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House of Commons Hansard
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30 October 2018
Volume 648

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to report on means of requiring tobacco companies to meet the costs of smoking cessation services; to make provision about the advertising and marketing of products that are alternatives to tobacco; to require tobacco companies to publish information about their activities in relation to such products; to create an offence of selling tobacco without a licence; and for connected purposes.

In 1990, almost one third of adults in Great Britain smoked. The most recent figures show that this has almost halved—the prevalence rate is now 15.8%. The Government’s ambition, set out in the tobacco control plan last year, is to reach 12% or less by 2022, with a longer-term aim of achieving a 5% prevalence rate. Despite that relative success, the UK still has 7.6 million smokers, which means that more than 200 people a day still die from smoking-related illnesses that could have been prevented, and that smoking is estimated to cost our economy in excess of £11 billion a year.

In 2017, local authorities cut their budgets for stop smoking services in half. Separately, the number of smokers using NHS stop smoking services has decreased from a peak of 100,000 in 2011 to 40,000 in 2016. The Bill aims to highlight what a package of measures could do to accelerate the decline in smoking prevalence. At the heart of this new approach is the creation of a new fund that would be used primarily to supplement local authorities’ cessation expenditure, while simultaneously encouraging cigarette companies to shift away from combustible products to less harmful alternatives.

I know many are very wary of those products and the fact that many are produced or funded by tobacco companies. We must recognise that the tobacco companies have been extremely dishonest in the past about the harm caused by smoking. Tobacco companies have made a fortune selling cigarettes and they have got the country into this mess. I believe it is only right that they get us out of it. We should and must follow the simple principle of the polluter pays. They have the resources and the customer base to help smoking cessation tools get straight to the people who need them most.

The proposed tobacco transition fund would work in a similar way to the carbonated drinks industry fund, providing incentives for both individual consumers and the tobacco industry to change their behaviour. Over the next decade or so, such a fund could raise up to £1 billion, which would be spent primarily on cessation services in the areas with the highest smoking prevalence. The fund would be paid for by the major tobacco companies according to their market share. The fund would remain at the same level, regardless of the number of smokers in the UK, thereby making it increasingly costly for any company that wished to continue selling cigarettes as the number of smokers declined. The vast majority of the fund would be passed directly to local authorities to fund cessation services, with a particular focus on those with the highest rates of prevalence.

The fund could also provide extra ring-fenced money to Public Health England to promote switching by funding independent research, with the aim of promoting popular understanding and awareness of non-combustible products. The final element of the fund would be to support trading standards in its ongoing efforts to combat illicit trade in combustible tobacco, with the investment based on Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ assessment of local need and impact. The fund would need a robust and independent governance structure to oversee spending by the Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England and local authorities. It would also require accurate reporting by the manufacturers of their efforts to switch consumers. This could include publication of sales data, and research and development spend.

The Bill would also need to find a way to encourage more smokers to switch. It is apparent that the Public Health England endorsement, which states that e-cigarettes are 95% safer than smoking, has been insufficient in persuading smokers that the alternatives are safer. In a survey last year, 26% of adults thought e-cigarettes were as harmful or more harmful than smoking, up from 7% in 2013.

We also need a new approach to help people receive the required information and support to quit. That must include a new approach to the rules on advertisements. We must recognise that e-cigarettes and other non-combustible products are very different to the products that tobacco companies are better known for. It seems ridiculous that it is possible to advertise these products on outdoor billboards, but the same information cannot be provided using the internet, even with restrictions to limit its audience to adults only. Manufacturers of reduced harm products would adhere to a marketing code similar to that which applies to other highly regulated products, such as alcohol. The Advertising Standards Authority would monitor and enforce the code.

We must also look at reducing access to harmful tobacco products that are still being sold. At the moment, there is no requirement in England to have a licence or to register with a local authority to sell tobacco. Scotland has a model that requires registration, which is relatively simple to complete and free for retailers so that it does not hit small businesses. Introducing a register in England would strengthen tobacco control, making it a criminal offence to sell tobacco without being registered. If retailers sell illicit tobacco or sell to minors, they could then be struck off the register altogether.

I truly believe that if the industry is willing to commit to a future based on e-cigarettes and other reduced-harm products, we should take it up on the offer and allow Government and local authorities to partner with it for the financial and technical help needed to help smokers to quit. I am sure we would all agree that we want a smoke-free society as soon as possible. Hon. Members on both sides of the House and even some tobacco companies are now saying this as well, so the Government could not ask for a better opportunity. The challenge now is to make sure that the reality lives up to those ambitions, and I believe that the measures I have set out give us the best opportunity to do this. I commend the Bill to the House.

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To be clear, while I rise to oppose the Bill, I do not intend to divide the House. I do not intend to speak for long either, as I know that many hon. Members want to speak in the Budget debate, but it is important to put the Bill that the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Sir Kevin Barron) proposes into some context. I commend his dogged determination to reduce the number of people who smoke, but my fear is that, with this Bill, the points that he raises are either unwelcome or largely not necessary.

Yesterday the Chancellor again increased the tax on tobacco products by a rate above inflation, which means that the tax on some products is now more than 90% of the retail price. Around £12 billion of excise revenue is raised from tobacco products in the UK each year, and that does not include VAT. Each year the Government increase the level further above inflation. It was supposedly Louis XIV’s Finance Minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who famously said that the art of levying taxes is to pluck the goose so as to get the maximum amount of feathers with the minimum amount of hissing. That is the balancing act that the Government have to perform every year with duties, including tobacco duty, except in this case the only hissing that we can hear is the sound of the criminal gangs who smuggle illegal tobacco into this country rubbing their hands with glee. If the Government thought that they could raise any more from the tobacco industry, I think that they would already be doing it.

The right hon. Gentleman proposes that the House should require the Secretary of State to report on how he is making the tobacco industry pay for smoking cessation services. One is tempted to ask how much more than £12 billion the right hon. Gentleman wants or expects, but of course what he is calling for is some kind of levy on tobacco, which he and a few others have repeatedly asked this and previous Governments about in the House. Indeed, such a question was asked only last month by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), so clearly Members are having no difficulty in holding the Government to account on this issue, and I certainly do not think that we need a new Bill to help us.

The hon. Lady received the same answer in September that the Government have given many times before: a levy would be passed on to consumers and so would have the same effect as a duty increase, which is happening anyway, except for the fact that a levy would complicate the tax system, increase the administrative burden on Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and create uncertainty for consumers and businesses. It was a bad idea in 2016 when the right hon. Member for Rother Valley presented a petition to the House about it, it was a bad idea last month, and it is still a bad idea today. The right hon. Gentleman keeps banging this drum, but perhaps it is time to change the tune.

On the advertising and promotion of alternatives to smoking, such as e-cigarettes, the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government have already committed to examining how they can better support smokers with clear information after we leave the EU and once we are no longer held back by the outdated thinking of the EU’s tobacco products directive—yet another benefit of leaving. The best thing that a smoker can do, of course, is to quit smoking altogether, but it is obvious that those who cannot, or do not want to, deserve to be told the truth about e-cigarettes and other products that could offer them a less harmful alternative. At present, the law prevents manufacturers from giving them that information, but I hope that once we leave the EU, we will be able to change that.

Not all aspects of the tobacco products directive are bad, however; some offer real protections to consumers and deserve to be preserved after we leave the EU. For example, the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the directive requires the manufacturers and importers of e-cigarettes and novel tobacco products to share with the Government any market research information that they hold on those products when they place them on the public register of legal products. That seems to be a very proper measure to allow the Government to monitor what is happening in this marketplace. As long as that measure remains in place after we leave the EU, it strikes me that we see another part of the right hon. Gentleman’s proposed Bill that is simply not needed.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asks for the introduction of a tobacco licensing scheme, with tough penalties, but again that simply is not needed. The Government are already at work on implementing a Europe-wide system to track and trace tobacco products. That system will require that manufacturers, importers, wholesalers and retailers are all registered on a public database as “economic operators” in order to handle tobacco. That is a de facto licensing scheme anyway, and it does everything that is needed to support trading standards enforcement against unscrupulous criminals who sell smuggled tobacco or sell tobacco to children—with a bit of luck, we will see a few more of them behind bars as a result. I certainly hope that anyone who is caught committing such crimes would be automatically struck off the list and rendered unable to legally handle tobacco.

As I said, the right hon. Gentleman deserves our respect for his tireless and relentless work to reduce smoking. Although it is not my intention to divide the House, I thought that it was important to put on record the context of his proposed Bill and to point out that its measures are either unwelcome or, more often, not necessary.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23) and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Sir Kevin Barron, Norman Lamb, Mark Pawsey, Liz Kendall, Jess Phillips, Crispin Blunt, Mr Charles Walker, Mr Kevan Jones, Adam Afriyie and Tonia Antoniazzi present the Bill.

Sir Kevin Barron accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 November, and to be printed (Bill 280).

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. We have just agreed that the Bill is theoretically going to be read a Second time on 23 November. Unfortunately, on that day, 150 private Members’ Bills are going to be considered, 148 of which—now 149—I suspect will not be reached. Under our Standing Orders, the Government have to provide us with 13 days in a Session for private Members’ Bills. They guaranteed that they would provide additional days in this Session, because it is a two-year Session. They are considering having a two-year Session next time as well. Would it not be a good idea if they announced some additional days for private Members’ Bills—today, for instance?

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Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker.

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Order. The Clerk has consulted his scholarly cranium, on the strength of which—and it is a very considerable strength—he was about to proffer me some advice, to which I will listen attentively if I can hear it. In any case, I have a view on what the hon. Gentleman has said, but let us first hear the point of order from the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), if it is on the same matter.

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It is on that very point, Mr Speaker. Am I not right in thinking that the Standing Orders state that there “shall be” 13 sitting days in a Session for private Members’ Bills, not that there will be a minimum of 13 days? Would it therefore not be quite proper for this Session to have just those 13 days, as that is what the Standing Orders clearly set out?

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Conformity with Standing Orders is a very good starting point, but in reality it is possible for there to be differences of opinion about their interpretation. Recalling the sequence of events earlier in this Parliament, I believe that the Government nodded their recognition of the fact that a two-year Session had an implication for Opposition days and private Members’ Bills, and that therefore there would need to be an explicit commitment to guarantee the requisite number of days. I am not aware that that has yet happened, and that, I think, is at the heart of the hon. Gentleman’s point of order. If he is asking if I think it would be a good idea for there to be an announcement, my answer is: it might very well be, and if there is to be such an announcement, it would probably be a good idea for it to be sooner rather than later, if for no other or better reason than that it would mean he did not have to exercise his knee muscles again by rising to his feet to raise this perfectly legitimate point. I think we will leave it there for now, but I am grateful to both hon. Members for their points of order.