HC Deb 17 July 1979 vol 970 cc1495-500

12.53 a.m.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Hugh Rossi)

I beg to move, That the draft Tattooing of Minors (Northern Ireland) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 28 June, be approved. This short but useful order makes provision for Northern Ireland similar to that made for the rest of the United Kingdom by the Tattooing of Minors Act 1969, which prohibits the tattooing of persons under the age of 18. I have no doubt that the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) will ask why it has taken so long for the order to be presented to the House. I can only say that I was not responsible for anything that happened before 7 May this year.

This matter has a long history. There was an attempt by the former Assembly, in 1974 I think, to bring forward a provision of this kind. However, when the Assembly ceased to be that measure disappeared also.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

Perhaps we can put the Minister's mind at rest. We are not complaining on this issue because we recognise that we have always suffered from not exactly jet lag but time lag in Northern Ireland, where the Stormont Parliament and Government rubber stamped and produced an almost identical measure year after year roughly 12 months after the corresponding Great Britain measure.

Mr. Rossi

I have noted the hon. Gentleman's comment. I hope that he will welcome the fact that after a lapse of about 10 years the Government have decided to bring forward a measure for Northern Ireland which may be of some help to people in the Province.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford) initiated the revival of this forgotten measure in Northern Ireland by a question that he asked in July 1978 about what had happened to it. That started the processes that have resulted in the measure coming before the House this evening.

The position in Northern Ireland is that there are no restrictions on the age at which a person may be tattooed. Many young people have had themselves tattooed and have lived to regret it. The obvious problem, for example, is of a social relationship in later life when a particular female name may be discovered by someone else.

Also, there has been a tendency for sectarian or political slogans to be tattooed, and these can cause embarrassment when youngsters grow older. They could even put the personal safety of these young people at risk.

It is not easy to have tattoos removed. The only effective method is by plastic surgery. The process is delicate and expensive, and can involve treatment spread over many weeks. Waiting lists for plastic surgery are long and the removal of tattoos has had to be restricted to essential cases; for example, where the tattoo involves a risk to the wearer or stops him from obtaining a job.

During the three-year period ending 1978, 298 operations were performed in Northern Ireland for the removal of tattoos, 11 on persons under 15 and 26 on persons between the ages of 15 and 19. This is obviously an area in which prevention is better than cure. I believe that we have a duty to ensure that youngsters are not exposed to the difficulties that I have mentioned.

Article 4 of the order contains two exceptions. First, a minor may be tattooed for medical reasons, by or under the direction of a medical practitioner, showing that he or she has a rare blood group or suffers from diabetes or some such matter that requires signalling in case of need. The second exception is that a person will not be guilty of an offence under the order if he tattoos a minor whom he reasonably believes to be 18 or over.

I hope that the measure will prevent many from doing something which they may come to regret for the rest of their lives, and accordingly I commend it to the House.

1 a.m.

Mr. Robert J. Bradford (Belfast, South)

No one should misunderstand the importance of the order because of its brevity. As the Minister said, this is an important matter which has a direct bearing on the lives of a considerable number of young people in Northern Ireland.

I thank the Minister for his kind comments about the way in which I initiated the issue, but I wish to take the opportunity to say that it was because of the encouragement given by the then Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Kirkdale (Mr. Dunn), that one was moved to pursue the matter.

Our gratitude should be extended to the Minister for seizing the opportunity to bring legislation in Northern Ireland into line with that in the rest of the United Kingdom. I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends wish to be associaed with that word of gratitude.

I feel that two areas of concern should be raised in this short debate. First, I think it right to rehearse something of the problem itself. When this legislation was introduced in Great Britain by the then Member for Sowerby, Mr. Max Madden, he was able to cite a number of instances where dermatologists in his area had to treat about 200 teenagers who had had tattoos put upon their person. Some of these young people had to have plastic surgery to have the marks removed lest their lives were to be affected from that point onward.

The Minister has given us figures relating to Northern Ireland. The consultant dermatologist at the teaching hospital in Belfast, the Royal Victoria hospital, views as serious the problem of tattooing among teenagers, and it was in consultation with him that I raised the matter some months ago.

The problem has two aspects. First, there are what I suppose one can call the epidermic considerations, that is, relating to the whole question of the marks which sometimes cannot be obliterated and in which, as the Minister suggested, certain associations and motives are sometimes linked with what is put upon the skin.

Secondly—I was not aware of this until I spoke to the present Minister for Health —there is what one might call the endodermis consideration, that is the small and unkempt type of tatoo shop where one can contract serious disease in the course of having a tattoo put upon one's person. I understand from the Minister for Health, who is himself a physician, that some of the most serious antisocial diseases can ensue from the kind of operation that goes on in small and unkempt tattoo shops.

The problem, therefore, is clear, and this measure will help to obviate it in the Province.

I turn next to the question of penalties. Does the Minister of State feel that the method of summary conviction and the related fine of a sum not exceeding £400 is the best provision to adopt? There has been experience now for 10 years in the rest of the United Kingdom. Have substantial fines been applied to those who break the law in this respect? I understand that the profits from this practice are considerable. It would be interesting to know the level of fines current in this part of the United Kingdom. If they have been geared to the minimum rather than to the maximum of £400, there may be something to be said for stipulating a particular fine for a first offence and a higher amount for second and subsequent offences. I merely ask for clarification on penalties.

I welcome the order and thank the Minister for introducing it. I assure him that any mild criticism, either in the course of this short debate or in any other, is not meant to be obstructive.

1.5 a.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

I hope that the Minister of State will not get a persecution complex over the timelag between Great Britain and Northern Ireland legislation. However, with this order we have a classic specimen of some of the unfortunate consequences of a considerable interval between virtually the same enactments in the two parts of the United Kingdom.

In 1969 there was a maximum fine of £50 for the first offence and £100 for the second or subsequent. Now, 10 years later, we have in Northern Ireland a maximum fine of £400 for the first offence. So if a person tattoos a minor on this side of the Irish Sea it can cost him £50 the first time, whereas if he does that on the other side of the Irish Sea it can cost him £400 the first time. This is nonsense and should be recognised as such. It shows that legislation which inherently ought to apply to all parts of the United Kingdom, as this measure clearly should, ought so to apply from the outset. Whatever the machinery used, legislation should apply to the whole of the kingdom, if and so long as it is a United Kingdom.

In 1969 that could not be done because the subject involved was a transferred subject. However, it can be done now. As the Minister of State will gradually learn, there are different modes, of varying complexity, for securing simultaneous legislation for the whole of the United Kingdom. It should now be accepted that, unless there are strong reasons to the contrary, we should in future, when we legislate on subjects that affect all parts of the United Kingdom, legislate in the same way and legislate simultaneously.

1.7 a.m.

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

I, too, wish to welcome the order.

The hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux), by implication or directly, was critical of the former Stormont Government for introducing legislation about 12 months after similar legislation had been introduced in Great Britain. I find that surprising. It may be true, but I find that criticism surprising. There was little criticism from the Official Unionist Party of the Unionist Government at Stormont. Indeed, it was all for making differences in some areas of legislation.

I am worried about one matter and I do not suppose that the Government will be able to do very much, apart from education. I am concerned about young people who tattoo themselves or their friends. I know of one instance where a young chap had a tattoo applied to his hand by means of a needle and Indian ink. That left a permanent mark on his hand. Something more might be done to educate young people about the dangers of applying tattoos.

If something can be done to help young people to remove tattoos from their hands and arms, I hope that the Government will be prepared to help by making better provisions for the operations to take place, if necessary by providing finance so that the operations can be carried out as quickly ns possible.

1.10 a.m.

Mr. Rossi

A number of questions have been raised. The first was raised by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford) on the penalties and the differences between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The Tattooing of Minors Act 1969 provides a maximum fine of £50 for a first offence and £100 for a second or subsequent offence. Subject to correction, I believe that the Criminal Law Act 1977 had the effect of upgrading the penalties. It did so right the way through the whole of criminal law legislation to bring them in line with the modern or current value of money. In this order we reflect the present situation in Great Britain.

There is a degree of flexibility in this sense. There are no separate higher or smaller penalties depending on first or second offences. The matter is left entirely to the discretion of the court with the much heavier maximum of £400.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

In that case, the Minister of State had better get after the legislation branch of the Northern Ireland Office, Dundonald House, Belfast BT4 for circulating an explanatory document that implies the opposite.

Mr. Rossi

I shall look into that.

Mr. Brynmor John (Pontypridd)

As the pilot of the Criminal Law Act 1977, I know that the Minister is right. All the £50 fines were uprated to a £400 maximum.

Mr. Rossi

It is pleasing to feel that occasionally a Minister is a little in advance of, if not the law, at any rate his legal advisers. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's confirmation that that is the legal position. If the memorandum is misleading, I shall look at it and make sure that it is issued in a correct form for the future.

I do not know whether there are any other matters with which hon. Members wish me to deal. I believe that I covered the points of substance.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Tattooing of Minors (Northern Ireland) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 28 June, be approved.