THE North-East’s police commissioners last night urged the Government to re-think its policy on cheap alcohol amid claims key evidence had been “buried” as ministers came under pressure from the drinks industry.
In a joint statement, Ron Hogg, Vera Baird and Barry Coppinger, the Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC) for Durham, Northumberland and Cleveland, said all sides had not been given “equal access” to ministers to present their case.
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A PICK-ME-UP: A young reveller in the Bigg Market, in Newcastle, who has taken advantage of cheap alcohol
Their intervention came amid claims by doctors that the drinks industry succeeded in derailing the controversial policy that would have made cheap booze a thing of the past.
A draft report from the University of Sheffield, which championed the minimum pricing policy, was in the Government’s possession for five months – but it was not published until ministers announced the idea was being scrapped due, in part, to a lack of “concrete evidence”.
An investigation by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) also uncovered information that ministers and civil servants held extensive talks with representatives from the drinks industry and supermarket bosses – even after the consultation period had officially closed.
The revelations have prompted the North-East’s PCCs to issue a joint communiqué calling for a re-think.
The open letter says: “We believe there is a direct link between cheap alcohol pricing and crime and disorder. During 2010/11, over £300m was spent clearing up alcohol-related crimes in the North-East. It causes concern to communities and residents across our region.
“It is therefore imperative that the debate on this, and other issues, are fully informed, with all sides given equal access to present their case. Clearly, this has not happened.
“Commercial corporate influence over policy makers is rarely positive for the wider public, but it becomes more troubling when the issue affects public health."
When the Government published its alcohol strategy in March 2012, it suggested a 40p minimum price would save 900 lives a year and prevent 50,000 crimes.
But the policy was binned in July 2013 over claims that there was a lack of “concrete evidence” and it would “penalised those who drank responsibly”.
But in their strongly-worded statement, the commissioners say: “An expose by the British Medical Journal has unearthed that the conclusions of the research by Sheffield University academics were suppressed, at the same time as seemingly unfettered access was allowed from the drinks industry, supermarkets and trade bodies to policy makers at the Department of Health.”
The revelations have prompted widespread condemnation. The Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, who is a qualified GP, said the university had been “intimidated” into not publishing its data until it was too late and several eminent doctors, including Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, who is the Royal College of Physicians’ special adviser on alcohol, said the conduct of ministers and drinks industry representatives had been “deplorable”.
Mr Hogg said last night: “We cannot possibly say they [ministers] were influenced, but it’s the kind of relationship that isn’t specially helpful when creating policy decisions.
“The Government must consider the evidence we have seen from other countries. Research in Canada has linked a 10 per cent increase in alcohol prices to a 30 per cent drop in alcohol-attributable deaths.
“They have got to go back to the drawing board and get the policy decision that is right."
A Department of Health spokesperson said: "This Government is determined to tackle alcohol abuse in any way we can and minimum unit pricing is still under consideration.
“But to insinuate routine meetings between departmental officials and industry representatives amounted to an improper relationship with the drinks industry is completely unfounded.
“Using the same methodology of counting every meeting between every official and a stakeholder representative over the last three years, the department has had a similar number or more meetings with health charities, health campaigners or the food industry.
“As you would expect from a Government department seeking to effect public health change through a voluntary deal with industry , a wide group of officials have many different meetings with a vast range of stakeholders, and we utterly reject the allegation of anything untoward in the small proportion of those that took place with the alcohol industry.”