David Cameron's call for inebriated people to be locked up in "drunk tanks" until they sobered up was condemned by the Police Federation last night as a dangerous gimmick.
The Prime Minister used a visit to a hospital in Newcastle to promise moves to tackle the "scandal" of Britain's drinking culture through a mixture of higher taxes, better education – and tougher police action.
His support for American-style "drunk tanks" – one-person cells housing people overnight – was his most controversial suggestion for getting tough on alcohol-fuelled trouble.
Paul McKeever, the chairman of the federation, which represents grassroots officers, said: "To recommend locking people up in so-called 'drunk tanks' to resolve the issue of binge drinking is dangerous. People who are very drunk can be vulnerable and often require medical attention, so locking them in a confined space is not an effective solution."
The Prime Minister has hinted at his support for imposing a minimum price of about 45p a unit on alcohol, based on a similar move planned in Scotland. The drinks industry warned him that setting a minimum price would be "probably illegal" as it could breach trade laws, a problem that was acknowledged last night by Government sources.
Two ministers – Chloe Smith, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, and Anne Milton, the Health minister – have also admitted the measure could be challenged in the courts.
Ministers are still struggling to find a formula for stopping the sale of very cheap alcohol five months after Mr Cameron first signalled his general support for the move. The Government's long-awaited alcohol strategy is now expected next month. One Whitehall source said: "There is general agreement that action needs to be taken and discussions are taking place, but no decisions have been taken."
From April it will be illegal to sell alcohol in England and Wales at below the cost of duty and value added tax – a move will affect very few current cut-price deals. However, any attempt to set a higher minimum price could run counter to European laws guaranteeing the free movement of goods.
When an attempt to introduce a minimum price was first mooted in Scotland – the scheme is currently on hold there awaiting new proposals from the SNP administration – the Law Society warned it could run into trouble in the European Court of Justice.
Last night, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association said: "Minimum unit pricing is a blunt tool which would both fail to address the problem of alcohol misuse and punish the vast majority of responsible consumers. As Government ministers acknowledge, it is also probably illegal."
Downing Street selected the Royal Victoria Infirmary for his visit as it regularly has police officers on duty to combat drink-fuelled problems.
PM's past: When booze paid the bills
Eyebrows were raised at David Cameron's attack on binge drinking among those who recalled his 2005 party leadership campaign. It emerged then that Mr Cameron was a director of the company which runs the Tiger Tiger chain, where the cocktail Pink Pussy could be bought in jugs for £7.99. Teresa Pearce MP, said his "attempt to take the moral high ground on excessive drinking looks distinctly shaky".
Now you see him, now you don't... where's Lansley?
Newcastle's Royal Victoria Infirmary, where police have to be on patrol two nights a week to help out with the drunks arriving in A&E, was just the place for David Cameron to sound off about the pitfalls of drink. Being in the Labour-voting North-east of England sent a signal that here is a Prime Minister for the whole country, not just the middle-class south.
But hang on, where is Andrew Lansley? This is a hospital. The Health Secretary should surely be at the PM's side, as he used to be in happier days.