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6 Dec 2007 : Column 1019

As well as the many measures that we should consider, such as those suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport and the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), who chairs the all-party beer group—we congratulate him on his work—surely we should ensure that existing legislation is properly enforced. I suggested to the Under-Secretary that there was a problem with enforcing the rules that prevent the sale of alcohol to people who are under age. He challenged me about the figures, but they are Government figures from a recent report. It is entitled the “Tackling Underage Sales of Alcohol Campaign”. It shows that, of the 2,683 premises targeted, children could buy alcohol at 40 per cent. of them on their first attempt. A parliamentary answer to a question from me a few months ago showed that only 62 prosecutions were brought for that offence.

The Under-Secretary then challenged my other set of statistics about establishments that sell alcohol to people who are already drunk. I note the difficulties, which have been mentioned, of defining that. I accept that it is difficult for the police to prove conclusively that the person was drunk before the last drink that was sold to them. Perhaps the person was sober at the time but was then hit by the fresh air outside. However, the Under-Secretary appeared to challenge the figures, yet they derive from a parliamentary answer given to me as recently as 29 October. They show that throughout the country, in the past nine years there were only 52 convictions of a licensee for permitting drunkenness or riotous conduct on the premises, or selling liquor to a drunken person. Two existing measures are clearly not being enforced.

Philip Davies: No one would defend irresponsible retailers, but it is easy to be an armchair critic. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has worked on a checkout or behind a counter at a local Co-op. As someone who has worked on a supermarket checkout, and worked for a supermarket chain for many years, I know at first hand the lengths to which supermarkets go to prevent under-age sales. People are often put in difficult circumstances. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that there is perhaps more mileage in giving more severe sentences and punishments to the people who try to purchase alcohol before they are 18 than in attempting to clobber those who are often trying to do the right thing?

Mr. Foster: I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Earlier, he made a fair point about the difficulty for people, perhaps especially those in smaller shops, who are left alone to do their job. We welcome the work of the chains, of which many small shops are members, and that of the organisations that the hon. Member for Selby mentioned, such as the British Beer and Pub Association, which set out codes of conduct and offer advice and support to people who work in such establishments. I acknowledge that things are not easy. I have already commented on the difficulty for the police of defining drunkenness. However, the figures that I cited show that there are problems with existing legislation not being fully implemented.

It is critical to give our local authorities far more powers to tackle problems in their local communities. Our local authorities understand the difficulties presented by specific circumstances in their area. It is therefore
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especially disappointing that the Licensing Act 2003 and the guidance issued under section 182 leave local authorities without many of the powers that they would like in connection with cheap alcohol.

Paragraph 10.38 of the guidance states:

which are now local councils—

That takes a lot of the power to address the issue away from local authorities. What is bizarre, however, is the anomaly in paragraph 10.39, which says:

I fail to understand how it can be acceptable for a local authority to promote a code of practice that has been brought forward by an industry organisation, for example, but it is not possible for a local authority to promote a scheme in its area that it has brought forward itself.

When I recently raised the issue with the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who is responsible for licensing, he kept telling me that that was because of the Competition Act 1998, yet surely if a local authority accepts and promotes an industry code of practice, but the local authority next door does not do so, that is the same problem as an authority with its own local scheme. I simply do not understand, so I hope that before we conclude, some hon. Member who contributes to this debate will shed some light on that peculiar anomaly, which prevents local authorities from having any real say in a key issue that affects so many authorities and the people who live within them.

3.1 pm

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate. As many hon. Members will know, I represent the capital of brewing, Burton upon Trent. I therefore know that it is the wish of the brewing and pub industries that we should have sensible drinking. It is important that we should recognise that most people do indeed drink sensibly.

At a time when there are young people developing alcohol-related health problems that were previously associated only with older people, it is interesting to note that overall beer sales through pubs and the off-licence trade are at their lowest levels since 1969. In fact, according to the British Beer and Pub Association, the volume of beer sold through pubs is now at its lowest level since the great depression of the 1930s. We need to take action to prevent the misuse of alcohol; but we need to do so in ways that do not impact further on our traditional brewing industry. We have already seen 10 per cent. of brewing industry jobs lost in the past two years. There are now 7 million fewer pints of beer a day sold than in 1979. Alongside that, the costs of raw materials—barley, malt, glass and aluminium—are soaring. The BBPA reports that brewing companies earn a profit of only 0.7p per pint, compared with the average 33p per pint paid in beer duty.

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I do not believe that increasing duty on beer is the answer to problem drinking. It could also produce less revenue for the Exchequer. Since 1997, beer duty has increased by 27 per cent. while consumption per head has decreased by 11 per cent., whereas the duty on cider has increased by 11 per cent. and consumption has increased by 30 per cent. Duty on wine has changed by 16 per cent. and consumption has increased by 46 per cent., while consumption of spirits per head has increased by 20 per cent., with duty increasing by only 3 per cent. An increase in beer duty would serve only to damage beer sales in our pubs, as other hon. Members have mentioned.

In our pubs, people drink in a relatively controlled environment, compared with off sales. Moreover, any duty increase would be unlikely to affect the price at which beer is sold in the supermarkets, because despite the 27 per cent. increase since 1997, there have been no increases in beer prices in supermarkets. It is clear that the off trade is causing most damage to people’s health, whether it be young people getting alcohol from the corner shop or bulk supplies being brought into their homes, sometimes by their parents or older siblings, and usually from supermarkets. Purchases from the off trade are also causing damage to older people, who are drinking more wine than is recommended, for instance, in their homes.

I believe that we should stop supermarkets selling alcohol at below cost prices as a way of bringing shoppers into their stores. As my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) said, supermarkets advertise booze in the same way as they advertise baked beans. In fact, they do not seem to see that there is any difference. We should also look at how much space is taken up by alcohol products in supermarkets, and where they are positioned in the store.

There are opportunities for the Chancellor to raise increased revenue while at the same time discouraging irresponsible drinking. The strength of wine has considerably increased in recent years, to levels as high as 15 or 16 per cent. alcohol, yet all wines are taxed at a flat rate, unlike beer, which is taxed according to its strength. Cider, similarly, is taxed at a flat rate, whatever its strength. Cider duty is 15p a pint. Beer duty is 31p a pint for 4 per cent. alcohol, rising to 58p for 7.5 per cent. alcohol. Cider sales have increased by 41 per cent. over the past two years, taking that share from beer sales. In the off trade that increase is greater, at 60 per cent.

Under-age drinkers on our streets go for cider, rather than beer. They go for what is cheapest and strongest. A litre bottle of super-strength cider contains 15 units of alcohol and can be bought for just £2.99. That is less than 20p a unit. The duty paid on that cider is 52p. If it were beer, the duty would be £2.06. If cider duty were brought into line with beer duty, the Chancellor could raise an extra £277 million in revenue.

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): There is a problem with super-strength 7.5 per cent. alcohol ciders that can be bought for 59p, but does my hon. Friend accept that there is also a problem with super-strength lagers, which are often on sale for £1 and contain 4.5 units in a single-serve container? That amount is above the Government’s recommended daily limit.

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Mrs. Dean: I agree that we ought to encourage people to drink lower-strength alcohol in general.

During this festive season, it also seems right to mention another health consequence relating to alcohol—that of drink-driving. I commend the pubs in Burton for offering free soft drinks as part of a campaign to discourage revellers from drinking and driving during the festive season. The campaign, which is called “I’ll be Des”—that is, the designated driver—is supported by Burton Pubwatch, and I hope that similar initiatives will be launched elsewhere in the UK.

3.7 pm

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I have only a few minutes in which to make my speech, but I am pleased to have this opportunity. I have raised these issues with successive Leaders of the House and I am pleased that the present one has granted us this debate today. I have constantly emphasised the importance of alcohol and health yet, until recently, it has been either the Home Office or the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that has looked at alcohol issues. I believe that the primary issue is the effect of alcohol on health, and I am pleased that we are having this debate today.

I tabled an early-day motion about three and a half years ago on the subject of reducing alcohol-related deaths. This followed a report by the Academy of Medical Sciences which found that a 10 per cent. increase in the price of alcohol would lead to a drop in all alcohol-related deaths of 28.8 per cent. for men and 37.4 per cent. for women. Those are enormous reductions, given the relatively modest price increase. The academy produced a thorough report, which showed that price is crucially significant in this regard.

Philip Davies: The Minister said earlier that he was considering restricting the advertising of alcohol. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if advertising by certain manufacturers were further restricted, they would invest their marketing budget in reducing the price of their products still further, thus totally negating the point that he is making?

Kelvin Hopkins: I accept what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I want to emphasise to the Government that we need price control. There should be a minimum price level for all alcoholic drinks. I would like to see their price in supermarkets raised towards the level that pertains in public houses. That would help public houses and depress the sales of cheap alcohol.

Apart from the supermarkets, another source of cheap alcohol is the vast ocean of it that is brought in from the continent of Europe. I should like to see tighter restrictions and lower levels of imports for personal use. A white van-load of beer is not for personal consumption; it is for selling illegally, usually off the record and in the poorer areas of Britain. People make vast sums of money out of doing that.

I really want to talk about alcohol and health, particularly about an issue that I have successively raised in parliamentary questions and called for us to debate—foetal alcohol syndrome and the damage caused to babies before they are born because of their mother’s drinking. There is a lot of evidence that the amount of damage caused by alcohol to babies when
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they are born is far and away above all the other birth defects put together. I am not talking only about serious foetal alcohol syndrome, but about rather lower levels of damage that can inhibit babies’ intelligence, perhaps leading them to perform less well at school or to have behavioural problems.

Although a great deal more research needs to be done, there is already considerable evidence that mothers’ drinking is having serious effects on babies. It seems very unfair on pregnant women—I am pleased to see the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Claire Ward), on the Front Bench today—but it is a serious issue. Men do not suffer from the same problem, which is very unfair, but when women are seeking to become pregnant and during the early stages of pregnancy it is absolutely vital for them not to drink, because small foetuses do not have very large livers and they cannot cope with the alcohol. They are damaged by any alcohol that their mothers consume. There has been considerable obfuscation about this issue recently, perhaps deriving indirectly from the drinks industry, but the evidence is there.

I want to see supermarkets reined in and the price of alcohol raised in them. We heard earlier about the level of alcohol in particular drinks, so why not directly relate the price and tax levels to the amount of alcohol in the drink? That would help us to overcome the problem, as there would no longer be an incentive to buy cheap, strong cider as opposed to beer. The constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) would no doubt benefit because beer sales would rise relative to those of cider.

I wanted to raise several further points, but I am rapidly running out of time. One other important point is the cost of alcohol to the economy. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has estimated the cost of alcohol-related problems in Britain at about £20 billion a year—a vast sum of money, which we should be spending on things other than the effects of alcohol.

I recently returned from a Select Committee visit to Washington in America. We were there for Hallowe’en and it was a real delight to see hundreds and thousands of young people in the streets in fancy dress; they were all completely sober because they are allowed to drink alcohol only when they are 21. That is rigidly enforced with fierce penalties for drunkenness. Anybody who looked vaguely in their mid-20s was checked before they went into a bar to be served alcohol. They take alcohol very seriously indeed in the USA. I do not necessarily admire everything America does, but it is right about that. I suspect there would be a riot if we tried to go as far as the Americans do in these matters, but we should move in that direction and take the problem more seriously. There are hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of people in Britain who are suffering to some extent from alcohol problems. We ought to face those difficulties properly and not tinker at the edges, which is what we have been doing up till now.

I was chair of the all-party parliamentary group on alcohol misuse for five years, and year after year we asked Ministers to bring forward their proposals for an alcohol strategy. However, year after year we were
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made promises that were not fulfilled. We are now starting to do something about it, but we are still taking it far too lightly. I think that we need to take much stronger action.

I refer Ministers to the correspondence I recently received from Alcohol Concern—I will continue to correspond with the organisation—about the role of relative prices in respect of alcohol problems. I would like to see my Front-Bench colleagues take the issue more seriously and take action that is commensurate with the seriousness of the problem.

3.13 pm

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): May I state from the outset that a very sensible debate has taken place for the last hour or so? I would like to start with some comments on the contributions so far. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), who brings a wealth of experience from his previous chairmanships. I, too, believe that there is an important debate to be had about the damage caused to foetuses from alcohol. That is so important that we should have a separate debate on it. I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that an educational process needs to take place throughout the country, not least in pre-natal classes.

The hon. Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) defended the brewing industry fantastically well. Perhaps I should declare an interest at this stage in that I occasionally feel the need for the odd pint of Burton ale, even though my preference is for Guinness. I declare that interest at the outset. What concerns me slightly, however, is that the decline in pubs and pub sales is not just about beer but about what goes on in pubs. The sale of cider, for instance, is a bit of a fad at the moment and should not be addressed in the same way as the sale of beer.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), whose letter, I believe, prompted the debate. I know that he raised this important issue at Prime Minister’s Question Time the other day. If we are not careful, we will no longer have the great British pub where we can go and have a beer and enjoy a social life, which is very worrying. So many people come to this country and talk about our pubs, but a frightening number of pubs have closed over the past 20-odd years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) brought a wealth of knowledge to a typically robust speech from his experience of representing a seaside town. Having lived in that seaside town for some 15 years myself and served as a fireman in the area, I can tell the House that the knowledge gained from living in a seaside town outranks any other. Southend needs day trippers, but I think it wants to keep only some of them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Selby— [Interruption.] I apologise. The hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) now represents the all-party parliamentary beer group. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) represented it for many years, but clearly the hon. Gentleman has ousted him. That event must have been a sight for sore eyes. I understand that the hon. Gentleman represents the beer group very well. Apparently I am a member of it, although no one told me. [Interruption.] That is quite nice; I shall be along later.

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