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New Clause—(Liqueur Chocolates)

Volume 641: debated on Friday 5 May 1961

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(1) No provision of the Licensing Act, 1953, the Licensing (Seamen's Canteens) Act, 1954, or this Act as to the sale, supply or consumption of intoxicating liquor, except subsection (2) below, and no enactment requiring the authority of an excise licence for the sale or supply of intoxicating liquor shall have effect in relation to intoxicating liquor in confectionery which—

  • (a) does not contain intoxicating liquor in a proportion greater than one fiftieth of a gallon of liquor (computed as proof spirit) per pound of the confectionery; and
  • (b) either consists of separate pieces weighing not more than one and a half ounces or is designed to be broken into such pieces for the purposes of consumption.
  • (2) Intoxicating liquor in confectionery shall not be sold to a person under sixteen, and if any person knowingly contravenes this sub section he shall be liable on a first conviction to a fine not exceeding ten pounds and on a subsequent conviction to a fine not exceeding twenty-five pounds.—[ Mr. Vosper.]

    Brought up, and read the First time.

    3.40 p.m.

    I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

    This new Clause deals with a small but troublesome matter, the sale of liqueur chocolates, and it follows an undertaking which I gave in Committee to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. W. Clark). At present, the sale of liqueur chocolates is governed by the licensing laws, and anyone who wishes to sell liqueur chocolates has to obtain a full justices' licence, with all the procedure and expense involved. This gives rise to three difficulties. First, it entails a confectioner obtaining a justices' licence. Secondly, the law is frequently disregarded. Thirdly, it gives rise to anomalies in the sense that, if chocolates are filled with paste, instead of free spirits, they may escape the protection of the law. For some time, the position has been troublesome, and representations were made to my right hon. Friend and myself during earlier stages of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South moved an Amendment in Committee.

    We have considered various ways of dealing with the matter, and the new Clause provides, I think, the right answer. It seems that two requirements are necessary: first, that there should be some protection for children; and, secondly, that there should be a limit to the alcoholic content of the chocolates. The new Clause provides a limit to the alcoholic content and, to meet a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black) to the size of the chocolates. Secondly, it prohibits the sale of liqueur chocolates to persons under the age of 16. Subject to those two requirements, the sale of liqueur chocolates will be freed in future from the licensing laws and they may be sold by a confectioner in the ordinary course of business. This seems to us to be a sensible approach to what has been a long troublesome matter, and I hope that the House will approve.

    I do not oppose the Second Reading of this new Clause, although there is one rather curious point of drafting which, perhaps, the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Solicitor-General will consider. Subsection (2) provides that

    "Intoxicating liquor in confectionery shall not be sold to a person under sixteen".
    That does not create an absolute offence, because the subsection goes on to say:
    "and if any person knowingly contravenes this subsection"
    and so forth.

    Since the Government have chosen that form of drafting, I should like them to say what is the effect of the first words. Do not they impose a limitation on sales without supplying any correlative sanction? If somebody sells confectionery to a young person under the age of 16 not knowing that he is under 16, presumably no offence is committed and there is no sanction whatever to reinforce the carrying out of the prohibition.

    That is a drafting point, but it is one which should be considered by the Government. I hope that, when the Bill goes to another place, the Ministers responsible will do what I think can correctly be described as changing the language so as to produce the result that the whole of the new Clause is effective instead of only part of it. I do not want to take time on a purely drafting point. I think that the new Clause itself is sensible and I myself strongly support the prohibition.

    I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for having accepted the point. He has proved, I think, that throughout the whole of the Committee stage we were extremely reasonable on both sides of the Committee. I am sure that we shall continue to be very reasonable on both sides.

    The point raised by the right hon. and learned Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) is a difficult one to settle in these days. It is by no means easy to say whether a person is 16, 15, 14, or 18 years of age.

    3.45 p.m.

    It was not my privilege to serve on the Standing Committee, but I have read with very great interest and concern the record of its deliberations. I am glad that the Government have seen the wisdom of listening to my hon. Friends who were concerned about the well-being of children in regard to this particular matter.

    I recall that one of my hon. Friends who sits for one of the Leeds constituencies—I am not sure which—I think that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South-East (Miss Bacon)—raised this matter of alcohol in chocolates.

    It was not my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South-East (Miss Bacon).

    I apologise to my hon. Friend; she will be thinking that I have eaten one of these sweets.

    It is very important that, as we turn to the Report stage and later—a great deal later, no doubt—the Third Reading, we should give our attention to children. The House has a special responsibility for protecting our youth from those people who, so long as they can make money, do not care how they make it, or who eats the sweets which they sell in their business. The motive is profit. I am glad that, at least, there is something in the new Clause to clip the claws of such unscrupulous persons.

    I hope that the Minister will answer the question put by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) about knowingly selling. Otherwise, all kinds of anomalies will be created in various communities. In my view, we could leave the word "knowingly" out. If a shopkeeper has any doubt, he ought not to sell. If there is a danger that a person is a child of 15 years 3 months, 15 years 6 months, or 16 years, a shopkeeper with any sense of responsibility will say, "I must not sell them to you". In my view, the obligation should be put on the person selling the chocolates.

    If the hon. Member were the shopkeeper and a young person came in asking for liqueur chocolates, and the hon. Member, as the shopkeeper, asked, "Are you 16?", and the answer was "Yes", what would be his attitude then?

    That question is very easily answered. I should not have these chocolates. Moreover, if anyone came in and asked for them, I should use my common sense, of which I have the average amount, I hope, and be able to tell whether the person was a young person or not.

    I believe that any good shopkeeper would say that he would much prefer not to sell these chocolates to young people if that would start them on the drinking habit. I say to the Government Front Bench, as I do to the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. W. Clark), that the Clause is a step forward, but it is not adequate as it ought to be. I hope that my hon. Friends will be able to persuade the Minister that the word "knowingly" is superfluous and unnecessary.

    I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas) has just said. I believe that a shopkeeper selling goods should be responsible for satisfying himself in this respect. He may be in difficulty in some cases, but it is not simply a question of anyone who comes into the shop being served unless the shopkeeper has actual knowledge at the time that the person is under 16 years of age. In my view, the new Clause should be so worded that the shopkeeper must take some steps at least to assure himself on that point in cases where it is obvious the question might arise.

    I welcome the provision relating to persons under the age of 16, but it is a little difficult to reconcile it with the Minister's attitude towards the position of persons of 16 years and over in relation to off-licences and clubs. I hope that the Government's genuine regard for the position of people under 16 years in relation to liqueur chocolates will be reflected subsequently in their attitude towards young people in relation to off-licences and clubs.

    I do not like the word "knowingly" in the new Clause. On the other hand, I doubt whether we should rightly go as far as the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas) suggested. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to find a form of words which will throw some onus on the shopkeeper without making him responsible when he is guilty of a justifiable error. That is possible.

    The reason why I feel that a safeguard should be put in the Bill is that young people might be tempted to eat liqueur chocolates. Since my right hon. Friend has deemed it desirable to insert this provision in the Bill, I hope that he will strengthen it to the degree which has been suggested.

    I share the doubts which have been expressed about the wording of subsection (2) of the new Clause, which seems to me to be somewhat unusual and does not come into line with the impositions of the law on licence holders concerning the age of people who they may supply with intoxicating liquor outside the law. However, I congratulate the Government on having the courage to tackle what has long been a very serious evil in many parts of the country.

    In the light of what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) has said, I hope that they will be able to make the new Clause easily enforceable and comprehensible in magistrates' rooms when magistrates are trying to determine whether an offence has been committed.

    I hope that the Minister of State will do something about the word "knowingly". The Government are to be congratulated on bringing forward this new Clause, particularly since there was quite a lot of evidence to show that, in spite of the smiles on the faces of hon. Members opposite a minute or two ago, there are people who are prepared to sell this kind of chocolate irrespective of who gets it or buys it. The reason why this matter was raised recently was that chocolate was advertised not very far from this building as strong enough to make a child tipsy. In view of this, there was obviously need for the new Clause.

    Any shopkeeper who is prepared to sell these chocolates should have the responsibility of not serving children under a certain age. It may be doubtful whether one can tell whether a boy or girl is 15 or 16 years, but the shopkeeper must be made responsible for finding that out. If there is any danger that these chocolates may be sufficient to give a child a taste for alcohol—that is the point—then there should be no possibility of that child being able to obtain them and, therefore, to acquire a taste for them.

    I hope that the Government will go a little further than they have gone and will delete the word "knowingly".

    I support the new Clause. Many of us were concerned to know that youngsters could go into a confectioner's shop and buy chocolates containing alcohol. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mrs. Slater) has said, some shopkeepers have been boasting that there was enough alcohol in them to make a youngster tipsy. We were concerned because many youngsters could get a taste for alcohol through buying chocolates. They were unable to get a taste for it in a public house, but they could get a taste for it by buying chocolates containing alcohol. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North when she says that the responsibility for ascertaining the age of a young person should be on the shopkeeper.

    I can understand my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas), being a bachelor, having some difficulty in assessing the age of young ladies. It is not so difficult for people with more experience. If the shopkeeper has any doubt in the matter, then there is a good old saying, "When in doubt, don't." As I say, I support the new Clause, but hope that the Minister will go a little further and will make the shopkeeper responsible for ascertaining the age of young people buying these chocolates.

    I welcome the introduction of the new Clause. I was surprised when I realised that the Minister proposed to insert it in the Bill, because months ago, when this matter was first raised—I think by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke on Trent, North (Mrs. Slater)—there was a good deal of merriment on both sides of the House on the ground that this was a small thing and that it did not matter very much. In a sense, that is true.

    I should like to feel that, as we progress with the Amendments to the Bill, the right hon. Gentleman, who has a great regard for the welfare of young people and has done a great deal in that direction himself, will pay attention to Amendments dealing not with a drop of alcohol in one chocolate, but with the ability of children of quite tender age to go into off-licensed premises and buy as much liquor as they like. I cannot, under the rules of order, deal with that matter now, but I should like to point out to the Minister that he will get himself into a tangle if he swallows this gnat and later refuses to do something much bigger which will help to accomplish what he and all of us in the House would like to see accomplished concerning young people.

    I will examine the point raised by the right hon. and learned Member for Newport (Sir F. Sockice). We are following the precedents of Sections 128 and 129 of the Licensing Act, 1953, where the word "knowingly" features in sales to young persons both on and off the premises. Although we are departing from the licensing law, it seems reasonable to use these words as a necessary defence for the shopkeeper. I should not like to suggest to the House that I am likely' to remove the word "knowingly", but I will examine what the right hon. and learned Member for Newport has said.

    While we are providing what we believe to be adequate protection for young persons, we are providing considerable simplification of the law in the new Clause, which, I hope, will be accepted.

    4.0 p.m.

    Subsection (1, a) of the new Clause refers to there not being

    "intoxicating liquor in a proportion greater than one fiftieth of a gallon of liquor (computed as proof spirit) per pound of the confectionery".
    I should like to know in what way the Minister arrives at that proportion, because it seems to some of us to be rather excessive. It is difficult, to compute exactly how much liquor would go into 1 lb. of confectionery, but I think that probably a quarter of a pint could be contained in about 1½ lb. As this refers to spirits, it might be rather in excess of what one might notionally expect to be required. We had this in mind when we discussed this matter in Committee, although we had no objection to chocolates flavoured in this way, whatever one's personal taste. We also had it in mind that it should not lead to the danger of forming the liquor habit to which my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas) referred. Can the Minister reassure us that this amount of spirit per 1 lb or 1½ lb. of confectionery is not excessive?

    I congratulate the Minister on tackling this question. I take a rather different view from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West and other speakers on this side of the House on the insertion of the word "knowingly". Licensees and shopkeepers have difficulty in assessing the ages of customers in this age group. They are worried about it. I think that we should have regard to that difficulty and be fair to them, in our endeavour to do what we can for young people. The introduction of the word "knowingly" might enable licensing justices, who, under the present system, find it rather difficult to convict licensees and others of having served people under age, to impose sentences.

    The onus would still remain on the licensee or shopkeeper to find out the age of his customer, if he can. Because there is the introduction of the need to prove knowledge, then, on balance, it will relieve many licensing justices from the inhibitions which they naturally feel when a person who is deemed to have contravened the law in this and similar respects comes before them.

    I am advised by the Customs and Excise, which always helps in this respect, that the definition in the new Clause should cover the ordinary range of liqueur chocolates consumed by hon. Members on both sides of the House, but should not extend beyond that.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.