Queen’s Speech – Debate (Binge Drinking)

My Lords, the subjects of home, legal and constitutional affairs touch the lives of every single citizen in the United Kingdom and have been of much policy interest in recent years. I should like to focus on the problems of binge drinking, which has created a major headache for large numbers of people, has disastrous health consequences for a number of people, and is partly responsible for a crime epidemic that lies at the heart of much misery in our country.

Although I am a teetotaller, I am not suggesting that people should totally abstain from drinking, but I am sure that we would all like to see people drinking in moderation and behaving responsibly. If you go to any town centre on a Friday or Saturday night, what do you see? You see people drinking excessively, fighting among themselves, confronting the police and security staff, causing property damage and dirtying the streets. This type of behaviour is unacceptable and needs to be corrected urgently.

The cost of binge drinking in the United Kingdom is estimated to amount to around £20 billion. This includes the cost of alcohol-related illness and crime, the cost incurred by the police and local authorities, industry and the National Health Service. Figures produced by the Office for National Statistics show that the number of alcohol-related deaths in the United Kingdom doubled between 1991 and 2006, with a 4 per cent increase between 2005 and 2006 to 8,758 in that year.

Deaths occur due to a variety of obvious causes such as liver problems and not-so-evident causes such as different kinds of cancers. In addition, alcohol plays a major role in crime and different types of disorders. There are of course bodily injuries and the cost of damage to property relating to such activities is in excess of £8 billion a year. Numerous road traffic accidents are the result of excessive alcohol consumption and hundreds of people are killed or maimed, and there is of course damage to vehicles and other properties. Drinking alcohol results in a number of domestic violence cases and in people being absent from work. There is also a problem relating to excessive drinking among teenagers and children, and a number of school children have been suspended for drinking alcohol in schools.

I should declare that I am in the insurance industry, and a considerable number of the claims that we deal with are due to excessive consumption of alcohol. These claims relate to personal injury and property damage.

One reason for the increase of binge intoxication is the gradual increase in the alcohol content of wines, beers and particularly lagers. Twenty years ago, the average alcohol content of beers and lagers was 3.5 per cent or 4 per cent. Now these drinks have alcohol content of 5 per cent or 5.5 per cent. In certain lagers the alcohol content could be as much as 8 per cent.

It seems inconceivable to me and to a great number of other people that the Government appeared so relaxed about the introduction of 24-hour drinking. Indeed, the vice-chairman of the Police Federation recently commented that,

“the Government didn’t stop to think of the consequences of its actions when it introduced round the clock drinking”.

This measure has put enormous strain on the resources of the police and has been responsible for an explosion in the number of incidents of anti-social behaviour. I should like to see a reversal of the Government’s unleashing of 24-hour drinking on our towns and cities by providing local authorities with the discretion to apply powers as they see appropriate. Local authorities are best placed to consider the particular needs of the communities that they serve, and they are accountable to those electorates. I should appreciate the Minister’s response to this suggestion.

We need to take action to address the problem of loss-leader sales of alcohol, where alcohol is sold below the cost price. A proper review of the alcohol duty regime would be helpful, with a particular view to increasing the duty on those drinks most associated with binge drinking—alcopops, super-strength beers and super-strength ciders. More effective use of the tax system to tackle binge drinking should be considered. I would kindly ask the Minister to comment on the matter of taxation in this regard.

I hope also that the Minister will be in a position to update the House on what steps are being taken as a consequence of the recent alcohol price, promotion and harm review conducted earlier in the year. The Government have reported that they received more than 3,300 representations on the Department of Health’s proposals for the introduction of a mandatory code of practice for the alcohol industry. Although it is not possible to calculate the exact costs of treating alcohol-related conditions, it is estimated that the cost of treatment drugs has doubled in the past 10 years. The Alcohol Needs Assessment Research Project, published in November 2005, found that in 2003-04, a total of £217 million was being spent by the National Health Service and local authorities on specialist alcohol treatment, treating some 63,000 people for alcohol-related disorders. It is estimated that around 1.1 million people were actually dependent on alcohol.

We need to consider carefully how best we can tackle the scourge of alcoholism in this country. The UK Alcohol Treatment Trial has estimated that for every pound spent on alcohol treatment, the public sector saves £5. Yet the problem of binge drinking appears to be growing out of control. In April of this year, the number of people receiving structured treatment for alcohol misuse was 44,863, according to the Government, and the consequential costs that all of us are having to bear are spiralling.

It is apparent that we have a major problem and that the Government themselves have recognised that more action needs to be taken. I hope that the Minister can provide more assurance that appropriate action will be taken. We are looking forward to receiving details of the proposed measures. I would certainly welcome co-ordinated measures which give local authorities powers to ban “happy hours”, all-you-can-drink offers and other price promotions. We should like to see cigarette-type health warnings in the media and cans and bottles must show alcohol unit content. Some of the supermarkets and retailers are selling alcohol at a cheap price and we need to consider banning the sale of alcohol at less than cost price.

Finally, it would be welcome if we considered introducing compulsory training for staff in any premises selling alcohol. At present, this training is voluntary, but we need to think about making this mandatory.

Updated: 27/08/2009 — 3:28 PM