Tuesday, 10 July 2012

A Leveson for the brewers?

Decades of wrongdoing, criminal and unethical behaviour and the scandalous abuse of vulnerable people by Britain's tabloid press have been finally brought into the public sphere in the last twelve months, but one area, perhaps most importantly has been spotlighted. It is the relationship between corporate media power and both Labour and Tory Governments. The evidence surfacing does not paint our democracy in a good light, and it is unlikely that media companies are the only conglomerates who have had a hand in shaping government policy in the past few decades. Following the outrage over the manipulation of interest rates, a scandal just in its infancy, some politicians have called for a 'Leveson for the Banks', as if the term Leveson is a new British shorthand for exposing hidden conspiracies against the public. If this is the case then there is another industry who's relationship with government needs urgent examination, the alcohol industry. Brewers and distillers have traditionally been a formidable lobby, scions of the great brewing magnates have frequently stood as Conservative MPs and funded the party that understood its concerns and interests. During the heady, booze fuelled years of Blair's Cool Britannia, the drinks trade found a new ally in the Labour Party, who's policies regarding licensing have had apocalyptic consequences for British high streets and hospital A&E departments over their 13 years in office. The Coalition Government, faced with an historically unprecedented level of alcohol abuse has, to its defence, taken the first positive steps towards dealing with Britain's societal alcoholism, but the planned minimum alcohol pricing strategy is but one small, fairly reluctant step on a long journey and plans to reverse 24 hour drinking have been kicked into the long grass. In this country people will always drink and they will probably always take other drugs too, but in order to find a solution to the rapidly escalating alcohol crisis that confronts Britain, some painful truths must be addressed. The government in Westminster and here in Wales should now be obliged to face the same kind of questions regarding the alcohol industry that they have faced about the media. We should ask them the following things: 1) What is the extent of industry involvement in the creation of new laws or codes of practice to regulate the marketing and sale of alcohol? 2) How often do representatives of the main brewers, distillers and supermarkets meet with the Secretary of State for Health and the Assembly Minister for Health and Social Services? 3) Have ministers or senior civil servants responsible for policy regarding alcohol accepted any form of hospitality from parties interested in shaping policy towards alcohol? Has this been declared? We might also wish to question the previous administration, given that its policies seemed to benefit the industry so dramatically. It might be pertinent to ask: 1) What motivated the 2003 decision to introduce 24 hour drinking licenses? What industry involvement in the decision was there? 2) What was the relationship between the previous Labour Government and the big four supermarkets when it came to the issue of minimum alcohol pricing and selling? Why ask these questions? Because as all former addicts know, truth is the key to recovery. We must stand back and realistically assess the carnage that alcohol has wrought in the past decade and before. In the year following the 24 hour drinking relaxation, a further 64,000 alcohol related assaults were recorded and drink driving leapt to a 30 year high. This year, at a conservative estimate, 15,000 people will die of drinking, there will be a million hospital admissions, and one in four young people who die in Britain will be killed by alcohol. With statistics like these, we need urgently to be told the truth about how the alcohol industry and the government work together to create immense profits for drinks manufacturers and retailers, while leaving the costs for the rest of us to pay. To date, distasteful though his publications are, Rupert Murdoch's newspapers haven't cost any lives, but the laissez faire way in which alcohol is sold and consumed has, and will continue to do so unless the public is allowed a thorough investigation into the industry.