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I know that my hon. Friend will not be able to give us a definite answer about pricing structure, especially at this time in the political diary. We have a general election
in a few weeks, and whoever comes into government must tackle the long-term damage to health being done by alcohol. The objective is not to stop people drinking, but to get them to use alcohol in a sensible and proper manner, as my generation and many before us were able to do.
Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron). I congratulate the Committee on an interesting and well put together report. Clearly, the key area that the Committee examined was pricing, and that is certainly one of the elements that should be tackled, as the right hon. Gentleman stressed.
We should start by acknowledging that there is a problem with people abusing alcohol. The focus should be on problem drinking. There are various definitions, some of which are helpful. We can have a debate about how many units people should drink per week or over a year, but by problem drinking, I mean drinking that leads to inappropriate, irresponsible behaviour, antisocial behaviour and crime, or drinking that damages health. The Select Committee report focuses, of course, on damage to health and what action the Government-any Government-can take to try to ameliorate that.
We should also acknowledge that the problem is not alcohol. I say to the Chair and the members of the Select Committee-I suspect they would agree with me, although this may not be sufficiently clearly stated in the report-that the problem is not even cheap alcohol. The problem is people abusing alcohol and drinking in an inappropriate way that leads to the kind of problems that we have heard about. That is cultural, and it is all very well saying that drinking patterns have changed, and all very well quoting the figures for how many people are drinking more, but if we look at those patterns, we find that the situation is not as simple as the figures suggest. As my colleague and chair of the all-party beer group, the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), knows, beer consumption is declining, so the issue is that of our culture shifting, not just that all Britons are drinking more. A group of people are drinking more than they should, and we must focus on them.
Pete Wishart: The hon. Gentleman is right to expect me to intervene at this point. If he agrees with minimum pricing, will he please get on the phone to his Liberal colleagues up in Scotland and tell them to support the Scottish Government, who are trying to get that very measure through in the teeth of Liberal opposition? It is not just opposition from individual Members of the Scottish Parliament, but whipped Liberal opposition, so will he get on the phone and convince them that they are wrong and we are right? Let us make sure that we have minimum pricing in Scotland.
Greg Mulholland: What a very odd request from a member of the Scottish National party-to insist that I, a proud Englishman, get on the phone to tell my Scottish colleagues what to do. I shall treat that very odd logic with the contempt that it deserves. My Scottish colleagues in the Scottish Parliament deal with their own affairs and the hon. Gentleman would certainly agree with that. Under the circumstances, he would be appalled if I did otherwise.
The Liberal Democrat parliamentary party very much supports a minimum price for alcohol. The Committee Chairman has outlined some of these issues, but I shall give a stark example using figures that date back to May 2008. At that time, the average cost of a draught pint of lager in a pub was £2.75, which equates to £4.95 a litre. At the same time, however, supermarkets were selling lager with a strength of more than 4 per cent. for as little as £1.20 per litre, and weaker lager for as little as 52p per litre. Tesco was selling a 70cl bottle of "Value" vodka for £6.54. Of that price, £5.98 is taken in duty, and a further £1.14 is taken in VAT, totalling £7.12-more than the retail price. It is a scandal that alcohol is sold in an uncontrolled environment. It is easy for people to put such products in with their weekly shop and, potentially, for minors and so on to access it. That is a real problem, and I absolutely agree that minimum pricing is important.
However, politicians should not decide that minimum price. The Sheffield study was interesting but certainly not conclusive, and we need an independent body, made up of economists and industry and health specialists, to recommend not only a minimum price but how it should work, so that we tackle problem drinking without having any perverse impacts. The right hon. Gentleman talked about not having a detrimental impact on moderate drinkers, who would have to pay a little more for their bottle of wine or their pints of beer, and that may be true, but we have to consider other impacts.
Kelvin Hopkins: I am slightly concerned about the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that politicians should not decide those matters. We certainly receive recommendations, and the chief medical officer recommended a price of 50p per unit, which would be a good start, but in the end this House will have to decide the price and ensure that it is enforced.
Greg Mulholland: That is precisely why neither politicians nor the chief medical officer should say that they know the answer to the problem, or recommend a level. We have heard about some of the effects of 50p per unit, but not about its effects on the consumption of lower strength drinks or on pubs. There could be a perverse incentive, and we need to investigate the matter holistically.
Mr. Barron: I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman agrees with the Committee about introducing a minimum price per unit. He suggests what type of people should advise the Government, and he seems to be suggesting that politicians should not take a position on price. Does he not think, however, that we have to look beyond the advice that the Government take from different institutions? We have an increase in binge drinking and in alcohol-related deaths, and we have to look at new ways of solving that problem.
Greg Mulholland: We do indeed, but I am not quite sure what point the right hon. Gentleman is trying to make. My point simply is that we should not say, "50 per cent. or 40 per cent. sounds right." We need to look at the holistic impact of the measure. The principle is absolutely right, but we have not reached the stage where we know what the price should be, and it is important that we do not simply pick a figure out of the air.
Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford) (Lab): Surely the hon. Gentleman accepts that Parliament decides-in fact, the Chancellor decides-on alcohol duty, so it is really not much of a leap to say that the House should take a strong view on minimum pricing. Does he agree that minimum pricing cannot possibly affect the pub or restaurant trade? No pubs in the country will sell alcohol for 50p per unit other than at those very strange times of binge drinking. He would be very lucky to find in his constituency a pub that would sell him beer at 50p a unit, so the measure would affect not the pub or restaurant trade but those people who consume vast quantities of very cheap alcohol that they can obtain from wholesalers or some supermarkets.
Greg Mulholland: Once again, the hon. Gentleman proves my point precisely. He is quite right about the effect on the pub, but unfortunately a 50p minimum price for alcohol would make it impossible for many of our smaller breweries to survive, and that would therefore damage the brewing trade. We have to look at all those issues together. That is the sensible way to do it, rather than plucking a figure out of the air.
Kelvin Hopkins: We have already heard that beer consumption is falling, so breweries are suffering because people are drinking cheaper, stronger alcohol that is not beer. If the price of those other drinks were raised, surely that would help the breweries and pubs.
Greg Mulholland: Again, that proves my argument. Hon. Members think that through minimum pricing they have the solution to binge drinking, and I agree with the measure, but let me make it absolutely clear that there is no silver bullet. It is rather naive to suggest otherwise. If there were a silver bullet, we would all accept it and pursue it. We would all have to deal with impacts of a minimum price, however, and they have not yet been properly assessed.
On the Committee's secondary conclusion that we should therefore increase duty even more, I absolutely agree that we should look at duty levels. Industrial cider has been mentioned, and there is a clear discrepancy between that and beer; and the rather favourable treatment that spirits have received over the past few years has also rightly been mentioned. Beer duty, which has been increased and used as just a way of making money, has no relevance whatever to the debate about how to deal with problem drinking, but the Liberal Democrats reject increasing prices as a whole.
It is interesting to look at all the statistics, but some commentators lack common sense and an understanding of psychology. The reality is simple. Let us imagine that someone is going out to binge drink 10 alcoholic drinks, which is far more than they should. We could slap on an extra duty that increased the price by 10p per drink, and that would be a large increase, but is anyone seriously suggesting that it would stop someone drinking that
amount? All we are talking about is it costing an extra £1-the equivalent of a bag of chips-to drink exactly the same amount. Is that really going to have the effect on behaviour some people suggest it would? I am afraid that it will not. It is just not realistic, and I repeat that there is no silver bullet. Pricing must be looked at, but it is not the silver-bullet solution that some people suggest.
Sandra Gidley: I hate to disagree with my hon. Friend, but a lot of the evidence that the Committee took showed that in such a situation people, particularly young people, do not buy alcohol at the higher price. Instead, they buy cheap alcohol from supermarkets, pre-load and then go out and buy one or two expensive drinks. A lot of research has shown that most students go out with about a tenner in their pocket, so price is a factor. It is not the only one, but it is a critical factor in tackling the problem.
Greg Mulholland: I do not think that my hon. Friend is disagreeing with me. Perhaps she does not like my suggesting that her Committee has not solved this problem; it might have thought that it had. I have made it absolutely clear that one of the problems is the price differential between the on-trade and the off-trade and the irresponsible supermarket selling of alcohol at unreasonably low prices, even below cost prices. Nevertheless, there will still be people who go to bars and clubs and are unaffected by that. Not to recognise that shows a lack of realism and a lack of understanding of human psychology. These things need to be looked at in a more holistic way.
It is important to focus on moving towards a minimum price-setting that level to stop irresponsible off-trade pricing to ensure that people are not able to access it-but that alone will not deal with the problem entirely. We have to acknowledge the culture. Although the Select Committee's report rightly touched on the issue of pubs being an important place for sociable, controlled drinking, I am afraid that we all, as a nation, have to accept that a cultural change must also be considered. We are concerned not only about the changes that we have seen with regard to people drinking more at home, but about people buying alcohol from the off-trade, including supermarkets, and then drinking it in the park or on the street.
There has been a cultural change in the on-trade, too. The sector of the on-trade that is particularly suffering is the traditional community pub that has a particular role not only in being somewhere for people in the area to meet but in being a controlled sociable atmosphere where people of all ages will go. It is very regrettable how some sections of the on-trade industry-I use that word advisedly, because we are talking about some very large companies-have deliberately done away with community pubs and moved to vertical drinking spaces. They have deliberately pushed people away from a convivial, sociable culture where they sit down to one in which they are crammed in and there is loud music. It is not about chatting but about drinking and encouraging people to drink more. That change must be acknowledged, and it will not be dealt with by pricing alone.
The reason for vertical drinking establishments is to increase profits. The hon. Gentleman said that he did not agree with the Sheffield university
report, which looked into the culture of drinking in England and made firm recommendations about how some binge drinking can be stopped. What aspects of that report does he disagree with?
Greg Mulholland: I do not know where the right hon. Gentleman gets that idea from, because I have not said for a moment that I disagree with the Sheffield university report; it is very interesting, and I agree with many of its conclusions. My only comment in that regard has been that we are not at the stage of saying that we should necessarily adopt a minimum price of 40p per unit. It is an excellent report, which firmly focuses on that issue, as well as on price differentials in the off trade. I would have welcomed the Select Committee's going into that a little more, but of course it was dealing with the issue specifically from a health perspective.
A cross-departmental approach is needed. There is a huge criminal justice side to this issue, which has to involve tackling problems with disorder as well as the health problems that have been recognised. I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman is keen to point out that cultural issues are important and that the pub, as a sociable, controlled drinking environment, is part of the solution.
Graham Stringer: The hon. Gentleman is talking about criminal justice solutions. During the passage of the Licensing Act 2003, I was amazed, as a member of the Public Bill Committee that considered it, that there were so few prosecutions of landlords selling alcohol to intoxicated people. That has been against the law for a long time. Enforcing that law-I see no evidence that the situation is improving-would deal with some of the disorder that we see on our high streets. Does he recognise and agree with that?
Greg Mulholland: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. As he says, there are adequate powers to deal with some of the abuses of selling alcohol and they are not currently used. That also applies to selling alcohol to minors. The existing system is there, and we do not need more laws and regulations: we just need to use the ones that we have. I agree with him from that perspective.
There is still an insufficient focus on education about alcohol. If we are to have a culture in which people are brought up to think that alcohol is to be respected, we will need more education, including in schools. Some very positive campaigns have been run over the past 18 months, and that has been a good use of Department of Health money to get the message across about binge drinking. However, there is a problem in simply talking about alcohol as a drug and about the dangers of alcohol. Other societies and nations have a different attitude towards alcohol. They do not just say, "This is a dangerous thing and you must make sure that you don't abuse it"; they bring up their children to understand and respect it.
I take my hon. Friend's point about education in schools; unfortunately, many young people think that they are invincible and tend to ignore what they are told. Does he support the use of alcohol-related arrest referral schemes, which provide information and counselling about the effects of alcohol to people who have been brought to the attention of the criminal justice system as a result of an alcohol-related disorder?
Those schemes are being evaluated, but when they have been tried in the USA, they have been very effective in reducing repeat drink offences.
Greg Mulholland: I thank my hon. Friend; I indeed support that approach. From a health point of view, I also think that people who have been admitted to accident and emergency with alcohol conditions should be put on to an alcohol rehabilitation course. That would do more to challenge problem drinking than some of the measures that have been proposed.
Schools have a role and a responsibility to provide education about alcohol, as do parents, although it is hard to educate the parents themselves. We have to bring up young people to respect alcohol. How many 16-year-olds understand how beer is brewed or how wine is produced? Why, in this country, do we continue to talk about alcohol merely as a drug? Why do we not do more to point out that alcohol, if respected and drunk responsibly, is something to be enjoyed? There are good alcoholic drinks and bad alcoholic drinks, but why do we never say that? We always bracket them together, as under the current duty regime, which is rather perverse given its treatment of cider.
We have to accept our culture and who we are, but we often fail to do that in these debates. The Committee was right to point out that the Government's thinking was entirely naive and misplaced in trying to move suddenly to a continental café culture. We do not need a continental café culture, but a culture that respects alcohol more. That involves understanding what alcohol is and how it is produced, and accepting that good alcohol, when enjoyed responsibly, is an important part of our culture and our heritage. I invite you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and any other Members, to come to an event that takes place in my constituency every September-Otley folk festival, when every single pub in the town is thronged with people enjoying locally produced real ale and folk music. It is very much part of our English heritage and culture. Do we see disorder and problems? No, we do not, but I am afraid politicians are too slow to recognise that alcohol is an important and positive part of our culture and heritage, and that if enjoyed responsibly, it is to be celebrated.
It is rather lazy of politicians sometimes to talk about the "the drinks industry", because that includes every single alcohol producer, from the huge business to the small microbrewery brewing perhaps for only one pub, and all the pubs, bars and clubs. That group does not form an industry, and the idea that everyone in it is somehow irresponsible is a lazy assertion. We need to focus on the companies that do not fulfil their responsibilities and that have clear profit motive for wanting people to drink irresponsibly. That applies to some companies but not to others, and certainly not to many pubs and small breweries.
The report is a useful step forward, and I hope it will make the Government seriously consider introducing a minimum price. After the election, I should certainly like whoever is in Government to take that forward as part of the solution to problem drinking in this country. However, we must remember that there is no silver bullet, and we have to accept that there needs to be cultural change. To some extent we have to go back to the years that the right hon. Member for Rother Valley talked about, when alcohol consumption was lower, but we also have to think about our approach to alcohol
and the selling and marketing of it in those days. There are many lessons to learn. We do not need a new culture; we need a return to a responsible, sociable pub-related culture; and we need to focus on the individuals, retailers and companies that continue to abuse their position and that make it very difficult for responsible drinkers to enjoy alcohol by fuelling the problem drinking that damages our neighbourhoods and towns and people's health.
Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford) (Lab): It is very important that we are having this debate, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), who chaired the Health Committee admirably and enabled it to make an in-depth study of the whole issue of alcohol. We obtained some extremely valuable papers in evidence, which the Committee and our researchers found useful in producing what I believe is a helpful report.
It is important that we distinguish between ordinary drinking, which nearly all of us do, and the problem drinking of a minority, although a significant minority, of people in this country. Alcohol has always played an important role in our society. It has lubricated the wheels of politics and business for as long as anyone can remember and helped million of Britons to cement friendships and relationships. Even the British Medical Association, which is one of the most vehement critics of our drinking culture, recognises that. In written evidence for our inquiry, it wrote:
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