Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Hawkins: As the hon. Gentleman said, we discussed our amendment to delete the words

    ``other than a sealed container''

during an earlier debate. We would be happy to take part in discussions outside the Committee and without commitment, but I want to consider further his new idea of incorporating into the Bill the good piece of legislation that was introduced by our former colleague, Dr. Robert Spink, when he represented Castle Point in the House. We need to think further about that suggestion, but we are happy to discuss it.

On the issue that we raised of sealed containers being used as weapons, has the Minister yet had a chance to discuss with representatives of the Police Federation and other police organisations whether an amendment on that would be useful, or are the Government considering introducing a version of our amendment on Report? We feel very strongly that it is important to protect ordinary police officers in difficult situations when dealing with drunkenness, often among young men, late at night in inner cities, when sealed containers are often used as weapons. Has he yet had discussions on that and, if not, is he planning to?

Mr. Charles Clarke: I confirm that we are still considering that matter, and my mind is not closed to it. I have not had a chance to discuss it with other organisations, because of the time involved, but it is on the agenda.

On the points made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, the purpose of the clause is to provide consistency and it is consistent with other provisions. His general point is interesting, important and difficult. With my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, I sit on a group that considers the recommendations of the Law Commission. It is striking that Parliament has difficulty--my hon. Friend is working hard to improve matters--in considering how to address such issues.

The hon. Gentleman was in the House last Monday afternoon when my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made a statement on our proposals for criminal justice until 2010 and will recall the exchanges during which my right hon. Friend waved a copy of the Canadian codified law. He and the Government are committed to codification, but it is difficult to achieve and will require the all-party approach suggested by the hon. Gentleman. There are serious issues concerning parliamentary scrutiny, but in the interest of enabling people better to understand the law, we are none the less committed.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Act 1997 should be incorporated into the Bill. I had not considered that, but I am prepared to find out what can be done. I commit myself to respond to him on whether that will be feasible within the necessary time scale.

Mr. Hughes: I am grateful to the Minister for his positive response. As I am sure he agrees, legislation must always have a bias in favour of doing something rather than a neutral view that it might be possible. Without being disrespectful of any individuals, there is always a civil service drag effect by which 78 reasons can be found for not doing something and Ministers need to push it over the top.

Mr. Clarke: Not in the Home Office.

Mr. Hughes: As the Home Secretary said to me yesterday, there have been no leaks from the Home Office recently, so I have no evidence to contradict the Minister.

The amendment was tabled in a probing but hopeful way to ascertain whether Ministers will consider introducing this relatively small provision, on Report or in the other place. It must be in the interests of those who need to know the law to have to look in one place, not two.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 31, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 32

Sale of intoxicating liquor toa person under eighteen

Jackie Ballard (Taunton): I beg to move amendment No. 5, in page 24, line 19, leave out `nobody could' and insert `he could not'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 102, in page 24, line 23, after `for', insert `written'.

No. 103, in page 24, line 23, after `age', insert `or a prescribed card'.

No. 104, in page 24, line 25, at end insert—

    `or the card was obviously a forgery'.

No. 105, in page 24, line 25, at end insert—

    `( ) The Secretary of State may by order prescribe a card or cards establishing the age of persons.

    ( ) Such a power shall be exercisable by statutory instrument and shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament'.

No. 107, in page 24, line 25, at end insert—

    `( ) For the purposes of subsection (2) of this section a person shall be treated as having taken all reasonable steps to establish another person's age, if he complies with guidance that the Secretary of State may issue about the use of proof of age cards.'.

Jackie Ballard: I was not singled out in the Minister's earlier Ofsted report either for praise or blame, but I am always brief and I shall be so this time.

It is important to restrict the sale of alcohol to people who are over the legal age. One often sees young teenagers who have obviously taken alcohol, and it is clearly far too easy for them to buy it. As the clause stands, the seller would have a defence if he could prove that nobody could reasonably have suspected from a person's appearance that he or she was under 18. We believe that the clause is too narrowly drawn. Judging someone's appearance is subjective, not objective. The seller can be responsible only for his or her judgment on the day, not for a judgment that anyone else might conceivably make. Their judgment may partly depend on their experience of teenagers—for example, their knowledge of how young girls can look many years older than their age. I recently told the Minister a story about my daughter, who was able to buy age-related products that she should not have bought when she was only 13 or 14. As she was almost 6 ft tall at the time, it would have been difficult to blame the retailer for being unaware that she was well under 18.

If the test is to be that nobody could reasonably have thought that the person was under 18, that inevitably leads to the view that one can be certain of someone's age only if they produce a proof-of-age card. That is the most reasonable step that can be taken to ensure that a person is of a certain age. I strongly support proof-of-age card schemes, and I recently launched one locally. The young people involved, who were from an independent school and a state school, thought that it would be helpful if they were able to buy other age-related products, of which there are a range, including fireworks and cigarettes. However, it has not been easy to persuade a large number of retailers consistently to use the scheme, so there has been a disappointingly slow take-up. If young people are not regularly asked for a proof-of-age card, there is less incentive for them to get one.

The logical consequence of the clause, and of the fact that there are local proof-of-age card schemes with varying degrees of success, is the introduction of a national age card scheme. The Minister has responded to that proposal in the past, and perhaps this is not the time for him to do so again in detail, but I hope that it has been seriously considered by the Home Office.

Mr. Heald: Amendments Nos. 102 to 105 and 107 would change the clause to ensure that proof-of-age cards or other written evidence would be the focus of the licensee when he or she establishes evidence of age. Obviously, underage drinking concerns the trade, the general public and all political parties, so we must tackle it.

The industry supports initiatives related to proof-of-age cards, such as the Portman Group's ``Prove It'' scheme and ``Validate''. Furthermore, the trade is doing good work in training licensees and staff to eliminate underage sales. The effect of current proposals will be that retailers must ask to see proof of age. The concern is that unless there is an effective system that establishes the right card or document, retailers and licensees will not have the tools to police the proposed system, in which case it would be too easy for them to break the law unknowingly by selling to children who do not look their age.

The Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association and the Association of Convenience Stores take the view that the Government should either have a national proof-of-age card of their own or should designate the necessary requirements for such cards. The ALMR states that it

    ``echoes the recommendation of the Health Select Committee in its inquiry into the health risks of tobacco that the Government should forcibly endorse independent effective proof-of-age card schemes. The ALMR accepts that the Government may be reluctant to endorse a single commercial venture, but believes that the Government should clearly set out the criteria against which such schemes may be judged. This should include the geographic and age-related coverage of the scheme.''

It also points out that

    ``the Alcohol and Society survey, conducted by MORI for The Portman Group, found that 83 per cent. of people support the compulsory use of proof-of-age card schemes in order to tackle under-age drinking.''

We should like a progress report from the Minister on his views on proof-of-age cards, which is something that I know he has discussed with the industry. We also want to know what is happening with the Department for Education and Employment Connexions card. Would the Government prefer retailers to ask for that?

Finally, I agree with the hon. Member for Taunton that there are difficulties for retailers in determining the age of many customers. The Association of Convenience Stores states:

    ``A recent survey asked staff in high street shops selling age-restricted products to determine the age of five young people aged between 14 and 20. Nine out of 10 staff had difficulty in determining young people's ages. If there is to be a more stringent regime governing under-age sales with tougher penalties''—

which is the purpose of the clause—

    ``retailers need the tools to be able to police such a regime. The ACS believes that a credible and reliable proof-of-age card universally recognised and accepted by the public as a whole is the only means of giving retailers and their staff the reassurance they need''.

Whether we are discussing is a universal card, the criteria for a clutch of cards or the DFEE Connexions card, we want to probe the Government's thinking. How will they give the people at whom the clause is aimed the tools to do the job? What should retailers ask to see, and will they be free of liability if they have seen it?

11 am

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