HC Deb 18 February 1997 vol 290 cc830-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Brandreth.]

8.56 pm
Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South-East)

I welcome this opportunity to debate the effects of alcohol on young people, as, I am sure, do many other hon. Members, because we do not often debate the subject. This is not an attempt in any way to attack reputable landlords, pub owners or off-licensees. However, there is a problem among a minority of them.

It seems that there has been a general lack of co-ordination in our approach to the problem. More than 40,000 people die each year from alcohol-related illnesses. Statistics compiled by a voluntary agency called Turning Point show that alcohol is the third biggest killer in the United Kingdom after heart disease and cancer. Many of the effects of alcohol misuse are long term and appear only after many years of abuse, which means that young people do not realise the effects of their drinking until it is too late. Acute intoxication, which occurs after heavy drinking, has a short-term effect that can depress the central nervous system and lead to coma or even death. Long-term effects involve the development of dependency and alcoholism, detrimental effects on the liver and kidneys, memory loss, severe depression and a deterioration in the individual's personal life.

Several surveys and reports have been commissioned in the past few years to discover the extent of alcohol use among children and young people. The most notable findings are that 42 per cent. of 12 to 14-year-olds and 82 per cent. of 15 to 17-year-olds have drunk alcohol. It shows that an extremely large number of young people have experience with alcohol. In 1994, 17 per cent. of 11 to 15-year-olds were regular drinkers, compared with only 13 per cent. in 1990. That points to an increase in the habitual use of alcohol.

A particularly disturbing statistic is the apparent ease with which young people have access to alcohol, with 52 per cent. of 15-year-olds having purchased alcohol at some point. The ease with which under-age drinkers seem to be acquiring alcohol is a major cause for concern. Children appear to obtain alcohol in several ways. The first is by frequenting pubs. It is no secret that young people go to pubs before they are 18. That is not a new phenomenon, but it does not mean that we should be complacent about it. One solution to that aspect of the problem might be to increase the training of managers and staff of licensed premises. They should be made fully aware of their responsibilities as gatekeepers of the licensing laws. Training is also a practical way of ensuring that all pub staff have a knowledge of the licensing laws, thereby limiting the harm to young people.

The second method that young people use to obtain alcohol is by purchasing it at off-licences. It is widely suspected that the bulk of illegal alcohol sales to children are made by a small number of disreputable traders. Those traders are destroying the good name of one of our most successful industries and, at the same time, damaging our children's health. Off-licences could be deterred from selling alcohol to children and youths by increasing the fines that those establishments are required to pay when they are charged with selling alcohol to under-age drinkers.

A third concern is the vast appeal of alcopops to children. Despite the claims of some brewers, this new breed of alcoholic drinks is marketed predominantly at young people. That has led inevitably to such drinks appealing to those under the age of 18 and encouraging them to drink alcohol. Those points were supported by the Advertising Standards Authority ruling in January 1996.

We welcome the efforts that the Department of Health has made in the area of health education, but much remains to be done. There is no strategic approach to tackling the problem—instead the Government have adopted a piecemeal approach. There is a lack of Government funding. As written answers to questions that I tabled before Christmas show, there is no co-ordinated approach across Britain to providing rehabilitation and support to young people who have become dependent on alcohol. The Minister does not even know how much each health authority spends on the problem.

A more thoughtful approach is required in order to tackle the problem. We need a central focus where information may be shared throughout the country about which treatments work and what is happening where. The Coventry and Warwickshire alcohol advisory service in my constituency is running a successful project. An integral part of the project is a student education scheme, which allows young people to research and deliver alcohol education to schools and youth groups in Coventry and Warwickshire. The service provides young people with the necessary information that will enable them to make intelligent decisions about alcohol consumption.

Mr. Brian David Jenkins (South-East Staffordshire)

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the project being run by the Coventry and Warwickshire alcohol advisory service. Is my hon. Friend aware that, despite the success of the service, youth and alcohol workers who are trying to run education programmes find that there are no appropriate, up-to-date materials available? Does he agree that the Government should take a lead on the issue and work with the many interested parties to provide the initiatives necessary to tackle the serious problem of under-age drinking in our towns?

Mr. Cunningham

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I cannot make the point any better than he has done. We must do more to teach young people throughout Britain about a civilised approach to drinking. We must make them understand that it is neither normal nor acceptable for people—especially young people—to embark on regular drinking binges that leave them in an unconscious state or worse. They must understand that social drinking means only a moderate intake.

The link between alcohol and youth crime is well documented. Too many magistrates too often hear the line, "I was under the influence of alcohol," as an excuse for public disorder or criminal behaviour. Some 44 per cent. of the victims of violent crime described their assailants as being drunk, and alcohol is associated with 60 per cent. to 70 per cent. of homicides, 70 per cent. of stabbings and 70 per cent. of beatings. In 88 per cent. of cases involving criminal damage and in 90 per cent. of those involving public disorder, the defendants were either drunk or had admitted to having consumed a significant amount of alcohol. It is therefore not surprising that the Home Office's own statistics—the British crime survey—show that people have come to associate drunken behaviour with crime and that they become wary of young people who are drinking.

Alcohol-related crime and disorder must be taken more seriously. There need to be more appropriate punishments for drunken behaviour and those who persistently offend should attend programmes designed to tackle their dependency. The drinks industry has an important role to play in the campaign. All producers, distributors and retailers should be required to adhere to a mandatory code of practice to ensure that their products do not disproportionately appeal to the under-age drinker.

A Department for Education and Employment circular that encouraged schools to provide substance misuse education only briefly touched on alcohol. We cannot simply add alcohol advice to any campaign against drugs, because they are two completely different problems. The Department for Education and Employment should ensure that students are taught that the culture that makes alcohol a symbol of status, power and mystique is wrong.

9.5 pm

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Cunningham) on having initiated the debate and I am grateful to him and to the Minister for allowing me some of their time to participate.

I should declare an interest: I am the chairman of the all-party group on alcohol misuse and, like all hon. Members, I recognise the risk that alcohol poses to our young people. Survey after survey has shown that children and teenagers are starting to drink alcohol at an earlier age than ever before and that they are drinking more and more on each occasion. That is a worrying trend and, if we are to reverse it, we shall need a strategy that focuses on the range of alcohol-related issues and not only on the problem of young people drinking in public, important though that is.

Alcohol is a greater risk to young people than Ecstasy and other drugs, yet little media attention is paid to it or to the warnings given of the dangers it poses to young people. We all remember Leah Betts and know of the tragic circumstances of her death; but I wonder how many hon. Members remember the name of Lindsay Grant? Lindsay was a 15-year-old on holiday in north Wales who died last year after drinking half a bottle of vodka. Only The Times newspaper covered her tragic story and I refer to it in order to show the complete contrast with the massive publicity given to any drug-related death. There was no public outcry at Lindsay's death, despite her parents' warning of the dangers to young people from alcohol. That highlights the unwillingness of the public, the media and policy makers to acknowledge that the risks posed by alcohol are as great as, if not greater than, those posed by drugs.

The problem of alcohol and young people can start to be properly identified only if we have in place a system for collecting data from the accident and emergency departments on the number of children and teenagers attending as a result of alcohol poisoning or other drink-related accidents. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of under-15s being admitted to hospital accident and emergency units with alcohol poisoning has risen tenfold from 1,000 recorded cases a year in the 1980s. Those figures need to be quantified, because there is currently a major gap in the collection of this sort of information by the national health service. Accumulation of information is important if we are to highlight the serious nature of the problem.

That is why I find it astonishing that the Government have decided to suspend the general household survey, which was the most useful measure of levels and patterns of alcohol consumption. Losing that survey will affect our ability to track progress towards the targets on alcohol consumption in "The Health of the Nation" White Paper. I hope that the Government might be persuaded to reconsider their decision on the future of that survey.

I am sure that the Minister is aware of the development of the so-called designer drinks and alcopops mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East. Those sweet-tasting drinks, with their sexy names and flashy bottles, have a high alcohol content. At 5.5 per cent., they are often stronger than many beers and ciders. Their taste gives them a particular appeal to children and teenagers.

Recent research carried out by the university of Strathclyde has shown how popular those designer drinks are with children between the ages of 12 and 17. Alcopops and designer drinks are already making a worrying situation worse, and there is genuine anxiety that the marketing of them is legitimising an illicit activity—under-age drinking.

I understand that Whitbread has promised to put on sale alcoholic "slush" drinks and milkshake-based alcoholic drinks. If that is true, I consider it to be grossly irresponsible. It is vital that we have solid regulations to ensure that these drinks do not appeal to the under-18s.

If we are serious about tackling alcohol misuse among children and teenagers, it is important that we teach those young people a safer approach to drinking, not one that aims only to prevent under-age purchase of alcohol. We must set up initiatives that involve parents, teachers, youth workers, the police and children. We need a national alcohol strategy, as I believe that that is the only way in which we shall tackle alcohol-related problems among young people.

Tackling, alcohol misuse among young people needs to be given a much higher priority in this country than is currently the case.

9.10 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Simon Burns)

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Cunningham) for raising this important issue today and for the contribution by the hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig). As they will appreciate, the Government take the issue very seriously, and I hope to reassure them tonight that the Government do have an important strategy for tackling not only the problems of drinking by young people and under-age drinking, but the whole issue of alcohol, alcohol abuse and "The Health of the Nation" in the context of alcohol.

We have been aware of a growing volume of public concern about alcopops—a matter which both hon. Gentlemen mentioned—since they began to appear in the summer of 1995, and we have kept a close eye on developments since then. We share the hon. Gentlemen's concerns about their potential appeal to young people so, in the Budget in November 1996, my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer increased the duty on them to bring them into line with beers of similar strength. From 1 January 1996, the duty on drinks of up to 5.5 per cent. alcohol by volume was increased by more than 40 per cent.—raising the tax on a bottle by between 7p and 8p a bottle.

Both hon. Gentlemen mentioned statistical evidence and information. There is a growing body of anecdotal and ad hoc survey evidence about the effects of these types of drinks on under-age drinkers. I am sure that both hon. Gentlemen have read the results of all the recently published surveys that have been reported in the press, which purport to show that these drinks have a significant appeal to teenagers, especially girls, and that younger teenagers may indeed be the main group to whom these drinks appeal.

A couple of weeks ago, the British Medical Journal reported a survey by the Centre for Social Marketing at the university of Strathclyde—which the hon. Member for Islwyn mentioned—which found that 14 and 15-year-olds found so-called designer drinks especially appealing, whereas 16 to 17-year-olds tended to regard them as childish drinks. Other surveys have shown that they may be perceived to be less strong than traditional drinks and easier to buy.

Although those reports are all matters of considerable concern to us, we feel that we lack reliable and comprehensive data about national consumption by young drinkers, especially comparable data over time on which to base conclusions about the effects of these drinks.

We have been collecting data on young people's drinking since 1988, and I hope that the hon. Member for Islwyn is especially reassured that we have been doing that by means of the biennial teenage drinking survey carried out by the Office for National Statistics. The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that the most recent survey was carried out during October and November last year, and that some results should be available by Easter this year. They will show whether teenage drinking has increased since the introduction of alcopops in 1995, and will give us more detailed information than has been available so far on who is drinking alcopops and how much those people are drinking.

Mr. Jimmy Wray (Glasgow, Provan)

How much of the revenue collected from alcopops has been given to local authorities to combat their misuse?

Mr. Burns

It is rather difficult to give statistics of that nature. As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate from what I said earlier, the tax increase introduced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor in November came into effect only on 1 January this year, so we have not had enough time to come up with such calculations. I can, however, tell the hon. Gentleman that through our general funding of the national health service—which, as he will know, has increased year on year on year on year in real terms under the present Government—money has been available to cater for the health needs of those who suffer from problems involving alcohol and, moreover, those suffering from more classical types of illness and from the effects of drug abuse. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

As I was saying, I hope that the results of the teenage drinking survey carried out last autumn will show us whether teenage drinking has increased since the introduction of alcopops in 1995, and will give us more detailed information than has been available so far on who is drinking alcopops and how much those people are drinking. At present, we have no consistent evidence available to us to suggest that alcopops are increasing the overall level of under-age drinking, or that the new-style drinks are supplanting the more traditional beer and cider. What information we have can sometimes be contradictory, which is why I consider it so important for us to have the results of the survey at Easter. We can then gain a better idea of exactly what is going on. As soon as we have accurate information, it will be easier for us to determine what steps we need to take in addition to those that we are already taking as part of our strategy to deal with alcohol abuse generally.

Although the Government lack consistent and comparable time series data to allow us to draw sensible conclusions about the effects of alcopops, we are tackling under-age drinking on a number of fronts—through legislation and, just as important, through better education and awareness of the effects of drinking. I hope that that will reassure the hon. Gentlemen, both of whom rightly mentioned the critical role that education must play and the actions that we can take, beyond education, to show that sensible drinking at the right age—and, of course, it is illegal to sell alcohol to those who are under age—will minimise the potential for health problems and other difficulties that young people may experience as they enter their 20s and, indeed, in later life.

Our education policy is well established. We believe that schools, colleges and the youth service should encourage young people to develop responsible attitudes to alcohol consumption. Young people need to learn how to make sensible choices about whether, when and how much to drink, and to resist persuasion and peer pressure to drink inappropriately or to excess.

The interdepartmental group reviewing the Government's sensible drinking message was very concerned about young people's drinking, as hon. Members would expect. In a report published in December 1995, it recognised the risks for young people drinking alcohol in unsafe amounts, and the responsibility of parents in regard to their children's introduction to alcohol. It added that young people needed to be aware of the specific risks from excessive drinking related to their life styles, and of the need to minimise those risks to prevent harm to themselves and others. To get the key messages across, we have been working since then with the Health Education Authority to produce health education materials offering advice to young people. A new campaign targeting young drinkers was launched by the HEA in the middle of January to highlight the risks of "binge" drinking and to encourage a more mature approach towards alcohol.

An interactive campaign Internet site—for those who are aficionados of the Internet, it is www.wrecked.co.uk—gives down-to-earth facts about drinking and the chance for youngsters to send their own messages and receive free campaign materials. I am sure that the House will be pleased to know, and it is certainly heartening from our point of view, that on its first day, 17 January this year, the site received 1,199 visitors.

In addition, a leaflet aimed at families to promote discussion of alcohol issues between young people and their parents has also been produced. More materials planned for later in the year will highlight the risks of getting drunk and satirise the "drunk" culture that is prevalent, sadly, among young people in particular—the notion that it is clever, trendy and acceptable for people to abuse alcohol on social occasions and, even more worryingly, on their own.

It is interesting to observe the way in which attitudes to drink-driving have changed over the past 10 or 15 years, partly or perhaps almost exclusively as a result of education. Fifteen years ago, however irresponsible it may seem now, if a friend or acquaintance was caught drink-driving, there was sympathy for that person because of all the trouble that he would have if he was unable to drive to work, drive socially and so on. Now it has become firmly established in the minds of the vast majority of people in this country that drink-driving is totally unacceptable. It is a fine achievement that that message has got across, and that society's attitudes towards drink-driving have changed so dramatically.

Through education and example, we must bring about a change of attitude, especially among young people, towards drinking and, in particular, under-age drinking, to ensure that it is not considered clever, socially acceptable or de rigueur when going out with one's friends to get drunk out of one's brain. People must be made aware of the dangers to health resulting from such an irresponsible action, the anti-social behaviour that it can create and the fact that it is not amusing for other people to be in the presence of someone who is drunk and sadly making a fool of himself.

We are not so naive as to pretend that young people will not encounter drink problems, or that members of their family will not do so. That is one of the reasons why we support Drinkline, a national alcohol helpline providing confidential information, advice and a support service for anyone, regardless of age, who is concerned about his own or someone else's drinking. Drinkline also provides information on appropriate local services and has produced "The Big Blue Book of Booze," a guide to sensible drinking, especially targeted at young people.

The hon. Member for Coventry, South-East raised the subject of licensing. I remind the House of a fact that is all too often overlooked: it is an offence to sell alcohol to a person under the age of 18. It is also an offence for a person under 18 to buy it. That applies to all alcoholic drinks above a certain strength, including alcopops.

We strengthened the law in 1988 by placing the onus of responsibility for checking a customer's age firmly on the licensee. Previously, sale to someone under 18 had to be done "knowingly" for an offence to be committed. Now anyone charged with that offence must show that he exercised all due diligence in trying to prevent the sale, or that he had no reason to suspect that the customer was under the age of 18. That provides a reasonable degree of protection for licensees faced with the difficult task of establishing a customer's true age, but ensures that all licensees take their responsibilities seriously.

I welcome the Portman Group's initiative, and other initiatives throughout the country. For example, licensees and publicans have introduced identification card schemes before they will sell alcohol to young people or people who may be under the age of 18. That is an important step forward because it helps to minimise the problem. I would like more publicans and licensees to take up the Portman scheme or introduce their own schemes to minimise the potential and temptation to sell alcohol to those who are under age.

In 1988, we increased to £1,000 the maximum fine for selling alcohol to people under 18.

We are all concerned about how young people behave if they succeed in getting hold of alcoholic drinks. Because of the problems associated with public drinking in some areas, in 1990 we made available to local authorities a model byelaw that makes it an offence for a person to continue drinking alcohol in a designated public area after being warned by a police constable not to do so. A number of local authorities have now adopted that byelaw or are in the process of doing so. I pay tribute to the city of Coventry, which was a pioneer in the creation of the byelaw. I wish that my own local authority of Chelmsford in Essex had followed Coventry's example a few years ago.

That byelaw is an important step forward, but it is not all-embracing, because, as the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East will know, it does not carry a power of arrest or confiscation. Nor is it directed only at young people.

Mr. Jim Cunningham

As the Minister will be aware, one of the conditions of the byelaw is that if a policeman arrests somebody whom he suspects may have an alcohol problem, the police involve the social services department. That is the case in Coventry. I know that that is true of other cities as well, and it is very useful in trying to help people.

Mr. Burns

I would not disagree with the hon. Gentleman in any way about that. It is a helpful additional power for the police constable in tackling the problem.

Because the byelaw does not provide direct powers of arrest or confiscation, the Government support the private Member's Bill that is being promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink), which will give the police the power to confiscate alcohol from under-age people drinking in public. As the House will know, that Bill is currently proceeding through the House. I hope that it will reach the statute book before the general election—whenever that may be—because it is an important measure that tries to deal with the problem.

As I said in reply to a parliamentary question that the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East asked last November, the Government believe that self-regulation by the industry is the most effective way to control alcohol advertising. That issue was raised briefly earlier in the debate. We welcome the very responsible approach that the Portman Group and its members took in drawing up the voluntary code of practice for the packaging, marketing and sale of alcoholic drinks, in response to concerns about alcoholic soft drinks and their appeal to young people.

As I am sure hon. Members are aware, the code, which was published last April, seeks to prevent the supply of all alcoholic drinks, not just alcopops, to under-18s, by requiring that brand names, packaging and merchandising are not targeted at them, and that retailers take particular care to ensure that alcohol is not purchased by under-18s.

We welcome the Portman Group's further moves to raise the code's profile with the general public, because that is crucial. It has now appointed a fully independent panel to consider complaints about breaches of the code. It will allow the Portman Group to offer an advisory service on new products, knowing that its advice will not be prejudicial to the consideration of any subsequent complaints, as these will be considered by the independent panel. We welcome that further development and the Portman Group's other activities regarding young people and drinking. Notable among those is its youth task force, which aims to identify the influences on under-age drinking, implement pilot projects on education and retail training, and make recommendations to the Government, local government and service providers. We look forward to seeing its findings and recommendations, which are due in the autumn. The Government are continuing to monitor the industry's response closely and shall certainly want to take stock again after the first year of operation of the code.

The Government have not been impressed by recent reports of developments in broader alcohol marketing, such as alcopop home-brew kits, alcoholic slush puppies, to which the hon. Member for Islwyn referred, and sachets of alcohol marketed as "alcotots". Although the manufacturers of those innovations often sit outside the conventional drinks industry that is represented by the Portman Group and hence are not signatories to the code, it is surely right that they are seen as part of the totality of the alcohol industry. It is up to the industry in all its forms to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the public and the Government that it can regulate itself effectively regarding alcohol products.

As the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East will appreciate, we take the problem of under-age drinking extremely seriously. Like everyone else, we are all too aware of the misery, hardship and, problems that it causes not only to individuals but to their families and the impact that it has in general on society and innocent people.

We are keeping the situation very much under review and considering options for the future. We would not, however, want to act precipitously while we are short of national time series data on alcohol consumption levels of under-age drinkers. Nor would we want to act before the Portman Group's latest changes to the operation of its code of practice have been given time to take effect—certainly not before its code has had at least a year of operation, which will be by spring this year.

I once again assure hon. Members that we are fully aware of the problems, as they would expect. We fully share their concern. I hope that they accept my assurances that we have a strategy for tackling the problem. We have a full education initiative in operation not only through Health Education Authority advertising, but in schools and colleges—as I mentioned—and the national curriculum. Alcohol abuse is as important as drug abuse. We are waiting for data so that we do not have to rely solely on anecdotal information. In the light of hard data, we will be able to see the best way forward in trying to minimise the problems that blight so many people, families and, inevitably, communities.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Ten o'clock.