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Debate

Is it right to introduce a minimum alcohol price to tackle alcohol-related problems?

With the Prime Minister reportedly signalling his support for putting a minimum unit price on alcohol, debate continues as to whether such proposals are illiberal or necessary when considering the harmful effects of excessive alcohol consumption. 

In the 3rd of the CPS' new Debate series, we offer the chance for two leading voices from either side of the argument - Dr Sarah Wollaston MP and Philip Davies MP - to set out their case. 

Is it right to introduce a minimum alcohol price to tackle alcohol-related problems? We want to know your thoughts! 

Read the debate and then get involved in the comments section below. We will be running a poll on our Facebook page and highlighting the best responses on our Twitter feed.

Yes

Dr. Sarah Wollaston MP

Dr Sarah Wollaston MP was elected Member of Parliament for Totnes in May 2010 and lives in South Devon with her husband Adrian and three children. Previously a GP, then police forensic examiner and finally a teacher of junior doctors; Sarah first entered politics through the first open primary and has sought to bring ‘real life’ experience to politics. Sarah was spurred into Politics by her opposition to the threatened closure of Moretonhampstead Community Hospital.

Sarah was voted onto the Health Select Committee in the summer of 2010 and has continued to speak out about the NHS reforms. Sarah continues to speak out about the cost of alcohol related for the end of the month. Other issues that Sarah has spoken about in the House are; the threat Bovine TB, Fuel costs, Water rates, reform of the Commons, equitable life and women’s rights. 

Most people will know someone whose life has been ruined through being unable to control their drinking. If they were the only one to suffer then this might be a matter of personal choice and responsibility.

The fact is that problem drinking leaves a trail of destruction in its wake.

Around half of violent crime including homicide and domestic violence is attributable to or aggravated by alcohol and over 700,000 children live with an alcoholic parent. Our casualty departments are overflowing and over a million people are admitted to hospital annually as a result.

If the problem is serious enough - and a conservative estimate puts the cost to our economy and to individuals at around £20billion per year - then Government has a duty to do something more than hand wringing. The costs are hard to quantify as official figures don’t account for disasters like the lifetime care of a child born with foetal alcohol syndrome or the fallout from a fatal crash caused by a drunk driver.

The evidence is clear that the 3 areas that would make the most difference in reducing the carnage are price, availability and marketing.

I wouldn't suggest for a minute that price alone could cure our national drinking problem but without addressing the availability day and night of ultra-cheap alcohol from virtually every street corner, the other measures would not be effective. As a psychoactive, addictive carcinogen we should stop treating alcohol as an ordinary commodity.

I'm backing minimum pricing because it works and would save lives without hitting those on low incomes. At present, pricing and taxation bear little relation to the amount of alcohol in a drink and supermarkets are free to offer alcohol as a loss leader which is subsidised by raising the price on non-alcohol products. Without a minimum price they would continue to do so.

We know that pricing influences demand and that the heaviest drinkers pay on average 40% less per unit than moderate consumers for their alcohol. In particular young binge drinkers target cheaper alcohol promotions. The ban on cheap multibuys has already reduced demand in Scotland and it is a shame that some supermarkets have tried to undermine this by offering cheap deliveries from South of the border.

So if a minimum price were introduced would that harm low income moderate drinkers? It depends on the level at which it is set. Would 45p per unit, as proposed in Scotland really be damaging? In practice a bottle of wine with between 9 and 11 units would work out at costing at least £4.50 and a 2unit pint of lager at least 90p.

Currently cheap supermarket alcohol, routinely available at 17p per unit, means that a teenage girl can be drunk for 68p. At 45p per unit this becomes less attractive and price does influence demand in teenage drinkers.

Low income moderate drinkers are already subsidising the supermarket promotions but they face a double whammy as low income areas also bear the brunt of alcohol related crime and antisocial behaviour.

There is no point at all in an alcohol strategy unless it is evidence based with a good chance of making a difference. There is no such thing as a cheap drink, we are all paying a heavy price.

No

Philip Davies MP

Philip graduated from the University of Huddersfield with an Upper Second honours degree in Historical and Political Studies and before being elected, Philip worked for Asda for 12 years, working his way up from the bottom to be a Senior Marketing Manager.

Philip was elected to parliament for Shipley in 2005 with a majority of 422 and was re-elected as the MP for Shipley in 2010 with a majority of 9,944. He was also elected onto the Executive Committee of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs in 2006 and has been re-elected back onto it every year since. He has also served on the Culture, Media and Sports Select Committee since 2006

Philip is also a member of the newly established Backbench Business Committee and is on the panel of Chairmen for Westminster Hall Debates and the Committee stage of Bills. Philip became the first MP to publicly call for Britain to withdraw from the European Union and is a member of The Freedom Association's 'Better Off Out' campaign. He is also the Parliamentary Spokesman for the Campaign Against Political Correctness. In 2011, Philip won an award at the Spectator Parliamentary Awards as Readers Representative of the Year.

The very principle of minimum pricing goes against all my beliefs as a libertarian and believer in individual freedom and responsibility. Undoubtedly, there are a small percentage of society who suffer from alcohol-related problems including binge drinking and anti-social behaviour. However, to punish the vast majority of responsible drinkers for the actions of a troublesome few by hiking up alcohol prices across the board is at worst completely unfair and at best, downright perverse.

The people who would be most penalised by minimum pricing are those who are already on tight budgets, such as pensioners, people on fixed incomes or those in low-paid jobs. I simply cannot understand the logic, at a time of economic austerity, how anyone can justify imposing further artificial price rises, deliberately targeted at the very poorest in society.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies produced a report on minimum pricing that found that poorer households, compared with richer households, on average pay less for a unit of off-sale alcohol. For example, households with an income of less than £10,000 a year pay 39.8p per unit, while those on a household income of more than £70,000 pay 49.3p per unit on average. As a result, a minimum price of 40p or 45p per unit would have a larger impact on poorer households and virtually no impact on richer ones.

In addition, the process of setting a minimum price is predicated on the assumption that raising the price of alcohol will make those who misuse alcohol behave differently. However, that is an incredibly simplistic belief.

In fact all of the evidence shows that alcohol pricing has little impact on the habits of heavy drinkers. It's surely obvious, that those who like to drink to excess are the least likely to be deterred from drinking by price rises. We know that thanks to above inflation increases in excise duty for several years, the UK already has some of the highest priced alcohol in Europe, and yet there is no evidence to support the notion that these high prices have deterred alcohol misuse. In fact it's the high tax/high price countries like Sweden and the UK that tend to have a problem with alcohol misuse whereas low tax/low price Spain and Italy do not.

All of which suggests that minimum unit pricing wouldn't work to combat the real issues of binge drinking and alcohol misuse which we all agree is the problem, but is very likely to reduce the intake of responsible drinkers. If wine suddenly jumps from £5 to £10 a bottle then clearly some people will buy less. But this doesn't mean that alcohol misuse by an undeterred minority is going to be lowered.

To date, in the UK overall consumption has fallen by 11% since 2004, but reported levels of alcohol harm continue to rise. Nevertheless, health professionals continue to push for the imposition of prices rises, despite this lack of evidence and despite the fact that a minimum unit price has never been successfully imposed on a national level anywhere in the world.

So if blanket price increases are not the answer, what is? Other methods have had far more obvious success in tackling binge drinkers. We know from experience elsewhere that targeted interventions at problem drinkers have far more impact than taxation increases. So rather than thrashing out with an illiberal, anti-Government, nanny state approach, we should focus our efforts where they will make a difference. Rather than hitting everyone with a price increase, let's target those people that misuse alcohol, let's enforce existing laws about public drunkenness and punish those responsible for anti-social behaviour. Let's support schemes like Drinkaware and Community Alcohol Partnerships which seek to use education to tackle problems such as underage drinking. Surely it is better that we look to combat alcohol abuse at the cultural, psychological and behavioural root of the problem, rather than impose a blanket regressive price hike on the decent, hard working, law abiding majority for whom a pint of beer, a glass of wine, or a dram of whisky, is one of the few pleasures in their hard working week!

Finally, I worry where this will end. Will the Government suggest later down the line that we should introduce minimum pricing of cream cakes, pizzas, chocolate, fish and chips or curry, because they are all bad for us if eaten to excess? This is a slippery slope, and certainly not one that I am prepared to support.

Rebuttal

Sarah Wollaston MP

Philip Davies implies that wine would jump from £5 to £10 a bottle to argue the case against a minimum price for alcohol, stating that such a policy would penalise low income moderate drinkers. But having earlier recognised that the price would most likely be set at 40p to 45p per unit, the maximum price for a 10unit bottle of wine would in fact be £4 to £4.50.

Those arguing against minimum price often exaggerate the effect but the truth is that minimum pricing does not, as Philip states, 'hike up alcohol across the board' but just gets rid of the ultra-cheap alcohol that is causing the carnage. Price rises across the board through taxation do not prevent supermarkets offering loss leaders which would not only make this futile but would further damage our pubs.

Alcohol related problems are not limited to a 'small percentage of society' but impact on very large numbers of people struggling to control their drinking as well as those around them.

Poorer households are more likely to have people who drink no alcohol at all and yet they are subsiding the heavy drinkers who target loss leaders and multi buys below the recommended minimum unit price. This is because those cheap deals are paid for by higher prices across the rest of your shopping basket.

There is evidence that pricing works, as shown in several studies and most recently good evidence for minimum pricing from Canada. Of course it cannot work alone; we need action on price, availability, marketing, education, deterrence and treatment in the forthcoming alcohol strategy.

Philip is right that overall consumption has started to fall but not the crime and disease associated with drinking. This is precisely because the problem drinkers are targeting the cheapest ciders, lagers and spirits and raising the price of all drink is not as effective as modestly raising the bar on the lowest price. As long as it is possible to get drunk every night for less than 70p, we shouldn't expect to see the violent crime or the death toll fall anytime soon.

If problem drinking just affected the individual concerned I would share Philip's libertarian view, but it does not and the 700,000 children living with alcoholic parents deserve our help.

As one former drinker put it, if you can't afford 45p per unit it is a sign that you are probably drinking too much.

Rebuttal

Philip Davies MP

Sarah tries to have the argument both ways, either the price rises are such that they will barely make a difference to the family budget, or they are large enough that they will deter people from buying alcohol and combat binge drinking. If the former is true, then why impose a nominal price rise which will only serve to exact a further toll on the family budget – given every study has shown that only extreme price rises would deter the heaviest drinkers? Or if the latter is true and alcohol would become much less affordable, then a minimum unit price is opportunistic and is going to hit those on the lowest incomes the most. Either way it simply cannot be argued that a minimum unit price would be both effective whilst at the same time being non-regressive - and I maintain it would be neither!

But regardless of those contradictions and regardless of the fact that there is no evidence that a minimum unit price will work, I return to my point that penalising everyone for the actions of a small minority is a wrong-headed approach.  To suggest that because some in our society abuse alcohol we should increase the cost of living for everyone is not a sensible to formulate policy. We should target those that abuse alcohol directly and re-coup the costs created by alcohol-fuelled anti-social behaviour from those that cause the problems, not from responsible drinkers. Enforcement and education are the solutions to binge drinking problems, not regressive and illiberal measures.

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Comments

Perry de Havilland - About 2019 days ago

"I'm backing minimum pricing because it works and would save lives without hitting those on low incomes"

How can raising the minimum price of something NOT "hit those on low incomes"? This measure is about as regressive as regressive gets.

Face it, this is sumptuary law and the objective is for middle class Guardian reading statists to force lower class lumpen proletariat oiks to act the way their caring regulatory betters want them to... and it is simply dishonest to pretend otherwise.

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Anonymous - About 2019 days ago

A very sensible and proportionate public health initiative. It's a sad state of affairs when super-strength cider can be bought more cheaply than bottled water.

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Simon Cooke - About 2018 days ago

Either you have very expensive water or you're just making stuff up!

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Jay Jay - About 2017 days ago

Sarah, why are you commenting? Or is this Deborah? It's easy to get you two confused.

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Anonymous - About 2019 days ago

This is a lazy policy designed to skirt over the issue.

The problem with excessive drinking lies in attitudes, not pricing. Yes, businesses exploit social successes and failures - this is nothing new, but it is very unlikely that a policy like this can be plausibly targeted at those business malpractices, and most importantly it does nothing to address the principal issue.

Individuals need to be educated to enjoy drink instead of imposing these Orwellian solutions on them which deprive the lower income households in the nation from enjoying the benefits that their labour can afford them. In their escalation, these state endeavours only serve to drive further wedges between our social classes, reducing the purchasing power of lower income individuals to merely subsistence.

Sarah Wollaston claims that this will reduce alcohol related crime, and no doubt it will, but that doesn't mean to say that that crime won't be driven to another origin. Alcohol does not create crime, it produces for certain individuals the circumstances to overlook or justify their poor actions. What must be addressed is what drove those individuals to seek those circumstances; simply removing the means to that situation will just drive those people to find other cheaper means of achieving the same justification, or emotional detachment for their actions - and thereby making the eventual crime even harder to target for eradication.

The only real, justifiable target for this law can be binge drinking, but this is something that must be educated out of people by appealing to their higher aspirations and not by invoking laws that, to all extents and purposes, appear to deny them those aspirations and demean them to lowly social units whose fate and circumstances will be decided by the all-knowing state.

These lacklustre and pithy laws drive social injustices deeper and further serve to obscure the origins of future crimes committed by those who feel that society actively denies them all the privileges afforded to those born under better circumstances. What is the point of pursuing prosperity if, in finding it, we take it upon ourselves to condemn the activities of leisure?

This is lazy proposal dreamt up by politicians seeking to tick boxes rather than solve problems, who marvel at their ingenuity at having found this one thing that will make everything better. What a fantastic trick Labour pulled when they convinced the Conservatives that the only way to win an election and run office was to be exactly the same as them. There was a time when the hallmark of Conservatism lay in superior judgement, execution and an understanding that society and individuals are complex, and therefore require solutions that operate within the grain of society - in teaching the individual to regulate themselves, because it is the only policy that doesn't require constant escalation to counter new challenges.

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John Millington - About 2019 days ago

Further to the above...

If this is costing us £20bn a year, why not do something radical and allow a fund to create after school clubs, for the over 18s in sixth form, to teach wine or whisky tasting etc.?

As this is the primary group of binge drinkers - or soon-to-be binge drinkers, why not cultivate an appreciation of alcohol? If nothing else it would, no doubt, make this cheap alcohol undrinkable, but more likely by teaching appreciation would also create a culture of responsibility.

We ought to stop using 'more tax' as the answer to every problem.

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Christopher Snowdon - About 2019 days ago

Dr Woolaston (SW) has explained the supposed £20 billion cost of alcohol less misleadingly here than in previous op-eds (and in the House of Commons). To be clear, costs to"employers and individuals" are *private* costs, mainly to the drinker, and are no business of the government. As always in these discussions, the private benefits go unmentioned, but they obviously exceed the £30 billion spent on alcohol each year. Alcohol duty also represents a £9 billion windfall for the state.

Much of what SW writes refers to below-cost sales. She fails to point out that the government has already said that it will ban this practice, nor does she mention that they represent less than 2% of all alcohol sold.

The claim that the poor are subsidising drinks because supermarkets (allegedly) increase the price of food to fund below-cost selling is a weak attempt to detract from the patently regressive nature of minimum pricing. How does she know that they do not increase the price of other drinks instead, or that they are not simply taking it off their bottom line? She seems not to understand the point of loss-leading: it is to get people into a shop where they then *buy other items*. If people were only buying the below-cost alcohol and leaving, there would be no point. The people buying the cheap booze are making up for it by spending more in the shop. The whole system is, in other words, self-supporting. No free lunch for the drinkers and no cost to the abstainers.

In saying: "Poorer households are more likely to have people who drink no alcohol at all and yet they are subsiding the heavy drinkers" SW is being most disingenuous. She must know that poor people are most likely to buy the cheapest alcohol. That, rather than rates of teetotalism, is the real issue here.

SW makes a schoolgirl error by saying that "over a million people are admitted to hospital annually as a result [of drinking]". Nigel Hawkes at Straight Statistics predicted that people would make this mistake last year (http://www.straightstatistics.org/article/drink-and-disease-how-figures-can-confuse). The "over a million" actually refers to admissions, not people. Aside from the fact that one would hope a doctor knew the difference between a person and an admission, this is significant because the majority of so-called 'alcohol-related admissions' are elderly people attending hospital on multiple occasions with primary or secondary diagnoses of such problems as hypertension which are arbitrarily counted as alcohol-related admissions due to the system of attributable fractions.

The rise in admissions in the last decade is largely due to frequent moving of goalposts. SW should be aware that since the last change of definition, the number of admissions is not "over a million" but 194,800. It is understandable that the temperance lobby prefers to ignore this lower number, nevertheless it is the official figure and has been used by the Prime Minister. http://www.straightstatistics.org/article/drink-and-disease-how-figures-can-confuse

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Anonymous - About 2018 days ago

A Statement from the Mafia on behalf of Organised Crime:

We would urge you all to support a minimum price for alcohol, higher duty, restructed legal availability, reductions in strength and other essential control on alcohol.

By doing this you provide a wonderful new business opportunity for the mafia - the illegal manufacture and smuggling of alcohol! We've already muscled our way into the cigarette market - with nearly a third of UK tobacco sales now non-UK duty paid - but the booze market is bigger still! And we're not fussed about who we sell to - so will target those vulnerable 12 year-olds on the street corner!

Don't believe us? We're already in the market:

"Seizures of contraband alcohol smuggled from France have surged to around three times their normal levels this summer, say officials.

French customs officers in the Channel ports of Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer confiscated 82,000 litres of illegal spirits in the past month.

This is the amount normally seized over a three-month summer period."

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2029683/Seizures-contraband-alcohol-smuggled-UK-France-surge.html#ixzz1pBE6dEIb

And:

"Trading standards today warned the public that the manufacturers of illegal vodkas have “no consideration for human safety” following reports that a Bradford man nearly lost his sight after drinking the bogus booze.

With Christmas approaching and families stocking up on alcohol for the festive period, drinkers have been urged not to buy counterfeit drinks, such as Drop Vodka, which are “unfit for human consumption”. "

http://www.thetelegraphandargus.co.uk/news/9389714.Bradford_warning_as_illegal____vodka____nearly_blinds_man/

This is in a free market where people tell us (wrongly) that alcohol is cheaper than water.

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David Atherton - About 2018 days ago

Speaking as a Tory I think Dr. Wallaston is in the wrong party, she is just a nanny state control freak.

If they do go for minimum pricing I guess there will be shades of Prohibition USA. You can legally buy beer and wine brewing kits which work out at 30p a pint and 60p a bottle of wine. I guess that works out at 7.5p to 15p a unit.

Then I would hazard a guess Dr. Wallaston will then want to ban home brew kits. Then people make it on their own, then we can employ thousands of more state employees to police the ban......

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Anonymous - About 2018 days ago

By the way. Does anyone know HOW Cameron 'signalled' his approval of minimum pricing? Has he actually said that he does? And, if so, what was his actual logic in so deciding?

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Lewis Brown - About 2017 days ago

Just newspaper reports at the moment, hence 'reportedly'.

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James Watson - About 2017 days ago

I commented yesterday, but my comment did not appear. I shall repeat it briefly.

SW makes logical errors, the principle one of which has been mentioned (how can an increase in prices affect 'binge drinking' if the increase in prices does not hurt?) Another is that violent crime can be affected by a small price increase.

But SW also makes a number of common errors which occur frequently in propaganda-type statements. In rational argument, these statements are not good enough. For example, SW claims by implication, in effect, that 700,000 children will have their lives improved by a small increase in prices. What is the evidence for that statement? In a similar vein is the appeal to emotions, especially in respect of children. Another common and serious point is to move from the particular to the general. I refer to the idea that individual problems can somehow be solved by a general increase in prices for everyone. Overall, SW's statement is propaganda wherein her statistics do not, in fact, support her contentions.

On the other hand, PG's statements are clear and apposite. However, as we all know, it is not possible to prove a negative, therefore it cannot be shown that the proposed price increases will not have any effect on the problems which they are supposed to solve. Th best that can be done is to show that it is extremely unlikely.

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Steve Wintersgill - About 2017 days ago

SW states "having earlier recognised that the price would most likely be set at 40p to 45p per unit, the maximum price for a 10unit bottle of wine would in fact be £4 to £4.50."

I'm sure she'll be happy to correct this inadvertently inaccurate statement. What she should have said was that this would make the MINIMUM price for a 10 unit bottle £4.00 - £4.50.

I assume a thorough analysis has been done on what the knock on effects of an increase from (for arguments sake) £3 a bottle to £4.50 a bottle for some genuinely cheap plonk will have on wine currently in the £4 - £5 price bracket, and the kock on effect of the presumed price increase therein?

Would she also care to explain what controls she would like to see put in place to ensure that the initial minimum price is not subjected to some kind of extra-inflation price elevator?

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Anonymous - About 2017 days ago

I think Sarah is showing her lack of commerical sense by claiming a £4 bottle of wine will only be £4.50. No, £4.50 will just be the CHEAPEST that it can legally be.

The LOWEST quality wines will be £4.50 with the higher quality stuff priced upwards according to what the market will bear.

If a can of the cheapest swill that calls itself beer is 90p what will a beer that currently costs 90p can jump up to?

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Anonymous - About 2017 days ago

First, let's call out minimum pricing for what it really is: an unnecessary money-grab by the government to bring in more revenue so that it attempt to replenish its depleted coffers and so it can give taxpayer money away to special interest groups like Alcohol Concern and probably ASH.

This is entirely unacceptable. We are being taxed to death. Enough already.

Perhaps the Government would care to exercise a little financial prudence and stop spending money on things we don't need.

Do note, we citizens are being left with far too few options here, and we are growing restless. We are angrier by the day. Must we vote all of the MPs out of office for being utterly incompetent? We pay your salaries; we elect you to office to act for us, not to legislate and tax our lifestyles out of existence against our wishes. Keep this in mind. We have far more power over you than you might think, MPs. Do not tempt us.

You do NOT solve problems by throwing more money at something (e.g. the failed war on drugs); you definitely do not solve anything by taking more money from taxpayers.

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Alan Connor - About 2017 days ago

I would also like to point out, that these special interest groups like ash and alcohol concern, are charities, but special charities, as the funding that they receive comes from the tax payer, through government departments. ie, NHS, Dept of Health etc. Therefore they are FAKE Charities!

Prohibition never works, they banned booze, drugs, guns and have any of the bans actually worked. NO!!

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Frank Barker - About 2004 days ago

Since time immemorial politicians have unsuccessfully been attempting to control the consumption of alcohol. Witness the prohibition and Hogarths Gin Lane.
Alcohol consumption in the  UK is very low by European standards, indeed we are 17th  in the league of alcohol consumption per head of the population.
Luxembourg is at the top and Turkey at the bottom. I move onto the health issues. What country has the greatest life expectancy? Luxembourg where they drink the most. What western country has the lowest life expectancy? Turkey where they drink the least.
At best this proposal is yet more social engineering.
Cheers.

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Tom O'Brien - About 1999 days ago

Sarah et al , do you also believe that setting a minimum wage reduces employment?

How, in good conscience, can a Conservative-led government restrict access for people, as is being proposed.

Why punish the majority for the sake of penalizing the actions of a minority?

What's next? Banning private car usage because some people speed?

The Conservatives are falling into the same lazy trap that Labour followed. Instead of enforcing existing laws (surrounding drunkenness and associated anti-social behavior) let's put in place new measures which will only really impact the law-abiding.

Shameful!

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chris brown - About 1966 days ago

I'm backing the motion because every pub in the land is suffering from competition from cheap booze from supermarkets.

I love beer and pubs, which I regard as one of the most civilised of our national institutions, but am sick of drunken kids, smashed on "pre loaded" cheap supermarket vodka and cider, ruining nights out in all our towns and cities.

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