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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates
Health Bill

Health Bill

Column Number: 241

Standing Committee E

The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Mr. Eric Illsley, †Ann Winterton, Mr. Martin Caton

†Blunt, Mr. Crispin (Reigate) (Con)
†Butler, Ms Dawn (Brent, South) (Lab)
†Dorries, Mrs. Nadine (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con)
Engel, Natascha (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)
†Ennis, Jeff (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab)
†Flint, Caroline (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health)
†Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab)
†Joyce, Mr. Eric (Falkirk) (Lab)
†Kennedy, Jane (Minister of State, Department of Health)
†Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab)
†Lansley, Mr. Andrew (South Cambridgeshire) (Con)
†Merron, Gillian (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury)
†Murrison, Dr. Andrew (Westbury) (Con)
†Reed, Mr. Jamie (Copeland) (Lab)
†Webb, Steve (Northavon) (LD)
†Williams, Stephen (Bristol, West) (LD)
†Young, Sir George (North-West Hampshire) (Con)
John Benger, Gordon Clarke, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

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Thursday 15 December 2005

[Ann Winterton in the Chair]

Health Bill

9 am

The Chairman: I welcome everyone back to the Committee on this bright morning. I hope that everyone is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed so that we can make some good progress. Do not pull a face, Mr. Lansley.

New Clause 2

Age of sale

    ‘The appropriate national authority may issue regulations modifying the Children and Young Persons (Protection from Tobacco) Act 1991 so as to substitute for the age specified in any of its provisions such other higher age or ages as they consider appropriate.’. —[Sir George Young.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Question proposed [13 December], That the clause be read a Second time.

Question again proposed.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this new clause, we are considering:

New clause 7—Sale of tobacco—

    ‘In section 7(1) of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 (c. 12), leave out ‘sixteen’ and insert ‘eighteen’.’.

Amendment No. 71, in title, line 2, after ‘vehicles’, insert

    ‘to make provision in relation to the sale of tobacco’.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): Despite my cold I am bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I hope—as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as I ever get. The amendments are well worthy of the Minister’s support, and I hope that she has given them some in-depth thought in the past few days. I am only sorry that I did not put them forward myself, although I was happy to add my name and those of my hon. Friends to the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis).

This is one of those situations in which one thinks, “Why on earth didn’t I think of that?” It seems blindingly obvious, in the context of trying to improve public health, that we should seek to increase to 18 the age at which one can purchase tobacco. That is eminently reasonable, particularly as it would be a simplifying measure. The age at which one can legally purchase alcohol is 18, and most people accept that 18 is a significant age—except, perhaps, the Liberal Democrats; I hope that they will speak to this set of amendments. It is the age at which one achieves majority and the age of competence for so many things: in our electoral system, for example, and with
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regard to the way in which people are approached at work. We have to have a defining age at some point in our chronology, or life span, and society accepts that that point is the age of 18.

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): This question does not have an obvious, right answer that the age of majority should be the same for absolutely everything. I shall give an example that I hope you will accept is in order, Lady Winterton. By analogy, if the hon. Gentleman argues that the age of 18 should be the age of majority for everything, he must think that the age at which one should be allowed to drive should be raised to 18. Does he think so?

Dr. Murrison: No, I am not saying that.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): The point with tobacco is that it is what I would call an age-restricted sale product. We are talking about products that are sold over the counter, rather than issues such as driving licences. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we are concentrating on age-restrictive products when we talk about the age of 18?

Dr. Murrison: Yes, that is the focus of our debate on this set of amendments. I return briefly to the point made by the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb), who I hope will be more expansive in his remarks during our debate on the amendments. Of course, I am not trying to set any particular age in stone, but it seems sensible to me to recognise the age of 18 as a significant age—as the majority of people in this country do. It is important to have a level of consistency. There are good reasons to allow people to drive earlier than that; the hon. Gentleman does not need me to expound them, but they have to do with the need to have a car for employment and other purposes. We could debate whether that age is sensible—

The Chairman: Order. I point out to hon. Members that they should not drive down that particular route.

Dr. Murrison: Thank you, Lady Winterton. I suspect that this is a debate for another day, so I shall not pursue it any further, but I hope that I have addressed the hon. Gentleman’s point to some level of his satisfaction. He might like to comment further when he makes his remarks.

To raise the age at which one can smoke to 18—or another age, which is, I think, the crux of the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young)—is entirely sensible. We are debating public health, so we must focus on that. We have been a little distracted, if I may say so, by issues that are more properly to do with nuisance and amenity, but this is a straight public health issue. Raising the age would send a clear message to young people that smoking is harmful and that they should think twice before they do it. It would also send a message to retailers and to society at large about how smoking is perceived. I hope that a general public health message will come from the new clauses, as distinct from the specifics about the mechanics of the sale of tobacco to young people.

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Steve Webb: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are discussing two new clauses, one of which would create a general power to raise the age, and one that would raise the age to 18. As the Government are talking about consulting on the appropriate age, does the hon. Gentleman think that we should pre-empt that consultation today by setting a specific age, or would he prefer a more general permissive power?

Dr. Murrison: I think that the age of 18 is reasonable. I am interested to see whether the hon. Gentleman is prepared to accept that. I know that his party likes to consult ad nauseam, but the Bill is a health Bill and we have, throughout, pressed the Minister to make its contents specific. It creates many powers to act by regulation, and it is very thin. We shall come to that point again in the debate on hospital-acquired infection, on which we consider the Bill is extremely thin. We would like some specifics in the Bill, to be used to improve public health right now, rather than yet another consultation, although I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for consultation.

I guess that consultation, if we are to have it, is better than nothing, but it would be nice if the Minister could be clear about her intentions. I hope that she will table her own amendments to improve the Bill, since the Government are reluctant to accept others’ suggestions in Committee. The general direction of travel is towards raising the age for sale of tobacco. I hope that the hon. Member for Northavon will subscribe to that and it will be interesting to hear his comments shortly. If he does not think that that is right, he should explain, although I accept that, presumably, his party wants to be consistent, and I am particularly mindful of the private Member’s Bill that a member of his party—the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams)—presented a few days ago, to lower the age of enfranchisement to 16. I appreciate that the Liberal Democrats want perpetually to lower that age, and that it might fit ill with that if they were to support the new clauses.

However, I make a promise. I shall spare the blushes of the hon. Member for Northavon on Report by not raising the possible inconsistency in the Liberal Democrat approach, if he will undertake in Committee to support the new clauses. I promise—trust me, I am a politician—that I will not raise the matter of that inconsistency on Report. However, I would raise the inconsistency of his failure to support the new clauses, given the general drift of his remarks so far, which has been towards deliberalising the use of tobacco. The hon. Gentleman has a choice. If he gives his support to the new clauses, I shall not raise it, although it is my habit to raise Liberal Democrat party inconsistencies. It is make-your-mind-up time for the hon. Gentleman.

Children aged 11 to 16 spend £135 million a year on cigarettes and 25 per cent. of pupils tried to buy cigarettes in shops last year, 60 per cent. of them remarkably successfully, according to the Office for National Statistics. The last time that the matter was looked at properly was during the passage of the Children and Young Persons (Protection from
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Tobacco) Act 1991, which was an important Act because it required proof of age before the sale of tobacco. Previously, since 1908 when the sale of tobacco to people under 16 was first prohibited, retailers’ defence would be, “Well, he looked like he was 16 to me.” That would be a defence. The 1991 Act removed that and required proof of age, without which there should be no sale.

Under the existing Act there is a range of things that trading standards must do. They are important, but need to be updated, which is what we are aiming for today. The trading standards service is required to give advice and education to traders and customers, to respond to complaints, and to use children to make what are called test purchases. Apparently, 140 prosecutions were made last year by test purchasers. That is not many, and I suspect that the practice is not particularly widespread for that reason. However, I am vaguely uncomfortable with using 15-year-olds to make such purchases. I have no first-hand experience of it; it might be useful to see how trading standards approach it, but it seems contentious. Perhaps the Minister will describe it.

Raising the age to 18 would get around the problem. If test purchases were still to be made, they could be done using slightly older people. The practice of using children to test the system of enforcement would no longer be necessary. It would help if the Minister were to describe the process undertaken by trading standards in some areas, particularly if she is minded not to support the new clause. I am slightly worried about trading standards’ use of that group of children, although I suspect that it is done carefully and under tightly defined circumstances.

The age of 18 is mandated for alcohol, and although I would not want to draw an absolute comparison between the sale of alcohol and cigarettes—or anything else, as the hon. Member for Northavon suggested I might try to do—such consistency would be helpful for retailers. We are talking about selling things, and having a common age would remove an element of uncertainty in the minds of retailers. We are asking them to do quite a lot, and if the general feeling was that the age of 18 should be the age when one could do all those things, it would be helpful.

Such a provision would also help the retailer to enforce the law, because it is often difficult to tell whether someone is 16 or 18. I find it difficult accurately to tell people’s age. The joke is that policemen always look younger; as we get older it becomes police inspectors and then police superintendents, and so on. It can sometimes be extremely difficult to determine someone’s age, and we ask a lot of retailers. However, if we raised the age to 18 it would be much easier. At that age, we get all sorts of identity information—for example, photo-identity cards for work—so determining whether someone is 18 or not would be a great deal easier. It would certainly be helpful to retailers.

Like most hon. Members, I have been barraged with literature from all sorts of lobbying groups, pro and anti tobacco, and from tobacco manufacturing organisations, but it is significant that I have received
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nothing on the subject of age. Either the tobacco manufacturing sector is not too concerned about the Bill, or it believes that it would be extremely difficult to oppose it. It is almost as if we are pushing at an open door with the new clauses. I am sure that the pro-smoking lobby knows about our proposed amendments, so the silence is significant. I would be interested to know whether those involved in the trade or the manufacture of tobacco have made approaches to the Minister, and if so what arguments they marshalled in opposition to the change.

Those who feel that we need to control the sale of tobacco to younger people have suggested various other manoeuvres, one of which is a licence to sell tobacco. That is appealing, because if people infringed the law it would be a relatively simple matter to remove the licence. However, it would introduce a welter of bureaucracy, paperwork and administration. For obvious reasons, I hope that the Minister will not be minded to go down that route.

9.15 am

Of course, we must be clear about the fact that there would be penalties involved in altering the age at which someone could be sold tobacco. For example, there would be costs involved in changing signage. Those who do not smoke probably do not know this, but there are signs on premises where tobacco is sold and on machines that dispense tobacco, saying that one cannot buy tobacco unless one is 16. Clearly, that would all have to change and there would need to be guidance notes, so there would be a cost. Perhaps the Minister—I hope that she is minded to support the new clause—could give us some idea of the cost just for information. I do not think that the cost would be of sufficient magnitude materially to affect our views on whether to support the new clause, but it would be interesting to have an idea of what the cost might be.

We hope that the Minister—[Interruption.] She is chuntering away, and it does not sound too positive, which is a pity.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Caroline Flint): Was that written down for the hon. Gentleman to say at this point?

Dr. Murrison: No, it was not written down for me to say at this point; it was an observation, and the Minister was indeed chuntering. Nevertheless, I hope that she will be minded to support new clause 2. If not, we will be minded to press the matter.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): I have some brief comments on what we have heard so far. We have had some excellent contributions, particularly from my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough, and I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) said.

Although I am not necessarily a fan of copying what those in Scotland do, they have moved further along the line than we have. Interestingly, the Health Minister has been given powers to decide whether to raise the age, which is what the right hon. Member for
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North-West Hampshire would do in this case. The trouble with bringing such a provision through this Committee, however, is that it seems odd to use health legislation to deal with the sale of a product that takes place, by and large, in shops. Perhaps the Minister will deal with the point shortly, but it strikes me that this is more a matter for legislation or regulation by the Department of Trade and Industry and that that is probably the more logical route.

It also strikes me that it would be a fairly significant shift to change the age at which someone could be sold tobacco and I suspect that such legislation would need to be preceded by consultation. The Minister said that there would be such consultation, albeit from a Department of Health perspective, and that makes perfect sense.

I also have a question about what is happening in Scotland, where the Department is simply being handed powers to make what seems quite a large decision. That should be a matter for this House and it should be legislated for properly, with the age specifically set out.

Finally, the hon. Member for Westbury had a perfectly good point: the Liberal Democrats have not been inconsistent across the UK, because only they opposed the Scottish legislation on libertarian grounds similar to those that we heard from the hon. Member for Northavon. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats are even minded to use more libertarian—not to say libertine—arguments. As the health spokesman in Scotland suggested, they might even consider reducing the age at which people could be sold cigarettes. That is in line with their position on a host of other activities that they are famous for discussing—the hon. Member for Northavon mentioned driving—although I shall not mention them now, because that would not be sound. However, the fact remains that the Liberal Democrats’ libertarian instincts on this issue have yet again been shown to be more important to them than the health of people aged 16 to 18. I therefore support the new clause in principle, and I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.

Steve Webb: No one has mentioned amendment No. 71, which amends the Bill’s long title. I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify whether it is necessary to do that to enable either of the new clauses to be implemented or whether they already come within the ambit of the long title.

Of the two new clauses, new clause 2 is more permissive and new clause 7 is more prescriptive, but they both come from the same territory. My reason for hesitating, although I shall clearly state our position, is that our approach throughout the Bill—we set great store by consistency, as the Committee will know—has been that our concern is the impact of smoking on third parties. Adults should be able to smoke if they want to but third parties, particularly employees, should not have to face the consequences of that smoke. That has enabled us to take the only consistent position in the Committee, and to be a conciliator and consensus-builder. Our position is that because we are concerned about the impact on third parties of adults deciding to smoke, exemptions such as those for
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private clubs, which the Conservatives support, do not make sense because the arguments are just the same. Likewise, exemptions based on food, which the Government support, do not make sense. The consistent approach that we have taken throughout is a primary concern about the impact of adults smoking on third parties and that has informed our thinking. It does not give a clear-cut answer to the new clauses, because it leads to the question of what is an adult and what is not.

Jeff Ennis: That is exactly the point that I was trying to draw out. The hon. Gentleman has used the word adult. Is he referring to adults at the age of 18 or at the age of 16? For me, people become adults at the age of 18.

Steve Webb: The hon. Gentleman, to whom I pay tribute for the way in which he has pursued the issue, puts his finger on the kernel of the point I was coming to. Our judgment on whether to support this group of amendments depends on a view about when one becomes a responsible adult who is able to make such decisions.

The point that I was making to the hon. Member for Westbury—it is always easy to spot a Member who has the Lib Dems in second place in his constituency—is that the decision about when one is an adult and when one is not is, in my judgment, a case-by-case one. In other words—I gave the example of driving, but I will not pursue that analogy—different criteria apply in different cases. The hon. Gentleman grudgingly accepted that. There is no single right answer to the question. We should look on a case-by-case basis.

The argument for saying that the status quo is acceptable is that we currently allow a lot of things at 16, not least of which is that we allow 16-year-olds to leave school, go out to work and pay income tax—I do not know about national insurance. We allow them to go out to work and, presumably, to work in environments where they operate heavy machinery and do all manner of responsible tasks. It is not self-evident that someone of the age of 16 is obviously still a child. That question has at least to be considered.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West, as has been mentioned, made a compelling case for the franchise to be extended to 16-year-olds, for which there is growing support. There are compelling arguments for that as well. The question is what we should do about smoking specifically. Is someone adult enough to decide about smoking at 16 or 18? We have had one or two examples so far: Guernsey has been cited, and I think the Isle of Man was cited last week. There was some suggestion that where measures had been taken, the prevalence of smoking among younger people, to use a neutral phrase, had declined, perhaps significantly. Clearly, if one simply dons a public health perspective that has to be an unalloyed good thing. However, we could raise the age to 21, 25 or 30 and fewer people would smoke. From a public health point of view that would be a good thing. However, the question is at which point we leave people to take the consequences of their actions. That is the critical point.

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One reason why I might be minded to support new clause 2 would be that we are not simply discussing iPods or whatever 17 or 18-year-olds buy nowadays; we are talking about purchasing an addictive substance. That might be a significant distinction. Although we might say that adults are able to make choices and we should not fetter their ability to do so, if a substance is addictive and what we do makes it easier for those who are clearly children— I do not think that the Committee would dispute the fact that people below school-leaving age are children—that might colour the way in which we consider the issue.

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): My hon. Friend might be interested to learn that, perusing the website of the Office for National Statistics, I found the general household survey of 2003. The statistic that shone out at me was that 50 per cent. of those who now smoke more than 20 cigarettes a day—more than a full packet—started that habit when they were under 16; so their addiction started early in life.

Steve Webb: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whom I have long suspected of spending his spare time on the ONS website. He makes a good point. Wherever a threshold is set, there will be people just below it who sneak through. As we have heard, if it is 16, 15 and 14-year-olds will smoke, and if it were 18, it would be 17 and 16-year-olds. It is more of a worry if 15, 14 and 13-year-olds are smoking than if 17 and 16-year-olds are doing so, which they can do at the moment. My hon. Friend makes a strong case for us to consider raising the age.

I do not generally agree with the hon. Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce), but if we are to make a change of this sort, it needs to be based on careful investigation of the likely impact and on talking to retailers—not long ago, I followed the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough on a radio programme when he said that retailers supported the proposal because it would make the rules consistent with those on alcohol. That is the sort of evidence that might persuade me to consider the matter seriously. For that reason, I am minded to support the proposal of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire to look at the evidence from comparable countries. Guernsey is indicative and interesting, but I am not sure that it tells us what would happen in central London.

I would favour some investigation, and I would like us, today, to enable the Government to make the change by affirmative resolution, should the outcome of the consultation and the research indicate that it was required. In response to the hon. Member for Westbury, by “consultation” I do not mean asking, “What do you think, everybody?” I mean research and evidence gathering. The hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough does not seem too worried about evidence-based research for this policy, but I am. I would want to know more about the likely implications.

I find the Government’s approach confusing. My impression from the comments of the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough is that the present public health Minister supports the change or is, at
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least, sympathetic and would like to see it happen. I presume—I cannot say who the last health Minister was—

Jeff Ennis: Melanie Johnson.

Steve Webb: Right. I do not know whether she was equally sympathetic, or overruled by the Secretary of State. Why, if this part of the Bill is concerned with the harm that is done by smoking, is this not in the Bill? Why could it not have been put in the White Paper, consulted on when everything else was consulted on, researched when everything else was researched, and brought forward in the Bill? I can only assume that it was because the previous Secretary of State did not want it.

We now have the unfortunate situation in which the Government have said that changing the age will be considered next year but, as the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire said, the Bill does not give the Government the power to make the change if they should decide to do so. Presumably—I hope that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—we would need fresh primary legislation if the Government were to consult and decide that they wanted to change the age to 18. They would have to come back to the House with a new Bill, or a tacked-on bit of another health Bill. If the decision can be made that this is the right thing to do, that delay seems to be unnecessary. I cannot understand why the Government would want to resist. I am not normally one for giving the Government powers that they do not need, but if we think that the matter is worth considering and we can have a separate vote on regulations to enable it to go ahead, I cannot see why the Government would not want, at this stage, to give themselves the power, whether or not they want to exercise it in future.

My judgment is that these issues have to be decided case by case. The issues raised by cigarette smoking are different from those relating to other substances, particularly because of its addictive nature and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West said, the tendencies of people under the legal age. Clearly, the existing law needs to be better enforced but, in principle, I can see no reason not to give the Government the power to ask for information, to consider the issues, to find out what the effects are likely to be and to come back to the House with their verdict for a vote on regulations. On that basis, I am minded, unless the Minister can convince me otherwise, to support the new clause.

9.30 am

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