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Tobacco (Sale To Children)

Volume 167: debated on Wednesday 14 February 1990

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Kenneth Carlisle.]

10.13 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the massive problem of illegal tobacco sales to children. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to announce initiatives to deal with that scandal. Hon. Members in all parts of the House are concerned about it, as witnessed by the fact that despite the usual exodus at this time of night a number of hon. Members have remained in the Chamber.

I have a particular interest in the subject because the legislation which is supposed to ban sales of cigarettes and all tobacco to children, the Protection of Children (Tobacco) Act 1986, began as a private Member's Bill which I introduced. It had two objectives: first, to include products such as Skoal Bandits in the legal definition of tobacco—I pay tribute to the Government for banning that product altogether—and, secondly, to clarify and strengthen the legislation supposed to have banned tobacco sales to children since 1933. The 1986 legislation swept away the condition which used to allow any retailer to justify tobacco sales to children on the ground that he thought that the tobacco was intended for use by an adult. It also gave the courts a mandatory duty to deal with cigarette vending machines used by youngsters.

My Bill received universal support at that time, including a very strong speech on Second Reading by the hon. Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley), the present Minister for Health. Having passed the Bill, we were entitled to expect the legislation to lead to action to deter the pushers who supply cigarettes to children. Unfortunately, virtually nothing has been done to enforce the law and the evil trade is continuing on a massive scale.

I have repeatedly asked Ministers what they are doing about enforcement of the 1986 Act, but the total lack of action over four years shows that the legislation has been effectively smothered by a tobacco industry smokescreen. The industry claims to be spending £1 million per year advertising the fact that children should not buy cigarettes, but at the same time it is cheerfully reaping the profits from £70 million worth of trade with those very children.

Of course, catching them young is a long-term investment for an industry which is killing off its older customers at a rate of 300 per day, or 110,000 per year. The tobacco industry needs to attract 300 new customers per day just to replace its own victims, and since we know that 75 per cent. of adult smokers are hooked by the time they are 18 it really has to catch them young—and its £100 million budget for advertising and sports sponsorship is targeted accordingly.

The industry is running rings around the Government's voluntary restrictions on tobacco advertising. We all know that sports sponsorship is getting the cigarette sales pitch across in an increasingly insiduous manner, even on the BBC's television coverage of snooker, horse racing and motor sports. An advertising executive for Marlborough is quoted as having said in relation to that company's sponsorship of motor racing:
"What we wanted was to promote a particular image of adventure, courage and virility."
Yet there is supposed to be an agreement to avoid those very suggestions and implications in tobacco advertising.

The trade, and the advertising that promotes it, is a national scandal and it is prolonging the agony and the costs which arise from tobacco-related diseases. The Chief Medical Officer, Sir Donald Acheson, recently confirmed that smoking is
"by far the most important cause of ill health and premature death, and hence of expenditure on health services."
It is all starting in the corner shops, off licences, supermarkets and service stations which are supplying cigarettes to youngsters without let or hindrance, or even shame, sometimes even in the form of a single cigarette with a match at a price to suit the budget of a school child's pocket money—12p per time.

In England alone it is reckoned that about 500,000 15-year-olds are smokers, 300,000 of them regular smokers. The teeny-smoker trade is worth a cool £700 million per year to the tobacco barons, but there were just 29 prosecutions in 1988, none of which achieved the maximum fine of £400. The situation in Scotland is probably even worse, but we do not have adequate statistics from the Scottish Office.

The Government have failed to lift a finger to enforce the 1986 Act. An Act which was passed without dissent in the House just four years ago might as well be a dead letter. Nobody is being deterred, and that poisonous trade is proceeding with impunity. The tobacco industry is treating the will of Parliament with contempt and, far worse, it is conspiring to wreck the health of another generation of young people.

Will my hon. Friend give way?

I always do as my landowner colleague tells me. Does my hon. Friend agree that so many of the tobacco industry's customers die every day as a result of smoking that it has to recruit new smokers? That is why the industry has to have an aggressive campaign to get young people to take up smoking. That is the important commercial message from the industry.

I made the point that the industry needs to recruit 300 new smokers per day just to replace those whom it kills.

The House will know that a large number of parents are determined to protect their children from tobacco addiction and are joining the recently launched Parents Against Tobacco campaign to confront the tobacco barons with a healthy dose of people power—and not before time. Parents Against Tobacco has attracted strong support from people in every walk of life in every part of the United Kingdom, including at least 160 Members of Parliament. The campaign seeks to mobilise public opinion and to activate public authorities to confront the menace of long-term tobacco addiction leading to bad health and premature death for many of our children. I speak as a father of two young children and as one who is very worried about that threat.

Parents Against Tobacco surveyed 212 shops and found that 109 sold cigarettes to children under 16. In London, the campaign surveyed 50 shops and found that 36 sold cigarettes to a boy of 10. Local newspapers have been taking up the initiative, and a newspaper in Rugby reported last week that an 11-year-old girl in school uniform was sold cigarettes in 11 of the 12 shops into which she went. The evidence is overwhelming. It appears that half the tobacco retailers blatantly flout the 1986 Act.

Parents Against Tobacco has also been investigating the reason why the law is not enforced. A survey of 110 local authorities found that 104 had never taken action under the 1986 Act. Many said that they did not know about the Act and many said that they did not think that it was their responsibility to do anything about it. I understand that they have not received any Government circular to clarify the position.

Nevertheless, some local authorities have taken local initiatives. My attention has been drawn particularly to the work in Liverpool, Somerset and Enfield and in Hereford and Worcester county. In Liverpool, illegal sales fell by 50 per cent. following an active survey of retailers and the prosecution of some offenders. I have been alarmed to hear that Hereford and Worcester county council's campaign has run into difficulties because the courts insist that photographic evidence of the apparent age of a child is not enough to secure prosecution and the council is rightly reluctant to make children appear in court. I should be grateful if the Minister or the Attorney-General would write to me with some advice on that narrow point about court procedure. Overall, there seems to be intolerable confusion, inconsistency and even perversity in the enforcement of the legislation by the various authorities.

What about the police? Parents Against Tobacco wrote to chief constables, most of whom said that they had insufficient resources or that they could not give the problem the priority that it deserved. I put it to the Minister that it is up to the Government to take active steps to get the 1986 Act enforced. Local authority trading standards departments are probably the most appropriate bodies to take on the job. They certainly have the best knowledge of the retail trade in their local areas, and those councils which have made it their business to apply the law have made a pretty good job of it. We need clear guidance from Ministers as to who should enforce the legislation and how they should go about it.

Experience shows that one or two prosecutions against blatant offenders in each area can concentrate the minds of all offending retailers, so we should be able to reduce the scandalous scale of this illegal trade quite quickly. The Minister must accept that the law is useless unless it is enforced effectively and fairly in every part of the country. It may be necessary to amend the law again, to make it easier to enforce it. The maximum fine for this serious crime of endangering young people should be increased from £400 to at least £1,000. We may also need clearer legislation to deal with vending machines.

We could also help responsible tobacconists—I freely acknowledge that there are many—by providing independent official advertisements proclaiming the prohibition on sales to children and by providing official leaflets to explain the law to youngsters in shops. The tobacco industry's own self-righteous advertising campaign reeks of hypocrisy. The cost of that campaign is just one seventieth of gross takings in tobacco sales to children and no one could take its integrity seriously.

We can pass laws until we are blue in the face, but it is futile to do so if the Executive refuses to do anything to enforce them. That is what happened in the case of the Protection of Children (Tobacco) Act 1986. We have polling evidence that 95 per cent. of our people want that Act enforced effectively and strictly. I hope that the Minister will deal with that point today.

There is no need to repeat all the evidence that tobacco is dirty and dangerous and that children should be protected against nicotine addiction. There is ample evidence that laws to protect children from this menace are being cynically circumvented by the tobacco industry and flagrantly broken by thousands of retailers. I welcome the initiative of Parents Against Tobacco to campaign on this issue. Several Ministers, including the Prime Minister, have also endorsed the objectives of the campaign. With all respect to the Minister, it is not good enough for Ministers to issue well-meaning statements—they must support their words with action, starting with action to deter traders who are supplying £70 million worth of cigarettes per year to our children. I ask the Minister to take this opportunity to announce specific Government initiatives to enforce the 1986 Act. There is far more to be done, but let us start by clamping down on a trade which is already supposed to be illegal.

10.26 pm

I am grateful to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) for selecting this important matter for debate and for allowing me briefly to intervene. I speak as the chairman of the parliamentary wing of Parents Against Tobacco—the local shop steward. I am delighted to see my hon. Friends the Members for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris), for Battersea (Mr. Bowis), for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) and for Hexham (Mr. Amos) and several Opposition Members with whose constituencies, sadly, I am not familiar.

The position seems clear. Parliament has decided that it is a criminal offence for a retailer to sell cigarettes to a child under 16. That legislation has wide support. Parents whom I know, whether they be smokers or non-smokers, do not want their children to start smoking. There is a degree of unanimity. We have on the statute book legislation that is widely supported but, as the hon. Member for East Lothian said, it is frequently flouted.

I raise three simple matters with my hon. Friend the Minister. First, I have written to the Home Secretary on behalf of the parliamentary branch of Parents Against Tobacco, asking for a meeting with him. I very much hope that the answer will be in the affirmative.

Secondly, my hon. Friend the Minister will have seen the PAT manifesto—in particular, the legislation that we propose to introduce at the end of this year if the Government do not do so themselves. We should like an initial response from the Government to the legislative measure that we have outlined.

The third matter arises from a statement that the Lord Chancellor made yesterday about the use of hearsay evidence from children. That matter is highly relevant to the debate because of the difficulties of getting children into court to give evidence—their reluctance to appear as witnesses and the reluctance of their parents to let them so appear. The Lord Chancellor is proposing to change the rules about the use of hearsay evidence from children. It would be helpful to know whether it is of relevance in bringing prosecutions in the circumstances that were mentioned by the hon. Member for East Lothian.

10.30 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) on securing this Adjournment debate. It is no surprise that he should choose such an important subject, given his long and active interest in these matters and his success in piloting through the House the Protection of Children (Tobacco) Act 1986.

Selling cigarettes to those who are under age shows a deeply irresponsible disregard for the law, for the best interests of the retail trade and for the health of young people. We therefore stand firmly alongside the hon. Member in condemning those retailers who do.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House are looking for a positive response from the Government tonight, giving their moral support to the movement, which already has 160 hon. Members behind it, and, hopefully, promising a sympathetic hearing for the legislation that we are determined to introduce.

The sale of cigarettes to children under the age of 16 has been illegal since the passing of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, and this was extended to a complete ban on all products containing tobacco by the hon. Gentleman's Protection of Children (Tobacco) Act 1986. It is for the police and the local authorities' trading standards officers to enforce the law in this area.

Both of them. Both have powers, duties and responsibilities, and I fully accept the hon. Gentleman's contention, to put it at its best, that they are unevenly applied throughout the country. Our overriding objective—and, I am sure, that of the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends—is to see fewer youngsters taking up the habit of smoking, not least because, as he said, 110,000 smoking-related deaths occur in the United Kingdom each year. Surveys show that 75 per cent. of regular smokers start their habit while teenagers.

But there are some encouraging signs, and I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not mention them, although I expect he is aware of them. Evidence from the latest survey by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys shows that smoking among under-16s is going down. In 1984, 13 per cent. of young people aged 11 to 15 smoked regularly. In 1986 the figure was 10 per cent. and in 1988 it was 8 per cent.

It is worth noting that, for the first time, the 1988 study used a biochemical test to determine whether the children had actually been smoking—a sort of lie detector—and it is proposed to continue that technique in future, for it will clearly add to the reliability of the data.

Can the Minister divide the statistics between boys and girls? Do they show that girls are not smoking any less, which is a worrying factor?

It is clear from the statistics—I am speaking from memory, and I will confirm the position to the hon. Gentleman if I am wrong—that girls have in the past smoked less than boys; but the proportion is changing because the number of boys smoking is dropping quite rapidly, but the same, alas, cannot he said for girls.

The data that we are getting have the basic reliable method of which I spoke, which tells whether the youngster has smoked within the previous seven days. To build on the welcome trend last year, the Department of Health and the Health Education Authority jointly launched a £2 million a year campaign aimed at reducing still further the proportion of teenagers who smoke. The target is an additional one third cut by 1994. Health education to reduce the number of illegal sales to children will be one of the chief means of realising that objective.

The Minister said that the Department of Health had allocated some additional funds to discourage youngsters from taking up smoking. From my point of view and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (M r. Foulkes), that is of limited comfort because none of that money is going to Scotland. It would be useful if the Minister's hon. Friends in the Scottish Office showed the same motivation as is shown by his hon. Friends in the Department of Health, although I appreciate that he cannot answer for them.

That is correct, but I will pass on to my colleagues in the Scottish Office what the hon. Gentleman said.

A further key aim is to stimulate action in schools and among parents to prevent shops selling cigarettes to children. That action is complemented by the tobacco industry's £1 million a year campaign—which the hon. Gentleman mentioned somewhat disparagingly—to inform retailers about the law. Although it is only part of the exercise, it is a welcome part.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) made some telling points and the Government, and particularly the Home Secretary, will want to take them into acount when we produce the further proposals for legislation that we are developing. He mentioned in particular Parents Against Tobacco. That campaign was launched just six weeks ago, and has similar objectives to the Government's. The arrival of the campaign is both timely and welcome. The Government look forward to the powerful reinforcement that it will bring. We shall consider carefully the proposals that it puts forward.

Well-targeted local influence and pressure brought to bear on traders who would flout the law are likely to be particularly persuasive. Actual enforcement of the law is a matter, as far as the police are concerned, for chief officers, who must decide the priority to place on illegal tobacco sales and have regard to other demands on their forces.

As I mentioned earlier, the law can and should be enforced by local authorities' trading standards officers. That is why the chairman of the Health Education Authority wrote in 1988 to all local authorities urging them to encourage trading standards officers to enforce the law and to use the councils' powers of prosecution.

Well-judged consumer campaigns, or perhaps, to be correct, non-consumer campaigns, should have a powerful deterrent effect on irresponsible traders, as will—this goes to the heart of what the hon. Member for East Lothian said—the grass root reminders to local authorities of their powers and their duty to use them.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the law. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health have seen to it that the ministerial group on crime prevention has considered options for strengthening the legislation on this matter. They are satisfied that improvement is possible, and they are developing specific proposals to put before Parliament as soon as a suitable opportunity arises.

The hon. Member for East Lothian will be pleased to hear that among them will be a proposal designed to clarify and strengthen the responsibility of retailers.

The hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) asked when we shall bring forward proposals. It will be as soon as we have a legislative vehicle to which they can reasonably be attached.

We have an emerging partnership between volunteers in the community, the enforcement agencies, the law and the industry.

The Minister is being genuinely helpful. Does he accept that, as long as two separate bodies—the police and the local authorities—have overlapping duties and other competing priorities, we shall have the problem that each says that it is up to the other to deal with the problem? Will the Government please give a steer? I suggest that life would be a lot easier if a circular went round local authorities stating that the Government intend that the work should be done by trading standards authorities.

The trading standards authorities have the powers. As I said, they have been reminded of that during the past 18 months. There is ample scope for local groups organised by Parents Against Tobacco to remind the local authorities. There will be scope when the law is amended to remind the local authorities and the police what the new law is and what their duties are. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman does not mean that he would like one or other authority to have a responsibility. Clearly, both should have a role. There may be scope to state more clearly what emphasis each should adopt.

As I said, there is scope for a partnership between the community, the enforcement agencies, the law and the industry. That is precisely the sort of collaboration which we have advocated and developed in crime prevention during the past six years. It is proving remarkably successful.

I recognise that the number of hon. Members present shows that the matter is of wide and compelling interest. I hope that hon. Members will be encouraged, as I have been, to learn that the strategic approach to eliminating the illegal sale of tobacco to children takes as its model proven and recently tested techniques.

The Minister said that he hoped that the law could be changed when a legislative opportunity became available, but he did not say whether the Government intend to find such a legislative opportunity. If a private Member of any party were to introduce a Bill that would give that legislative opportunity, would the Government give that Bill a fair wind through the House?

That is an important point because, as my hon. Friend has said, it is clear that there are breaches of the law again and again. For about 90 per cent. of the time, the law is being broken. Therefore, I repeat: if the Government believe that a legislative opportunity should be sought to change that position, and if they are not willing to introduce such a Bill, if a private Member of any party were to do so, would the Government give it a fair wind?

I thought that it was perfectly clear from what I have said that, not only are the Government developing proposals, but we are looking for an early opportunity to put those proposals into effect.

If a private Member comes up with a Bill that coincides with some or all of those objectives, of course the Government would not be a dog in the manger and give it other than their support. However, I am not sure that our proposals, which are not yet ready but which are in the process of evolution, would necessarily be successfully put on the statute book by the private Members' process, especially at this stage in the Parliament. I can certainly make it plain to the hon. Gentleman in the remaining minutes of the debate that it is our intention to produce proposals on this matter and to see them on the statute book.

Is it the Government's intention to do it this Session? The Government do not have many Sessions left.

I doubt whether we should be able to bring forward anything in this Session, for two reasons. First, we are well into it and the legislative programme is well advanced; secondly, the changes that we are looking to make have still not yet been finalised.

As I have said, I am grateful to the hon. Member for East Lothian for bringing this issue to the attention of the House tonight and for giving me the opportunity of bringing him and the House up to date with the Government's thinking on this matter because all of us agree—in government and in all parties—that this extremely important matter should be dealt with.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordzngly at nineteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.