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6 Dec 2007 : Column 1007

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): The Minister has moved on from an analysis of the impact of the licensing liberalisation, but is it not the case that those figures fail to take account of hidden harm in the home, such as the increase in domestic abuse? Hospital admissions have increased—perhaps not because of violence, but they may be alcohol-related—by 2,000 since 2002.

Mr. Bradshaw: I urge the hon. Gentleman to be cautious about those statistics, because the collection of statistics in the health service on alcohol-related injuries is extremely patchy. The evidence from official health service data is that the sort of injuries that one would expect from drinking alcohol have declined since the Licensing Act 2003 came into force. However, he is right to suggest that there may be a hidden problem that requires further examination and exploration.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I am grateful to the Minister, who is most generous with his time. When the review takes place, will he ensure that it looks at a problem for local authorities? Under the Licensing Act, they are not allowed to impose a blanket condition on licences regarding cheap drink promotions. They can impose conditions only on individual establishments, if they can demonstrate that a problem has been created on, or in the vicinity of, the premises. However, if supermarkets sell cheap drinks, which people take away, the local authority has no powers to act.

Mr. Bradshaw: The review is independent, so it is entitled to look at whatever it likes. If the hon. Gentleman would like to suggest that it look at that issue, I am sure that it will take his representations seriously.

We have introduced measures to tighten the rules on advertising. Since the Advertising Standards Authority changed its code in 2005, we have more stringent guidelines than ever before on alcohol’s appeal to young people, the sexual content of advertisements, and irresponsible or antisocial behaviour. Polling evidence already suggests that that has reduced young people’s exposure to alcohol advertising. The Advertising Standards Authority and the recent report by the regulator, Ofcom, have shown that young people are exposed to fewer alcohol advertisements on television. In addition, the Committee of Advertising Practice and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice will undertake a full review of all advertising codes in 2008.

It is in everyone’s interests to reduce the harm to health and the costs to society of excessive alcohol consumption, while avoiding unnecessary or nannyish restrictions on adults who wish to enjoy a legal product. I believe that the Government have got the balance right, and with the measures already undertaken and those planned for the future I hope that the picture will improve. I look forward to listening to the views of other hon. Members during the course of this debate.

2.13 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): We must all accept that alcohol is society’s drug of preference. It is almost hard-wired into our social life—arguably, more than ever. Like most drugs, it has sought-after effects, such as the social lubrication to which the Minister referred, as well as noxious and toxic effects. Some of those effects are social rather than physiological, and we all know what they are.

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As with all drugs, obtaining the sought-after effects and avoiding the noxious ones is a question of controlling the dosage. That control is a matter and, indeed, a learning curve for individuals and societies. The risks are greater for people who have not been exposed to them before, such as young teenagers and native cultures that have never previously encountered alcohol. The social know-how that has developed to deal with that drug of preference varies. Latin countries assume that social patterns and customs largely provide the means for managing the problem, whereas in Nordic countries, we rely more heavily on regulation, prohibition and fiscal disincentives. Both strategies can work, except when Nordic folk go to Latin countries and suddenly find that the sangria is freely available, is all too cheap, and is as plentiful as water.

Regrettably, Nordic cities from Moscow to Glasgow and Stockholm cannot manage without compensating legislation and a degree of Government paternalism. We therefore have legislation and licensing, which have recently varied—arguably to no appreciable effect, because alcohol-related crime has not gone down significantly, although some of it is committed a little bit later than before, which puts pressure on police services that were unprepared for the change. Taxation has varied recently— arguably to no good effect, because we have some of the highest taxation rates in the EU as well as some of the highest rates of consumption. It is easy to blame the licensing laws. I shall not endeavour to do so, because pub sales have not rocketed. I assume that when the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), the chairman of the all-party beer group, speaks he will address that serious problem. Pub sales have not gone up.

Kelvin Hopkins: I do not want to take up too much of the hon. Gentleman’s time, but is not one reason why pub sales are not as buoyant as they were the fact that young people buy vast quantities of cheap alcohol in supermarkets and tank up before they go to the pub?

Dr. Pugh: That is precisely the explanation. Home and street consumption—the latter is a hidden area—has gone up quite remarkably in the past decade. The principal beneficiary is the supermarket, not necessarily in increased profits, but they have maximised their customer base and such sales attract more people into the shop. I accept that alcohol accounts for less than 10 per cent. of their sales, but they certainly endeavour to use it to produce sales elsewhere.

This Christmas, in my town, as surely in every constituency, there will be the usual sad litany of alcoholic excess of one kind or another: antisocial behaviour, fights, road accidents and possibly deaths. If we look back over the past decade, we can see that consumption has increased, although it has dipped a bit lately; bingeing has increased, although it, too, has dipped a bit lately; liver disease has gone up inexorably; unwanted conceptions and sexually transmitted diseases, which are alcohol-related, have increased; and alcoholism itself has increased. The Government can have an impact on that, although I am not entirely certain how much. They could usefully ban dumping or loss-leading sales of alcohol by supermarkets. They could vary the fiscal regime to encourage better drinking habits. They could increase the penalties— in fact, they are planning to do so—for alcoholic excess.

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Ultimately, there is no substitute for long-term change in our cultural habits. Almost any device that we come up with can be subverted by a new marketing strategy by the drinks companies. We have a cultural problem as well as a health problem, and the depth of that problem is shown by the fact that if behaviour that was previously considered dangerous, sad and reckless is exhibited by a celebrity and reported by a newspaper it is considered amusing, normal and fun. That is a clear cultural change of a highly negative nature. No one these days bats an eyelid at the fact that female drinking patterns resemble those of the rugby club. That is not a Government problem—it is not fair to blame them—and it is not simply a pricing problem, but it is a profoundly corrosive social tendency.

Mr. Burrowes: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s focus on the need for cultural change, and I welcome role models such as Lewis Hamilton, who has tried to promote responsible drinking. Should not cultural change extend beyond celebrity role models—some of them are good, but some of them are bad—as it should take place in the family, and should encompass the example that fathers and mothers can set?

Dr. Pugh: I agree. There is a masked problem of too much drinking in the home, although I will not dwell on that. There is a role, too, for good social education in schools, although they cannot do the complete job, because children do not start to drink until they are in the later stages of their school career. There is a case for good public health education—and the Government have stated it—but powerful levers are operated by the media and by the drinks industry.

John Hemming: My hon. Friend said that there was too much drinking in the home. Does he share my concern that someone who recently drank a single pint in Birmingham was told that he was drunk and threatened with a fixed penalty notice? That drives people from a controlled drinking environment into the home, where they drink cheap alcohol in larger quantities.

Dr. Pugh: It would surprise me if I found that people were, in general, driven out of pubs, where they feel they cannot drink, into the home, where they feel they can. It is not a social trend that I have observed.

My conclusion is that the problem is a whole-society problem, which requires a whole-society response.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. May I remind Back Benchers that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on speeches from Back Benchers.

2.20 pm

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): I remind the House of my interests. I am the honorary adviser to the Federation of Licensed Victuallers Associations.

I am the person who suggested this as a topic for debate, and I think I was right to do so, given the lively way in which the debate has begun and the information being exchanged across the House. We can see already that there are different levels of knowledge about alcohol consumption in the United Kingdom. Overall it is falling, but cheap alcohol is available, usually in supermarkets. I take on board what the hon. Member
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for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) said. There may be too much drinking in the home, in an uncontrolled environment. People are moving away from pubs and clubs, where the sale of alcohol is falling, mainly because the price in pubs and clubs has remained reasonably expensive, compared with supermarkets.

The issue is topical, so close to Christmas. I do not want anyone to consider me or any other hon. Member a killjoy for debating the subject of cheap alcohol and criticising its availability. On my part, that would be a little hypocritical. However, it is right that we should examine the issue of excessive uncontrolled drinking, especially among younger people—the 18-to-24 age group, who are likely to buy alcohol in a supermarket, drink it before they go out for an evening, and drink again in a pub later in the evening. If they fall into bad behaviour, the pub usually gets the blame because it is their last place of drinking.

Mr. Bone: What is the hon. Gentleman’s opinion of the extent of the problem of youngsters not drinking in the home or in pubs, but buying drink from supermarkets and drinking on the streets?

Mr. Illsley: That is probably worse than drinking in the home, because in the home there is at least the chance of some parental advice, guidance or control. The kids who buy alcohol from the local off-licence or the local paper shop—I have that in my constituency, at the end of my street—go round the corner and drink it on the street. Hopefully, that is a minority. As I said, overall alcohol consumption in all groups is falling. We are working towards that.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a serious problem with access to alcohol by young people from the corner shop or the paper shop, as he describes? One of the reasons why that is a problem is that that alcohol is being sold by people who may not be much older than those who are buying it. Unlike the supermarket environment, there is a difficulty because people who are on duty on their own in a corner shop are pressurised to sell alcohol when they should not.

Mr. Illsley: That is a good point. There could be all manner of pressures on someone selling in a shop like that, especially if a group of kids come into the shop and a young girl or young woman is serving behind the counter. There is pressure on that person, but I do not want the House to run away with the idea that the corner shops are all selling irresponsibly. There are codes of practice throughout the industry. The Wine and Spirit Trade Association particularly made that point. We should not condemn all corner shops.

I welcome the remarks that the Minister made in opening the debate, and I shall not repeat what he said about the alcohol strategy. I welcome the steps that the Government are taking, and I hope that they will enable us to find a way of rebalancing the argument. From my point of view, that means rebalancing the argument between the supermarkets and the cheap sales, and the pubs and clubs which are suffering.

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Philip Davies: Can the hon. Gentleman explain why my constituents and no doubt his constituents, the vast majority of whom buy their alcohol in the supermarket and drink responsibly, should pay more for their alcohol simply to cover a minority of people who are drinking irresponsibly and may well continue to do so anyway?

Mr. Illsley: My wish is that they did not have to. If we did not have the problem of excessive drinking and bad behaviour, they would not need to. The reason that the hon. Gentleman is looking for is that the price of alcohol in supermarkets and other retail outlets is artificially low. I shall come to that.

The difference between controlled and uncontrolled drinking is having an effect on the pubs and clubs, where prices have continued to increase in line with inflation. In the supermarkets, the price of alcohol has not risen because they are selling it at less than the wholesale cost.

As I mentioned, most of the organisations dealing with alcohol in the UK have codes of practice. The Federation of Licensed Victuallers Associations has its social responsibility standards, which include promoting responsible drinking, avoiding any actions that encourage or condone illegal, irresponsible or immoderate drinking, taking reasonable precautions to ensure that people under the legal purchase age cannot buy alcoholic drinks, and avoiding any forms of marketing or promotion that have particular appeal to young people.

Those are the guidelines applicable to pubs. The British Beer and Pub Association has a document on point-of-sale promotion. BBPA members are committed to the responsible management of licensed premises and the responsible promotion of their brands. There is a substantial document which places conditions on the licensed trade to act in a responsible manner. If a young person is drunk in a pub, the licensee, by the terms of his licence under the Licensing Act 2003, has a responsibility not to serve him and to remove him from the premises.

Mr. Don Foster: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s mention of the industry’s voluntary codes of practice. We should all welcome what the British Beer and Pub Association and others have been doing. Does he not find it odd that in the guidance on the licensing regime, section 10 specially says that it is okay for a local authority to encourage the adoption of an industry code of practice, but local authorities are forbidden to promote their own locally determined code of practice? Is that not a huge anomaly?

Mr. Illsley: Indeed. I listened to the hon. Gentleman’s point to the Minister earlier. The Government could look into that as a way of trying to resolve the problem of irresponsible drinks promotions. In my constituency we had a case a couple of years ago when the police intervened. A nightclub was offering a £10 entrance fee which allowed people to drink all they wanted all evening. The police took action to persuade the nightclub owners not to pursue that promotion. There are various examples of that throughout the industry. The pubs and clubs industry is to a large extent regulated by its own codes of practice.

John Hemming: With his expertise from dealing with the Federation of Licensed Victuallers Associations, I am sure the hon. Gentleman has heard the concerns of
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members of that association about the uncertainty of the definition of the word “drunk” in the 2003 Act. According to the guidelines issued by the Home Office, difficulty in paying attention and not understanding what is said is a sign of somebody being drunk and could therefore result in a fixed penalty. I would argue, although the hon. Gentleman may not agree, that that could be said of many Ministers, who cannot understand what is said. The difficulty is that in Birmingham, very low level drunkenness has been deemed sufficient for fixed penalty notices.

Mr. Illsley: That is for the licensees and the police, I suppose. The fact that the hon. Gentleman mentions fixed penalties suggests that the police have been brought into the premises at the licensee’s behest. It is one aspect of the new licensing laws that we can consider.

I turn to the availability of cheap alcohol in supermarkets. This week premium spirits—gin, scotch, vodka—are on sale at £10 per litre in Tesco and £20 for 2 litres. Supermarkets are selling 70 cl of these spirits at £9.98. A litre is £10, so for 2p extra, one gets the other 25 cl. In Asda, a person can buy three cases of 18 440 ml cans of John Smith’s, Foster’s or Carlsberg for £20, or two cases for £16. Such promotions are advertised on TV and in newspapers. The Daily Mail, one of the newspapers that rails so much against binge drinking and irresponsibility in this country, runs those adverts promoting cheap alcohol. There is a little hypocrisy on the part of the press.

Somebody mentioned historical prices. I have a price list from 1986; in that year, Tetley’s bitter cost 68p per pint. If we adjust that for the changes in VAT since 1986 and apply inflation at 119 per cent., that price should be £1.51 a pint today. Someone going to a pub in my constituency today would pay £2.40 per pint; the cost of a pint of Tetley’s is 59 per cent. more than the retail prices index would imply. That is how much the price of beer in a pub setting has increased. In 1986, a can of Tetley’s beer in a pub, on and off sale, was 79p; today, in a supermarket, a can of Tetley’s costs 55p. That is the answer to the question raised by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies): beer prices are artificially depressed.

I have promised to be careful about what I say in respect of my next point, because a major brewer has threatened legal action against the FLVA. An invoice from that brewer to Morrison’s shows that the supermarket was selling cases of beer at prices lower than the brewer was charging. Those prices are artificially depressed. I want some form of rebalancing of the situation between our supermarkets and pubs because pubs are a controlled environment.

As the Minister said, a lot of the beer on sale in supermarkets now is much stronger than beer served in a pub, for example; we can buy much stronger beers and spirits. The Licensing Act 2003 brought in “24-hour drinking”, but we should remove that phrase because it is a complete myth. Some 9 per cent. of pubs, bars and nightclubs applied for a 24-hour licence. In total, that involves just over 500 establishments. However, some 18 per cent. of supermarkets have a 24-hour drinking licence, so in my constituency, the kids can go drinking in the town centre on a Friday night, and when the pubs have closed they can go to the
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supermarket on the way home, get a few cans of beer and use the free phone in the supermarket to call a taxi. Some 65 per cent. of hotels have 24-hour drinking. There is very little 24-hour drinking in this country.

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