Business of the House
– in the House of Commons at 11:31 am on 4th November 2010.
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): The Leader of the House will have seen this week’s reports arguing that alcohol is by far the most damaging drug in our society. Will he make time for a long and serious debate on alcohol in which we can look at the links between alcohol and high levels of teenage pregnancy and domestic violence, the incidence of foetal alcohol syndrome, levels of addiction, the impact on the economy and every other aspect of the alcohol problem, and in which we can also examine the possibility of unit pricing for alcohol across the whole country and of raising the legal age for alcohol consumption and purchase?
Sir George Young: The hon. Gentleman raises a series of serious subjects which of course the House should debate. We will be bringing forward tough action to deal with problem drinking, such as stopping supermarkets selling alcohol below cost price. We are going to introduce a much tougher licensing regime. We are also going to review alcohol taxation and pricing. Related to that, we will publish a drugs strategy in the coming months, and we will set out a radical new approach to public health in a White Paper, which will also focus on drinking issues.
Queen’s Speech — Debate (5th Day) (continued)
– in the House of Lords at 1:10 pm on 3rd June 2010.
This afternoon, I want to speak about a subject that I have raised in your Lordships’ House several times, but with a new Government it is time to do it again. The subject is the labelling of bottles and containers warning of the dangers to the unborn foetus of its mother drinking alcohol. Briefly, the issue is this. Mothers-to-be who drink risk permanently damaging their babies. This occurs because alcohol in the mother’s bloodstream passes to the foetus across the placenta. The foetus, because its organs are undeveloped, is unable to process this toxin, and major damage can occur. Foetal alcohol syndrome disorder is the name given to the complete range of disorders. In its mildest form, which affects one in a 100 live births, it can cause a series of behavioural attributes, such as acute attention deficit disorder. In its most acute form, which affects one in 1,000 babies, its effects are similar to acute brain damage. Simply put, the brain and other organs do not develop. Children with the most severe learning disabilities are affected. Their mental age is retarded and their cognitive abilities are limited. Often, they cannot even tell the time or find their way home. As young adults, they become disruptive and often turn to crime. Many cannot even hold down the simplest of jobs. Whatever their degree of disorder, they become a cost to society.
If today’s mood is to cut costs, this is an easy way to do so without any downside. FASD is totally preventable and, if it is reduced, society gains. Knowledge among young women and, indeed, their partners of the damage they are running by drinking when pregnant is lamentably low. No one, least of all me, wants a nanny state; all I seek to do is to raise awareness of this danger. Just as was the case with the linkage between cigarette smoking and cancer, product labelling is a good place to start. Today, because of in-your-face labelling on tobacco products, few people can be unaware of their dangers. I am seeking to do the same with alcohol.
Three years ago, I introduced the Alcohol Labelling Bill into your Lordships’ House. It went through the usual stages and was passed. Then, as is the case with most Private Members’ Bills, it died the death when we could not persuade the Government to give it time in the other place. In summary, the Bill said that if the alcohol industry did not abide by the terms of a memorandum of understanding that it had previously signed agreeing to include prominent labelling, legislation would be introduced to make it compulsory. I cannot tell noble Lords how many well meaning Ministers I discussed this issue with. Over numerous cups of tea, they told me that they were on the case, but they needed to complete this survey and that analysis and I could be assured that there would be a successful outcome. There was not.
Go into any supermarket today and examine the bottles. A few have labels prominently displayed, but more than 80 per cent do not. Others have an illustration that the French use. It shows the outlines of an elegant and obviously pregnant woman holding a champagne glass with a diagonal strike going through it. It is very cute, very chichi and very tasteful in a rue Saint-Honoré sort of way, but it has little relevance to the culture of girls on the binge buying cheap cider and vodka at the local supermarket and getting legless as quickly as possible. We see the evidence every weekend in our city centres, do we not? There is nothing very elegant about it. What is more, the illustrations on the bottles I have seen are so small that you would need a magnifying glass to see them.
The Americans have been much bolder on this issue, just as they were with tobacco. Any bottle, can or bar in the United States has a prominent label warning of the dangers to the unborn child of drinking while pregnant. They were introduced in 1989. Here is the stark truth: the alcohol industry runs circles around Governments. It lobbies hard, like the tobacco industry before it. It throws every impediment in front of the labelling proposals. No one seems to have the strength to stand up to it. This new Government have said that they intend to address our alcohol plague. We said the same but, if noble Lords will excuse the pun, I think we bottled it.
My first question to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, who has always been a tremendous supporter of what I am proposing, is will the coalition Government take on the alcohol industry? Will they make labelling prominent, unambiguous and compulsory? If the Government really want to reverse the cult of alcohol, will they consider banning alcohol adverting, just like the Labour Government banned tobacco advertising?
The noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, spoke about foetal alcohol syndrome, a subject about which he and I have spoken many times in the past. We want to improve labelling so that people are more aware of the amount of alcohol in drinks as well as of guideline limits. We want to see the necessary improvement in labelling information through a voluntary approach if we can, but we will consider all responses from the consultation that closed very recently-I think on 31 May-before we make any decisions on that matter.
Supplementary Estimates 2009-10 — Department of Health – in the House of Commons at 12:57 pm on 10th March 2010.
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
“study warns that Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and the less obvious Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)”- what I was hinting at before-
“are entirely avoidable and completely incurable.”
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 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 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.
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.
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.
Kelvin Hopkins, who is not in his place, talked at length about foetal alcoholsyndrome, and about the licensing laws. Foetal alcohol syndrome has not had much of a mention, and I do not think that it was mentioned in the report, but it has been a long-standing problem and continues to be a serious one. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is about damage that women are doing to their children, perhaps unwittingly and unknowingly. They may be unaware of the impact of alcohol.
Alcohol Consumption (Pregnancy)
First Minister’s Question Time – in the Scottish Parliament at 12:00 pm on 4th March 2010.
To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Government plans to tackle the problem of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. (S3F-2251)
The Scottish Government‘s alcohol framework outlines a package of measures to tackle alcohol misuse in Scotland. They include legislative measures that are being developed in the Alcohol etc (Scotland) Bill, particularly action on minimum pricing and on irresponsible promotions, that are supported by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, ChildLine, Children 1 st , the Aberlour Child Care Trust, YouthLink Scotland, Barnardo’s Scotland, Action for Children Scotland, Quarriers and Parenting across Scotland. The bill is complemented by a range of non-legislative measures that include targeted action on foetal alcohol spectrum disorder and it is backed by record investment, totalling almost £100 million over three years, in treatment and support services.
The First Minister will be aware that Dr Harry Burns, the chief medical officer, has said that he believes that the incidence of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder in Scotland has been significantly underestimated. Given the impact that the condition can have on the unborn child and noting the report from Children in Scotland on the matter, does the First Minister agree that the problem demonstrates yet again why all parties represented in the chamber should be united on taking action on alcohol abuse?
A team is being put in place to work on foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Part of that work will focus on the prevention of alcohol-exposed pregnancies and on the promotion of healthy pregnancies. A pack of resources on alcoholinterventions in the antenatal setting has been developed, and it will be issued to every national health service board by the end of this month.
Jamie Hepburn has made a point about how alcohol misuse can affect unborn children in particular. As we know, and as we must accept, alcohol misuse goes through the range of society.
It has a range of dreadful effects on public order and on the public health of Scotland. In those circumstances, it behoves everyone in the Parliament to respond to the scale of the challenge by examining outwith the normal argy-bargy of party politics the measures that the Government is proposing. This issue above all is an example of what is right, as opposed to who is right.
Does the First Minister agree with Children in Scotland‘s submission on foetal alcohol syndrome and foetal alcohol spectrum disorder to the House of Commons Health Committee that accurate measurement of the incidence of the conditions can occur only after there is a critical mass of health practitioners who are able to make the diagnosis correctly? What steps is the Government taking to create such a critical mass?
Ross Finnie‘s question is perfectly fair. I know that he recognises the specifics of the action on FASD that I have just listed. As a general proposition, his point seems reasonable; the work of the team that has been put together to undertake specific work on foetal alcohol spectrum disorder is therefore all the more important.