HC Deb 04 July 1986 vol 100 cc1308-10

Lords amendment: No. 1 in, page 2, line 21, at end insert(d) after subsection (5) there shall be inserted the following subsections— (6) For the purposes of subsections (1) and (2) of this section, any substance sold in a container (whether sealed or not) shall, subject to subsections (7) to (9) of this section, be presumed to conform to the description of the substance on the container. (7) Where a prosecutor (within the meaning of section 462 of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1975) intends to rely on subsection (6) of this section, he shall give notice of his intention to the accused or his agent not less than 14 days before the commencement of the trial. (8) The accused shall not be entitled to challenge the presumption in subsection (6) of this section, unless he or his agent gives notice to the said prosecutor of intention to do so not less than 7 days before the commencement of the trial. (9) A notice under subsection (7) or (8) of this section shall be by recorded delivery letter, and the execution of the recorded delivery shall be sufficient evidence of the date of posting and of intimation of the notice, which shall be presumed to have been intimated to the addressee on the day after the day on which it was posted, except that, in the case of a notice posted on a Friday or a Saturday, it shall be presumed to have been so intimated on the Monday next following.".

11.15 am
Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

This is a technical amendment, which applies only to Scotland. It arises because of the rules of evidence applicable to a criminal trail in Scotland. A prosecutor must prove the nature and contents of a container, such as a bottle or a tin, and evidence would require to be led of scientific analysis of the contents having been carried out by two forensic scientists. That is so even when the contents are specified on a label on the container or where the nature of the contents is not a matter of dispute between the Crown and the accused.

The amendment will do away with the need for full scientific examination in every case by creating a presumption, for the purposes of any trial, that any substance in a container, whether or not the container is sealed, shall be presumed to conform to the description of the substance in the container.

It is important to emphasise that that is a rebuttable presumption and does not compromise the accused's position. When the matter is contentious the accused can insist on full scientific proof. Under subsection (7) the prosecutor must give notice to an accused person of his intention to rely on the presumption, and thereafter it is open to the accused to give counter-notice of his intention to challenge the presumption.

The use of the presumption is, therefore, expected only in cases when the matter is not in dispute. In such cases, much time and expense will be saved in proceeding to trial without needing full scientific evidence. I understand that there are precedents for that principle.

The amendment would do away with the need for a procurator fiscal in Scotland to have the contents of packets of Skoal Bandits or cigarettes chemically analysed if all parties agree that the packet contains what it says it contains. I am grateful to the Lord Advocate for introducing this useful technical amendment in the other place, because it should further simplify the prosecution of those who sell tobacco products to young people under 16, but it will not prejudice the fundamental rights of the defendant.

I do not wish to delay the House, in view of the importance of our next business. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) on his excellent Bill for the benefit of disabled people and I am pleased that I was able to assist him during its Committee stage. However, I shall dwell on my own Bill for another couple of minutes, because the amendment provides a useful opportunity to press the Minister on the enforcement of the Bill when, as we hope, it comes into effect in about three months' time.

The Bill has two fundamental purposes. The first is to make it easier to prosecute those who sell cigarettes to youngsters. It is a national scandal that this poisonous trade is being carried on to the tune of £90 million a year. A new generation is getting hooked on the lethal addiction to nicotine and we expect the Government and the prosecuting and police authorities to take action to deter the trade when the Bill comes into effect.

The most recent Government figures show that fewer than 50 prosecutions a year are made against those involved in the £90 million trade. It is clear that the old legislation has become a dead letter. My Bill should make it possible to crack down on that trade and I hope that the Minister will confirm that that is his intention.

The second intention of the Bill is to extend the ban on the sale of tobacco to youngsters to include tobacco for oral and nasal use, which specifically includes the notorious Skoal Bandits. Many of us would like to ban these dangerous products altogether, and it is nonsense that the people who produce them have been able to escape the ban on sales to youngsters. They are exempt from tobacco duty, they do not yet have to carry a Government health warning on the products and the United States tobacco company that manufactures them has even had a Government grant to establish a factory in East Kilbride.

I hope that my Bill will be the beginning of the end for Skoal Bandits in Britain. I am grateful to the House for supporting this measure to deal with a serious problem, and I am grateful to my noble Friend Lord Pitt of Hampstead for piloting the Bill through another place.

We must stress that legislation is not enough. It must be enforced, to deter the unscrupulous people involved in this trade. I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Government intend to crack down on this trade as soon as the Bill comes into effect.

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

The Opposition welcome the amendment. It is useful, in that it will speed up justice and save time and administrative costs in a number of cases. In the past, prosecutions may not have been successful because the evidence has not been proved beyond doubt or because it was suggested that the contents of a box were different from those described on the label. Do the terms of the amendment already apply in England? If not, why has a similar procedure not been introduced to save the public analyst's time when a dispute arises?

Finally, I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) on bringing the Bill forward. It will be a useful addition to our legislation. Under-age smoking is one of the most serious questions before us, and if this small step helps young people not to become addicted to nicotine before the age of 16, as I am sure it will, all hon. Members will welcome the Bill, and I hope that it will receive Royal Assent as soon as possible.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Allan Stewart)

The hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) has rightly pointed out that this is a technical amendment that arises because of the rules of evidence applicable to a criminal trial in Scotland. The amendment applies only to Scotland, and I can tell the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) that I understand a similar problem does not arise in England. The hon. Member for East Lothian spelt out clearly the reasons for the amendment and it would serve no purpose for me to repeat them.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Government's intention regarding enforcement of the Bill. Clause 3(3) states that the Act will come into effect three months after the day on which it is passed. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it is our intention to have a wide-ranging publicity campaign through the Scottish Information Office, to educate the public and we shall bring the Bill to the attention of health boards, the police and prosecuting authorities in Scotland.

I am sure that the passing of the Bill and the publicity which it receives will have a substantial deterrent effect on those who may be tempted to sell tobacco or tobacco products to young people below the statutory age. Clearly there is limit to the extent to which chief constables can deploy resources to combat the problem, but I am sure that they will have due regard to it within the competing demands on their resources.

Finally, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on steering the Bill so successfully through and I assure him that Ministers with responsibility for health will use their best endeavours in the current discussions with United States Tobacco to ensure that Skoal Bandits are not sold to anyone below the appropriate age.

Question put and agreed to.

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