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Prohibition Of Unsupervised Off-Sales By Persons Under Eighteen

Volume 126: debated on Monday 1 February 1988

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"The following clause shall be inserted after section 171 of the principal Act—

171A.—(1) In any premises which are licensed for the sale of intoxicating liquor for consumption off the premises only or any off-sales department of on-licensed premises, the holder of the licence shall not allow a person under eighteen to make any sale of such liquor unless the sale has been specifically approved by the holder of the licence or by a person of or over the age of eighteen acting on his behalf.
(2) The reference in subsection (1) of this section to an off-sales department of on-licensed premises is a reference to any part of premises for which a justices' on-licence has been granted which is set aside for use only for the sale of intoxicating liquor for consumption off the premises.
(3) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable to a fine not exceeding level 1 on the standard scale.". — [Mr. Douglas Hogg.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

With this it will be convenient to take the following; amendment (a) to the proposed new clause, in line 6, leave out from 'liquor' to end of line 9.

Amendment (b) to the proposed new clause, in last line, leave out 'level 1' and insert 'level 3'.

New clause 6— Under-age sales

  • '(1) In section 170(1) of the principal Act, for the words from "on a first conviction" to the end there shall be substituted the words "to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale".
  • (2) The following section shall be inserted after section 171 of the principal Act—
  • "171A. No person under the age of 18 employed in premises in respect of which an off licence has been granted shall be permitted to sell intoxicating liquor. The holder of the licence shall be liable to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.".'.

    New clause 3 is part of our response to the problem of under-age drinking.

    The Masham report expressed the desire that the law regarding off-licences should be changed so that persons under the age of 18 who are selling alcohol should at least be supervised when they do so. I agree with that proposition because when people under the age of 18 are selling alcohol in off-licences there is an increased danger that they will sell to under-age persons or that they may sell to somebody who is already intoxicated. The purpose of the new clause is to impose an obligation that each sale should be supervised by somebody over the age of 18.

    I am not trying to catch my hon. Friend out; this is a genuine inquiry. Is it a fact that the people who assist in public houses must be over the age of 18?

    Yes. Under-age persons may not assist in public houses.

    It has been discussed whether we should put a total prohibition on persons under the age of 18 selling alcohol in off-licences. I would not commend that to the House because I believe that that would affect the ability of such persons to obtain employment in the retail sector. I believe that that would an undesirable state of affairs.

    I commend the new clause to the House on the basis that it is the proper solution to the problem and will not have the adverse consequences to which I have just referred.

    I shall be brief. The purpose of new clause 6 is to remove an absurd anomaly in the law whereby young people under 18 are allowed to sell in supermarkets and elsewhere a product which they are not legally permitted to buy. In promoting greater consistency in the law, my new clause 6 is entirely in line with what is described as being a main aim of the Bill.

    I am glad that in tabling their new clause the Government have moved from their untenable position in Committee where they refused to concede to the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) and her hon. Friends that allowing sales of alcohol by under-18s could even be regarded as an anomaly. If I may say so in all humility, I believe that my new clause 6 is superior to that tabled by the Government in that it has greater clarity, straightforwardness and practicality.

    The Home Office working group on young people and alcohol under the chairmanship of Baroness Masham briefly examined the issue of under-age sales, and its recommendations prompted this new clause. The Justices' Clerks Society has also expressed its dislike of the anomaly of under-age sales and wishes to see it removed. The Masham committee recognised that allowing sales of alcohol by young people under the legal age was an anomaly which might have undesirable consequences. As the committee pointed out, it may be difficult for a 16-year-old to challenge a 17-year-old who seeks to buy alcohol, and this anomaly in the law may help to undermine other legal controls on under-age drinking. I am sure that the House will recognise the truth of that, including my hon. Friends who strongly support extended drinking hours.

    One aspect of the problem not yet mentioned is that not all supermarkets have separate drinks departments but, as was observed recently by the Professional Advisory Committee on Alcohol for Scotland, some
    "display alcohol openly on shelves amongst other consumer goods, thereby placing the supervision of sales on the shoulders of the busy check-out girls",
    who may themselves be under age. The Committee continued:
    "It is anomalous that whilst it is illegal to employ anyone under the age of 18 in a public bar or licensed canteen, no such restriction is in force in the case of off-licensed premises or supermarkets. If legislation to restrict the sale of alcohol to a separate counter were included, it could also be enacted that staff on such a counter are subject to the same age restrictions as those which apply in public bars".
    That is an eminently sensible argument, but it would be equally sensible to approach the problem from the opposite direction by enacting new clause 6 precisely in order to give supermarkets a strong incentive to create separate drinks departments.

    The argument for my new clause is straightforward and I need not detain the House much longer. The Masham committee stated the crucial points in paragraph 147 of its report, which reads:
    "It is significant that off-licences are cited as a major source of alcohol for teenagers; and it is equally significant that some major retailers insist that staff under the age of 18 may not authorise off-sales, since they recognise the difficulties a 16 or 17-year-old may have in enforcing the law."
    If responsible retailers are already imposing their own prohibition on under-age sales, surely this is an instance where the law should follow the example already set by the responsible to curtail the activities of the less responsible. Moreover, the example of responsible retailers shows that any practical difficulties involved in enforcing an 18-or-over rule cannot be insuperable.

    On the question of practicability, the Government's proposal, perhaps contrary to first impressions, is inferior to my new clause 6. As I understand the Government's proposal, it is that each sale of alcohol must be specifically supervised by the licensee or his agent over the age of 18. The difficulty is in imagining how exactly this will be managed in a busy supermarket at peak shopping time. Those who do their own shopping, as I do, will readily recognise the truth of that. The sheer inconvenience of an under-age sales assistant having to call over the licensee or his adult agent each time a bottle or can of alcohol appears among a customer's purchases will surely lead either to impossible delays or, to avoid such delays, the law being widely disregarded.

    It will be far better to agree now to a clear-cut, simple measure which can be enforced. My hon. Friend the Minister has the opportunity to do that, and I recommend new clause 6 to the House.

    It is apparent from new clause 3 that the Minister does not know and does not care about the problems facing many people on housing estates and in other areas where sales from off-licences cause young people to gather together to drink alcohol obtained from those off-licences.

    Does not the Minister know of the time spent by the police in moving youngsters on? Is he not aware of the abuse of local people, and of the threats and damage to their property? If the Minister had my postbag, he would know of the anger felt by many decent people about the apparent lack of control of off-licence sales. What is his answer to those people? It is new clause 3, which continues to allow young people under the age of 18 to sell drinks in off-licences.

    The new clause states:
    "the holder of the licence shall not allow a person under eighteen to make any sale of such liquor unless the sale has been specifically approved by the holder of the licence or by a person of or over the age of eighteen acting on his behalf"
    But what does that mean? What does "specifically" mean? The dictionary meaning is "definitely", "particularly", "not generally or vaguely". Does that mean that permission must be given for every individual transaction?

    If so, let us consider what a sale is. It is the presenting, choosing, advising, obtaining from the cellar or shelf, wrapping and taking of money. All that is involved. Does the clause mean gaining approval for every one of those actions for every individual sale? If so, it cannot be practical in a busy off-licence.

    Is the law enforceable? If not, it should not become law. If the new clause means that if the holder of the licence gives his approval a 16-year-old can be employed and the supervision is much less, that is wholly unacceptable. It does nothing to prevent the intimidation of a young salesman by less desirable elements in his age group to persuade him, by threats, to sell them alcohol, knowing them to be under-age.

    The Government have had the opportunity in this Bill to prohibit young people under 18 from serving in off-licences. That they have not taken this opportunity shows once again that they are not concerned about young people and alcohol abuse. The control of the sale of alcohol is for adults; it is not for children. It is time that the Government and the House recognised that, and they should accept amendment (a).

    8 pm

    I wish to raise two points relating to new clause 3. First, I am concerned about the words "specifically approved". Despite the use of the word "specifically", it is a vague term. My hon. Friend the Minister may say that these words will have to be interpreted by the courts if a dispute arises about what they mean. I am not in the business of providing work for lawyers and I wish to provide more specific wording so that everyone can be clear about the meaning.

    In a chemist's shop, for example, when a preparation is sold, the assistant must hold up the item so that the pharmacist can specifically approve it. Unfortunately, the situation in most supermarkets is not as it is in branches of Boots. For example, in modern retailing, it is frequent practice for sales to take place by means of a laser scanner. The assistant need not press any buttons, but simply moves the items, including perhaps a bottle of spirits, under the scanner, so that the price is computed automatically. It would be helpful to know how such a problem could be tackled by the words "specifically approved". Would it be necessary for the assistant to ring a bell every time—a practice already operated by many responsible retailers?

    Secondly, is it right that there should be no defence to a charge under this provision if, through no fault of the licensee, a sale is made by someone under 18? For example, a young person may lie about his or her age. He or she may go to some trouble to give the impression to the licensee that he or she is over 18. The licensee may have no reason to think that the young person has lied and is under 18. As the clause stands, the licensee would have no defence, yet the person who had lied about his or her age and made the sale would have committed no offence. Should there not be a defence that the licensee had used due diligence and was, therefore, not at fault?

    As a further example, the person who makes the sale may disobey the rule laid down by his or her employer. The young person may be in a hurry and the supervisor, who is over 18, may be some distance away as a queue builds up at the check-out desk. The young person may make the sale, without the approval of the person over 18. Again, the check-out girl or boy has not broken the law under the provisions of the new clause.

    As the new clause stands, the licensee must carry the can, although he may have gone to great trouble to impress on the check-out assistant that the law must be obeyed. Should there not be a defence, if the licensee has used as much diligence as is humanly possible to prevent an offence taking place? I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to enlighten me on that point, before we go any further.

    I shall answer the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller). It is important to consider the new clause closely. An offence occurs only if the licence-holder allows a person under 18 to make a sale unsupervised. If the person under 18 makes a sale which is not allowed, and therefore acts contrary to the instructions which he has been given, the licence-holder is not committing an offence, because he has not allowed the sale.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley asked whether there should be a defence when the employee lies about his age. Perhaps we are piling difficulty upon difficulty, because, in most cases, an employer would want to find out the age of an employee and would take positive steps to do so. With great respect to my hon. Friend, this difficulty may not occur.

    My right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) asks that we should adopt one of two alternatives—that there should be either a shop within a shop or a prohibition on the sale of alcohol in off-licences by those under 18. I ask my right hon. Friend not to push the latter proposition to a Division, because it would be immensely damaging to the employment prospects of those under 18. That is my answer to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding).

    I shall give way in a moment.

    At one stage, I was attracted by the concept of a shop within a shop, as suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point, but it would be unduly burdensome on small retail shops and it would be difficult to differentiate in law between a supermarket, where it might be possible to implement such a proposal and a small corner shop, where it would not easily be possible.

    In respect of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller), that each sale must be specifically approved, does my hon. Friend the Minister anticipate that it will be impossible for a sale of liquor to be made on off-licence premises unless somebody over 18 is present?

    That is my conclusion and that is what we intend. I commend the new clause to the House.

    Question put and agreed to.

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