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Let me go straight to the issue at the heart of the debate: minimum pricing. I am glad to see another Yorkshireman, the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), in the Chamber. He may wish to speak later,
but earlier he asked an important question: why should our constituents who are moderate drinkers be asked to pay that little bit more?
I understand that Opposition Front Benchers are now committed to outlawing the below-cost selling of alcohol. I welcome that, but I should be interested to learn whether that means a minimum price. Below-cost selling is quite difficult to define. Would the simplest way of outlawing it be to set a broad price for the purpose? The supermarkets themselves might welcome clearer guidance. A couple of years ago, I suggested that Sir Terence Leahy, the boss of Tesco-
Mr. Grogan: A couple of years ago, I suggested that Sir Terence Leahy was in danger of becoming the godfather of British binge drinking, given the low prices at Tesco. Some alcohol was being sold more cheaply than water. The response was interesting. I have yet to learn that Tesco has come out in favour of minimum pricing, although my hon. Friend may have better information than me. It has, however, drawn attention to the difficulty of acting alone in a competitive market. If it did that, it could be accused of acting against the public interest, and could be in danger of infringing competition law.
This is not rocket science. It is within the Government's power to pass an order under one of the Competition Acts, in this House and the other place, exempting the alcohol sector from those restrictions. I believe-this may answer the point made by the hon. Member for Shipley-that supermarkets would then begin to provide discounts on other goods, because the competitive pressures would still be there. Alcohol is not the same as baked beans, and I think it reasonable for it to be treated differently, as it is in other western countries such as Canada and the United States. There is much more regulation there. I met national beer wholesale representatives from the United States the other week, and they were surprised to learn how little regulation there is in this country.
Scotland has led the way on a number of public health measures. There was probably a Labour Administration at the time when smoking was banned. That was another occasion on which my right hon. Friend and I joined forces, because, although we approached the issue from different angles, we had a common interest. The health lobby, with which my right hon. Friend had connections, and many pub companies felt that, ultimately, a complete ban would be better than a partial one. That was at the time of the smoking ban debate, which within the United Kingdom was initiated in Scotland.
I hope that my colleagues in the Labour party and other parties north of the border will reconsider this matter. It would help if measures were taken in conjunction with the United Kingdom Government because, in terms of competition law, only this House-as I understand it-could exempt the Scottish Government or, indeed, the UK Government, from that law in a way that would make the position legally watertight. I hope that will happen.
Mr. McGovern: While my hon. Friend is on the subject of Scotland, I appreciate that I came in at the end of the speech made by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), so he did not want to let me intervene. However, does my hon. Friend agree that the hypocrisy, at worst, or irony, at best, of the hon. Gentleman's party's position is that it says that it wants to raise the price of low-cost alcohol, which obviously comes within the incomes of the people who are earning the least in Scotland, but wants to exempt malt whisky, for example? That party says that nobody runs amok when they drink malt whisky, and the implication of that is that people on low incomes cannot be trusted with alcohol while people on high incomes can obviously be trusted.
Mr. Grogan: As I understand it, any worthwhile system of minimum pricing must apply the minimum price to units of alcohol, whatever their origin. This debate must clearly be had in the Scottish Parliament and I am impressed, as an outside but interested observer, that in Scotland-although they might disagree on the detail-not only people from the medical profession but tenants, a number of police chiefs and the Campaign for Real Ale have come out in favour of minimum pricing. There is potential for a broad alliance.
Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): The question in Scotland is not whether there is a health issue-there is no argument about that, as has been explained-but about how best to deal with it. We are not using the legislation as it stands. We should be talking about withdrawing licences from those who sell to under-age drinkers and using all the legislation that there is before we move to the second part of the process. It is not surprising that tenants and licensees want a minimum price because pubs now have the real problem of trying to ensure that they can offer a bargain. Minimum pricing actually helps the pubs; it is not surprising that they want it.
Mr. Grogan: I welcome the vigorous debate that is clearly happening within the Labour party. I also suggest that it is happening within the Government. I was just looking at the papers and clearly the Secretary of State for Health has strong views on this issue.
Pete Wishart: The hon. Gentleman must be really bemused by being caught up in this Scottish episode of the debate. Let me clarify: everybody in Scotland is for minimum pricing, whether they are health professionals, chief police officers and the licensing authorities. The only people against minimum pricing in Scotland are the Labour party in the Scottish Parliament, the Liberals in the Scottish Parliament and of course the Conservatives, as we would expect. They are the people against it and they are the people we need to persuade. I am glad that my two Scottish colleagues have turned up latterly-they might be able to listen to some of the debate and to hear hon. Members, such as his good self, explain why minimum pricing is necessary.
Perhaps I can conclude this section of my speech by saying that the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland), who spoke from the
Liberal Front Bench, invited us all to the Otley folk festival earlier-an invitation that I shall happily take up. If I get any invitations to Scotland or to the Scottish Parliament, I shall happily take them up too. I also understand that there is now an active beer group in the Scottish Parliament.
Moving swiftly on, as I know that Members still want to contribute, I think that the absolute principle should be that the stronger-or more concentrated-the alcohol is, the greater the level of duty should be. Most people would see that as common sense. Unfortunately, we do not have that approach and, over the past decade, we have tended to increase duty on one of the weaker or more diluted forms of alcohol, beer, whose price has gone up by more than 40 per cent. in the last 10 years. The increase has been less on the very concentrated forms of alcohol, such as spirits, including whisky and vodka, even though spirits are a lot cheaper to produce. Fermenting beer is a much more expensive process at about 20p per unit than the 10p that it costs to produce a unit of spirits.
"Does anyone know why there is currently such a difference between the duty paid on similar strength beers and ciders?"
Let me remind the House: the duty rate per pint on beer rises fivefold between 1.2 per cent. and 7.5 per cent. alcohol by volume. As the beer gets stronger, the duty goes up. That is not the case with cider. So, if we compare a can of Carling and a can of Strongbow of exactly the same size, the Strongbow has 33 per cent. more alcohol but 51 per cent. less duty.
I hope that when the Chancellor is preparing his Budget and when future Budgets are prepared, the duty on alcohol will be rebalanced. I am pleased that the alcohol industry, unlike last year, is not going united into the Budget debate. Last year, the industry and the various trade associations asked for an entire freeze on alcohol duty. I do not think that that is realistic, particularly given the budget deficit, but I think that beer has been particularly badly treated in recent years, to the extent that as the duty rises there is not the increase in tax take. We have reached the law of diminishing returns.
Finally, I hope that all parties will support the idea that there should be a lower rate of duty on draught beer, which would help pubs. When I was a boy, the difference between the price of beer in the pub and in the supermarkets was about 2:1, whereas today it is about 7:1. The European Union is reviewing the duty regime and it would be possible to argue that it might allow member states to have a lower rate of duty on draught beer in the same way as smaller producers of beer have a lower rate of duty.
It is worth noting that alcohol consumption is going down in our society. Some alcohol education is beginning to work. It is interesting to note that the National Union of Students is now pushing something called "social norm" education. That terrible phrase probably comes from the United States, but the basic idea is that getting drunk does not lead to social success and that the opposite is true. A lot of student unions are doing very good work and it is beginning to have an impact on alcohol consumption.
Licensing law reform has, on the whole, worked in our country. I do not think that anybody would want to go back to the magistrates' taking charge of licensing. Local councils are much closer to where the problems lie. They have the powers to intervene and are much better at forging partnerships with publicans and so on than the magistrates ever were. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins)-I think that the idea of going back to 11 o'clock closing is not one that any main political party is likely to advocate as we go into the next election.
The Licensing Act 2003 is a good base from which to take other measures and I think that minimum pricing is one of the measures whose time has probably come. An awful lot of the industry supports it-Molson Coors points to the experience in Canada and is not opposed to the idea. Many others, as the debate takes shape, will come out and argue the case. The issue will be near the top of the agenda in the next Parliament.
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I do not intend to detain the House for long. Let me start by apologising to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the Chairman of the Health Committee, the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), for coming late to the debate, but I have been able to follow most of it from a monitor. Given the Chairman's lack of complaint about his own colleagues appearing and intervening in the debate, I suspect that his concern with me is not that I am contributing to it after having arrived late, but simply that he will not agree with what I am about to say. I am afraid that I am going to disappoint him again.
The report is certainly a useful contribution to the debate on addiction-not, unfortunately, on addiction to alcohol, but on this Government's and the Health Committee's addiction to the nanny state. They have already helped to dismantle the pub and club industry with their smoking ban. Pubs are closing at the rate of 50 a week-many because of the ban on smoking in public places-and the same fate is being felt by many clubs, such as working men's clubs. It seems that the Health Committee, not satisfied with dismantling the pub and club industry, now wishes to direct its fire in other areas, such as at cinemas and commercial broadcasters, to try to close down those industries. Many sports will also be adversely affected if its recommendations are introduced.
All that would not be so bad if I thought that, in the end, if after all the Committee's recommendations were introduced, its members would say that they were satisfied. The problem, however, as with all these matters, is that the report panders to the zealots in society who are never satisfied. I guarantee that if all the recommendations were introduced, Committee members would, within a few months at most, come back with further recommendations because the previous ones had not gone far enough. This lobby is impossible to satisfy.
Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con):
My hon. Friend is making a typically robust contribution to this important debate. Does he agree that we should focus not just on the very narrow issue of alcohol pricing, but on the regulatory framework for pubs, given that hundreds of pubs have closed in the past few years for the reasons that he mentions? Does he agree that the kind of community
resource that would have fostered sensible and responsible drinking within the community is disappearing? We need to consider that context and not just the narrow parameters of supermarket alcohol pricing.
Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is right. I commend to him much of the speech of the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland), who made a number of telling points about the importance of pubs in local communities. I, too, would be happy to take up an invitation to the Otley festival, and I know that he comes along to the Saltaire festival in my constituency.
The problem with the political classes generally, particularly in this House, is that when they are faced with a problem-there is no doubt that there is a problem with excessive drinking of alcohol-the solution that they propose has to be constituted of two particular themes. The first ingredient in any solution that politicians propose is that it must show that they are doing something; they have to be seen to be doing something. The second ingredient, which we always see, is that the proposal must not offend anyone and must be superficially popular. Once again, that approach applies to many of the recommendations, most of which would not make a blind bit of difference to excessive or under-age alcohol consumption.
I was particularly struck by the speech of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who made the best speech that I have ever heard in support of a Scottish Parliament. I have never been particularly in favour of it in the past, but now that I have heard that there are so many sensible people in the Scottish Parliament who oppose his zealous drive for minimum pricing, I think that is a strong argument for it. Perhaps if the Scottish Parliament were closed down, however, we could have some of those people down here and then we might have a more sensible debate.
Mr. McGovern: The hon. Gentleman mentioned the nanny state earlier, but Scotland is becoming something of a dictatorial state. Is he aware that the Scottish Executive are now saying that cigarettes cannot be advertised or put on the counter and even that sweets cannot be put on the counter because they might damage children's teeth? How much of a nanny state, or a dictatorial state, is that?
Philip Davies: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. My problem is that those are the sort of measures that his Government are keen to introduce as well. We appear to have a Dutch auction between the Scottish Executive and the Westminster Government as to who can introduce the biggest nanny state of all. I am afraid that both are going in completely the wrong direction. I agree with the sentiment behind his point, but I do not think that his Government are any less guilty than the Scottish Executive.
Kelvin Hopkins: It is clear that the hon. Gentleman and I come from polar opposite positions, but he is making the classic freedom speech. He is saying that we have the freedom to do what we want, without intervention from the state. The same speech will have been made against the breathalyser, crash helmets, the compulsory wearing of seat belts and a whole range of traffic regulations that are designed to save lives. Freedoms affect other people, not just the person exercising them.
Philip Davies: Those arguments have gone: we are debating alcohol now. I have a great deal of time and respect for the hon. Gentleman, but there is a problem with his logic. The argument appears to be-and the hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) seemed to be making it too, if I remember what he said correctly-that so many people die as a result of drinking alcohol every year that alcohol must be banned altogether. That is the logical conclusion of that approach, and I wonder whether it is in fact the agenda of the Health Committee or the hon. Members who make that point. If so, I would much prefer them to have the courage of their convictions. They should be prepared to stand up and tell their constituents that they want to ban them from drinking at all because it kills 40,000 people a year. However, if they are not prepared to go that far, I am afraid that all the measures that are considered to be so important are really just spitting in the wind.
Implementing these measures from the Health Committee will not lead to a huge reduction in the number of deaths, and I do not think that the Committee's members really think so either. All of this is just spitting in the wind, and I suspect that the measures are really a cover from the real agenda, which is to ban people from drinking alcohol altogether.
A great many people in the House seem to want to do nothing else but ban everyone from doing all the things that they themselves do not happen to like. I do not think that I was brought into politics for that. In fact, I am speaking today as a teetotaller: I do not even drink alcohol, but I very much defend the rights of those who do. People who want to enjoy drinking their alcohol responsibly should not have to pay extra on their supermarket shopping just because a few yobs cannot take their drink of an evening.
Today we have the incredible sight of members of the Labour party-of all parties-standing up one after the other to argue that some of the poorest people in their constituencies should be forced to pay more for their alcohol. We are talking about pensioners, or people on benefits or fixed incomes, who usually go to the cheapest supermarkets. That is what Labour Members seem to want, even though the overwhelming majority of people drink their alcohol perfectly reasonably and derive some pleasure from doing so.
What kind of party is it that claims to speak up for the poorest people in society yet tries to make those people pay more? The richest people in the country will not suffer from minimum pricing, because they can presumably afford to pay a bit more for their alcohol. They will not care. It is the poorest people in our constituencies who will suffer, yet Labour Members seem very happy to stand up, one after another, and speak in support of these proposals. Where did they lose their way? How did they lose their roots? Which people in this country do they represent now? They certainly do not speak up for the poorest people in their constituencies, or for the overwhelming majority of people who like to drink their alcohol in moderation.
Minimum pricing will not stop young people going into town centres on a Friday and Saturday night with the intention of getting bladdered-or whatever term is in current usage. The price is irrelevant, because those young people set out to get bladdered. They do not set out to spend £15 or £20 on a night, they set out to get absolutely drunk. Making decent people pay a bit more for their alcohol in supermarkets will not solve that.
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