HC Deb 16 January 2002 vol 378 cc117-24WH 12.30 pm
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

Although the full title of the debate is "Measures to reduce the incidence of under-age drinking", that is not primarily what I intend to discuss. I shall explain why.

I could pretend that I had extraordinarily good foresight and wisdom, that I had anticipated the news at the weekend about Prince Harry and his rather unfortunate exploits, and that with great timeliness I had chosen the debate. As nice as that would be for the press, it is not true. I hope that that will be the first and last reference to the young man.

I asked for the debate following a meeting I had with the midland counties Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association just before Christmas. A number of concerns were expressed, but the two main ones were reform of licensing law and proof of age cards. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who will reply to the debate, may want to comment on the reform of licensing law, but the important matter is proof of age cards.

The west midlands brewers outlined their involvement in a group of interested organisations including the British Retail Consortium, the Trading Standards Institute, and CitizenCard, among many others. They asked for standard information criteria that would include a colour photograph, a hologram PASS logo—PASS stands for proof of age standards scheme—and the date of birth and/or the age of the holder. Their request seemed reasonable.

I wanted to explore in detail whether the Government planned to introduce a national proof of age card scheme, which the industry wants and which it thought the Government supported. At this point, the fun began. I wanted to table a question. The Table Office told me that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport had assumed responsibility for the matter. I was somewhat surprised, but bowed to the superior wisdom and greater experience of Table Office staff. By and large, I have found that when I have had doubts about advice from the Table Office, they were right and I was wrong.

My question was referred to the Home Office and a reply duly arrived on 29 November 2001, in which the Minister responsible, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs, stated: The Government have no plans to develop a standard format for a proof of age card or to introduce a single national proof of age scheme. The Government welcome the recent initiative by the British Retail Consortium proposing to develop agreed standard design criteria and methods of accreditation for the various proof of age cards which currently exist so that retailers can be assured of the status of the cards presented to them."—[Official Report, 6 December 2001; Vol. 376, c. 485W.] That was entirely in line with an answer given by Lord Bassam on 16 November 2000, in which he stated: We have no plans to introduce a national proof of age card and so no plans to pilot one. But we are looking at the possibility of incorporating a proof of age function in the proposed Connexions card; and we support the use of industry-based credible proof of age cards such as the Portman Card and Citizen Card, which are already widely available across the country."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 November 2000; Vol. 619, c. WA 44.] I wanted to initiate a debate about why the Government have no plans to introduce a proof of age card scheme, so I went to the Table Office and asked for an Adjournment debate on proof of age cards. The reply was, "Sorry, that cannot be done. As the Government have no plans to introduce such a scheme, there is no Minister with responsibility for it. Therefore, a debate under that title is not possible." Hence, my diversionary tactics in the choice of title for the debate. Proportionately, proof of age cards probably have a larger effect than any other measure on under-age drinking.

Bob Spink (Castle Point)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing such an important subject to the attention of the House. She will no doubt mention the Portman Group proof of age card, but is she aware that legislation on under-age drinking came into force in 1997? It deals not only with under-age drinking, but with the supply of alcohol on the street to people who are under age by people who are of age, who would have a proof of age card, get the alcohol and supply it to their friends on the street. The legislation allows the police to deal with that, thereby keeping youngsters out of trouble and stopping them becoming a nuisance to themselves and the community. It has been used successfully throughout the country. Will the hon. Lady urge police forces around the country to consider using existing laws?

Ms Stuart

I strongly support the hon. Gentleman's views, and I recognise that various agencies already have a willingness and a great number of means to address the problem, but the journey that I described to secure the debate highlights one of the problems that must be recognised: we will deal with problems such as under-age drinking only through a variety of agencies working together and using their existing powers in a co-ordinated fashion. Even in the House, it is sometimes difficult for us to co-ordinate Government activities to address the issue.

No single agency will be able to resolve the problem; they must all focus on it. On under-age drinking, drug abuse and other issues concerning young people, agencies ranging from schools to law enforcement agencies and the health service must all work together. For all of them, such issues are on the edge of their other responsibilities. If a police force is required to deal with a robbery and, at the same time, an 18-year-old providing drinks to younger people, there is always the danger that the under-age drinking problem will be seen as peripheral. I am trying to find a way of moving it closer to the centre, making it easier for everyone concerned to focus on it. Rather than asking for new measures, I am trying to achieve a more co-ordinated framework.

I finally managed to table a request for a debate on under-age drinking. At first, the debate was referred to the Department of Health. I assured my colleagues there that a Health Minister was not the right person to reply. It was then referred to the Home Office, which did not want to take it. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. I cannot imagine a situation in which I would rather not see him-he is one of the more delightful people whom I can think of meeting on such an occasion. I hope that he understands my reasons for saying that. I hope that he will reassure me that I am lobbying the right Minister for the introduction of a proof of age card. If he is not, I hope that he will help me to reach the right Minister to take up the matter.

As we have discovered, the debate is wide ranging. Proving one's age is difficult, and it is impossible to decide whether a young person is 15, 16, 17 or 18. However, there are many occasions when the precise differentiation between a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old is important—for example, for buying cheaper rail fares, hiring a video or buying alcohol.

Retailers of age-restricted products need a system whereby they can verify a person's age. Cinema seats, gambling, lottery tickets, glue and knives are part of a long list of such products. I take the opportunity to congratulate the Portman Group on its work in this regard. It introduced a card scheme called "Prove It", which was successful in allowing 18-year-olds to prove their age, but of course that did not address the problem of 16 and 17-year-olds.

To highlight the important work of the Portman Group, it may be useful to draw attention to its current campaign, "I'll be Des". I have seen the advertisement, which is extremely attractive. "Des" is short for designated driver, and the campaign is intended to encourage young people who go out in a group to designate one person to drive and therefore not to drink. It was a positive message, but it was not delivered in an authoritarian way. It was not the kind of thing that their middle-aged parents would tell them to do. It was jokey and funny, and I believe that it will be successful, like the campaign against drink-driving.

The Portman Group has been very helpful. Its work shows that, by and large, retailers and people in the drinks industry—not least the larger organisations—are willing to stay within the law. I simply want to make it easier for them to do so. As I said, the problem with the "Prove It" card is not merely that it addressed only the 18-plus group, but that it declined in popularity when photographic driving licences were introduced, as they were an easy means by which youngsters could prove their age.

Another Department then came into play. In June 2000, the then Department for Education and Employment announced in a press notice what it called a multifunctional smart card for teenage students, entitling them to a variety of discounts and containing curriculum vitae information about the holder. The card was scheduled for national launch in autumn 2001 and its roll-out in England should be completed by autumn 2002. Again, the card applies only to England, although the problem is nationwide. Furthermore, the Connexions card is not a dedicated proof of age card, but is intended to encourage young people to remain in some form of learning and personal development, although it carries the holder's name and date of birth and can therefore serve as a proof of age card. I hope that it will be included in the proof of age standards scheme. If Government forecasts are correct and the roll-out works in the anticipated way, it is likely that a total of 1.8 million cards will be in circulation by 2003. My main objection, however, is that the card serves a purpose other than that of proving age. Although I welcome the scheme, I must point out that if a card entitles youngsters to all sorts of benefits, they may be reluctant to take it with them when they want to go out for a night's entertainment. We lose cards, but youngsters lose them even more.

I should put it on record that, in my experience, the vast majority of retailers want to stay within the law. We are very much aware of rogue retailers. I accept that they exist, but I do not subscribe to the idea that the vast majority wish to circumvent the law. For reasons that I accept and understand, the Government have not opted for compulsory identity cards. Personally, I have never had any problem with identity cards and would have no problem with carrying such a card, but I realise that the vast majority of people in the country do have problems with the idea. I accept that the Government have decided not to introduce a compulsory card. I do not propose that it should be compulsory for 16 to 18-year-olds to carry cards that prove their age.

Bob Spink

I think that the majority of people in this country would welcome identity cards.

Ms Stuart

In that case, this is yet another occasion on which I would dearly love to be proved wrong.

Why are we shying away from making it easier for everyone to stay within the law? I do not believe that young people would resist carrying cards that prove their age. Many youngsters look older than their age, but just as many look younger. Somebody who is 18 but appears to be 16 should not be denied the opportunity to buy a pint in the pub. I do not think that youngsters would resist carrying such a card.

Ideally, I would like the Government not only to support the PASS scheme, but to provide a national overall framework, as the huge variety of cards makes it difficult for retailers to deal with them. For example, a framework of colour-coded cards in which orange signifies an age of 16, green signifies 17 and red 18 would be easily recognised and verified. However, I am a realist, so I know that I may not get a firm commitment on that point. Failing that, the Connexions card is another way forward. If it could be used effectively as a proof of age card, that would be an important step. As I said, my reservation about the Connexions card is its confusion between a variety of purposes. If a card provides access to other services, kids will get confused. Why cannot we have a card that is very simple, can be used for purchases in relation to which age is important and is easy to use for retailers? The Government should provide the framework for a nationally recognised scheme that will allow young people and retailers alike to stay within the law. Surely, that is something that we should all be able to support.

12.44 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Dr. Kim Howells)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) for raising this very important issue. She has long been concerned with the welfare of children and these matters are vital for all hon. Members. I know that she has been raising them in her constituency for a long time and that they cause a great deal of anxiety in all our constituencies. I am sorry if she believes that she has got the wrong Minister in this debate.

As my hon. Friend said, proof of age cards are within the remit of the Home Office, but she is wrong to assume—I am not saying that this entirely describes her position—that such cards are a panacea for solving this very complex problem, which I believe will be best addressed by a review of the whole licensing system, as well as—dare I say it?—the culture in this country, about which we at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are very concerned. However, if I may, I shall try to deal with proof of age cards, as our Department has something to say about them. After all, tenuous though this point may be, I am a member of the Government.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will recall that when we came to power in 1997 we promised to tackle the problem of alcopops. She was at the forefront of those expressing concerns about the problem, which was perceived to be very serious. I certainly worried about it a great deal. Alcopops were an issue of great concern to many parents and there was a worrying trend in their use, not least as the original alcopops began to be replicated across the whole range of alcoholic drinks. Working closely with the Portman Group, we called on producers and suppliers of alcohol to discharge their social responsibilities with regard to the problem of under-age drinking. A range of additional controls within the Portman Group's code of practice was introduced and had a significant impact on the merchandising and packaging of alcoholic drinks. I pay tribute to the manufacturers and retailers for their work. The number of complaints made to the Portman Group's independent panel about the marketing to children and packaging of alcohol has now dwindled to almost nothing, which is a significant step forward.

In 1999, we gave our wholehearted support to the private Member's Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell). I think that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) was referring to that Bill, which was introduced in 1999 and not 1997.

Bob Spink

I was referring to the Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Bill—a private Member's Bill that I introduced in 1996–97 with all-party support.

Dr. Howells

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I assumed that he was referring to the later Bill, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey following the tragic death of his 14-year-old constituent, David Knowles, and which became the Licensing (Young Persons) Act 2000.

The 2000 Act closed a loophole in the main licensing statutes that had allowed some staff in licensed premises to sell alcohol to children without fear of prosecution or conviction. The Act also introduced for the first time a new offence that prevented adults from hanging around off-licences and buying alcohol on behalf of under-age persons outside. In April 2000, we announced a raft of measures to tackle under-age purchase and consumption of alcohol in the White Paper "Time for Reform: Proposals for the Modernisation of our Licensing Laws". My hon. Friend has urged us to implement the reforms at the first opportunity, and we will do so. I know that many in the House would have liked us to move more swiftly on reform in general, but we cannot be criticised for any delay on the measures regarding children, whom we have always put in the forefront of our concerns.

The White Paper proposals tackle under-age drinking in several ways. They were given priority before general reform and included in the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001. Three crucial measures have been brought into force since the general election.

On 1 December last year, the test purchasing of alcohol was put on a statutory footing for the first time, bringing it into line with the arrangements for tobacco. Trading standards officers can now send minors into licensed premises to attempt to buy alcohol—a valuable deterrent that has heightened the risk of detection and prosecution for unscrupulous traders who make a profit out of causing physical harm to our children. They are a minority, but there is no doubt that they exist.

The 2001 Act also placed a new positive duty on licensees and their staff not to sell alcohol to children. The defences that can be mounted against prosecutions have been amended, and it has been made easier for enforcement agencies to secure convictions. Retailers now know that in the case of any doubt about age, they simply should not make the sale. I shall consider that in more detail shortly because it is not a matter of one-way traffic. I shall try to prove that although a proof of age card may help in some circumstances, it is not a panacea.

The Act has also made it easier for local authorities to designate areas in their towns and cities where alcohol may not be consumed publicly by under-age drinkers or those who can buy and consume alcohol legally. We have expanded the powers of the police to confiscate alcohol that is carried by children in those areas.

I recognise that licensing law can be only one element in a much wider strategy. Data from research sponsored by the Portman Group strongly suggest that children are obtaining a great deal of cheap alcohol from unlicensed individuals who peddle smuggled alcohol. That is serious; it is a cynical trade with little regard for the consequences for the young and, indeed, for parents. The Government have stepped up their campaign to defeat the bootleggers. The Treasury is providing more customs officers dedicated to detecting those involved.

Our wider strategy includes the vital work of the Department for Education and Skills, the Department of Health and the Portman Group in providing more health education resources for children and parents about sensible drinking. Most of the alcohol obtained and consumed by minors is provided by parents, and public education to change some of our entrenched attitudes is essential.

A great deal has been done and a great deal is happening in the public and private sectors in licensing, health and education, but there are no easy or quick fixes for under-age drinking. Most hon. Members know that; it is a difficult matter.

A Government proof of age card is often portrayed as a panacea. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will want to weigh all the evidence before agreeing to the introduction of such a card. I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston to consider why no Government since the second world war have introduced such a card. The test is whether proof of age cards would significantly reduce the amount of under-age drinking. Neither the Government nor previous Governments have been convinced.

The problem is not only adequate proof of age. Professor Paul Willner of the University of Wales conducted test purchasing studies, using 13 and 16-year-olds, which were published by the Alcohol and Education Research Council in August 2000. Each of the children held a valid and well known proof of age card showing his or her correct date of birth. In 80 per cent. of cases—the figure was higher for girls—16-year-olds successfully made a purchase, despite showing the cards. Almost a third of the 13-year-olds were successful. As many as 60 per cent. of the 16-year-olds were not even challenged for proof of age. Worse, many retailers who demanded to see valid cards went on to make the sale despite seeing a card that confirmed that the child was under age.

Ms Stuart

Let me turn the Minister's test around. Instead of asking, "Why introduce a card?", we should ask, "Why not?" Such a card could cover a range of products; we do not need to isolate alcohol. For example, it could apply to purchasing lottery tickets. Every retailer would then know about such a straightforward and simple system. The industry would support it if the Government provided the framework. Why not introduce such a card?

Dr. Howells

My hon. Friend asks a good question and I shall try to give a good answer. All Governments must decide whether such actions will be cost-effective. Until now, they believed that the considerable money and resources necessary for such a large, bureaucratic arrangement could be better spent elsewhere. I am not convinced that introducing such a card is the best use of taxpayers' money. I am sure that that also applies to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but perhaps he will be convinced of the argument for a card. I dealt with such matters as a Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry and as an Education Minister, and I remain unconvinced.

That does not mean that the range of cards available, such as Validate UK, Connexions, CitizenCard or the Portman card, are not good and valuable. They contribute in a small way and, in some cases, a large way, to reducing the problem. However, a card is not a panacea or necessarily the best way of tackling the problem.

We may learn more about the potential impact of such cards from the introduction of the Connexions card, which my hon. Friend described. It has a proof-of-age function for those enrolled in higher education between the ages of 16 and 19, and has begun to be introduced nationally. She is right that the speed of roll-out, to use an awful expression, remains to be seen.

I acknowledge that we can do much more in the general reform of licensing. Our licensing laws are archaic and incomprehensible to many parents. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has taken over responsibility for licensing from the Home Office. Until I became a Minister in the Department, I did not know the law on children drinking in pubs or what happened when people took their children into a pub. I am sure that hon. Members will be amazed to discover that although minors cannot purchase alcohol in pubs and nightclubs, children as young as five can lawfully consume alcohol in pub gardens and some family rooms. Consumption is prohibited only in the area of licensed premises known as "the bar". Only the landlord knows what constitutes the bar. It is a dotted line on a map.

That means that children over four can drink alcohol freely in a licensed restaurant that has no bar. We should not be fooled by the counter from which drinks are supplied. That is often not a bar as understood in law. It is no wonder that most parents find all that utterly confusing. We intend to sort it all out in the general reform of licensing law. A Bill will be introduced as soon as parliamentary time permits.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising such an important matter. I hope that a good, proper and robust study of the use and effectiveness of proof of age cards will continue to be conducted. If I am proved wrong, I shall go along with the results. Until then, I hope that my hon. Friend will accept at least some of the arguments that I have tried to present in response to hers.

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