[Katy Clark in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:47 am on 7th February 2012.

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A more recent ruling from the Commission in 2010 was even clearer. In answer to a question, the Commissioner for Health said that

“the Commission fully shares…the conviction that there are strong public health reasons for the EU to tackle alcohol-related harm including minimum pricing measures.”

We must lay to rest the ghost that suggests that the EU is saying that we cannot do this. It is saying that we can do it with certain conditions. Our role is to show that those conditions are met, and with all the evidence that has been cited here today and in many other places, we can make that case clearly. In this instance, the EU is saying not that we cannot act, but that we must be proportionate.

I hope that the Minister will accept that and that we need to make the political case for pursuing this measure. The Commission is telling us that if we do that, it is open to supporting that way forward. Let us have the debate on the issues, not on bugbears and myths about what the EU will or will not allow.

Photo of Katy Clark Katy Clark Labour, North Ayrshire and Arran

Order. The winding-up speeches will start at 12.10 pm.

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay 11:57 am, 7th February 2012

It is a pleasure to follow Caroline Lucas. Like other hon. Members, I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Wollaston on securing a debate that she has revisited time and again since coming to the House.

As a relatively new MP, I was reflecting on the fact that my hon. Friend Philip Davies is a bit like a bellwether. When he is the first to rush to defend the Government’s policy, one knows that the policy is wrong. This morning, many hon. Members have asked where the evidence is that leads us to consider the need to introduce minimum pricing. In 2008, the university of Sheffield conducted a Government-funded study, which found that setting a minimum price of 50p a unit for alcohol could result in 3,000 fewer deaths a year. In 2009, the chief medical officer in England supported that view. In 2010, the Select Committee on Health and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence also backed a minimum price. Also in 2010, that policy found its way into the coalition agreement, which states:

“We will ban the sale of alcohol below cost price. We will review alcohol taxation and pricing to ensure it tackles binge drinking without unfairly penalising responsible drinkers, pubs and important local industries.”

That is exactly the point that other hon. Members have made. The opposition to minimum pricing is setting up a straw man in saying that it would penalise moderate drinkers. In fact, as other hon. Members have said, the study by Alcohol Concern suggests that with a 50p minimum price, moderate drinkers would be only £12 worse off a year, whereas the cost to the harmful drinkers—those who cost our economy through lost productivity, revenue lost to the health service, and tragic deaths such as that identified by my hon. Friend John Pugh—would be £163 a year.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Liberal Democrat, Southport

I hate to stand up for Philip Davies, but the relationship between price and consumption is a lot more subtle than hon. Members have indicated. Recently, at least until a couple of years ago, the price of alcohol was going down, and levels of consumption have also reduced throughout the country.

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay

My hon. Friend makes a valid point, but the issue concerns consumption among problem drinkers and those vulnerable people about whom we in the House must be especially concerned. In many cases, people suffering from addiction are not able to articulate the best course of action for themselves.

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay

I will not give way as I want to move on swiftly and look at some of the false arguments that are used to prevent a move towards minimum pricing, including the suggestion that such pricing may fall foul of European competition law. Belgium, Luxembourg and Poland have laws on commercial practices and consumer protection that ban below-cost sales. Some Spanish provinces have banned alcohol promotions that directly incite excessive alcohol consumption, and national legislation in Sweden stipulates that the price of alcohol cannot be lower than the cost price plus a reasonable addition, which the Swedish National Institute of Public Health recommends should be 25% or more of cost price.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Southport said in his remarks, examples of good practice show how we can tackle alcohol-related disorder in our communities. The Newquay Safe Partnership has worked effectively to try and reduce the cost of such disorder by introducing Challenge 25 and ensuring that people are able to spot fake ID, by education outreach in the local schools, and by the creation of a confidential number to report instances of proxy buying when an adult purchases alcohol for children. A “follow home” scheme means that a case of antisocial behaviour by a visitor to Newquay will follow that person home to be dealt with by their local police force. Newquay Safe Partnership has reduced the cost of crime in Newquay by about £250,000 a year. Incidents of violence have reduced by 7%, and those of nuisance behaviour by 22%. I will happily provide hon. Members with other examples at a later point.

Two points should be added to our alcohol strategy. First, we need a licensing requirement for toughened glass in pubs and clubs. A discarded bottle or pint glass is a fairly dangerous weapon, as my constituent Jack Nutting knows. Toughened glass can be used for pint glasses, and plastic bottles can be used instead of glass bottles. Newquay is already moving forward on that licensing requirement, and the rest of the country could learn from that. Secondly, as I said yesterday in questions to the Home Department, there is no specific offence of urinating in the street, and at the moment police use get-around powers, most amusingly that of littering. When considering the consequences of alcohol in their totality, that issue also needs to be reviewed.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton 12:03 pm, 7th February 2012

Given the shortage of time, and in order to give other Members the opportunity to contribute, I will restrict my remarks to one of the topics on which I wished to speak. I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Wollaston on securing this timely debate. She has made the case well for the need to address excessive drinking, particularly among the young. I want to draw attention to the important role that parents play in teaching their children how to drink responsibly.

I wish to highlight recent research produced by the think-tank Demos. A few days ago, I was privileged to host a meeting at which it launched a report on alcohol and parenting. The report compared parenting styles, and found—perhaps unsurprisingly to some—that parents who are actively involved in their children’s lives and know where they are, what they are doing and who they are with, and who get involved in their children’s leisure activities and know their friends and even their friends’ families, and who offer love and affection as well as setting clear boundaries, will materially decrease the likelihood that their children will binge-drink at age 16. According to the report, parents who bring up their children in a disengaged way with low levels of the sorts of attachment that I have described, run the risk that their youngsters will be eight times more likely to engage in binge drinking at age 16.

Even more surprising was the effect that parenting styles have into adulthood. The research found that children bought up in an environment with high levels of attachment were far less likely to engage in excessive drinking at the age of 34, which shows that good parenting has a lasting effect on us as adults. I was encouraged by that report, and it reassured me that all those hours that I have spent freezing on the touchline at football matches across Cheshire may have a greater impact than that of simply cheering on my son’s football teams.

Although the Demos report did not recommend that the Government make grand changes in the way they educate parents about bringing up their children, I would like to comment on that subject. The research highlights the fact that active parenting is a key aspect of personal responsibility, and it is good to be reminded of that with reference to excessive drinking. Ideally, appropriate levels of personal responsibility in relation to that issue would substantially reduce—indeed, negate—the need for greater Government intervention.

As part of their alcohol strategy, I suggest that the Government think laterally and consider seriously the positive contribution that parenting classes or education could make, particularly in terms of prevention rather than cure. The Government are currently trialling parenting classes in three parts of the country, but such things are rare. Over time, the broader availability of such classes could reap substantial benefits in the lives of many—that is particularly true in an age when many young people who may become parents have not experienced ideal parental role models in their own lives.

In conclusion, we cannot resolve every problem of excessive drinking in our country, but we should not act only at personal, community or national levels. We need to do something at all those levels, because doing nothing is not an option.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate 12:06 pm, 7th February 2012

I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Wollaston on securing this timely debate. It is similar to the debate that I secured in May 2007, just before the publication of the then Government’s alcohol harm reduction strategy. In 2007 I was pessimistic about the direction in which the situation with alcohol was headed, but in 2012 I am optimistic. In 2007 the strategy was too limited and failed to tackle the need to reduce overall consumption and the harm caused by alcohol, as well as to be more ambitious about recovery from addiction.

Without going into too much detail, I would like to raise the issue of pricing, which, quite properly, has already been mentioned. In 2007, I was part of the Centre for Social Justice which recognised—perhaps going against its more traditional instincts of not wanting to bang the drum for taxation—that price has a particular impact on dependent drinkers and young people, which are the groups we wish to tackle when we see such enormous carnage in our communities. I am pleased that the Government are considering seriously the case for minimum pricing, and we await the outcome of those deliberations.

My experience comes not from being a politician, but from being a criminal defence solicitor. Sadly, my filing cabinet is full of notes about lives that have been damaged, or indeed lost, because of alcohol. Many of those cases involve not just one person, but a grandparent, a father and a son—the intergenerational cycle of alcohol misuse, which includes the impact of crime.

Last year in Hertford magistrates court I came across one individual—let us call him Lee—who was an alcoholic. He was aged 16, had just come out of a young offenders institution, and told me that he had been an alcoholic for three years. I asked him about his family and school background, and he said that everyone had given up on him. Indeed, when he left the young offenders institution, he stopped seeking any effective treatment because the only statutorily provided adolescent rehabilitation centre closed down last year. I asked him about school, and he said that he was known there as “Wasted.” That was how he was known, and that was how he felt. Sadly, such wasted lives litter our community, and the impact on children and young people is severe.

Some 9 million children are affected by a family member who has a problem with the misuse of alcohol. That is a massive figure, and children of parents who are problematic drug or alcohol users are themselves seven times more likely to develop a substance misuse problem.

We need to move away from the way in which we have historically dealt with alcohol treatment, focusing on the individual, to a whole-family-centred approach in order to tackle this intergenerational drug misuse. We need to ensure, as the Government are committed to ensuring, that it is not a Cinderella service—that people do not just come to the ball now and again when they show that they have a problem—but that the approach is systemic and integrated. That is what the drug strategy and the alcohol strategy show—that we are seeking to tackle drug and alcohol misuse and be much more ambitious about recovery.

We need to ensure that we recognise the evidential basis of alcohol treatment. We know from the UK alcohol treatment trials that every pound invested in treatment saves £5 in reduced health care costs, social care costs and criminal justice costs. Taking such action will ensure that the current Government are known not just for economic recovery, but for social recovery. Tackling alcohol misuse is one way to achieve that. I know that the Government are up for it. I am sure that we shall hear shortly that my hon. Friend the Minister is up for it as well.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Shadow Minister (Public Health) 12:10 pm, 7th February 2012

It is always a pleasure to speak under your distinguished chairmanship, Miss Clark. Like many other hon. Members, I congratulate Dr Wollaston on securing the debate, which is part of her campaigning work on what has almost come to be seen as her signature issue. It is a very important issue for us all.

I often speak in the House about things of particular relevance to inner-city communities such as mine, but no community is not touched by the scourge of alcohol abuse. That is true whether we are talking about the town centre or the accident and emergency department or even behind closed doors. This scourge is relevant to all of us as Members and is a proper subject for debate.

We have heard many very informed speeches. I shall touch on just three issues. I want to put the alcohol abuse problem in this country in an international context. I do not think that it is sufficiently understood how badly we are doing relative to other European countries. I want to touch particularly on what is happening to young people, because what is happening to them is particularly important. Finally, I shall talk about what would make up an effective alcohol strategy.

It is not sufficiently understood that whereas alcohol misuse is trending quite sharply up in this country, as hon. Members have said, in Europe it is trending down. The picture in this country is much bleaker than that in countries such as France, Italy and Spain. France, Italy and Spain historically had very high levels of alcohol consumption in the 1950s. However, since the 1980s, alcohol consumption in France, Germany and Italy has been reduced by between 30% and 50%. At the same time, it has gone upwards in the UK.

We have heard about the numbers of deaths related to alcohol abuse and the panoply of social ills and social disorder caused by alcohol abuse. Why is alcohol abuse as a problem trending upwards in the UK but going downwards in other European countries? That is because—I say this with all due respect to the free-marketeers on the other side of the Chamber—Governments have taken action. If we look at a graph of alcohol abuse, we see the line for European countries going down and being intercepted by a line that relates to UK alcohol abuse, which is going upwards. How can the sixth-richest country in the world be unable to take comprehensive action against this scourge? I would hate to think that that was because politicians and Governments listened too much to the drinks industry and not enough to the cries of people suffering from alcohol abuse, whether they are in our town centres or in A and E or the alcohol abuse is taking place behind closed doors.

I want to say a little about why this is a particular issue for young people. As we have heard, among young people aged 18 to 29, alcohol is a bigger killer than any other disease. They are being killed either by the use of alcohol itself or in alcohol-fuelled incidents. Government Members are laughing, but they would think it a serious matter if they were the parent of a young person who had died in that type of incident. I have had occasion to meet parents of children who have died either through alcohol abuse or in incidents fuelled by alcohol. They do not laugh; they think that it is tragic and they want the Government to do more.

It is a fact that the alcohol industry has, in recent years, specifically targeted younger audiences. What are alcopops about other than encouraging young people who might be put off by the taste of alcohol to begin drinking alcohol with drinks that more naturally resemble soft drinks and sweetened fruit juice? It is a fact that in the 1990s the industry consciously increased its advertising budget. It went from £150 million to £250 million and, as I said, at the same time the number of schoolchildren drinking alcohol doubled. Targeting young people is a very serious matter, because we know that heavy drinking in adolescence leads to greater addiction levels and dependency in later life. We have heard more than once in the debate that levels of drinking in this country have levelled off, but levels of drinking among young people continue to spiral upwards. It is that vulnerability and the onward costs of adolescent heavy drinking that it is important to target.

We have heard many important facts about the results of alcohol abuse in this country, so what action should be taken? No one believes that pricing alone is a magic bullet. No one puts that forward—not the British Medical Association and not the alcohol campaigning organisations. However, there is no question but that an effective strategy against alcohol abuse must have pricing as part of the package.

Last year, I visited Newcastle at the invitation of the leader of the Labour council, Nick Forbes, and I chaired a round table discussion on alcohol and tobacco, at which I heard about the impact of alcohol abuse in the north-east. I also heard about the work that Balance North East is doing on alcohol abuse. I heard that alcohol is sold for as little as 12p per unit in the north-east and that the NHS spends a very large amount of money dealing with alcohol harm.

The problem is that, in the midst of the reorganisation that is taking place, innovative programmes such as Balance North East are at risk because they are funded jointly by several local primary care trusts. I would be interested in what the Minister has to say on how regional programmes such as Balance North East, fighting alcohol harm, may be able to continue operating under the new commissioning arrangements that she proposes in the Health and Social Care Bill. How does she, under the new organisational arrangements, intend to see alcohol services improve? How does she intend to make them a public health priority? Does she intend to consider the specific recommendations made by the British Society of Gastroenterology? Those recommendations include the establishment of multidisciplinary alcohol care teams in hospitals linked to the community; alcohol specialist nurse services; co-ordinated policies of care in A and E and acute medicine units, including alcohol specialist nurses, liaison psychiatry and alcohol link workers’ networks; outreach alcohol services; and integrated alcohol treatment pathways.

As I have said, there is a real issue about alcohol and young people. I think it was John Pugh who said that he did not think that education had much of a role to play. One way in which we can learn is by looking at successful public health campaigns of the past. There is no question but that, along with Government action, education in schools has a lot to do with the fact that levels of smoking among young people are dropping. That was not an immediate answer, but we do know that education played an important part in relation to tobacco abuse, and I believe that education can play an important part in relation to alcohol abuse.

In the debate hon. Members have queried whether there is any evidence that price plays a role. I refer hon. Members to something that was referred to earlier—a study undertaken over 20 years in British Columbia, Canada. That showed that a 10% increase in the minimum price of a given alcoholic beverage leads to a 16.1% decrease in consumption relative to other drinks. As I said, that was a 20-year survey. No hon. Member has brought evidence that will counter that.

We have heard about the social ills and the health problems caused by alcohol abuse. We know, because of our experience with tobacco, that these are not trends that we can stand, King Canute-like, and watch rising. There are things that Government and communities can do. Having waited so long for the Government’s alcohol strategy, I await with interest the Minister’s comments about the action that the Government plan to take and how it will fit with the changes in the organisation of the health service.

Photo of Anne Milton Anne Milton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health 12:20 pm, 7th February 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Clark. I congratulate my hon. Friend

Dr Wollaston on securing the debate. As a GP, she has experienced at first hand the devastation alcohol can cause, and we all agree with her that excessive drinking affects our communities, ruins lives and all too often ends them.

The debate is very timely, because it marks the start of a big push by the Government to get information to people about the harm that alcohol can cause. We have the Change4Life adverts, which some Members may have seen, and two millions leaflets are being distributed. I can also recommend to hon. Members an online calculator that will help people to start understanding how many units they actually drink. Awareness of the harms of smoking is high among members of the public, and most people these days understand that being overweight is a problem and that they should probably exercise more, but the harm alcohol can cause is less well understood.

The constructive tension in the Chamber has been quite useful, and it is interesting that it is cross-party. Often on such occasions, the reporting of the evidence is somewhat selective, but one difficulty with the question why we drink so much and why drinking is a particular problem for northern Europeans is that it is complicated and the picture is complex. Some 57% of people drink fewer than three times a week, and a further 15% report abstaining from drink completely. However, 22% of adults drink more than the lower-risk guidelines, drinking 70% of all the alcohol consumed, which means that just under a quarter of people drink almost three quarters of the alcohol consumed.

As those figures suggest, the majority of people who drink do so in an entirely responsible way, but we cannot ignore those for whom drinking is a problem and those who cause others misery as a result of alcohol-fuelled crime and disorder. The ripple effect on families is, of course, also significant.

Some 21% of men and 15% of women are binge drinkers. Some 44% of violent crimes—almost 1 million crimes—are carried out by individuals under the influence of alcohol. Alcohol-related crime and disorder are estimated to cost our economy between £8 billion and £13 billion a year. There are also 1.1 million admissions to hospital as a result of alcohol-related crime, making alcohol the third biggest burden in terms of disease after smoking and obesity.

A problem that size needs a proper long-term solution. That is why we are developing a cross-Government alcohol strategy that will set out how different Departments can work together to reduce the harm alcohol can do to people’s health, as well as to society and our local communities, which are often blighted by alcohol-fuelled crime. The strategy will be published in the coming weeks, and I know Ms Abbott is desperate to see it. It will be here soon, and it will highlight the importance of collective work, setting out the courses of action for all the relevant Departments across Whitehall, as well as describing the future roles of central and local government, the third sector, and other organisations and people.

This issue affects us all. It affects people in different ways at different times of their lives. As has been stated, there is no one silver bullet that will turn these things round. As my hon. Friend John Pugh made clear, we need to address this issue from lots of different directions. By taking a life-course approach, we can help young families and children to understand how much alcohol can affect them, putting them at risk of violent crime, exposing them to sexual dangers and having consequences for later life. We can help working-age adults to understand the seriousness of long-term drinking at levels above the guidelines, and we can help older people to understand how much such drinking can reduce their quality of life in old age.

My hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman highlighted the lack of services for people dependent on alcohol, and we are running co-design pilots to address that. My hon. Friend Mr Burrowes is working closely with me on that. As he said, we have a big ambition: we believe that people can recover from their addictions.

Home Office Ministers have legislated in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 to overhaul the Licensing Act 2003 and rebalance it in favour of local communities. Those new measures will give the police and licensing authorities the capabilities to tackle irresponsible premises and to crack down on unacceptable sales of alcohol to children. Those measures will come into force this year.

On top of that—very importantly, sending a critical message—designated responsible authorities under the 2003 Act will be, in the first instance, primary care trusts, so that they can make a fuller contribution to reducing acute harm from alcohol. We are keen for health organisations to play a much bigger part in the licensing decisions made by local authorities.

On tax, we have said that we will raise alcohol duty by 2% above inflation—the retail prices index—each year to 2014-15. We have introduced a new extra duty on high-strength beers to discourage people from drinking cheap, super-strength lagers. Likewise, there is now a reduced rate of duty on lower-alcohol beers to encourage people to switch. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes talked about putting quality above quantity; that is something we are aiming for, and the industry is responding well.

Pricing will continue to be an issue. There are some misconceptions about the use of the phrase “minimum unit price”, although hon. Members have probably used it accurately today and described well what they meant. The fact is that shops sell alcohol at a loss to get customers through the door, and that can encourage binge drinking. That is why we are committed to banning the sale of alcohol below cost, and that is an important first step. There are many different ways to achieve that aim, and we will continue to review all the evidence. The alcohol strategy will outline what steps we are taking to tackle the issue. Interestingly, 65% of alcohol was bought in pubs a few years ago, but 65% is now bought in supermarkets.

I want to re-emphasise to my hon. Friend that the drinks industry does not dictate policy. If I do nothing else today, I want to dispel the myth that it is dictating policy to me or any of my colleagues in the Department. Through the responsibility deal, we are challenging the industry to take action. That can happen quickly, it does not need legislation and if we can make some progress, that will be a start. Some 119 different companies have signed up to collective responsibility deal pledges on alcohol, including on improving labelling to get information out to people and to ensure that 80% of alcohol products have unit and health information by the end of 2013. As a result of the deal, people will see information on the number of units in different drinks, whether they are buying from shops or in pubs and bars. We are also working with industry and non-governmental organisations to remove a significant number of units of alcohol from the UK market through changes in how alcohol is produced and sold. Customers can therefore expect a much wider choice—again, this is about targeting quality, rather than quantity.

There is no doubt that we need people to take more responsibility, but this is also about local communities, businesses and individuals, whether they are parents, people whose drinking is affecting others or those who are risking their own health. We all need to play a part in helping people to understand the risks better. Local authorities have welcomed our plans to transfer powers for public health to them. They will be well placed to decide which organisations to fund and how they can take action locally.

I want to take this opportunity to praise some of the work that is already being done in many areas. Street pastors have been mentioned—in my patch, they are called street angels—and there are also the local authorities. In my constituency, Guildford borough council has introduced byelaws and it is working closely with the licensed trade. Unfortunately, preloading means that the licensed trade gets an unfair reputation at times. People often go into pubs, clubs and bars having consumed considerable amounts of alcohol, and the licensed trade is left to deal with the problem. Areas such as mine are dealing well with the issue, and people have worked well with the council. As a result, we are seeing a difference on the streets; in fact, if Members walk around some of our towns where progress has been made, the difference is noticeable.

There needs to be action across the board from everyone, and our alcohol strategy will demonstrate that. That action must be based on evidence. I thank my hon. Friend once again for the debate. I must reiterate that we cannot, sadly, turn this problem around overnight, but we are deadly serious about this deadly problem, and that will be demonstrated in the forthcoming alcohol strategy.