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Which direction for alcohol policy under the coalition?

The new Coalition Government has immediately courted controversy with the public health community by basing its approach on education rather than regulation, action to improve health being undertaken in close cooperation with the alcohol and food industries as well as public health practitioners and the Third Sector.

While Coalition policy is still being formulated, Government Ministers have already made it clear that, from now on, alcohol policy will be less dominated by the issue of crime and disorder, and less focused on controls on availability. According to new Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, alcohol policy will instead become a key responsibility of a new Public Health Service, and the new Coalition Government’s approach to creating a healthy nation will focus on behaviour change. The idea is that the approach will go beyond constraining the supply of illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco, and begin to understand and influence the drivers of demand.

Speaking at the UK Faculty of Public Health Conference in July 2010, Mr Lansley criticised the previous Labour Government for failing to get to grips on demand.

Mr Lansley continued:

“Public health efforts which only try to control supply will fail. We have to impact on demand. That people’s relationships with each other and with drugs, alcohol, tobacco and food.

“And where behaviour change has been the aim of recent initiatives, the outcomes have been with the alcohol issue or with other public health problems, such as obesity, all of which had got worse during its term of office. In regard to alcohol, Mr Lansley said that the lack of national leadership under the previous Government could be seen in the sharply rising effects of alcohol consumption, and the pattern of alcohol consumption. Alcohol strategies had failed to go much beyond the public order issue, and the approach had been confined to supply, with little impact means we have to change behaviour, and change patchy at best.

“It seems to me that awareness campaigns have too often sent the wrong messages – when they’re screaming at you to drink less, many people are just having their behaviour reinforced – the message doesn’t come out as ‘drink less’ but as ‘everyone drinks, so don’t worry about it’. It tells people that the norm in society is misuse of alcohol.”

The government’s coalition programme includes the following commitments:

  • we will ban the sale of alcohol below cost price
  • we will review alcohol taxation and pricing to ensure it tackles binge drinking without unfairly penalising responsible drinkers, pubs and important local industries
  • we will overhaul the Licensing Act to give local authorities and the police much stronger powers to remove licences from, or refuse to grant licences to, any premises that are causing problems
  • we will allow councils and the police to shut down permanently any shop or bar found persistently selling alcohol to children
  • we will double the maximum fine for under-age alcohol sales to £20,000 we will permit local councils to charge more for late-night licences to pay for additional policing.

However, it is clear that this new emphasis on endeavouring to empower the population to live more healthily, rather than seeking to impose solutions from the top down, does not preclude action on licensing controls or on the price of alcohol. Although the Coalition does appear to have rejected the option of a nationwide minimum price per unit of alcohol, the system for which the main alcohol and public health bodies have been campaigning, Prime Minister, David Cameron, has publicly supported local initiatives to establish a minimum price for alcohol. The Coalition also intends to put an end to the 24 hour alcohol licensing introduced by the Labour Government. Instead of minimum pricing, the Coalition promises to ban the sale of alcohol below cost price, and the Coalition has been quick to seek views on this proposal. It has put forward four options to ban below-cost selling of alcohol and is planning to take the proposals to a public consultation in the near future. The issue is what is meant by ‘cost’.

The Grocer magazine reported that the Home Office told industry lobbyists it was working on four possible options, the first of which defined cost as simply duty and VAT. This is the definition used by leading supermarket chains, including Morrisons, which last month called on the Government to ban the sale of alcohol below this figure.

However, many in the industry objected to the definition on the grounds that it would only affect the deepest discounts and attributed no cost to the product itself. Two other options were to add some form of cost for the production, distribution and marketing of the product, or to ban sales below the cost of the invoice sent to retailers.

The fourth option was to allow retailers to work together on fair pricing without fear of prosecution under competition law. The four options would be presented in a consultation document in early August as part of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill.

“End of 24 Hour Licensing in sight”

While the Coalition is still consulting on its plans to reform the Licensing Act, it is clear that it intends to give local authorities greater powers to limit opening hours in their own areas and to control the excesses associated with late night opening. Coalition Ministers have commented on the failure of the Labour Government’s new Licensing Act to bring about the promised Mediterranean-style café culture or to tackle effectively the binge drinking problem.

One unnamed Government source quoted in the Daily Telegraph commented:

“When (the Coalition’s licensing proposals) are implemented, this will be the death knell for 24-hour drinking.

“Labour unleashed 24- hour drinking on our communities, then they said they had abandoned it but the truth was we were still saddled with it.

“The whole point of this move is that unregulated 24-hour drinking is brought to an end.”

The toughening up of licensing controls coincides with returning responsibility for licensing to the Home Office from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport which was widely felt to have mishandled the licensing issue.

Commenting on the transfer of responsibility, Minister for Crime Prevention, James Brokenshire said:

“We continue to be concerned about the number of alcohol-related incidents and the drink fuelled violence and disorder that blights many of our towns and cities.

“The government believes that the power to make licensing decisions needs to be rebalanced in favour of local communities, so that they can decide on the night-time economy they want.

“We have already committed to overhaul the Licensing Act to give local authorities and the police much stronger powers to remove licences from, or refuse to grant licences to, any premises that are causing problems.

“We will toughen the sanctions for those premises found to be persistently selling alcohol to children and will allow local councils to charge more for late-night licences, which in turn will raise money for extra policing. We will also ban the below cost sale of alcohol.

“This move will not only help reduce duplication of effort but will mean just one department is responsible for enforcement and licensing policy, allowing for a more consistent approach to tackling this issue.”

Expert opinion has generally sided with the Coalition on the licensing issue. Professor Jonathan Shepherd, Director of the Cardiff University Violence Research Group and a leading authority on combating alcohol-related violence and disorder, welcomed the Coalition’s proposals which, he said, could turn the tide in Cardiff’s fight against disorder.

Speaking to the Cardiff Echo Professor Shepherd said: “There have been improvements in Cardiff city centre but the levels of drunkenness out there late at night in St Mary Street are still almost epidemic in proportion, so it’s still a really serious problem for the city, the economic health of the city and for individuals. I think this could turn the tide and stem the epidemic.”

He added: “I think a review of current licensing laws and the laws that relate to dealing with and preventing alcohol-related disorder and violence in our cities is welcome. And I would say that a levy on late-night opening is very sensible and likely to be beneficial. It’s clear that the powers that are currently available are not sufficient.”


The new framework will include:

  • A new responsibility deal between Government and business built on shared social responsibility and not state regulation
  • A new ring-fenced public health budget
  • A new ‘Health Premium’ to target public health resources towards the areas with the poorest health
  • Clear outcomes and measures to judge progress alongside NHS and social care outcomes
  • An enhanced role for Public Health Directors so they have the resources and authority to improve the health of their communities; and
  • A new Cabinet Sub- Committee on Public Health, chaired by the Health Secretary, to tackle the drivers of demand on the NHS
  • A White Paper, to be published later in the year, will set out in more detail how the Public Health Service will work.