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6 Dec 2007 : Column 1025

I meant to refer not to the hon. Member for Selby but to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who has a wealth of experience in the retail industry and defends his position very well, although I disagreed with most of what he said.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) made some extremely important points, not least in defending his figures to the Minister but also in making it clear that if we really want localism—which, I think, is the way politics has to go in this country—we must respect the elected local representatives and trust them to run their areas in the way they feel is appropriate. It was right to give them more powers to look after licensing and invoke what local people want.

Having declared my personal interest in the odd pint, I think it important to add that social, sensible, safe drinking is part of the British culture and something that we want to encourage and keep going. I fully recognise the danger that the minority will spoil things for the majority, but we must not underestimate the damage to the nation’s health that is caused by alcohol. Although I agreed with much of what the Minister said, I believe that the Government are sending mixed messages. One example is, of course, the legislation allowing 24-hour licensing.

As the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central pointed out, very few public houses allow 24-hour drinking—only 460, I believe. However, plenty of off-sales establishments open for 24 hours a day, and the problems that that causes have been raised. A new fad has developed in drinking. I have observed it for myself when I have been out on patrol with my local police, and, sadly, I have seen the results in local accident and emergency departments, as well as in the A and E departments around the country that I have visited in my new capacity.

The practice is commonly called pre-loading. Young people aged 18, 24 or 30 get half-cut before they go out, and they do it on very cheap alcohol. One of the excuses is that when they reach the pubs and clubs they find the alcohol very expensive. The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central mentioned the £10 litre bottle of vodka. Shortly before the debate started, I asked in the Library what the duty and VAT on that would be. The answer was £9.31. Someone is losing an awful lot of money, and I do not believe it is the distillers, because they tell me that they are not. Somewhere along the line, there is an encouragement to sell alcohol very cheaply. In what are often large supermarkets that are open very late there is an encouragement not just to sell booze cheaply—the supermarkets would go bust very quickly if that were the case—but to get the footfall in the store and to encourage people to purchase other products while they are there; this is a loss-leading practice. While it is not for any Government to tell Tesco, Asda or Sainsbury’s how to run their supermarkets, they have a moral responsibility to this country, and selling alcohol so cheaply—sometimes, sadly, to under-age people—is morally wrong.

The cost to this country is not just to do with fashion, or some of our town centres being no-go areas at night, or our pubs changing. There is also the cost to the NHS and the cost to the health of the people of our country. The estimated current cost to the NHS of alcohol misuse is £1.7 billion, while at the same time we have
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hospitals and accident and emergency departments around the country closing. How much better could that money be spent within the NHS?

Sadly, last year some 4,000 children—under-16 year olds—were treated for alcohol misuse. Those Members who go out on patrol in their constituencies with the police will have seen those children. They are the same age as many of our children. I went along with the police recently and they found a young lady lying on the local village cricket green. She was lying next to a bottle of vodka and several bottles of alcopops. There was no one else in sight because they had seen the police coming, but she was out of her brains so they left her. It was very dark, and if we had not seen her she would have lain there throughout the night unconscious from alcohol, and if she had vomited she would almost certainly have died. That shows that this is such a serious issue that we cannot just leave it alone and say, “This has nothing to do with Parliament and Government.” It is a fundamental role of this House and Government to do something about that. Violent crime is a matter that all Members have experienced in their constituencies. It is one of the subjects that people come to my surgery to talk to me about the most; it is one of the biggest worries of my constituents. Half of violent crime is alcohol-related.

May I defend some of the staff in the pubs and clubs of this country? According to the figures I have, 83 per cent. of assaults on bar and club staff are the result of their having said, “No”—that is, they are the result of them having done their job. I completely agree with Members who have said that the way forward is for the penalties for those trying to purchase alcohol in such circumstances to be as great, if not greater, than for those who sell it, because that is a big problem. Those who buy alcohol covertly for others, and those parents—I say this as a parent—who happily let their children go off to parties with half a bottle of vodka, should think about that; they should think about the damage they do to their families and the future of this country, because we know that addiction to alcohol often leads to addiction to other things.

I therefore urge the Government to examine their drug strategy. Drug strategy units do fantastic work, but every time I visit one of them anywhere in the country the people who work there say to me that they cannot do their job without help from the Government to address the alcohol problems in the country. We cannot address drugs in isolation. We must deal with drink and drugs together, educate the community, and give the necessary powers to the people who are doing the work for us, so that we have a better society to live in.

3.23 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I agree very much with the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) that this has been a sensible and important debate. Frankly, it could have degenerated into a shouting match, with Members screaming at each other and trying to score points, but all Members have made intelligent contributions and tried to deal with the problems we face.

I will not be able in the few minutes I have left to me before 3.28 pm to reply to the points that have been made in the depth that I think many Members would
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like. I therefore propose to read the Hansard report of the debate and, with my officials, to compose letters to send to every contributor answering the specific points they have made. They may not agree with the response, but I shall send one that tries to deal with all the issues that have been raised, and I hope that is acceptable to hon. Members. If I do not take that approach, I shall simply not be able to address many of the points raised and, given the quality of the debate, people deserve a better response than that.

We try to work with everyone on this matter. Considerable debate takes place with residents, the police, the industry, pubs and clubs, the off-trade, the on-trade, health groups and voluntary organisations, and I thank them all. One of the themes running through this debate, and one of the fundamental underpinning principles of the “Safe, Sensible, Social” alcohol strategy that we published in June, is that there is not just one solution. Alcohol poses different problems: the problem of children consuming alcohol; the problem of binge drinking, which usually is discussed in terms of 16 to 24-year-olds, but let us discuss it in relation to 18 to 26-year-olds to keep things legal; and the harmful effects of alcohol on people who drink considerable amounts—they may be of any age. Unless I have misunderstood the comments that have been made, I think any strategy worth its salt must address the different needs involved.

The hon. Members for Bath (Mr. Foster) and for Hemel Hempstead mentioned the importance of local people. They will know that the alcohol strategy includes a requirement for each area to produce a local alcohol strategy to try to address the particular problems that it faces.

Several hon. Members mentioned that not only is it illegal to sell alcohol to under-18s, but it is illegal for someone under 18 to try to purchase it. Some of the rebalancing that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) discussed is important in this regard. Both he and the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead touched on 24-hour licences. Although this issue makes a good debating point for people, the reality is that only 0.5 per cent. of all licensed premises—5,100 premises in England and Wales—have a 24-hour licence.

A huge number of other points were raised, not least of which were the need for a cultural change, cited by the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh); people’s concerns about pricing and promotion in supermarkets, which we are examining; and the whole social responsibility standards agenda, which we know we need to implement. I have only a few seconds left available to me, and I have not been able to do justice to all the contributions. I reiterate that I shall write to all hon. Members in response to the points that they have made. They may wish to enter into a written dialogue with me or meet me. I include my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) in that, in respect of the all-party group on beer—

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings, the motion lapsed, without Question put.

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3.28 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): I beg to move,

I am pleased to open my first fisheries debate. [Interruption.] We will be talking about pollocks later on. As in previous years, it is helpful that this debate is taking place before the December Fisheries Council, because it gives Members an opportunity to comment on behalf of their constituents, so I can take those comments with me to the negotiations. It also gives me a chance to highlight some important fisheries management issues that have arisen during the past year.

First, I am sad to report that 10 fishermen lost their lives this year. That is a tragic reminder of the very real dangers of their way of life, and I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I say that our hearts go out to all the families who have suffered such tragic losses.

The fisheries sector continues to make a significant contribution to the UK economy. Total landings of fish from UK vessels have increased for the second year running. Their value rose to £610 million last year—up 7 per cent. on 2005. The increase was shared across the UK and was mainly accounted for by an increase of almost a third in the value of the shellfish sector. Figures show that species such as crabs and lobsters are growing in value as a proportion of the total UK catch.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I am pleased to be the first to intervene on my hon. Friend in his new role. He is aware of the importance of the shellfish sector in the Dee estuary, where we are expecting a regulating order soon. Will he assure me that his Department will put every effort into producing that order, because there will be a record harvest next year, which will leave the door open for black marketeers? We want the investment to go to legitimate fishermen.

Jonathan Shaw: My hon. Friend has raised this issue with me on behalf of his constituents. I will look into the matter of the order, because he is right: we want to stamp out illegal fishing and I shall deal with that issue later in my speech.

There has been a decline in the value of landings such as mackerel and cod. However, I am pleased to report that the value of exports of fish and fish products has also risen—up to £944 million last year. Fishing provides employment for some 13,000 fishermen, around 18,000 people engaged in the processing sector and many more in ancillary businesses.

As well as providing economic revenue and employment, fishing is an important food source. It is part of our heritage, and it is of social and cultural importance, contributing both to rich and sustainable environments and traditional livelihoods. During the visits that I have made to fishing ports, I have been struck by the importance and relevance of fishing to local communities. Unsustainable fishing activity, however, can damage our marine ecosystems, threatening the very resources on which fishermen, our many sea anglers and others depend. It is vital, therefore,
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that all stakeholders work together to achieve sustainability, thus safeguarding the marine environment and the fishing way of life for generations to come.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): I am glad that the Minister recognises the need for sustainability. To that end, will he pay tribute to the lead taken by Scottish fishermen in the technical measures that they introduced to reduce the impact on cod fisheries to allow the cod to recover, as is now happening?

Jonathan Shaw: Absolutely. We have been working across the sector and the voluntary real-time closures that have been proposed by the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation are welcome. We now need to see the proof and the outcome. We have also put in place other measures, which I shall mention later.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Is the Minister aware that the EU is still proposing a reduction in days at sea for Scottish fishermen, despite the fact that they are reckoned to be the most environmentally friendly fishermen in Europe? Will he resist the call for a reduction at the Fisheries Council?

Jonathan Shaw: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a UK position has been agreed with all my colleagues. We will put forward a range of different measures, rather than the crude cuts in days at sea. If fishermen are taking responsible action—as the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) reminded us—some recognition of that is necessary. That is the way forward—

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Minister assure me that any decision will be based on sound science? Given that at the moment the science on recovery of cod stocks is at best unclear, every precaution must be taken so that we do not rush back into overfishing, because of the damage that it has done in the past and would do in the future.

Jonathan Shaw: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. All our negotiating positions for the December Council meeting will be based on science. We receive the science from the Commission and from our own scientists, both in Scotland and in the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science. It is right to base our decisions on science and sustainability. What we all want is fish today and fish tomorrow. That is important for conservation and for the industry.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Does the Minister accept that haddock is a sustainable fishery? If he does, can he explain the answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), who asked him about companies who have contracts to supply his Department with fish? The Minister answered:

the people from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs sites—

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I can see the arguments with regard to cod, but does he accept that bracketing haddock with cod was somewhat unfortunate and will he look again at that answer and clarify it?

Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful for that intervention. In my reply to the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), I sought to demonstrate that there are alternatives to cod and haddock. For far too long, the nation has had a limited diet when it comes to fish. As I said in Question Time this morning, red gurnard is a species that used to be discarded but is now proving very popular. It is so mainstream that it is being served on High Speed 1, so people can eat that wonderful fish while enjoying the wonderful Kent countryside on the wonderful new line that this Government have developed. [ Interruption. ] I should have said, “this wonderful Government”.

There has been a concern that, while haddock are being sought, cod get caught up in the nets. Importantly, a new net has been developed in America that catches haddock but allows cod to escape. That relates to what hon. Members were referring to earlier. There will be trials of the new net, which is called “the eliminator”. I am not sure that that is the most appropriate name, but we are stuck with it. I do not know whether it comes from California. The net has won a number of prizes in America. We will all take a great interest in the trials, which will take place in the North sea.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): On the sustainability of cod, does the Minister accept that 95 per cent. of the cod consumed in this country is imported from waters off the Faroes, Norway and Iceland? That is a sustainable fishery. It is only the cod over which he and his EU colleagues have control that is not sustainable.

Jonathan Shaw: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I will talk later in my speech about the amount of fish that we import.

I want to outline some of the primary elements of our work over the past year to get us closer to achieving sustainability. This year, we have focused on developing a long-term strategy for sustainable fisheries—Fisheries 2027. I launched our vision in October this year and it sets out what we want to achieve. It will drive reform and provide a clear framework to steer the future direction of our policies.

Achieving sustainability is not just something for the Government, however, and it is not something that can be delivered overnight. Stakeholders have welcomed our vision and the leadership that it demonstrates. We are developing a shared implementation plan with people across the sector—fishermen, anglers, processors, retailers, customers and environmental groups—to turn our words into delivery, so that we can achieve sustainability together. We have a shared desire to achieve sustainability and a shared responsibility, locally and globally. We have a long way to go with this ambitious agenda, but the Government are committed to it and to playing their part.

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