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1.52 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I shall say little, not because there is little to say but because I suspect that the Serjeant at Arms has pursued his career in the military and the House motivated by a sense of duty rather than in search of reward and thanks.

I do not hold an official post that entitles me to speak to this motion. I speak simply as one who has known Peter Grant Peterkin for more than 35 years, having met him first when he was a young officer in the Queen’s Own Highlanders in the north of Scotland, where he lived all that time ago. I have followed his career since, and it became increasingly and abundantly clear that he is a man of great quality. His departure from the service of the House will be a great loss, and we will miss his wisdom, guidance and sureness of touch.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said that the job of Serjeant at Arms calls for the qualities of the sergeant-major as much as of the major-general. He may not know that the rank of major-general was originally called sergeant-major general. Because the rank of lieutenant-general is senior to that of major-general, it might perhaps have been better to retain the sergeant-major general rank, but that did not happen. Either way, we were fortunate to have a major-general as our Serjeant, and this one in particular.

All those who have spoken have mentioned Peter Grant Peterkin’s international military career, and that is now on the record for all to see. It gave him an outlook that was very valuable to the House. Although we often talk about foreign affairs, a career spent serving overseas brings great benefits to those of us who work in Parliament, whether we are elected or unelected officials here. We have all benefited hugely from his overseas experience.

In parenthesis, I note that Peter Grant Peterkin was in Kuwait in the 1990s, as part of the UN military observer mission. It is perhaps significant that, at that time, there was not a whiff of anything called a “dodgy dossier”. How things have changed!

I should like to extend my personal thanks to Peter Grant Peterkin for what he has done for the House, and to wish him, his wife and family all the very best on his retirement. I am happy to say that he is still a young man, with lots of active working life ahead of him. I am sure that he will be snapped up by someone else before long.

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I do not want to overdo the military analogy, but today we see a Serjeant at Arms leaving the field with his colours held high and flying proudly, and I salute him.

1.55 pm

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): I should like to add a final footnote to the debate, I hope on behalf of all those other hon. Members of all parties who entered the House as part of the 2005 intake. I am sure that the Serjeant at Arms saw us all as upstarts when we first arrived, but I should like to thank him for his generosity in spending time with us as we learned the processes of this wonderful establishment.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mike Penning: I do not think I can give way, but if the hon. Gentleman is patient he can jump up in a minute—although that will mean that my contribution is no longer the final final footnote.

Whether they have worked here before or not, new Members think that they are the most important people in the world. The Serjeant at Arms was a major-general in the Army, whereas I was a lowly guardsman, but one of his great attributes was that he treated everyone with great respect and understanding. That is why this place has worked so brilliantly well.

Sometimes things still happen here for the first time. I am sure that the Serjeant was as proud as I was when, last Thursday, his team and staff from the Speaker’s Office helped to organise a visit here by nearly 100 British soldiers who had just arrived back from Afghanistan. They marched through the Central Lobby in uniform, and then had a good drink and an enjoyable time. That is the sort of thing that this House should be doing, and it would not have happened without the help of the Serjeant at Arms. Therefore, on behalf of the 2005 intake, I thank him for all his work.

1.56 pm

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): I am deeply troubled by what the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said, as I had not spotted that change coming. However, the Serjeant at Arms was most helpful to me on one occasion when I had acquired a formidably large chain for my bicycle. I managed to lose the key, and had to look for help from him very late one night. He immediately despatched an officer with an equally formidable device that enabled him to snap the chain there and then. I am deeply concerned that a future Serjeant at Arms would not be able to render similar help.

I am hugely grateful to the Serjeant at Arms for all that he has done, both for me personally and for all hon. Members.

Question put and agreed to.

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Orders of the Day

Consolidated Fund Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Question, That the Bill be now read a Second time, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 56 (Consolidated Fund Bills), and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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Topical Debate

Cheap Alcohol (Health Consequences)

1.58 pm

The Minister for the South West (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): The Minister for Public Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), would very much have liked to open this debate, but she is in Brussels representing the UK at an EU Council meeting.

Alcohol has been part of human life since time immemorial, but our relationship with it has never been straightforward. In moderation, it can be a social lubricant and have health benefits, but in excess it can damage health and cause wider personal and social harm. The way in which alcohol is managed in a free society raises questions about the role of the state and about individual and family responsibility. Those are questions it is not always easy to grapple with, and views in the House will vary, across political lines.

Levels of alcohol consumption depend on a number of factors, including affordability, social acceptability and availability, but evidence suggests that affordability and social acceptability play a more important role than availability. Consumption in the UK has grown steadily over the decades as we have become richer. In 1947 a bottle of whisky cost the equivalent of £50 today. When I was growing up, there was drink in the house only at Christmas and on special occasions, whereas nowadays many people drink regularly, even daily. Excess alcohol consumption can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer. If we look at a graph of liver disease over the past 30 years, we see that the UK was near the bottom of the international league 30 years ago. In other countries liver disease has been falling, but in the UK it has been steadily rising. If trends are not reversed we will soon have more liver disease than France, which used to have the worst levels of liver disease in the world.

Government action can make and has made a difference. Since our first alcohol harm reduction strategy was published in 2004, general levels of alcohol consumption have fallen, as has violent crime, which is often alcohol-related. The proportion of young people under 16 drinking has declined to the 1992 level.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): My constituent, Mr. Barry Haycock, has rung me three times this week about young children who have got cheap alcohol from the local shop, sometimes by stealth and sometimes by stealing. They are making the retailers’ lives an absolute misery. That is a real issue in Rushden. Can the Minister give me any reassurances and say what might be done to help?

Mr. Bradshaw: Such behaviour by local retailers is disgraceful, and I urge the hon. Gentleman, or his constituent, if they have not already done so, to report the matter to the local police and trading standards officers.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): If I understand correctly, the Minister’s point is that the price of alcohol has come down in recent years in relative terms, yet binge
6 Dec 2007 : Column 1004
drinking and the crime associated with it have come down. Does he conclude that limiting the opportunity for supermarkets to sell alcohol at a discount would make no difference to binge drinking or crime levels?

Mr. Bradshaw: I will come to that point in a moment; it is exactly for the reasons the hon. Gentleman mentions that we are reviewing the matter. The Government’s renewed alcohol strategy “Safe, Sensible, Social”, which we launched in June, aims to build on the progress that I have outlined. Three particular groups give rise to the most concern: young people under 18, to whom I have referred; 18 to 24-year-old binge drinkers; and older, harmful drinkers.

In his comprehensive spending review statement in October, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a new Home Office public service agreement—the first relating to alcohol—to produce a long-term, sustainable reduction in the harm caused by alcohol. It will include a new national Department of Health indicator to measure changes in the rate of hospital admissions for alcohol-related harms. Again, that will be the first ever national commitment to monitor how the NHS is tackling harm caused by alcohol. We plan to achieve that through the inclusion of alcohol in the new NHS performance framework, the details of which we shall announce soon. Local health trusts will set targets and priorities against that framework. The new indicator will encourage general practitioners and hospitals to identify people who drink too much and to intervene earlier with advice and support. We are also about to embark on the biggest ever information campaign to drive home the message about daily drinking guidelines, how people can estimate how much they are drinking, and the risks of drinking too much. That will be launched next April.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): In that propaganda, will my hon. Friend emphasise, particularly to children, the dangers of addiction? We are talking about a drug that is not just damaging but very addictive, and that is an underlying cause of the problem.

Mr. Bradshaw: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The campaign is important because there is a lot of misunderstanding about the units system. For example, many people do not realise that the units being talked about are the equivalent of half a pint of 3.5 per cent. beer or cider, whereas a lot of the beer and cider sold today is 5 or 6 per cent. The same is true of wine: one unit means one small glass of wine at 9 per cent., but these days it is quite difficult to find wine that is below 11 or 12 per cent., and much of it is served in much bigger glasses. There is a serious perception problem; people think that they are consuming less than they are, and a contributory factor is that they often do not realise that units are smaller than they imagine.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister refers to the bleak local and national figures. Cases of cirrhosis of the liver have doubled in the past seven years, and have gone up by more than a third in the past two years. Does he not think that we ought to have a much more widespread and effective public health campaign? Notwithstanding the comments of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), the
6 Dec 2007 : Column 1005
availability of cheap alcohol at national chains with names like Bargain Booze says an awful lot about us as a nation, does it not?

Mr. Bradshaw: I am not quite as gloomy as my hon. Friend, for the reasons that I highlighted earlier: since the first strategy was announced in 2004, there has for the first time been a reversal of the historical trend of increased consumption. He is right: alcohol has become cheaper, relative to income, but since the early 1980s, the price of alcohol has risen 24 per cent. higher than general retail prices. However, there is a relationship with price.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): I do not underestimate the size of the problem, which we all see in our constituency surgeries, but I am not persuaded of the extent to which price is a factor. I stay out of supermarkets, but the place where I, and most of my constituents, buy alcohol is the public house, and we find it expensive enough. Will the Minister reassure us that we are not being softened up for a great hike in taxes?

Mr. Bradshaw: The hon. Gentleman is right: the picture is complex, and that is exactly why we are holding the review that I described.

Kelvin Hopkins rose—

Mr. Bradshaw: May I just finish this point? Madam Deputy Speaker, I seek your advice; do I get injury time for every intervention?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): No, I am afraid not. There can be up to 10 interventions, but there is no injury time.

Mr. Bradshaw: But do interventions add time to my 10 minutes? [Hon. Members: “Yes.”] The hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) is right to point out that the situation is complex. The World Health Organisation says that it is clear that price is a factor, but Italy and Spain, whose alcohol prices are significantly lower than ours, also have lower consumption, so there is a strong cultural factor.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Bradshaw: I will give way one more time to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), and then I really must make progress.

Kelvin Hopkins: I will forgo making an intervention, to save time.

Mr. Bradshaw: I am grateful.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Bradshaw: I must make some progress, but I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford).

Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West) (Lab): I am obliged to the Minister for giving way, and I welcome the fact that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling
6 Dec 2007 : Column 1006
(Mr. Coaker), is also sitting on the Front Bench. The hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) mentioned price, but I strongly disagree with him. There is a link with price. I brought a matter to the attention of my Front-Bench colleagues. I do not know whether hon. Members can see what I am holding, but it is a card that is delivered to the estates in my constituency. It is headed—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will quickly complete his point.

Stephen Hesford: It is headed, “Not drunk enough”. It is an offer of cheap booze, which one can phone up for, like a takeaway. Does my hon. Friend deprecate that method of selling alcohol?

Mr. Bradshaw: I deprecate that, but as I explained earlier, the issue is complex, and that is why we are reviewing it.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD) rose—

Mr. Bradshaw: I will give way one more time, and then I must make progress.

John Hemming: Obviously, this Christmas the Government are discouraging people from going to pubs and clubs, and encouraging them to drink at home by penalising such drinks as the yard of ale. People are likely to face a fine for drinking a yard of ale in any pub or club outside the House of Commons. Does the Minister not accept that it is better to encourage people to drink in controlled circumstances? Under what the Government call the responsible alcohol sales campaign, if people are argumentative—that includes a lot of hon. Members, I presume—they are deemed to be drunk, so serving them would be an offence punishable with a fine of up to £80.

Mr. Bradshaw: I do not agree with that. Serving drunks is a serious matter, and it leads to increased violence. Some people have claimed that the new licensing laws have contributed to the problem. There is no evidence to support that. As I said earlier, the latest figures actually show a recent reversal in the long-term increase in alcohol consumption. Serious violent crime is down by 5 per cent. during the evening and at nights, and less serious wounding is down by 3 per cent. Accident and emergency departments have seen a 2 per cent. decrease in serious violence. I know from talking to the police in my own constituency of Exeter that the staggering of closing times for nightclubs has helped to reduce the problems associated with everyone pouring out on to the streets at the same time. Councils and the police are using their new powers, and I would urge them to use them more.

We remain concerned, however, about the practice by shops and supermarkets of deep discounting promotions, often as loss leaders, and at below cost price, of alcoholic products. We have therefore announced, as I said, an independent review of the evidence of the relationship between harm and the pricing and promotion of alcohol. Depending on the review’s findings, which are expected next summer, we are prepared to change the law.

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