Kevin Barron Uses His Full Eight Minutes

Summer Adjournment
Communities and Local Government Committee Report: Private Rented Sector
2:20 pm

I hope I do not have to take my full eight minutes, but I sat in this House yesterday listening to Prime Minister’s Question Time, and my hon. Friend Wayne David asked the Prime Minister why he had not replied to a letter he had sent to him in February, to which the Prime Minister replied:

“I will look urgently at this case, because I reply to hon. Members’ correspondence right across the House, and I always will.”—[Hansard, 17 July 2013; Vol. 566, c. 1090.]

Last month, I brought up at Prime Minister’s Question Time the fact that I had written a letter to the Prime Minister on 8 May this year about public health and Lynton Crosby’s involvement, or non-involvement, in public health matters. I asked several questions, including:

“Have you ever discussed cigarette packaging policy with Lynton Crosby? Have you ever discussed minimum alcohol pricing with Lynton Crosby?”

The last question was:

“Were the Government’s legislative priorities discussed at the meeting which reportedly took place at Chequers on Thursday 21 February, involving you, George Osborne, Ed Llewellyn and Lynton Crosby?”

I have not yet, months later, had a reply from the Prime Minister to that letter.

As I said, I brought the matter up at Prime Minister’s Question Time on 19 June. I told the Prime Minister I had written to him on 8 May and had not yet received a reply, and briefly mentioned that the letter was about Lynton Crosby and alcohol and standard packaging of cigarettes. He did not reply, instead saying:

“I can tell you, Mr Speaker, that Lynton Crosby has never lobbied me on anything.”

If that is the case—if he believes that—why he cannot reply to my letter of 8 May is beyond me. The Prime Minister continued:

“The only opinions that I am interested in are how we destroy the credibility of the Labour party, on which he has considerable expertise, though I have to say that he is not doing as good a job as the Labour party.”—[Hansard, 19 June 2013; Vol. 564, c. 891.]

It is perfectly clear what agenda Mr Crosby is setting. Members may recall that in yesterday’s debate on managing risk in the NHS, I intervened on my right hon. Friend the shadow Health Secretary, saying:

“My right hon. Friend knows well…that in the past two months there has been a marked change in the coalition Government’s approach on the national health service. It started with the absurd argument that the problems in accident and emergency departments were the result of the 2004 GP contract. Is it not more likely that what is happening is that Mr Lynton Crosby is telling Government Members to squeeze the lead that Labour has had over the Conservative party for many decades on the NHS?”—[Hansard, 17 July 2013; Vol. 566, c. 1177.]

That is exactly what is happening. I went on to mention that that is not only demoralising NHS staff and frightening NHS patients, but is doing enormous damage to the credibility of politicians up and down the land. I got an e-mail yesterday from a Conservative Member who was tabling an early-day motion. He said he thinks we should get party politics out of the NHS. I agree.

I am concerned about the non-reply to my letter for several reasons. The Prime Minister gave his view on this matter on 23 March 2012 in a No. 10 press release:

“The Prime Minister is leading Government action to tackle binge-drinking culture by supporting proposals a minimum unit price for alcohol.”

It says the Home Secretary is involved in that, and the Prime Minister is quoted as saying:

“So we’re going to attack it from every angle. More powers for pubs to stop serving alcohol to people who are already drunk. More powers for hospitals not just to tackle the drunks turning up in A&E—but also the problem clubs that send them there night after night. And a real effort to get to grips with the root cause of the problem. And that means coming down hard on cheap alcohol.”

We had a statement yesterday from the Home Office, again, which is most likely to view alcohol as a law and order issue. I wish that people would view alcohol as an issue of health and the damage it is doing to the young generation. Thirty years ago, people of my age—men in their 60s—died of alcohol-related diseases. Young men and women in their 20s are dying of cirrhosis of the liver now: not just one or two, but many of them. We must take a hold of this problem and the Prime Minister and the Government are not doing that.

During the alcohol strategy consultation statement yesterday, Dr Wollaston asked a question that relates directly to getting a grip on the price of alcohol. She asked whether the Minister was aware of the evidence from Sheffield, which is where the original review was carried out on alcohol pricing and consumption in areas such as my constituency, which is just outside Sheffield. The review stood the test many years ago and stands the test now, so to hear Ministers say that there is no evidence on alcohol pricing and consumption is complete nonsense. I fear that Lynton Crosby and the people he has worked for in the past have more on that.

The hon. Lady asked:

“Is the Minister aware of the evidence from Sheffield that was published this morning and shows that the impact of having a threshold at duty plus VAT would be a decrease in consumption of one 400th of 1%?”

That is what the Government announced yesterday on health and alcohol, notwithstanding how A and Es up and down the land are swamped with people who have overindulged in alcohol not just on Friday and Saturday nights but midweek, too. Never mind the disease that alcohol creates; it creates chaos on our streets and in the hospitals, too. The hon. Lady went on:

“In other words, it will be meaningless.”—[Hansard, 17 July 2013; Vol. 566, c. 1122.]

She is absolutely right.

I said yesterday that at the weekend the Faculty of Public Health withdrew from the Government’s responsibility group on the use of alcohol, as have Alcohol Concern, Cancer Research UK, the UK Health Forum and many other organisations. The Government are backing down and taking notice of industry, and the areas that affect public health are being left. Everybody ought to know that the dangers to public health in this century, as opposed to past centuries, are caused by individual lifestyles. The Government are ducking taking action on individual lifestyles in favour of industry. I thought I ought to put that on the record and I hope that one day I will get a reply to my letter.

Tom Brake responded : 

Mr Barron put on record his concerns about a failure to respond to his correspondence. I will ensure that is communicated to the Prime Minister’s office, and I hope a response to his letter is forthcoming. He talked about the NHS and alcohol, too. I hope he will acknowledge that the NHS budget is one of the budgets that has been safeguarded when many others have not. On alcohol, I think it is fair to say that a lot has been achieved through the public health responsibility deal, and it is worth pointing out that binge drinking is reducing, rather than increasing, which is also a positive trend.

Thankyou Kevin Barron for your thoughts. 

Hopefully, you will practice what you preach about responding to letters as that is one of the main concerns of some of your constituents – as well of course, as health and jobs.

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