Alcohol pricing is of great concern to many MPs. The subject has been raised by Back Benchers on both sides of the House in recent Home Office, Health and Business questions, and it has been the subject of a number of early-day motions that received cross-party support.
Some say that alcohol misuse, with its related health and social problems, is a major problem in the United Kingdom, so it is right that we should debate how alcohol pricing can help to tackle it. A constituent of mine wrote to me recently, saying that politicians are too reactive and unwilling to offer leadership on difficult issues. The Conservative-led Government have certainly made a start on alcohol pricing, but it is a rather timid one. I hope they can be persuaded to be bold and to act swiftly. If they do not do so, precious lives may be lost and many lives blighted.
The British Medical Association has highlighted the staggering cost of alcohol abuse to the national health service, at £2.8 billion. The British Society of Gastroenterology says that a serious cost is attached to cheap booze, and the UK is now paying the price.
I requested this debate primarily because of my interest in public health, and I am glad to see the Home Office Minister and the shadow Minister here today. We all know that antisocial behaviour, fuelled by binge drinking, can blight our neighbourhoods; and many are affected in their own homes as a result of domestic violence and the breakdown of relationships.
"In Wales you are more likely to be assaulted by someone you know than anywhere else in the UK...alcohol plays a huge, huge role in it."
Similar findings were set out in the excellent report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, produced in the previous Parliament under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz); I am pleased to see him here today.
Figures released last week show that Wales has among the highest rates of death in the UK linked to alcohol. Over Christmas in my local area of Gwent, as a result of the Wales drink-drive campaign 95 people were found to be over the limit. Despite the snow and ice and the wind chill factor to be found at 1,200 feet-a time when most sober people would not dream of driving-some drivers were on the road and over the limit.
I raised this matter in the Christmas recess Adjournment debate and called on the Government for tougher action. A recent Alcohol Concern report showed that more than 92,000 children and young people under the age of 18 were admitted to hospital as a result of alcohol misuse between 2002 and 2009. Girls are more likely to need hospital treatment than boys. Furthermore, a university of Manchester study found that some young women were consuming more than a week's allowance of alcohol units in a single night. Excessive drinking leads them to take more risks, such as walking home alone when drunk, particularly after they have sampled a ladies "drink for free" promotion. Since 1970, we have seen a threefold increase in cirrhosis, but it is ninefold for those under the age of 45. The age at which people develop cirrhosis has been falling, and even teenagers are now developing liver failure.
The Welsh Assembly rightly wants to take effective action to help people in Wales, but points out that the main levers for making the most significant change remain with the Government, who have the power to legislate on price, licensing and advertising-the Government did not accede to the Welsh Assembly's request for alcohol licensing powers to be devolved.
Another problem is the so-called pocket-money priced alcohol on offer in supermarkets. That can undermine local pubs, which are generally places of responsible drinking. My dad was a publican after working as a steelworker, and before becoming a bread delivery man. Other Members will doubtless wish to elaborate on the negative effect that such pricing can have on pubs and the local community.
Before going any further, may I say that when seeking to reduce harmful drinking we must, in tandem, provide adequate funding for alcohol research, treatment and prevention programmes, with sufficient training for health professionals to detect and manage those who have alcohol misuse problems.
"The Government alone cannot improve public health; we need to use all the tools in the box."-[Official Report, 21 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 1351.]
The Government may be about to act-I give credit where it is due-but their proposed minimum price is too low. It covers only duty and VAT. As the National Retail Federation said, the Government's "duty plus VAT" definition woefully fails to cover the real cost of alcohol; 40p for a litre of cider can hardly be considered positive action. For me, it is the duty of Government to protect and promote the health of their citizens. I am unpersuaded by the concern expressed by the Wine and Spirit Trade Association that minimum pricing will hit responsible drinkers and hurt the poor the most. I cannot believe that responsible drinkers expect to get their alcohol at "duty plus VAT" prices, with no allowance for production or distribution costs.
"low alcohol prices means that responsible drinkers are subsidising the behaviour of the 25% of the population who are drinking at hazardous or harmful levels."
The effect of a minimum price on moderate drinkers will be low, as they consume less alcohol. If a 50p minimum price were introduced, it would mean an increase in spending on alcohol of less than 23p a week for a moderate drinker; but a heavy drinker could pay slightly more than £3 a week.
As for the poor being most affected by high prices, I cannot repeat too often that alcohol misuse costs us £2.8 billion. If we include the cost of crime and absenteeism from work, the bill would be much higher. The Government clearly need some more detailed research. We know that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, the British Medical Association, the Association of Chief Police Officers and others have called for a realistic minimum price for alcohol. How can the Government justify a minimum price for alcohol that covers only taxes but not the production and distribution costs? Will that really reduce binge drinking in our towns, particularly among vulnerable young women? Perhaps the Minister will tell us.
A spokesperson for the British Liver Trust said on BBC News 24 that the Government's proposal would save 21 lives a year. That is good, but I understand that research commissioned by the Department of Health demonstrates that a minimum unit price of 20p, 30p, 40p and 50p would prevent 30, 300, 1,300 and 3,300 deaths respectively.
Andrew Griffiths (Burton) (Con): The hon. Gentleman wishes to increase the price of alcohol on the supermarket shelves and discourage the unscrupulous pricing behaviour that has been displayed. However, one of the unintended consequences of minimum pricing is that it could skew the market and encourage people to drink spirits such as vodka, which is becoming an increasing problem among young drinkers.
Nick Smith: The point about discouraging young people is powerfully made, and I know that unintended consequences can be a problem. That is why we need more research. Having said that, I still think the price suggested by the Government is way too low.
Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): Is it not more likely that minimum pricing will encourage young people to drink responsibly in public houses, thus supporting the traditional pub industry and also providing a degree of supervision?
It is not surprising that the former chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, has called for a 50p minimum price per unit, as it is estimated that it could save 3,300 lives a year. Does not a proposal from such an eminent source, with a distinguished record of public service, merit serious consideration?
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP):
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, along with the clear need to increase the price of alcohol, we need an education strategy from the Department of Health, perhaps to shock people into realising what would happen to them? Many who imbibe unfortunately end up with liver polyps
at an early age. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, along with the need for an education strategy from the Department of Health, we need a concerted campaign from the supermarkets?
As yet, no legislative plans have been put before Parliament to implement the Government's half-measure to end below-cost selling. None is included in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill that is currently in Committee. Will the Minister tell us how the Government intend to introduce their proposal? Will we have legislation now, or action in the Budget? Some more details would be helpful. Moreover, the Minister has said that the Government will consider the rate of duty on super-strength lagers, but how long will that take?
In opposition, the Conservatives promised to call time on drinks that fuel antisocial behaviour. The Government know that there is a clear link between the price of alcohol and the harms associated with alcohol, but they are too timid to tackle the matter. They are concerned that everyone will be penalised if realistic minimum pricing is introduced. As I said earlier, that argument does not hold water.
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I apologise for being late, Mr Sheridan. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. The research papers on this issue say that two thirds of the public believe that drinking in Britain is out of control. In my constituency, the fact that children as young as 10 can easily access alcohol is destroying lives. In my own business, in respect of which I declare an interest, a 16-year-old was recently diagnosed as being an alcoholic.
I am concerned that cinemas promote alcohol because young people can be easily influenced in such places. Alcohol marketing creates new young drinkers, many of whom, unfortunately, think it cool to drink in excess. We have to teach them how to enjoy a drink, as many of us do, without drinking too much. Therefore, more regulation may be necessary. France, for example, bans drink advertisements both in the cinema and on TV. It also has a great rugby team who play with real élan.
Finally, we have developed a culture in our country in which alcohol and sport go too easily together. We all remember the days when John Player sponsored cricket and Embassy sponsored snooker and darts. It is salutary to reflect on the fact that some of our greatest sports personalities, such as George Best and Alex Higgins, have fallen foul of too much drink.
We need a major cultural change, and out sports administrators should note the contradiction in alcohol sponsorship of sport and their primary goal of promoting sporting success and physical well-being for us all.
Watching the Heineken cup and having a pint is one of life's pleasures, but it would still be a great tournament if it was sponsored by another industry and drinking in moderation was seen as cool by young people.
Andrew Griffiths (Burton) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on securing this hugely important debate. We all see the consequences of drinks pricing in our high streets and A&E departments, so I pay tribute to him for recognising the importance of this issue.
I am the vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary beer group and the MP for Burton. I am proud to say that Burton is the home of British beer. We have Carling Black Label, Marston's Pedigree and Punch Taverns, which is the biggest pub company in the country. The Minister has been incredibly generous with his time. He has met members of the all-party parliamentary beer group, the Save the Pub group and the Campaign for Real Ale group. He has met the brewers and the pub owners and taken time to listen to the concerns and issues that so many of them face, and I thank him for that. I also thank him for recognising that pricing in the supermarkets is dangerous and is having an impact on our young people and on society. As a Government, it is important that we take action to tackle the problem. I doubt whether there is anybody in this Chamber who finds it acceptable for supermarkets to use alcohol as a loss leader or as a giveaway to get people through the supermarket tills, yet that is what we are seeing daily.
I am glad that this Government have had the determination and confidence to produce legislation that, for the first time, not only recognises that cheap booze is a problem for society but sets out to do something about it. Sadly, though, like Oliver in "Oliver Twist", I have to say, "Please, Sir, can I have some more?" None of us here believes that the price level that has been set, although well intentioned, will have a massive effect on drinking behaviour, particularly among young people.
It is interesting to put the whole matter into context. In 1987, the price of a pint of lager in the pub was £1, and in an off-licence 70p. By 2010, the pub figure had gone up to £3 and the off-licence figure had stayed pretty much the same at about £1. We have seen prices in pubs increase by more than prices in off-licences over that period.
Mrs Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): I recently met the chair of one of the local working men's clubs in my constituency. After a debate about whether or not the club should allow in women, about which we did not agree, we spoke about the pricing of alcohol. The club is concerned about the pricing issue. It believes that aggressive, cheap offers from supermarkets and corner shops are a big attack on its very survival. Historically, working men's clubs are a key part of social life, particularly in the north-east, and we need to have that at the front of our minds when we consider minimum pricing levels.
If the hon. Lady would like to come to Rolleston working men's club in my constituency, she will be welcomed with open arms and provided with alcohol in a safe and regulated environment. We all recognise that the pub and the working men's club provide a safe, regulated environment in which people can enjoy a pint or a glass of wine and interact socially. They are the social hub of our communities. Unfortunately, supermarkets' pricing and their use of alcohol as a loss leader is making it almost impossible for our pubs and
clubs to compete. As a result, we have seen the shift in drinking behaviour. As I am sure that the Minister is aware, 70% of all alcohol is sold through the supermarkets. If we go back 20 years, the difference in the sale of beer between pubs and off-licences was 80:20; now, it is 50:50. We are seeing supermarkets constantly eroding pub sales.
Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman is dealing with a very important point that relates to the social issue associated with drinking. I am talking about parents who may be buying alcohol regularly from the supermarkets at a very low price. Poor parenting skills can result, which will lead to parents having problems at home with their children. That is a hidden issue that results from the pricing policy, and it needs to be resolved.
Andrew Griffiths: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. However, there are those who say, "Why should we penalise someone who wants to buy a 24-pack of strong lager and take it home and drink one can a night for 24 days? Why should we penalise that?" The reality, however, is different. The clients at the Burton addiction centre in my constituency will talk about the impact that cheap booze has on fuelling people's drinking consumption.
Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): My hon. Friend seems to be against these loss-leaders. Would he outlaw loss-leaders for chocolate, salt, butter and other things that are not good for us if we take them in excess?
Andrew Griffiths: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. However, I cannot remember the last time I was on Burton high street and saw two guys knocking seven bells out of each other over a Toblerone. I also cannot remember the last time I was in Queen's hospital A and E and doctors were pumping somebody's stomach because they had overdosed on too much butter. The reality is that alcohol is a very different beast from things such as chocolate.
Mr Chope: Surely the issue is not whether alcohol is distinct from other products, but the use made of it by the people who consume it. Is my hon. Friend not in danger of victimising people, particularly poor families, who benefit from these loss-leaders? He is trying to put forward the argument that, by penalising those poor families, he will tackle the problem of binge drinking, which I do not think he will.
Andrew Griffiths: I recognise my hon. Friend's concern, but the people we are penalising are the taxpayers, who have to pay for the consequences of binge drinking through the costs of extra policing and the impacts on A & E departments. Furthermore, if I am being brutally honest it is those poor families who suffer most as a result of cheap alcohol. Young people and poor families are much more price-sensitive to alcohol than others.
Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Surely there is a more basic problem. The nation's increasing addiction to alcohol is placing a huge strain upon the NHS-£2.7 billion a year. Surely we are talking on many occasions about treating the consequences of alcohol-related harm, rather than taking early action to prevent alcohol problems.
Andrew Griffiths: The hon. Gentleman gets right to the nub of the problem. I think we all recognise that a pub or a club is a supervised environment in which people can safely consume alcohol. When I was a young man, many was the time when I might have had a half of lager too much, or a half of Marston's Pedigree too much, and somebody-my parents, my friends or somebody else a bit older and wiser than me-might have said, "Right, son, you've had enough, it's time to go home", or the barman might have said, "I'm sorry, sir, I'm not serving you any more, you've had too much". However, the reality now is that too many young people are drinking to excess in an unsupervised manner.
The real problem is not only the price disparity. In recent years, there has been a massive increase in the regulatory burden placed on pubs and clubs-the smoking ban, for example-and a constant increase in the amount of red tape and supervision associated with dealing with the consequences of binge drinking. Actually, in many cases the pub only sells the last pint, because young people in particular are "pre-loading" before going out. When they get to the pub-increasingly, at later times in the evening-they are half-cut and the pubs have to deal with the consequences of that, including the fights and other problems. The danger is that we are loading too much of the burden on to pubs, when actually the supermarkets are driving a lot of this antisocial behaviour.
The previous Government did a lot of work with publicans to prohibit the "two for one" offer, the "happy hour" and the "drink as much as you can for a tenner" promotions that were fuelling excessive drinking. The pub industry, working with Government, took action to try to prevent those promotions-and yet it is perfectly okay for someone to buy a 24-pack of Stella or another strong lager from a supermarket. There are no restrictions on that.
Supermarkets are using beer as a loss-leader. We have seen the impact that supermarkets have had on milk and the dairy market through driving down the price of milk. They are doing the same with bread, and now they are using alcohol as a loss-leader. That is very dangerous and is sending out completely the wrong message to young people.
I thank the Minister very much for what the Government have done so far, but it is not enough. We need to go further. What we are all hoping for is some recognition today that this is the first step on a journey. The Minister will himself admit that if we agree that cheap alcohol is a problem, the question must arise, "How cheap is too cheap?" Is he honestly saying that he thinks we have got to where we need to get to on alcohol pricing, when we are still selling cider at 20p a can, beer at 38p a can and wine at £1.99?
If the Government and the Minister's intentions are to be delivered, any solution must lead to an increase in the price of alcohol on the supermarket shelf. We need the Minister to take that idea forward and drive it home. I know that, like me, he has been frustrated that, with below-cost selling, we have not yet been able to find a solution that satisfies both the lawyers in Brussels and the industry here. I hope that today, he will issue another declaration to the industry, asking it to come forward with ideas on a meaningful definition of below-cost selling that includes the cost of production, so that we
can see an increase in the price of alcohol on supermarket shelves and begin to tackle some of the supermarkets' deeply dangerous activities.
Jim Sheridan (in the Chair): Order. Several right hon. and hon. Members have indicated that they wish to speak. It is my intention to call the Front-Bench spokesmen from 10.30 am, so I ask speakers to take that into consideration when they make their contributions.
Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to be present in a debate under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan, and to follow the hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), who made an eloquent and thoughtful speech.
I think that this is going to be a great debate. It will also provide a lot of information for political diarists. We have already heard this morning about butter-related crime, or the possibility of butter-related crime, from the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope); we have heard the hon. Member for Burton offer the working men in his constituency the prospect of welcoming my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman) with open arms, and we have also heard about the Minister's various meetings with beer groups, of which I am sure there are many, although some will think that the Minister, with his youthful good looks, might not even be old enough to drink.
Having said that, this is a very serious issue and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) for choosing it for a debate. It has attracted so many right hon. and hon. Members to Westminster Hall on a Wednesday morning, each one of whom has a constituency interest and a desire to ensure that we continue to move in the right direction.
Other Members here will be able to talk about the health aspects of the issue, for example, hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who has vast experience in the NHS. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent and the hon. Member for Burton both mentioned the cost of binge drinking to our health service and the health of the nation.
In the next few minutes, I want to concentrate on alcohol-related crime and the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, "Policing in the 21st Century", to which my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent referred. That report was published last year and it addressed the cost to the taxpayer and to the public of alcohol-related crime. When our Committee began the inquiry that led to that report, we were looking at what a police officer did with his or her time; we never intended to look at alcohol-related crime. It was only after we had visited a number of town centres, including Colchester, that we did so. The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who was then a member of the Committee, invited the Committee to visit Colchester and hear from local police officers there about the amount of time that they spent on alcohol-related crime, especially on a Friday or Saturday evening. The latest estimate is that 70% of police officers feel that they are distracted from other aspects of policing because they are dealing with alcohol-related crime.
A statistic was sent to the Committee from the Cabinet Office showing that it costs £59 extra to process someone in a police station who has been arrested because of alcohol-related crime. In the current climate, the Government want to save money on policing, and there is no better way of doing that than to have responsible laws that reduce the time that police officers spend on this issue.
Mr Chope: I do not think that anyone will disagree with the right hon. Gentleman about the problem, but how will limiting the price at which supermarkets sell alcohol be the solution? We know from our constituencies that it is alleged that small shops, where alcohol is sold at a much higher price than at the supermarkets, enable young people under the legal age to access booze.
Keith Vaz: I have huge respect for the hon. Gentleman because he was my Greater London councillor when I was in Richmond many years ago. I have always had a great deal of time for what he says, but I think that he is wrong on this issue. It is not the little shops or the pubs, but the supermarkets, that cause the problem. The evidence is clear, and it is in our report. As the hon. Member for Burton has pointed out, people get tanked up before they go out on a Saturday night, because of supermarkets' special offers, which make beer cheaper than bottled water, even the cheapest water-I am not saying that we should not drink tap water.
Mrs Chapman: I do not know where the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope)lives, but where I live I have noticed that small shops are actually becoming supermarkets, and those Tesco Metros and Sainsbury's Locals have the same cut-price promotions on alcohol, which occupies a larger proportion of shelf or floor space than it does in a larger store. Such stores are taking over territory that we might like to see remain with small local traditional shops.
Keith Vaz: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She tries to tempt me down Leicester high street, especially the Melton road, where we are currently fighting an application by Tesco to build one of its supermarkets in the middle of one of my main shopping areas.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent mentioned the cost to the health service, but the cost to the taxpayer as far as crime is concerned is £7.3 billion a year-a huge amount. What do we do about that? It is in the hands of the Minister. At the last Home Office questions, I got up to praise the Home Secretary for moving in the right direction. We could not get the previous Government to do this; I do not know why. It is not that they were not concerned about the matter-I think that they were worried about alcohol-related crime and the pressure on the health service-but that the debate perhaps got distracted by claims that somehow the extension of licensing hours meant that people were drinking more alcohol. I do not think that that is correct, but as someone who does not drink alcohol, and has no constituency interest-no distilleries or production units-I feel that the previous Government should have taken up the Select Committee's recommendations. This Government are moving in the right direction, but not far enough, as I think we will find from the contributions of most Members here this morning.
Some would say that the hon. Member for Burton has the most to lose because of the production in his town. I have visited Burton and been to the Coors headquarters there. It is a remarkable town, and the world centre of beer making, but down the high street there is an alcohol addiction centre-how very convenient. The people I visited made the case for minimum pricing, so if they can do that, we can look at the issue very seriously. There is something of a practical nature that the Minister can do, picking up on what the hon. Member for Gainsborough said.
What the Minister needs to do is to get the chairmen and chief executives of the five biggest supermarkets around the table for an alcohol-free sandwich lunch with both him and the Home Secretary, to discuss the issues. It is in their hands; they can do this.
Dr McCrea: Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that if we are going to make a difference, the Government need to confront not only the supermarket low prices, but the non-stop availability of alcohol and the saturation of its advertising?
I shall end here, because so many other Members wish to contribute. The Government are moving in the right direction, but they have not accepted all the Select Committee's recommendations. I make a plea to the Government to get those supermarkets together-that is in their hands-and I say to the Minister, "Do not be afraid." I know that supermarkets are powerful organisations; we face them in our constituencies, and some of our constituents actually shop at them-I do. The fact is, however, that on this issue we need to make progress, and it needs to be now.
I shall try to keep my comments brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on securing this important and timely debate, after the Government's recent welcome announcement. I speak today as chair of the all-party save the pub group. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is a member, but if he is not, we would certainly be delighted to have him, particularly now that we know he is from a publican family.
I welcome the Government's announcement, which is in itself a significant step that should be recognised. This debate has gone on for a long time, and I am pleased that the Government have acted quickly in the first year of this parliamentary term. Having said that,
there are frustrations that my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) and I have expressed, both privately and publicly. I echo my hon. Friend's comments about the Minister having being generous with his time and having sought to listen to people with an interest in pubs, and many others. He is right to do so, because that is a good way to make policy. However, I share the frustration, as do the majority of the all-party group members, that what the Government have done has not stopped below-cost selling. I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not support per unit minimum pricing. That is where the difference of opinion lies, and that is the challenge facing the Government.
Minimum pricing is not the way to solve the problems. As a Front-Bench Liberal Democrat health spokesperson, I said in a debate that minimum pricing is only part of the solution to two problems. The first is alcohol abuse, and it is important that we concentrate on "alcohol abuse" rather than on rather arbitrary terms such as "binge drinking," because some of the definitions are confusing. We are talking about problem drinking, which is drinking that leads to health problems, antisocial behaviour or crime, and that is what we all, as policy makers, should concentrate on.
The second problem is the situation facing pubs and the huge discrepancy that has developed over the past few years. We have to accept that minimum pricing is not a silver bullet to solve either of those problems, but I have heard people both inside and outside this House suggest that it is. Such problems are not solved so simply. Year-on-year duty increases, particularly on beer, have done nothing whatsoever to stop the problems and, in fact, as the duty has increased the culture of alcohol-fuelled antisocial behaviour has got worse.
I highlight to the Minister, because I know that he is interested in the issue, that there is a conversation that he needs to have with his colleagues in the Treasury. May I make a plea? We do not want another duty rise in the forthcoming Budget, because it will damage pubs further. The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent was absolutely right that well-run pubs and working men's clubs that serve as hubs for their communities not only provide regulated, controlled places for people to enjoy alcohol responsibly in a supervised atmosphere but create a different culture of enjoying alcohol in a community setting, generally with people of all ages. That leads to a different approach to alcohol and prevents some of the problems identified by the Select Committee Chair, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), including pre-loading and under-age drinking in parks and unsupervised settings such as houses where parents are out, which is where many problems occur.
The duty question is more interesting still. Who pays duty? It is not the supermarkets. That is one of the huge flaws in the argument for a rise in duty. Duty is paid by manufacturers and producers, which includes not only Coors in Burton but WharfeBank Brewery in my constituency. Breweries must pay duty on the 20th day of the month of invoice. It is a considerable payment for some of them, but when supermarkets buy beer from breweries, including small breweries on tight margins, they do not pay them for months, often for three months and sometimes longer. As usual, supermarkets exploit their dominant market share.
Andrew Griffiths: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Coors, a fine brewer in my constituency, has extended the terms on which it pays its suppliers from 30 days to 90 days. It is having a considerable impact, particularly on small businesses.
Why would supermarkets not welcome either a genuine ban on below-cost selling, which I support, or a minimum price per unit, which other hon. Members support? Those approaches would increase their revenue, but they sell cheap alcohol for other reasons. Let us face it: supermarkets have virtually destroyed the stand-alone off-licence trade in this country. Names such as Threshers disappeared some time ago. We must remember that pubs, working men's clubs, stand-alone off-licences and corner shops cannot sell alcohol below cost, because they rely on a reasonable margin on alcohol for their profits. There is something more sinister going on. Below-cost selling is a way to attract people into stores and maintain supermarkets' power over manufacturers, some of which, unlike Coors, are too small to argue. That situation is causing a problem.
I accept that the issue is difficult, but we must come up with a definition of below-cost selling that includes the cost of production. I realise that we are on the first step, and I accept that the issue is difficult to define, but to say that below-cost selling simply involves tax suggests that supermarkets buy alcohol for nothing. They might take a long time to pay, but they clearly pay something. The price that they pay is often unreasonable, exactly as it is for the milk that they purchase from dairy farmers, but there is nevertheless a price. It cannot be impossible to include in the equation the price that the supermarkets must pay. That is the challenge, and I look forward to working with the Minister on it over time.
I accept some of the concerns aired by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). This is not about social engineering, moralising or saying that we should not sometimes welcome a reasonable deal and the chance to get a couple of pounds off a bottle of wine in a supermarket. Indeed, many people are concerned that if we set a high minimum price, that chance would disappear. There would also be other unintended consequences. For example, apart from increasing supermarket revenues, which is surely perverse, it could have the surprising effect of pushing up the price of a bottle of wine that currently costs £3.50 and is not worth more than that, and making good bottles of wine more expensive, which is not what any of us want. People should be allowed to enjoy alcohol sensibly without sudden unacceptable inflationary pressures.
I am concerned to stop the irresponsible selling of alcohol, which I am glad to say has been largely stamped out in the on trade but is, sadly, still alive and well, particularly in supermarkets. The Government have made a good start, but they can go further. I know that the Minister is listening, and I look forward to working with him and his team to close the unacceptable gap that has done so much damage to pubs, which are part of the solution to problem drinking, and to do something-we must recognise that it is only something-to deal with the problems associated with alcohol abuse that other hon. Members have rightly discussed.
Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con): I am delighted to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on securing this important debate. As vice-chair of the all-party group on alcohol misuse, I believe that this is an incredibly important issue for all hon. Members, and I welcome the Government's commitment to tackling the serious issue of alcohol abuse. The proposal to introduce a minimum price for alcohol is undoubtedly a small step in the right direction, although I say that having listened to the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), who says the opposite.
I want to say clearly and early in my contribution that minimum pricing is just one aspect of what must be done to deal with increasing dependency on alcohol. I look forward to future statements by the Government on their alcohol strategy. In my view, treatment and rehabilitation services in this country are poor, availability is limited and service is disjointed across agencies. Little is done to help individuals and families ripped apart by alcoholism. The availability of cheap alcohol has undoubtedly encouraged the kind of drinking and antisocial behaviour that blights town centres each weekend. A culture, which is exclusive in many respects to British streets, has emerged in which it is fashionable to drink more than one is capable of. As a consequence, ill health and antisocial behaviour have become common.
The cost to the NHS of alcohol-related harm resulting from that culture is alarming. The statistics are well known, but one indication of strain on the NHS can be seen in the proxy services dedicated to treating binge drinkers. An SOS bus patrols Medway towns on Friday and Saturday nights, providing services to inebriated revellers. I visited it recently, albeit early in the evening, as I did not particularly want to see the consequences of heavy drinking. The dedicated volunteers are amazing and divert pressure away from the blue-light services, keeping vulnerable and very drunk youngsters safe. I certainly intend to try to protect that service during these financially constrained times, but it is a sad indictment of our weekend drinking culture that it is needed in the first place.
On minimum pricing, evidence points to a link between cost and sales. The theory is, obviously, that as cost rises, demand will fall. That might be a basic economic mechanism, and in principle it should make minimum alcohol pricing an effective policy for driving down dangerous levels of alcohol consumption, but the decision to set the base at the low rate of duty plus VAT is clearly controversial, and it remains to be seen whether it will work.
I share the concerns expressed by colleagues and others that such a policy will do little to help our beleaguered public houses, which must now compete with supermarkets rather than each other. I was interested to hear the price statistics quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), but I do not believe that the proposal will help tackle long-term alcohol dependency. It will be a small step in the right direction, if its aim is solely to clamp down on aspects of binge drinking such as pre-loading, which other hon. Members have discussed and the sole motivation of which is keeping the costs of a night out to minimum.
Most leave their homes already very drunk, which prompts the question why they are allowed to continue consuming alcohol in licensed premises having already drunk enough before they arrive. As others have pointed out in this debate and others, one of the good things about public houses is that responsible landlords tend to prevent overly drunk and disorderly behaviour by stepping in and refusing to serve those whom they believe have had enough to drink.
As my hon. Friend, drawing on his experience, has pointed out, minimum pricing will, in theory, abolish the deep discounting that encourages that kind of drinking, thus equalising the cost of a night out and driving down alcohol consumption. However, the low minimum price proposed will only stop the very worst cases of discounting, and it may play out differently in practice. Therefore, bolder proposals should still be considered, targeting specific drinks associated with binge drinking, such as strong lagers, white ciders and alcopops.
It is important that we in this Chamber give credit where it is due. I was pleased to learn that Heineken, which produces White Lightning, recently discontinued the product due to its binge-drinking connotations. It should be commended for acknowledging the need to reinforce its stance on responsible drinking.
We must consider the limited scope of the policy and the likelihood that it will make headway only with a certain type of drinker. There is a growing dependency culture, and it is often hidden behind the closed doors of houses throughout the country. They are difficult to identify and affluent enough to absorb any increase in price, especially something as low as duty plus VAT. However, just because the minimum price does not impact upon them directly, that does not make them any less of a concern or any less dependent on alcohol and at risk of serious health issues in years to come. Current research reinforces that concern, because wealthy districts dominate the top of hazardous-drinking league tables. Although minimum pricing will target the binge drinkers who do it on the cheap, it is clear that it will do little to tackle alcohol dependency as a whole.
I appreciate that the Government have to balance their strategy of introducing a policy that meets their stated aims of reducing dangerous levels of alcohol consumption while not penalising the vast majority who enjoy alcohol sensibly. The question is: does this minimum price do that?
The pricing of alcohol is only part of the problem. It must be introduced in conjunction with a review of the late-night licences available to establishments, stricter alcohol-control zones and a close examination of the quality of treatment and rehab offered to those with a high dependency.
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): Will the hon. Lady join me in congratulating the Scottish Health Minister, who introduced a price structure in relation to vodka last September? As has been mentioned, the minimum price used to be £7.97, but it is now £11.81 under the new structure, which also applies to some beers. We encourage all the regions, including the Northern Ireland Assembly, to do the same.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I have read about the new proposals in Scotland, which are currently being debated. We should
look at what is happening in Scotland. Indeed, we should have looked at what was happening there in relation to the 24-hour drinking culture before it was introduced here. The evidence that the police had gathered in Scotland should have been made available to the previous Government before they introduced the licensing extension.
In conclusion, we need to engage with the professional classes and young adults who regularly drink to hazardous levels, and target those establishments that prop up the binge-drinking culture through irresponsible sales and business practices. If we can in any way reduce the weekend strain on the NHS, the police and the local authorities that clear up the mess created by binge drinking, we can certainly hail this as a small step in the right direction. However, in order to reduce dependency on alcohol across the board and to stem the devastating effects that it has on the lives of individuals and families, let alone its financial cost to society, so much more needs to be done.
I enjoy real beer and good wine, and support a traditional pub. One of the most enjoyable experiences of my early career as an MP was to open Bragdy Mws Piws, which, for those present who are not blessed with the Welsh language, is the Purple Moose Brewery in Porthmadog. I commend its excellent products.
Alcohol is a problem, and I need not go into much detail because many hon. Members have already done so. I was a psychiatric social worker for eight years and I would like to talk about three cases that I came across during that time. First, I once went to a club near Blaenau Gwent and had to drag one of my colleagues out at lunch time because he had been drinking a pint of cloudy scrumpy that retailed at 8p a pint. Its effects on him were dreadful. Of my second example, I need only say that the person in question was an alcoholic roofer-I need not spell out the consequences. The third, and most tragic, case relates to an elderly man with whom I worked with a noted local psychiatrist, Dr Dafydd Alun Jones, who has had a long career in the field. The elderly man had had a lifetime of heavy drinking and he was abstinent at that time, but occasionally he would have what he called "lapses" when he would go out and drink heavily for a few days, which he would then regret at his leisure.
Huge efforts have been made to combat the effects of alcohol. My constituency of Arfon has CAIS, the local alcohol and drugs council. Interestingly, a couple of weeks ago I went out with the Bangor Street Pastors, a local voluntary group that goes out on Fridays and Saturdays at 1, 2 and 3 o'clock in the morning to help vulnerable young people who are clearly worse for wear due to alcohol. The volunteers back up the emergency services, and the police appreciate what they do. I talked with the police when I was out a couple of weeks ago, and they pointed out the effects on their work of having to be out at 2 and 3 o'clock in the morning when their shift pattern did not really allow for it.
The hon. Gentleman referred to some of the Welsh statistics. I will not detain the Chamber with too many, but Alcohol Concern Cymru estimates that there are 13,000 alcohol-related hospital admissions and 1,000 alcohol-related deaths in Wales each year. It also estimates that half the violent incidents in Wales are related to alcohol and that the cost of alcohol misuse to the NHS in Wales is between £70 million and £85 million a year, and that is just for treatment by accident and emergency services. That is a huge cost to public services, but it does not reflect the pain, grief and intense stress that many families, not just the drinker, experience.
England has similar statistics, but I will not go into them now, other than to say that it is estimated that 17 million working days are lost per annum. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) has left the Chamber, because that is one of the definite effects on trade and industry, about which I know he is concerned. The cost of alcohol-related crime in England is £4.7 billion a year.
As has been mentioned, the Scottish Government have tried to act. They commissioned research that showed that a minimum price per unit of alcohol of 40p could reduce alcohol-related deaths in Scotland by 70 in the first year, rising to 370 a year after 10 years, so there would be a cumulative effect.
Many of the arguments are in favour of addressing the price issue. I welcome the Government's proposals to prevent retailers from selling alcohol below duty plus VAT, and I am glad that they accept the arguments about the effect of cheap drink and the need to act.
"no meaningful impact on the health consequences of alcohol misuse."
I do not know whether that is the case, but the Government should look at the matter further. A minimum unit price is not a silver bullet, as I think everybody recognises. We need concerted action on several fronts, including on licensing hours and the number of outlets. When I first started drinking many years ago, very few places sold alcohol. It now seems that every corner shop or garage has alcohol for sale.
I conclude by noting briefly that my party, Plaid Cymru, is in favour of a minimum price of 50p per unit. That is also the policy of the Welsh Assembly Government. We argue that such an approach would reduce consumption and lead to a lower consumption of very strong drinks. That would have a particular effect on young people. Someone asked earlier about the temptation to drink vodka if there were a minimum price. My knowledge of young people unfortunately shows that they need no encouragement to drink vodka; they seem to do it without any encouragement whatsoever.
As I said, the argument in my party also centres on the beneficial effects on the traditional pub. In the past, we have asked for pub licensing to be devolved. That came up when discussing the previous Government's changes to the licensing scheme. The Welsh Government have asked for the rights to impose a minimum price per unit but, unfortunately, that has been refused. I therefore ask the Minister in the long term-I do not expect to
have an answer from him this morning-to reconsider the devolution of licensing powers to the Welsh Government and the refusal to allow the Welsh Government to set a minimum price.
Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD): I am conscious of the time, so I will not delay hon. Members by going through some of the statistics on the type of harm that alcohol is causing in my constituency-they are firmly on the record. That is particularly the case in Newquay, where many people go to have a very good time-often too much of a good time. I should put an interest on record. Like many hon. Members, I enjoy a drink from time to time, and I also have a brewery in my constituency in St Austell.
For the Minister's benefit, I want to touch on one of the potentially unintended effects of the duty plus VAT regime that the Government are introducing. When the Minister introduced the policy, he said that it was "an important first step." I agree with that, but it is also a very tentative step. In fact, in certain circumstances, industry representatives have said to me that the policy could make the price of alcohol lower in some retail establishments. As has been mentioned by other hon. Friends, the proposal does not factor in any sense of the cost of production. Retailers and wholesalers, neither of which will be taking any margin, could end up paying the duty plus VAT and reducing the cost as part of a marketing exercise-brand awareness-and an attempt to drive footfall.
Just before Christmas, if someone had £20 and went into a store with a promotion on, they might have been able to get three 15 packs of beer or cider-about 45 cans. Under the Government's proposals, supermarkets can legitimately charge £20 for 52 cans of lager or a staggering 107 cans of cider. That is a great offer for someone who likes that kind of thing. The proposals mean that, for £20, someone could buy enough cider to meet their recommended daily alcohol consumption for three months-107 cans of cider is equivalent to 246 units.
Potentially, under a duty plus VAT arrangement, the following could be purchased for £20: not 45 cans of beer but 52; not 45 cans of cider but 107; not six bottles of wine but 10, and almost two bottles of spirits.
As has been mentioned, the policy does not factor in costs of production and is a very tentative step forward. There is a big discrepancy between the price of beer and the price of cider. We have to consider whether the Treasury is taxing those products equally. If we consider beer, at 4.2% alcohol by volume, the duty per unit is 17p; for cider, at 4.5% ABV, it is 7p per unit. Beer tax has increased by 50% over seven years and the gap between beer and cider tax widens every year. The Treasury is estimated to be losing £400 million a year. I shall now sit down, so that my hon. Friend can make her contribution.
Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): There are only a few minutes left, so I shall address just four issues. Is it worth it? Will it work? Is it unfair? How can we do it? We have heard many statistics this morning, on which I will not dwell in the short time I have. Suffice it to say that nearly 15,000 people died of attributable deaths to alcohol in 2005, and they are the tip of the iceberg. Those figures do not take account of the person knocked over by a drunk driver or people whose deaths were perhaps attributable to alcohol in ways that are not recorded in the true statistics. We underestimate the scale of the problem. On the human cost, as an NHS doctor for 24 years and a police surgeon, I cannot begin to tell hon. Members the hideous nature of a slow death from alcoholic psoriasis.
Will the policy work? Yes, there is very clear evidence that it will. Several meta-analyses were studied in the university of Sheffield report that was commissioned by the previous Government. Those show that it is clear that pricing is a very good mechanism not only for controlling overall consumption, but for targeting those who are most at risk: young people and heavy drinkers.
On the question of whether the policy is unfair, let us consider the statistics. Someone from a deprived area is three to five times more likely than someone living in an affluent area to die of an alcohol-specific cause. In addition, they are two to three times more likely to die of an alcohol-related cause and two to five times more likely to be admitted to hospital for an alcohol-related cause. It is completely untrue to say that we penalise low-income families by addressing the problem. That group of people is most at risk. If we consider the statistics on children who are affected and the figures on domestic violence, again, there is a skewing towards lower-income families. We should address that matter and not hide it under the carpet.
Time is very short so, finally, how can we do it? There are various ways. We could, for example, look at varying VAT. I recently wrote to the Treasury to provide a copy of an article written by Nick Sheron that was published in the British Medical Journal. He argues that we can achieve minimum pricing by varying VAT, and that we should perhaps lower VAT on on-licence sales of alcohol. That would mean that we protect the licensed trade. I think everyone would accept that we do not want to penalise pubs. Simply using the blunt instrument of raising duty is the incorrect way forward, but having a variable rate of VAT would be an interesting method, allowing us to protect the on-licence trade. Unfortunately, the Economic Secretary has written back to me to say that she feels that that would be illegal under EU law.
Under EU law, we cannot make supermarkets have different ways of adjusting to adopt such proposals, so the alternative is to introduce minimum pricing across the board. That is worth doing. I know that the Treasury feels that such an approach would perhaps deprive it of income, but we are all paying a very heavy price in costs to the criminal justice system and to the health service. Many hon. Members have cited the £2.7 billion figure in relation to the health service, but it is probably more than that. Certainly, the cost overall to our economy is nearer to £20 billion than some of the lower figures that have been cited today. If we can address that, the Treasury would benefit indirectly, if not directly.
I shall mention a final mechanism. There are 30.4 billion units of alcohol sold in the off-trade. Perhaps we should consider introducing a levy just on the off-trade of 5p to 7p a unit on all off-licence sales. That would still leave 18 billion units of on-licence sales of alcohol unaffected. Perhaps that is another mechanism that could looked at by the Treasury, which could benefit more directly while trying to achieve something closer to 50p a unit. Like many hon. Members, I do not seriously believe that the Government's current proposals, while a step in the right direction, will have any meaningful impact on severe problem drinkers, particularly young binge drinkers.
Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on securing the debate and on his excellent speech. I know about his long-standing interest in this particular problem, as well as his concern about wider health matters.
This debate has been interesting. I certainly feel that I have learned a lot about the drinking habits, or not, of a number of hon. and right hon. Members in this Chamber. The hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) gave an interesting speech about how alcohol is a major issue for his constituency, which is a centre of brewing. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who is the distinguished Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, talked about the information that he has gleaned from looking at policing and the effect of alcohol. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), who is a doughty campaigner for pubs, discussed how we can tackle the problems of alcohol, which we clearly have, and the important community role for pubs. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) talked about her experience in her constituency. The hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) talked about his experience as a social worker in dealing with clients and about what was happening on the streets of his constituency late at night. The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) gave very clear examples of what can be bought for £20, which was fascinating. The hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) spoke with a great deal of experience and knowledge about the effects of alcohol on health, and her last point about a potential off-trade levy should be considered.
It is clear that, as a country, we have a problem with alcohol. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent has supplied statistics about the effect of alcohol as it relates to Wales. We need to do something about this issue. Last week, we heard more disturbing statistics about liver disease in young people. The number of young drinkers admitted to hospital with liver problems has risen by more than 50% in the past 10 years.
In government, the Labour party started to address some of the problems relating to alcohol-for example, the Policing and Crime Act 2009 banned irresponsible drinks promotions. We all agree that we need to do more and to go further. From this morning's debate, it is clear that we need to go further than the coalition Government's current proposals, announced on 18 January, to ban the below-cost pricing of alcohol. As I understand
it, that equates to minimum pricing of approximately 21p a unit for beer and 28p a unit for spirits. Under those plans, the lowest possible price for a can of lager in a supermarket would range from 38p to 78p, depending on its strength. Most drinks would be unaffected by that proposal, as that works out at as little as 47p a pint for lagers. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East has pointed out that that means that many soft drinks and mineral waters would still be more expensive than alcohol bought in the supermarket.
The Campaign for Real Ale has pointed out that in banning below-cost prices, the cost of production should be included. That would raise the floor price to 40p per unit, which is almost double the 21p per unit that will be the norm under coalition Government plans. In a quick survey by my office yesterday in the Tesco nearest to Parliament, we found that typical prices were four large 440 ml cans of Stella for £3.30, and four 440 ml cans of Strongbow for £4.25, or two for £7. Clearly, there is an issue with the pricing that will be introduced in the proposals from the Government. Those prices are typical up and down the country. Hon. Members have discussed what is happening in their own constituencies, and I know this from my own constituency in Hull.
We have heard about the proposal from the former chief medical officer for England, Sir Liam Donaldson, who, in March 2009, proposed a 50p a unit minimum pricing level. That would increase the price of all bottles of wine to at least £4.50 and raise the price of the average six-pack of lager to £6.
A number of concerns have been raised both in this debate and beyond. One concern, as I have just set out, is whether the retail price will make any real difference to influencing the excessive drinking that we have seen in recent years to a move towards greater moderation. There is also the question why responsible drinkers should be penalised by having to pay more, when they are not in any way part of the problem. That is a fair point, which has carried the day in debate for many years. It may be difficult to devise a way of dealing with irresponsible drinking, while leaving those people who just have an occasional glass of wine or pint of beer unaffected.
We need to consider the pricing mechanism, because if we do not do so, we will deny ourselves one of the most potentially useful weapons in reforming destructive behaviour as a result of alcohol. There is much to be gained for the responsible drinker from looking at pricing. Set against higher prices for alcohol, there are costs that can be saved in the areas of policing, cleaning the streets, and repairing vandalism, as well as the benefit to the NHS and the general welfare state. Perhaps the Minister will consider highlighting more clearly the costs incurred by society due to the abuse of alcohol and making the case more strongly for looking at higher prices. Any pricing changes must be seen not only as increasing the Treasury tax take, as the recent VAT change does, but a reform that is firmly for the health of our society and everyone in it.
We have heard much today about how drinking habits have changed over the years. People buy their alcohol cheaply in the supermarket, often in bulk, and consume it at home. That is referred to up north as "getting tanked up", but I think that the technical word is "pre-loading". People then go out later in the evening to take advantage of the later licensing hours, and so
end up spending less in the pubs and clubs, having spent more with the supermarkets. The hon. Member for Burton has discussed his experience, perhaps when he was slightly younger, of being in a pub or club and having the benefit of that controlled, supervised environment, which means that people can be helped if they have a little too much to drink. That clearly does not happen if one is indulging in excessive drinking at home.
On late night drinking, the Government have introduced the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill and are considering a late night drinking levy, which is about asking pubs, clubs and licensed premises to contribute towards the costs of policing in areas that have late night drinking. While there is an element of the polluter pays, which is an attractive idea, perhaps the Minister will consider again the additional tax that will be charged to many small businesses and the bureaucratic nature of introducing this levy. Perhaps he will comment on that.
I want to discuss building a culture of responsible drinking. There is wide agreement that people need fully to understand the implications of their behaviour, so I hope that the Government will consider bringing back the proposal to introduce personal social and health education into our schools, so that young people in particular fully understand the problems of taking alcohol at an early age-many of them do not understand that. Some schools teach the subject very well, but others do not.
My time is nearly up. The Government have announced the proposal that they wish to take forward, but could the Minister comment on why the Bill, which is currently in Committee, does not include any clear proposals or clauses on this matter? Would he consider bringing forward an amendment to include it, and, finally, would he consider adding a further objective to the licensing conditions and include a health harm objective?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire): This has been an exceptional debate. Some debates that we have either on the Floor of the House or in Westminster Hall are partisan. Speakers may have entrenched positions and may not necessarily reflect the views of the whole of the United Kingdom or, indeed, of all political parties, but that is not the case this morning. That highlights the impact of the issue and the concerns that people have about the misuse of alcohol and what we see in our communities because of it. Equally, it reflects the complexity of the matter, which can and should be addressed in several different ways. There are societal, health and crime issues, and those themes came through clearly in a range of contributions, whether speeches or interventions, which have informed the debate and made it valuable.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on securing this debate and allowing this discussion to take place. When I was doing my research, I thought that I had suddenly latched on to something when I discovered a page on the internet that said, "MP admits mistake":
"MP Nick Smith has told Parliament he 'got it wrong'"
on the drinking age, but I then discovered it was a New Zealand MP with the same name rather than the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent. I know that the
hon. Gentleman takes this issue seriously. In his initial contribution in this House, he highlighted his concerns about social and health inequalities in his constituency as well as other themes. I know how keenly he feels about these issues, and why he sought to secure this debate.
It is important to recognise that, for the first time, because of research that we have undertaken and the many representations that we have heard, we have set out the need to establish a link between alcohol harms and price. I am delighted that the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) is in his place, because we have reflected on the comments in the Home Affairs Committee report, which, interestingly, was published in November 2008. That shows how time passes in this place. It recommended that the Government establish a legal basis for banning the use of loss-leading by supermarkets-that was one of the key recommendations. He and I have had several debates over the years on the issue and the points that arise from it.
It is also important to say that our modelling indicates that the change that we are proposing-duty plus VAT-will reduce the number of crimes by about 7,000 and hospital admissions by about 1,000. We heard from the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) about his fears that the change will somehow drive the price down. I certainly do not see it that way. The sad reality is that some products are deeply discounted. They will be caught by our proposals, and hence the change that we are seeing.
I appreciated my visit to the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I went to Newquay and saw some of the good community work that is taking place on the ground, and how people are dealing with some of the issues around youth drinking and some of the pressures in certain towns. The Newquay Safe Partnership is an important example of that practical work, and I was delighted to visit his constituency.
I am conscious that time is limited, so I apologise if I am unable to canter through everything. The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent asked about the options for bringing matters forward. I am certainly committed to doing that as soon as practicable. We are examining various options, but I intend to press forward quickly to resolve matters and ensure that the measures are introduced at the earliest opportunity.
There were also some questions about Treasury statements, and the hon. Gentleman asked about my comments on super-strength lagers. Before Christmas, the Treasury conducted its own analysis of duty and identified super-strength lagers of more than 17.5% alcohol by volume as a particular issue. It was considering options for duty in the Budget. I hope that that gives him an idea of the time frame.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) highlighted some of the practical issues on the booze bus that clears up some of the problems late in the evening. I stayed out with the booze bus in London late into the evening and saw people literally being picked up off the street-they were dealt with professionally and impressively by the London ambulance service and paramedics. I found quite interesting the leaflet that they gave to the people with whom they dealt, who perhaps would reflect on it the following morning when nursing the after-effects of what they had been through the night before. The leaflet highlights
the cost of the pick-ups-each case costs the London ambulance service some £200-and the fact that about 60,000 calls are made each year. I saw for myself some of the real challenges that professionals have to deal with on the ground, responding to the issue, which is why it is important to introduce several different measures to address the problems linked to excessive alcohol consumption.
There is a clear role for the industry. I have been struck by some of the positive work, not just in Newquay, on things such as community alcohol projects, Best Bar Nones, purple flags and some of the steps that are already being taken by the industry to address the problem. Yes, more should and could be done, which is why, for example, we are seeking to introduce the late-night levy. It will assist local communities with funding and support for policing and some of the other initiatives, such as the booze bus.
As a rejoinder to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) who described our response as bureaucratic, I gently remind her of the previous Government's alcohol disorder zones. If she thinks that what we are proposing is bureaucratic-it is actually simple and straightforward-I point her in the direction of ADZs and the bureaucracy that was attached to them. I hope that she will welcome some of the steps that we are taking on pricing, because I know that the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), a former Home Secretary, indicated regret at not taking that on board. I welcome her support as we go on to debate some of the detail around licensing in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill during the coming weeks.
It is important to set the proposal for the ban on below-cost sales in our proposal to introduce a floor price of duty plus VAT. The matter was considered carefully. There were some comments about the industry making further suggestions. We consulted during the summer on our proposals and listened carefully to the responses. Again, there were no simple solutions or unanimous views on what should happen. This is a complex matter, and there are issues around competition law. Also, we need to produce something that is understandable and easy to enforce. There are other models such as invoice pricing, but we did not want to get involved in them because of the bureaucracy attached to them.
Sadly, it appears that we are now calling time on this debate. Our proposals are a first step. We are determined to tackle the harms caused by alcohol and are introducing a comprehensive suite of proposals on problem practices, problem licensing and problem people, and we are looking at how we can better support and aid recovery as part of our wider strategy. I have appreciated this morning's debate, which I am sure will continue.
Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): It is a pleasure to hold this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan, and I am pleased to see the Minister here. She has written to me and other hon. Members on this subject in detail.
The question for which I seek an answer is why there is a difference of opinion between what the Government and the Minister are saying to local authorities, and what local authorities are saying about funding Sure Start children's centres. Last Thursday, Sefton council voted to review all 19 children's centres in Sefton, and to decide over the coming weeks which are to survive and which are to close. There is huge concern in my constituency that it will just cherry-pick from those services.
The Minister told local authorities that the early intervention grant is designed to replace the funding for children's centres, and that there is sufficient money to guarantee the full network of centres over the coming years. My question to her is: why are so many councils, including Sefton, saying that that is not true, and that the money has not come through?
"The sleight of hand drives children's services directors to distraction."
"has indeed given a specific early intervention grant to cover Sure Start, but as she well knows it is considerably less than the bundle of 22 grants it replaces. It amounts to a £1.4 billion cut in all early intervention programmes."
Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): In the case of Hammersmith and Fulham, the early intervention grant has been cut by 12.9%. The Minister may want to comment on that, as she has said that there is no need to cut Sure Start. The actual cut in service will be more than 50%, with nine out of 15 centres closing, having their grants reduced from £475,000 to £19,000-not enough to run a service. That is the truth about Sure Start on the ground at the moment.
Bill Esterson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. We have found exactly the same problem in Sefton. We face at least a 12% cut in the early intervention grant. The council has been told that it is there to replace several early intervention projects. The money is simply not enough to do the job that the Government claim it is there to do.
"Where in this pecking order of need should children's centres come? They offer the earliest help to young children, identifying difficulties before it is too late, a welcoming place to which families can turn."
"I am a mum to two small pre-school children and consider the children's centre an integral part of my life. I was delighted when the centre first opened, shortly after having my first child. It soon became my lifeline, opening doors to new friendships and experiences.
We enrolled for all the sessions available to us and thoroughly enjoyed meeting up with other parents and carers. The staff are all so very caring and helpful, making us all feel like part of their family. We still regularly attend the centre and feel distraught at the thought that this may come to an end if funding is cut. Not only would my children lose their valuable educational activities, but I would also lose my support network. I plead with Sefton council to carefully consider their actions regarding this matter, as I feel our local community would be left devastated."
A common theme coming through to me from parents, grandparents and carers, is that their children's centre is a vital lifeline, without which they would have nowhere to turn. There are no other facilities; there are no other places for many families to go. I mentioned the Hudson children's centre in Maghull. More than 750 families have used the services at that centre. A similar number has used the service at Thornton children's centre in Crosby, and I have three more children's centres in my constituency. All five are either phase 2 or phase 3 centres. Initially, Sure Start children's centres were set up in areas of maximum deprivation. The evidence coming through to me from the parents and families who use the phase 2 and 3 centres is that they are just as important as the phase 1 centres.
People from many different backgrounds use the centres in my constituency. One of the benefits we have found is that people, who would often be isolated without access to those services, meet and form their own support networks and make new friends. Suzanne Bentham uses the Thornton children's centre. She wrote to me to say:
"Thornton children's centre is an essential part of my life. Firstly, I went with my partner for my antenatal classes, then with my daughter who loves all the activities she does there. The staff and amenities are wonderful but most of all the atmosphere is the best bit. If I am feeling a little housebound, we can pop in and join in or just chat. We attend most days. We have met so many people from all walks of life, all with stories or offers of help when you need it most. It is not just a play centre, it is a lifeline, and without it an awful lot of people, families and children, will miss out on valuable skills to help throughout their lives. You see, every child matters."
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) reported in the past few weeks that early intervention and the support that children receive in their first five years are crucial. That makes all the difference and prevents many children and families from having difficulties later in life. That is why children's centres were set up by the previous Government, and why Sure Start matters.
Mr Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Would a more sensible and humane approach for local authorities, which have suffered cuts in grants, be to consider withdrawing some of the services Sure Start provides, so that they keep the whole network? I say that because at some stage the Government are going to respond to my report, which advocated that, in some years, they should consider not automatically increasing children's rates of benefits, but using all or part of that money to build up the foundation years. There will be all the difference in the world if, in a year or so, the Government say more money is coming into the area, between those authorities that kept their network and those that decided to shut up shop and disappear.
The network is so important. Families often use several children's centres, not only one, and those centres work closely together. I cited some of the numbers of families who use those centres, and I have seen how they are now an integral part of building successful and sustainable communities, and bringing together families with different backgrounds from different parts of the same community. If that network is broken in any way, it would be a backward step.
I believe that children's centres are as important in phases 2 and 3 as they are in phase 1. Pockets of deprivation and people who are isolated exist in all parts of our communities, not only the most deprived areas. Therefore, it is essential that the network is retained. How will the Minister ensure that councils carry out the Government's stated wishes to retain the network? At the moment, it appears that in many local authorities the money is not being passed on to keep the networks open. The removal of the ring-fencing, and the fact that the grant is not a like-for-like replacement of funding, leaves that question open. The Minister will say that such matters are down to local determination, but if the Government are serious about retaining Sure Start children's centres and the network, they must consider intervening in local authorities to ensure that their stated policy is delivered on the ground.
Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): This is my first opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan, and I am delighted to do so. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. We have spoken about the subject in private, and we are both passionate about it. Does my hon. Friend agree that Sure Start centres are a lifeline for the sort of communities that he and I represent? Councils in Sefton and Liverpool are faced with the most horrific decisions about the future of Sure Start centres because of the local government settlement. Does he agree that Sure Start centres in the most deprived communities in the country should be the most protected?
Bill Esterson: My hon. Friend's constituency is next door to mine, and many of his constituents use Sure Start centres in my constituency, just as many of my constituents use centres in his constituency in Liverpool. The Holy Rosary children's centre in Aintree village is used by people who live in Fazakerley and Walton. My hon. Friend's point about protecting phase 1 centres in the most deprived areas is important, but I believe that phase 2 and 3 centres have come to deliver an equally important service for slightly different reasons. I would not like to see any of those centres go, and it is important to maintain the entire network. People use centres from phase 1 and from phases 2 and 3.
Let me turn to the report by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North and some of the evidence that he produced on early intervention. He cites some examples that illustrate the importance of early intervention:
"A child's development score at just 22 months can serve as an accurate predictor of educational outcomes at 26 years.
Some 54 per cent of the incidence of depression in women and 58 per cent of suicide attempts by women have been attributed to adverse childhood experiences, according to a study in the US.
An authoritative study of boys assessed by nurses at age 3 as being 'at risk' found that they had two and a half times as many criminal convictions as the group deemed not to be at risk...Moreover,
in the at-risk group, 55 per cent of the convictions were for violent offences, compared to 18 per cent for those who were deemed not to be at risk."
The report goes on to make it clear that the costs of investing in early years services are far outweighed by those of dealing with the problems created later in life. That is very apparent to people who use children's centres in my constituency. They tell me that not only do their children do better at school than their older brothers and sisters who did not have the benefit of such a service, but that they can also start to see the benefits of their children mixing with other children and getting used to mixing with adults.
Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): My hon. Friend will know that the issues faced in my constituency, and across Sheffield, are similar to those faced in his constituency. Thirty children's centres and nurseries are threatened by a £2 million funding cut. Does he agree that in maintaining the network-an important point-the choices that local authorities are forced to make when changing the offer from children's centres by reducing hours and charging will push many centres beyond tipping point? That will make it impossible to maintain the network.
Bill Esterson: My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. That is further evidence of the importance of maintaining the network as a whole and building on it. Yesterday, I spoke to the head teacher of a school that has a children's centre attached. She pointed out that a lot of evidence from the families served by that centre suggests that such centres should look to extend their services to families with older children, so that the good work can continue. That could perhaps link with youth services, which are also under threat. In fact, as of last Thursday, the entire youth service in Sefton has been cut, and that will store up huge problems for the future.
I am conscious that the Minister needs time to respond to the debate, but I want to remind her of what was said by her right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. One of my constituents, Marie Creed, sent me a "contract" between the Conservative party and her family. It states:
"We will support Sure Start, and boost it by paying for an extra 4,200 trained Sure Start health visitors."
If the Prime Minster and the Minister are serious about supporting Sure Start, they must not only put in the money to keep that election pledge, but ensure that councils deliver on it. Otherwise, for many families in Sefton and elsewhere in the country, it will turn out to be just another broken promise.
The Minister of State, Department for Education (Sarah Teather):
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on securing this debate on an important topic. Like him, the Government believe that Sure Start children's centres have a critical role to play in their communities, and they are at the heart of the Government's vision for
early intervention. There is enough money in the system to maintain the network of children's centres, and we have also provided extra investment for health visitors. However, I recognise the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raised in his speech, and I will address those issues in my response.
First, I will make a few general remarks about Sure Start children's centres and the direction of reform, which I hope will put things into context. Since my appointment as a Minister, I have had the privilege of visiting many children's centres around the country, and I have seen how highly they are valued by families and communities. That point was echoed by the hon. Gentleman when he spoke of the testimony of individual constituents, and how much they have appreciated the support in their local area.
Those positive messages are reinforced by the evidence. The 2008 and 2010 reports from the national evaluation of Sure Start showed improved outcomes in a number of areas including better behaviour, more positive parenting skills and home learning environments, and better physical health of children who live in an area with a Sure Start programme. The evidence supports the messages we hear from families that children's centres make a real difference to their lives.
Last week, the Government published their response to the report by the Select Committee on Education about Sure Start children's centres. In that response, we set out in more detail our vision for children's centres: they should be accessible to all, but with a clear role in identifying and supporting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged families. That policy vision will be built on by a policy statement that we intend to publish in the spring. It will differ from many of the policy statements and the way in which we have produced them in the past, in that we intend to co-produce it with the sector, building on the ideas on the ground, on best practice and on the sector's views about how to shape the future of centres.
Evidence shows that children from advantaged backgrounds do better than those from disadvantaged groups, with a range of health, cognitive and language differences becoming apparent by the age of three. Those are some of the issues to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It cannot be fair that children's outcomes and life chances depend on the circumstances of their birth. An important element of children's centres is their accessibility. However, within that, I want them to be better at targeting resources on the most disadvantaged and vulnerable families to help close that gap in outcomes.
Key areas for reform will include an increase in the use of evidence-based interventions, which the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) spoke about in his report. We believe that public money should go to services that have proved their effectiveness, particularly in supporting the most disadvantaged and vulnerable families. We also want improved accountability and transparency. That includes the introduction of payment by results so that local authorities and providers are rewarded for the results they achieve. We intend next year to make local authorities publish more information about how they spend their money, so it will be clear what money they are spending on children's centres and what money they are holding back for administrative support, which picks up on some of the points made by the hon. Member for Sefton Central.
Bill Esterson: I want to pick up on the point about analysing whether local authorities have passed on the money to children's centres, and waiting until next year. My concern, which was expressed strongly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), is that that is too late. If they have not done that and the centres have started to close, it will be very difficult to rebuild the network. If there were a loss of that support over crucial months or even a year, that would be a very long time for families to wait.
The hon. Gentleman pointed to the 4,200 extra health visitors whom we will be committing to recruiting. We hope that they will work alongside children's centre outreach teams to support the families most in need. That is being funded by the Department of Health. On our direction of travel, we want to work closely with the sector on the ground to ensure that we are getting the reforms right. We will be considering the report by the hon. Member for Nottingham North and the review by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), who intervened and whose point I will pick up on in a moment. We have also asked Dame Clare Tickell to review the early years foundation stage. That will inform the work we are doing.
The bulk of what the hon. Member for Sefton Central spoke about related to his concern about the early intervention grant. We have made clear our commitment to Sure Start children's centres. We believe that we have ensured that there is enough money to maintain the national network of centres and to enable local authorities to meet their statutory duties.
Mr Slaughter: The Local Government Association says that, on a like-for-like basis, there is a 27% decrease in the early intervention grant when compared with the previous year. My Conservative council, in trying to excuse its cuts, says:
"This grant is 12.9% less than the previous allocation for the same services."
Will the Minister deal with that point, about which she is in denial? Will she also deal with the point that the lack of ring-fencing means that councils such as mine can make outrageous decisions to close down stage 1 children's centres-exactly the ones she thinks should stay open? Their grant is being cut from £475,000 to £19,000. That is happening in Shepherd's Bush-an area I think she knows well.
I recognise that there are particular concerns in the hon. Gentleman's area, and it is an issue I am monitoring. However, I do not recognise the figures he gave from the LGA or the figures the hon. Member for Sefton Central cited, I think, from Polly Toynbee's article. The hon. Member for Hammersmith will recognise that this is a very difficult time financially, and that local authorities are having to make difficult
decisions on the ground in the same way that the Government are having to make difficult decisions. We are trying to tackle the deficit, and it is not possible to do that without reducing funds overall. When the situation is very difficult, it is even more important that we provide more flexibility for local authorities to make the right decisions in their area-to focus on what they need to do in their local community. That is precisely why we have reduced the ring-fencing; we are responding to what local authorities have asked us to do.
Bill Esterson: There is a contradiction here, because on the one hand local authorities are being given so-called freedom, but on the other the Government are saying that Sure Start children's centres are an absolute priority. Unless there is some guidance from the Government or we have something stronger and the Government legislate for it, I fail to see how they can guarantee that the network will be maintained and enhanced.
Sarah Teather: Let me pick up on that point. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead made a similar point about the network. I have a great deal of sympathy with the point he made, particularly as we look down the track to the reforms the Government want to make. For example, we are providing extra money for relationship support, which will train people working in children's centres to deliver that on the ground. To respond to the point that the hon. Member for Sefton Central made about developing services for older children, all those things are possible and are good things in an area. However, if we do not give local authorities the flexibility to make the decisions that are right for their area, we will not get a service that is suitable for local need: we will end up with a one-size-fits-all service driven from Whitehall.
There is a difference between a local authority that is making catastrophic cuts to services for children and one that is trying to make sensible decisions in a very difficult environment. That may include clustering children's centres, merging back-office functions and reorganising where some of the centres are located because some buildings are not appropriate or because populations have changed since the stage 1 centres were put in place. Those are all sensible reorganisations, and we have to have some trust in local authorities to get on with that.
Providing a more flexible grant, the early intervention grant, which is significantly larger than the children's centre budget, should allow local authorities, if they want to do so, to link together different services as they think about the long-term reorganisation of their children's centres, youth provision or family support, so that they can offer things in a clustered way. I hope that that will provide more flexibility for them to do the right thing.
There is a legal duty on local authorities to consult before opening, closing or significantly changing children's centres. From what the hon. Member for Sefton Central said, it sounds as though in his area, parents will be very vocal about what they want to see by way of the provision of centres in their area. That is the right process. Parents should engage, and local authorities should listen to the views of families about how to reorganise on the ground.
However, Sure Start children's centres are at the heart of what the Government want to do in the long term with early intervention. Children's centres are a very
valuable resource, but often full use is not made of them. They are not always open all hours. There are opportunities for children's centres-for example, where there are flexible services, such as baby massage-to charge a nominal amount for those services in order to bring in small amounts of income. Local authorities can think more innovatively about the way in which they organise their children's centres on the ground, but the priority is that we have outcomes. The Government are trying to move towards measuring outcomes, rather than always measuring inputs, which is why we will move towards more payment by results. It is why our accountability framework will focus more on outcomes, particularly for the most disadvantaged children.
I am very grateful for the support that the hon. Member for Sefton Central has given today to children's centres. We believe that they are a vital service. I believe that there is adequate money in the early intervention grant to fund the network of children's centres, but I am grateful to him for raising the concerns in his area today.
Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hancock. I am pleased to have secured this debate, which is on a subject I believe to be of great concern to coastal communities and seafarers alike. I sought the debate so that the House could discuss the changes proposed by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to reorganise our coastguard service.
I welcome the recognition given in the proposals to the importance of a volunteer coastguard service. I recognise the importance of improving incomes and career structures for the coastguards; doing so will resolve years of industrial action. However, I am deeply concerned about some aspects of the proposed changes.
I am sure that all Members here today share my pride in the work of the coastguards in our communities. As a nation, we are reliant on the sea for trade and commerce. Our economy depends on a well-managed maritime environment; 95% of all UK trade is shipped to and from the rest of the globe.
Shipping is the UK's primary means of transport not only for commerce; we also depend on shipping to meet our energy requirements. As much as 80% of the world's liquid fuel energy resources is transported by sea. If even a single tanker carrying liquefied natural gas were to fail to reach our shores, the lights in UK homes and factories would go out within a week. In short, our security and prosperity are almost entirely dependent on a well-managed maritime environment, and the coastguards provide an essential service in enabling that to happen.
It is not only large commercial shipping that uses our seas. Consider for a moment our fishing industry, which is important to many coastal communities, and the pleasure craft used by tourists and water-sport enthusiasts alike. I know that many constituencies benefit from the tourism industry, and I am well aware of the role that it plays for my constituents in Cornwall, with more than £1.6 billion being spent by visitors each year. All of that could be jeopardised by a single oil tanker losing control or being damaged in bad weather. Only an effective coastguard service could prevent that from happening or minimise the impact of such events.
Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She mentions the possibility of an incident happening that could devastate her constituency. Does she not agree that she may be looking through the wrong end of the telescope at the proposals of the Government and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency? It is about cost savings; it is not an insurance policy for the communities she mentions.
Sarah Newton: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's intervention, but I do not agree with him. I am assured by the MCA that it is not about cost reduction but modernising the coastguard service to ensure that it is fit for the 21st century.
Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): On the question of the cost savings, does my hon. Friend not agree that a comparison needs to be made with the previous Government's proposal to regionalise fire service control rooms, which is costing the country well over £400 million, and rising? If we contrast that with the Government's current proposal, such modernisation is likely to cost, rather than save, the Government money.
Sarah Newton: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, but I think it best to leave it to the Minister to answer that question, as he has experience of the impact of regionalisation of the fire service.
I reassure the House that every coastguard I have spoken to has said that the service needs modernisation. The maritime environment is changing fast in many ways. Commercial ships are getting bigger and are less manoeuvrable, and we have more drilling rigs and offshore installations such as wind farms, not to mention the growth in privately owned pleasure craft. The shipping lanes around our shores are more congested and our climate is changing, with more unpredictable and volatile weather. The result is that the seas are becoming more hazardous. Many more people are participating in water sports of all kinds, and millions visit our coastline. They all need a modern coastguard service.
Lady Hermon (North Down) (Ind): I congratulate the hon. Lady most sincerely on securing this debate. In Northern Ireland we have an unusual, indeed unique, set of circumstances. The one remaining coastguard is based at Bangor in my constituency. As well as looking after maritime emergencies, it is also responsible for inland stretches of water, including the huge area of Lough Neagh and Lough Erne. It is also the only officially designated coastguard in the UK nominated by the Irish Government to act in the event of an emergency off the Donegal coast.
I am reassured by the commitment given by the chief executive of the MCA, Vice-Admiral Sir Alan Massey. He said that he will evaluate what people have to say, including what is said here today. I appreciate the fact that he is able to be here to listen to our debate. He said that
"all those with an interest in what we do and how we do it will take this opportunity"
The MCA has developed its proposals over a number of years. The previous Government ducked the question of modernisation because they feared a backlash of public opinion. Having reviewed the proposals and discussed them with the coastguards at the Falmouth marine rescue and co-ordination centre, I am disappointed that significant areas of work undertaken at Falmouth for the nation have been missed from the consultation
documents. It is particularly disappointing that none of the architects of the plans visited or discussed ideas for modernisation with the front-line team at Falmouth before the proposals were published. Had they done so, we could have had a better set of proposals.
We are very proud of the international rescue centre at Falmouth. It sits below the castle built by Henry VIII to protect the entrance to the Carrick roads, the third largest natural harbour in the world and the most westerly safe haven for ships. It is the Atlantic gateway to England. The port of Falmouth currently handles more than 4,000 shipping movements a year, and the Fal estuary has room for more than 10,000 leisure craft. As a result of European Union air quality directives, ships crossing the Atlantic have to bunker in Falmouth.
Falmouth coastguard station is responsible for search and rescue services for more than 450 miles of coastline and 660,000 square miles of the north Atlantic. It has the largest rescue area of any UK coastguard station, and it clearly has huge responsibility for safety at sea. Not surprisingly, given its location, Falmouth co-ordinates international rescues at sea, as well on the coastline.
Falmouth is the one point of contact for British ships anywhere in the world. In short, when a distress signal is sent, it goes to Falmouth. Falmouth is listening, and Falmouth takes action. Falmouth is also the UK co-ordinator of the global maritime distress and safety system, which assists vessels in distress. That includes the emergency position indicating radio beacon, which identifies stricken vessels anywhere in the world and co-ordinates the search directly or relays the information to the relevant authority.
Mr MacNeil: Does the hon. Lady agree with the assessment that I have heard from the MCA, which is that the pivotal work that she says happens in Falmouth could happen anywhere, in any office of the MCA? It does not particularly need to happen in Falmouth.
Andrew George: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Falmouth is a pivotal station, and not having the skills that are available there would be a great loss to the nation. I doubt whether the skills of that station could be replicated elsewhere. Local staff have emphasised to me that the consultation was about one proposal, and that no alternatives were put forward. Many of the staff, who were not consulted at all, believe that alternatives should be considered, including those put forward by staff at Falmouth and at other look-out stations.
The Falmouth coastguard carries out a long list of specialist functions, which, following his recent visit, Sir Alan Massey is now aware of and will be able to take into consideration in the consultation process. It is one of three specialist centres, along with Aberdeen, which is responsible for the North sea oil platforms and drilling rigs, and the Solent, which handles the English channel.
As would be expected, both those centres maintain a 24-hour watch, but Falmouth is to be downgraded to daylight operations. Such inconsistency must be addressed.
Sarah Newton: I should like to make some progress. I appreciated the meeting that I had with Sir Alan Massey and his team yesterday to listen to their rationale for their proposals for Falmouth. They were generous with their time, but I remain unconvinced of their case. I agree that there is a lack of resilience in the current system and the pairing arrangement. I agree that if Falmouth was hit by lightning, as I was told yesterday it has been on a few occasions, there would be a problem. I also agree that networking all the stations around the UK will enable a greater flexibility in managing resources and improve the skills of coastguards in other UK stations. Moreover, it would enable better management of peaks in demand on the service. It is a good idea to share the expertise and international relationships that the Falmouth coastguard has developed with other UK coastguards to ensure a resilient service.
Sarah Newton: I will give way in a moment. Nevertheless, Falmouth should continue with its 24-hour cover as the leading international rescue centre, and it will be backed up by the network of coastguards in the rest of the UK. That would address the stated aims of the proposals by improving resilience and creating a more flexible service that is able to cope with the anticipated growth in demand and peaks and troughs of demand in the service. It simply does not make sense and is a waste of money to develop a new centre and recruit and train staff in Southampton, in order to replicate what is recognised to work so well in Falmouth.
Falmouth's reputation for international search and rescue is world renowned, and its expertise has been built up over many years. The monitoring and rescue work carried out by Falmouth coastguard is not, as has been suggested, a UK humanitarian gesture; it is absolutely a legal requirement of the UK Government.
In the past two years, Falmouth coastguard station has handled 7,356 incidents, of which 4,590 were specifically search-and-rescue missions. That makes Falmouth the busiest station in the whole UK for search and rescue. Out of those incidents, a third took place at night, between 8 o'clock in the evening and 8 o'clock in the morning. Under the current proposals, that is when the station would be closed.
I have noted from the graphs provided by the MCA's consultation document that Falmouth, compared with all other coastguard stations, does not have as much variation in its work load from month to month, and nor does the work load disappear at night, as the MCA argues. In other words, while the MCA is correct in its assertion that coastguard stations are generally busier during the day and during the summer months, Falmouth is almost unique in being busy at any hour of the day throughout the entire year. The argument that the station does not have to be manned during night hours due to a lack of work and seasonal variations does not hold water.
Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. I remind Members that 12 Members want to take part in the debate. Interventions must be short and to the point otherwise Members will be very disappointed. If the intervention is really necessary, fine. If not, I urge Members to be respectful of other Members who want to speak in this debate.
Anne Marie Morris: I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend is saying about her concerns with regard to Falmouth. If Brixham, my coastguard station, goes, Falmouth and Southampton, which is 200 miles away, will have to cope with something like 1,500 incidents, if last year's figures are typical.
Sarah Newton: I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. The Falmouth coastguards have developed effective working relationships with other services in the area, such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the RNAS Culdrose where the search and rescue helicopters are based, Falmouth harbour commissioner for the co-ordination of tug boats to guide and protect larger vessels, maritime fire services and the emergency ship repairer, A&P Falmouth. Remember that any vessel coming in from the Atlantic, large or small and in distress, will rely on Falmouth for assistance. That includes the volunteers of the Mission to Seafarers, which takes distressed mariners under its wings. Such close working relationships have been cultivated over decades.
The Falmouth station has achieved many positive outcomes. Take, for instance, the Fryderyk Chopin, a Polish ship carrying 36 teenagers, or the MSC Napoli, which was holed during a storm and forced to beach in Lyme bay. Were it not for the constant reassurance and effective search and rescue co-ordination provided by the Falmouth station, the outcomes of those recent incidents would have been very different. I might add that both those high profile incidents, which took place in the glare of the world's media, occurred at night, and that is precisely when the MCA wishes the station to be closed.
David Cairns: I congratulate the hon. Lady on making such a powerful case. Another recent high profile incident was the running aground of a nuclear submarine off the west coast of Scotland. Clyde coastguard agency, which is based in my constituency, has, in addition to all the commercial pressure she mentions, the responsibility of being the home of our nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed deterrent. Her constituency is outraged at Falmouth's being downgraded, but in my constituency, there is a proposal to close the coastguard station. Does she not, therefore, accept the point made by the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) that there is a need to consider alternatives and not adopt this one-size-fits-all approach?
The MCA's headquarters has not sent any formal training programme or competence framework to Falmouth. Instead, staff from the Falmouth station have used their own initiative to manage and adapt these functions and to tailor them to suit the needs of the mariners under their care. Years of dedication
and experience have allowed the officers to develop and modify policies accordingly. Allowing these men and women to work out their own practices, rather than adhering to centrally controlled diktats has meant that Falmouth has developed best practice not only in the UK but across the globe. International partners will often look to Falmouth to see how they can better manage and co-ordinate their waters. It is not uncommon to visit the Falmouth station and find international delegations there learning how the station operates. When they want to see how the UK coastguard system works, they do not go to the MCA headquarters in Southampton; they go straight to Falmouth. A south American country's coastguards are instructed, "When in doubt, call the Falmouth coastguards."
Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): The hon. Lady talks about the local knowledge of the Falmouth coastguards, but that is something that can be lost across the entirety of our coastline. My constituency includes Rathlin island, the only inhabited island off the coast of Northern Ireland. If the skills of the coastguards there are lost, it will mean the loss of many more lives around our coast. I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Lady. Does she not agree that the proposals to pass co-ordination on to a yet-to-be-developed IT system and software system pose genuine concerns for the future protection of lives on our coast?
Sarah Newton: I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am very sceptical about the capabilities of some of the technology that is being advanced, and I will discuss that later. Even the MCA headquarters appreciates the best practice that has been worked out in Falmouth. It has published its work in the coastguard operations bulletin, which is a testament to its inventiveness, ingenuity and ability to solve problems quickly and efficiently.
Handing over the research and rescue co-ordination for such a large area to another marine operations centre will inevitably lead to a loss of efficiency, which will affect the outcomes of some incidents. Coastguards have expressed to me their grave concerns about the loss of local knowledge and the impact that that will have on the co-ordination of local coastal rescue.
I understand that, on his recent visit to Falmouth, Sir Alan Massey stated that the process of identifying the particular location of someone in distress and requiring urgent assistance will be longer than it is now, with a possible 10 minutes added to emergency response times.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): I will not interrupt my hon. Friend for too long, but the assertion that the response time will be increased by 10 minutes is wrong. I do not know where that information comes from. The response time is five minutes now and it will be five minutes in future-that is important.
I am sure that everybody listening to this debate greatly appreciates that intervention and the reassurance given by my hon. Friend the Minister, because, as he knows from his experience in the fire
service, minutes of delay in an emergency cost lives. That is a very welcome confirmation from the Minister, because that sort of delay-
Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. I ask Members to be a bit more careful and respectful of the other Members who want to speak. I want to get as many people in to speak as possible. The hon. Lady has now been speaking for 20 minutes and it will be difficult to get many Members in if the winding-up speeches start 20 minutes before the end of the debate. So please respect that.
Yesterday the MCA team told me that the location of someone calling 999 for assistance using either a land-line or a mobile phone could be identified by whichever coastguard answers the phone in any part of the UK, by using the latest technology. However, I remain sceptical of such claims and I worry about an ever-growing reliance on technology. How resilient are those networks?
During the same conversation with the MCA team yesterday, I was slightly reassured by the fact that the MCA proposals include the plan to test rigorously and evaluate each step of the new system before proceeding to the next stage. Those "gateways" acknowledge that the proposals will need real-life testing before implementation. Much more needs to be done to demonstrate the veracity of the claims made for the technology as well as the impact on response times. As the Minister knows, minutes of delay cost lives.
Although I have had only a short time to raise a few issues with the Minister today, I hope that he can reassure the people of Cornwall that he values the work of the Falmouth coastguard and, furthermore, that the views of the Falmouth coastguard and those of the Falmouth harbour commissioners, harbourmasters and mariners alike, who all have a great deal of experience of dealing with the coastguard service and who are all deeply concerned by the downgrading of the Falmouth coastguard station, are fully taken into account by the MCA consultation review team. Coastguards have publicly expressed grave concerns about the impact of the current proposals on safety and, quite understandably, there is a great deal of public opposition to the proposals to downgrade the Falmouth station and the other stations about which we have heard from Members today.
As I draw my remarks to a close, I want to reiterate one simple important point. All the aims of modernisation, which will provide a resilient 21st century coastguard service, of which the UK can continue to be proud, can be delivered with Falmouth's coastguard remaining the jewel in the crown of the MCA, as the world-leading international marine and rescue centre.
Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Mr Hancock. I will try to adhere to your request to keep contributions brief to enable other hon. Members to speak, because a considerable number of hon. Members are interested in this debate.
Of course, the announcement about the coastguard was made not in an oral statement to Parliament but by way of a written statement, and this is hon. Members' first opportunity to debate the issue. One of the things that I will be asking the Minister for today is that we do not just have this Adjournment debate and that hon. Members have a fuller opportunity to debate this issue, because there are serious concerns about the implications of these proposals for the coastguard service, if they go ahead.
I speak as someone who represents a coastal constituency. Indeed, a considerable number of my constituents work in the coastguard service. My experience-I believe that others have also experienced this-is that the coastguard service has been treated differently from other emergency services for many years, not least regarding pay. Many hon. Members will be aware that coastguard officers often earn only in the region of £13,500 per year, despite the fact that they have not only responsible positions but positions that require a great deal of expertise developed over many years.
The proposals that we are discussing today will probably lead to more than 200 coastguard officers losing their jobs. In many areas of the country, particularly in Clyde, it is unlikely that any officers losing their jobs will be relocated within the coastguard service. The coastguard service at Greenock is in an area of high unemployment and deprivation. The reality is that the relocation schemes that are available to civil servants will not make relocation for individuals-for example, to Aberdeen, which is an area of high cost, or to the south of England-a reasonable prospect. Indeed, I have constituents who are in that position. They know that if they lose their job at Clyde when the coastguard station there closes-if that closure is allowed to go ahead-other opportunities will not be available.
Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I have been in another Committee, which is why I was not here earlier. This issue is important to my constituents and to the constituents of many hon. Members who are here in Westminster Hall today. Of course, my concern is particularly about the Forth coastguard station, which is on the other side of Scotland to my hon. Friend's constituency. The Forth station is also proposed for closure. There is also a sub-centre that covers my constituency's shoreline.
In the firth of Forth, we have three major oil and liquid gas terminals. We also have a new bridge and a number of anchorages, and a new wind farm is being built. Does my hon. Friend agree that the firth of Forth is another area where safety means that closure should not go ahead and that having one coastguard station for the whole of Scotland is not acceptable?
It is far from clear what criteria have been used to develop these proposals. I hope that, when the Minister responds to the debate, he will address that issue. It has been suggested that the Clyde coastguard station has been proposed as one of the stations that will close, because its lease is due to expire in the next
few months and it is therefore cheaper to close that particular station than, for example, the station in Aberdeen, where the costs of closure would be extensive.
Mr MacNeil: The hon. Lady has made an important point. The principles that are pushing this process are not the principles that should be pushing it. The considerations are not marine considerations, but real estate considerations. The Aberdeen situation is particularly interesting, because the MCA has problems with the leases on the Aberdeen building. In addition, the MCA has not considered the high turnover of staff in Aberdeen in comparison with other stations.
People who have not visited a coastguard station might be surprised to learn about the role of coastguards. The reality is that the way in which a station operates is that the operative who takes an emergency call usually stays in charge of that incident throughout the whole process, which hopefully leads to the person who called being rescued. That operative has to liaise with a range of other agencies, and they have to call on their own experience as a coastguard and on the knowledge that they have developed of the terrain in which they are operating. In the west of Scotland in particular, there is a huge amount of concern that if there is only one coastguard station in Scotland, much of the expertise and local knowledge that individuals have developed over many years would be lost.
The Clyde coastguard station's area of responsibility is the largest coastguard area in the UK, and the station has 41 coastguard rescue teams under its control. There are 26 ferry operations to island communities in the area, including to Arran and Cumbrae in my own constituency, as well as a number of other ferry operations to other islands off the west coast of Scotland. If we include the sea lochs, which are part of the terrain in the area, there are 1,900 miles of coastline. I have always been told by those who work in the coastguard service that a huge amount of local knowledge acquired over many years is essential for the role of coastguard.
Bill Esterson: A similar point has been made to me by the staff at Crosby coastguard station in my constituency, which is listed as "Liverpool". They say that in Liverpool bay and throughout the Irish sea there are many creeks, gullies, mudbanks and sandbanks. That local knowledge, from many decades of experience, is vital in shortening the time taken to get search and rescue to the right place.
Katy Clark: My hon. Friend has made an incredibly important point. In the west coast of Scotland coastguard area, there are, I think, eight Tarbets, so when someone on a leisure craft phones the coastguards and tries to describe where they are, expertise and local knowledge are required to assist the distressed vessel.
The proposals seem to be based on the view that it will be possible for much of the slack to be taken up, and much of the work to be undertaken, by volunteers, who form a huge part of the coastguard service. Coastguards rely on their local knowledge to assist people in difficulties, but more than that they have to rely on the coastguard rescue teams, and it is surely
wrong for more pressure to be put on those teams. As we develop the service, we should try to ensure that we do not have to rely on individuals who have work commitments of their own, and that we do not put them in a position in which they might be pressurised and get involved in incidents, because it is not possible for the paid structure to provide the service. The way in which we operate our coastguard system in this country is perhaps a cheap way of doing so, in that we rely on volunteers.
There are particular concerns about the west of Scotland, both because of the terrain and, increasingly, because of the number of vessels-including leisure vessels-with the extension of marinas and of sailing on that coast. Will the Minister indicate the criteria that have been used to come forward with the proposals? Given the great concern among hon. Members, will he ensure that there are further opportunities to debate these issues?
Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. The Front Benchers have decided that they will take no more than 10 minutes each, so if everyone who wants to speak keeps to about four minutes, everyone who is here will get to speak.
Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): I shall do away with the niceties, apart from congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing this exceptionally important debate. However, I will say something else that is a bit of a nicety-I do not want to suggest that the Minister is in any way committed to increasing risk for the people of this nation. He and the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) both served in the fire service, and they are absolutely committed to the safety of one and all in a far stronger way than I have ever been.
I welcome several of the proposals and believe that change is required. I recognise that changes in technology and the evolving nature of our seas mean that the status quo is not always necessary. I was surprised to discover, as a result of the consultation, that most of our coastguard stations are linked only to each other, and particularly that Thames and Yarmouth are not linked. Those are the two coastguard stations that cover my constituency, with the Yarmouth centre covering down to about Southwold, and the Thames centre at Walton-on-the-Naze coming up the other way. I welcome changes that mean that coastguard centres will be working together, regardless of numbers. I also welcome the changes that will enhance the volunteer side, and I understand that aspects of pay might be being looked at, so that we can invest in the people who remain in the coastguard service.
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