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Fifth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Tuesday 24 June 2003
[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]
Tobacco Products (Descriptions
of Products) Order 2003
The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (John Healey): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Tobacco Products (Descriptions of Products) Order 2003.
I welcome you to the Chair, Miss Begg. It is a pleasure to serve on this Committee under your guidance for the first time.
This is a limited measure. It is a piece of legislative housekeeping that tidies up and brings together for the first time in a single statutory instrument the definitions of products that are subject to tobacco duty in the United Kingdom. In doing so, it revokes a 25-year-old order, which dealt only with cigarettes and cigars, and repeals two subsections of section 1 of the Tobacco Products Duty Act 1979, which dealt with hand-rolling tobacco. For the first time in UK legislation, it defines smoking tobacco—otherwise known as pipe tobacco—and chewing tobacco.
The order is necessary to ensure that the UK descriptions of tobacco products are compatible with those in Council directive 95/59/EC on excise duty on manufactured tobacco. The current description of cigars in particular no longer accords with that in the directive, following a change agreed last year with other European member states. The order will remove the risk of infraction proceedings by the European Commission. It will also remove any uncertainty for the trade that may arise from differences between the UK and European legislation.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): It would be helpful if the Economic Secretary said something further about the descriptions. When he refers to the importance of the UK ensuring compliance with the European Union, is he talking about descriptions such as low tar, middle tar and so on, or about descriptions that give a graphic illustration of the threat to health, such as ''Smoking can seriously damage your health''? Some expatiation on that point would be immensely helpful to the Committee.
John Healey: The short answer is neither. The slightly longer answer is that, if the hon. Gentleman studies the order, he will see that the definitions to which I am referring relate to tobacco products—cigars, chewing tobacco, smoking tobacco and, in particular, brown cigarettes, a tobacco product with which we are not familiar in this country because it is not on sale here, but which is commonly sold in other European countries, in particular Germany. It was that and the possible lack of clarity about the difference between a cigar and a brown cigarette that gave rise to the European Commission's interest in this
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area, to the directive definition that was amended last year and, hence, to the order.
Mr. Bercow: Excellent.
John Healey: I am glad to have satisfied the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) for once.
The order contains updated descriptions of cigarettes and cigars and introduces descriptions of chewing tobacco and other smoking tobacco, which, as I have said, is commonly referred to as pipe tobacco. The provisions defining hand-rolling tobacco, previously found in section 1 of the Tobacco Products Duty Act 1979, are unchanged. All the descriptions contained in the order are compatible with those agreed with our European partners.
The order will benefit the trade and administrators by describing in one statutory instrument all the dutiable tobacco products. No associated costs are imposed on the trade as a result of the order, as all the tobacco products that are currently legitimately sold in the UK conform to the descriptions contained in it.
I am pleased to be able to tell the Committee that the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments considered the order last week and has no comments on it or problems with it. We have also consulted tobacco manufacturers and importers about the legislation and they have commented usefully on the technical descriptions used. The trade has welcomed the legislation as a useful clarification and consolidation of existing provisions. On that basis, I commend the order to the Committee.
Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Miss Begg, not least because this is also the first time that I have served under your chairmanship.
I broadly welcome and accept the order. However, when the Economic Secretary introduces something as legislative housekeeping and a tidying-up measure, it sets alarm bells ringing in my mind, not least because ''tidying-up'' is apparently what is intended in our new draft European constitution. All of us who have taken any care to read about what is going on know that the constitution is anything but tidying-up. It is a major challenge to the fundamental structure, concerns and constitutional arrangements of our country. I am concerned that the Economic Secretary used the phrase ''tidying-up''.
Having read the order with some care, I have no quibble with the main instrument. On the schedule, I am a little troubled. I have worked closely with the Tobacco Manufacturers Association over the past few weeks, not least during the passage of the Finance Bill. My point will be of some interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham, who has a well renowned hawk eye and places value on the precise use of the English language. The Economic Secretary used the word ''repeals'', which immediately excited my interest. I love repeals but I was much disheartened to discover that there would be a replacement. On this occasion, I accept that there is no option.
If the order is genuinely a matter of legislative housekeeping and tidying-up, it is incumbent on the
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Economic Secretary to ensure that we understand the language used. If he turns to the phrases in parenthesis in paragraphs 3 and 4 of the schedule, he will find the most extraordinary reference. The schedule states:
''(in the case cigars with a mouthpiece)''.
I do not know whether the Economic Secretary has been to the Members Smoking Room recently. The Members pipe and cigar club was recently proud to receive a humidor. It has been added to the Members Smoking Room and contains cigars. Neither that humidor, nor any other I have seen has ever had a mouthpiece. I cannot see any other meaning of the phrase. I dare say that there is a word missing. It is incumbent on the Economic Secretary to ensure that the schedule is properly drafted. If he is struggling, the word ''of'', between the word ''case'' and the word ''cigars'', appears to have been missed out. That will require an amendment.
That point raises the question of whether we should be approving something that is ill written, or whether we should ask the Economic Secretary to withdraw the order and bring it back on another occasion. Were that the only drafting error, perhaps it would be all right. However, the italicised titles to paragraphs 3 and 4 of the schedule are exactly the same. That could be intentional, but in that case the lack of clarity would be breathtaking. The title is:
''Cigars with a threshed blend filler and with an outer wrapper that has the normal colour of a cigar.''
Two different types of provision follow that heading. Again, that appears to be a mistake, unless it is intended that the category should be split into two paragraphs. Looking at the words, things do not make any sense. There appears to be a clear mistake, which is unfortunate.
It is not right that a lack of ministerial oversight means that we are being asked to approve measures that contain typographical and descriptive errors. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in seeking to justify that position.
Mr. Bercow: I feel sure that my hon. Friend is at an early stage of his remarks, and that further remarks will follow. Just in case my hon. Friend was thinking of letting the Economic Secretary and the Committee off lightly in concluding his remarks at this very early hour, I wonder if I might draw his attention to another concern: not the use of the English language but the character and excess of the prescription. Paragraph 3 of the schedule refers to the requirement for the outer wrapper to be
''fitted in spiral form with an acute angle of at least 30 degrees to the longitudinal axis of the cigar.''
My response to that is to ask why.
Mr. O'Brien: As ever, the hawk eye of my hon. Friend has spotted something that I rather glossed over. I thought that it must be a technical description of the definition of cigars. A cigar is made exclusively from tobacco. One could not get this from the words in parenthesis about the mouthpiece, but where a cigar is in a box or case such as a humidor—or, sadly, is drying out in something that is not a humidor—it has to be made exclusively of tobacco, in which case the leaf has to be wrapped at an angle. The method that I
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gather is much favoured for Havana cigars is for the cigar to be rolled along the thigh of those who make it. The reference to the 30 degrees angle to the longitudinal axis of the cigar might be a technical description.
My hon. Friend raises a serious point about whether there is a lack of explanation on the technical issue that paragraph 3 refers to. We do not have an explanatory note on why the particular definition of the outer wrapper being
''fitted in spiral form with an acute angle of at least 30 degrees to the longitudinal axis of the cigar''
is so important. It might be a definitional point, but it is not at all clear.
Mr. Bercow: I am not an authority on these matters. In a sense, I am a smoking virgin. I wonder whether my hon. Friend can build on the almost positively erotic description of the process that he just offered, and extend his powers of imagination and interpretation to paragraph 4 of the schedule, which states:
''The circumference over at least one third of the length of the cigar must not be less than 34mm.''
Does my hon. Friend agree that statutory instruments should be light-touch and facilitating, not onerous and debilitating? Why is there a need for such a prescriptive rule?