HL Deb 05 June 1991 vol 529 cc706-14

7 p.m.

Lord Rea

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee. —(Lord Rea.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD SKELMERSDALE in the Chair.]

Clauses 1 and 2 agreed to.

Clause 3 [Sale of unpackaged cigarettes]:

On Question, Whether Clause 3 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I have given notice of my intention to oppose the Question, That Clause 3 shall stand part of the Bill. The Bill is entitled "Children and Young Persons (Protection from Tobacco) Bill". As far as I am aware nobody opposes the measures contained in the Bill which are intended to ensure that the law relating to the sale of cigarettes to children and young people should be strictly complied with.

The law is strengthened by Clauses 1 and 2. The maximum penalty for non-compliance is raised to £2,500. That is more than a sixfold increase on the present penalty of £400. The law is strengthened and the penalty is increased for the sale of any form of tobacco to children and young persons, be it a packet of cigarettes or a single cigarette. Furthermore, the penalty remains the same at a maximum of £2,500 whether a packet of 10 or more cigarettes or a single cigarette is sold. Children and young people are therefore fully protected by Clauses 1 and 2: no additional protection is given by Clause 3.

Accordingly, the purpose of Clause 3 is not and cannot be to increase the protection for children and young persons. If it is not to protect children and young persons the clause can be aimed only at restricting the sale of cigarettes to adults unless in packaged multiples of 10 or more. It is quite clear that, under the cloak of this Bill, the opportunity is being taken to interfere with the freedom of a person selling cigarettes to sell to a customer the quantity of cigarettes that the latter desires. Such interference is quite unnecessary for the purpose of achieving the objectives of the Bill. It reveals that the real objective of the clause is to give another twist to the ratchet of complete abolition.

It is incredible that we should be contemplating legislation that will impose a fine of £1,000 on a tobacconist who dares to open a packet of cigarettes in order to sell one to an adult who may be a poor old tramp or someone who has fallen on hard times and who, though his only comfort in life is a cigarette, can afford to buy them only occasionally and one at a time. I really wonder what the hell we are doing! I do not know what this country is coming to. I find it difficult to understand what has come over Parliament when it allows itself to be bullied by a smug, virulent and self-appointed lobby which seems less concerned with health than with stigmatising people who wish to smoke as being anti-social. It hounds and abuses them even to the point of denying them their basic rights and in many cases puts their jobs at risk.

What I find strange about Clause 3 is the Government's about-turn on the issue. On 13th February 1991 in Committee in another place, the Minister, Mr. Lloyd, stated at col. 100 of the report of Standing Committee C: As I have told the honourable Member for Warley East on many occasions, I do not think Clause 3 should stand part of the Bill. It is a piece of self-indulgent, rhetorical legislation that we should eschew". I could not have done any better myself. Nothing could be more forthright and correct than the Minister's comment. His opposition to the clause was so absolute that one can assume only that it was dropped as a result of some deal done between the Government and the Bill's promoters.

When my noble friend Lord Rea wound up the Second Reading debate he accused me of launching into what was almost a tirade of paranoid fantasy. I suppose that the use of the word "almost" softened his accusation from being positively insulting to being simply downright rude—

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

He is your noble friend!

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

He still is. However, I must tell my noble friend that it is not I who am paranoid about smoking but those who indulge in a witch-hunting crusade against smokers. Indeed, so unparanoid am I about the subject that, as a non-smoker, I am perfectly happy to have the occasional cigar enjoyed in my presence without any complaint from me.

It may well be that this evening I am a lone voice in opposing the clause. Even the tobacco companies are not advising opposition, thereby making strange bedfellows. My anxiety is about individual liberty and freedom in this instance. The clause is yet another infringement of such freedom and liberty. Even at this stage I should appreciate it if my noble friend were to withdraw the clause.

Viscount Astor

Perhaps I may put forward the Government's position. We were disappointed, but not surprised, to discover that the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, had tabled an amendment to leave Clause 3 out of the Bill. I was not surprised because the noble Lord had made his position absolutely clear during the debate on Second Reading. He said that he did not like some of the aspects of the Bill and that he would table amendments. The noble Lord was a lone voice; the many excellent speeches made from both sides of the Chamber on Second Reading were not in agreement with him—I see that the noble Lord wishes to intervene. I am happy for him to do so.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I am much obliged to the noble Viscount. I must point out that I was not a lone voice on Second Reading; indeed, my noble friend Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe joined me in saying some words which were not of comfort in regard to the Bill.

Viscount Astor

Perhaps I should rephrase my remark. I think I can say that not everyone agreed with all parts of the noble Lord's speech. I believe that even the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, did not agree with everything that the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, said.

It is true to say that Clause 3 has had a chequered history. Unlike many of the other clauses, this clause has been in the Bill from the outset. It only managed to survive in the Bill when it was considered in Committee in another place by virtue of the casting vote of the chairman. Initially, the Government were not in favour of this clause. As Members of the Committee know, selling cigarettes to children, whether singly or in packets, is already an offence. Clause 3, therefore, at least partly duplicates the present law. It was primarily for this reason that the Government did not support the clause originally.

However, the Government listened carefully to the strong arguments eloquently expressed by the supporters of this clause in both Houses. We also listened to the representations from local organisations and members of the public about the importance of keeping it in the Bill. Those factors, and one other, persuaded the Government that they should withdraw their opposition to the clause. The deciding factor was that this clause has the full support of the Minister at the Department of Health who is responsible for smoking and the Government's own Chief Medical Officer.

Opponents of this clause argue that it has nothing to do with protecting children from tobacco and that it simply impinges on the rights of adults to buy cigarettes singly. That argument does have some logic. But there is no evidence whatever to show that there are large numbers of adults across the country who buy cigarettes in ones or twos and whose rights would be infringed by this clause. I am told that even the custom of adults buying one or two cigarettes in a restaurant or hotel after a meal is no longer common as they are now generally offered free, courtesy of the management.

Equally, I have to acknowledge that there is no evidence that large numbers of children buy cigarettes other than in packs of 10 or 20. Research commissioned by the Department of Health in 1988 showed that only 2 per cent. of children under 16 bought cigarettes in numbers fewer than 10. Nevertheless, the sale of single cigarettes to children is a problem. It kick-starts the smoking habit and can lead to a life of addiction and disease.

The Government accept that it is important to get the message across to retailers that selling cigarettes to young children in ones and twos is just as reprehensible and unlawful as selling them in packs of 10 or 20. The clause reinforces that message and makes it explicit that selling single or loose cigarettes is an offence. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, will recognise that this is not a draconian measure designed specifically to curtail the rights of adult smokers. Its primary purpose is to protect children by ensuring that retailers realise the consequences of selling single cigarettes to them.

The Bill in its present form has the full support of the Government and of the Opposition parties. It has also been accepted by the tobacco industry and is not opposed by the retail trade. Therefore, I must say that I find it extraordinary that the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, should seek to go out on a limb and try to reduce its effectiveness by attempting to remove Clause 3. I invite the noble Lord not to divide the Committee on the matter.

Lord Rea

I shall try to answer some of the points raised by my noble friend. However, I should stress first that he is still my noble friend. He livens up the proceedings in this Chamber. Sometimes we need people like him to shake us out of our lethargy. Perhaps I may reiterate some of the reasons why Clause 3 is included in the Bill. As the Minister said, children are the only ones who buy single cigarettes. There is now no demand from adults, even if they are poor old tramps, for those pre-war packets of two Woodbines. Moreover, no evidence has been produced by the tobacco industry which shows that there is a demand for single cigarettes as was the case before the war.

It is only children who cannot afford to buy a packet of 10 cigarettes. They are the only people who have very small amounts of money and need to obtain cigarettes in that way. But in effect, as the noble Viscount said. the sale of single cigarettes hooks them on to the habit in the same way as a small dose of cocaine or heroin can start off a lifetime's drug habit. In fact, nicotine is a highly addictive substance.

Members of the Committee may be interested to know the results of a survey carried out in Bristol last year by Martin Jarvis of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund's Health Behaviour Unit and Ann McNeill of the Addiction Research Unit at the Institute of Psychiatry. They studied the behaviour of 3,500 children aged from nine to 16 years. Their research revealed that of the children who smoked six or more cigarettes per week—that is, those who were already beginning to get into the habit of smoking—52 per cent. had bought cigarettes singly. Indeed, in one school 80 per cent. had done so.

Another finding of importance in that study was that working-class children were twice as likely to buy cigarettes singly as were children from middle-class families That is important because it is the persistence of the smoking habit among social classes 3, 4 and 5 that is largely the reason why heart disease and cancer of the lung are now commoner in our working popular on. Therefore, although it may be true that only a small proportion of all cigarettes—indeed, the Minister said 2 per cent.—are bought by children, quite a high proportion of children destined to become smokers had at one time or another bought cigarettes singly.

The high fines in the clause to which my noble friend objects can, I suggest, help shopkeepers to resist the demands of children. Shopkeepers can tell children that selling them single cigarettes makes shopkeepers liable to a fine of £3,500. I believe that that might impress a few children as to the seriousness of the offence. However, I accept the fact that many others might not be deterred.

Other members of the Committee may wish to say a few words. In conclusion, therefore, I should say that I am convinced that this clause is an important part of the Bill. I hope that my noble friend will not press his amendment.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rea, that this clause is an important part of the Bill. If the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, seeks to divide the Committee on the matter, I hope that his bid to remove the clause will be defeated. The purpose of the clause is wholly consistent—though he suggested the contrary—with the general purpose of the Bill; namely, to protect children from smoking.

There is evidence—indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Rea, referred to the Jarvis inquiry carried out in Bristol—to show that in a certain number of cases, at any rate, a child starts smoking by buying one or two cigarettes separately. That is partly because it is all that he can afford and partly, perhaps, because he does not want to have a bulky packet of cigarettes which his elders and betters can see and consequently confiscate.

It is undoubtedly the view of those who have studied the matter that the purchase of single, or two, cigarettes by children is quite a substantial factor in getting children hooked on smoking. That being plainly the fact, I suggest that it would be very wrong if this Chamber were to reject a provision of the Bill which is designed to prevent children being led down the path of smoking.

There is a further point. There is a health warning on a cigarette packet. I have no doubt that some people will study it and may even be deterred by it. If one buys a single cigarette, there is no health warning attached and one is thereby deprived of the advantage which Parliament in its wisdom has determined that potential tobacco purchasers should have. That is a further reason why we should try to prevent the sale of separate cigarettes. No harm will be done to those who want to smoke if they have to buy a packet. The great majority of people already do.

A minority of young people, on all the evidence, start on the path of smoking by buying one cigarette. I welcome the clause, as I welcome the Bill, as helping to prevent that happening. I remind the Committee that in the Green Paper The Health of the Nation which was published yesterday it is strongly stated that the objective is to reduce death and ill health caused by smoking by reducing the number of people who start to smoke and increasing the number who stop smoking. If the Committee were to take the clause out of the Bill, it would be going back on that clear statement of policy and doing something which I do not believe that any us want to do—to make it a little easier for children to start a habit which can so often end for them in disease and death.

Lord Airedale

As so often happens, one finds that the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, has covered the subject so fully and taken all the points that it leaves little for anyone else to say without tedious repetition. I shall say a few words only about the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, on the infringement of liberty. I remember some time ago the second Earl of Avon standing at that Dispatch Box piloting through the House the Bill introducing the compulsory use of seat belts in motor cars. He was confronted by the infringement of human liberty argument. I remember him asking how far that argument should be carried. Does one claim liberty to drive one's car on the right-hand side of the road, for instance? It is nonsense to carry the argument to any length. We must all accept some restraint on what we may do in the interests of the community; otherwise it is the law of the jungle. I hope that that argument will not prevail and that the Committee will agree to Clause 3.

Lord McNair

I oppose the amendment. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rea, that the practice of selling single cigarettes should be outlawed in the interests of preventing as many children as possible from becoming addicted. Adults who are so addicted can generally afford a whole packet, although I heard recently of a judge who, because he was banned from smoking at home by his wife, tried to buy single cigarettes from the jurors at court. That is an exception. Research shows that there is a clear correlation between the purchase of single cigarettes and addiction. I urge the Committee to oppose the amendment.

Lord Carter

I shall indulge in a moment or two of reminiscence. From the age of eight until 18, when I went off to the army, I lived in a small confectioner and tobacconist shop and served behind the counter. We talk of Sunday trading. The shop was open 365 days a year. It closed at 4 p.m. on Christmas Day. I have sold many cigarettes. The Committee will remember Player's Weights and Wills' Woodbines, which were sold in packets of five and from open-top tins. We sold many single cigarettes. They cost one old penny each. That was over 40 years ago. I often wonder how many cancer victims started smoking with the single cigarettes that I sold them. Unfortunately we sold cigarettes to children because they told us that they were purchasing them for their parents.

My noble friend Lord Stoddart has made some valuable points but not enough to warrant the dismissal of Clause 3. It is a belt-and-braces, declaratory clause, but it is none the worse for that. Arguments in support of the freedom of the individual are always persuasive. My noble friend expressed them powerfully, as he always does. However, in all those arguments there is always a balance to be struck as between the freedom of the individual and the interests of society. I am clear that in this case the balance of the argument lies with my noble friend Lord Rea.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I realise that I have no right to reply, but this is a Committee stage. Everyone has missed the point. The point that I am trying to make is that it is illegal for any tobacconist to sell to a child under the age of 16 any form of tobacco, whether it be a cigarette in a packet of 10 or more or a single cigarette. Therefore Clause 3 is not needed. The only thing that Clause 3 does is to prevent a tobacconist selling, and make it an offence for a tobacconist to sell, a single cigarette to an adult. The point I make, and must reinforce, is that Clauses 1 and 2 give sufficient protection to children and provide a sufficient penalty for the person who breaks the law.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

Will the noble Lord allow me to intervene? He is overlooking the point that it is possible to misjudge the age of a person who wishes to buy cigarettes. Some young people of 16 may well look more than that, and a tobacconist who sells to them sometimes has the plausible defence that he did not know that they were technically a child. That defence would not be effective if he was also charged with selling one or two cigarettes out of a packet, because that is plain.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

That point has been tightened up in Clause 1 in any event. The same applies. The penalty and the defence exist whether a single cigarette is sold or a packet of 10 or more. All the clause does—I must emphasise this—is to prevent a tobacconist from selling a single cigarette to a person over the age of 16. I contend that that is not necessary to protect young people, which is something we all wish to do.

I wish to deal with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, who I know is as concerned as I am about individual liberty. We are not talking about the liberty of a person which might adversely affect some other person. We are talking only about a small contract between a willing seller and a willing buyer of one cigarette. In the Bill we are seeking to take away the individual liberty of two adults to make a contract for one party to sell a cigarette and the other to buy it. That is an infringement of individual liberty. It is an absurdity and should not be contained in the Bill.

I shall not press the amendment because I hope that my noble friend is right and Clause 3 is declaratory. I hope that it will be seen as such and that any judges will read our debates before they pass sentence of a fine of £1,000 on a tobacconist for selling a single cigarette to someone over the age of 16. I shall not oppose the clause, although I very much regret it.

Clause 3 agreed to.

7.30 p.m.

Clause 4 [Display of warning statements in retail premises and on vending machines]:

On Question, Whether Clause 4 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

I was perfectly happy with the clause at Second Reading but in the light of a case which has been decided since then, I wish to say a few words. Clause 4(5) states: It shall be a defence for a person charged with any such offence to prove that he took all reasonable precautions and exercised all due diligence to avoid the commission of the offence". The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, mentioned the plausible defence in the previous debate. The case which has arisen and which gives rise to concern was reported in the Guardian on 29th May under the heading, "TV licence fine for babysitter." The newspaper stated that a babysitter discovered watching "Coronation Street" at a friend's house by TV licence detectors had been fined £100 for watching television at a house that did not have a licence. The person babysitting did not know that her friend had no licence when the TV detectors arrived. She was looking after the friend's daughter, aged 11. We are told that yesterday the television licensing authority said that viewers should check with the owner that a set is licensed.

Members of the Committee can imagine the circumstances where one is out having a pleasant dinner with friends. They may say, "Would you like to see the news headlines?" "Yes, but, my dear fellow, before you switch on, I have to ask you whether you have a licence", the guest says. "Even if you tell me that you have one, if I am to exercise due diligence, I would like to see it, if you don't mind".

The other side of the matter, going on this precedent, is that if a tobacconist is to exercise due diligence, in order thoroughly to satisfy himself, he ought to ask for the birth certificate of anyone coming into the shop. I am concerned about this. I do not wish to make a meal of it, but it seems to me that the decision on the unfortunate babysitter who happened to switch on "Coronation Street" raises a question over what should be "due diligence" in the matter.

Lord Rea

I must say that I had not expected my noble fiend to object to the subsection.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

I am not objecting, I am raising a question.

Lord Rea

I was satisfied with the arguments we heard on Second Reading that this was a reasonable subsection that would cause no great problem.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

But this is post the debate.

Lord Rea

I shall ascertain whether the wording can be improved to accommodate the hypothetical case that the noble Lord puts forward. With that, I hope that he will be satisfied.

Lord Carter

As I understand it, Clause 4 is concerned only with the display of warning statements. The offence would be that there was no warning statement in the retail premises and on the vending machines. I have only just picked up the point, but as regards the sale of cigarettes to children under age, the offence in subsection (5) is linked to subsections (1) and (2) of Clause 4 which is entirely concerned with the display of warning statements. Perhaps my noble friend has missed the point.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

I entirely accept what the noble Lord says and regret that I did not take the opportunity of raising the point on Clause 2 where it would have been germane.

Clause 4 agreed to.

Remaining clauses agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment.

Report received.