policy. The more people who live in town and city centres, the more attractive and vital those town and city centres will become. We are all being somewhat parochial this afternoon, and I want to cite my constituency, the historic City of Chester, where we are building more than 95 per cent. of all new residential development on brownfield sites in the city centre. However, as other hon. Members have said, if the urban renaissance is to succeed, we need a balance so that those who have moved back into the town and city centres can get a good night's sleep, while it remains possible for others to come in and get a good night out.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Shadow Minister of State (Home Office)

I, too, should like an urban renaissance, and I shall be parochial as well: renewing urban centres will prevent the building of more houses in the green belt in my constituency.

Photo of Christine Russell Christine Russell Labour, City of Chester

If the hon. Lady studies the planning policies of Chester city council, she will see the way ahead.

Last year, I had the privilege of chairing the inquiry into the evening economy by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning and Local Government Committee. That inquiry took a great deal of evidence—from local authorities, Alcohol Concern and the police. We considered how we would bring about the vision of an urban renaissance and encourage people back into town and city centres, without the awful antisocial behaviour that tends to be associated with late-night drinking and clubbing.

It became apparent early in our inquiry that we must decide—and local authorities have a clear responsibility to decide—between encouraging a vibrant evening economy or a late-night economy. Our conclusions were that an evening economy can be an enormously valuable regeneration tool. Plugging the gap between 5 o'clock and 9 o'clock, by encouraging shops and libraries to stay open later, will lead to a more diverse range of activities, attracting many more people to town and city centres.

The late-night economy, as it has developed in Britain, however, has focused solely on young people and alcohol consumption, with all the associated problems for communities of crime and disorder, antisocial behaviour, noise and nuisance, contributing little—and perhaps acting as a deterrent—to urban regeneration.

I am sure that most hon. Members present this afternoon agree with me that it is only those who profit from the alcohol trade who deny that Britain has a drink problem. Reading the strategy, it is quite frightening to discover that two out of five Britons between the ages of 18 and 24 are classified as binge drinkers, which means that they down more than eight units of alcohol a night if they are a man and six if they are a woman.

I do not want to go over the NHS statistics or the pressures that alcohol misuse places on our health service, because other hon. Members have already done so. Instead, I want to describe how alcohol misuse uses up a phenomenal amount of police time and resources.

Like Mr. Breed, I have been out late at night with my local police force. Today, I asked the force for the statistics for my area—the division of Chester and Ellesmere Port, not the whole county of Cheshire. In my division, there have been 394 recorded incidents of alcohol-related crime in the past 12 months, including 220 assaults and woundings. Alcohol-related crime is the main factor behind the increase in violent crime statistics in many parts of the country.

During its inquiry, the Select Committee examined international comparisons. It is true that Italians, for instance, consume as much alcohol as we do, but they spread it out over the day and throughout the week, rather than concentrating it all in a few hours on a Friday or Saturday night. Alcohol consumption is increasing only in Britain, of all the European Union countries; in most of the others, it is decreasing.

While I am on the theme of Italian drinkers, I shall mention something that I noted down on the assumption that I would be seeing my hon. Friend the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety. Last summer, when the European champions league final was held at Old Trafford, 40,000-plus Italian football fans were out celebrating on the streets of Manchester, but there was not one arrest or incident of disorderly behaviour. That is remarkable. Imagine what would have happened if Manchester United or Manchester City had been playing in Rome that evening.

The strategy endorses everything that the Select Committee said in its recommendations. One key point, which is reflected in the strategy, is that partnership working is the way forward. The police, health services, schools and colleges, local authorities, local communities and, very importantly, the drinks industry must all work together to combat the problems of binge drinking and antisocial behaviour.

The Select Committee identified the importance of local authorities devoting as much attention to what goes on in their towns and cities in the evening as they do in the day. My local authority of Chester prepares a night-time strategy, and I would recommend every local authority to do so. One of its key objectives is to work with young people to make the city centre safer for them at night. We are considering working with club venue operators to explore the development of a city centre evening dance venue that does not sell alcohol. We are also considering improving the education programmes on offer because, as has been said, education, too, will play a key role in changing the drinking culture. I welcome the strategy; it is a big step in the right direction. However, I accept that there may be need for further action.

The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall questioned the need for more licensed premises. Under the new licensing regime, that will be an issue that local authorities will have to address; but when we conducted our inquiry and looked into the number of licensed premises and new permissions given, we discovered that in Paris not one additional drinks licence has been granted since 1915.

Photo of Janet Dean Janet Dean Labour, Burton 2:55 pm, 5th May 2004

I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend Ross Cranston on securing this important debate.

I represent a brewing constituency, and hon. Members might like to know that Coors—the largest brewery in the UK—Marston's, Burton Bridge and three other micro breweries, as well as major pub companies, are in my constituency. I warmly welcome the strategy, which is thorough, well researched and recognises the complexities of the issues. The drinks industry welcomes the clear strategic lead on how to target its corporate and social responsibility plans and efforts.

I am pleased that the strategy recognises that there are economic and social benefits to drinking, as well as harm arising from alcohol misuse. We must remember that most people enjoy having a drink without causing harm to themselves or others, and so it is encouraging that the strategy adopts a targeted approach against harmful drinking behaviours. Such a targeted approach is far more likely to succeed than blanket activity aimed at reducing overall consumption of alcohol.

We need to address patterns of drinking; that is important in targeting those at risk from alcohol misuse. In particular, we must address the trend of binge drinking, as hon. Members have said. I will not echo what has been said about the problem, but we all know that the results of binge drinking can be seen in our small and large towns and cities, and in our local communities.

There is evidence to show that strategies that address specific issues of consumption can have a good track record. For instance, although drink-drive fatalities have been dramatically reduced, the overall level of consumption has not gone down, because people who understood that they might be at risk responded positively to targeted, regular and well communicated messages about their behaviour.

I am pleased that the Government recognise that the key to success is partnership with producers and retailers, who understand the sector, are keen to help, and have already done a great deal. My hon. and learned Friend mentioned the Portman Group and the British Beer and Pub Association, which have been producing guidelines on responsible promotions in pubs and clubs.

The strategy makes it clear that the key to success is providing better consumer information about responsible drinking and finding ways of motivating consumers to apply that knowledge to day-to-day behaviours. Tapping into manufacturing and retail companies' consumer expertise is therefore an essential next step.

My hon. and learned Friend mentioned advertising. Coors has produced alcohol responsibility adverts in conjunction with the Scottish Executive, and they ran on Scottish television in the run-up to last Christmas. Also, evaluation showed that the combination of the involvement of the managers of the old firm—Celtic and Rangers—and the Carling brand resulted in adverts that not only were noticed but had credibility. Most of the consumers who responded to an evaluation survey said that they would be more likely to drink responsibly as a result.

In my constituency, there is a good example of a brewer working with the community. Coors has leased one of its properties to the Burton addiction centre at half the commercial rent for a 20-year lease. The addiction centre provides help in Burton and the surrounding area for people with problems with alcohol and drugs. The overall help and saving for the addiction centre resulting from the strategy will be several hundred thousand pounds. That example shows that partnership between the public and private sector can pay dividends.

The strategy is a real opportunity for all stakeholders to join in making inroads into alcohol misuse. I would like increased efforts to be made by manufacturers, and would also like large supermarkets and local off-licences to become more involved in promoting responsible alcohol consumption. There has been a huge change in drinking habits in this country, and that has resulted in the situation that now exists. In 1980, for instance, 11 per cent. of alcohol sold was sold in shops; in 2003, the figure was 39 per cent., and that share is growing. Perhaps this is a real opportunity for some of the supermarkets to join the Portman Group, which has done much to promote responsibility in relation to alcohol.

If the supermarkets were now to bring their scale and expertise to bear on the Portman Group's activities, that would be excellent timing. There could be a code of practice to ensure responsible marketing in the off trade, to match the new promotions guidelines already in place in pubs and in the on trade. I welcome the strategy, and I hope that the drinks and retail sectors can meet the strategic challenges that have been laid down.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 3:00 pm, 5th May 2004

I congratulate Ross Cranston on securing the debate and on his chairmanship of the all-party group. It has been a thoroughly worthwhile and well informed debate.

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Caroline Flint to her place, but a Department of Health Minister could just as easily have been sitting there, or a Minister from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, who could deal with the licensing aspects of the issue. Equally, a Minister from the Department for Transport could deal with the drink-driving aspects, and a Treasury Minister could deal with the taxation of alcohol.

I had not thought of this until Mr. Cousins mentioned it, but a Minister from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister could be here, too, to talk about change of use of premises. We so often see our banks turned into wine bars; would it not be nice occasionally to see a wine bar turned into a bank in one of our local communities? Perhaps that would be a step in the right direction.

This subject crosses all departmental boundaries; that is why it is so important. Obviously, the Home Office has a view on issues to do with crime, particularly violent crime. The increases in alcohol-related violent crime across the country are very serious, and we need to take notice of them. We particularly need to take notice of the domestic violence component of violent crime, which is so often alcohol-related, and is of great concern to many of us.

Antisocial behaviour often accompanies excessive drinking, particularly in our town centres. I agree with hon. Members who say that it is time to reclaim our town centres as civilised places to be of an evening, rather than places to get tanked up and have a fight. This issue involves road safety aspects: too many accidents still involve alcohol consumption at some point in their genesis, because of the impairment of driving skills that alcohol inevitably brings.

There are economic consequences, too. My hon. Friend Mr. Breed talked about the cost of vandalism, but there are all sorts of other costs, such as opportunity costs for directly affected businesses, and the cost of the fact that people who have indulged in excess alcohol may not be fit for work the next day. That has knock-on consequences, even if such people do not have an immediate health problem.

That brings me to the health issues. More than 6,000 deaths a year are directly attributable to, and probably 40,000 a year are indirectly associated with, alcohol abuse. Young people are imbibing too much alcohol at an increasingly young age. We need to address the societal change of increasing alcohol consumption by women, too. Nine children a day are admitted to hospital with drink-related medical conditions. Even if one discounts the serious health problems associated with alcohol—cirrhosis and other serious diseases—those who drink more than 100 drinks a month will still suffer low-level health degradation, such as memory loss, reduced intelligence, poor balance and impaired mental agility. Those are serious concerns that we need to address.

I have my criticisms of the strategy, but I greatly welcome the fact that it has been published at last. I certainly have serious criticisms of the Government's performance on this subject until now. They have been lethargic: the creation of this strategy was announced in 1998, and it is simply not good enough to see it emerge six years later. Bearing in mind the fact that 40,000 people a year are killed, indirectly or directly, by alcohol, some 240,000 people have died in the time that it has taken to bring forward a strategy to reduce drinking.

The Government have often been complacent. My hon. Friend Mr. Carmichael recently asked the Department of Health how much it had spent on advertising the dangers of alcohol since 1997 and received the answer: not a penny. Why is alcohol not treated with the same seriousness as other drugs that are abused? I do not understand that. It does not make sense, in terms of public health or of reducing criminal behaviour. The Government have been guilty of confusion. In virtually the same week as the alcohol harm reduction strategy appears, we have the liberalising changes in the licensing laws.

Let us consider the infamous text message sent out before the previous election. It would be almost impossible to render in the Official Report in the form in which it was texted, so I shall paraphrase it in English rather than text language: "Couldn't give a XXXX for last orders? Vote Labour on Thursday for extra time." Many hon. Members will look back on that as a strategic mistake. It gives a mixed message to the people whom the Government are trying to influence.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman has been patient, and has not managed to speak in the debate, so I will give way to him.

Photo of John Grogan John Grogan Labour, Selby

I was far too old to get that text message—but is it not true that reforming the licensing laws is beneficial in terms of some of the discussions that we are having today? There will be less pressure for people to drink far too much in the last half hour before closing time, when everyone is spilling out on to the streets at the same time looking for taxis and fast food. Some 50 per cent. of all alcohol-related violent crime occurs just after closing time, so there are potential benefits.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I accept that the avoidance of drinking-up time, which is often associated with excessive consumption, is a benefit. However, the text message expresses that benefit as extra time for drinking excessively. That is not the message that a responsible party, particularly a party in government, should be sending to young drinkers. Although I accept that there are arguments about the reform of the licensing laws, I do not accept that the Government have got it entirely right.

I am critical of the emphasis that was put on the launch of that campaign, because it coincided with an increase in the number of violent crimes associated with alcohol. The whole emphasis should be on reducing crime and antisocial behaviour. All of us want to see those things reduced, but we must recognise that they are the symptoms, not the cause. The cause has been correctly identified by every hon. Member who has spoken in this debate: it is the culture of binge and excessive drinking—not social drinking, but drinking to get drunk.

The problem involves many young people. It is the culture of the happy hour and the alcopop—a drink that disguises the taste of alcohol to maximise alcohol intake. Incidentally, if my knowledge of physiology is still current, many of those diluted fizzy alcoholic drinks are more easily assimilated into the bloodstream than even a straight vodka, because of the physiological way in which the alcohol is taken into the bloodstream.

We should consider how many factories for alcohol consumption there are—that is the only way to describe some of the stand-up bars with huge capacities. This drinking culture is current in all our towns and cities, including small towns and even some villages. We contrive to export it to other countries, to our eternal shame. It is appalling that we are concerned about people coming here from the European Union accession countries, because they are more worried about British people going to their town centres and behaving appallingly in Prague or Tallin, or any of the other beautiful cities that we, I am afraid, besmirch far too often with our exported bad behaviour.

The Government are at last recognising the issues. Although, as I believe the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central said, some elements of the strategy are couched in permissive terms, they nevertheless move in the right direction. However, the strategy will not be effective in reducing excessive alcohol consumption, which has become a cultural norm that we can do without, until the approach to the subject is more focused and the enforcement is better and more effective.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Shadow Minister of State (Home Office) 3:10 pm, 5th May 2004

I, too, congratulate Ross Cranston on securing the debate, and on sharing with us his personal circumstances and the reason for his interest in this subject—a very worthy motive for becoming involved in an issue. I hope that the mark that he makes in this area will also have significance for his family.

I also welcome the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Caroline Flint to the debate; I gather that she was late because of the public transport system. If my memory serves me correctly, the Under-Secretary, Ms Russell and I all once travelled together in an alcohol-free zone in the middle east, so our discussions on alcohol go back a long way—although perhaps not in the terms in which this debate is couched.

There can be no one in the Chamber, whether a Member of Parliament or otherwise, who is unfamiliar with the issues surrounding drinking and antisocial behaviour. To be parochial for a moment, I can tell hon. Members that we have those problems in Chesham and Amersham. They are reflected in my postbag and in the concerns of citizens who sometimes feel that they cannot even walk safely down the street. Late at night in Old Amersham, I have found myself in a similar position, so I sympathise deeply not only with my constituents but with the Government in trying to tackle this problem in our communities.

Like other Members who have spoken in this debate, I, too, welcomed the alcohol harm reduction strategy, particularly when it finally arrived. I believe that it was Mr. Breed who alluded to the long gestation period of that strategy. Certainly, organisations that brief us on the subject were expecting it much earlier. It seemed to take an awfully long time to be produced—and it is fair to say that there was more than a little disappointment that, after taking so long to be produced, it had less substance than many commentators had expected.

After reviewing the strategy, Professor Ian Gilmore of the Royal College of Physicians said:

"It is stronger on cleaning up the streets than on preventing physical harm."

So we know that it is not a perfect document. That is not surprising, however, as before we even consider the strategy, we have to say that there still seems to be enormous confusion over who is in charge of policies on alcohol, and an inherent contradiction in the Government's actions. Mr. Heath pointed out that the responsibility for policy is spread across, I believe, up to 10 Departments—but I believe that he missed out the Department of Trade and Industry.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Shadow Minister of State (Home Office)

I was ticking them off on my list.

The competing interests of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department of Health, the Home Office, the Treasury, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and all the rest have resulted in what is perceived to be a piecemeal approach to alcohol policy. In the words of Alcohol Concern, which has briefed us all on the strategy,

"The competing interests of these departments have resulted in a piecemeal approach to alcohol policy and contributed to the failure to produce effective responses to the high level of alcohol-related harm in the UK."

I would be grateful if the Minister could start by helping us to understand the thinking in that respect. Who will have overall responsibility for the national and local partnerships to which Baroness Scotland referred the other day in another place? Will it be the Home Office, which wants sterner measures, the DCMS, which has loosened the licensing laws, or the Department of Health, which reckons that alcohol abuse costs it more than £20 billion a year in lost earnings and health care? Perhaps the Minister could start by clarifying the position that Baroness Scotland failed to address in the other place, and answer the question asked by the hon. and learned Member for Dudley, North about which Cabinet Sub-Committee will have overall responsibility for the strategy.

The Government were right to identify alcohol-related violence as a major problem. Indeed, the Home Office research has confirmed that alcohol is behind nearly half of all violent crime and about 70 per cent. of accident and emergency admissions at night and at the weekend. However, many of the conclusions in the strategy merely urge police and local authorities to use their existing powers more frequently. Measures such as the greater use of fixed penalty fines for antisocial behaviour and better enforcement of the rules on under-age drinking were seen as repetition, rather than as any new innovative thinking in the area.

The Government seem to be a bit short of innovation and their own leaked documents revealed a possible reason for that in The Sunday Times on 14 March. I hope that the Minister will be able to help us to understand those reports. Apparently, the research commissioned by the Home Secretary showed that there had been a sharp rise in violent assaults linked to alcohol, and a significant increase in drunk people attacking strangers. Those increases were so high that senior Home Office officials were reported as reaching the conclusion

"that it is 'more or less impossible' for the police to enforce the law in city centres", and that in the cities the Government have

"lost control of drink-fuelled crime".

To combat that, The Sunday Times reported, the Home Secretary apparently wants to

"Take powers to fix the prices of alcoholic drinks in city centres to help curb excessive drinking, even though it will break competition law.

Impose a compulsory annual levy on pubs and clubs of an average £10,000 a year each to pay for up to 30,000 extra police officers.

Tell councils to refuse all new licences to premises unless the applicants can prove that they will not increase antisocial behaviour."

However, as The Sunday Times said, none of those "draconian measures", or the details of the internal assessment, were spelt out at the launch of the alcohol strategy because the Treasury, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and the Prime Minister have blocked the Home Secretary's proposals from taking effect before the election because they fear that they

"will be seen as anti-business."

Perhaps the Minister will take this opportunity to deny or confirm the advice that has been given to the Home Secretary and to state the real agenda of the Home Office, rather than camouflaging everything behind the series of voluntary measures aimed at disguising the Home Secretary's long-term compulsory crackdown. I hope that the Minister will be able to share the Government's thinking on what appears to be the accurate information that was reproduced in The Sunday Times.

Perhaps the Minister will also take this opportunity to acknowledge that the alcohol strategy is an admission that the Government's measures to cut crime and antisocial behaviour have failed to date. Violent crime is up by 14 per cent., and according to Home Office officials a significant proportion of it takes place close to licensed premises. The Licensing Act 2003 and the antisocial behaviour legislation seem to have been enacted before the research and advice of the Home Office had been studied. It is all very confusing, and I have great sympathy for the Minister, who appears to be coping with her Government's inefficiencies in trying to put the strategy in place.

There is not much time in this debate to cover anything in depth, although I particularly wanted to probe the Minister on the treatment for alcohol addiction among prisoners, in which I take a great deal of interest. In the time that I have left, I shall ask what her plans are for helping with alcohol treatment in our prisons. I believe that in 2002–03, only 6,400 prisoners undertook alcohol detoxification programmes, and that 7,000 more prisoners did a combined alcohol and drug detoxification programme. However, it is estimated that 50,000 prisoners—nearly two thirds of the prison population—have admitted to hazardous drinking prior to imprisonment, and about half of those have severe alcohol dependency.

I believe that there are no specific ring-fenced accredited alcohol treatment programmes in prisons in England and Wales, and that the Prison Service survey recently identified only one prison with a dedicated alcohol strategy. If we are even to begin to approach solutions to the problems caused by alcohol misuse in this country, we need to start by examining that sector of the population, which suffers from significantly higher rates of alcohol misuse and dependence than the general population. Those people are in our prisons.

I share the Minister's view, and that of every hon. Member in the Chamber, that we need solutions. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us more detail and reassure us both that there will be regular reports on her progress, and that the proposal is not a half-hearted measure put out in advance of the more draconian measures that would be implemented should Labour—goodness preserve us—win the next general election.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) 3:21 pm, 5th May 2004

I apologise for being late: I understand that a state visit is taking place, which prevented my driver from picking me up on time from the station. I hasten to add that I travelled down from Leeds by train on a very good service.

I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend Ross Cranston on securing this debate. I was in Dudley a fortnight ago, where I sat in on a presentation by Aquarius, which is an alcohol arrest referral project in the area. The group works with the police and those in the health service who are involved in treatment, to address problems to do with alcohol and crime. I was impressed by the work that Aquarius was doing.

As my hon. and learned Friend is aware, I am the Minister responsible for the overall drugs strategy. We already have drug and alcohol action teams in a number of areas, and it is our desire to see more of those. Importantly, we have also actively encouraged drug action teams and drug and alcohol action teams to merge with crime and disorder reduction partnerships, so that the problem can be faced in a more joined-up way than it may have been in the past. That is an ongoing piece of work, to look at what has been going on in communities and see how much progress they have made towards that end.

As the drugs Minister, I was obviously involved with the alcohol harm reduction strategy report. We have to consider some of the issues together. That reminds me of a visit that I made to a treatment service, where I met a gentleman who said, "I'm off crack, but I'm still an alcoholic." There are different uses of different types of drugs and alcohol, and they can all lead to addiction.

Alcohol is enjoyed by millions of people in the UK in a measured, sensible and healthy way. However, the issue is complex, and there are people for whom alcohol becomes a necessity—an addiction. Such people can end up losing their jobs or using all their household income to fuel their alcohol addiction. With higher employment and higher disposable income, people are going out more and eating out more, and, possibly as a consequence, drinking more.

We have to address the drinking done by different groups in society, including young people. It is acknowledged in the strategy that across government, we have to look at how we spend money on alcohol education. We have to think about how we can better communicate to people the different effects of alcohol on their lives. In the Home Office we have sponsored a series of videos as part of "Watch over me", a project initiated by Milly Dowler's family, on young people and personal safety, and one of those videos deals with alcohol.

I think that before I arrived my hon. Friend Mr. Cousins mentioned people who drink and make themselves vulnerable to sexual assault, which is of course a serious problem. The Home Secretary has just announced £4 million more for sexual assault referral centres and other services for victims of sexual assault. That is one part of the jigsaw of tackling such problems. Importantly, however, we also need to think about how carefully we look after ourselves, so as not to make ourselves vulnerable when we have a good night out.

We want to start the process of changing the culture of drinking to get drunk, but it will not be easy. We shall look into the compulsory labelling of alcohol. There is a lot of debate and discussion about that, and some valid points have been made this afternoon about people's understanding of units of alcohol and what they mean. I have been reading in preparation for the debate, and I understand that the size of the average wine glass has increased. As a result, our preconception of what is meant by "a glass of wine", gained from what we read in magazines and other publications, and from what we see in leaflets distributed by the Department of Health about units of alcohol, has been skewed.

There are new drinks on the market. We need to consider how the industry should deal with them, and how it can help people to be more certain about what they are drinking, and its impact on them. Consequently, they will be able to gauge what they drink, and understand better what they are drinking—and what they should not drink, and what they should not drink more of.

Advertising has been mentioned. I understand that Ofcom will undertake a review of the code of practice for television advertisers, to ensure that it does not target young drinkers or glamorise irresponsible behaviour. We are also considering promotions.

In preparation for this afternoon's debate, I read through one of the current codes. The worry is that it is not being enforced as well as it should be, and I wonder whether we should take another look at that. We need to work with the industry to achieve what we want.

Supermarkets and retailers have been mentioned, and they are not outside the rules. Clear guidelines are in place for retailers, even if they are not being implemented as they should—for example, those on drink sold in supermarkets in places where children might go. I recall walking into a supermarket and seeing near the entrance a promotion of wine at a lower price. I have also seen wine displays at the checkout counter. Those are some of the issues that need to be considered so that we can better enforce the guidelines and pick up on retailers and licensees who do not abide by the rules.

Treatment for alcohol misuse is a huge problem. We need a better understanding of what treatment is available. Part of the challenge for me, since becoming drugs Minister, has been to identify not only what drugs treatment is out there but, just as important, which treatments work and which do not. We need to adopt a similar approach to alcohol-related treatment. The fact that there is an ongoing audit of treatment should not prevent primary care trusts and others from identifying such issues in local communities. As I said, drugs and alcohol action teams already examine the issue in partnership, with PCTs.

We are trying to ensure that those who work in the health service—doctors, nurses and other health professionals—can identify alcohol misuse among their patients. I understand that over the next 18 months, the Department of Health will raise the profile of alcohol education for health professionals with the appointment of a deputy chief medical officer and a chief nursing officer as training champions.

The driving force behind the implementation of the drugs strategy is a joint one, shared by the Home Office and the Department of Health. As Mr. Heath said, it is a cross-government matter, and in that respect it is not easy. A number of issues are not the responsibility of one Department alone. We have to find a way to harness expertise—not in competition with each other, but in a way that facilitates delivery and ensures that the outcome is effective. We need to identify the gaps in treatment, and we need to ensure that everyone who needs it receives the necessary information.

A number of hon. Members mentioned alcohol-related crime and disorder, and under-age drinking, as causes for significant concern. During the summer we shall work with the police standards unit and the Association of Chief Police Officers, and invite forces across the country to take part in a co-ordinated programme of enforcement initiatives to tackle alcohol-fuelled violence, and to deal with the irresponsible few who encourage under-age and binge drinking. We want to make greater use of existing legislation, but we are considering whether to extend fixed penalty notices to those who run establishments, as well as to those who cause disorder on our streets.

In the time left to me, I shall not be able to do justice to the range of comments that have been made this afternoon—but I can at least say that it is important that our attitude to the problem is joined up. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central asked about the use classes order; I shall write to him about that. We must strongly encourage industry to give clear guidance and information. We want that done on a voluntary, partnership basis—but we will review the situation in the next Parliament, and if more legislation is needed, it will have to be enacted.