Previous SectionIndexHome Page

13 Jul 2005 : Column 317WH—continued

Under-age Sales

4.29 pm

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): I am pleased to undertake the debate this afternoon and to do so under your expert chairmanship, Mr. Taylor, especially in the knowledge that you, too, have taken a personal interest in such matters. The subject that I want to raise is of great importance, not only to the 2.7 million shop workers in the country, but to all members of the public who have a real stake in the security of shop workers who must operate the laws on under-age sales. I am grateful to the shop workers' union, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, and to the "No ID No Sale" campaign for the materials that they have given me for this debate.

I am pleased to see that a Minister from my old Department is responding to the debate. This is the first opportunity that I have had to place on record my congratulations to her on her appointment, and my good wishes for her success in the important and rewarding responsibilities of her post. The fact that we were in some doubt as to whether the Minister responding to the debate would be from the Department of Trade and Industry, the Home Office or the Department for Work and Pensions illustrates an important aspect of the question of under-age sales. Different Departments are involved, and it is crucial that there is properly joined-up collaboration between them in addressing the issues related to under-age sales and enforcement.

In recent years, in response to public concern, there has been much debate and legislation on antisocial behaviour, on health concerns about smoking, alcohol and solvent abuse, and on the dangers arising from the sale of knives, We are all concerned that tobacco, alcohol, solvents and knives do not get into the hands of the wrong people, and that includes young people. When public debate demands action and Parliament legislates on such matters, it is important to remember that the people who have to put the policies into practice are the front-line shop workers. They are the ones who have to deal with abusive and threatening customers, and who face fines of £500 or higher if they make an under-age sale. I believe that, in placing those responsibilities on them, the state has a real duty to give them every support in carrying out a task that is often difficult and uncomfortable, and sometimes dangerous.

USDAW has produced an excellent and chilling report entitled "Life on the Frontline", which makes clear how exposed shop workers are. The report is based on a random sample survey of 660 shop workers over a seven-day period in June 2004. It revealed 887 incidents of verbal abuse, including being spat at, sworn at and assaulted; 224 threats, including threats to kill, stab, punch and burn shops down; 107 cases of violence, including slapping, kicking and being attacked in the street; 48 incidents of sexual harassment, including lewd and suggestive comments and touching; and 32 incidents of racial abuse, including racially offensive insults and threats.

The most common triggers of violence, threats and verbal abuse included the refusal to serve age-restricted products, requests for proof of age, the apprehending of shoplifters, and the refusal to serve alcohol to drunken
13 Jul 2005 : Column 318WH
customers. I particularly want to focus on the first of those triggers—under-age sales. The "Respect for Shopworkers" campaign has been meeting MPs to discuss that issue today.

As we all know, it can be difficult to assess a young person's age, and too many people become abusive or threatening if they are refused a sale. In enforcing the law, many trading standards departments conduct "sting" operations to catch out shop workers making under-age sales; there are severe penalties for those who are caught and convicted. To avoid prosecution, the seller must take "all reasonable steps" to avoid serving under-age customers, so, if they have any doubts, they must ask the age of the purchaser. If they are still even slightly unsure, they must ask for proof of age, and if no valid ID is produced, they must refuse the sale.

Shop workers do their best to comply with those requirements, but they are in a vulnerable position, as the reports in the front-line survey show. One shop worker reported:

Another said:

and another said:

Such experiences of people being abused, spat at, threatened and subject to sexual harassment or racial abuse are utterly unacceptable but all too common. What is more, the problem seems to be getting worse.

According to figures from the retail industry, reported incidents increased significantly last year: verbal abuse increased 109 per cent. to 146,000 cases, threats increased 161 per cent. to 127,000 cases and violence increased 17 per cent. to 19,000. Some of that may be due to a welcome greater readiness to report what is happening, but no one could dispute that there is a serious problem. Faced with this problem, it is vital that employers, local authorities, the police and the Government fulfil their responsibilities to help and protect shop workers, who are exposed to these dangers in carrying out what are, after all, statutory responsibilities.

Much else that the Government are doing—increasing police numbers, tougher antisocial behaviour measures and the forthcoming Violent Crime Reduction Bill announced in the Queen's Speech—will help to tackle the problems about which I have been talking. However, I should like to mention three specific measures to strengthen protection for shop workers on under-age sales, a factor in many of the incidents that I would like the Minister and her colleagues to take up.

First, it makes sense to have a robust, single, national age identity card scheme to take the guessing out of age-related sales. A number of such cards are in use at the moment and their very proliferation and reliability—some can be downloaded and made up from the internet—cause problems for shop workers. USDAW recommends only the cards that carry the pass hologram, such as the citizen card. As an example of what can be achieved, collaboration in Swindon between the council trading standards service, the police and local businesses, which promoted the card and "No ID No Sale" materials, succeeded in more than halving
13 Jul 2005 : Column 319WH
under-age sales of cigarettes and achieved a target of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister along the way. I ask the Minister to pursue within government the adoption of a robust standard card.

Secondly, such a card needs to be backed up by entrenching a culture of "No ID No Sale", which is supported not only by USDAW, but by retailers, the Association of Convenience Stores and the Tobacco Manufacturers Association. Will the Minister take up the need for a high-profile advertising and information campaign to make it clear that young people will not be served if they cannot produce their age identification card? If that were backed up by signs in shops and other materials, it would strengthen the position of shop workers in trying to ensure compliance with the law.

Thirdly, I am sure that the Minister agrees that we need to ensure that retail employers, local authorities, the police and the courts work closely together to bring to justice those who abuse, threaten or assault shop workers and give them the penalties they deserve.

The Government have done much to strengthen powers against antisocial behaviour, including parenting orders and acceptable behaviour contracts, as well as antisocial behaviour orders. We need those measures to be fully deployed, and we need to work with the shop workers and employers who are prepared to give evidence to challenge and defeat abusive behaviour whenever and wherever it occurs.

As I said at the outset, in carrying out their responsibilities on under-age sales, shop workers are acting and putting themselves at risk on behalf of the whole community. They need and deserve support through a robust age identity scheme, a campaign for a culture of "No ID No Sale" and effective back-up from the authorities. I look forward to a positive response from the Government.

4.39 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire) : I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Taylor. You will appreciate that as a Scottish MP, I have a particular interest in being under your guidance this afternoon.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on raising the important issue of violence against shop workers. I thank him for his kind words, and recognise that he served with some distinction as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. He has taken considerable interest in the subject throughout his political career, not just this afternoon. It is appropriate that we are discussing this on a day when the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers is highlighting violence against shop workers.

I should explain why a Department for Work and Pensions Minister is responding to the debate, so that there is no confusion. As the Health and Safety Executive is responsible for chairing a cross-governmental committee on this very subject, and as the DWP is the Department responsible for the HSE, I am delighted to have been afforded the opportunity of responding to the debate, which is on such an important topic.
13 Jul 2005 : Column 320WH

It is a sad fact that, as a society, we can be faced with violent behaviour in pursuit of our everyday work. Sadly, as we tragically discovered over the past few days, we have to face terrible violence as we go to work, too. Violence is a disturbing problem for society in general, but it does not have to be tolerated under any circumstances, as my right hon. Friend highlighted.

We know from the 2002 British crime survey that there are about 849,000 incidents of work-related violence every year. We also know that some workers are more likely to experience violence than others, including those who work with, or deliver a service to, the public, such as shop workers. These employees work on the front line of their businesses and organisations, dealing with members of the public every day. They can face exposure to drug users and angry or disgruntled customers. As my right hon. Friend said, the behaviour is often caused by refusal to sell age-restricted goods. They are also often faced with those under the influence of alcohol or those with a medical or psychiatric problem. Often, the employees are in low paid front-line jobs, and some may resign themselves to accepting verbal and physical abuse as part of their job, although they should not have to.

Everyone has the right to go about their work without fear of physical assault, intimidation or verbal abuse. Such incidents often have serious consequences for victims and their families, and there are real financial costs to employers. Violent incidents can cause very real distress and emotional trauma. In extreme cases, people can be seriously injured. Indeed, as my right hon. and hon. Friends know, and as you know, Mr. Taylor, one of our colleagues in this House faced such a situation only a few years ago, when he was seriously injured and one of his staff was murdered.

The scale of violence and abuse faced by shop workers is a serious concern, but there is much that we can do, working with others, to reduce it. The Government welcome USDAW's initiative to promote the safety and well-being of shop workers. The abuse faced by shop workers is not merely anecdotal, but has been related in hard facts by my right hon. Friend.

We recognise the problems that shop workers face in correctly identifying the age of people who wish to purchase goods with restricted sale. We recognise the need for many people with influence and responsibility to play a full part in tackling the problem. The Government have been working hard to ensure that a series of measures and initiatives are put in place. We have introduced £50 on-the-spot fines for under-18s trying to buy alcohol—a fine scheme that is currently being piloted in certain areas of the UK. As well as the £50 fine for the over-16s and under-18s, there is also a £30 fine for those who are under 16.

As my right hon. Friend mentioned, we are also looking at the proof of age standard scheme, which will give retailers confidence that ID cards bearing the pass hologram are genuine. From September, retailers will be able to give a clear message to young people: if they have no pass, there is no sale. The proof of age standard scheme is a British Retail Consortium umbrella initiative that certifies cards to confirm that they are genuine. The card issuers will have until September to complete certification, and the introduction will follow
13 Jul 2005 : Column 321WH
an accreditation by the Trading Standards Institute. The scheme is replicated in other parts of the United Kingdom, such as Scotland, with the Young Scot card.

Mr. Andrew Smith : I welcome my hon. Friend's recognition of the value of the pass scheme. Does she agree that entrenching the "No ID, no sale" culture is an important part of the initiatives, and that a Government information and advertising campaign to back that up would help to buttress their welcome introduction?

Mrs. McGuire : I agree with my right hon. Friend that we need to make the scheme part of the culture so that we give confidence to shop workers, in particular, and deal with the problem of when young people cannot prove their age. I shall consider how the Government can promote the September initiative. I want to discuss some of the ways in which we can work together to ensure that we provide shop workers, employers and employees with the confidence to refuse the sale of age-restricted goods.

As my right hon. Friend also stated, police and trading standards officers carried out sting operations in almost 1,000 licensed premises, targeting more than 4,000 troublemakers with fixed penalty notices, and confiscating alcohol from more than 1,800 adults and juveniles. Supermarkets and large stores have taken several specific actions. For example, Asda employees have been empowered to ask for proof of age from any customer buying alcohol who does not appear to be at least 21—not 18, but 21. To deliver that change the company has produced a comprehensive training package for employees.

However, we must recognise that the most vulnerable are small shopkeepers and workers in those smaller premises. There must be help for them. The Association of Convenience Stores has helped to produce a cross off-licence industry "Responsible Retailing Guide", which was sent to more than 30,000 convenience stores in May.

I think that my right hon. Friend will agree that parents, friends and young people themselves must take their share of the responsibility. It must be recognised that retailers work against a backdrop of seemingly more widespread acceptance among parents and other adults that children drink alcohol, and that they sometimes drink to excess. Schools and the public can and do play a useful role by reporting persistent under-age drinking and the purchasing of alcohol, and by reporting gangs of youths who try to intimidate and threaten shopkeepers into selling age-restricted products. The police can then deal appropriately with persistent young drinkers, whether they are individuals or groups.I know from my experience in my constituency that it can take a bit of peer pressure from other members of the community to ensure that adults do not buy alcohol to give to people who are under age.

The way in which employers organise their work and discharge their responsibilities is also important. There is a duty on all employers to ensure the health and safety of their workers. That duty extends to acts of violence
13 Jul 2005 : Column 322WH
and abuse against them. Together with their employees, employers must assess the risks likely to arise from work activity, and put in place measures to control those risks as far as is reasonably practicable. The legislative framework that exists to control the sale of goods to protect vulnerable groups is in place for a good reason. It is accepted that with the responsibility for selling such goods, there is also a need to consider the implications when the sale is refused. Refusal can result in a confrontation.

The Health and Safety Commission recognises that it must adapt to the changes in our society and to the changing workplace. We must find relevant and innovative ways to help employers deal with work-related violence. That is why the commission has introduced a new draft strategy for the future. It sets out an approach that will carry through a programme of real change and, equally importantly, a strategy more relevant to the needs of the workplace in the 21st century. The new strategy recognises that the Health and Safety Executive and the local authorities cannot do it all by themselves; they need the support of stakeholders and stronger links with them. For example, managing workplace violence effectively means engaging with the interests and responsibilities of a number of different bodies, both across Government and in the wider working environment. That is why the HSE chairs a partnership group to take this important work forward. The group meets regularly and comprises stakeholders from across the Government, the TUC, the CBI, local authorities, the Federation of Small Businesses and specialist charities such as the Suzy Lamplugh Trust.

The new HSC strategy signals its intention to understand and value more the contribution that others can make to health and safety. An excellent example of that, highlighted by my right hon. Friend, is the tremendous work undertaken by USDAW through its "Freedom from Fear" campaign. The HSE is collaborating with employers, local authorities and the police, as well as with the Health and Safety Executive's own stakeholder group on work-related violence, to raise awareness of the levels of violence that shop workers face and to promote the message that violence will not and cannot be tolerated. The campaign has been a success. I congratulate USDAW on that and give an assurance to my right hon. Friend that we will build on its good work.

The commission's strategy will also consider ways of working together with local authorities, who are enforcement partners in the majority of retail premises. The aim is to make a greater impact on health and safety to develop more effective ways to get the advice and support to those who need it—the employees as well as the employers. The HSE encourages employers to manage work-related violence as they do any other health and safety issue. It has published general guidance to help employers tackle work-related violence and for the retail sector it has produced specific, practical guidance on how the problems and causes of violence might be tackled.

Training people to deal with difficult and confrontational situations is crucial. We cannot empower workers to react confidently in situations
13 Jul 2005 : Column 323WH
unless they are given the right support and training—training that raises awareness and understanding of the problem, and training on how to read the signs, assess a situation and defuse potential incidents. The importance of training is emphasised in the HSE's guidance and highlighted in a series of case studies on managing violence in small businesses that can be found on its website.

As my right hon. Friend is aware, the commission embarked on a challenging three-year programme in 2001 to help raise awareness and develop further guidance, particularly in sectors most at risk, such as the retail sector. Under that programme, the Health and Safety Executive has published two sets of case studies to help smaller businesses manage the risk of work-related violence. It has also funded the development of   new national occupational standards in the management of work-related violence.

The programme was taken forward in partnership with key stakeholders, including small firms organisations. The HSE is now building on the momentum of this programme. The stakeholder group, for example, is looking at the problem of work-related violence, and I assure my right hon. Friend that one of its priorities is to look at work-related violence in the
13 Jul 2005 : Column 324WH
retail sector with a view to developing, promoting and sharing information and good practice with the aim of making that information more accessible.

Finally, I thank my right hon. Friend for securing the debate. I reassure him that the Government firmly believe that working in partnership and developing stronger links with stakeholders is the most effective way forward for tackling the problems of violence and abusive behaviour towards workers. The HSE's future initiatives to tackle workplace violence will be designed to reflect the key principles of the HSC's new strategy for workplace health and safety in Great Britain. In developing its work, it will encourage stronger links with others who have an interest in, and knowledge of, the issue, including the trade unions. It will continue to work with enforcement partners in local authorities for an increased impact in raising awareness of the issue and how to manage it. Perhaps most importantly, in light of the comments made by my right hon. Friend, we are committed to developing a more effective way to get advice and support to those who need it—those on the front line: the shop workers.

Question put and agreed to.

 IndexHome Page