It was with a heavy heart that I read this the morning after Easter Monday. I’ll share here Alcohol Policy UK’s exceptionally thorough review of the policy change but the bottom line is it is moving further away from health not closer towards it as a Govt policy focus. So forget Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) this drives it even further into the remit of law and order 🙁
The existence of a national alcohol strategy for England is arguably no more; a new crime prevention strategy has set out alcohol-related crime objectives, but signals the end of a central policy also covering health and other areas previously unified in a single document.
In 2004 the first national strategy for England set out a framework spanning prevention, treatment, crime, and other key areas. Largely viewed as only any good for getting the ball rolling, it was subsequently met with the expansive ‘Safe. Sociable. Sensible’ strategy and local toolkit in 2007.
Next came the Tory-LibDem coalition’s 2012 attempt, hitting the headlines for its announcement of minimum unit pricing (MUP), taking all by surprise. Of course MUP plans were shelved, although it was claimed to have not been ruled out by the still current Home Secretary. In reality, eyes lie on Scotland’s ongoing wrangle, but silence on MUP from the current Government suggests a desire for ample wiggle-room. Taxation policy has also favoured business over health calls in recent budgets.
Four years later and a new ‘Modern Crime Prevention Strategy’ confirmed speculation that alcohol policy will no longer have its own national strategy covering all the debated ‘£21 billion’ contributing areas. Cynics might suggest the Government knows local alcohol services are under increasing pressure as local authority cuts bite harder, and so strategy objectives to improve provision would be vulnerable to calls of hypocrisy.
Talking tough on alcohol-related crime and disorder though has always been popular with politicians; the crime strategy’s alcohol section reminds us half of all violent crime is alcohol-related, and tells us ‘the harms associated with alcohol remain too high’. Users of the night time economy should be able to do so ‘without the fear of becoming a victim of crime’. Whilst a clear emphasis on partnership approaches is set out, ‘personal responsibility is just as important’; the strategy says ‘Individuals must shoulder their share of responsibility when it comes to decisions they take about drinking to excess, committing acts of violence or disorder, and not challenging the unacceptable behaviour of others.’
More of the same?
The crime strategy sets out three areas for addressing alcohol harms:
- Improving local intelligence
- Effective local partnerships
- Equipping the police and local authorities with the right powers
Nothing not previously seen on the pages of alcohol strategies, but always room for improvement? To improve local intelligence, it says the Government will publish information about where alcohol-related crime and disorder is occurring on police.uk. Local partnerships though may already feel they are making the best use of available data. Local analyst capacity may be more of an issue, whilst alcohol-related crime has been inconsistently ‘flagged’ on police databases.
NHS trusts will also be ‘expected’ to share more data about alcohol-related violence to support licensing decisions, though of course cannot do so with the intention that data will be considered on public health grounds. Licensing authorities will be ‘encouraged’ to share information about problem premises and individuals. Mention of helping local authorities to have the ‘right analytical tools and capability’ is also made, but without identifying the mechanism.
On ‘effective local partnerships’, the strategy states that ‘police, local authority and health partners must work alongside local businesses to devise local solutions and strategies’. Another round of ‘Local Alcohol Action Areas’ (LAAAs) will be launched, but worth noting the previous round came with no additional resources other than input from central departments. Areas will be able to bid to take part in round two later this year.
Working with industry partners to support local business action is also identified, with more examples of aims or initiatives to ‘support’, ‘improve’ or ‘build on’. Diversifying the night time economy, Challenge 25, Best Bar None are cited – approaches that readers will be familiar with, though arguably lacking any robust evaluation. Influencing ‘positive behaviour change’ and pursuing a life-course approach to prevention are also touched on, but without specifics.
On ‘equipping local authorities and the police with the right powers’, the Government says it will ensure police and local authorities can operate within a licensing framework that allows them to take the ‘right action’. It identifies changes to the Late Night Levy to make it ‘more flexible’, putting Cumulative Impact Policies (CIPs) on a statutory footing, and giving civilian staff powers to inspect premises on behalf of police. Additionally, consultation on a new ‘group review intervention power’ (GRIP) will take place to potentially allow licensing conditions on a group of premises within an identified problem area.
In announcing the new strategy, the Home Secretary Theresa May said it would ‘build on the previous reforms to the licensing act’, touted in 2010 as ‘re-balancing’ back in favour of communities, but the figures suggest it may be hard to argue any actual re-balancing has since taken place. However CIPs – often described as ‘saturation zones’ – do appear to have been fairly widely used, so changes to these and the levy may be welcomed by licensing authorities. Trade bodies though have not welcomed this part of the strategy. No mention of the use of a health objective in relation to CIPs proposed for consultation in the 2012 strategy.
Health and treatment?
PHE will still support health and prevention related activity and have previously said they would continue to call for MUP, but a lack of a top level national strategy may well raise questions over the level of genuine commitment to address alcohol harms at Government level. Health groups may argue policy is veering further from the approach set out in ‘Health First’, an independent ‘evidence based’ strategy set out in 2013. Indeed England fared least well in the recent ‘Four Nations’ review of UK alcohol policies. Alcohol actions within the crime strategy are unlikely to alter the current public health view of the Government’s approach to alcohol harms.
And interestingly these were 3 other news stories that were featured that day:
Guidance on the banning of below-cost sales of alcohol in England and Wales, and a duty plus VAT permitted price calculator | Home Office, UK
A new report from Alcohol Concern Cymru highlights the extent to which cheap booze is available on Wales’ high streets, and emphasises the need for a minimum unit price for alcohol | Alcohol Concern, UK
Weaker beers, ciders, wines and sprits are what is needed to tackle drink-related health problems, local councils have said | BBC, UK
All these guidance and suggestions and yet the Govt refuse to implement the one strategy necessary: moving alcohol back under the remit of health and introducing MUP.
This is profoundly sad news for UK citizens as it suggests that the Govt isn’t interested in how alcohol impacts on our health or society from a family perspective but only on how it impacts on society with regard to crime. It is enough to make me want to pack up this blog entirely and leave the country ……….
Edited to add: 20th Sept 2016