Previous Section Index Home Page

1 Dec 2009 : Column 57WH—continued

Regional development agencies are helping to ensure that seaside towns in their regions achieve their full economic potential through their regional economic strategies. A single regeneration budget, about which the hon. Gentleman complained, is now part of the single budget for RDAs and benefits coastal communities as much as anywhere else. All coastal RDAs now have regional economic strategies that take account of coastal
1 Dec 2009 : Column 58WH
and seaside towns. The RDA for Yorkshire and the Humber, for example, has a renaissance towns and cities programme that includes several seaside towns, including Bridlington and Scarborough. The RDA for the south-west has supported seaside towns from the market and coastal towns initiative, so I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's argument that coastal communities have not benefited from any of the additional expenditure that the Government have delivered.

To make RDAs even more effective, we are bringing together their economic role and the spatial planning function in single regional strategies. Those will help to ensure that economic development, housing, planning and transport are better aligned towards achieving sustainable economic growth to benefit all parts of a region, including the coast.

Since 2003, RDAs have included tourism in their corporate plans and regional economic strategies, both as an activity in its own right and mainstreaming it into their other economic considerations. RDAs are also working closely with regional tourist boards in the development of regional economic strategies, drawing on their wealth of knowledge on how seaside resorts fit in with the regional tourism economy.

In addition to their strategic responsibility for and investment in tourism, RDAs are aware of the interdependence of seaside resorts and their rural hinterlands, and should work with resorts to take advantage of their value.

Through multi-area agreements, a number of coastal authorities and their partners are taking a much more active role in leading economic development and regeneration at a sub-regional level. Of the 15 MAAs signed since July 2008, eight include coastal authorities. The Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole partnership, for example, is focusing on improving skills levels, transport and sustainable growth. The Fylde Coast partnership, which covers Blackpool, Wyre, Fylde and Lancashire county, has a focus on coastal infrastructure, tourism, skills and the public realm.

Some coastal towns have established economic development companies to increase capacity to deliver economic regeneration. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Plymouth City Development Company was launched in 2008 and is working in partnership with the city council, the private sector, the South West of England Regional Development Agency and the Homes and Communities Agency to ensure that public spending can be used to deliver the city's ambitious plans. That demonstrates a number of the ways in which this Government are working with partners, including the RDAs, right across the country to improve services and increase expenditure in coastal communities.

1 Dec 2009 : Column 59WH

Super-strength Lager

12.59 pm

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): I am sorry if I am slightly breathless, but my watch is a few minutes slow. I have two very limited objectives in this debate. The first is to persuade the Minister-

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Phil Hope): Would it be helpful if I intervened?

Martin Linton: No, I will be all right. My first objective is to persuade the Minister that it would be a good idea to limit the size of cans of super-strength lager. The second is to persuade him that it would be a good idea to increase their price to discourage their use as the cheapest way of getting drunk. Last week, I put those two points in a topical question to his colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), who has ministerial responsibility for public health; I am sure that this Minister was there. She gave me a beautifully crafted reply-but it was not, I fear, a straightforward yes.

I secured this Westminster Hall debate to invite the Department of Health to engage more fully with the issues and to tease out a fuller answer to the questions; I am sure that Westminster Hall debates were introduced for just such a purpose. As I told the public health Minister, a can of super-strength lager carries a voluntary health message from the drinks industry asking consumers to "enjoy responsibly" or "please drink responsibly". It also carries a warning, which was put there last year at the behest of one of her predecessors at the Department, that the can contains 4.5 units of alcohol.

I do not need to tell the Minister that the maximum recommended daily intake of alcohol, according to his own Department, is three to four units for a man and two to three units for a woman. A can is a single-serve container and is intended, once opened, to be drunk straight away. One cannot screw the top back on or put the cork back in; even if one could, it would go flat, warm and totally undrinkable.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): The hon. Gentleman raises an important and controversial subject. Does he agree that, for youngsters, warnings on cans can sometimes act as an invitation, rather than a deterrent, to use the super-strength cans? The price does not seem to be a deterrent either. We need parents to take greater responsibility in knowing what youngsters are doing and in preventing them from using alcohol, particularly in public. The involvement of parents is crucial and is probably a better way to tackle the problem than taxation or restriction.

Martin Linton: I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman is a parent like me, he knows that one can never cope entirely with the perversity of youth. If some people do the opposite of what one says, one cannot win either way; if we do not warn them, they do it, but if we do warn them, they still do it. I accept that maximums can become challenges to young people, but that problem has to be tackled in the young people themselves. Sooner or later in life, they are going to have to learn that the advice that others give them is sometimes valuable. If they do not learn it that way, they will learn it some other way.

1 Dec 2009 : Column 60WH

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but my question still stands: is it not irresponsible of the Department of Health to ask the consumer to drink responsibly yet allow the sale of a drink in a can that invites them to drink irresponsibly? Does the Department of Health expect the consumer to take a 500 ml or 4.5-unit can, solemnly pour out the relevant number of units-455 ml if they are a man, 335 ml if they are a woman-and throw the rest away? Does the Department not see that the sale of 4.5-unit cans undermines its own advice to drink no more than four units, or three for women, a day? That is why I want the Minister to ban 500 ml cans. I mean not a voluntary agreement-I fear that that would not work-but a ban on half-litre cans by law and a provision limiting containers to the maximum recommended daily intake. Most supermarkets-certainly my own local supermarket-are already selling only the 440 ml cans of super-strength lager, which contain four units. However, many off-licences and small corner shops sell the larger cans and will often sell them at a lower price than is charged at the supermarkets.

My second objective, which may be far more challenging but more important, is to persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer to increase the tax on super-strength lagers and ciders, which I am defining for these purposes as anything over 6 per cent. I recognise that that is a decision for the Chancellor, but he will never introduce a tax of that kind without a strong recommendation from the Department of Health. I have addressed that objective to the Department of Health, because the first step must be for it to persuade the Chancellor that a tax needs to be introduced for health reasons.

The first thing to do is to establish whether a price rise would reduce consumption. We already have plenty of evidence. The World Health Organisation states:

The British Medical Association states:

A letter from one of the Minister's predecessors, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), has stated that evidence from other EU countries shows that increasing the price of alcohol through the tax system can reduce consumption levels, especially among younger drinkers, at least in the short term.

The Department of Health usually takes the advice of its own chief medical officer on health issues; the chief medical officer has recommended a policy involving a minimum price of 50p a unit, which would push the cost of a super-strength can up to £2.25. The homeless charity Thames Reach estimated that even a relatively modest increase, taking the price of a can of super-strength up to £1.50 in every shop, would have the beneficial effect of changing behaviour, persuading many problem drinkers to switch to lower-strength brands.

I am not advocating a complete ban on super-strength lagers. I recognise that strong lagers, consumed in moderation, have no more effect on health than any other drink. Many people like the taste of strong lagers. I have a relative who drinks a can of super-strength every day without fail; it can hardly have affected his health, as he is about to celebrate his 99th birthday.
1 Dec 2009 : Column 61WH
There are many specialist strong lagers, such as Old Tom, which is 8.5 per cent., but that is sold in third of a litre bottles.

However, it is a fact that the great majority of sales of super-strength lager and cider are to alcohol-dependent people who are often vulnerable and homeless. For them, the defining attraction is not the taste, but the price per unit of alcohol. Super-strength affects not only health, but behaviour. It causes people to get drunk very quickly and is a major cause of antisocial behaviour. Thames Reach often tries to persuade its residents to switch back to lower-strength lager-no lager at all, if possible, but at least to lower-strength lager. When they do, their behaviour immediately improves.

Thames Reach, one of many organisations faced with this problem, helps about 4,000 people a year. It estimates that 800 of them are drinking super-strength lager or cider. There were 47 deaths among the people whom it helped last year. It asked its staff to put the types of addiction in order of harm. They put heroin third and crack cocaine in second place. In first place, the most dangerous addictive drug, causing the most damage and the highest number of deaths, was super-strength lager. Jeremy Swain, the chief executive of Thames Reach, said that every year hundreds of men and women with serious drink problems-many of them homeless-are driven to an early grave by these extraordinarily powerful and destructive drinks. He said that we need the Government and producers to accept that the cost of cheap strong lager that can be purchased with ease from any corner shop is, in human terms, simply too high.

Mr. Swain described to me the case histories of some of the people that his organisation has lost. When he was banned from pubs, one man took to drinking super-strength lager in his flat on his own. Despite all its efforts, Thames Reach could not take him out of the tail spin of addiction and he died last year. Another man whom Mr. Swain described was addicted to the super-strength cider White Lightning, though he called it "White Frightening" because of the nightmares and the hallucinations he said it induced in him.

Super-strength ciders, often at 7.5 per cent. and sometimes more, are an equally great problem because they too have a very low price per unit of alcohol. People choose these drinks because they are cheap-the cost per unit of alcohol is low. Over the years, alcohol has become cheaper for everyone. Since 1980, alcoholic drinks have become 69 per cent. more affordable. The Minister will be familiar with these figures, as I am sure that they come from the Department of Health. The implication is that anybody now in their 40s has seen the price of alcohol more than halve in real terms since they were old enough to drink. Since they may also have seen their income double or treble, one can easily see how the temptation to drink alcohol and their ability to consume it has increased many times. It can be no surprise that, as alcohol has become more affordable, consumption has relentlessly increased-as has the harm from alcohol, which now costs the Government up to an estimated £25 billion a year.

Super-strength addicts are perhaps the most extreme example of a wider trend, but they are the ones who suffer as no others do. Thames Reach has a phrase for people suffering in that way: it calls them "the young olds". They are the middle-aged men and women who
1 Dec 2009 : Column 62WH
suffer from the types of life-threatening problems, such as impaired mobility or incontinence, that are more commonly associated with people in their 70s. When its staff are asked to estimate the age of new arrivals, they are often 20 years out. They think that the new arrivals are in their 70s but it turns out that they are in their 50s. Their trouble is that they cannot access the health services available to 70-year-olds. The Minister, who is responsible for care services, will understand that these people are in need of care services although they do not qualify for them because they are so far under retirement age. This is a problem that society needs to take more seriously.

There is already wide support in the House for a super-strength tax, as witnessed by my early-day motion two years ago, which attracted 50 signatories. Some local authorities are beginning to take unilateral action. Westminster city council, for instance, has persuaded retailers in Victoria, Marylebone and Pimlico to stop selling super-strength in their shops and that has led to a marked reduction in antisocial behaviour in those areas. Pubs, of course, have never sold super-strength lager because they know that if they did it would lead to an increase in antisocial behaviour, which their customers would not appreciate. Many shops, for their own reasons, do not sell super-strength lager. It is not available in many countries such as Australia and Ireland, not because of any law but simply because it is not sold in any pubs or shops.

I understand the issues concerning civil liberties raised by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). I repeat that I do not seek a complete ban on super-strength lagers; that would be an infringement. However, we must recognise that such drinks have a powerful effect, not only on health but on behaviour. It is well within the remit of the Government to use the tax system to influence behaviour and health. We already do that in many ways, and the Department of Health has extended the principle in many areas in recent years. I suggest that this is an area where the Department of Health needs to use incentives and disincentives to try to influence people. These people are buying super-strength lager only because of the price per unit and because they live at the extremes of income. They have to save up money to afford a can. Clearly, an increase in the price of the can would have an immediate effect on their ability to buy it.

Bob Spink: I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and I am being persuaded by his careful and well placed arguments. My concern is about the use of taxation, not civil liberties. As in this case, there are times when this place must act to protect people almost from themselves, as we did with the seat belt law and other legislation. He is making some extremely strong points. I am listening carefully to him and am prepared to change my mind on this subject.

Martin Linton: I am grateful for that intervention. In the circumstances I think I have persuaded 50 per cent. of the audience already, and I shall be well pleased if I persuade 100 per cent. This is a modest proposal. I am not putting forward anything that would restrict people's civil liberties. I am making my proposal in a moderate way, in the hope that the Department of Health can take action. I understand that there are difficulties with
1 Dec 2009 : Column 63WH
the proposal, which has been widely canvassed and trialled in Scotland, in respect of prices per unit. I find it quite an attractive proposal, and I do not know what the difficulties are.

Even if we did not go that far and had a super-strength tax that simply applied to beers and ciders over 6 per cent., that would send a strong enough signal to the minority of the population who drink strong lagers through choice. It would also be a strong disincentive to the much greater number of people who drink it as the cheapest way of getting drunk. It would have a beneficial effect on both health and behaviour. I look forward to hearing what my hon. Friend the Minister has to say.

1.17 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Phil Hope): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on securing the debate; he has proved himself an effective and persuasive champion of his cause. This is an important matter of concern for the House and he is right to say that the worst effects of alcohol misuse are plain to see in towns and cities across the country.

Excessive drinking can turn some places into virtual no-go areas on a Saturday night. The costs to the community, the police and the NHS are astonishing, but, as my hon. Friend pointed out, the problems of alcohol stretch far beyond weekend binge drinking. Perhaps the largest long-term problem for the NHS lies with those who do not get arrested, do not get admitted to hospital and do not realise the health risks they are storing up for the future until it is far too late.

My hon. Friend talked about units and I would like to explain exactly what we mean by that. Many people are unclear about what a unit of alcohol is, how many units there are in a pint and so on. For the record, one unit is 10 ml of pure alcohol. It is the amount that the body can, on average, break down in an hour. So, someone who drinks 10 ml of alcohol should not have any left in their bloodstream 60 minutes later. A standard pint of 4 per cent. lager contains two units. A stronger 5 per cent. pint of lager will contain three.

Some super-strength lagers of the sort my hon. Friend described can be as high as 9 per cent. alcohol, with one 500 ml can containing four and a half units of alcohol. A medium glass of 12.5 per cent. strength wine will have more than two units, whereas a large glass might contain more than three. That is the important thing to remember. The Government recommend that women should not regularly drink more than two to three units of alcohol a day. One large glass of white wine is more than three units. Women should not drink more than two to three units of alcohol a day and men should not drink more than three or four, which is just over one pint of strong lager. One can of super-strength lager, therefore, is more than an entire day's worth of units for an adult male. We can all see just how easy it is to drink more than the lower-risk amounts.

Next Section Index Home Page