$350 million missed by Peter Dunne

New Zealanders want the Government to toughen up – not by putting more people in prison but by tackling the death and social destruction caused by binge drinking. Research conducted on behalf of the Ministry of Health shows huge public support for moves to raise the minimum price of alcohol. The survey shows the vast majority support raising the price with only 24% opposed; 65% support reducing the hours alcohol can be sold; more than 75% support raising the drinking age to 20 (including 68% of people aged 18 to 24); 82% support increasing restrictions on alcohol advertising; and 65% believe there are too many liquor outlets.

The research validates recommendations in the Law Commission’s recent report on proposed changes to New Zealand’s liquor legislation. The Commission’s recommendations were also endorsed by Prof Doug Sellman and hundreds of medical professionals in New Zealand as the ‘5+ Solution’ – based on the most up to date international research on how to reduce alcohol related harm in society.

Raising the price

The research indicates that raising the price of alcohol – by increasing the tax component – is the single most effective intervention that any government can take. Increased levies would affect two groups in particular – the young, who tend to have limited income to spend to alcohol, and binge drinkers who spend a significant proportion of their income on alcohol. These are the problem groups in society that need to be hit the hardest.

Peter Dunne apparently had the results of this survey sitting on his desk in mid-2010 while National was in the process of seeking further submissions from the public on this issue – but refused to publish it. He sat on the report for over a year and, when it finally became public two days ago, he was accused of suppressing the results. Interviewed on National Radio, he denied suppressing anything, but gave two reasons for failing to publish it. One was that “the data was essentially consistent with a range of public views already available”. The other was that the $10,000 it would have cost to publish “could be better spent elsewhere in the health sector”.

Hollow arguments

These are hollow arguments. Until now, the two main sources of information about public attitudes to binge drinking came from unscientific media polls and public outrage at the damage alcohol has been causing. Coverage given to the death of 16 year old King’s College student James Webster from alcoholic overdose may have been a turning point in public opinion.

However, the research that Peter Dunne had sitting on his desk was conducted by a Ministry of Health committee using scientifically validated methodology and procedures. As such, it was the only reliable source of information on the public attitudes to alcohol law reform available. So to argue that there was no need to publish the report because the data was essentially consistent with an existing range of views is nonsense. Media stories are anecdotal and unreliable and ideally should not be used to guide policy and legislation. For that we need facts, figures and reliable research.

The argument put forward by Mr Dunne that the $10,000 needed to publish the report “could be better spent elsewhere in the health sector” is even more facetious. Mr Dunne expanded on this in his radio interview by saying that Government didn’t want to spend the $10,000 because it was scratching around to find money for its methamphetamine strategy at the time. Once again, Mr Dunne is missing the point – well two points actually.

Alcohol the biggest drug problem

The first is that alcohol is by far the biggest drug problem in the country – not methamphetamine. Alcohol kills over 1,000 New Zealanders every year and according to Bryan Easton, a leading economist, it costs the country about $16 billion a year. In comparison, methamphetamine is involved in perhaps two deaths a year – not from overdose but because of the occasional murder committed under its influence – while alcohol is involved in over half of the 60 to 80 murders committed every year. If a choice has to be made between the social destruction caused by alcohol or by methamphetamine, dealing with binge drinking provides a lot more bang for our bucks.

The second point Mr Dunne has overlooked is that if the Government actually adopted the recommendation to increase the price of alcohol – as supported by the ‘suppressed’ research – this would raise $350 million. That’s what the Law Commission said a 10% increase in the price of alcohol would achieve. And right now New Zealand needs every source of revenue it can find. Christchurch needs rebuilding, public servants are being laid off left right and centre, and the country is facing the biggest deficit in its history.

And we have a binge drinking culture which is out of control. Under the circumstances, Government’s reluctance raise the price of alcohol (and adopt the other measures supported by this research) is hard to fathom. This ‘suppressed’ research suggests Mr Dunne is not interested in what the public clearly wants the Government to do – raise the price – and pick up $350 million along the way. As Revenue Minister, there’s a lot you could do with it; and you’ll get your $10,000 back.

14,000 prisoners on remand excluded from rehabilitation

More than 20,000 people spend time in New Zealand prisons every year and most are excluded from rehabilitation programmes. Being illiterate is one of the excluding criteria. Those on short sentences are also excluded. However, the largest cohort of prisoners prevented from attending are those on remand awaiting trial or sentencing. 14,000 New Zealanders end up in this situation every year – some for just a few weeks, others for years.

British research on remand prisoners:  There are very good reasons to start rehabilitation while offenders are on remand. British research has found that remand prisoners tend to experience very high levels of social deprivation. They are five times more likely than sentenced prisoners to have lived in a hostel prior to imprisonment and are less likely to have had a job. They also have higher levels of drug dependency.

In 2005, Britain’s Home Affairs Committee produced a report on rehabilitation issues and recommended that:

“Remand prisoners should undergo a needs assessment on reception to prison, including mandatory drug testing, and the Prison Service should develop a separate prison regime tailored to meet their specific needs. This regime should include a short induction programme, education and work opportunities and drug and alcohol treatment programmes, with arrangements in place for continuation of treatment and programmes in the community…

“Time in prison can offer a window of opportunity to start to change. These measures are especially relevant to remand and short-term prisoners, because they are more likely to be in prison for drug-motivated crimes, and treatment is more urgent because they will be released sooner”.

New Zealand research: There is little research in New Zealand on the level of drug abuse and social exclusion experienced by prisoners on remand. But the thrust of the argument made by the British Home Affairs Committee applies equally well in New Zealand. Since 80% of crime is committed under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the average remand prisoner is highly likely to have problems with substance abuse. They often have unstable accommodation and are sometimes remanded in prison simply because they have nowhere to live.

We even build prisons especially for them. Earlier this year, the Corrections Department spent $218 million on a brand new prison in Mt Eden with nearly 1,000 beds – just to accommodate remand prisoners in Auckland. Although it houses up to 1,000 prisoners at a time, many more will spend time there in the course of a year. Not one of them will be allowed to attend a rehabilitation programme.