Ralph Scott, head of communications at Demos, told a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party Conference that the three scourges of underage drinking, binge drinking and chronic street drinking are not being effectively controlled with existing measures.
“Most underage drinking is facilitated by parents, family and friends,” he said. “But it’s hard [for shop assistants] to ask people if they are buying for a child.”
He recommended that local authorities “invest in more diversionary activities, like youth clubs”.
On binge drinking, Scott said that “saturation policies”, for example controls on the opening hours of licensed premises or limiting the number of licences in an area were ineffective. “There is no clear correlation between these and a fall in binge drinking in an area.”
He proposed banning drinking in the streets in problem areas and granting shops more powers to refuse alcohol sales to drunks, backed up by more responsive police support.
Minimum unit pricing is unproven, added Scott. “Instead of price controls which won’t stop problem drinkers, consider partnership programmes to prevent access to alcohol.”
He praised the voluntary ban on high-ABV products on trial in Ipswich, but feared that it was undermined by some shops choosing not to participate for competitive advantage.
Fellow speaker Councillor Paul Bettison of Bracknell Forest Council demanded more powers for councils to tackle irresponsible alcohol promotions in pubs, clubs and off licenses. He added that while “95% of businesses take their responsibilities for selling alcohol very seriously, councils find it hard to engage with multi-site businesses on local issues”.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach, parliamentary under secretary of state at the Home Office said: “We’re looking at the whole business of cost plus duty [minimum pricing]. You can’t sell four cans of lager for £1 – that can’t be anything other than a loss leader to get people into supermarkets.
“It’s the right of all retailers to attract customers, but it’s a low blow to attract them on the basis of their need for alcohol.”