[Katy Clark in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 12:20 pm on 7th February 2012.

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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.