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Brexit: Advertising of Duty-Free Shopping

Volume 799: debated on Monday 30 September 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the compatibility of their recent campaign advertising the return of duty-free shopping after Brexit with (1) domestic law and (2) international charters governing the advertising of tobacco products.

My Lords, the recent announcement provides clarity for consumers on the application of duty-free in the event of a no-deal Brexit. It allows businesses and port and airport operators time to prepare. This is a temporary policy only that complies with international laws by broadly treating all individuals in a similar way while aiming to ensure that individuals can continue to cross the border without undue disruption or delay. The Government commit to consulting on a longer-term approach.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, and welcome him to his brief—whether it will be a permanent or a temporary occupation of it. I suspect that we will be seeing quite a lot of each other this afternoon. The Chancellor said:

“As we prepare to leave the EU, I’m pleased to be able to back British travellers. We want people to enjoy their hard-earned holidays and this decision will help holidaymakers’ cash go a little bit further”.

Fine. I reassure noble Lords that this is not about alcohol but about tobacco. Accompanying this, information was posted on the Government Brexit website and shown on main television channels containing information about purchasing duty-free tobacco without duty. The law in the UK is quite clear:

“A person who in the course of business publishes a tobacco advertisement, or causes one to be published, in the UK is guilty of an offence”.

So my question to the Minister, which he has not answered, is whether the Government have strayed outside our tobacco regulations and law. Another question I need to ask is whether this is a sign that the Government intend to use Brexit as a way of undermining or relaxing the UK’s legal and regulatory position on tobacco regulation.

Perhaps I may remind the House that we are talking about a tweet from Her Majesty’s Treasury’s on its Twitter feed: it was not a paid-for promotion in any way. The advertising authority reviewed the tweet and confirmed:

“It was posted in non-paid for space, (i.e. their own Twitter account) and features no direct encouragement for consumers to buy or do anything, so it falls outside our rules”.

This Government are fully committed to our health policy on tobacco and to bringing down tobacco smoking and consumption in this country. However, a no-deal Brexit creates ambiguity both for shop owners in airports and ports and for consumers, so this was a perfectly reasonable move to bring clarity to a confusing area of policy.

Is my noble friend aware that he is absolutely right—it does bring clarity? Nevertheless, the most difficult part of tobacco trading today is the illegal importation of tobacco. Does not the opportunity of a no-deal Brexit give us the opportunity to really clamp down on this illegal importation?

That is a benefit of a no-deal Brexit that I do not think had yet occurred to the Treasury, but I personally will be sure to pass that suggestion on and I am sure that it will seize on it as a magnificent opportunity—so I thank my noble friend.

My Lords, is not the concept of drawing attention to the possibility of buying cheap cigarettes totally counterproductive to the Government’s stated aim of making the country smoke-free by 2030? Is not the truth about this campaign promoting such a possibility that it is all part of the propaganda in favour of Brexit in anticipation of a general election?

The Government remain absolutely committed to addressing the harms from both alcohol and tobacco and to improving the nation’s health. We have many measures that echo efforts by Governments in the past and have long-term plans in all those areas. However, there is a large number of ambiguous aspects of a no-deal Brexit in the eyes of both business owners and consumers that we must clear up. Not all of these ambiguities are going to be bad news: some of them might actually be welcomed by consumers and business owners. I can report considerable interest by consumers in the prospect of duty-free and that it is not something that I necessarily regret.

My Lords, in his Answer to my noble friend Lady Thornton, the Minister seemed to be enunciating an interesting doctrine: namely, that if advertising is not paid for at the point of advertising, it does not count as advertising. That seems to me to be a major hole in a lot of our legislation, let alone the campaign on tobacco. Could he look into this and clarify whether not just a Twitter account but anything that is not paid for but is advertising should be considered as advertising?

The noble Lord makes a very good point, but the guidelines on what constitutes advertising and was what does not constitute paid-for advertising are very clear. They are laid down by the Advertising Standards Authority, which looked into this in great detail and responded in the extremely clear terms which I read out—so I am not sure that that is an entirely ambiguous point.

Does my noble friend not agree, however, that many of our provincial airports and other entry points into this country relied for many years on the revenue they received from duty-free sales? Some of them have asked whether they should now be preparing their infrastructure to have this facility again. Surely my noble friend would agree that this whole point is highly hypothetical, as the British Government are seeking a deal with the EU, not a no deal.

My noble friend puts it very well: yes indeed, this Government are committed to seeking a deal. That is very much the priority we are focused on at the moment. No-deal Brexit is a contingency for which it is worth planning and on which travel businesses and consumers are naturally very focused. That is why the Treasury has gone to these lengths to try to explain how existing arrangements for travellers will evolve under a no-deal Brexit. The steps taken by the Treasury in this case seem to be extremely reasonable.