HC Deb 18 April 1986 vol 95 cc1172-4

11.3 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Ray Whitney)

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 12, after '(2)', insert '(powers of court in respect of tobacco vending machines used by young persons)'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Paul Dean)

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 2, 3 and 4.

Mr. Whitney

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for selecting the amendments and for suggesting that they be discussed together.

Amendments Nos. 1 and 3 are technical and are intended to tidy up the Bill. It might be helpful to the House if I briefly explain their effect. They describe precisely the relevant part, in section 7(2) of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 and section 18(2) of the Children and Young Persons (Scotland) Act 1937, in which the word "may" is being substituted by the word "shall" in the Bill as amended in Committee. These provisions concern the powers of the court in respect of tobacco vending machines used by young people. In agreeing to the amendment, the Committee was concerned that the courts should be in no doubt of Parliament's intentions—that when it has been proved that a vending machine selling tobacco is being extensively used by young people, the owner of the machine, or the person on whose premises the machine is kept, should be ordered to take precautions to prevent the machine from being used in that way or, if necessary, that the machine should be removed.

For the sake of consistency and coherence, the amendments that I propose describe the purpose of that clause of the Bill being alluded to, and therefore I hope clarify the value of the amendment. Hon. Members will see that the provisions in subsections (1)(a) and (c) contain similar words of explanation. In these cases the phrases in brackets describe in the case of subsection (1)(a) the nature of the proviso, and in the case of subsection (1)(c) the reference is to the definition of "tobacco". The object is to make the Bill more intelligible.

Amendments Nos. 2 and 4 also arise out of the Committee's wish to change the discretionary power which at present resides in the court into a duty. In supporting the repeal of subsections (1) of the 1933 Act and of the 1937 Scottish Act—making it an offence to sell any tobacco products to children apparently under the age of 16—the Committee agreed that an appropriate saving clause be included in the Bill to prevent people, who may have offended before this Act came into effect, from losing the defences which were available to them at the date of the alleged offence. An example would be that if a shopkeeper sold some tobacco product other than cigarettes to a person under 16 reasonably believing it to be for someone else's use, he would still be able to rely on that defence even though the case came to trial after the Bill had come into force.

The Committee also agreed to amendments which would replace the word "may" by "shall". This in effect would remove the discretion of the courts to take into account the individual circumstances surrounding a case, and would place a mandatory power on the courts to order the owner of a tobacco vending machine, or the person on whose premises the machine is kept, to take specified precaustions to prevent the machine from being used extensively by persons apparently under the age of 16 years, or for the machine to be removed. It would seem appropriate that a similar saving clause should apply also in this instance, thus ensuring that the Bill does not operate retrospectively in relation to offences alleged to have been committed but not tried before the Bill comes into operation.

The amendments provide for the appropriate saving clauses on these two matters to be incorporated into the Bill. Accordingly, I invite the House to support them.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

The Minister has been extremely helpful throughout our consideration of the Bill. I am grateful to him for tabling these amendments and for explaining them. I am particularly pleased about amendments Nos. 1 and 3, because they confirm the Government's acceptance of the decision taken in Committee to toughen up the legislation as it applies to tobacco and cigarette vending machines, which are known to be used extensively by youngsters under the age of 16.

In classic Standing Committee style, we wanted to change the word "may" to "shall". This will require courts to take action when they have evidence that such vending machines are being extensively used by youngsters. The courts will have discretion about what they do about that, but something will be done. I am grateful to the Minister for accepting our suggestion and for tidying up the Bill.

I understand the objective of amendments Nos. 2 and 4. The Minister has made it clear that the qualifications will affect only alleged offences committed before the Bill comes into effect. When the Bill is on the statute book there will be no nonsense about whom the tobacco or cigarettes are being sold for, because it will then be a question of whom they are sold to. If the person is under 16, whoever sells that tobacco will be guilty of an offence beyond any shadow of doubt and action will be taken. The House shares that objective—at least I hope so, but one does not know these days. The amendments are consistent with the Bill's objectives.

Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) for asking me to support his Bill. The amendments are excellent. In Standing Committee it became clear that there was a great deal of cynical activity by those who sell tobacco products.

I sometimes feel sorry for the manufacturers, who try to restrict the sale of the products by giving instructions to retailers. I feel sorry, too, for retailers, who have to live with the stigma of selling products which many people regard as not only unnecessary but downright unhealthy. However, I get particularly angry about the placing of cigarette machines in locations designed deliberately to attract a market which we know to be illegal, and with traders who sell cigarettes to the young, knowing it to be illegal. Sometimes, they even facilitate selling cigarettes to the young. A child might not be able to afford a full packet, and the retailer may be prepared to sell them wrapped in sweet wrappings or old newspaper. I am told that 10p a stick is common.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

Is my hon. Friend satisfied with the efficacy or effectiveness of the present laws? More important, is he satisfied with the law being proposed under the Bill, and does he think that it is likely to be any more effective? Is not the main problem the implementation of the law rather than its text? Will the Bill enable us to take any significant steps forward?

Mr. Hanley

My hon. Friend is right to say that one of the greatest problems is enforcement. To discuss this matter in Parliament at regular intervals brings it to the attention of the wider public. When legislation is going through Parliament, it becomes a focus for discussion in the media. I warmly welcome the activities of the "That's Life!" programme. The presenters, in their search for consumer fraud and potential danger for consumers, have often exposed cynical practices. At the moment. the programme is doing something about the selling of tobacco to children.

A letter sent to certain hon. Members yesterday by U.S. Tobacco International. Inc. mentioned two points. The manufacturers claim, first, that they are unaware of people breaking the laws of this land and ignoring the guidelines given by the company to the retailers; secondly, that the manufacturers' lawyers are investigating the claims made in the programme. The legislation is good in one respect, above the fact that it further enhances the law, in that it brings publicity to the breach of the law.

As I said in Committee, when I found no fewer than seven retail outlets openly selling to people clearly under the age of 16, I was glad to have the opportunity to expose that. The opportunity given by today's debate and by the debates in Committee and the publicity associated with them is only to the good of our young.

The amendments are a recognition of the fact that there are breaches of the law. The setting up of betting shops close to unemployment benefit offices is a cynical exercise in trying to separate those who have little from what little they have. The £1.50 for a packet of cigarettes is money that children have a fight to get, or that comes from their parent, by fair means or foul. Therefore, I welcome the amendments, which recognise the practices that retailers have used to try to get round the law. I hope that my hon. Friend feels the strength of opinion in the House and in the country.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 2, in page 2, line 1, leave out subsection (2) and insert— '(2) Paragraph (a) of subsection (1) above does not affect any offence alleged to have been committed before the date on which this Act comes into force and paragraph (b) of that subsection does not affect the powers of the court on a complaint made before that date.'.—[Mr. Whitney.]

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