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In response to points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) and the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor), the options-
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whether voluntary or mandatory-will cover the issuing of a pregnancy drinking warning. We very much want to see that happen, and will consider the best way of delivering it, to improve on what we have now. Under the current voluntary agreement, some 40 per cent. of labels already include such a warning, but we want to go a lot further.

Kelvin Hopkins: As I said earlier, we need public information notices in all licensed establishments-and, perhaps, public information films-to point out that alcohol damages foetuses.

Gillian Merron: My hon. Friend rightly draws my attention to that proposal. The important thing is to get the information to the right people in the right way, in order to make a difference. We are constantly striving to find new ways of doing that. The consultation on labelling is particularly important, because it reflects the fact that insufficient progress has been made under the voluntary agreement and that we want to go further.

The hon. Members for Poole and for Shipley (Philip Davies), and my hon. Friends the Members for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) and for Luton, North talked about advertising and sponsorship in different ways. The Advertising Standards Authority has recently consulted on the rules on alcohol advertising as part of a more general review, and it will publish its response in the coming months. Protecting children and young people is rightly a priority for the Government, but we also need to find evidence for any changes and ensure the proportionality of any controls. The ASA is considering a range of issues that will be relevant to this debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford talked about the sponsorship of TV programmes by alcohol companies. That is already covered by the broadcast code of advertising practice, and it is subject to the same rules that we have brought in on TV advertising. For example, alcohol advertising cannot take place alongside programmes that are popular with children. The sponsorship of sports events is self-regulated in a similar fashion through the Portman Group. We will keep all the rules on alcohol advertising under review, and we will be interested to see the results of the consultation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North and the hon. Member for Poole raised the issue of our relationship with the industry, and I know that the Select Committee report identifies that as a matter of concern. I do not believe, however, that the Government are unduly influenced by the alcohol industry. Our relationship is rather different: it is understood that the Government set policy, and also that, when possible, we work constructively with the industry to ensure that it meets its responsibilities. If we did not work together in that way, we would be denying the industry the responsibility that it knows it has in respect of the effects of its products. The hon. Member for Poole was keen to point out that the industry had recently agreed to fund the Drinkaware Trust, an independent charity that highlights the dangers of alcohol misuse. The industry has committed to paying £5 million a year for the next three years to support the trust.

Let me make it clear, however, that having a working relationship with the industry does not preclude us from taking action when necessary; nor does it drown
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out other voices. We continue to work closely with a wide range of other partners, including academics and members of the medical profession and the third sector. Most recently, we have worked closely on the Alcohol Effects campaign with the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and the Stroke Association, and I am grateful to those organisations for their contributions.

There has been a great deal of discussion on the important matter of pricing. Let me say at the outset that we believe pricing does matter, and we are already taking action on cheap alcohol. As I said earlier, we have used the mandatory code to ban the most irresponsible and harmful promotions from next month. They include the "all you can drink" offers, the dentists chairs, free drinks for women, and speed-drinking possibilities.

Action on alcohol pricing must of course be based on evidence. I note that the Select Committee report pays tribute to the quality of some of the Department's analysis, such as the review of the effects of alcohol pricing and promotion in 2008. The Home Office is researching the links between pricing, crime and commerce, and we are particularly concerned about the sale of alcohol at below the cost price, which has been raised a number of times in the debate.

Of course price is an issue and it is one that we continue to explore. I believe that a serious discussion on pricing is important because I want to ensure that we do what works.

Mr. Grogan: The Minister mentions below-cost selling; would banning such selling be a possible first measure?

Gillian Merron: It is too early to be drawn on an exact response, but I want to assure my hon. Friend that we understand the difficulty it creates and the need to address it. We are looking for the most appropriate way to deal with it, and the same applies to minimum pricing. I respect the views of a number of right hon. and hon. Members on that.

Specifically on minimum pricing, we want to know more about the impact it would have on the industry, about the effects of regional variations, the effect on particular social groups and individuals. It is also the case that we do not want to penalise those who drink responsibly, particularly at a time of economic difficulty. The issue is one that we look at, but it is not one on which we have reached the same conclusion as the Select Committee.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): When both parties tackled the problem of drink-driving, we attacked the drivers and said that their licences would be forfeited if they carried on with that behaviour, and they changed. What is the appropriate thing to say to people who abuse alcohol and behave violently or in an antisocial way in our town and city centres at night? Surely that should be the target of our debate.

Gillian Merron: That is an interesting point, but if the right hon. Gentleman had been in his place throughout the debate, he would have heard a whole range of discussion points. I would say that pricing took up a very substantial amount of our time, and that is what I am seeking to address now. I have already said several times that no one single measure can be taken to deal with the problems that the right hon. Gentleman identifies.

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Alcohol duty was mentioned by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley and my hon. Friends the Members for Wirral, West and for Selby (Mr. Grogan), to whose role as chairman of the all-party beer group I pay tribute. I have been pleased to be a part of its previous efforts.

I will of course raise the issue of alcohol duty with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. I am sure the House is well aware that alcohol duty rate decisions are indeed a matter for him and that the primary purpose of duty is to raise public funds for public finance purposes. It is also worth saying, however, that the decisions made in this regard draw on advice from other Departments, including the Department of Health in respect of the health harms from drinking and the Department for Children, Schools and Families in respect of the harms caused to children, and so forth. As I recently mentioned to the Select Committee, we have been pushing hard to ensure that health impact assessments are better considered across all Departments when decisions are being made.

The hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) asked a question about the European Court of Justice ruling on minimum pricing. There is no clear line from the judgment on the implications for alcohol, but I am happy to keep the hon. Lady informed and will let her know of any further developments.

Mr. McGovern: When my hon. Friend has her discussions with the Chancellor, will she ask him not to go down the road that the Scottish Executive seem determined to follow? Will she ask him not to raise the price of cheaper alcohol to take it out of the price range of people on low incomes while freezing the prices of more expensive alcohol such as Scotch whisky, thus ensuring that the rich can still afford to drink but the poor cannot?

Gillian Merron: What I am sure the Chancellor knows about are all matters Scottish in this connection, but I will certainly raise with him the points that have been made today.

I realise that there are concerns about licensing. That is why we listened and created new powers for local councillors, which came into effect on 29 January 2010. Those powers will make it quicker and easier for councillors to tackle problem premises by calling for a review to restrict or remove a licence without having to wait for police or local residents to complain. Local authorities already have extensive powers, but they are not always fully used. The Home Office has provided guidance on how to use the powers available.

The NHS can play a role in influencing decisions by working closely with the police and councils. It can also provide support for those who need it. When alcohol use develops into alcohol abuse, the NHS must be ready to help people to get better and get back on track. Understanding how local provision can change to match local needs means much smarter monitoring and better commissioning. When I visited the Lincolnshire drug and alcohol team in Newland, Lincoln, the staff and service users told me that Government investment had transformed the service, and I am sure that many Members throughout the House have heard similar accounts.

Two years ago, we created the first ever incentive for primary care trusts to prioritise alcohol services through the vital signs indicator, which tracks hospital admissions.
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The response from the NHS has been impressive. Two thirds of PCTs have adopted alcohol as a local indicator, including 46 of the 51 PCTs with the highest rates of alcohol-related hospital admissions. We have also created the alcohol improvement programme, which gives front-line staff the tools and guidance that they need to assess local needs and commission effective services.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Has the Minister considered the suggestion that people admitted to accident and emergency departments as a result of excessive consumption should be billed for the service that they receive?

Gillian Merron: We do not think that that would be a useful way of dealing with the challenge that we face, or that it would be in the spirit of the national health service. I am therefore unlikely to pursue the hon. Gentleman's suggestion.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): Another issue that arises, particularly in A and E departments, is violence against staff, often fuelled by alcohol. There have been precious few prosecutions of people who have assaulted staff. Has the Minister any plans to strengthen hospitals' powers?

Gillian Merron: Abuse of staff, whether physical or otherwise, is always unacceptable. We will continue to take all possible measures to tackle it, working with local NHS trusts.

The hon. Member for Wyre Forest made an important point about the role the NHS can play in helping to prevent health problems caused by alcohol by means of identification and brief advice. I am pleased to say that that is happening increasingly throughout the country.

It is well known that the earlier we can identify the people who drink too much, and the sooner we can provide even brief advice from GPs and hospitals, the more we can help people to reduce their drinking and improve their health, and in the end, of course, save lives. My Department is strongly encouraging the roll-out of such interventions through training and a directed and enhanced service that we have funded to the tune of about £8 million a year. It provides what could be described as a tap on the shoulder when people are at their most receptive, and is increasingly delivering excellent results.

Kelvin Hopkins: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way yet again. On this point about the health service and intervention, do health services, maternity services and GPs regularly and routinely give advice to mothers who are seeking to get pregnant or who are pregnant not to drink during pregnancy?

Gillian Merron: Indeed they do.

In drawing the debate to a conclusion, let me say that the scale of the challenge before us is clear. We know that there have been generational increases in consumption and harm, with 1 million of us regularly drinking more than we should. Hospital admissions caused by drink are rising and the latest estimates suggest that alcohol costs the NHS some £2.7 billion and causes at least 9,000 deaths every year.

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Anne Milton: I thank the Minister for giving way. I wanted to leave this intervention to the end, because I wanted to see whether she would mention public health. Does she not accept that public health budgets have been raided to fill short-term budgetary deficits? Until we ring-fence public money and do things differently on public health, we will not make any real progress.

Gillian Merron: No, I do not accept that. My whole speech has been devoted to the improvement of public health. This Government have invested more in the national health service than any Government and will continue our commitment to do so. We will have an NHS that is not only good at helping people to get over ill health but one that will continue to prevent ill health. That is the subject to which we have devoted ourselves today.

We have heard many interesting and varied arguments and I commend right hon. and hon. Members for the tone and content of their speeches and the range of issues that they have brought to today's debate. The one thing that we agree is that changing the drinking culture in our country is not something that we will achieve overnight. It will not be simple to achieve and we will not achieve it by a single approach.

By bringing together Government, communities, the third sector and industry we can educate and inform, create the right environment around alcohol and support those whose lives it has blighted. I believe that we are on the way and that the Health Committee's report will assist us still further.

4.47 pm

Mr. Barron rose-

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I shall call the right hon. Gentleman to speak as the Chair of the Committee, but he is aware of the time constraints that we are now under.

Mr. Barron: I am indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

With the leave of the House, I want to thank all the people who have taken part in the debate on the Select Committee's report. Someone said just a few minutes ago that we have not debated all aspects of the report. The report was not about finding solutions: if there were simple solutions to binge drinking and ill health owing to alcohol, we would not have those problems in our society. Clearly, we have tried to open up the whole issue.

I want to thank all Members who have taken part in the debate. It is true that the pricing of alcohol has been mentioned up by practically everybody. There might have been a consensus on minimum pricing-that is a start-but we think that even if a minimum price per unit of alcohol was introduced, other duties should be considered at the same time. The representatives on both Front Benches mentioned considering duty as a means of encouraging people to drink lesser strength
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alcohol, and that will be to the general good. Such types of duty have hardly moved for years, so I thank them for their support.

I have two further points to make. First, the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor), who is a member of the Committee, and two other speakers who intervened on the Minister, mentioned A and E. The hon. Gentleman said that he had had some students who had said that there should be a "three strikes and you're out" policy in A and E. If people go to A and E for a third time with an alcohol-related problem that has effectively been self-generated, the A and E should think about charging. I am not there yet on that point, but if hon. Members look at the Library note for this debate they will see that binge drinking or misuse of alcohol costs the national health service and therefore us as taxpayers £1.7 billion a year. The note states:

I do not think that my parents' generation argued for a national health service for it to become a comfort to people who act irresponsibly and expect taxpayers to pick them up off the street and pick up the bill for doing so. My hon. Friend the Minister will have heard me say these things before, and I say them as an individual, not necessarily as the Chair of the Health Committee.

The second point concerns EU competition policy, which has been discussed by Front Benchers on both sides. We looked at that issue in relation to introducing minimum prices per unit of alcohol, and we discovered that people often use it as an argument against minimum pricing. Clearly, the Scottish Government wanted to introduce minimum pricing in Scotland, but it does not look as though they can convince their Parliament to do so at this stage. They have considered the issue thoroughly and they strongly disagreed on this point, as our report states:

indeed, the Committee took evidence on that in France-

European Court of Justice

So there are public health exemptions from EU competition law. If Front Benchers are looking at that issue, I say to them that we should not shy away from making the changes if there could be a public health gain.

I was convinced by the evidence in the Sheffield report. Clearly, not everyone in this debate has been convinced by it, but this issue will not go away. At some stage we will have to take action, possibly on pricing, to restrict the availability of alcohol and to lower levels of consumption among many of our fellow citizens because those levels are harmful to their individual health.

Question deferred (Standing Order No. 54 (4)).

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