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Sunbed Salons

Volume 455: debated on Tuesday 16 January 2007

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise matters of concern about automated or unstaffed coin-operated tanning salons. My interest arises from my work with children—in a previous life, I worked for Save the Children—and children’s issues are close to my heart.

The purpose of this debate is to make a case for further regulation of the sunbed industry, particularly unstaffed salons which raise a wide variety of public health concerns. I want to concentrate my remarks on the misuse of unstaffed tanning salons by children, often girls in their teens.

Shortly after my election to Parliament, concerned parents in the constituency informed me about the availability of sunbeds to under-16s. There was an unstaffed automated tanning salon a short distance from my former constituency office on the High street in Swansea. Parents were aware that their teenage daughters had been using the salon, so I asked a member of my staff to monitor the situation at lunch times, and they saw schoolchildren using the facility. After some research, I discovered that while advice was available on the use of sunbeds by under-16s, it was not backed up by regulation. I have spoken to many children in Swansea, East who said: “Miss, it’s cool to have a tan.” They said they want to emulate celebrities and their sporting idols who have tans.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does she agree that the media have a responsibility in the matter because young people who see pictures of celebrities in newspapers may try to imitate them without perhaps understanding the risks?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Young people find it difficult to distinguish between fake tan and the tan obtained from using a sunbed, but they want to emulate stars who should explain how they get their tans. We must work with young people to eradicate the idea that it is healthy to have a tan. One of my major concerns is that young people equate health with having a tan. They aspire to be fashionable, but they may, in pursuit of a tan, lie to their parents, use facilities that they should not use and claim that they are using fake tan when they are not. Hon. Members know that no one under the age of 16 should use a sunbed. However, in towns and cities throughout the United Kingdom it is easy for them to do so. I believe it is morally wrong that children are gaining access to such equipment.

Let me make a distinction. When I refer to coin-operated salons, I mean companies that accept cash or card payment in a box mounted on the wall and tend not to have staff to assist and provide advice about safe tanning techniques. They are not regulated by the Sunbed Association, which is a self-regulatory body in the UK. I met the association to discuss shared concerns, and it informed me that it has more than 1,200 members and refuses membership to unstaffed salon companies as they do not meet the association’s code of practice. Staffing is fundamental to membership of the organisation.

The unstaffed side of the industry is growing. People like the convenience of no appointments and pay-as-you-go. I agree that they are convenient, but they raise public health concerns that must be addressed. A qualified member of staff can do more than just be there and take money. They can advise on skin type, length of tanning session, how to tan safely and, importantly, the wearing of goggles. They are also a reassuring presence in case of emergency. Anyone—children, people with health problems and even people who are intoxicated—can gain easy access to salons, ignore guidelines and damage their health. It is wrong if no trained staff are available to provide information on safe tanning, to be available in an emergency, such as an assault on a customer, or to prevent inappropriate use. Unaccompanied women should not be encouraged to enter unstaffed premises where they could be vulnerable to attack or sexual assault. Such salons are cheap to use. One unstaffed company in south Wales has been offering deals of 25p per minute and others have offered January sales. Such prices are cheaper than that of smoking, and children can easily afford sessions for the price of their school lunch. They can cover the cost of a sunbed session during their lunch break, and that is wrong.

I have tabled a number of questions on the issue and the Minister has been receptive to my concerns. I am grateful to her and her officials for meeting me to discuss them. I have also met a number of cancer charities, particularly Cancer Research UK, which is supportive of my campaign. The matter was discussed at its sunbed symposium in September 2006, which I attended.

I have been lobbied from both sides of the argument, and I have not ignored representations from people who disagree with me. I tried to find common ground, even when that was difficult. I met Consol Suncentres, the largest unstaffed tanning company in the UK. I welcomed the opportunity to meet it and hear its views. There are many opinions on the safety of sunbeds, but we all agreed that it is wrong for children under the age of 16 to have access to sunbeds, whether staffed or unstaffed. What Consol and I cannot agree on is how to prevent under-16s from gaining access to sunbeds. I have advised it that I am keen to have further regulation, but it does not recognise the problem.

I welcome recent initiatives by the company to prevent under-age use of its facilities, but I was disappointed when it informed me at a meeting in June that it was the responsibility of parents to stop children accessing such facilities. That is an irresponsible attitude. Until the whole industry agrees that protecting the health of young people is the highest priority, its attitude will remain a major stumbling block.

The need to introduce more responsible sunbed use in coin-operated, unstaffed salons was the basis of my early-day motion, which received cross-party support and was signed by 155 hon. Members. I was pleased to hear about the parliamentary seminar, which was hosted by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), to discuss sunbed-related issues, and I was disappointed that I could not attend because of Select Committee business overseas. I was informed of the discussion and I am sure that it was helpful to the ongoing debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for speaking in support of my work at the seminar.

Following the success of my early-day motion, I hope that the Minister recognises the strength of feeling about the matter. The law protects children from buying alcohol and cigarettes, and from gambling. The same protection should apply to the use of sunbeds.

I agree with my hon. Friend. A young, 15-year-old girl in Merseyside was addicted to sunbeds, and the story was on TV. The health dangers were explained to her over and again; her parents told her that it was dangerous and wrong to use them, but she continued to do so. Unless we act and provide protection, those young people will not listen and will endanger their lives.

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. It is true that it is our duty to protect young people. If society does not look after them, they may not realise the long-term dangers. It is up to us to educate them and provide information.

I would welcome further work between the Minister and other Departments to consider introducing a licensing scheme for sunbed outlets throughout the country. Such a scheme exists in some cities, but a consistent approach is needed, led by the Government.

Back in 1995 when the health and safety guidelines were drawn up, the automated, unstaffed sunbed centre did not exist on our high streets, but there has since been an explosion of them, which is why we must look again at the issue. Regulations have not kept up with developments in the industry, and public health is suffering. Unstaffed, coin-operated salons should not be worried about a licensing system, and I call on them to work with me on this campaign.

I have been accused of trying to prevent choice and to stop people using sunbeds, and wanting to ban them all. That is not so. I do not wish to stop adults over 16 accessing sunbeds, but perhaps with the recent change in the age restriction on the sale of tobacco we should consider 18. I wish only to prevent children from being able to walk into unstaffed salons and use them unchallenged. There has been a public outcry about young people accessing gambling machines in amusement arcades. Sunbed abuse is just as damaging and as harmful to young people’s long-term well-being.

I have heard arguments that under-16 year olds will continue to access the salons despite the introduction of an age ban, but that was said about cigarettes and alcohol. The success of the “Think 21” campaign demonstrates clearly that an effective voluntary system can challenge any under-age young person attempting to purchase alcohol or tobacco. The same should be true of the sunbed industry. It is imperative that a member of staff is present to challenge any under-age young person attempting to access the premises.

One company in my constituency has been displaying a notice that says:

“We do not accept responsibility for people under the age of 16 on these premises.”

It is an example of shoddy practice that must be exposed. In other words, the notice is saying, “It is not our fault; blame someone else.” Companies must take responsibility for their services. If they offer a service to the public, they should have a minimum set of standards, which is why licensing is needed.

Consol says that the education of children is the responsibility of parents, but if parents discover their children using unstaffed salons, or if a passer-by notices a child in an unstaffed salon and reports it, nothing is done. There is no complaint mechanism to deal with such circumstances, and nobody is prosecuted or fined. Action is taken only if there is a fault with the equipment or if an incident occurs. That is unacceptable.

In conclusion, there is a strong case for regulation, probably in the form of licensing. It is unacceptable in this day and age for unstaffed operators to pretend that there is no problem with under-16s accessing their salons. There is growing public awareness about the health and well-being of our young people. It does not make sense that we can protect them from alcohol, cigarettes, pornography and gambling, but that we cannot recognise the dangers to their long-term health from sunbed abuse.

I urge the Minister to be bold, as she has been with tobacco. I hope she agrees that it is always better to fake than bake, and I ask her to take the necessary steps to protect our children’s health.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mrs. James) on securing the debate. I also welcome the presence of my hon. Friends the Members for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) and for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper), and the earlier attendance of my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern), who has had to leave the Chamber. I thank them for attending and for showing their support.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East for her participation in discussions with officials in the Department of Health. They have been assisted by her information and experience locally, and by what she has gained from people contacting her, given the high profile that she has lent the issue. I must admit that one difficulty is securing the necessary data and information about the extent of the problem. We know, at least anecdotally, that coin-operated facilities in particular tend to be located in some of our more deprived communities. It is clear that they do not offer the beauty parlour experience that one might have in more affluent areas, where sunbeds under supervision sit alongside nail bars, facial services and everything else.

My hon. Friend has outlined today and shared with me in private meetings some of the ways in which the facility is open to abuse. The questions are about how much abuse takes place and who is responsible for trying to reduce the amount of misuse of coin-operated facilities.

The issue is important, and as she said, about 150 MPs from all parties signed her early-day motion. We continue to try to address the subject. Although my hon. Friend rightly draws attention to the public health concerns, it is an issue not only for the Department of Health but for the Department for Work and Pensions, to which the Health and Safety Executive is accountable; for the Department of Trade and Industry; and for the Department for Communities and Local Government, which leads on licensing matters. It does not sit with only one Department.

We share with my hon. Friend and others concern about the increase in the incidence of skin cancer and the importance of prevention. The popularity of tanned skin has raised the potential risks of getting skin cancer. However, the debate is not about people enjoying the sunshine but about the extent to which they do. That is important. There are benefits to sunshine through vitamin D, as we all know, but it is the extent to which people expose their skin, either naturally or artificially, which poses dangers for their future health. The trouble is that overexposure to natural sunlight or to sunbeds without protection does not manifest straight away. The problem is one of how we measure the impact of exposure on something that may manifest as skin cancer only some years later. It is a challenging area.

The Government discourage the cosmetic use of sunbeds, whether coin-operated or otherwise, particularly by young people. For adults, the key issue is that sunbed use is the result of an informed choice. However, for young people with skin at greater risk of damage from cosmetic tanning, and possibly an inadequate understanding of the potential harm, it is an issue not only for parents, as Consol said, but for the industry and for the Government.

For that reason, the Department of Health, along with other UK health organisations, has funded Cancer Research UK to run SunSmart, the national skin cancer prevention and sun protection campaign. The campaign includes raising public and professional awareness of skin cancer by providing information about it, including how it manifests and its early detection, and by providing guidance on preventive measures to reduce the risk of its occurring. The campaign raises awareness through support for health promotion events, the provision of printed resources, media briefings and the SunSmart website. It has proved a valuable addition to the exploration of concerns about skin cancer.

A key message of the campaign is to take care not to burn, whether in the sun or on sunbeds. We must reinforce that message as much as possible, and the website has a special section covering sunbeds. It highlights the fact that sunbeds, far from being cosmetic friends, cause premature skin ageing and blemishing at a younger age once the tan has faded. When discussing prevention among young people, that is an important message to get across, because unfortunately, the more serious problem of skin cancer may not appear until later in life. Focusing on the more immediate outcomes of over-use of sunbeds is an important way of getting the message across.

The campaign also makes the point that sunbeds should not be used by people who are particularly vulnerable. They include people with fairer skins, and specifically people under 16 years old, as my hon. Friend admirably pointed out. The Health and Safety Executive has also issued guidelines on the use of sunbeds for operators and customers. The guidelines are available on its website.

The guidance was developed in consultation with the Department of Health and leading experts. We have been trying to encourage self-regulation and the following of guidance. I noted my hon. Friend’s point about the Sunbed Association’s code and the basis on which it admits members to its organisation, because we want to ensure that anybody who operates sunbeds, whether coin-operated or otherwise, takes up the Health and Safety Executive’s guidance. There is a clear split of opinion among the sunbed industry on the subject, and that influences the debate.

Cancer Research UK has supported the guidance by working with representatives of the industry, particularly the Sunbed Association, to try to improve information for staff and customers. That includes displaying information about the use of sunbeds and the risks to customers’ health, and discouraging the use of sunbeds by young people under 16. There are issues with how one can meaningfully do so if there are no staff present to reinforce whatever written information is provided in an outlet.

As my hon. Friend rightly says, coin-operated sunbeds are often in establishments that do not use full-time staff. Last year, as a result of my discussions with her, I made a commitment to initiate cross-Government discussions to explore the options for regulating coin-operated sunbeds. She has taken part in those discussions, which have allowed us to exchange information in order to get a better understanding of the issues involved. We have considered licensing arrangements—local authorities have powers to license in this area—and we will discuss further the guidance currently provided by the Health and Safety Executive.

A sunbed symposium was held last autumn, which raised several issues including matters of data and information. I understand that the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health plans to follow up the survey results that it has pulled together with a fuller report. More information, from whatever source, would be very helpful for our future discussions on the provision of coin-operated sunbeds in communities and the way in which they are used by individuals.

There are a number of factors to consider, such as the different types of regulatory provision and their impact. I am aware that a Regulation of Sunbed Parlours Bill is being considered in Scotland. We are keeping a watchful eye on that and we are interested in the evidence base being considered as that Bill goes through the Scottish Parliament. There are common issues, although not necessarily identical ones, and clearly there is an opportunity for us to learn from the experiences of other parts of the UK, within our devolved island.

In the meantime, we continue to have discussions. I will be meeting my noble Friend Lord McKenzie of Luton, who has just taken responsibility for this area of health and safety within the Department for Work and Pensions, and that meeting will follow on from the one my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East had with Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, who has recently joined my Department.

This debate is timely, and it is opportune for me to explore the guidance with my colleague in the DWP, determine whether there are areas that we can tackle and think about strengthening the guidance and other routes that we may take. I welcome my hon. Friend’s campaign in this area, and I am sure that, along with me, she will seek to engage Departments that have a role to play in ensuring the best possible public health outcomes, particularly for those most vulnerable in our communities, such as those under the age of 16.

Sitting suspended.