Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill

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Mr. David Taylor: The hon. Gentleman is making an important and interesting point in a characteristic way. Is it not the case that, where large corporations are prosecuted in local courts for particular offences, the main problem that they have, and that which they fear, is not the fine—as the hon. Member for North Devon said, that could be found in their petty cash box—but the publicity, which is far more of a sanction, in general terms?

Mr. Ian Bruce: The hon. Gentleman makes a point. I was not suggesting that Imperial Tobacco would not be put off by that, although we have had lots of speeches from the hon. Member for Rother Valley saying that these tobacco companies do not give a damn about public opinion and killing people. I do not necessarily go down that route, but—

Mr. Barron: I have never used the expressions that the hon. Member mentions, and I never would do. Only 50 per cent. of people die prematurely by smoking tobacco.

Mr. Ian Bruce: I am not sure what that point is, but I follow the hon. Gentleman. One cannot say that too often, but I am not sure how that relates to clause 15. Worse than having these penalties is the death penalty for people who ignore the dangers of tobacco. Perhaps we ought to include this as a sub-clause (3) and Ministers ought to remind people that there is a death penalty for not realising how dangerous tobacco is.

If the Government and Parliament have decided on a particular Bill, it should be enforceable and the penalties should be commensurate. The Opposition do not believe in the thought police. We want a situation where people can reasonably say, ``This is an offence. Stop it.'' Hopefully, that will be the effect of the clause. We also have to take into account situations where an organisation has deliberately and blatantly decided to find a loophole. First, it will try to make it difficult to identify the appropriate officer who should be sent to prison. There will be all sorts of cut outs, such as who actually agreed the advertisement. If it were a company secretary of an organisation—that is normally what the position is—one would have to make sure that the company secretary was not resident in the Cayman Islands, as there would be no jurisdiction there to say ``I must have this individual removed from the jurisdiction and prosecuted.''

The very element of three months brings in a number of different points. I think thatI am right to say that we cannot extradite somebody on the basis of a three-months' prison sentence. I think I am also correct to say that, for instance, a police officer cannot burst into a premises in hot pursuit without a warrant if the offence for which the person is being arrested carries a penalty of less than six months' imprisonment. The low penalties cause some problems for enforcement authorities.

The Minister needs to tell us, on behalf of the Government, why she has decided first, that somebody should be prosecuted and fined simply for saying to an officer, ``I do not know about that,'' when they did, even if no other offence is being committed and secondly, why somebody who has blatantly gone against the wishes of Parliament should have their penalty limited to £5,000 with only a three-month fine in terms of the enforcement powers that police and other authorities normally have.

Mr. Luff: The whole Bill rests on this clause, because if the penalties for breaking the terms of the eventual Act are not adequate, then the Act is just a toothless tiger. It is really important that this is looked at. The Minister is looking as though she is in less than her normally benign mood, but this is a genuinely important issue.

Mr. Ian Bruce: The Minister's smile has come back and we are glad but I think she was simply sitting there and thinking, ``Crumbs I have spent all this time and effort and I have got a toothless tiger.'' She is very disappointed to hear that.

Mr. Luff: I hope she may think that because the Opposition find itself in a difficult position. We have reservations about the Bill, and whether it will have the effects that the Government claim that it will, but we do not want a Bill that will not work to pass into law. Bad legislation is in no one's interest. I agree with the hon. Member for North Devon very strongly, for reasons that I will explain, that this may be the case as a result of this clause.

The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) talked about the effect of reputation on a company. That is the case for the major tobacco companies. They will be fearful and they will respect the terms of this legislation. In that sense, the larger game is won. It is the smaller players who worry me.

In my constituency there is a company that has consistently and persistently broken the terms of environmental law. It has taken years and years of fines. The company is called Ivory Plant Hire and it has been caught endlessly and the magistrates have consistently imposed inadequate fines on them. It has not been embarrassed by the adverse publicity in local papers; it has continued to livery its lorries and run them around my constituency proudly, breaking the law consistently and persistently.

I understand that, yesterday, at last the fines reached such a level that the company went into voluntary liquidation—I do not know the terms of that. It has taken years to get there and during that time my constituents' lives have been made a complete and utterly misery because the courts, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset rightly said, were reluctant to imprison anyone. The firm had to be encouraged to realise the seriousness of the situation by the various enforcement authorities—the police, the Environment Agency, the district council, the county council and the traffic commissioners. All these people were up in arms against the activities of the company but it carried on breaking the law because the level of the fine imposed upon it was inadequate to deter it from its criminal activity. It is a real problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden rightly expressed concerns about the small companies—the small retail tobacconist who makes a genuine error—for whom the fine might be excessive, but the fine is not adequate for companies that are determined to break the law. There is a real precedent here. I understood that, for many years, tobacco advertising was illegal in Italy yet every publication in that wonderful country regularly carried tobacco advertisements, for the simple reason that the fine was so small that the advertising agencies just factored it into their costs and carried on. Although Italy could claim with all conscience that it had banned advertising, tobacco advertising was widespread throughout the country.

There is a real issue here for the Government to address. Are they satisfied that these fines are adequate to deal with both medium-size wholesalers and retailers, operating at regional or local level, or possibly, and perhaps more worryingly, by larger operators who decide to move into the vacuum—

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, THE CHAIRMAN adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Adams, Mrs. Irene (Chairman)
Barron, Mr.
Bruce, Mr. Ian
Cooper, Yvette
Eagle, Maria
Harvey, Mr.
Luff, Mr.
McFall, Mr.
McGuire, Mrs.
Robertson, John
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Ross, Ernie
Spelman, Mrs.
Taylor, Mr. David

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Prepared 8 February 2001