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Last Updated: Sunday, 27 November 2005, 11:44 GMT
Drink and drugs
On Sunday 27 November 2005 Andrew Marr interviewed Patricia Hewitt MP, Trade and Industry Secretary

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Patricia Hewitt MP
Patricia Hewitt MP, Trade and Industry Secretary

ANDREW MARR: Now from the West End to all over the country and a political drama that hasn't yet had anyone clapping.

The pitched battle at Prime Minister's questions this week centred around flu jabs.

We are, according to a Department of Health memo, short - a little bit short - of flu jabs, and people around the country are beginning to panic. So what's the problem?

Here's Patricia Hewitt's answer: it relates to GPs across Britain under-ordering vaccine and possibly the vaccination of the worried well. The worried well, which is the deluded hypochondriac in all of us.

This however infuriated some doctors who thought she was blaming them. It's a big row, so who is to blame? Will everyone get their jab in time?

It isn't the only health issue this week, we're a nation of hopeless boozers and at the end of this week we carry on for even longer. Does it matter? Look at this graph. In the last 20 years alcohol consumption in America, France and Italy has gone sharply down, in Britain it's gone sharply up. A string of doctors have spoken up against the scheme.

The Royal College of Surgeons, the liver specialist who treated George Best - and he should know - as well, of course, as health campaigners and the police, apparently two-thirds of the rest of us oppose the government's scheme so why did they do this thing?

One final thing I think we have to mention, smoking in pubs. We learn this past week that the government's Chief Medical Officer, the top advisor on health matters, was on the edge of resigning over the u-turn which reinstated the carry on smoking sign in any bar and pub which doesn't serve food.

Now this was a personal defeat for Patricia Hewitt, the health secretary, who may yet, however, have the last laugh in the Commons. Welcome Patricia Hewitt.

PATRICIA HEWITT: Good morning.

ANDREW MARR: Thank you very much for coming on. Let me stick with that. You said after all the kafuffle about the secondary smoking ban issue that the time would come when there would be such a ban and I'm just wondering when that time might come - because there is clearly going to be a rebellion of some kind in the House of Commons on the Labour backbenches, and you're in the slightly strange position, it might be said, of agreeing with the rebels.

PATRICIA HEWITT: Well the health bill that I've introduced, and it will have its second reading on Tuesday, is a huge step forward for public health in Britain because it's going to ban smoking in virtually every enclosed workspace and public place. And I've brought forward the introduction - it was going to be the end of 2008 for licensed premises, we're going to make that the middle of 2007 instead, in response to the consultation.

So by the middle, by the summer of 2007, almost every, everybody in the workforce, 99 per cent of people, will be in a completely smoke-free environment. And it's going to cut the number of people exposed to second hand smoke, it's going to make it easier for people who want to give up smoking to do so. And all of that is a huge step forward that I think everybody welcomes.

ANDREW MARR: You said virtually every workplace, but of course the workplaces excluded from that are going to be pubs and private clubs which don't serve food. Very often, they are in the poorer parts of the country - the pubs that are not serving food - and that means that an awful lot of the, the poorer and perhaps more vulnerable people who are probably smoking, many of them at the moment, are going to carry on being exposed to very large quantities of secondary smoking. You don't like that, you argued against it, would you not be quite pleased if that aspect, that one aspect of the bill, was changed in the parliamentary process?

PATRICIA HEWITT: Well I think you're making an absolutely fair point and there's no doubt at all that a total ban would be a simpler thing to do. And as I've said several times before, I think it is only a matter of time before we get to a total ban. But one of the things I find very interesting is that if I look at other countries that have introduced smoking bans - if I look at California, for instance, or Australia or France, several other European countries, Norway and so on - all of them did this through two, sometimes three or even four steps. In other words they started with a ban that exempted licensed premises, or in some cases even the whole hospitality sector, and then as people got used to it and welcomed it, they moved to the complete ban.

ANDREW MARR: So it will happen at some point - whether it's a year from now or ten years from now - but you would not be personally distressed if it happened as a result of changes made by parliament.

PATRICIA HEWITT: Well I've made very clear what the position is and I've done that on behalf of the whole Cabinet. We, all of us, all Labour MPs stood on a manifesto which said we would introduce the ban in exactly the way that I've described. In other words, a total ban with the exemption for the, the pubs and clubs, as you say, that don't serve food. But what we are also going to do is have a review at the end of three years, we will monitor the impact from day one and then government, and parliament, will decide what to do next.

ANDREW MARR: It's a bit of a horlicks isn't it really?

PATRICIA HEWITT: No it's not at all. As I say it's exactly the approach that most other countries have taken in getting to a complete ban as most - but not all, not all, particularly in Europe - have now done.

ANDREW MARR: So what would you think, in a couple of years time maybe three or four years time, the position will be? Do you think we'll get there, to a full ban?

PATRICIA HEWITT: Well we will, we will monitor, Andrew, from day one. What we're already seeing is a significant -

ANDREW MARR: I was sort of asking for a gut feeling ...

PATRICIA HEWITT: Yes, you want a sort of prediction here.

ANDREW MARR: Yes I do.

PATRICIA HEWITT: And, as I've said, I think it's only a matter of time before we get to a complete ban. Whether that will be after three years or a little bit longer, at this point I'm not actually going to predict.

ANDREW MARR: All right. From fags to drink. All those people I was mentioning - George Best's liver doctor - but there's many, many more - who are really quite upset about the arrival of 24 hour drinking and say what was the great, you know, what was the great force behind this; why did the government have to do this thing? What's the answer?

PATRICIA HEWITT: The licensing laws in Britain, in England, have been a complete mess and hopelessly out of date for years. And there's been a consensus building up over a very long period of time that they needed reform. A consensus of course, that extends to David Cameron, who himself was arguing for this when he was a special advisor many, many years ago.

ANDREW MARR: Absolutely, but a lot of people will be watching, Health Secretary, and saying if up to date and modern means some of the scenes that we see night after night in town centres around the country - and more of that - because everyone seems to think there will be more of that as a result of these changes - it's just going the wrong way, we should be a little bit more old fashioned perhaps.

PATRICIA HEWITT: What we see going on in those town centres and the levels of binge drinking amongst young people, they're an absolute disgrace. They're an enormous health worry, they're a worry to a large number of parents. So we've got a real problem there, with a minority of people, particularly younger people, who are drinking way beyond anything that would be regarded as safe or healthy, they're getting involved not only in damaging their own health but very often in violent and aggressive behaviour as well.

ANDREW MARR: So why encourage more of it?

PATRICIA HEWITT: What we want to do is clamp down on that - and of course we're giving the police and local councils much, much tougher powers, in particular by transferring licensing from the magistrates to the local councils themselves. But people who drink perfectly responsibly and sensibly, perhaps including you and me, let's hope, there's no reason at all why we shouldn't be able to enjoy a drink if we're having a late meal or want to have a late drink, perhaps after the theatre or whatever it is, without being disturbed and having our own pleasure spoiled by that irresponsible minority.

ANDREW MARR: Well I, you know, I can, we would all love the maximum freedom to do what we think is responsible but what you're saying suggests that, you know, the liver specialists, the Royal College, all of those campaigning groups, all of those people are just plain wrong. The BMA are plain wrong.

PATRICIA HEWITT: I'm not suggesting anything of the kind Andrew. They are absolutely right about the damage that people are causing to their own health through excessive drinking. And of course we need to tackle that but -

ANDREW MARR: Sorry, could I just say - but they connect that damage and the boozing culture with this change to the law. With the arrival of 24 hour drinking, they're all convinced that 24 hour drinking will mean more drinking, more damaged livers, more destroyed lives, and it's kind of hard to see where that chain of logic falls apart.

PATRICIA HEWITT: There will be almost no pubs or clubs offering 24 hour drinking. Almost none of them have applied for a 24 hour licence. And the problem that we have today, which is a problem that's been building up, particularly amongst young people over the last ten years or more, has happened without any change in the licensing laws whatsoever.

ANDREW MARR: Okay.

PATRICIA HEWITT: And don't forget that of the very small number of 24 hour licences that have been given, about half of them, I think it is, have gone to supermarkets and what we have now agreed with the supermarkets is they will crack down on the under-age of buying of supermarket drinking and the under-age drinking that all too often goes on directly outside those supermarkets and off-licences.

ANDREW MARR: And yet even if a small number are 24 hour a very much larger number are going to be opening much, much later, and I think it was the British Liver Trust who called this a licence to kill.

PATRICIA HEWITT: I don't think it's anything of the kind. And what we've seen from the early applications is some people, some pubs and clubs - some pubs - that will still close at 11, some that will close at midnight, some that will close at one o'clock.

So what you won't get, which causes such damage at the moment, is everybody in the centre of our city closing at the same time, everybody drinking vast amounts in the last half hour, spilling out onto the pavements, the police overstretched, trying to cope with the resultant aggression and violence.

ANDREW MARR: The police are against this too, I have to say.

PATRICIA HEWITT: The police are saying bring it in quickly, don't delay on it and bring in ...

ANDREW MARR: And preferably don't bring it in at all, they were against it.

PATRICIA HEWITT: They're saying bring in, as well, the additional new powers, on top of the new powers we've already given them, which will mean, for instance, that they can exclude persistent offenders and people who keep causing trouble from the inner city areas, giving the councils the power to close down a pub where there is constant trouble for 24 hour - 48 hours - to start with, longer if need be.

There is a real balance here between greater freedoms for responsible adults and responsible pubs and licensed premises and much tougher powers to deal with the irresponsible minority.

ANDREW MARR: Really?

PATRICIA HEWITT: Yes.

ANDREW MARR: Prediction. Here's a prediction that I think is perfectly fair to ask you as Health Secretary. As a result of this, is there going to be an increase or a decrease in alcohol consumption in this country?

PATRICIA HEWITT: There's been an increase in alcohol, alcohol consumption - your own figures showed it very clearly -

ANDREW MARR: Yes.

PATRICIA HEWITT: - over a very long period. We want to try and reverse that. We want -

ANDREW MARR: Do you think that opening pubs and clubs for longer, selling booze, and supermarkets is going to persuade people to drink less?

PATRICIA HEWITT: I think getting rid of that, you know, drink as much as you can in the last half hour, everybody coming out of the pubs in the middle, you know at two or three in the morning, in the middle of the city centre, getting rid of that and giving the police and the councils much tougher powers will help but this is also something for which individuals and parents have to take a great deal of responsibility and I think all of us, and certainly the Department of Health and the NHS, need to do more even than we're doing at the moment to encourage people to drink responsibly and to give up the binge drinking that is doing so much damage.

ANDREW MARR: Flu jabs. Who's to blame?

PATRICIA HEWITT: I don't think anybody's to blame, Andrew, and the fact is that we've got over two million more flu vaccines in our country this year than we had last year. We are vaccinating more people against the flu this winter than we've ever done before.

ANDREW MARR: For all those people watching who may be worried, who may not yet have been able to get a flu jab and who may be carers, as well as in one of the most vulnerable groups, can you tell them when they're going to be able to get that jab?

PATRICIA HEWITT: It's a very anxious, a very worrying time for people in the "at risk groups" who haven't yet had a flu jab, and that's why we're doing everything we can.

Over the next couple of weeks we will get the rest of our own contingency reserves out to GPs who have ordered them, but what we're also doing is talking to the many GP practices who've still got supplies, to say could you share your supplies with colleagues who've run out, and then the third thing we're doing, we've already ordered extra supplies, over and above the contingency we already had, those will be available in January.

ANDREW MARR: In January - I was going to say that suggests that you can't say that all those people who are vulnerable will get a jab before Christmas, with the cold weather coming in now.

PATRICIA HEWITT: What we know - what we know is that up until a couple of weeks ago, exactly the same proportions of the "at risk groups," particularly the elderly patients, had been vaccinated, as were vaccinated at the same time last year.

In the last week I think there's probably been - last week or two - a real surge in demand. Now by getting the contingency supplies out to the GPs, which we're doing at the moment, more people in the priority groups will be able to be vaccinated before Christmas.

ANDREW MARR: But not necessarily everybody, it's just a question of ...

PATRICIA HEWITT: Not necessarily everybody, we've got at least 200,000 more supplies coming on stream in January - if we can get more than that, of course we'll do it - but we're vaccinating more people than we've ever done before, and last year, when we vaccinated twice the number we did eight years ago, we were already one of the leaders right across Europe.

There are very few European countries that vaccinate anything like the number of people we do. So actually, this is something we should be rather proud of despite the very worrying and frustrating situation that some practices have run out already.

ANDREW MARR: People will be watching and listening to that very carefully, Patricia Hewitt, thank you very much indeed.

INTERVIEW ENDS


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy


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