I congratulate Dr Wollaston on securing this important debate, and I pay tribute to her for tenacious campaigning on the subject. I am also pleased to follow Philip Davies, because our views are about as divergent as they possibly could be, so there is an opportunity for some balance.
I want to talk about minimum pricing, because the sale of alcoholic drinks at pocket-money prices is costing not only the economy anything between £20 billion and
£25 billion a year, if we look at the total costs, but many thousands of people’s lives. This is a fundamental public health issue: people are getting avoidable diseases and dying early. As others have said, those of us who are on the side of supporting minimum pricing do not want to stop people having fun and enjoying a drink; we want a strategy in place to ensure that as far as possible people drink as safely as possible.
The bottom line is that alcohol currently presents us with a massive public health problem in this country. With the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Nursing, I believe that we need to act on minimum pricing. John Pugh was right to say that it is not a panacea and, on its own, minimum pricing will certainly not solve the problem, but it is an important tool in our armoury, so we should use it.
As mentioned already, the Government’s policy so far is that, instead of supporting minimum pricing, they will bar the selling of alcohol below the rate of duty and VAT. I welcome that as a step forward, with Ministers acknowledging price as a factor in how much people drink, but the policy does not go far enough, as evidenced by the drinks industry calling the approach “pragmatic”—in other words, the industry is not bothered by it. Health campaigners point out that one of the reasons why the industry is so relaxed is because the price floor is probably too low to have a real impact. That was supported by evidence from an investigation by The Guardian newspaper last year, which showed that of 4,000 price promotions, just one would be affected by the Government’s policy to bar selling alcohol at below the rate of duty and VAT. I am interested to hear the Minister’s response to that research. If the Government fail to act on the evidence, and if they refuse to stand up to the drinks industry, I fear that their alcohol strategy simply will not work. Resources and good intentions will be wasted because a successful strategy must be underpinned by measures to address the easy availability of alcohol.
Local communities are, rightly, worried and want action. For example, in Brighton and Hove, we have been trying to address the £100 million annual bill facing the city from the impact of over-consumption of alcohol. In October last year, the city started what it called “the big alcohol debate”, which closed last month. Its purpose was to hear what the residents of Brighton and Hove had to say about alcohol in the city. It is deeply worrying that 40% of the 1,300-plus respondents said that they avoid parts of the city because of the way in which drunken people behave. A clear message came through from Brighton’s debate that people are concerned about the too-easy availability of alcohol, and the effects of drunken behaviour in the city.
I am proud of the clear and radical action that city councillors have recently taken on licensing with an expanded cumulative impact area that allows councillors to take into account the impact of other licensed premises in the area when considering new applications. Councillors in the city are doing all they can to work closely with the police, the NHS and many other agencies that must pick up the pieces resulting from the lack of a clear alcohol strategy. The point of the debate is that there is only so much that can be done at local level without a clear lead from the Government on the key issues, which include minimum pricing. Price can and does regulate people’s consumption patterns, which seems to me why so much of the drinks industry is so worried about it.
By way of illustration, I shall say a few words about the continued sale of white cider. The issue concerns me greatly, and has been raised in Brighton and Hove as a significant problem connected with the level of street drinking and drunkenness in the city. It makes the case that minimum pricing has an important part to play. White cider is often sold at a cheaper price than bottled water. It is consumed for no other reason than instant intoxication for homeless and dependent street drinkers, as well as young at-risk drinkers. The charities that work with street drinkers report that white cider has a particularly damaging effect on the health and behaviour of the people consuming it. The harm it causes should help to convince the Government that minimum pricing is part of the answer.
I have contacted the supermarkets that continue to sell the product, albeit on their bottom shelves where they know that those who are ill enough and desperate enough to need it will be able to find it. I am encouraged that in response, those supermarkets have agreed to meet me to discuss the issue. However, whatever the outcome of that meeting, white cider will still be bought by many small retailers from cash and carry outlets.
Bigger retailers can and should take a lead, and stop selling this dangerous and damaging substance, but we need action from the Government if we are to eradicate it from our streets and from the lives of vulnerable drinkers. I shall illustrate what a difference a minimum price would make to the cost of white cider. Currently 2-litre bottles of Diamond White cider, consisting of 7.5% alcohol by volume, cost around £3.50 for around 15 units of alcohol. At a minimum price of 50p, the cost would be £7.50, and at 45p it would be £6.75. The point that a minimum price would not unduly penalise people who drink more moderately is underscored by the fact that an average bottle of wine—750 ml at 12%—would cost £4.50 with a 50p minimum price, or £4.05 if it were 45p.