Oral Answers to Questions

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Mrs. Robinson: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I absolutely support his views. An awful lot of good work is carried out by the voluntary sector, which is, sadly, crying out for more adequate funding. I certainly support his call, which the Minister has heard.
Across the UK, between 780,000 and 1.3 million children are affected by parental alcohol problems. There are between 5,000 and 20,000 street drinkers, more than 4,000 acute alcohol-related deaths and between 11,300 and 17,900 deaths due to chronic illness. The Prime Minister’s strategy unit’s alcohol harm reduction project estimated that, in 2000, there were between 15,000 and 22,000 alcohol-related deaths in England and Wales. Alcohol can cost the workplace up to £6.4 billion, the health service up to £1.7 billion and up to £7.3 billion in crime and public disorder. Some 11 million to 17 million working days are lost through alcohol-related illness, and another 15 million to 20 million are lost due to reduced unemployment.
Up to 150,000 hospital admissions are associated with alcohol abuse each year. Alcohol accounts for9.2 per cent. of life years lost and years lived with disability. It is the third-highest cause of disease in developed countries after tobacco and blood pressure. Nearly 5,000 cancer deaths a year are attributable to alcohol. It is linked to between one in three and one in seven accidental deaths and up to 1,000 suicides a year. One third of all accident and emergency attendances may be due to alcohol, at a cost of more than£500 million a year.
Earlier this year, the Department produced a document entitled “New Strategic Direction for Alcohol and Drugs (2006-2011)”. Many of the recommendations in the document are laudable, but this area of health care must be appropriately resourced. Clearly, it must be prioritised. We must never forget that these statistics relate to people and families, and we must do all that we can to encourage people to consider their lifestyles. Will the Government reflect on their decision to extend drinking hours? I ask them to target young women in particular and warn them against binge drinking, and to educate people more proactively that drinking excessive amounts of alcohol is not cool and is a sure way to a shorter life expectancy.
Clearly, this area of health care must be prioritised. The statistics are overwhelming and speak for themselves. The devastating effect of alcohol extends far beyond the individual concerned, as their families—often including young children—and friends suffer. Frequently, it is the patient’s nearest and dearest who will bear the greatest torment. All classes and creeds can be affected. There are repercussions not only in the field of health: it is fairly common for employment, policing and criminal justice to be affected. Those in authority have a duty to act on behalf of society. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
4.14 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Maria Eagle): I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford on securing this debate and on the way in which she presented her remarks. She absolved me of the responsibility of reading out any statistics by doing me the favour of putting them all on the record. I now do not have to spend time setting out statistics that illustrate some of her points. This is not the first occasion on which she has raised such issues in Committee or in the House. Clearly, she has a keen interest in them and has displayed it on many occasions.
She is correct to stress that alcohol misuse is an issue for public health. In saying that, I do not just mean the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, but the health of society more generally. As she said, the consequences of alcohol misuse and its increasing incidence have repercussions across many other Government Departments. Alcohol is, of course, socially acceptable and legal, but there is no doubt that it is a drug. When it is consumed, marketed or sold irresponsibly, it has the potential to play havoc not only with the individual who partakes, but with families and society more generally. We recognise the impact that the misuse of alcohol can have on people’s lives at the individual, family and community levels.
The hon. Lady was right to set out some statistics. It has been estimated that the cost of alcohol misuse alone to the health service in Northern Ireland is more than £25 million. Such figures are disturbing, and we take them extremely seriously. However, there is a cost to individuals and families beyond that, and it can be lifelong. The scars on children who grow up in families affected adversely by alcohol can last all their lives and have intergenerational consequences that are difficult to tackle and can, I suspect, play some part in the intergenerational poverty that we discussed earlier. There is no doubt that the issue is important.
There is also no doubt that the proportion of the Northern Ireland population who choose to drink is increasing. The latest figures show that 76 per cent. of the adult population are drinkers and that a significant proportion of men and women binge drink. The hon. Lady made a specific point, which I endorse, about binge drinking. She may have noticed that our public information campaigns of the past few years have tried to focus on that problem. It is not clear whether everyone who partakes of alcohol is clear about the definition of binge drinking. The threshold is lower than many might think: binge drinking is defined as only five drinks for a man and four for a woman at any one time. If stopped in the street and asked what a binge-drinking session was, many people would not set the level that low. The Government have tried to disseminate that important information through our public information campaigns. It is key, because only with knowledge and understanding can people change their behaviour. If someone does not perceive that they are binge drinking, although in reality they are, they will hardly apply to themselves information from the public domain about dealing with it. The hon. Lady highlighted that fact in her remarks, and we take it seriously.
Phase 2 of our public information campaign on alcohol abuse focuses on encouraging better awareness of what constitutes binge drinking, what is a unit of alcohol, and the health consequences of partaking in what many might think a moderate intake of alcohol. An evaluation of the campaign indicates that we are making some impact in getting that message across. However, given the statistics that the hon. Lady set out, with which I concur, we have not yet dealt with the issue.
There is particular concern about the level of under-age drinking and young people binge drinking. It is often difficult to deliver a health message to young people. At a certain age, they think that they are immortal and that health issues, getting old and being ill do not apply to them. That makes it a challenge for us to put information in the public domain to educate young people. Teaching children and young people to look after themselves and their health and to get across a general health promotion message is increasingly important.
In the next few years, two big public health issues will be increasing levels of obesity and substance abuse, whether of alcohol or other substances. In a few years we will be able to judge whether our messages have got through when we consider the impact of our efforts on young people’s health, their alcohol intake and their fitness. It is a tough challenge, because many people see the binge drinking of alcohol as fun and nothing is harder than trying to persuade people to change their behaviour and stop having fun.
It is a difficult problem for us to tackle and I shall take a little time to explain what we are trying to do about it. The pattern of alcohol misuse is changing. There is more misuse among women than there used to be; there is also a definite increase in the number of young women who are choosing to drink, and a significant proportion appear to be binge drinking. Often, one hears anecdotally of young women trying to keep up with young men in their alcohol intake, but they cannot take as much alcohol as young men. The definition of binge drinking for young women involves a lower intake of alcohol than for young men. We need to reduce the proportion of women and men who binge drink, and prevention and education are the only ways of doing so.
We must reduce the harm suffered by children in those families where there is a dependency issue or an alcohol problem. I was glad that the hon. Member for Strangford referred to our new strategy and the policy initiatives that it contains—I think that she said that it was “laudable”, and I will check that in Hansard tomorrow. She said that the initiatives need to be funded—a point which was made repeatedly in the debate—and I accept the sense of what the hon. Lady says.
In the new strategy there must be an understanding of the challenge that we face. We need to check our progress against specific outcomes as we implement our proposals. We have developed specific outcomes in respect of the priorities and activities in the strategy, especially at local level, and we have already started to deliver on some of them. There are key indicators for alcohol against which we will measure our success in reducing alcohol-related harm in Northern Ireland, and we will report on them annually. We have announced annual targets today, even if they are not for climate change.
The targets will enable hon. Members and those in the wider society to see how we are doing on specific problems. Alcohol misuse is not an issue for political bun-fighting; it is of equal concern to all parties in the House. We need information on how we are doing to see whether we need to change how we try to achieve our objectives, which are widely shared in the Committee and in the House. The pillars of our strategy include treatment and support, prevention and early intervention, education, law and criminal justice, harm reduction, monitoring, evaluation and support. Those structures should enable us to get a pretty good picture annually of how we are doing. I hope we will then be in a position to adjust our policies better to achieve the outcomes that we want.
We have big challenge in front of us; our task will not be easy. It is easy to put out information on what constitutes binge drinking, but there are people who binge drink who do not perceive themselves to be doing so and people who perceive themselves to be binge drinking who think it is a good thing that gives them kudos in their social circle. There are still people who do not care about the consequences for their own health and that of their families and communities of undertaking what, in effect, becomes an addiction. We must tackle all those issues in a rounded way by providing information, and support and treatment when needed.
I think the hon. Lady accepts that we are trying to do that and that we are having some success. She referred specifically to some examples that she has seen in her work of how motivated individuals, backed up with resources and support, can make a big difference in an area. We are looking closely at the examples to which she referred for lessons that could be extended to other parts of Northern Ireland. There is no point in trying to reinvent the wheel in dealing with these issues. We must find good practice and spread it if we are to have a chance of meeting the difficult challenges.
I hope that the hon. Lady will continue—I am sure that she will—to give close attention to these issues. Resources are available online that she and constituents of all hon. Members can look at to check whether they really are binge drinkers and to see what support is available. Part of our information campaign is the website, www.knowyourlimits.info, which sets out basic health messages and explains drinking patterns and what a unit of alcohol is, how much a young man or woman can safely drink, what it does and the process, and the effect that it can have on health. Information is readily available out there and is back up by further information campaigns.
Mrs. Robinson: Does the Minister accept that low-income families with alcohol-related problems may not always have access to the internet?
There is no one simple answer. A website or leaflet is not enough. One individual doing a fantastic job is not enough. We need all those threads and we need to back up the efforts that individuals make and the effort that we can put in the public domain with work across the House and across the Committee to ensure that we tackle the problem effectively. I am not saying for a minute that it will be easy. Addiction is difficult to deal with. Socially acceptable addiction is even more difficult to deal with. It is incumbent on all of us to put our shoulders to the wheel and to take forward the measures in our strategy.
Question put and agreed to.
Committee adjourned at twenty-eight minutes past Four o’clock.

Questions Not Answered Orally

Equal Lives Report

12. Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): What progress has been made in implementing the recommendations of the Equal Lives report of the Bamford review of mental health and learning disability. [105407]
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Maria Eagle): A policy framework supported by an action plan is being developed to take forward the implementation of the recommendations. An interdepartmental taskforce chaired by the new Northern Ireland director for mental health and learning disability will agree, oversee and implement them, including the cross-departmental issues.

Job Creation Strategy

13. David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): What his strategy is for creating jobs in Northern Ireland over the next 10 years. [105408]
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Maria Eagle): The “Economic Vision for Northern Ireland”, published in 2005, is of a globally competitive economy creating wealth and offering employment opportunities for all. We will secure this by investing in innovation, enterprise, skills and infrastructure. The “Economic Vision” will be underpinned by the forthcoming regional economic strategy.
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Prepared 13 December 2006