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8.45 pm

I hope that the fact that the Under-Secretary, not the Minister of State, will reply does not mean that I will be disappointed by being told that those issues are not adequately covered. I hope that the Minister can explain how it will be possible for local authorities to ensure that premises will operate according to proper codes of conduct before they are registered, so that everyone entering them is warned of the specific health risks that people with certain conditions, such as congenital heart abnormalities, might face from undertaking such procedures.

I hope that the Minister will also tell us that local authorities will be able to put in place appropriate regimes to deal with consent. I am not about to say that everyone under the age of 18 must always have a

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completed parental consent form. I am not sure whether that is appropriate in all cases, but some sort of cut-off age is clearly needed.

Matthew Green: The hon. Gentleman is sitting on the fence.

Mr. Hammond: I am not going to take from a Liberal Democrat the accusation that I am trying to sit on the fence. That would be too much to bear. It is pretty clear to everyone that there must be an age—perhaps 16—below which parental consent is appropriate.

Lord Rooker raised in the other place a very interesting additional consent issue, which certainly had not occurred to me. He explained that, in some cases, the parents of very small children have their children pierced for their own gratification because they think that it is fashionable. Of course, those children have absolutely no opportunity to consent. Parental consent is clearly not an adequate safeguard in those circumstances. Perhaps an absolute prohibition on certain types of piercing is needed for very young children.

I do not claim to have precise answers. The intention is to give a power to local authorities—the proposal is permissive—so that they can establish a regime to regulate such premises. I want to be sure that local authorities can regulate those premises in relation to mandatory health questionnaires, appropriate procedures for obtaining consent and perhaps an absolute prohibition on performing piercing operations on children below a certain age.

If it is possible under the Bill for local authorities to require establishments to have regard to a code of practice, will the Minister tell the House whether he or his colleagues in the Department of Health are inclined to publish a standard draft code of practice, so that every local authority in the country does not have to start from scratch in trying to draft an appropriate code of practice?

The Minister will know that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) recently received leave from the House to introduce a private Member's Bill that appears to be redundant before it starts because of this Bill. I am one of the supporters of that Bill. I very much hope that it will not turn out to be the case that the concession that the Government have made does not enable local authorities to deal with the real issues of health warnings, health checks and parental consent, in which case that private Member's Bill would be needed to broaden local authorities' powers. I hope that the Minister will reassure us that following the tragic death of Daniel Hindle this Bill will enable Sheffield and other local authorities to introduce a registration regime that will prevent similar tragedies in the future and ensure that people who submit to these kinds of procedures are properly informed about the risks and know that the procedures are being undertaken in aseptic conditions by properly qualified people. I also hope that we will have an assurance that local authorities will be able to deal with the issue of parental consent.

Mr. Edward Davey: I welcome this amendment. It deals with an important public health issue, and I am

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glad that the Government have agreed to use the Bill to enable us to move forward. The House should be made aware, however, of the fact that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) has been rather modest. He has been a prime mover behind this proposal. I witnessed in Committee how he engaged in debate, how thoroughly he had done his research and how he persuaded the Minister to talk to civil servants not just in his Department but in the Department of Health about the matter. The House should therefore pay tribute to him. He should also make sure that we all see copies of the press release that he sends to his constituents explaining how he has achieved this step forward. I am sure that the local papers in Surrey will be keen to hear about such a parliamentary success, of which he should be proud.

Mr. Hammond: In case the hon. Gentleman thinks that I am hiding any light under a bushel, I have put out press releases previously, I have visited local piercing establishments, and it was a leading light in the local Conservative association who first brought this matter to my attention.

Mr. Davey: Clearly, the Conservative party is modernising before our eyes. At one point in the hon. Gentleman's remarks, however, despite all his research, he was not quite capable of coming out completely on this issue. He was, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) said, sitting on the fence. I would therefore like to put on record the fact that Liberal Democrats believe that parental consent should be needed for those under the age of 16. On this issue, as on all issues with respect to age, it seems to us that the House should see that people effectively become adults from the age of 16. That would be the appropriate age.

Mr. Hammond: I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would not want me to widen this discussion into a debate about the slightly strange views of the Liberal Democrats about what people should and should not be able to do at the age of 16. The hon. Gentleman is in danger, however, of tripping over his arguments in earlier debates this evening. What we are doing is empowering local authorities. If we mean what we say when we talk about empowering local authorities, it must be for individual local authorities, having regard to their individual circumstances, to make that decision. This is not prescriptive legislation; it is permissive legislation.

Mr. Davey: I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman's argument is terribly consistent. While we certainly want to empower local authorities to take control of their own areas and of their own communities, that does not apply to issues such as age. Age is an issue that we debate nationally, and the application of age limits should be a national issue. It is not suitable for devolution, as it is an issue of rights. I do not want to quibble too much with the hon. Gentleman, however, as he has made a serious contribution, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has real experience of this matter from his constituency.

Mr. Heath: I am not sure about the depth of my experience but, like the hon. Member for Runnymede

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and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), I have knowledge of a constituency case in which parents were distressed by the fact that their child had been to such an establishment without their knowledge and permission. When I undertook a little more research on the subject, I was astonished to find that no registration system existed outside London. Therefore, as the law stands, the local authority in Somerset is incapable of doing anything about the problem.

I welcome the Government's proposals for registration and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge for his response to the Minister's comments. However, unless I have missed the point—it is entirely possible that I have, so I look forward to the Minister's reply—what we have today is an extension of the registration scheme. It will allow those who visit the establishments that undertake this business to do so with a degree of confidence that the person operating on them knows what he is doing, is working with sterile equipment and has taken appropriate health precautions. That is welcome, and whether adults choose to have such operations is entirely their affair. I do not wish to take part in their decision-making process.

However, several points about minors remain to be answered. It is not clear from the Minister's comments whether the Government's proposal changes the position of minors in any way. I do not accept the argument that it should necessarily be a matter for local authorities to have individual registration arrangements. The House is usually clear that we decide on such matters and there is no logic in having variations in the arrangements around the country. The circumstances that apply to 12-year-olds in one part of the country apply to 12-year-olds in another part. If they require protection, they require protection. I understand that the code of practice makes provision for parental consent but if adherence to that code is not part of the registration process, it should be. I hope that local authorities will be empowered to make that a requirement.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge made another extremely important point. I am worried by cases in which there is parental consent but the child is below the age at which he or she can consent in any real way to a procedure that effectively involves their mutilation. In other circumstances and irrespective of the views of the parents, that might be treated as common assault. However, if there is specific legislation, it might be argued that the law's silence on such cases might mean that a common assault cannot be deemed to have occurred. The Government might like to do a little more thinking on the age limit for children who can be operated on in this way for purely cosmetic purposes and with no possible advantage to them. The Government should also consider the role of parental consent in the cases of slightly older children who may strongly support the idea of being pierced so that they conform to the latest fashion trends.

The provisions are silent on those two issues and I hope that the Minister will be able to elucidate the position. If there is no provision for minors, the issue will have to be revisited if the House is to do its job properly and the Government are to have the effective registration process that my constituents and those of other hon. Members want.

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