The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office was quizzed by peers in the House of Lords yesterday (10 July) over government plans to publish its response to the consultation on the introduction of a minimum unit price for alcohol.
Tabled by Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, the initial question of an announcement on minimum unit pricing was met with the stock phrase recognisable to all those who have been following the progress of the policy since its introduction in the government Alcohol Strategy in March last year.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office: “My Lords, the public consultation on the government’s alcohol strategy closed on 6 February. We will publish our response in due course.”
The Minister was subsequently pressed on whether a date had indeed been set by Home Office for a plan of action over the measure. Lord Brooke asked whether the Minister could confirm that the principal problem of excessive drinking amongst 10 million people in England was down to the easy availability of cheap alcohol, and when we were “likely to start to see some progress on this issue”.
But Lord Taylor defended the government’s recent track record, mentioning the late-night levy, the early morning restriction order and the rebalancing of the Licensing Act 2003 as examples of the achievements of the Coalition in tackling the widespread problem of alcohol misuse throughout the country.
Baroness Hollins quoted evidence from Canada, where it has been shown that 10% increases in the minimum prices of some alcoholic drinks led to a decrease of 33% in wholly alcohol-related deaths. Lord Avebury also cited figures – from the Institute of Alcohol Studies – which stated that 50p minimum unit price would reduce deaths per year by 3,000, hospital admissions by 98,000 and crime incidents by 40,000, and queried whether the government had “made any estimate of the savings to the public purse that that reduction would produce”.
Lord Taylor accepted the figures from both peers, stating that they were “part and parcel of the consideration the government are giving to the issue”. He also reiterated Home Office figures calculating the cost of alcohol to society to total £21 billion, £11 billion of which is due to alcohol-related crime, and the number of admissions to hospital for alcohol-related causes to stand at 1.2 million in 2011-12.
Baroness Smith of Basildon noted that the consultation on the alcohol strategy specifically ruled out consulting on the issue of minimum unit pricing, quoting the Home Secretary’s firm commitment to introducing the policy and asking whether the government had changed its mind due to private lobbying.
Lord Taylor strongly denied the Home Office had been influenced by any industry interests and repeated assurances of a comprehensive response to minimum pricing being made available in due course.
Questions were also raised over the introduction of other initiatives such as sobriety schemes and whether increasing alcohol prices would be as effective as allowing local communities to come together to deal with alcohol misuse. But as the session drew to close, it became clear that Lord Taylor was not about to give any indication of the Home Office’s next move.