Previous Section Index Home Page

15 May 2007 : Column 188WH—continued

The changes in the licensing hours have not had the dire consequences that many predicted. In fact, there is evidence that staggered hours are helping to change the culture, but that process will take time and it is still early days. The all-party group on beer held an inquiry
15 May 2007 : Column 189WH
in the late 1990s into what should be done about licensing hours, and there was general agreement that changing them and having a more relaxed system would help to change the culture. Just before the changes were introduced, the media were saying that every pub was going to be open 24 hours a day. We know that that is not the case, and that such pubs are the exceptions. One pub may be open until 11 pm whereas another may be open until 1 am, thus staggering the leaving times from the establishments.

Coors, which is the biggest brewer in Burton-on-Trent, has been supportive of two organisations in my constituency: the Burton addiction centre, which has an abstinence-based approach and deals with people with both drug and alcohol problems; and ADSiS—Alcohol and Drug Services in Staffordshire—which prevents and minimises harm. One of the good things that has come from ADSiS is its development of a commercial arm. That involves going into businesses and developing workplace policies on alcohol and drugs with local industries, so that they can best advise, and deal with, their work force in a helpful way where they think people have alcohol and drug problems. That is another way forward, and we should use it. The help needs to be in place when people develop the problems, because we are talking about how we deal not just with binge drinking, but long-term alcohol abuse. Just giving somebody the sack will not help them to deal with their problem, but keeping them in work and trying to help them within work can help them to overcome it.

We have made a start, but we need to do more. I have mentioned the responsible behaviour of the on-trade, and I should like to draw hon. Members’ attention to early-day motion 495, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) and secured 193 signatures. It states:

There is considerable feeling in the House about that issue. The all-party group on beer recently met representatives of supermarkets and we questioned them on their policies regarding the sale of alcohol. There seemed to be a reluctance to recognise the difference between the price promotion of alcohol and that of tins of beans, and there seemed to be the idea, “If we can get people in to buy alcohol cheaply, we can sell other food.” The point was put to them that they could encourage people to come in for other goods, which do not have the detrimental effect that cans of beer can have in the wrong hands. If the on-trade can do it, so too should the off-trade. This is not just about supermarkets selling at prices at which it is hard to believe that they do not loss lead and the health dangers of that; it is also important that prices in the off-trade are fair to producers and customers, and do not promote the irresponsible use of alcohol.

Following on from that point, there is evidence that young people drink cans of beer at home before they
15 May 2007 : Column 190WH
go out to pubs. I know that the evidence is anecdotal, but there is a feeling that they drink the cheap stuff at home and then go out, which leads to pubs taking the blame for people drinking too much when they have already had their share before they even get to a pub. We should make parents more aware of the dangers of allowing young people to take alcohol out from the home to drink with their mates. One of the worst dangers involves young people and alcohol on the streets—they drink in parks and so on with their mates. It is possible that alcohol bought in bulk from supermarkets is the source of some of the alcohol drunk on our streets.

We ought to consider charging those who attempt to buy alcohol when under age, as opposed to charging merely those who sell it. That would send out the strong message that those who are under age should not even attempt to buy alcohol. We rightly concentrate on the seller of alcohol, but perhaps we should, on occasion, also examine those who buy it illegally.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Perhaps the hon. Lady would like to moderate her sensible suggestion by saying that we should prosecute those who buy alcohol to provide subsequently to younger people, rather than charging young people themselves—they have enough ways of getting into trouble at the moment.

Mrs. Dean: Most young people are great; too often, we hear in the media about when they do things wrong rather than about the vast majority who do not do things wrong. It is sometimes difficult to pinpoint when people deliberately buy alcohol for young people, but where it is clear that they have done so, they should be charged. I do not want to lock all young people up or any such thing, but if people realised that they could be charged with buying alcohol under age, it might, on the odd occasion, deter a few.

I urge the Minister to consider changing all drug action teams to drug and alcohol action teams. Some areas already have such teams—I understand that Stoke-on-Trent has a drug and alcohol action team whereas the rest of Staffordshire has drug action teams. It would be helpful if they could all become drug and alcohol action teams so as to equalise the emphasis. It is also important that we ensure that primary care trusts give priority to funding both treatment and prevention and that a key message from the Government to PCTs is that they should do so.

Overall, this is about treating alcohol with respect. I want to end on a light note by commending the Coors brewery in my constituency, which has recently reopened its brewery tap bar and is linking food with alcohol. One way of ensuring that we treat alcohol with respect is for that connection to be made. There is a recommendation in that tap bar’s restaurant of what beer to have with what food. The museum has just gained the anchor point of the European route of industrial heritage, which is recognition of the part that brewing has played in our heritage. It produces Worthington White Shield in the museum brewery, so it is well worth a visit.

It is also important to encourage people to recognise quality in alcohol rather than quantity. Burton has the
15 May 2007 : Column 191WH
quality of Marston’s pedigree, and ales produced by microbreweries, such as Burton Bridge brewery, which has just had its silver anniversary.

10.1 am

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean), who was right to represent the interests of the Burton brewing industry, which is a traditional, well known and responsible industry in that area.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) on securing this important and timely debate. He is the epitome of a decent, hard-working and caring MP.

I also congratulate the Government on their alcohol reduction strategy, which is delivering some successes, not least, as I freely admit, that binge drinking is no longer rising. The Minister is a bright lady, so she will acknowledge that there is much still to be done, especially on alcohol-driven yob behaviour, which is one of the many areas in which party politics does not play well. We should all work together to make our communities safer places.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the reply from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), in response to his parliamentary question was a little surprising. The Under-Secretary said:

I await the Minister’s explanation of why she has decided that consultation is not appropriate, because this is an area in which the public have strong opinions.

There is a clear and unequivocal cause-and-effect association between alcohol and risky and bad behaviour by young people in particular, but not exclusively. I shall focus this morning on young people. Alcohol causes aggression and loutish conduct. More than 90 per cent. of young people’s first use of drugs occurs when they are under the influence of alcohol. That problem affects every constituency, and I recommend the most used non-traffic law as the basis for control action. The Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Act 1997 has a number of excellent characteristics. One is that we empowered the police to act, but did not criminalise young people for possession or consumption of alcohol—they have enough ways of getting into trouble without us creating gratuitous new ones. Another good characteristic is that the police should always inform and involve parents when they catch a youngster consuming alcohol and remove it from them.

I want parents to be clearly involved in the alcohol harm reduction strategy. I do not want a strategy that takes responsibility away from them.

Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): Does not the hon. Gentleman realise that young people and children copy adults, and that many parents drink to excess?

Bob Spink: Yes, I think I said that it was not exclusively a problem involving youngsters, but the vast
15 May 2007 : Column 192WH
majority of parents want what is best for their children. They have a responsible attitude to bringing up their children and want to set a good example for them. I will return to the hon. Gentleman’s point.

A binge drinker is like an elephant: difficult to describe, but we know one when we see one. The definition of binge drinking is a problem. The Government use twice the recommended limit in any 24-hour period as a definition, even if no alcohol has been consumed on all the other days of that week. I know that you rarely imbibe, Mr. Olner, but if you consumed six or eight units in 24 hours, or if Mrs. Olner consumed four or six units, the Department of Health would officially consider you to be binge drinkers. That definition is too tight—if you will excuse my pun, Mr. Olner—to be acceptable to the majority of the public. If a target is believed to be wrong, it becomes totally ineffective.

During a hot barbecue lunch, and an afternoon and evening with friends in my garden, I can consume six or even eight units—that is three or four pints to you and me, Mr. Olner—without getting the least bit squiffy. If we adopt unreasonable targets and limits, we lose the argument and fail to change behaviour. The public believe that binge drinking occurs when someone becomes drunk in a few hours, and loses control and inhibition.

Let me suggest a definition of binge drinkers. They are people who consume, for argument’s sake—we certainly need professional guidance on a new definition—double the daily limit within two or three hours, or who consume four times the limit in a single day. With reasonable limits, we have a chance of changing behaviour, but if we do not get the definition right and win public credibility and acceptance for the definition, we will miss our chance to change behaviour.

Some associated issues include alcohol-related attacks on NHS staff. I declare an interest because my son works in the NHS and, like many doctors and nurses, he has been attacked a number of times by drunks in accident and emergency. Such attacks are too frequent, and should receive zero tolerance from the police and the courts. We owe it to our nurses and doctors, who try to help people who are ill or who have had accidents, to give them maximum protection.

On a different but topical note, we should not get carried away with silly politically correct calls to make criminals of parents who introduce their children to alcohol. Moderation and reasonableness by parents are, of course, necessary. French parents introduce their children to wine responsibly and that prevents binge drinking problems in the so-called Kevin teenage years. Let us use common sense and moderation. We should persecute not the parents, but the PC pedlars. Parents who want to prepare their children for the real world should be congratulated. Children should sit with the wider family at important meals throughout the year in a civilised way, and if parents wish to introduce a little alcohol responsibly, that may be rational and a good thing to do.

Another issue is that of tackling unhelpful advertising of alcohol, especially when it is targeted at or designed to impress youngsters. The Government’s 2004 strategy started good work to tackle that, and Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority
15 May 2007 : Column 193WH
moved it forward with the 2005 code. However, action is needed to police advertisements more effectively. Perhaps I could gently hint that this is an area where the Government should show a little more leadership. They are trying to stay out of the matter and leaving it to the various regulatory bodies. A little leadership from the Government would be welcomed.

I shall move on to an issue that the hon. Member for Burton raised. Some retailers are flouting the purchase age limit of 18 years old. There are good and bad retailers in all our constituencies, of course, but in Castle Point, Shopright on Benfleet high road is excellent. The owner, Mark Baddeley, is fierce in protecting youngsters from alcohol, and he therefore saves the rest of our community from loutish behaviour. Other retailers are sometimes less scrupulous, and we need more aggressive checks on trading. It may even be right in certain circumstances to use young, set-up children to trap the culprits. We should then take very tough action against those culprits.

Let me put the issue into local and national perspectives, as the hon. Lady sought to do. She rightly said that alcohol abuse is a minority problem, which is especially true with youngsters. We have excellent, hard-working youngsters of the highest integrity, and their reputation is spoiled in all our constituencies by just a few yobs. Youngsters have more money, and sadly, more pressure than we had when we were growing up, but they are generally reasonable and sensible with drink. In response to the intervention from the hon. Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall), I should say that they are proportionally more reasonable and sensible than adults. I may receive slight criticism for saying that in the local pubs and clubs where I can often be found, but if the truth hurts, what can I do?

Let me address the defining issue of the price and availability of alcohol. Price and availability have changed in recent years, and they control the market and consumption levels of our youngsters in particular. The supply of alcohol, which is bought cheaply and illicitly resold, largely drives the issues of harm to our youngsters and of bad behaviour on our streets, from which we all suffer and for which we all pay the price. The key villain in the piece is the European Union, which has swamped us with cheap alcohol and made it readily available to our British kids through nefarious supply chains, circumventing parental control and the use of our mostly decent and carefully controlled retail outlets and pubs.

If we got out of the EU, there would be a number of important and very helpful consequences. One of the smaller but significant benefits of our exit would be to help our responsible and excellent traditional brewing industry, the retail trade and pubs and clubs. It would help cut youth binge drinking, tackle antisocial behaviour, give the police and parents more control and help protect our kids.

Mrs. Dean: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the problems a few years ago of the white van trade were mainly eliminated, and that the illegal importation of alcohol was tackled through better controls at our
15 May 2007 : Column 194WH
ports? Perhaps he was referring to those problems when he talked about the European Union and activity on our streets. I hope that he would recognise that the issue has been tackled. I am a member of the all-party group on beer, and we went to Calais to analyse the problem, which I understand has now diminished.

Bob Spink: I am grateful for that intervention. Perhaps my view of the situation is coloured by the proximity of my constituency to the ports. In Kent, Essex and other areas of the south-east, the uncontrolled supply and resale of cheap EU booze is still a major problem that affects trade badly. In the industry, it is still a factor that drives the massive growth in street disorder and problems for our children. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate provided statistics on the number of young children who are binge drinking, and we all know where much of that booze comes from, at least in that area of the country.

I am delighted that some Members agree with the vast majority of the sensible British public, who say that we would be better off out of the EU. I wish more Members would stand up to the vested interests of their parties, listen to the people and provide leadership on that issue. We should return to the original trading relationship and take control of our laws, taxes, borders and imports. It would, in a small but significant way, help our alcohol harm reduction efforts as well as our economy. It is sad that the Prime Minister is so obsessed with his legacy that he is currently trying to row us in the opposite direction.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. The debate is not about taxes and VAT; it is about alcohol misuse.

Bob Spink: Yes, Mr. Olner, I accept your advice. However, taxes, VAT, and import and border controls affect in a small way the supply of alcohol to our kids on the streets, and that is the point that I was making. I accept your ruling so perhaps I had better call time on my speech. However, the Labour and Conservative Front-Bench spokespeople must realise that the subject will not go away for the British people.

10.15 am

Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) on his success in having his name picked out of the hat. He knows that, on an all-party basis, a number of us were seeking to secure the debate, and I congratulate him on being the one to do so.

Next Section Index Home Page