The UK drinks industry has been ordered by the Home Office to produce plans to tackle the sale and promotion of cheap super-strength beers and cider by the summer or face government action.
Crime Prevention minister Norman Baker said that some alcohol producers and sellers have tried to ignore the Home Office's demands for a strategy to crush problem drinking in the hope that the policy will be ditched after the general election next year. Mr Baker has also asked his officials to find ways of combating the "inappropriate" opening of pubs at motorway service stations, as pioneered by low-cost pub chain JD Wetherspoon.
Since he joined the Home Office in October, Mr Baker has been shocked by the scale of alcohol-related crime, which costs England and Wales £11bn a year. About 15,000 people die every year from alcohol-linked illnesses. The Home Office told the industry last year that it needed to set up voluntary commitments, such as minimising alcohol advertising and confining displays and promotions to single areas.
However, a voluntary strategy has yet to be produced, though the Portman Group, which represents producers including Diageo, and the Wine and Spirit Trade Association have agreed to take the industry lead on proposals. Mr Baker recently met both groups, as well as other interested parties including the Association of Convenience Stores, warning them that they must speed up the development of a voluntary code as it is now one of his ministerial priorities.
Mr Baker said that high street and local shops should internally "outlaw" in-store promotions. He added: "The problems come with the availability of super-strength and low-price alcohol in supermarkets and corner shops. I'm challenging the industry to come up with a strategy. They've got to make a plan. They're not going to just drift to 2015. I want to get action on this before the election."
The Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes in East Sussex warned that he would hit the industry if it failed to come up with a set of proposals he approved of within the next few months. Mr Baker declined to comment on what this action would be, but the Government could revisit plans shelved by Home Secretary Theresa May last year to introduce a minimum price per unit of alcohol in England and Wales.
Last week, Mr Baker launched 20 specially designated local alcohol action areas, which will help communities suffering from particularly high numbers of booze-related problems and provide them with support from the Home Office and the Department of Health.
A senior drinks industry source who met Mr Baker said the minister had made it "pretty clear that he wants some progress" over the strategy soon. The source added that it was more difficult to get commitments from smaller chains that produce their own brand of strong lagers and ciders, but that most of the major industry representatives were keen to meet the Home Office's demands.
Mr Baker also condemned JD Wetherspoon for opening the country's first motorway pub, the Hope & Champion at Buckinghamshire's Beaconsfield services on the M40, last month, with plans for more. The £1.2m pub is open 4am to 1am, seven days a week, which drink-driving campaigners argue will only lead to more deaths on the roads. Other pub chains are thought to be looking at the Hope & Champion's fortunes with interest.
"It is inappropriate for motorists to be sold drinks before they're about to get back in their car," said Mr Baker. "I've asked officials for advice."
However, JD Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin hit back at the Home Office's criticisms of his motorway pub, which, he argued, will serve far more food than booze. He said yesterday: "Every pub is on a road, so there is a certain lack of logic here. The key thing is that alcohol is already available in motorway services."
Miles Beale, chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, said that voluntary agreements were starting to be firmed up. He added: "We are working hard with Norman Baker and his officials to move forward with proposals that meet some of the concerns that he has. I would hope to have something out by the summer; otherwise it would slip into the pre-election period and that won't be helpful to anyone."
Portman Group chief executive Henry Ashworth said: "Last summer, the Home Secretary laid out four areas of challenge to the alcohol industry, encouraging us to deliver further voluntary action through the Public Health Responsibility Deal. The industry has welcomed the challenge, as we believe that partnership working is the most effective way to make progress, and since then we have been co-ordinating a meaningful industry-wide response which will soon see further public commitments to tackle harms."