Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400 - 419)



  Q400  Mr Winnick: As a result of the change in the licensing laws the general feeling, evidence based or otherwise, is that the drinking of alcohol has increased substantially. Is that your view, gentlemen?

  Mr Hayward: Referring back to the figures I quoted just now, the answer is no. The Licensing Act has provided a backdrop against which there is social concern about alcohol consumption. There have been some marked changes as a result of the Licensing Act, not least of which, certainly if you talk to the police authorities as I know you have, is that in many cases there has been a movement away from consumption in high streets and city centres into the outer areas, because if you can drink for an extra half-hour or so in a pub or bar why pay for a cab to go into a town, the entry fee and all the rest of it? There are a number of cities where the whole lifestyle has changed which throws up different problems in terms of the policing of bigger areas.

  Q401  Mr Winnick: You are saying that it has made no difference. The amount of drinking has that occurred since the Act came into operation shows no increase and we should not be at all worried?

  Mr Hayward: I did not say that at all. I said that it was the backdrop against which there was a whole series of issues related to alcohol. I was identifying one of the most identifiable patterns where local authorities, police and the industry all agree there has been a change. That is something which changes the circumstances. In relation to overall alcohol consumption as we sit here one Member of this Committee will see the brewery in his constituency close in 2010 and another Member has seen substantial redundancies in the brewing industry. I think the best indication in relation to alcohol consumption is the experience of Members of this Committee.

  Q402  Chairman: Mr Lowman, do you want to comment on Mr Winnick's question?

  Mr Lowman: I refer back to my previous answer. My colleague has referred to the statistics for the overall levels of alcohol consumption which are probably inconclusive. One year it has gone down and another year it has gone up. My main point is that I do not believe those changes are linked directly to the Licensing Act 2003.

  Q403  Mr Winnick: So, if the Licensing Act changed—I do not suggest it would be—you would be quite neutral; you would not have any particular views one way or the other?

  Mr Lowman: It depends on how it changed and what was required.

  Q404  Mr Winnick: Let us say it made the position more restrictive.

  Mr Lowman: We would have concerns about any piece of legislation that imposed new bureaucratic burdens on members and restricted their ability to trade.

  Q405  Mr Winnick: I thought you would. Do you say the same, Mr Hayward?

  Mr Hayward: Yes. When the Act was introduced it was the view of government and the police that what one did not want was everybody racing to consume until 11 o'clock with vast quantities being thrown at people who would come out to a city centre all fighting at the minicab ranks and in the local kebab shops. If you disperse that more effectively over a period of time there is hope that you may achieve some changes in terms of social behaviour. Some of those changes have not as yet come through and I would like them to do so.

  Q406  Mr Winnick: Have we not seen examples up and down the country of people clearly intoxicated at all hours of the day, including well beyond 11 o'clock? It is very difficult to take what appears to be, if I may say so—if you take offence, so be it—a complacent attitude that the Act has made no difference at all. We see it with our own eyes.

  Mr Hayward: I echo what ACPO has said in relation to alcohol. What I said was that there was an overall social issue which must be tackled in whatever field we are engaged, whether it is politics, industry, the police or local government.

  Q407  Mr Winnick: A social issue that is made worse by making it easier to get drink?

  Mr Hayward: I would refer back to the analysis made by the Home Office and DCMS. It is your own government's analysis, not ours.

  Q408  Tom Brake: I put a question to all of you. Clearly, there will be rogue supermarkets, pubs and corner shops. Do you believe that the action being taken is tough enough? Is it not in your interests for much firmer action to be taken to close down the rogues because they are tarring your industries with the same brush?

  Mr Chester: I think I made the point that the Licensing Act 2003 contains some very draconian measures. Clearly, government measures the performance of industry all the time in terms of test-purchasing, that is, sending people into stores to try to buy alcohol and that sort of thing. We do a good job and we have been improving. That leaves no room for complacency because we can always get better, but none of our colleagues or any of our store managers sells alcohol irresponsibly or to underage people through the day. That is just not what we are about. Managers and colleagues live in that community as well.

  Mr Lowman: No one wants to get rid of rogue retailers in the market more than our members; they do not want to compete against people who flout the law. I believe the numbers who flout the law are very small. The Licensing Act 2003 provides very strong powers to tackle those and the way it is enforced day to day is that there is targeted test-purchasing activity. I think that where the Act works best is when it operates in partnership with local authorities, the police, schools and parents to try to tackle all parts of the problem. It presses all the buttons rather than just one. That is how you identify rogue retailers, and we fully support the loss of their licences. The Act includes ample powers for licences to be revoked.

  Mr Brown: I should like to align myself with the comments from Asda, which is an unusual situation for my company. We would like to see rogue traders made subject to the penalties under the Act. As an organisation we are very clear about the standards set by the Licensing Act and we are determined to trade within them, and we do an awful lot to ensure that that is the case. Unfortunately, there are very rare occasions when people do not meet those standards, but there are many other times when colleagues refuse sales to people who try to buy alcohol underage. I think that the challenge is to ensure that that motivation is still there but to find a way to bring ourselves closer to the Police Service, trading standards and the local authorities to make sure we are all aware of what we are trying to achieve and how we are doing it. There are a number of very good practices in place in different parts of the country to reinforce that approach.

  Q409  Mr Winnick: There was a report on what is described as "pre-loading" which made the point that individuals consumed large amounts of alcohol at home prior to going out. The report was critical of the fact that the measures to tackle drunkenness and related violence tended to focus on bars and public places but not off-trade premises. Some of you probably take the view that that is appropriate criticism.

  Mr Chester: There are headlines in today's newspapers about challenges to consumers' pockets. I certainly believe that drinking patterns have changed. Fifteen or 20 years ago you went to the pub from seven o'clock in the evening, but I think that drinking patterns have changed since then.

  Q410  Chairman: How much do 12 cans of Stella Artois cost at Asda?

  Mr Chester: I cannot give you a precise figure today; I can do so afterwards, but I would guess the cost would be about £10.

  Mr Winnick: Is it right that as a result of competition if Asda is selling it at a certain price and Tesco wants to remain in business and sell that sort of stuff it will simply vary or lower the price?

  Q411  Chairman: Before we compare prices, can Mr Lowman answer the question about pre-loading put by Mr Winnick?

  Mr Lowman: I think the evidence submitted by the BBPA suggested that a small proportion of people drank before they went out in the evening. I think that has always happened to a degree. Issues around price and so on are part of that. The vast majority of customers to whom we sell alcohol drink it in front of the television. My colleague Rob Hayward is in a very exciting industry; we are in quite a boring one in that in our case the people who buy alcohol consume it while they sit in front of the television to watch East Enders. That is the core of our business. Of course, some people will choose to drink before they go out, and they always have done.

  Q412  Chairman: And the beer that you sell is not cheaper than £10 for 12?

  Mr Lowman: We are a trade association and so it will vary enormously across the industry.

  Mr Hayward: There are certain excitements to which Mr Lowman refers that I could well do without, but in terms of the actual pricing clearly there is a huge differential between our association and other markets.

  Q413  Chairman: What about pre-loading?

  Mr Hayward: Pre-loading is something that has impacted enormously on the pub industry. I gave evidence to the Select Committee on tourism and was asked a lot of questions about pre-loading at the time. It is now reckoned that about 80% to 90% of all youngsters, ie people aged 18 to 30, pre-load before they go out in the evening. Not only is there some evidence that it is a rapidly growing proportion of the population but the amount they consume is also increasing.

  Q414  Chairman: Do you know from where they get that alcohol?

  Mr Hayward: Clearly, it will be off trade.

  Mr Brown: It is difficult to make a comment about people's habits in their own homes. Our business is about trade and retail. In answer to the question about competition, yes, it is an incredibly competitive market and businesses do respond to market pressures and moves by others in that same trading area, but in terms of our research into those to whom we sell alcohol the majority of it is sold to young families and slightly older families.

  Q415  Chairman: Young families?

  Mr Brown: I am referring to families with children under the age of 10. It is difficult to see how those form the group about which perhaps Mr Winnick is concerned in terms of pre-loading. We find that when people buy because of a particular promotion they stock up as opposed to drink more, so they take the opportunity to make use of that value offer. As a consequence we notice that the sale of alcohol to those individuals drops off for a period.

  Q416  Mr Winnick: Do you feel any sort of responsibility when it comes to pricing? One store sells at a particular price. A rival store, be it Tesco, Asda or whatever, wants to maintain business and therefore lowers the price. Inevitably, by the very nature of the retail trade alcoholic drink becomes cheaper and all the difficulties that we are discussing become more acute. Do you feel any sense of responsibility when it comes to pricing as to what could follow from that?

  Mr Brown: We are very happy to engage with the government. Government needs to take the lead because of the Competition Commission and the laws that surround competition. We are very happy to engage in a discussion about pricing, but it must be led by government.

  Q417  Mr Winnick: Presumably, you have not done so thus far?

  Mr Brown: We have not done so thus far. Sir Terence Leahy has mentioned it to the Prime Minister. We are very happy to engage in that process, but it must be government led because of the restrictions relating to competition.

  Mr Chester: I have to echo those comments simply because as my colleague from Tesco says that is a competition matter.

  Q418  Chairman: So, if the government says that the price should be increased you are happy to do that?

  Mr Chester: Obviously, the vast majority of customers who purchase and drink alcohol do so in a perfectly responsible manner and I think that has to be borne in mind. Overall price increases may not tackle the issue that you are discussing.

  Q419  Martin Salter: It is probably worth declaring my interest. I am the Member of Parliament whose constituency will lose 500 jobs as a result of declining beer sales particularly in the on trade market as a result of the closure of Courage brewery. I suppose that initially my question should be addressed to Mr Hayward. The figures before the Committee based on NHS statistics on alcohol published this year show that in 2007 alcohol was 69% more affordable in the United Kingdom than it was in 1980. I also hear stories—I have not seen it myself—where in some supermarkets as a result of using loss leader promotions one can buy cans of strong lager cheaper than bottled water. Clearly, that is bonkers and it has social and police ramifications. I know that the other witnesses will disagree with this, but is there not a case for changing the burden of taxation on alcohol so that more of it falls on off trade where a lot of the problems arise rather than on trade where the evidence shows that people drink in a managed environment?

  Mr Hayward: Thank you for that supportive comment in relation to pubs. Clearly, it is a decision for government in terms of all the information it has as to where the tax burdens fall. I am not sure one can discriminate legitimately between product sold on one side or the other. We would love it to be because of the crisis we face in relation to pubs closing at the current rate of four a day. I think every constituency MP will recognise that large numbers of pubs are being lost. In relation to pricing I touch on just one matter. In answer to Mr Winnick's question we operate a promotions policy. We have had such a policy for a number of years. We encourage our members to operate very effectively, so we have moved away very considerably from all you can drink all night for £5 or £10 and letting women in free, which encourages excess consumption, and speed competition so you get beer at a certain price before England score a goal or whatever it happens to be.

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