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Lastly, on accessibility, can we really afford not to consider putting the genie of unrestricted licensing hours back in the bottle? I hope that the Government will consult on this piece of their own legislation, among all the other things to be consulted on.

12.29 pm

Viscount Falkland: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Avebury for giving me the opportunity to debate with other noble Lords this problem of alcohol in our society. I pay tribute to his work, of which noble Lords may not be aware, having worked with him on the recent, dismaying alcohol Bill and seen the amount of badgering he did of Ministers, officials and police officers, and the amount of information he got. He is probably one of the major figures in the fight to reduce alcohol harm in our society, and a difficult job that is too.

Any of us who have had any sort of military training, however slight—in my case, being in the cadet force and in the Army for a short period— learnt very early on that a strategy has to have clear fundamentals and aims. Any Government face great difficulty in trying to produce a strategy to reduce the

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overall harm in our society. I do not blame them for trying to do it, but each of the many components of the problem—the constraints of time do not allow me to go through as many of them as I would like—requires a different strategy and different tactics to enable the strategy to be carried out.

I always think of myself as a young man, but I realise that I have been speaking in this House on alcohol since I joined the All-Party Group on Alcohol Abuse—now the All-Party Group on Alcohol Misuse—22 years ago. During that time, we have had some excellent chairmen and I have learnt a lot, but what has been achieved in dealing with the harm alcohol causes in our society has, for all kinds of reasons, been very slight.

One area where there has been a cultural change is drink-driving, but to my dismay I find that that is faltering a little. Whether it is because of a new generation coming along, new patterns of policing or whatever, the reduction of harm from drinking and driving has evened out. That is very worrying. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, made an excellent speech which referred to that, but she did not recommend what I would recommend: that the Government think again about coming into line with other countries and reducing the amount of alcohol that drivers are allowed to drink. I do not know why we stand out and stand firm on allowing what is nowadays a comparatively high level. It is much higher than that in France, which, through a combination of that lower level and the quite draconian policing introduced by the new President, Mr Sárközy, when he was at the Ministry of the Interior, has seen considerable reductions in accidents on the roads as a result of drinking.

It would be invidious to select an individual chairman of the all-party group, but Alan Milburn, when he was chairman, set up an inquiry into the institutions—police, prisons and so on—to see what the problem was. We took considerable evidence and produced a very good report which was greeted politely but is now gathering dust somewhere in the Home Office. Of course, these matters are now not necessarily dealt with in the same way by the same departments of state. If that report were dug out and taken seriously, it would give a great deal of information about what happens in prisons, referred to by the noble Baroness, in the Probation Service and in hospitals.

One of the most memorable events during those 22 years was taking evidence in a hospital in Liverpool. A nurse in the accident and emergency department told us about the extraordinary change in juvenile drinking resulting in children being brought in by their friends when found in a coma after taking enormous amounts of alcohol in the course of an evening’s revels. That alarms their friends to the extent that they take children to accident and emergency wards, where they must be attended to very quickly to deal with the alcohol poisoning and to prevent permanent brain damage and possible death. That struck me very forcefully. That is an ongoing

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problem: juveniles drink more than they used to and young women drink to an extent that they did not use to.

On that subject, I think—and have done so for the past 20 years—that a number of measures have been quite pointless. One is illustrated by my 15 year-old son, my youngest son. One afternoon, I was sitting exactly where I am standing now quietly listening to a debate. I got a vibration on my mobile and there was a message from his housemaster at school which said, “Sad news, I am afraid. Charlie has been found in possession of a forged proof-of-age card”. I got very concerned about that; I knew that his mother would be very concerned about that. On further inquiry, I found that every child who has the nous to do it has a forged proof-of-age card. They get them off the internet. His fault was not the fact that he had a proof-of-age card, it was the fact that he was caught. The message further said to me, “We decided to go to look at his locker, where we found that he had a store of Strongbow cider”. He was not drinking the cider, he was trading it, which I think was a good point; he is obviously a budding entrepreneur, so his rather patchy academic life may not be so important as he is showing some skills not only in drawing and painting, which is his main forte, but in dealings. So I have great hopes for him, but not much hope for the proof-of-age card.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, does the noble Viscount agree that an element in our society that can be enormously influential in this is the retailers, the supermarkets, and those who work in them? Will he commend the action of the British Retail Consortium, for instance, which is strenuously trying to police this matter, and USDAW, which represents the shop workers, who, at the end of the day, carry a great deal of responsibility?

Viscount Falkland: Absolutely, my Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. He and I share a position as patrons of a treatment centre that is probably one of the most successful in the country and he knows as well as I do the importance of the business of clamping down on retailers who sell illegally. I absolutely agree with him.

The other issue is the use of units in health. I do not think that units in health are very helpful, because they give an overall picture that does not deal with variations in physique, size, age and so on, except that women have different problems from men. Generally speaking, the use of units as an educational tool is not very effective.

I see that I am running out of time. I shall just list some areas that I have jotted down where a strategy is needed. Apart from the nation’s health, juvenile drinking and drunk driving, which I talked about, there is domestic violence and child abuse, where drinking is often a cause of sad cases that are well publicised. There is pub and club violence, which we dealt with when discussing the Bill that I referred to which changed the drinking hours and gave longer hours for pubs and clubs. There is women’s drinking, absenteeism and its economic cost. All those aspects

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need a strategy and tactics to achieve that strategy. That makes it extremely complicated. It is a question of time, but Governments do not have time. The short-termism of Governments is not helpful in addressing what is still a very grave problem in our society.

12.39 pm

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, I am delighted to join the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, in sharing the concern that we all have about this particular problem. In 1910, there was a great battle for power in the House of Lords. One Liberal poster at the time attacked the “Peerage and the Beerage” and said how closely associated they were. Perhaps it was not referring to the Liberal Benches, but the other Benches at that time.

I speak for a minority, although there are probably 10 million of us teetotallers. That means that the opinions I express are probably not those that everybody would agree with. But we all agree that, however committed drinking habits are, this problem merits the most urgent serious consideration.

The debate is about alcohol harm reduction in England. As a Welshman, I venture over the border, because the problem is just as acute in Wales. But this very morning, Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems expressed alarm at the heavy drinking in Scotland, saying that 1 million people are at risk in Scotland alone.

In Wales, I was surprised to read figures telling me that sales of alcohol have doubled in 10 years. That is directly related, as the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, mentioned, to hospital admissions for alcohol-related problems. In 1999, 252 hospital admissions out of 100,000 were alcohol-related. By 2005, six years later, that was up to 309 per 100,000, and BMA Wales says that there is a “growing alcohol problem”.

The report of the Directors of Public Protection Wales claims, as other noble Lords have mentioned already, that alcohol consumption in Wales alone costs £1 billion a year—£320 million on working hours lost, £365 million on drink-related crime and disorder, £85 million on healthcare costs and £230 million on tackling family break-ups. I am not quite sure how accurate this is, but it is thought that 1,000 premature deaths a year in Wales are alcohol related. One cannot assess the degree of trauma among families and children resulting from excessive drinking—the child brought up in a home where there is domestic violence and needless poverty because of the money spent on alcohol. That child has not been given the proper backing and opportunity because money was spent in other ways. The Welsh Assembly funded the Wales Domestic Abuse Helpline. It is said that one in four women in Wales will be a victim of domestic abuse at some time in their lives. I am ashamed of that figure, but I submit that much of it is alcohol-related.

One figure that I am sure is utterly reliable and alarms me tremendously relates to drinking by 11 to 15 year-olds in Wales. Wales has the highest level of underage drinking of any European country. A report

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last year, Alcohol and Health in Wales: A Major Public Health Issue, stated a different figure from the BMA—that 170 men and 90 women in Wales were likely to die of alcohol-related conditions in this particular year. A report in the Observer for the United Kingdom as a whole showed an astounding rise of 27.3 per cent in male drinking admissions to hospitals in England between 2001 and 2005. If that figure is correct, it must cause us the utmost concern.

It has been agreed—the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, and others mentioned this—that tackling this growing problem does not lie in 24-hour pub opening hours and round-the-clock availability of alcohol, which perhaps has changed the pattern of drinking. The Minister might correct me, but I would suggest that it has not led to a reduction in alcohol consumption or related disorders. Is the Minister able to say whether it is time to outlaw drinking on the streets? Following the smoking ban in buildings and pubs, there is more such drinking with tables outside public houses and hotels. We must look at that problem. Because people cannot smoke inside a public place, they now do so on the streets.

We should also look at the deep discounting of alcohol sold in off-licences and supermarkets, and at banning special promotions. I have heard of many promotions which will lead only to an increase in the alcohol problem. We should look at the pricing mechanisms which can be used to discourage heavy consumption of high alcohol products, compulsory alcohol labelling and, as has already been mentioned, reducing the drink-drive limit. In Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland, there should be a far more concentrated educational approach to this problem in schools. That is what a Government might do, but every individual can, by his or her own example, contribute to tackling this problem.

I am old enough to remember the early years of “Coronation Street”. The Rovers Return was there then and it is still there. Ena Sharples’s chapel mission went many years ago. The balance has gone out of society. On some television programmes, including soaps, people shout, are aggressive and are abusive, which is considered by many people to be the norm and how one is supposed to behave. It reflects the role model which society tries to emulate. Without restricting the soaps, is it not time that we asked the programme makers, “Can you not sometimes just lower the decibels a little bit and change the approach”?

This House is very civilised. We rarely raise our voices.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: Speak up!

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, I was at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday. It was like a bear garden. Young people look at that and say, “That is the role, the example”. I do not know how we could speak to the other House because in no way could we try to influence it, but is that not something which we in public life should consider? Government and individuals are able to influence this problem, perhaps not 100 per cent, but at least in some measure.

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12.48 pm

Baroness Coussins: My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chief executive of the Portman Group, whose work is cited in the alcohol harm reduction strategy. I was a member of the Prime Minister’s strategy unit group which advised on the first edition of the strategy in 2004, and am a former trustee of the Alcohol Education and Research Council. I am currently a paid non-executive adviser to Brown-Forman, a global wines and spirits company.

The revised strategy published earlier this year is by necessity a wide-ranging document, covering health, education, law enforcement and industry issues. In it, the Government acknowledge that some progress has been made; for example, it reports a drop in underage sales and fewer alcohol-related violent crimes. I believe that the Government are to be congratulated on their belated but nevertheless welcome commitment to spend £10 million next year on a sustained responsible drinking advertising campaign. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that the police need to be adequately resourced to carry out certain aspects of law enforcement which are central to the strategy. Drink-driving is an obvious example, while another is the criminal offence known as proxy purchase, which is when adults buy alcohol to pass on to underage drinkers, yet this is seldom targeted or enforced.

I should like to focus the rest of my contribution on just two aspects of this broad debate, which I hope will help to put it into a proper perspective. The first is to do with evidence, and the second concerns the role of the drinks industry. On the first, it has become a government mantra to say that policies must be evidence based. This is important not only for the integrity of policy, but also in order to secure and retain the confidence of the public and others with whom the Government wish to work in partnership to tackle alcohol misuse, such as NGOs, practitioners and those who produce, advertise and sell alcohol. When the requirement to be evidence based is disregarded, sometimes blatantly, the Government’s authority is weakened and consumers are confused.

The recent fiasco over advice on drinking in pregnancy is a case in point. The Government announced that although there was no new scientific evidence to justify a departure from existing guidance that pregnant women who choose to drink should consume no more than one to two units once or twice a week, they were nevertheless changing the advice towards a zero-consumption approach on the dubious grounds that women would find it easier to understand a simpler message. This volte-face was widely criticised by media commentators, and only last week was further challenged by a draft recommendation from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence that pregnant women might safely drink up to 10.5 units a week after the first trimester. This degree of discrepancy on such an important and high-profile aspect of potential alcohol harm is intolerable. Credible, authoritative advice must be agreed and communicated urgently.

The industry is being asked by the Government to agree to a voluntary labelling scheme which includes information in line with government advice on drinking

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in pregnancy. But why should the industry put its reputation on the line and even risk legal action by carrying misleading or inaccurate information? One of the reasons the industry has been so committed to working with the Government since 1995—when all the current sensible drinking guidelines were first introduced, not just those on pregnancy—is that the guidelines were determined for the first time as a result of detailed scrutiny of extensive scientific research. The guidelines are balanced and evidence based. The industry accepts that some people most certainly need to drink less, and the Government accept that moderate drinking generally causes no harm and may even bring some health benefits. We need to have the same degree of clarity on drinking—or not—in pregnancy.

The other point I should like to make about evidence is that the selective or distorted reporting of statistics and research findings can often create a groundswell of calls for this or that measure which then obscures the debate and risks diverting the Government from properly targeted policies. For example, who would have thought from reading the media coverage over the past year that current licensing statistics from the DCMS indicate that only 2 per cent of the UK’s licensed premises have 24-hour licences, or that out of the 3,000 premises that make up that 2 per cent, only 120 are pubs—and I am told that 70 per cent of those are in Dorset? The other 2,880 premises are mainly hotels, supermarkets and convenience stores, yet the impression given is that so-called “24-hour drinking” is the rampant scourge of every town and city centre, and that irresponsible pubs are at the heart of the problem. I am not suggesting for a moment that there is no problem with drunken public behaviour, but only that it needs a proportionate response and that pubs in general should not be the scapegoats.

Who would have thought that, according to robust data from Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise, overall consumption has actually been falling in the UK since 2004 or, as the General Household Survey shows, that there are more teenage abstainers now than ever before, and that even the number of young people aged 16 to 24 who drink at harmful levels has dropped since 2003? Admittedly, nearly a third of this age group still drink too much—so it is not a problem to be dismissed, by any means—but the movement is in the right direction at last, although you would not believe it judging by the media or the calls for ever increasing restrictive policies from various groups and practitioners.

Respect for the evidence cuts both ways, of course. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, mentioned, the Government are currently commissioning research into whether there is a link between alcohol harm and the pricing, discounting and promotion of drinks. If any credible detrimental connection is established, the industry will have a duty to respond constructively and swiftly; and if competition law restricts the industry’s room for manoeuvre, the Government must assist and jointly find a way through the apparent impasse. By the same token, those who are already champing at the bit and calling for all manner of further restrictions on price, promotion and availability of alcohol, should wait for the evidence and not prejudge the results.

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I also want to mention the broader role of the drinks producers in helping the Government to implement the harm reduction strategy. The World Health Organisation called on Governments to consult industry as part of its global resolution on the harmful use of alcohol. The Government deserve credit for their dialogue with the industry over the initial strategy, acknowledging it as a stakeholder and not only a consultee. It is very important that this dialogue be maintained and strengthened if the industry is to deliver what the Government hope it will in the second wave of action on the strategy.

The industry often gets it in the neck as an easy target to blame, but until now it has provided the resources for more sustained national campaigning and information to promote the Government’s own sensible drinking message than any other source. In particular, the drinkaware consumer website address now appears on more than £150 million-worth of TV, cinema and print advertising every year; on the labels of 3 billion cans and bottles; and in thousands of supermarkets, shops and pubs. Lest anyone should think this a small or futile gesture, the drinkaware website gets more than 2.5 million hits every month. So the industry is clearly succeeding in driving consumer traffic to this excellent source of user-friendly information and advice.

The aims of the strategy will be achieved all the more quickly and efficiently if the Government and the industry continue to work together on common ground. Alcohol-related harm is in the interests of neither.

12.58 pm

Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Avebury for initiating this debate. He is an undisputed expert in this area, as the Minister will be aware, being familiar with his Questions and interest over many years. He is an indefatigable campaigner on the issue and a source of enormous expertise to the whole House. This debate is close to his heart and has been a long time coming.

In particular, I hope the Government will look more closely at my noble friend’s reference to research on teachable moments and brief interventions. There are clearly examples which need to be looked into of moments when people are at a certain point of vulnerability and it is possible to achieve a great deal more than it would be at other times. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, said, one of the problems with teachable moments is that you very often do not have enough alcohol counsellors to deal with the problems that arise. When the time is ripe, you need to have that ability.

My noble friend Lord Falkland spoke about his years of looking at the problem, not least through the work of the All-Party Alcohol Misuse Group. In preparing for this debate I have looked at a little of that group’s excellent report. I was particularly touched by my noble friend’s anecdote of his son Charlie’s experience. As the parent of a child who is reaching that risk-category age, I empathise hugely with the problems that today’s parents face with the issue.

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