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Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP):
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee on producing a consensual, constructive report, and I hope that they are successful in getting the recommendations implemented. Will he compare and contrast the consensual way that he and his colleagues approach the issue with what has happened in Scotland, where Liberal and Labour Members have acted as an oppositionist bloc to stop the very recommendations that he suggests? We could implement those recommendations in Scotland
with the assistance of Liberal and Labour Members in Scotland. Will he give them advice? Will he help them and us to implement those recommendations?
Mr. Barron: The Health Committee is designated to consider England and Wales, not the devolved Assemblies. What the hon. Gentleman mentions is a matter for the Scottish Parliament, but I hear what he says. Whether other people hear what he says is a matter for them.
Let me go straight on to say that we note that minimum pricing is supported by many prominent health experts, economists and the Association of Chief Police Officers, which gave evidence to the Committee. Indeed, the chief medical officer in his latest annual report supports the introduction of minimum pricing. I will go a bit further into that detail in a few minutes.
Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): How does the right hon. Gentleman reconcile the fact that alcohol is relatively cheap in France, yet the incidence of alcohol-related disease is declining there, as he said, whereas alcohol is relatively expensive in this country and we have a bigger problem?
Mr. Barron: In part, the answer is cultural and I will come on to that, as we need to consider it. However, we went to France to take some evidence last September, and we found that, instead of what was considered to be steady consumption, binge drinking by young people is increasing there. France may face the problems that we are experiencing in this country if it does not take appropriate action. I am not saying that we know what action should be taken at every level, but if France follows our pattern of binge drinking among young people-it looks as though things are moving that way-it will have to take more action. Certainly, we must take more action to try to overcome the problem.
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): On the price of alcohol, 40 or 50 years ago the death rate from alcohol in France was quite appalling. It was monstrous. Perhaps the French have learned from their terrible history that alcohol causes terrible health problems and death, and perhaps we have yet to learn that lesson properly.
A myth is widely propagated by parts of the drinks industry and politicians that a rise in prices would unfairly affect the majority of moderate drinkers. Precisely because they are moderate drinkers, a minimum price of, for example, 40p per unit of alcohol would have little effect. It would effectively mean that a woman who drinks the recommended maximum of 15 units a week could buy her weekly total of alcohol for £6. Of course, probably not everyone drinks industrial white cider only.
Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for sharing the Committee's interesting report with us. Will he clarify, however, that the £6 figure relates to the off-trade and that no one could buy those units at that price in the on-trade? That is, of course, one of the big problems that we face, as the Committee acknowledges.
Opponents also claim that heavy drinkers are insensitive to price changes, but their consumption as a group will be most affected by price rises, as they drink so much of the alcohol purchased in this country. Minimum pricing would most affect those who drink cheap alcohol-in particular, young binge drinkers and heavy low-income drinkers, who suffer most from liver disease. It is estimated that a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol would save about 3,000 lives a year, and that a minimum price of 40p per unit of alcohol would save 1,100 lives a year.
Of course, minimum pricing would have other benefits. Unlike rises in duty, minimum pricing would benefit traditional pubs-the on-trade, as the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) suggested-so, unsurprisingly, it is supported by the Campaign for Real Ale, which also gave evidence to the Committee. We are all concerned about the closures of public houses in this country. They are closing for many reasons, not necessarily just the price of alcohol, but it is true to say that minimum pricing would be more likely to support local, traditional pubs than to do anything adverse to them.
Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): I am following my right hon. Friend's analysis closely. I am not sure whether it leads me to the same conclusion that we should interfere in the alcohol pricing mechanism across the board, but does he agree that the duty on white cider, which is often what those people who are most affected by alcohol are drinking, should be increased to the same as that on beer and that it is wrong that the duty on spirits has increased by only 20 per cent. over the past 13 years, compared with 50 per cent. for beer?
Mr. Barron: I was about to move on to precisely that issue. I understand that some industrial white cider, which is the most appropriate way to describe it, can be bought for 20p a unit in supermarkets. It is the stuff that we see young children and other people consuming on park benches. That has to stop, but it is not stopping. Indeed, it is being promoted in this country as we speak, and we have asked the Government to consider that in detail. I am talking about pricing, but other hon. Members may want to talk about the wider issues raised by our report.
Kelvin Hopkins: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way yet again. On the problem of supermarkets versus pubs, thousands of young people get tanked up on cheap booze from supermarkets before they go the pub. Does that not undermine the pub and encourage irresponsible drinking, too?
Mr. Barron: Yes. From the evidence that we took, I think it is called front-loading. Many years ago, when I was working in industry and went out to the club on Saturday nights, I often saw people bending down to bring out of their handbag little bottles of spirits to top up their drinks. Front-loading has previously occurred in one or two areas, but I suspect that the availability of alcohol in cost terms now means that people do not have to do that with spirits any more.
Minimum pricing would also encourage a switch to weaker wines and beers-the Committee emphasised that point. With a minimum price of 40 per cent. per unit, a 10 per cent. alcohol by volume wine would cost a minimum of £2.80, and a 13 per cent. ABV wine about £3.60. Some people pay £6, £8 or £10 for bottle containing six or eight units of alcohol. No one who buys wine at that level will be hurt in the pocket. A good exercise for Members to do the next time they go to the supermarket is to go along the shelves turning around the wine bottles to see how many units of alcohol they contain, which will give them a practical idea of the effect of what we propose. In my view, average drinkers, as we call them, would not be harmed by what we propose.
Of course, without an increase in duty, minimum pricing would lead to an increase in the profits of supermarkets and the drinks industry. Anyone who looks at our report will see what we said about how supermarkets in particular promote alcohol and about the mechanisms they use to do so-discounting and so on. I do not intend to discuss that this afternoon, but it is an important area for us to look at. To increase profits in that way would not be helpful.
We believe that alcohol duty should continue to rise year on year, but unlike in recent years, duty increases should predominantly be on stronger alcohol drinks, notably spirits. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) mentioned the situation in Scotland. The Committee learned that nowadays the spirit of choice in Scotland is the £5 bottle of vodka-we can compare that with what spirits cost 10, 15 or 20 years ago. Now, they are affordable to young people, and they are drinking them-we provide evidence of that in our report. It is deeply worrying.
According to Treasury calculations-hon. Members can intervene on me to show how hopeless my understanding is-the duty on a bottle of spirits was 60 per cent. of male average manual weekly earnings in 1947; in 1973, when value added tax was imposed in addition to duty, duty was 16 per cent. of earnings; by 1983, it was 11 per cent.; and by 2002, it had fallen to 5 per cent. According to calculations undertaken by the Treasury at the Committee's request, for our report, if the duty on a bottle of spirits had increased since the early 1980s at the same rate as earnings, it would now be £62. If the rate had increased in line with the retail prices index and not with average male earnings, the duty on a bottle of spirits would now be £38.60. The Committee examined questions of licensing-who can sell alcohol-and accessibility in terms of where it can be obtained, but the accessibility of alcohol in terms of income has seen an extraordinary turnaround, especially that of the heavier stuff.
Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Has the right hon. Gentleman decided not to consider the question of advertising because this is an estimates debate and he does not want to go down that road? Does he have any concerns about the extent to which, through advertising, the excessive drinking of alcohol is glorified?
There is great detail on that in our report. The Committee did not talk only to the drinks industry but took evidence from people who act as their agents in promoting alcohol. Many years ago, when I was looking at the promotion of tobacco, the methods
used in relation to various age groups, voluntary codes and so on, I probably had a firmer view on how tobacco was promoted and was strongly opposed to it. I am pleased that this House has legislated to get rid of it. The Committee did not make firm recommendations on alcohol advertising, but there are points on how alcohol is promoted and young people's perceptions. There are voluntary codes-people under 25 should not be used in advertising and so on. The subject is in our report, and perhaps one or two of my fellow members of the Committee will say something about it. I decided to stick with pricing in my speech, but the hon. Gentleman raises an important matter. We spend public money on trying to educate people about being more responsible; does alcohol promotion act against our work on health education? I will leave that question for another day, but it should be asked, none the less.
I have said what the duty on spirits would have been had we not changed the mechanisms and dropped the links altogether in recent years. Neither I nor the Committee recommend an immediate leap to those levels of duty on spirits, but we should certainly make a start. Availability of alcohol, not just in terms of where it can be bought but in terms of cost, is, we believe, the reason for the increase in drinking in this country and in ill health caused by alcohol. We think that a start should be made. We recommend that duties on spirits be returned in stages to the same percentage of average earnings as in the past. The duty on industrial white cider should also be increased-there is no question about that. Industrial white cider is easily obtainable and cheaper per unit than other forms of alcohol, and is drunk by many binge drinkers, old and young.
Beer under 2.8 per cent. ABV can be taxed at a different rate. We recommend the duty on that category of beer be reduced. Now, only one beer-Welton's Pride 'n' Joy, which is praised by CAMRA-is in that category. The Treasury should consider how to set duties on drinks, not to encourage people to stop drinking alcohol-no one wants to make people stop-but to increase the availability of lower alcohol content drinks. That will help people to look after their health a little better, which I would like to be able to do. That is what the Committee arrived at, with Treasury decisions running alongside the wider issues.
Any prices increase must be part of a wider policy aimed at changing our attitude to alcohol. It has been said that France's drinking culture is different from ours-children there aged five or six will have a glass of wine with meals and so on-but as I said, there is evidence of increasing binge drinking by young people. The French must be very aware of that.
Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): I apologise for not being here at the start of my right hon. Friend's interesting speech. From talking to parents and police officers, I have learned that in parts of our community there seems to be a culture of parents giving their children drink to take out on to the street-in fact, some give their children drink, then drop them off at certain known trouble spots, on the basis that they know where they are and what they are drinking. Is that not a terrible state of affairs? It makes the police's job much more difficult. Do we not have to get a much stronger message to that section of the community that that is not the right thing to do, and to provide better education for them?
Mr. Barron: I agree entirely. Any parents in this day and age who are giving their children cans or bottles of alcohol, then dropping them off in a place where there is a culture of drinking, are not doing their children any favours. It could well be argued that what they are doing is potentially shortening the lives of their own children. That is not a responsible position for any parent to take. It was not the position that I took as a parent, although I cannot tell my children what to do now: they are all grown up and two have children themselves. Parents who do what my hon. Friend describes are doing no one, especially not their children, any favours, but it is happening. I do not have the statistics in front of me, but it is a well-known fact that under-age drinkers get much of their alcohol not just from somebody aged 18 buying it from the local shop and then handing it on to them, but via their family. Parents should be well aware of that.
We said in the report that the policy must be aimed at the millions who are damaging their health by harmful drinking, but it is time to recognise that problem drinkers reflect society's attitude to alcohol. There is a good deal of evidence to show that the number of heavy drinkers in a society is directly related to average consumption. Living in a culture that encourages drinking leads more people to drink to excess. Changing the culture will require a raft of policies. This afternoon I am speaking about one of them-pricing-but there are many other aspects that need to be addressed.
One of the most interesting statistics reported to the Committee was that if people who drink in this country-there are quite a lot of us-drank no more than the number of units per week recommended for women and for men, alcohol consumption would be reduced by about 40 per cent. The alcohol industry was not happy to engage in the debate about that, but if those statistics are true, as we believe they are, they indicate the extent to which people in the UK drink beyond the guidelines recommended to protect their health.
Let me deal with the Government response to the report. As I said earlier, they are not in a position to respond in the usual form, but my hon. Friend the Minister put out a press release. I hope she was not planning to read it out this afternoon, as I shall quote extensively from it. She stated in response to our report:
"Alcohol is an increasing challenge to people's health. We"-
"are working hard to reverse the trend and are constantly seeking better ways to tackle it."
"Since 2004 this Government has adopted a strategic approach to tackle alcohol harms, from under-age drinking and binge drinking through to longer-term harmful drinking."
"current levels of alcohol-related hospital admissions, crime, and deaths are unacceptable."
"Much more can, and will, be done to turn this around, but the change won't happen overnight".
"New and strengthened campaigns from this month will raise public awareness further on the link between drinking too much and poor health, and on the harm that alcohol can do to children."
"have already taken new powers to tackle the worst irresponsible promotions such as 'drink as much as you like for £5'."
First-year students at university-I have one in my family-are offered the chance to go into a nightclub and drink as much alcohol as they like for the price of the £10 admission fee. It is extraordinary that alcohol is so easy to access. When I was young, I lived in a working-class culture where young men went out drinking beer, even before they were 18. We would do that one or two nights a week. Although I was working, I could not afford to go out more than that.
The idea that young people now can go out and, for £10, drink as much alcohol as they want-spirits or beer, as I understand it-is frightening. Young people do not know everything, although they think they do from the age of about 16 onwards. The damage that such promotions may be doing to them, which may not be found out for years, is frightening. I am pleased to say that since our report, the Government are taking action, and I know that they were working on the matter before.
Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): The Committee took evidence showing that in Southampton Tuesday is the night for students to go out drinking because that is the night they can drink as much as they like for £10. Will the right hon. Gentleman also condemn the drinking clubs such as Carnage, which target new students and organise pub crawls of all the pubs in town for a fee? That causes great distress to many local residents.
Mr. Barron: Indeed. I understand that some of those promotions are coming to an end, and quite right too, in my view. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us more when she responds to the debate. We as a society must get back to a more balanced approach to alcohol. Accessibility and cost are two aspects that must be tackled.
"We will continue to look at how we can tackle the problems caused by cheap alcohol. We will consider this within a framework which respects the rights of responsible consumers whilst making a real difference to the types of excessive drinking that damage individuals and families and are a cost to our society."
I agree entirely. The aim is not to punish the average drinker in any way-I rarely see average drinkers sitting round with bottles of white cider. The aim is to attack binge drinking, and minimum pricing is one method. The study that was done in Sheffield was carried out in the cultures that I have lived in all my life, certainly since the age of 8 in south Yorkshire. It concluded that minimum pricing would work in that situation to cut binge drinking.
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