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9 pm

Phil Hope: We have had an important debate. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said, the existing registration scheme will be extended to local authorities outside London. I am happy to tell the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) that the behaviour of their lordships on body piercing is a matter for them rather than me.

I fail to understand the relevance of the criticism that we are not joined-up in our thinking because we are doing something that is clearly joined-up. In parliamentary terms, the question whether the measure fell within the ambit of the Bill was marginal, although we now know that it does. I am delighted that we are able to take the measure forward.

We are aware of the tragic case of Daniel Hindle, who died from septicaemia in December 2002 after having his lip pierced, which the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge mentioned. Sheffield city council is conducting a thorough and detailed investigation of the circumstances surrounding his death and I understand that there will be a coroner's inquest. It would therefore be premature for me to comment on the points that the hon. Gentleman raised but it will be important to consider whether there are general lessons to be learned in due course. I understand that the Department of Health is exploring the feasibility of conducting a study on the risks of infection that are associated with cosmetic body piercing in England and that it is requesting advice from the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy and the British Cardiac Society on the health risks of cosmetic body piercing and other types of skin piercing for people with congenital heart disease.

The hon. Gentleman asked several other questions. He asked about the standards of body-piercing practice before, during and after piercing. We believe that such detailed information is best provided by guidelines and several publications already provide such advice. For example, the Health and Safety Executive produced updated guidelines for local authorities on skin-piercing activities and enforcement as recently as October 2001. The guidelines are designed to assist the local authorities to which we are now extending powers to advise businesses on such issues as hygiene practice, aftercare and how to adopt a reasonable approach to issues surrounding the age of consent—I shall say a little more about that in a moment. Additionally, local authorities such as Bury metropolitan borough council, Rochdale metropolitan borough council, Sheffield city council and Southampton city council have produced good practice guidelines.

Mr. Hammond: I am grateful to the Minister for that information. Will it be lawful for a local authority to withhold registration from an establishment because it does not adhere to the good practice guidelines?

Phil Hope: I made it clear earlier that if a business fails to take account of guidelines, such as those on using sterile instruments, it would be an offence for it to trade without registration, or if it were in breach of byelaws. The wider guidelines about which the hon. Gentleman talks do not exist in legislation—they have been developed by the HSE. Local authorities throughout the

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country have produced good practice guidelines and the European Professional Piercers Association and the Association of Professional Piercers have produced guidance on safe and hygienic body-piercing techniques. I understand that the hon. Gentleman is trying to press me to go further and suggest that the law should provide that local authorities could enforce such standards, but we are extending the registration scheme that applies in London, so that is not the case. However, we would expect local authorities to use good practice and apply the guidelines to the businesses that they register.

Mr. Hammond: If I have understood the relevant section in part VIII of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 correctly, the byelaw-making power relates only to hygiene, so the Minister is right to cite the example of sterile needles. However, a local authority has no power to withhold registration from somebody who is complying with the byelaws, which cover only hygiene, but failing to comply with any other codes that relate to parental consent and health warnings. Is that correct?

Phil Hope: We do not believe that pre-registration assessment of a practice is necessary. It would only add burdens to businesses and local authorities and extra costs to customers. Registration offers an opportunity for local authorities to establish a constructive relationship with businesses; that includes providing advice on hygienic practices. If a business refuses to heed that advice, the authority has the option of prosecuting it under the new legislation or using health and safety at work provisions such as improvement or prohibition notices and, ultimately, prosecution. There are measures that local authorities can take without amending the Bill as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. Hammond: I am sorry to have to proceed by intervention, but that is the only method that is open to us.

How does the Bill empower a local authority to prosecute a business for failure to comply with anything other than byelaws relating to hygienic practice? We are in danger of congratulating ourselves on having addressed the problem that was highlighted by the death of Daniel Hindle, while leaving local authorities utterly powerless to deny registration to an establishment that persistently refuses to give health warnings or to complete basic health questionnaires before carrying out piercing operations.

Phil Hope: The hon. Gentleman is labouring the point. The Bill allows local authorities to prosecute a business that fails to register with it or to operate in observance of byelaws on health and cleanliness. The job of local authorities, which the Bill will allow those outside London to do, is to build up their relationship with businesses. If a business continues to refuse to heed the advice given by the local authority, the authority can prosecute it under the new legislation—essentially on the key theme of failing to address hygiene and cleanliness as required. The local authority can also use the health and safety at work provisions if that is appropriate to the kind of offence that they believe the

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business to be committing. It is completely untrue to say that local authorities have no powers whatever to intervene. The Bill extends to local authorities outside London the ability to intervene when required.

Mr. Heath rose—

Phil Hope: If the hon. Gentleman wants to ask about consent, I am about to deal with that.

We have no plans to introduce a minimum age of consent for body piercing. However, the Health and Safety Executive has issued guidelines to local authorities to assist them in encouraging businesses to adopt a reasonable attitude to the age of consent. Although the Department of Health has not given a commitment to legislate, it has said that it will keep the matter under review with ministerial colleagues in the Home Office as the new measures take effect. Setting the age of consent at 16, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), could lead to children under that age piercing themselves or each other in an unsafe and unhygienic way, or even to their going to disreputable businesses. We prefer that businesses carrying out ear piercing and cosmetic body piercing should be subject to local authority control so that those activities can be undertaken in a safe and hygienic manner.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome raised the wider question of common assault. Body piercing, particularly for sexual gratification, is unlawful. Children under the age of 16 are unable to consent lawfully to what would be regarded as indecent assault and, as such, a matter for the courts. To that extent there is definite protection for children under the age of 16. The only other question is about the piercing of ear lobes—

Mr. Hammond: In the case of one of my constituents, which I quoted earlier, the person concerned was informed that she could bring a prosecution for common assault against the person who pierced her daughter, but that that would be a private prosecution because the police would not become involved. Does the Minister think that that is a satisfactory state of affairs?

Phil Hope: I do not know the details of the case that the hon. Gentleman is describing. However, I can understand his concern on behalf of his constituents to ensure that an improvement is made. I regret that I cannot comment on a case when I do not have any of the details.

Mr. Heath: I am sorry that we are delaying the Minister's progress.

I now understand that the registration scheme as it is framed does not provide for local authorities to do anything about these age-of-consent issues. Secondly, setting aside the sexual offence to which reference has been made, in the case of common assault—even on a toddler who was mutilated, and whether or not the parents consented—it would be unlikely that the police or the public prosecutor would bring a prosecution on that basis. That is not entirely satisfactory.

Phil Hope: I understand the concerns that the hon. Gentleman is raising. The guidelines issued to local

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authorities to assist them refer to them adopting a reasonable attitude to the age of consent. I have listed the guidelines that already exist—they have been published by a number of authorities and agencies—on the specific point that the hon. Gentleman is making.

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