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10 Mar 2010 : Column 331

Kelvin Hopkins: My hon. Friend is obviously very youthful looking. No one challenged me, I have to say, but other staff were challenged, and the age limit was rigidly enforced. Indeed, not so long ago, two British sisters were on holiday in Florida, one over 21 and one under. Their holiday flat was entered by the local police who found them both drinking. The older sister was sent to prison for corrupting a minor-that is how seriously it is taken. I am not suggesting that we should be so draconian, but there are countries that take the issue a bit more seriously than we do. We have a long way to go.

Anne Milton (Guildford) (Con): I know a little bit about Canada, which has quite vicious laws on alcohol. Instead, it has a significant problem with cannabis misuse.

Kelvin Hopkins: I cannot comment on that as I know nothing about cannabis, never having used it. I know that others have differing views on cannabis, but that is for another debate.

In Sweden, they have had serious problems with alcohol. They had typical northern European binge drinking-people would not drink for a fortnight but then get unconscious on two bottles of schnapps. At one time, everyone had a little black book and had to record the amount of drink bought-like a rationing book. That was abolished in the late 1950s, but they still have the systembolagets-the state-run off-licences that control the sale of drink. In Norway, which the Committee also visited, I was surprised to find that in the square by the Parliament building a pint of beer cost £5, so they have raised their prices. Northern Europe has long had a drink problem-it may be to do with the long winters.

Mr. Syms: Did the price put the hon. Gentleman off?

Kelvin Hopkins: I certainly thought about having more than one, but by nature I am a person of moderation, although I must say that I am an imbiber of alcohol myself-I enjoy good wine. The hon. Gentleman has talked about people stealing drinks from their parents, but if my son or daughter started stealing my good Burgundy, I would be very upset-but that is another story.

The UK is now awash with cheap alcohol, which causes appalling damage to lives: it causes death and violence in hospitals and homes. Domestic violence is always, it seems to me, associated with alcohol, as too, time and again, is violence. If we can reduce the excessive consumption of cheap alcohol, of which there are oceans, we can solve many other problems as well. My particular concern, however, is health-we are discussing a Health Committee report-and especially foetal alcohol syndrome, which is a subject that I have raised in the House before, and which has been raised in another place by the noble Lord Mitchell, who made a fine speech on 18 October 2004, and subsequently introduced a Bill to try to persuade the Government to put labelling on alcohol about alcohol damage to foetuses.

The problem first became evident in South Africa, where many women working on wine estates were paid, in part, in alcohol. Vast numbers of children suffered serious foetal damage: it changes the shape of the face and causes physical as well as psychological and mental damage. In extreme cases, it can be obvious, but of course there is a penumbra-a sliding scale-and a
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much lower level of damage of which we are not quite aware yet. We do not know how common it is. Who knows? All the problems of behavioural disorders among young children in schools, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, might be alcohol associated. Some research is leading in that direction. It certainly affects IQ, academic ability and the ability to concentrate-all things needed in school-and behavioural disorders might be a symptom as well.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): The hon. Gentleman is making a lot of sense. Does he agree that the standardised labelling for alcoholic products is key, because it empowers people, including pregnant women? It gives them the facts so that they can take personal responsibility and make the right decisions.

Kelvin Hopkins: The hon. Gentleman is right, and I will come to that point soon.

This week, the Herald Scotland reported on research conducted by Dr. Jonathan Sher, director of research, policy and programmes for the Children in Scotland study. According to the Herald Scotland, the

what I was hinting at before-

If it is a self-regarding action-for instance, if a middle-aged man decides to drink himself to death-it is very sad, but he does it to himself. If, in doing so, however, a child is damaged for life, the action is against someone else as well. It is, no doubt, deeply worrying for many mothers. Is it not sensible that we warn people from now on that, if they drink during pregnancy, they could and, if they drink excessively, definitely will, damage their children for life? There is much detail in the report, into which I do not need to go now, but the sheer numbers in Scotland suggest that about 10,000 children in Britain have visible FAS problems. On foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, we are talking about hundreds of thousands and, who knows, possibly even more. This a very serious problem, so we need to persuade young women not to drink when they are pregnant, but unfortunately the two are associated, because lots of young women do drink to excess, and perhaps getting pregnant when young and drinking are related-they get pregnant because they have been drunk and taken advantage of by men.

Teenage pregnancy in Britain is six times higher than in Holland. In many ways, Holland and Britain are similar countries-in terms of culture and the ethnic mix-but we have six times more teenage pregnancies than Holland. Is that associated, possibly, with teenage drinking? I suspect that a lot of it is. However, not only does that cause a problem in terms of getting pregnant in the first place, but those young women continue drinking and then damage their babies before they are born. That is deeply worrying and something that I have been concerned about for a long time.

It is time to take serious action, and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to take my suggestions back to her colleagues in the Government and to start to think seriously about action. My minimum suggestion is for a seven-point plan-it could be eight, nine, 10 or 12 points. The first is for warning labels on all alcoholic drinks stating that if a pregnant woman drinks, she
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might damage or, if she drinks to excess, will damage her baby for life. That should be on walls in pubs and on all alcoholic drinks. We should have public information on television, radio and other media about that. Public information should be displayed wherever appropriate to ensure that all women know that, if they drink when pregnant, they are likely to damage their baby.

Sandra Gidley: In France, it is now compulsory to indicate on pack labelling the shape of a pregnant woman with a cross through it to get the message across literally at the point of drink. Presumably, the hon. Gentleman would support something along those lines.

Kelvin Hopkins: Absolutely. The Americans use wording that I have mentioned before to the hon. Lady-so I will not go into the details now-and I think that Lord Mitchell, in a debate in another place, referred to the American labelling too. I cannot put my hand on it at the moment, but they use specific wording that can be seen very clearly. However, a picture of a pregnant woman with a cross through it is one way of drawing the problem to people's attention. Most women either are not aware of it or tend to pretend that it does not affect them because it is too inconvenient. That is deeply worrying, and we care more, I hope, about children than anything else. I am sure that that is true of most people.

The minimum price argument is overwhelming. The chief medical officer said that it should be a minimum of 50p per unit of alcohol. I would be happy with that. The great majority of moderate drinkers would not be affected at all and it would help the pub trade because people would not get tanked up on cheap alcohol before going to the pub-they would be drinking in the pubs instead. It would also save a valuable cultural feature of our society-the great pub-which is suffering greatly at the moment from cheap alcohol being drunk elsewhere. We should make all cheap alcohol sales techniques, such as happy hours, illegal, and enforce that rigidly.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Why does the hon. Gentleman insist that the vast majority of my constituents, who are perfectly moderate, decent drinkers who do not abuse alcohol whatsoever, should pay more for their alcohol from the supermarket in order to tackle a problem of youth drinking? Surely even he is not naive enough to believe that upping the price of a bottle of wine by 50p will eliminate youth drinking at a stroke.

Kelvin Hopkins: Sometimes politicians have to take a responsible stand and argue the case. If anybody says to me, "It is my right to buy alcohol that is cheaper than a bottle of water in my supermarket. How dare you suggest I should have that right taken away?", I would say that we are damaging children, people and our society by having cheap alcohol. We have to say that to people and be bold about it.

Mr. Barron: Does my hon. Friend think that the unreconstructed Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) would have done better to come in here at 1 o'clock when this debate started, rather than coming in here and throwing these lines about in Parliament as he has been doing since he was elected here? It would do
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himself some good, and be better for the people of Shipley, if he represented their needs as opposed to his prejudices.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Can we keep some order in this debate and show some responsibility? I understand the points that hon. Members are making, but none the less let us keep it at a calm level.

Kelvin Hopkins: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I like to think that I am behaving in an orderly fashion, but I cannot speak for other colleagues.

There is an argument even for raising the minimum drinking age. In America, it is 21, but it is much lower in Britain. That is something that we should consider, and in time we may do so-but not at the moment.

I would also restore the former limits on licensing hours. I was unhappy about the legislation that our Government put through. I raised the matter with the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell), and met her twice to say that I was concerned. Eventually I voted with the Government, on the grounds that they were going to examine the evidence, see whether the change was a good idea and consider whether or not to restrict opening hours again. I suggest that those former licensing hours should indeed be restored.

There is a vast ocean of cheap alcohol coming through our ports every year. The white van brigade is bringing in alcohol and selling it cheaply to friends and neighbours. We should restore the former limits on alcohol imports that we used to have and rigidly enforce them. People could still bring in plenty: we are talking about the ability to bring in 90 bottles of wine for personal consumption. That was the kind of level that we had. Some people might say, "Well, it would upset the European Union," but I am not terribly worried about upsetting the European Union if it means protecting the health and lives of our citizens. If the same people said, "I'm sorry, but it's all about the free market. You've got to allow cheap alcohol to come in," I would say, "Well, tough. We're not going to." We could have a derogation from the legislation or whatever we needed.

Those are some of the things that we ought to do. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to take those suggestions seriously. We need urgent action if we are to prevent another generation of children from suffering from the effects of the alcohol consumed by their mothers, and often innocently consumed by them without realising the damage that they are doing. Thousands of young people in our society have already been damaged by alcohol, and there are possibly millions who, having suffered marginal effects from the alcohol consumed by their mothers during pregnancy, are performing less well at school and so on. The problem is so serious that the Government should act now in all the ways that I have suggested.

2.41 pm

Dr. Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest) (Ind): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), because nobody could ever accuse him of pussyfooting around. I strongly support his demands for urgent action.

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Several hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), the Chairman of the Health Committee, have invoked history. I will go a bit further back. In "A History of the Norman Kings", written just after 1066 and all that, William of Malmesbury said:

We are therefore talking about an age-old problem-one that is as old as the hills.

The hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) did not do this, but my job in these debates is to terrify people. The only occasion on which I made somebody change their mind in this House was in the debate on smoking in public places. An inveterate smoker from the other side of the House came up to me afterwards and said, "You've scared me stiff. I'm giving up this moment." Whether I shall be able to change anybody's mind, and in particular the Minister's, I do not know, but I shall certainly have a good go.

The hon. Member for Luton, North pointed out the problems in pregnancy, which are absolutely disastrous. If women drink heavily at the end of pregnancy, their babies can be born addicted to alcohol and will have to go through the withdrawal process. That is absolutely horrendous. Alcohol in excess is a drug of addiction. It is a poison in excess, leading to comas and things that, in the past, have led to deaths in police stations-the low blood sugar that is not recognised, so that people die of hypoglycaemia. People vomit and then aspirate their vomit. Alcohol is not a stimulant; it is a narcotic. However, it is a very poor narcotic, because it works as a diuretic, which obviously means that people cannot sleep because they have to get up to spend a large number of pennies. Alcohol disturbs the sleep pattern and worsens sleep disorders. The British National Formulary lists 36 drugs or groups of drugs with which alcohol interacts. It is therefore a dangerous substance in excess.

However, I am with everybody else: not consumed in excess, alcohol can bring a great amount of pleasure, and I would never miss out on the House of Commons claret, for example, or several of the other potions that we can have here.

Acute binges increase the risk of death, and of injury and criminal charges, either of which can ruin a young person's life. We heard from ambulance drivers about what can happen after bank holiday evenings, and on Halloween or similar occasions. Not only do they have to ferry drunk people to hospital, but if those drunks vomit in the ambulance or vomit over them, they have to clean out the ambulance-it is out of service for ages-and change their uniforms. The effects of binge drinking are horrendous.

Chronic excessive consumption of alcohol can cause cirrhosis of the liver. Although I was never a liver specialist, in my day one had to do a little bit of everything, and the most distressing deaths were those from cirrhosis of the liver, with patients suffering from jaundice, cachexia, a grossly swollen stomach and distended veins, and vomiting blood. The original instrument of torture was still in use when I was working. The Sengstaken tube is a great big tube with two balloons on the end that the doctor would ram down the patient's throat. The doctor blew up the distal balloon and pulled it
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back, preventing it from going back into the stomach. There was also a big balloon in the stomach that the doctor blew up to press the varices and try to stop the bleeding. There are better ways of doing that now, but cirrhosis of the liver is still an horrendous illness.

I shall not go into the costs to the NHS or the effects on families, because those have been mentioned, but what can be done? Education is certainly important, but it has been tried for a long time and it has failed. We were told about a project in St. Neots involving a community alcohol partnership, which introduced a system of stopping and searching teenage under-age drinkers. The results included a 42 per cent. decrease in antisocial behaviour in less than a year, a 94 per cent. decrease in under-age people found in possession of alcohol and a 92 per cent. decrease in alcohol-related litter at key hot spots. That was relatively simple and highly effective.

Quite a lot has been said about limiting advertising. We made several important recommendations in the report that I do not think have been mentioned. First, on early detection and intervention, we suggested that any doctor or nurse who has an interaction with a patient should be alive to the possibility that they are on the way to alcohol dependency. If that can be detected early, we can do something about preventing it. We also said, in recommendation 16:

From that we recommended a target. I know that lots of people are not that in favour of targets, but the target that we recommended was extremely sensible:

That is so obvious.

Last week I had the great pleasure of judging a competition in the House in which five groups of A-level students, from five different schools and sixth-form colleges, each presented a party manifesto, with a logo and a motto. I gave the prize to students from King's high school in Warwick. One of the suggestions in the health part of their manifesto said:

That is an example of young people recognising the tremendous risks to their peers and making some very sensible suggestions. I am even thinking of putting them into my manifesto for the election that is coming fairly soon.

Another group has also underlined the importance of a minimum age for drinking. However, I believe that pricing is the real weapon, as many hon. Members have said. We have not yet decided whether measures should take the form of tax increases, minimum prices or both, but this is certainly important. I should like to enjoy another quote with the House. It is from "The Surgeon's Daughter" by Sir Walter Scott:

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