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2.33 pm

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): Although I welcome this topical debate, it seems a bit bizarre that the Minister is not given the opportunity to respond. I doubt whether any hon. Member is going to stand up and say, “Isn’t it wonderful that we are all getting sloshed?” [Interruption.] Am I being advised that the Minister will respond?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker) indicated assent.

Mr. Amess: That is just as well; there is no point in a topical debate unless the Minister can say, “That hon. Member made a good suggestion.”

I listened carefully to the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), when he opened the debate, but I am afraid that none of what he said washes with me. His picture of what the Government have been doing is a million times removed from the reality of life in Britain today. This Government are strong on strategy but very weak on delivery. All this is typical of the Government. If anything is to blame for the problem that we are debating, it is the relaxation of licensing laws. In the same way, if we had had casinos in every town, we would probably have had a topical debate about people gambling too much. There is no doubt that the relaxation of licensing laws has made the situation much worse.

I am a tea-aholic; I enjoy cups of tea. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is a teetotaller, but I am not—I enjoy alcohol. I drink not to drown my sorrows but to increase my pleasure and I shall certainly not join the hon. Members who condemn all cheap alcohol. I go to stores and like my three bottles for £10 and all that. Surely we should be talking about the fact that young people—who should not be drinking in any case because it is illegal for them—are drinking too much.

The Minister and the Government do not recognise life in Britain today. The situation is absolutely out of control. We turn on the TV and see yet another reality programme glorifying everyone getting sloshed. It is no good Members saying in the House how dreadful it is; what is important is what the House is going to do about it. I will be honest and say that I do not have a magic solution to the problem although as I have said, the relaxation of our licensing laws has been a disaster.

During the course of the Health Committee’s inquiry into obesity, some of us argued that the calorific content of alcohol should certainly discourage young people, who are figure-conscious, from over-imbibing.

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend made a good point about under-age drinking. Does he agree that there has been too much focus on increasing penalties for people serving at checkouts and shopkeepers, who often find themselves in difficult situations and try to do the right thing? Much less has been done to tackle the people who know that they are breaking the law—the young
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people themselves. Perhaps there should be tougher sentences for the under-18s who try to buy the alcohol in the first place. That is the only way to tackle the problem; we should not for ever clobber hard-pressed shopkeepers and checkout operators, who are trying their best under difficult circumstances.

Mr. Amess: I understand, Madam Deputy Speaker, that if I keep giving way my speech will be longer, so I shall not give way to anyone else or others will be squeezed out of the debate. I say to my hon. Friend that the police do not work as volunteers; we pay them to do a job. I very much regret the terrible example that Sir Ian Blair is setting at the moment. Frankly, I do not want the police to clean up after people who have drunk too much; I want them to do the real job of policing, although I agree with what my hon. Friend said.

Nowadays, the toughest job in the world is being a parent. The situation for those of us who are parents of young or youngish children is very different from how it was for our equivalents 20 or 30 years ago. We do our best for our children and try to point them down the right path, but my goodness, they face terrible challenges. It is no good hon. Members coming out with clichés; we need a solution. One positive idea relates to calories. There is the ridiculous idea that young ladies want to be size zero, but those of us with Dolly Parton earlier this week thought her figure quite welcome. I ask the Government to consider whether the calorific content of alcohol might put young people off.

In contrast to what I think the Minister said, excessive drinking among young people has led to a 20 per cent. rise in hospital admissions in England in the past five years. I should say to the Minister that I got my information from the House of Commons Library. Ian Foster of the north-west ambulance service, which covers Cheshire and Merseyside, one of the worst-hit areas, said:

Mr. Bradshaw: Let me clarify this for the hon. Gentleman’s benefit. It is true that young people under 16 who drink are drinking more, but fewer of them are doing so. There is no contradiction in what I said. One of the main planks of the new strategy is to deal with young people under 16 who are drinking too much, although thankfully there are fewer of them now than there were five years ago.

Mr. Amess: Okay, I have listened to the Minister, but I am sick to death of strategies to get out of bed in the morning and go to bed at night. A strategy just gives advice—there is no legal enforcement behind it.

Ministers have been coming under growing pressure to tackle the issues of under-age and binge drinking, with claims that supermarket promotions mean that it can be cheaper to buy alcohol than water. There is no way in which the Government are going to take on the biggest supermarkets in the country—that is an absolute joke. This Government work hand in glove with the big supermarkets on every single issue: “Get your free tokens to get a computer”; “Work with the council and you get a new road put in.” It is codswallop to say that they will take on the supermarkets—they will not.

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Last week, research for Ofsted suggested that a fifth of 10 to 15-year-olds regularly get drunk. That is the reality that the Government need to get wise to. We are talking about human beings. The House should be worried about this, or what is the point of being an MP? Certain supermarkets have been selling alcohol as cheaply as 22p a can, but the Government will not do anything about it—they will just say, “Isn’t it dreadful?”

Alison Rogers, chief executive of the British Liver Trust, recently said:

I say this to the Minister—

Why is that? We need an answer from the Government.

Mr. Don Foster: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Amess: I would like to, but— [ Interruption. ] Oh, all right.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman keeps saying that the Government will do nothing. Does he accept that they could at least enforce existing legislation? It is illegal to sell alcohol to somebody who is already drunk, but there have been fewer than 60 prosecutions in the past nine years. It is illegal to sell drink to somebody who is underage, but a Government survey recently showed that of the premises surveyed 40 per cent. were selling to at least one underage person.

Mr. Amess: I am now glad that I gave way to the hon. Gentleman, who is absolutely right. What is the point of our putting legislation on to the statute book when none of it is enforced?

Mr. Bradshaw: That is not true. In the 12 months for which we have the latest figures, 92 licences were revoked, 91 licences were suspended, and some Tesco stores were banned from selling alcohol for three months following the sale of alcohol to a 16-year-old test purchaser. We would like the law to be enforced better, but it is being enforced.

Mr. Amess: We will have to have a private argument later with the Library, but the Minister was right to respond.

A further study by the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores university shows that more than half of all young adults consume cheap supermarket drinks at home before a night out. That happens all the time. Youngsters get sloshed before they go out for the evening because they cannot afford the drink prices in the clubs. The study showed that those who drink large quantities of cheap alcohol before a night out were four times more likely to drink more than 20 units a night and two and a half times more likely to become involved in violent offences. According to the Alcohol Health Alliance, 13 children are taken to hospital every day as a result of alcohol misuse.

Cheap alcohol is fuelling bingeing. The figures are alarming, especially in relation to children. Health effects include burst bladders, long-term liver damage, injury as a result of alcohol-fuelled violence, liver cancers and mental health problems. Young people
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have mental health problems as a result of alcohol, just as with the Government’s stupid relaxation of the laws on cannabis. Strokes are caused, as well as an array of other serious health problems. Nearly 5,000 cancer deaths per year are attributable to alcohol. I welcome this topical debate on underage drinking and cheap alcohol, but enough is enough. The Minister and the Government must get real to what is happening in society and give us some deliverable solutions.

2.44 pm

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). He spoke with typical flamboyance and style, and he was provocative as well.

I speak as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on beer. It is a tough job, but someone has to do it. My oldest mentor in politics said to me once, when I was a much younger man, “Whatever you do in politics, get photographed with contented-looking pensioners and eager youngsters, but never get photographed with a pint of beer in your hand.” As chairman of the all-party group, I have often been photographed with a pint of beer in my hand—the only time I made it into the Sunday tabloids was in a particularly unflattering photo when MPs’ expenses were published for the first time. The headline of the story was “Hard to swallow”. Nevertheless, I would like to make a contribution to the debate.

It is with regret that I say this, but I want to charge Terence Leahy, the boss of Tesco, with being the godfather of British binge drinking. I do not make that claim lightly. I want to give some evidence for it, because I know that some hon. Members are sceptical. Representatives of the supermarkets have come before the all-party group, and earlier this year they argued that it is impossible to produce figures on below-cost selling of alcohol. However, the Competition Commission, as part of its inquiry, produced such figures. In its first go, it said that during the World cup last year, Tesco underpriced beer to the extent of £43.2 million and wines and spirits to the extent of £48 million. Those figures were quickly withdrawn and reduced to £15.1 million for beer and lager, and £100,000 for wines and spirits.

I understand that Tesco argued not that they did not underprice during the World cup, but that they underpriced all the time. Those figures were applicable not just to the World cup but throughout the year—Christmas, Easter, the World cup, the rugby world cup. There is always an excuse to do it. We are talking about selling alcohol at a lower cost than water. We are not talking about baked beans; there has to be a bit of a different attitude. Everyone else has recognised that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) so eloquently pointed out. Pubs, clubs and the brewers themselves have all recognised that they have to address the issue, but Sir Terence Leahy still has not. He went into Downing street last week, and the only idea that he came up with—the only one reported anyway—was that the age at which people can drink in the home should be brought down. I do not know how he intends to police that, although I think that a modest amount of alcohol consumption in the home can be a way of introducing people to sensible alcohol consumption.

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The hon. Member for Southend, West referred to the study from the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores university that talked about the concept of pre-loading. To underline what he said, those who drink excessively at home before they go out are four times more likely to consume 20 units of alcohol in an entire night, and about two and a half times more likely to get into a fight and get into trouble with the police.

Philip Davies: Will the hon. Gentleman answer the question that I put to the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley)? Why should my decent, law-abiding constituents, and those in his constituency, be forced to pay more for alcohol that they buy in supermarkets and drink moderately at home in order to deal with the issues that he raises, which may not be dealt with by that solution anyway?

Mr. Grogan: I want to say two things to the hon. Gentleman about that. First, there is a wider social context to this matter. It does not do our society any good if the cost of alcohol is lower than that of water. Secondly, there is an economic impact on small shopkeepers. The Association of Convenience Stores is annoyed because their stores just cannot compete, and small brewers are annoyed because their British beers cannot compete with the massive discounts on things like Stella. The hon. Gentleman has a good point. I do not think that politicians should set the price of beer, and I shall suggest a couple of very modest measures that the supermarkets might like to consider. However, there is a wider context to the issue.

Student unions are even losing out in this process. They are running into deficits because many students are drinking at home before they come out. I mentioned smaller brewers. Simon Buckley of Evan-Evans, a small brewery in Wales, has produced figures for me, which I shall pass on to the Minister, that indicate the impossibility of the supermarkets covering costs at the sort of prices they are charging. It is well worth considering the situation in Scotland. The new Administration have started to address the issue. The new Justice Secretary told Alcohol Focus Scotland that he intends to take a number of measures to deal with it. He said that any promotion that provides alcohol free or at a reduced price on the purchase of one or more of the product—or another product—will be outlawed. He also said that shops should have separate alcohol display areas to help challenge the perception that alcohol is no different to juice or water—or baked beans.

A number of things can be done. I have two suggestions—both of which have been hinted at by other hon. Members—for Sir Terence Leahy and the supermarkets to consider, if they are really serious about the problem. First, given the importance of the issue, they should say that they will abandon the practice of selling alcohol below cost. That would show hon. Members that they are taking it seriously. Secondly—they could start work on this tomorrow—they could work out a code of practice similar to the one that the pubs have, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central suggested. They could use words such as “outlawing irresponsible promotions”. The pubs have done that; there is no reason why the supermarkets cannot. Sir Terence Leahy must address the issue. The big
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supermarket bosses must stop putting their heads in the sand. We want some leadership from those powerful individuals.

I hope that the hon. Member for Southend, West is wrong. The issue is coming nearer to the top of the political agenda. Although there may be no need to call Sir Terence Leahy the godfather of binge drinking, Ministers’ credibility depends on ensuring that he comes to the table, deals with Ministers and takes some modest measures that will help to deal with the issue.

Dr. Pugh: If Sir Terence were to take the hon. Gentleman’s advice and price his goods accordingly, how could that be policed? How would we know that he had done that?

Mr. Grogan: The Competition Commission suggests that economists can work such things out. I have no doubt that the commission’s economists, or others, could produce such figures. To some extent, it is a question of trust. The pubs and so on have made enormous strides. They have watchdogs that monitor them and industry associations that improve standards. The problem with the supermarkets is that they are pretending that there is not a problem when there is. We need to deal with it.

2.51 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I did not intend to speak in the debate until, following my earlier intervention, the Minister seemed to challenge some of the figures that I used. I thought that it might be helpful to refer to the figures that the Minister challenged.

First, however, the debate has been fascinating. Although I would never want to be critical of any of my hon. Friends, my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) referred to the fact that people from Nordic countries had to go to Latin countries to find places where sangria was as cheap as water. He only has to go to my local supermarket to find that sangria is cheaper than the bottled water that they sell.

The issue is important. Whatever statistics we all throw—the Minister has thrown some, while others have thrown others—many people fear to go through the streets in our towns and cities because of the hooligan behaviour of far too many people who have had far too much to drink. Whatever the statistics show, the reality on the street surely means that we have to find measures, and find them quickly, to address the problems that we face.

It is worth reflecting that back on 23 November 2005 the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), said:

That was two years ago, but all we have heard from the Minister so far is that we will have a further review to see what measures can be put in place. During those two years, we have seen increases in the number of problems with cirrhosis of the liver and in the number of admissions to the accident and emergency units of our hospitals after alcohol-related incidents, while the police have said that they are being diverted from other tasks over a much longer time because of some of the changes in the licensing legislation. Clearly, something needs to be done as a matter of urgency.

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