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The Government are still saying that the Budget duty increase will have little impact on the demand for coolers. That is why their argument that this would be a good way of addressing binge drinking is obviously ludicrous. A number of people who produce these drinks have written letters of complaint. One such letter comes from Bill Oddy, the managing director of a relatively small firm, employing about nine people. He says in his letter:
To do so, however, people will have to agree their formulae and recipes with Her Majesty's Customs and Excise. I shall not trouble the House with the detail, but I have here a letter from Steve Nicholson, who is in charge of alcohol and tobacco regimes, which gives guidance on the excise duty liability of spirit-based drinks after the Budget. It runs to about three and a half pages. The guidance is incredibly vague, and because it is so vague it introduces uncertaintyindeed, it is oppressive for those who are trying to invest in the industry. That is another powerful argument for the Government going back to the drawing board, holding discussions with the industry and trying to achieve a just and fair result.
Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East): Although I support the Government proposal and oppose the Opposition amendment, I speak as an individual and as a concerned parent who has served locally as a councillor for a long time. I have seen the trendsperhaps not those in other parts of the country, but those in Scotland, where alcopops or coolers have become the predominant drink taken up by youngsters. The Treasury explanatory notes show that uptake of alcopops has doubled, but I do not believe that the increase in cider uptake, especially in my part of the world, is comparable. Such arguments are fatuous.
During my time in Committee, I came to hold the hon. Members for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) and for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) in very high regard. I believe that they are decent, polite and knowledgeable adversaries, but this advocacy of the amendment on behalf of the drinks industry does them and their party no particular credit.
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): What the hon. Gentleman says about alcopops in his part of the world may be true. None the less, does he accept the comments about cider made in Committee by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and by me? Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that a strategy that cuts duty on one type of strong drink and raises it on another has no consistency, either in protecting industries or in protecting young people?
Mr. Luke: I am happy with my view on drinks taxation: it should be uniform and it should be high to discourage a large uptake, although I enjoy a beverage occasionally. Specifically, drinks targeted on and taken up by the young must be addressed, so I hope that those on the Front Bench take on board the points made by the hon. Gentleman and review the matter. I am setting out my concerns about the situation in my area.
The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (John Healey): On the objection raised by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and echoed by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), does my hon. Friend recognise that the chief medical officer's annual report for 2001 expressed concern about binge drinking and young drinkers? It also mentioned designer drinks, but it did not mention cider.
Mr. Tom Harris: Like me, my hon. Friend was present for the first couple of Committee sittings. He may recall the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) pointing out that alcopops are a particular favourite drink of members of Christchurch Conservative club. My hon. Friend may also remember that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) subsequently pointed out the 11.7 per cent. swing from the Liberal Democrats to the Conservatives in the Christchurch constituency at the 2001 general election. Does my hon. Friend agree that there may be a causal link between those two facts?
Mr. Luke: I am not particularly aware of the political situation in the Christchurch constituency, but I remember the informative and polite exchange between the hon. Member for Christchurch and me on that specific issue. I shall return to it, because certain elements must be addressed.
The Government's proposals have merit in several areas and they deserve universal support in the House. First, there is an anomaly in the tax regime that should be addressed. Secondly, given how such drinks are marketed and targeted, specifically at the younger drinker, there are moral and health imperatives to introduce this tax change. Any price increase may restrict access and discourage the purchase of what is a particularly addictive drink by the most vulnerable, young and often under-age consumers.
I was brought up in a strongly Presbyterian household, where the consumption of strong drink was frowned upon, but I must confess that I have lapsed from those strict religious leanings. [Hon. Members: "Shame."] One has to be open and honest in the House. I have become more of an irregular Episcopalian in later years. Like many of my generation, I was introduced to the demon drink through the accepted convention in Scotland at that timesipping lager and lime.
That mixed drink was commonly how young, inexperienced drinkers came to grips, for better or for worse, with the initially harsh taste of alcohol on the younger, more innocent palate. Alcohol was made much more acceptable by the use of a sweetener, and a dash of lime cost one old penny. Times have moved on, however, and the market has become more sophisticated. Young people today have much more money than the youngsters of my generation could ever have dreamed of.
Mr. Luke: Yes. More young people, often at an early age, are encouraged to take a drink whose true strength is often masked by sweetness, which is the basis of alcopops or coolers. Such drinks can have an impact on a younger person's health owing to greater intake prompted by sweetness and accessibility, and that can cause serious damage in later life.
The habit is strengthened through the fashionable image given to such drinks by high-profile marketing campaigns undertaken by the producers of the commodity who are promoting opposition to the tax change. Again, that marketing is aimed solely at the young and the partying life that they are so desperate to enjoy as an introduction to adulthood.