I am pleased to have secured this debate. I thank Mr Speaker for selecting it and I am glad that it is taking place under your assured chairmanship, Mr Sheridan.
Alcohol pricing is of great concern to many MPs. The subject has been raised by Back Benchers on both sides of the House in recent Home Office, Health and Business questions, and it has been the subject of a number of early-day motions that received cross-party support.
Some say that alcohol misuse, with its related health and social problems, is a major problem in the United Kingdom, so it is right that we should debate how alcohol pricing can help to tackle it. A constituent of mine wrote to me recently, saying that politicians are too reactive and unwilling to offer leadership on difficult issues. The Conservative-led Government have certainly made a start on alcohol pricing, but it is a rather timid one. I hope they can be persuaded to be bold and to act swiftly. If they do not do so, precious lives may be lost and many lives blighted.
The British Medical Association has highlighted the staggering cost of alcohol abuse to the national health service, at £2.8 billion. The British Society of Gastroenterology says that a serious cost is attached to cheap booze, and the UK is now paying the price.
I requested this debate primarily because of my interest in public health, and I am glad to see the Home Office Minister and the shadow Minister here today. We all know that antisocial behaviour, fuelled by binge drinking, can blight our neighbourhoods; and many are affected in their own homes as a result of domestic violence and the breakdown of relationships.
A British crime survey showed that half of all crime is alcohol related. In 2008, the then South Wales police chief constable warned people that
"In Wales you are more likely to be assaulted by someone you know than anywhere else in the UK...alcohol plays a huge, huge role in it."
Similar findings were set out in the excellent report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, produced in the previous Parliament under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz; I am pleased to see him here today.
Figures released last week show that Wales has among the highest rates of death in the UK linked to alcohol. Over Christmas in my local area of Gwent, as a result of the Wales drink-drive campaign 95 people were found to be over the limit. Despite the snow and ice and the wind chill factor to be found at 1,200 feet-a time when most sober people would not dream of driving-some drivers were on the road and over the limit.
I raised this matter in the Christmas recess Adjournment debate and called on the Government for tougher action. A recent Alcohol Concern report showed that more than 92,000 children and young people under the age of 18 were admitted to hospital as a result of alcohol misuse between 2002 and 2009. Girls are more likely to need hospital treatment than boys. Furthermore, a university of Manchester study found that some young women were consuming more than a week's allowance of alcohol units in a single night. Excessive drinking leads them to take more risks, such as walking home alone when drunk, particularly after they have sampled a ladies "drink for free" promotion. Since 1970, we have seen a threefold increase in cirrhosis, but it is ninefold for those under the age of 45. The age at which people develop cirrhosis has been falling, and even teenagers are now developing liver failure.
The Welsh Assembly rightly wants to take effective action to help people in Wales, but points out that the main levers for making the most significant change remain with the Government, who have the power to legislate on price, licensing and advertising-the Government did not accede to the Welsh Assembly's request for alcohol licensing powers to be devolved.
Another problem is the so-called pocket-money priced alcohol on offer in supermarkets. That can undermine local pubs, which are generally places of responsible drinking. My dad was a publican after working as a steelworker, and before becoming a bread delivery man. Other Members will doubtless wish to elaborate on the negative effect that such pricing can have on pubs and the local community.
Before going any further, may I say that when seeking to reduce harmful drinking we must, in tandem, provide adequate funding for alcohol research, treatment and prevention programmes, with sufficient training for health professionals to detect and manage those who have alcohol misuse problems.
"The Government alone cannot improve public health; we need to use all the tools in the box."-[Hansard, 21 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 1351.]
I would argue that alcohol pricing is a high-powered tool-and one that should be used now.
The Government may be about to act-I give credit where it is due-but their proposed minimum price is too low. It covers only duty and VAT. As the National Retail Federation said, the Government's "duty plus VAT" definition woefully fails to cover the real cost of alcohol; 40p for a litre of cider can hardly be considered positive action. For me, it is the duty of Government to protect and promote the health of their citizens. I am unpersuaded by the concern expressed by the Wine and Spirit Trade Association that minimum pricing will hit responsible drinkers and hurt the poor the most. I cannot believe that responsible drinkers expect to get their alcohol at "duty plus VAT" prices, with no allowance for production or distribution costs.
Furthermore, as the Alcohol Health Alliance points out,
"low alcohol prices means that responsible drinkers are subsidising the behaviour of the 25% of the population who are drinking at hazardous or harmful levels."
The effect of a minimum price on moderate drinkers will be low, as they consume less alcohol. If a 50p minimum price were introduced, it would mean an increase in spending on alcohol of less than 23p a week for a moderate drinker; but a heavy drinker could pay slightly more than £3 a week.
As for the poor being most affected by high prices, I cannot repeat too often that alcohol misuse costs us £2.8 billion. If we include the cost of crime and absenteeism from work, the bill would be much higher. The Government clearly need some more detailed research. We know that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, the British Medical Association, the Association of Chief Police Officers and others have called for a realistic minimum price for alcohol. How can the Government justify a minimum price for alcohol that covers only taxes but not the production and distribution costs? Will that really reduce binge drinking in our towns, particularly among vulnerable young women? Perhaps the Minister will tell us.
A spokesperson for the British Liver Trust said on BBC News 24 that the Government's proposal would save 21 lives a year. That is good, but I understand that research commissioned by the Department of Health demonstrates that a minimum unit price of 20p, 30p, 40p and 50p would prevent 30, 300, 1,300 and 3,300 deaths respectively.
The hon. Gentleman wishes to increase the price of alcohol on the supermarket shelves and discourage the unscrupulous pricing behaviour that has been displayed. However, one of the unintended consequences of minimum pricing is that it could skew the market and encourage people to drink spirits such as vodka, which is becoming an increasing problem among young drinkers.
The point about discouraging young people is powerfully made, and I know that unintended consequences can be a problem. That is why we need more research. Having said that, I still think the price suggested by the Government is way too low.
Is it not more likely that minimum pricing will encourage young people to drink responsibly in public houses, thus supporting the traditional pub industry and also providing a degree of supervision?
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point.
It is not surprising that the former chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, has called for a 50p minimum price per unit, as it is estimated that it could save 3,300 lives a year. Does not a proposal from such an eminent source, with a distinguished record of public service, merit serious consideration?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, along with the clear need to increase the price of alcohol, we need an education strategy from the Department of Health, perhaps to shock people into realising what would happen to them? Many who imbibe unfortunately end up with liver polyps at an early age. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, along with the need for an education strategy from the Department of Health, we need a concerted campaign from the supermarkets?
It is important that there be greater public awareness of the dangers of drinking excessive amounts of alcohol.
As yet, no legislative plans have been put before Parliament to implement the Government's half-measure to end below-cost selling. None is included in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill that is currently in Committee. Will the Minister tell us how the Government intend to introduce their proposal? Will we have legislation now, or action in the Budget? Some more details would be helpful. Moreover, the Minister has said that the Government will consider the rate of duty on super-strength lagers, but how long will that take?
In opposition, the Conservatives promised to call time on drinks that fuel antisocial behaviour. The Government know that there is a clear link between the price of alcohol and the harms associated with alcohol, but they are too timid to tackle the matter. They are concerned that everyone will be penalised if realistic minimum pricing is introduced. As I said earlier, that argument does not hold water.
I apologise for being late, Mr Sheridan. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. The research papers on this issue say that two thirds of the public believe that drinking in Britain is out of control. In my constituency, the fact that children as young as 10 can easily access alcohol is destroying lives. In my own business, in respect of which I declare an interest, a 16-year-old was recently diagnosed as being an alcoholic.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful argument.
I am concerned that cinemas promote alcohol because young people can be easily influenced in such places. Alcohol marketing creates new young drinkers, many of whom, unfortunately, think it cool to drink in excess. We have to teach them how to enjoy a drink, as many of us do, without drinking too much. Therefore, more regulation may be necessary. France, for example, bans drink advertisements both in the cinema and on TV. It also has a great rugby team who play with real élan.
Finally, we have developed a culture in our country in which alcohol and sport go too easily together. We all remember the days when John Player sponsored cricket and Embassy sponsored snooker and darts. It is salutary to reflect on the fact that some of our greatest sports personalities, such as George Best and Alex Higgins, have fallen foul of too much drink.
We need a major cultural change, and out sports administrators should note the contradiction in alcohol sponsorship of sport and their primary goal of promoting sporting success and physical well-being for us all.
Watching the Heineken cup and having a pint is one of life's pleasures, but it would still be a great tournament if it was sponsored by another industry and drinking in moderation was seen as cool by young people.
I congratulate Nick Smith on securing this hugely important debate. We all see the consequences of drinks pricing in our high streets and A&E departments, so I pay tribute to him for recognising the importance of this issue.
I am the vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary beer group and the MP for Burton. I am proud to say that Burton is the home of British beer. We have Carling Black Label, Marston's Pedigree and Punch Taverns, which is the biggest pub company in the country. The Minister has been incredibly generous with his time. He has met members of the all-party parliamentary beer group, the Save the Pub group and the Campaign for Real Ale group. He has met the brewers and the pub owners and taken time to listen to the concerns and issues that so many of them face, and I thank him for that. I also thank him for recognising that pricing in the supermarkets is dangerous and is having an impact on our young people and on society. As a Government, it is important that we take action to tackle the problem. I doubt whether there is anybody in this Chamber who finds it acceptable for supermarkets to use alcohol as a loss leader or as a giveaway to get people through the supermarket tills, yet that is what we are seeing daily.
I am glad that this Government have had the determination and confidence to produce legislation that, for the first time, not only recognises that cheap booze is a problem for society but sets out to do something about it. Sadly, though, like Oliver in "Oliver Twist", I have to say, "Please, Sir, can I have some more?" None of us here believes that the price level that has been set, although well intentioned, will have a massive effect on drinking behaviour, particularly among young people.
It is interesting to put the whole matter into context. In 1987, the price of a pint of lager in the pub was £1, and in an off-licence 70p. By 2010, the pub figure had gone up to £3 and the off-licence figure had stayed pretty much the same at about £1. We have seen prices in pubs increase by more than prices in off-licences over that period.
I recently met the chair of one of the local working men's clubs in my constituency. After a debate about whether or not the club should allow in women, about which we did not agree, we spoke about the pricing of alcohol. The club is concerned about the pricing issue. It believes that aggressive, cheap offers from supermarkets and corner shops are a big attack on its very survival. Historically, working men's clubs are a key part of social life, particularly in the north-east, and we need to have that at the front of our minds when we consider minimum pricing levels.
If the hon. Lady would like to come to Rolleston working men's club in my constituency, she will be welcomed with open arms and provided with alcohol in a safe and regulated environment. We all recognise that the pub and the working men's club provide a safe, regulated environment in which people can enjoy a pint or a glass of wine and interact socially. They are the social hub of our communities. Unfortunately, supermarkets' pricing and their use of alcohol as a loss leader is making it almost impossible for our pubs and clubs to compete. As a result, we have seen the shift in drinking behaviour. As I am sure that the Minister is aware, 70% of all alcohol is sold through the supermarkets. If we go back 20 years, the difference in the sale of beer between pubs and off-licences was 80:20; now, it is 50:50. We are seeing supermarkets constantly eroding pub sales.
The hon. Gentleman is dealing with a very important point that relates to the social issue associated with drinking. I am talking about parents who may be buying alcohol regularly from the supermarkets at a very low price. Poor parenting skills can result, which will lead to parents having problems at home with their children. That is a hidden issue that results from the pricing policy, and it needs to be resolved.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. However, there are those who say, "Why should we penalise someone who wants to buy a 24-pack of strong lager and take it home and drink one can a night for 24 days? Why should we penalise that?" The reality, however, is different. The clients at the Burton addiction centre in my constituency will talk about the impact that cheap booze has on fuelling people's drinking consumption.
My hon. Friend seems to be against these loss-leaders. Would he outlaw loss-leaders for chocolate, salt, butter and other things that are not good for us if we take them in excess?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. However, I cannot remember the last time I was on Burton high street and saw two guys knocking seven bells out of each other over a Toblerone. I also cannot remember the last time I was in Queen's hospital A and E and doctors were pumping somebody's stomach because they had overdosed on too much butter. The reality is that alcohol is a very different beast from things such as chocolate.
Surely the issue is not whether alcohol is distinct from other products, but the use made of it by the people who consume it. Is my hon. Friend not in danger of victimising people, particularly poor families, who benefit from these loss-leaders? He is trying to put forward the argument that, by penalising those poor families, he will tackle the problem of binge drinking, which I do not think he will.
I recognise my hon. Friend's concern, but the people we are penalising are the taxpayers, who have to pay for the consequences of binge drinking through the costs of extra policing and the impacts on A & E departments. Furthermore, if I am being brutally honest it is those poor families who suffer most as a result of cheap alcohol. Young people and poor families are much more price-sensitive to alcohol than others.
Surely there is a more basic problem. The nation's increasing addiction to alcohol is placing a huge strain upon the NHS-£2.7 billion a year. Surely we are talking on many occasions about treating the consequences of alcohol-related harm, rather than taking early action to prevent alcohol problems.
The hon. Gentleman gets right to the nub of the problem. I think we all recognise that a pub or a club is a supervised environment in which people can safely consume alcohol. When I was a young man, many was the time when I might have had a half of lager too much, or a half of Marston's Pedigree too much, and somebody-my parents, my friends or somebody else a bit older and wiser than me-might have said, "Right, son, you've had enough, it's time to go home", or the barman might have said, "I'm sorry, sir, I'm not serving you any more, you've had too much". However, the reality now is that too many young people are drinking to excess in an unsupervised manner.
The real problem is not only the price disparity. In recent years, there has been a massive increase in the regulatory burden placed on pubs and clubs-the smoking ban, for example-and a constant increase in the amount of red tape and supervision associated with dealing with the consequences of binge drinking. Actually, in many cases the pub only sells the last pint, because young people in particular are "pre-loading" before going out. When they get to the pub-increasingly, at later times in the evening-they are half-cut and the pubs have to deal with the consequences of that, including the fights and other problems. The danger is that we are loading too much of the burden on to pubs, when actually the supermarkets are driving a lot of this antisocial behaviour.
The previous Government did a lot of work with publicans to prohibit the "two for one" offer, the "happy hour" and the "drink as much as you can for a tenner" promotions that were fuelling excessive drinking. The pub industry, working with Government, took action to try to prevent those promotions-and yet it is perfectly okay for someone to buy a 24-pack of Stella or another strong lager from a supermarket. There are no restrictions on that.
Supermarkets are using beer as a loss-leader. We have seen the impact that supermarkets have had on milk and the dairy market through driving down the price of milk. They are doing the same with bread, and now they are using alcohol as a loss-leader. That is very dangerous and is sending out completely the wrong message to young people.
I thank the Minister very much for what the Government have done so far, but it is not enough. We need to go further. What we are all hoping for is some recognition today that this is the first step on a journey. The Minister will himself admit that if we agree that cheap alcohol is a problem, the question must arise, "How cheap is too cheap?" Is he honestly saying that he thinks we have got to where we need to get to on alcohol pricing, when we are still selling cider at 20p a can, beer at 38p a can and wine at £1.99?
If the Government and the Minister's intentions are to be delivered, any solution must lead to an increase in the price of alcohol on the supermarket shelf. We need the Minister to take that idea forward and drive it home. I know that, like me, he has been frustrated that, with below-cost selling, we have not yet been able to find a solution that satisfies both the lawyers in Brussels and the industry here. I hope that today, he will issue another declaration to the industry, asking it to come forward with ideas on a meaningful definition of below-cost selling that includes the cost of production, so that we can see an increase in the price of alcohol on supermarket shelves and begin to tackle some of the supermarkets' deeply dangerous activities.
Order. Several right hon. and hon. Members have indicated that they wish to speak. It is my intention to call the Front-Bench spokesmen from 10.30 am, so I ask speakers to take that into consideration when they make their contributions.
It is a pleasure to be present in a debate under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan, and to follow Andrew Griffiths, who made an eloquent and thoughtful speech.
I think that this is going to be a great debate. It will also provide a lot of information for political diarists. We have already heard this morning about butter-related crime, or the possibility of butter-related crime, from Mr Chope; we have heard the hon. Member for Burton offer the working men in his constituency the prospect of welcoming my hon. Friend Mrs Chapman with open arms, and we have also heard about the Minister's various meetings with beer groups, of which I am sure there are many, although some will think that the Minister, with his youthful good looks, might not even be old enough to drink.
Having said that, this is a very serious issue and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Nick Smith for choosing it for a debate. It has attracted so many right hon. and hon. Members to Westminster Hall on a Wednesday morning, each one of whom has a constituency interest and a desire to ensure that we continue to move in the right direction.
Other Members here will be able to talk about the health aspects of the issue, for example, hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who has vast experience in the NHS. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent and the hon. Member for Burton both mentioned the cost of binge drinking to our health service and the health of the nation.
In the next few minutes, I want to concentrate on alcohol-related crime and the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, "Policing in the 21st Century", to which my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent referred. That report was published last year and it addressed the cost to the taxpayer and to the public of alcohol-related crime. When our Committee began the inquiry that led to that report, we were looking at what a police officer did with his or her time; we never intended to look at alcohol-related crime. It was only after we had visited a number of town centres, including Colchester, that we did so. Bob Russell, who was then a member of the Committee, invited the Committee to visit Colchester and hear from local police officers there about the amount of time that they spent on alcohol-related crime, especially on a Friday or Saturday evening. The latest estimate is that 70% of police officers feel that they are distracted from other aspects of policing because they are dealing with alcohol-related crime.
A statistic was sent to the Committee from the Cabinet Office showing that it costs £59 extra to process someone in a police station who has been arrested because of alcohol-related crime. In the current climate, the Government want to save money on policing, and there is no better way of doing that than to have responsible laws that reduce the time that police officers spend on this issue.
I do not think that anyone will disagree with the right hon. Gentleman about the problem, but how will limiting the price at which supermarkets sell alcohol be the solution? We know from our constituencies that it is alleged that small shops, where alcohol is sold at a much higher price than at the supermarkets, enable young people under the legal age to access booze.
I have huge respect for the hon. Gentleman because he was my Greater London councillor when I was in Richmond many years ago. I have always had a great deal of time for what he says, but I think that he is wrong on this issue. It is not the little shops or the pubs, but the supermarkets, that cause the problem. The evidence is clear, and it is in our report. As the hon. Member for Burton has pointed out, people get tanked up before they go out on a Saturday night, because of supermarkets' special offers, which make beer cheaper than bottled water, even the cheapest water-I am not saying that we should not drink tap water.
I do not know where Mr Chopelives, but where I live I have noticed that small shops are actually becoming supermarkets, and those Tesco Metros and Sainsbury's Locals have the same cut-price promotions on alcohol, which occupies a larger proportion of shelf or floor space than it does in a larger store. Such stores are taking over territory that we might like to see remain with small local traditional shops.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She tries to tempt me down Leicester high street, especially the Melton road, where we are currently fighting an application by Tesco to build one of its supermarkets in the middle of one of my main shopping areas.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent mentioned the cost to the health service, but the cost to the taxpayer as far as crime is concerned is £7.3 billion a year-a huge amount. What do we do about that? It is in the hands of the Minister. At the last Home Office questions, I got up to praise the Home Secretary for moving in the right direction. We could not get the previous Government to do this; I do not know why. It is not that they were not concerned about the matter-I think that they were worried about alcohol-related crime and the pressure on the health service-but that the debate perhaps got distracted by claims that somehow the extension of licensing hours meant that people were drinking more alcohol. I do not think that that is correct, but as someone who does not drink alcohol, and has no constituency interest-no distilleries or production units-I feel that the previous Government should have taken up the Select Committee's recommendations. This Government are moving in the right direction, but not far enough, as I think we will find from the contributions of most Members here this morning.
Some would say that the hon. Member for Burton has the most to lose because of the production in his town. I have visited Burton and been to the Coors headquarters there. It is a remarkable town, and the world centre of beer making, but down the high street there is an alcohol addiction centre-how very convenient. The people I visited made the case for minimum pricing, so if they can do that, we can look at the issue very seriously. There is something of a practical nature that the Minister can do, picking up on what the hon. Member for Gainsborough said.
Oh, I am so sorry: Christchurch, of course. How could I confuse the hon. Gentleman with Mr Leigh?
What the Minister needs to do is to get the chairmen and chief executives of the five biggest supermarkets around the table for an alcohol-free sandwich lunch with both him and the Home Secretary, to discuss the issues. It is in their hands; they can do this.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that if we are going to make a difference, the Government need to confront not only the supermarket low prices, but the non-stop availability of alcohol and the saturation of its advertising?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Those issues have to be considered.
I shall end here, because so many other Members wish to contribute. The Government are moving in the right direction, but they have not accepted all the Select Committee's recommendations. I make a plea to the Government to get those supermarkets together-that is in their hands-and I say to the Minister, "Do not be afraid." I know that supermarkets are powerful organisations; we face them in our constituencies, and some of our constituents actually shop at them-I do. The fact is, however, that on this issue we need to make progress, and it needs to be now.
I thank both Front Benchers for their generosity.
I shall try to keep my comments brief. I congratulate Nick Smith on securing this important and timely debate, after the Government's recent welcome announcement. I speak today as chair of the all-party save the pub group. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is a member, but if he is not, we would certainly be delighted to have him, particularly now that we know he is from a publican family.
I welcome the Government's announcement, which is in itself a significant step that should be recognised. This debate has gone on for a long time, and I am pleased that the Government have acted quickly in the first year of this parliamentary term. Having said that, there are frustrations that my hon. Friend Andrew Griffiths and I have expressed, both privately and publicly. I echo my hon. Friend's comments about the Minister having being generous with his time and having sought to listen to people with an interest in pubs, and many others. He is right to do so, because that is a good way to make policy. However, I share the frustration, as do the majority of the all-party group members, that what the Government have done has not stopped below-cost selling. I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not support per unit minimum pricing. That is where the difference of opinion lies, and that is the challenge facing the Government.
Minimum pricing is not the way to solve the problems. As a Front-Bench Liberal Democrat health spokesperson, I said in a debate that minimum pricing is only part of the solution to two problems. The first is alcohol abuse, and it is important that we concentrate on "alcohol abuse" rather than on rather arbitrary terms such as "binge drinking," because some of the definitions are confusing. We are talking about problem drinking, which is drinking that leads to health problems, antisocial behaviour or crime, and that is what we all, as policy makers, should concentrate on.
The second problem is the situation facing pubs and the huge discrepancy that has developed over the past few years. We have to accept that minimum pricing is not a silver bullet to solve either of those problems, but I have heard people both inside and outside this House suggest that it is. Such problems are not solved so simply. Year-on-year duty increases, particularly on beer, have done nothing whatsoever to stop the problems and, in fact, as the duty has increased the culture of alcohol-fuelled antisocial behaviour has got worse.
I highlight to the Minister, because I know that he is interested in the issue, that there is a conversation that he needs to have with his colleagues in the Treasury. May I make a plea? We do not want another duty rise in the forthcoming Budget, because it will damage pubs further. The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent was absolutely right that well-run pubs and working men's clubs that serve as hubs for their communities not only provide regulated, controlled places for people to enjoy alcohol responsibly in a supervised atmosphere but create a different culture of enjoying alcohol in a community setting, generally with people of all ages. That leads to a different approach to alcohol and prevents some of the problems identified by the Select Committee Chair, Keith Vaz, including pre-loading and under-age drinking in parks and unsupervised settings such as houses where parents are out, which is where many problems occur.
The duty question is more interesting still. Who pays duty? It is not the supermarkets. That is one of the huge flaws in the argument for a rise in duty. Duty is paid by manufacturers and producers, which includes not only Coors in Burton but WharfeBank Brewery in my constituency. Breweries must pay duty on the 20th day of the month of invoice. It is a considerable payment for some of them, but when supermarkets buy beer from breweries, including small breweries on tight margins, they do not pay them for months, often for three months and sometimes longer. As usual, supermarkets exploit their dominant market share.
My hon. Friend makes a good point.
Why would supermarkets not welcome either a genuine ban on below-cost selling, which I support, or a minimum price per unit, which other hon. Members support? Those approaches would increase their revenue, but they sell cheap alcohol for other reasons. Let us face it: supermarkets have virtually destroyed the stand-alone off-licence trade in this country. Names such as Threshers disappeared some time ago. We must remember that pubs, working men's clubs, stand-alone off-licences and corner shops cannot sell alcohol below cost, because they rely on a reasonable margin on alcohol for their profits. There is something more sinister going on. Below-cost selling is a way to attract people into stores and maintain supermarkets' power over manufacturers, some of which, unlike Coors, are too small to argue. That situation is causing a problem.
I accept that the issue is difficult, but we must come up with a definition of below-cost selling that includes the cost of production. I realise that we are on the first step, and I accept that the issue is difficult to define, but to say that below-cost selling simply involves tax suggests that supermarkets buy alcohol for nothing. They might take a long time to pay, but they clearly pay something. The price that they pay is often unreasonable, exactly as it is for the milk that they purchase from dairy farmers, but there is nevertheless a price. It cannot be impossible to include in the equation the price that the supermarkets must pay. That is the challenge, and I look forward to working with the Minister on it over time.
I accept some of the concerns aired by Mr Chope. This is not about social engineering, moralising or saying that we should not sometimes welcome a reasonable deal and the chance to get a couple of pounds off a bottle of wine in a supermarket. Indeed, many people are concerned that if we set a high minimum price, that chance would disappear. There would also be other unintended consequences. For example, apart from increasing supermarket revenues, which is surely perverse, it could have the surprising effect of pushing up the price of a bottle of wine that currently costs £3.50 and is not worth more than that, and making good bottles of wine more expensive, which is not what any of us want. People should be allowed to enjoy alcohol sensibly without sudden unacceptable inflationary pressures.
I am concerned to stop the irresponsible selling of alcohol, which I am glad to say has been largely stamped out in the on trade but is, sadly, still alive and well, particularly in supermarkets. The Government have made a good start, but they can go further. I know that the Minister is listening, and I look forward to working with him and his team to close the unacceptable gap that has done so much damage to pubs, which are part of the solution to problem drinking, and to do something-we must recognise that it is only something-to deal with the problems associated with alcohol abuse that other hon. Members have rightly discussed.
I am delighted to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I congratulate Nick Smith on securing this important debate. As vice-chair of the all-party group on alcohol misuse, I believe that this is an incredibly important issue for all hon. Members, and I welcome the Government's commitment to tackling the serious issue of alcohol abuse. The proposal to introduce a minimum price for alcohol is undoubtedly a small step in the right direction, although I say that having listened to Greg Mulholland, who says the opposite.
I want to say clearly and early in my contribution that minimum pricing is just one aspect of what must be done to deal with increasing dependency on alcohol. I look forward to future statements by the Government on their alcohol strategy. In my view, treatment and rehabilitation services in this country are poor, availability is limited and service is disjointed across agencies. Little is done to help individuals and families ripped apart by alcoholism. The availability of cheap alcohol has undoubtedly encouraged the kind of drinking and antisocial behaviour that blights town centres each weekend. A culture, which is exclusive in many respects to British streets, has emerged in which it is fashionable to drink more than one is capable of. As a consequence, ill health and antisocial behaviour have become common.
The cost to the NHS of alcohol-related harm resulting from that culture is alarming. The statistics are well known, but one indication of strain on the NHS can be seen in the proxy services dedicated to treating binge drinkers. An SOS bus patrols Medway towns on Friday and Saturday nights, providing services to inebriated revellers. I visited it recently, albeit early in the evening, as I did not particularly want to see the consequences of heavy drinking. The dedicated volunteers are amazing and divert pressure away from the blue-light services, keeping vulnerable and very drunk youngsters safe. I certainly intend to try to protect that service during these financially constrained times, but it is a sad indictment of our weekend drinking culture that it is needed in the first place.
On minimum pricing, evidence points to a link between cost and sales. The theory is, obviously, that as cost rises, demand will fall. That might be a basic economic mechanism, and in principle it should make minimum alcohol pricing an effective policy for driving down dangerous levels of alcohol consumption, but the decision to set the base at the low rate of duty plus VAT is clearly controversial, and it remains to be seen whether it will work.
I share the concerns expressed by colleagues and others that such a policy will do little to help our beleaguered public houses, which must now compete with supermarkets rather than each other. I was interested to hear the price statistics quoted by my hon. Friend Andrew Griffiths, but I do not believe that the proposal will help tackle long-term alcohol dependency. It will be a small step in the right direction, if its aim is solely to clamp down on aspects of binge drinking such as pre-loading, which other hon. Members have discussed and the sole motivation of which is keeping the costs of a night out to minimum. Most leave their homes already very drunk, which prompts the question why they are allowed to continue consuming alcohol in licensed premises having already drunk enough before they arrive. As others have pointed out in this debate and others, one of the good things about public houses is that responsible landlords tend to prevent overly drunk and disorderly behaviour by stepping in and refusing to serve those whom they believe have had enough to drink.
As my hon. Friend, drawing on his experience, has pointed out, minimum pricing will, in theory, abolish the deep discounting that encourages that kind of drinking, thus equalising the cost of a night out and driving down alcohol consumption. However, the low minimum price proposed will only stop the very worst cases of discounting, and it may play out differently in practice. Therefore, bolder proposals should still be considered, targeting specific drinks associated with binge drinking, such as strong lagers, white ciders and alcopops.
It is important that we in this Chamber give credit where it is due. I was pleased to learn that Heineken, which produces White Lightning, recently discontinued the product due to its binge-drinking connotations. It should be commended for acknowledging the need to reinforce its stance on responsible drinking.
We must consider the limited scope of the policy and the likelihood that it will make headway only with a certain type of drinker. There is a growing dependency culture, and it is often hidden behind the closed doors of houses throughout the country. They are difficult to identify and affluent enough to absorb any increase in price, especially something as low as duty plus VAT. However, just because the minimum price does not impact upon them directly, that does not make them any less of a concern or any less dependent on alcohol and at risk of serious health issues in years to come. Current research reinforces that concern, because wealthy districts dominate the top of hazardous-drinking league tables. Although minimum pricing will target the binge drinkers who do it on the cheap, it is clear that it will do little to tackle alcohol dependency as a whole.
I appreciate that the Government have to balance their strategy of introducing a policy that meets their stated aims of reducing dangerous levels of alcohol consumption while not penalising the vast majority who enjoy alcohol sensibly. The question is: does this minimum price do that?
The pricing of alcohol is only part of the problem. It must be introduced in conjunction with a review of the late-night licences available to establishments, stricter alcohol-control zones and a close examination of the quality of treatment and rehab offered to those with a high dependency.
Will the hon. Lady join me in congratulating the Scottish Health Minister, who introduced a price structure in relation to vodka last September? As has been mentioned, the minimum price used to be £7.97, but it is now £11.81 under the new structure, which also applies to some beers. We encourage all the regions, including the Northern Ireland Assembly, to do the same.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I have read about the new proposals in Scotland, which are currently being debated. We should look at what is happening in Scotland. Indeed, we should have looked at what was happening there in relation to the 24-hour drinking culture before it was introduced here. The evidence that the police had gathered in Scotland should have been made available to the previous Government before they introduced the licensing extension.
In conclusion, we need to engage with the professional classes and young adults who regularly drink to hazardous levels, and target those establishments that prop up the binge-drinking culture through irresponsible sales and business practices. If we can in any way reduce the weekend strain on the NHS, the police and the local authorities that clear up the mess created by binge drinking, we can certainly hail this as a small step in the right direction. However, in order to reduce dependency on alcohol across the board and to stem the devastating effects that it has on the lives of individuals and families, let alone its financial cost to society, so much more needs to be done.
I congratulate Nick Smith on securing this important debate.
I enjoy real beer and good wine, and support a traditional pub. One of the most enjoyable experiences of my early career as an MP was to open Bragdy Mws Piws, which, for those present who are not blessed with the Welsh language, is the Purple Moose Brewery in Porthmadog. I commend its excellent products.
Alcohol is a problem, and I need not go into much detail because many hon. Members have already done so. I was a psychiatric social worker for eight years and I would like to talk about three cases that I came across during that time. First, I once went to a club near Blaenau Gwent and had to drag one of my colleagues out at lunch time because he had been drinking a pint of cloudy scrumpy that retailed at 8p a pint. Its effects on him were dreadful. Of my second example, I need only say that the person in question was an alcoholic roofer-I need not spell out the consequences. The third, and most tragic, case relates to an elderly man with whom I worked with a noted local psychiatrist, Dr Dafydd Alun Jones, who has had a long career in the field. The elderly man had had a lifetime of heavy drinking and he was abstinent at that time, but occasionally he would have what he called "lapses" when he would go out and drink heavily for a few days, which he would then regret at his leisure.
Huge efforts have been made to combat the effects of alcohol. My constituency of Arfon has CAIS, the local alcohol and drugs council. Interestingly, a couple of weeks ago I went out with the Bangor Street Pastors, a local voluntary group that goes out on Fridays and Saturdays at 1, 2 and 3 o'clock in the morning to help vulnerable young people who are clearly worse for wear due to alcohol. The volunteers back up the emergency services, and the police appreciate what they do. I talked with the police when I was out a couple of weeks ago, and they pointed out the effects on their work of having to be out at 2 and 3 o'clock in the morning when their shift pattern did not really allow for it.
The hon. Gentleman referred to some of the Welsh statistics. I will not detain the Chamber with too many, but Alcohol Concern Cymru estimates that there are 13,000 alcohol-related hospital admissions and 1,000 alcohol-related deaths in Wales each year. It also estimates that half the violent incidents in Wales are related to alcohol and that the cost of alcohol misuse to the NHS in Wales is between £70 million and £85 million a year, and that is just for treatment by accident and emergency services. That is a huge cost to public services, but it does not reflect the pain, grief and intense stress that many families, not just the drinker, experience.
England has similar statistics, but I will not go into them now, other than to say that it is estimated that 17 million working days are lost per annum. I am sorry that Mr Chope has left the Chamber, because that is one of the definite effects on trade and industry, about which I know he is concerned. The cost of alcohol-related crime in England is £4.7 billion a year.
As has been mentioned, the Scottish Government have tried to act. They commissioned research that showed that a minimum price per unit of alcohol of 40p could reduce alcohol-related deaths in Scotland by 70 in the first year, rising to 370 a year after 10 years, so there would be a cumulative effect.
Many of the arguments are in favour of addressing the price issue. I welcome the Government's proposals to prevent retailers from selling alcohol below duty plus VAT, and I am glad that they accept the arguments about the effect of cheap drink and the need to act.
However, I fear that the proposals will hit only the special offers. In some of the briefing material available to us, the Alcohol Health Alliance has said that the proposals would have
"no meaningful impact on the health consequences of alcohol misuse."
I do not know whether that is the case, but the Government should look at the matter further. A minimum unit price is not a silver bullet, as I think everybody recognises. We need concerted action on several fronts, including on licensing hours and the number of outlets. When I first started drinking many years ago, very few places sold alcohol. It now seems that every corner shop or garage has alcohol for sale.
I conclude by noting briefly that my party, Plaid Cymru, is in favour of a minimum price of 50p per unit. That is also the policy of the Welsh Assembly Government. We argue that such an approach would reduce consumption and lead to a lower consumption of very strong drinks. That would have a particular effect on young people. Someone asked earlier about the temptation to drink vodka if there were a minimum price. My knowledge of young people unfortunately shows that they need no encouragement to drink vodka; they seem to do it without any encouragement whatsoever.
As I said, the argument in my party also centres on the beneficial effects on the traditional pub. In the past, we have asked for pub licensing to be devolved. That came up when discussing the previous Government's changes to the licensing scheme. The Welsh Government have asked for the rights to impose a minimum price per unit but, unfortunately, that has been refused. I therefore ask the Minister in the long term-I do not expect to have an answer from him this morning-to reconsider the devolution of licensing powers to the Welsh Government and the refusal to allow the Welsh Government to set a minimum price.
I am conscious of the time, so I will not delay hon. Members by going through some of the statistics on the type of harm that alcohol is causing in my constituency-they are firmly on the record. That is particularly the case in Newquay, where many people go to have a very good time-often too much of a good time. I should put an interest on record. Like many hon. Members, I enjoy a drink from time to time, and I also have a brewery in my constituency in St Austell.
For the Minister's benefit, I want to touch on one of the potentially unintended effects of the duty plus VAT regime that the Government are introducing. When the Minister introduced the policy, he said that it was "an important first step." I agree with that, but it is also a very tentative step. In fact, in certain circumstances, industry representatives have said to me that the policy could make the price of alcohol lower in some retail establishments. As has been mentioned by other hon. Friends, the proposal does not factor in any sense of the cost of production. Retailers and wholesalers, neither of which will be taking any margin, could end up paying the duty plus VAT and reducing the cost as part of a marketing exercise-brand awareness-and an attempt to drive footfall.
Just before Christmas, if someone had £20 and went into a store with a promotion on, they might have been able to get three 15 packs of beer or cider-about 45 cans. Under the Government's proposals, supermarkets can legitimately charge £20 for 52 cans of lager or a staggering 107 cans of cider. That is a great offer for someone who likes that kind of thing. The proposals mean that, for £20, someone could buy enough cider to meet their recommended daily alcohol consumption for three months-107 cans of cider is equivalent to 246 units.
I will not give way. I know my hon. Friend wants to get in, so I will try to rattle through the points that I want to make.
Potentially, under a duty plus VAT arrangement, the following could be purchased for £20: not 45 cans of beer but 52; not 45 cans of cider but 107; not six bottles of wine but 10, and almost two bottles of spirits.
As has been mentioned, the policy does not factor in costs of production and is a very tentative step forward. There is a big discrepancy between the price of beer and the price of cider. We have to consider whether the Treasury is taxing those products equally. If we consider beer, at 4.2% alcohol by volume, the duty per unit is 17p; for cider, at 4.5% ABV, it is 7p per unit. Beer tax has increased by 50% over seven years and the gap between beer and cider tax widens every year. The Treasury is estimated to be losing £400 million a year. I shall now sit down, so that my hon. Friend can make her contribution.
There are only a few minutes left, so I shall address just four issues. Is it worth it? Will it work? Is it unfair? How can we do it? We have heard many statistics this morning, on which I will not dwell in the short time I have. Suffice it to say that nearly 15,000 people died of attributable deaths to alcohol in 2005, and they are the tip of the iceberg. Those figures do not take account of the person knocked over by a drunk driver or people whose deaths were perhaps attributable to alcohol in ways that are not recorded in the true statistics. We underestimate the scale of the problem. On the human cost, as an NHS doctor for 24 years and a police surgeon, I cannot begin to tell hon. Members the hideous nature of a slow death from alcoholic psoriasis.
Will the policy work? Yes, there is very clear evidence that it will. Several meta-analyses were studied in the university of Sheffield report that was commissioned by the previous Government. Those show that it is clear that pricing is a very good mechanism not only for controlling overall consumption, but for targeting those who are most at risk: young people and heavy drinkers.
On the question of whether the policy is unfair, let us consider the statistics. Someone from a deprived area is three to five times more likely than someone living in an affluent area to die of an alcohol-specific cause. In addition, they are two to three times more likely to die of an alcohol-related cause and two to five times more likely to be admitted to hospital for an alcohol-related cause. It is completely untrue to say that we penalise low-income families by addressing the problem. That group of people is most at risk. If we consider the statistics on children who are affected and the figures on domestic violence, again, there is a skewing towards lower-income families. We should address that matter and not hide it under the carpet.
Time is very short so, finally, how can we do it? There are various ways. We could, for example, look at varying VAT. I recently wrote to the Treasury to provide a copy of an article written by Nick Sheron that was published in the British Medical Journal. He argues that we can achieve minimum pricing by varying VAT, and that we should perhaps lower VAT on on-licence sales of alcohol. That would mean that we protect the licensed trade. I think everyone would accept that we do not want to penalise pubs. Simply using the blunt instrument of raising duty is the incorrect way forward, but having a variable rate of VAT would be an interesting method, allowing us to protect the on-licence trade. Unfortunately, the Economic Secretary has written back to me to say that she feels that that would be illegal under EU law.
Under EU law, we cannot make supermarkets have different ways of adjusting to adopt such proposals, so the alternative is to introduce minimum pricing across the board. That is worth doing. I know that the Treasury feels that such an approach would perhaps deprive it of income, but we are all paying a very heavy price in costs to the criminal justice system and to the health service. Many hon. Members have cited the £2.7 billion figure in relation to the health service, but it is probably more than that. Certainly, the cost overall to our economy is nearer to £20 billion than some of the lower figures that have been cited today. If we can address that, the Treasury would benefit indirectly, if not directly.
I shall mention a final mechanism. There are 30.4 billion units of alcohol sold in the off-trade. Perhaps we should consider introducing a levy just on the off-trade of 5p to 7p a unit on all off-licence sales. That would still leave 18 billion units of on-licence sales of alcohol unaffected. Perhaps that is another mechanism that could looked at by the Treasury, which could benefit more directly while trying to achieve something closer to 50p a unit. Like many hon. Members, I do not seriously believe that the Government's current proposals, while a step in the right direction, will have any meaningful impact on severe problem drinkers, particularly young binge drinkers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I congratulate my hon. Friend Nick Smith on securing the debate and on his excellent speech. I know about his long-standing interest in this particular problem, as well as his concern about wider health matters.
This debate has been interesting. I certainly feel that I have learned a lot about the drinking habits, or not, of a number of hon. and right hon. Members in this Chamber. Andrew Griffiths gave an interesting speech about how alcohol is a major issue for his constituency, which is a centre of brewing. My right hon. Friend Keith Vaz, who is the distinguished Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, talked about the information that he has gleaned from looking at policing and the effect of alcohol. Greg Mulholland, who is a doughty campaigner for pubs, discussed how we can tackle the problems of alcohol, which we clearly have, and the important community role for pubs. Tracey Crouch talked about her experience in her constituency. Hywel Williams talked about his experience as a social worker in dealing with clients and about what was happening on the streets of his constituency late at night. Stephen Gilbert gave very clear examples of what can be bought for £20, which was fascinating. Dr Wollaston spoke with a great deal of experience and knowledge about the effects of alcohol on health, and her last point about a potential off-trade levy should be considered.
It is clear that, as a country, we have a problem with alcohol. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent has supplied statistics about the effect of alcohol as it relates to Wales. We need to do something about this issue. Last week, we heard more disturbing statistics about liver disease in young people. The number of young drinkers admitted to hospital with liver problems has risen by more than 50% in the past 10 years.
In government, the Labour party started to address some of the problems relating to alcohol-for example, the Policing and Crime Act 2009 banned irresponsible drinks promotions. We all agree that we need to do more and to go further. From this morning's debate, it is clear that we need to go further than the coalition Government's current proposals, announced on
The Campaign for Real Ale has pointed out that in banning below-cost prices, the cost of production should be included. That would raise the floor price to 40p per unit, which is almost double the 21p per unit that will be the norm under coalition Government plans. In a quick survey by my office yesterday in the Tesco nearest to Parliament, we found that typical prices were four large 440 ml cans of Stella for £3.30, and four 440 ml cans of Strongbow for £4.25, or two for £7. Clearly, there is an issue with the pricing that will be introduced in the proposals from the Government. Those prices are typical up and down the country. Hon. Members have discussed what is happening in their own constituencies, and I know this from my own constituency in Hull.
We have heard about the proposal from the former chief medical officer for England, Sir Liam Donaldson, who, in March 2009, proposed a 50p a unit minimum pricing level. That would increase the price of all bottles of wine to at least £4.50 and raise the price of the average six-pack of lager to £6.
A number of concerns have been raised both in this debate and beyond. One concern, as I have just set out, is whether the retail price will make any real difference to influencing the excessive drinking that we have seen in recent years to a move towards greater moderation. There is also the question why responsible drinkers should be penalised by having to pay more, when they are not in any way part of the problem. That is a fair point, which has carried the day in debate for many years. It may be difficult to devise a way of dealing with irresponsible drinking, while leaving those people who just have an occasional glass of wine or pint of beer unaffected.
We need to consider the pricing mechanism, because if we do not do so, we will deny ourselves one of the most potentially useful weapons in reforming destructive behaviour as a result of alcohol. There is much to be gained for the responsible drinker from looking at pricing. Set against higher prices for alcohol, there are costs that can be saved in the areas of policing, cleaning the streets, and repairing vandalism, as well as the benefit to the NHS and the general welfare state. Perhaps the Minister will consider highlighting more clearly the costs incurred by society due to the abuse of alcohol and making the case more strongly for looking at higher prices. Any pricing changes must be seen not only as increasing the Treasury tax take, as the recent VAT change does, but a reform that is firmly for the health of our society and everyone in it.
We have heard much today about how drinking habits have changed over the years. People buy their alcohol cheaply in the supermarket, often in bulk, and consume it at home. That is referred to up north as "getting tanked up", but I think that the technical word is "pre-loading". People then go out later in the evening to take advantage of the later licensing hours, and so end up spending less in the pubs and clubs, having spent more with the supermarkets. The hon. Member for Burton has discussed his experience, perhaps when he was slightly younger, of being in a pub or club and having the benefit of that controlled, supervised environment, which means that people can be helped if they have a little too much to drink. That clearly does not happen if one is indulging in excessive drinking at home.
On late night drinking, the Government have introduced the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill and are considering a late night drinking levy, which is about asking pubs, clubs and licensed premises to contribute towards the costs of policing in areas that have late night drinking. While there is an element of the polluter pays, which is an attractive idea, perhaps the Minister will consider again the additional tax that will be charged to many small businesses and the bureaucratic nature of introducing this levy. Perhaps he will comment on that.
I want to discuss building a culture of responsible drinking. There is wide agreement that people need fully to understand the implications of their behaviour, so I hope that the Government will consider bringing back the proposal to introduce personal social and health education into our schools, so that young people in particular fully understand the problems of taking alcohol at an early age-many of them do not understand that. Some schools teach the subject very well, but others do not.
My time is nearly up. The Government have announced the proposal that they wish to take forward, but could the Minister comment on why the Bill, which is currently in Committee, does not include any clear proposals or clauses on this matter? Would he consider bringing forward an amendment to include it, and, finally, would he consider adding a further objective to the licensing conditions and include a health harm objective?
This has been an exceptional debate. Some debates that we have either on the Floor of the House or in Westminster Hall are partisan. Speakers may have entrenched positions and may not necessarily reflect the views of the whole of the United Kingdom or, indeed, of all political parties, but that is not the case this morning. That highlights the impact of the issue and the concerns that people have about the misuse of alcohol and what we see in our communities because of it. Equally, it reflects the complexity of the matter, which can and should be addressed in several different ways. There are societal, health and crime issues, and those themes came through clearly in a range of contributions, whether speeches or interventions, which have informed the debate and made it valuable.
I congratulate Nick Smith on securing this debate and allowing this discussion to take place. When I was doing my research, I thought that I had suddenly latched on to something when I discovered a page on the internet that said, "MP admits mistake":
"MP Nick Smith has told Parliament he 'got it wrong'" on the drinking age, but I then discovered it was a New Zealand MP with the same name rather than the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent. I know that the hon. Gentleman takes this issue seriously. In his initial contribution in this House, he highlighted his concerns about social and health inequalities in his constituency as well as other themes. I know how keenly he feels about these issues, and why he sought to secure this debate.
It is important to recognise that, for the first time, because of research that we have undertaken and the many representations that we have heard, we have set out the need to establish a link between alcohol harms and price. I am delighted that Keith Vaz is in his place, because we have reflected on the comments in the Home Affairs Committee report, which, interestingly, was published in November 2008. That shows how time passes in this place. It recommended that the Government establish a legal basis for banning the use of loss-leading by supermarkets-that was one of the key recommendations. He and I have had several debates over the years on the issue and the points that arise from it.
It is also important to say that our modelling indicates that the change that we are proposing-duty plus VAT-will reduce the number of crimes by about 7,000 and hospital admissions by about 1,000. We heard from Stephen Gilbert about his fears that the change will somehow drive the price down. I certainly do not see it that way. The sad reality is that some products are deeply discounted. They will be caught by our proposals, and hence the change that we are seeing.
I appreciated my visit to the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I went to Newquay and saw some of the good community work that is taking place on the ground, and how people are dealing with some of the issues around youth drinking and some of the pressures in certain towns. The Newquay Safe Partnership is an important example of that practical work, and I was delighted to visit his constituency.
I am conscious that time is limited, so I apologise if I am unable to canter through everything. The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent asked about the options for bringing matters forward. I am certainly committed to doing that as soon as practicable. We are examining various options, but I intend to press forward quickly to resolve matters and ensure that the measures are introduced at the earliest opportunity.
There were also some questions about Treasury statements, and the hon. Gentleman asked about my comments on super-strength lagers. Before Christmas, the Treasury conducted its own analysis of duty and identified super-strength lagers of more than 17.5% alcohol by volume as a particular issue. It was considering options for duty in the Budget. I hope that that gives him an idea of the time frame.
My hon. Friend Tracey Crouch highlighted some of the practical issues on the booze bus that clears up some of the problems late in the evening. I stayed out with the booze bus in London late into the evening and saw people literally being picked up off the street-they were dealt with professionally and impressively by the London ambulance service and paramedics. I found quite interesting the leaflet that they gave to the people with whom they dealt, who perhaps would reflect on it the following morning when nursing the after-effects of what they had been through the night before. The leaflet highlights the cost of the pick-ups-each case costs the London ambulance service some £200-and the fact that about 60,000 calls are made each year. I saw for myself some of the real challenges that professionals have to deal with on the ground, responding to the issue, which is why it is important to introduce several different measures to address the problems linked to excessive alcohol consumption.
There is a clear role for the industry. I have been struck by some of the positive work, not just in Newquay, on things such as community alcohol projects, Best Bar Nones, purple flags and some of the steps that are already being taken by the industry to address the problem. Yes, more should and could be done, which is why, for example, we are seeking to introduce the late-night levy. It will assist local communities with funding and support for policing and some of the other initiatives, such as the booze bus.
As a rejoinder to Diana Johnson who described our response as bureaucratic, I gently remind her of the previous Government's alcohol disorder zones. If she thinks that what we are proposing is bureaucratic-it is actually simple and straightforward-I point her in the direction of ADZs and the bureaucracy that was attached to them. I hope that she will welcome some of the steps that we are taking on pricing, because I know that Alan Johnson, a former Home Secretary, indicated regret at not taking that on board. I welcome her support as we go on to debate some of the detail around licensing in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill during the coming weeks.
It is important to set the proposal for the ban on below-cost sales in our proposal to introduce a floor price of duty plus VAT. The matter was considered carefully. There were some comments about the industry making further suggestions. We consulted during the summer on our proposals and listened carefully to the responses. Again, there were no simple solutions or unanimous views on what should happen. This is a complex matter, and there are issues around competition law. Also, we need to produce something that is understandable and easy to enforce. There are other models such as invoice pricing, but we did not want to get involved in them because of the bureaucracy attached to them.
Sadly, it appears that we are now calling time on this debate. Our proposals are a first step. We are determined to tackle the harms caused by alcohol and are introducing a comprehensive suite of proposals on problem practices, problem licensing and problem people, and we are looking at how we can better support and aid recovery as part of our wider strategy. I have appreciated this morning's debate, which I am sure will continue.