Theresa May defends government alcohol pricing plans

Alcohol strategy announcement slammed by drinks industry and attacked by Labour over timing

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The Independent Online

Theresa May today defended government plans aimed at ending the 'drunken mayhem' in Britain's towns, and reducing violent crime through the introduction of a minimum price of 40p per unit for alcohol.

The controversial Alcohol Strategy is an attempt by the government to deal with a perceived culture of drinking to excess, which costs the UK an estimated £21bn a year.

The move would see the banning of multi-buy discount deals, suggests a levy on pubs to help with the costs of policing, would introduce a zero-tolerance approach to drunken behaviour in hospitals and would strengthen powers to stop serving alcohol to drunks.

The drinks industry today responded to the plans for a minimum price saying they were misguided and would hit consumers hard.

Speaking today, the Home Secretary also refused to rule out the possibility that the minimum price could be above 40p a unit.

The current plans would prevent retailers selling alcohol at anything less than 40p a unit - but the government is consulting on what that minimum should be.

Cheap spirits, super-strength lager and low-cost ciders would see increases in prices under the proposals, but overall the move would have little impact on the cost of most drinks.

Mrs May told MPs today, "Most people have no problem with alcohol, they enjoy a drink - indeed it's one of life's pleasures.

"But we all know there is a significant minority in this country who drink dangerously and who cause disproportionate harm."

Drunken violence she said, had "made many town centres no-go areas for law-abiding citizens".

She told the Commons today that cheap supermarket alcohol was encouraging people to drink excessively before they leave home for a night-out - so-called 'pre-loading.'

She also claimed that 'pre-loaders' were more likely to be involved in violence than other drinkers.

The new strategy would also involve improving treatment for alcoholics, and 'sobriety schemes' with dangerous drinkers being fitted with electronic tags and undergoing breathalyser tests.

Labour today responded furiously to the timing of the government proposals,  Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, called the handling of the announcement a 'complete shambles'.

The announcement was originally planned for a Monday, but was made today, when most MPs are in their constituencies. Ms Cooper said,

"There is no precedent for handling a long-awaited consultation document on a Friday morning with no notice in this way.

"Over the last 10 years there have been only three government statements on a Friday: on the Iraq War, on swine flu and on Libya. All of them involving serious issues around national emergencies.

"What is the national emergency today? The only emergency is that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have gone wobbly over the coverage of their Budget."

In angry scenes in the Commons Ms Cooper attacked the rush-releasing of the alcohol pricing plans, and claimed it was timed to deflect attention from this week's budget, and the row over the so-called 'granny-tax'.

Ms Cooper said the Home Secretary, Theresa May, was being used as a 'human shield for the Chancellor and the Prime Minister and she should have said 'no'.

No.10 acknowledged that the timing of the announcement had changed but stated that it had always intended to publish the plans before the Commons rises for the Easter recess.