One individual cost my own council more than £50,000 in a single year by challenging the accounts in what can only be described as a vexatious manner and an angry

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reaction to a decision that had affected him personally. As such, I welcome clause 26, which, while allowing timely and significant objections, seeks to limit the ability to misuse the power.

The Committee was particularly concerned about the matter of public interest reporting. We asked that that element be safeguarded when the Bill was introduced, but we did not seek to prescribe how that should be done. My reading of the Bill is that the issue is more than adequately covered by schedule 7.

Lord McKenzie probed the question of whether the National Audit Office should be explicitly tasked with performing the role previously played by the Audit Commission as mentor during the public interest reporting process, for which the Committee also asked tangentially. Baroness Hanham responded in the Lords by saying that, given the NAO’s role in the design and scope of local audit, she felt that it would always be there to give advice. I think that that is a reasonable assessment and it seems that Lord McKenzie agreed.

Finally, the Committee felt that the proposal for thematic studies previously undertaken by the Audit Commission to be undertaken by the NAO was entirely workable. Indeed, we said that it “may have some advantages”. We also expressed the view that the Local Government Association was well placed to do more work of this sort outside the more formal NAO structure. My understanding is that the LGA is keen to progress this matter, and I would welcome that.

It seems to me that, given all the measures under discussion, any reasonable observer can safely conclude that the new regime gives more than adequate confidence that the new system will be robust, transparent and independent.

I want to comment briefly on a couple of other aspects of the Bill that deal with matters other than audit, and it will not surprise anyone to know that one of them is “The Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity”. At the moment the code is only advisory and continues to be abused by only a very small number of authorities. It is right that public money should not be allowed to pay for partisan political activity, save in very limited instances and when specifically authorised by Parliament; Short money is a particular case in point. The Government are absolutely right to try to stop such abuse. It cannot be right to have political campaigning on the rates, but I ask the Minister to be careful.

At present a number of authorities breach the code, but they do not do so for political gain; usually, it is related to the frequency of publication. There is an argument that quarterly publishing is more than adequate and that to allow more would threaten the viability of local newspapers, particularly if the content of the council newsletters is not limited solely to council matters, takes advertising and is laid out in such a way to compete directly with newspapers. I have some innate sympathy with that position, but I must admit that the evidence that there is truly an adverse effect is scant.

My real worry is that, while the enforceability of the code is clearly important, so too is the proportionality of the code itself. I suspect that Ministers are not, in fact, too worried about the frequency of publication. Their real worry is the partial nature of a very few publications—the “Pravdas,” to quote the Secretary of State—but legal officers on councils will not see it that

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way. Understandably, once the code becomes enforceable their advice will be that they cannot recommend anything other than that which the code allows, which includes not publishing more frequently than quarterly, as detailed in paragraph 28. I believe that as long as local authorities can adequately justify a more than quarterly publication we should not seek to prevent them from doing so.

A more than quarterly publication would have been costly and pointless for my own district council. We simply did not have enough to tell our local electorate every single week or even once a month. At the same time, a number of much larger authorities could easily fill a publication monthly with objective, useful and relevant information for residents. May I encourage the Minister to look at the code with a view to dealing with that point?

Will the Minister also look again at the publication requirements for statutory notices, which have already been mentioned? Although it is right that we consider the effect on local newspapers of the competition provided by local authority publications, it is also right that we consider how we spend public money to best effect.

One of my local editors made the argument to me that it is important for readers to be able to see what is going on in a public authority and that the publishing of statutory notices in newspapers is an important part of that process. I pointed out to him that if he truly thought that to be the case, there was nothing to prevent the paper from reporting on them and publishing the list itself if it felt that strongly about the matter. The simple fact is that the vast majority of the public access data about planning, licensing and so on from public notices and, thereafter, council websites, rather than from the local paper.

This issue was a bugbear to me as a portfolio holder. It was expensive, inflexible and of little advantage to the public, and it cost my council—a small district council—£32,000 a year. It may have been to the advantage of the profitability of newspapers, but I really do not think that that should be a relevant factor.

Finally, I turn to council tax referendums. It is clear that the Government are right to give local voters the right to vote on council tax increases that are above the limit set by the Government as reasonable and proportionate. I believe that is much better than a cap, allowing as it does for a council to take its case to the voters if it believes it has a strong enough case to persuade them.

The Bill corrects an anomaly in current regulations that omit levying authority charges from the calculations that determine the proposed percentage increase on council tax. We have already had the argument about why they should be added, but there is a difficulty that the Government need to address. If there needs to be a council tax referendum because the amount charged by the levying authority pushes council tax above the Government’s limit, there is no legal way in which the council can force that levying authority to change its charge. Neither is there any duty on the levying authority to hold a referendum—that falls to the local council taxpayers. I believe that that is wrong. We have to force some decision on levying authorities if this particular provision is to work correctly.

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Three simple possibilities have occurred to me. It may be that none of them is the right thing to do, but they are all possible. The first is to impose a cap on levying authorities, which is not something that I would favour. The second is to impose the cost of the referendum required as a result of the charge from the levying authority on the levying authority. The final one is to make a no vote binding on the levying authority, such that it has to change the charge back in such a way that the overall council tax will rise only by the amount specified by the Government. I would welcome a commitment from the Minister to consider the matter and hope he will make some proposals in Committee.

In conclusion, I am confident in the general thrust of the Bill and in the vast majority of its measures. I will certainly vote for it tonight should there be a Division, although I suspect that is unlikely given what others have said. I ask, however, that Ministers address some of the concerns I have raised when the Bill goes to Committee.

7.8 pm

Andy Sawford (Corby) (Lab/Co-op): This has been a lively debate on an important Bill and it is a pleasure to follow the contributions of many hon. and right hon. Members. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) spoke with experience of local government, and it may not surprise him that I want to start on a note of consensus with him and the hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) by saying that I for one recognise that the Audit Commission went beyond its remit. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) made clear at the outset that we do not seek the restoration of the Audit Commission, and we understand that, to be frank, no one will lament its passing.

However, even though the Bill has been three years in the making, it is full of holes. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) said that the Bill is a dog’s breakfast. He made a strong speech in which he talked about the important functions of the Audit Commission, such as auditing and providing value for money in an independent way. Although we might not lament the Audit Commission’s passing, we should be concerned about those vital functions.

We must explore critical issues in Committee that are currently unclear, such as the arrangements for the future management of audit contracts and the transfer of Audit Commission functions. We do not know, for example, who will maintain the vital value-for-money tools. As a result of pressure in the Lords, not least from my hon. Friends, we have been promised improvements, such as amendments on opting into centralised arrangements for audit procurement. We can only hope that when the details are forthcoming in Committee, they meet the aspirations of their lordships and of the many organisations, including the LGA, that have pressed for those sensible amendments. It was good to hear the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) pressing the Government on that point. I hope that she will take forward the good work of her colleague, the noble Lord Tope, in Committee.

There is doubt about the amount that the proposals will save. When the Minister responds, I expect that he will make claims about the level of savings, as did the Secretary of State in opening the debate. However, it

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would do Ministers much more credit if they stopped double-counting and deliberately inflating the estimated savings. We all know that most of the savings have already been banked with the axing of the Audit Commission’s inspection work and with most of the audit work outsourced.

It is disappointing that the Government ignored the advice of the draft Local Audit Bill ad hoc Committee, which, after receiving conflicting evidence on the savings, recommended that a new financial impact assessment be made. The Committee believed that only modest savings were likely and was concerned about whether a real market would develop. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central said, in the last financial year, only seven firms were appointed for the nearly 800 councils, health bodies and fire and rescue authorities that were audited by private firms, and 90% of those bodies were audited by only five firms.

The Audit Commission has raised fears that some local authorities might find it hard to attract a suitable auditor:

“In a free market, we believe there is a risk that some local authorities may find it hard to attract an auditor with the necessary skills and experience, at a reasonable price.”

It continues:

“We are aware that the firms are already considering which audits they would look to drop under the new arrangements.”

As my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North, the LGA and the National Association of Local Councils have said, that will be a particular concern for smaller authorities.

On new entrants to the market, I share the scepticism of the draft Local Audit Bill ad hoc Committee, which said:

“We heard evidence to suggest that it is not realistic for smaller firms and organisations such as mutuals and co-operatives to bid successfully for one-off audits without an inevitable impact on quality, consistency or cost.”

The Local Government Information Unit, whose evidence and advice should always be considered—I should declare an interest as its former chief executive—points out that a 10% increase in audit fees would wipe out any predicted savings. Grant Thornton said that

“it is likely that fees will increase, not decrease, as a result of the draft Bill”.

John McDonnell: One simple measure to expand the market might be to prevent an audit firm from being the auditor for a local authority if it already has contracts with that authority.

Andy Sawford: My hon. Friend made a very interesting speech and I hope that he will follow the passage of the Bill closely. I will have to give further thought to the implications of his suggestion, but if the arrangements proposed by the Government are to work, there must be an open market and a wide range of audit firms must provide audit services. We would also want that to be reviewed regularly by the audit panel. The points that the hon. Member for Meon Valley made about the dismissal of auditors were important.

Steve Parkinson of the Society of Local Council Clerks said:

“When we get to the 2017 tender exercise, I cannot imagine those fees going down, and especially for the smallest, I can see them needing to go up.”

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That speaks to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North about what lies ahead. What assurance can the Minister give that the new audit arrangements will not lead to rising costs, rather than savings, for some councils?

On savings, it is welcome that, after Labour pressure in the Lords, the Government undertook to look sympathetically at a proposal for an optional joint procurement body. We welcome the assurances that the Secretary of State has given today and we look forward to seeing those proposals. Central procurement could save more than £205 million of public money over five years. That figure does not come just from the Audit Commission, but is supported by the LGA. Will the Minister assure us that he will bring forward detailed proposals on joint procurement as soon as possible? We hope to have them by this Thursday evening so that we can give them full and constructive consideration in Committee.

Joint procurement arrangements might address some of the concerns about the practicalities of requiring all councils to have auditor panels with independent members. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central said, the Secretary of State considers himself to be a revolutionary, so he must be disappointed to be associated with arrangements that everyone but him sees as overly bureaucratic.

We will table amendments in Committee on the overlap between the new audit panels and the audit committees that most councils already have. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) suggested that all councils should be required to have an audit committee. Most councils have one already, but we should consider his suggestion further in Committee. We will also raise the practicalities of recruiting sufficient independent and appropriately qualified members for the audit committees, which were referred to by the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole. What evidence does the Minister have that there are people who are willing and able to take on that important role?

In Committee, we will also explore the removal of auditors and the purposes for which data matching can be used. As the Bill stands, those purposes do not include the prevention and detection of maladministration and error, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington pointed out. We want to see that included in the Bill. We also want auditors to be covered by the Freedom of Information Act and will table amendments to that effect.

Does the Minister understand the concern that whistleblowers might feel uncomfortable approaching a private auditor that is employed by a local body or council? That is why we will propose that the audit committee should be named as a prescribed person in the Bill. I do not understand why the Government have resisted that. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington highlighted concerns about corruption. I have read the important report that he mentioned. It is important that the new audit arrangements maintain independence, encourage probity, make appropriate provision for whistleblowers and ensure that it is possible to compare the relative performance of different authorities. He made wider points that we should explore further, including on the openness of council meetings, the use of commercial confidentiality and the role of scrutiny.

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Perhaps the biggest disappointment with the Bill, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central and my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North said, is that the proposed audit arrangements do not provide for the changing way in which public services are being managed and provided. The proposed arrangements require each local authority and other local bodies and public sector bodies to conduct separate audits. However, shared services, community budgets and combined authorities all demonstrate that there is a shift towards much stronger partnership working by local authorities, including with Government Departments. It is therefore a missed opportunity that the Bill focuses too narrowly on individual local authorities, rather than on arrangements that would enable auditors to follow the public pound through the system.

Many hon. Members have spoken about the provisions on local authority publicity. We support the code of recommended practice on local authority publicity and believe that it is broadly sensible. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central said, there is no evidence to suggest that there are widespread breaches. No hon. Member has provided clear evidence of that today. The Government have taken no action to date under the code. Why not?

Clause 38 will allow the Secretary of State to issue a direction regardless of whether or not he thinks the authority is complying with the code. That is an extraordinary power grab that is worthy of the worst form of authoritarian government. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst revealed the true purpose of it. In seeking to support the Government, he listed a range of council publications, but gave no examples of where they had breached the code. The only common factor between the publications was that they were all from Labour-led councils. I know that in his heart he is a localist, as am I. Does he not agree that the way to deal with the problem is to fight the elections in those areas a little harder and to seek a Conservative majority, because it is clearly their political control that offends him, rather than the content of the magazines?

As for the wider controls on council publications, the Government suggest that local authority publications undermine the local press, but there is no evidence to prove that. Local papers are struggling for a variety of reasons. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington said, sometimes there is a welcome synergy between local newspapers and council papers. The Conservative-led LGA has complained, rightly, that the proposals are ill considered and not based on evidence or proper consultation—points echoed in the House of Lords by the Conservative peer Baroness Eaton, and the Liberal Democrat Lord Tope.

In my area, I have received many representations from residents in the smaller towns and villages of east Northamptonshire for whom the Nene Valley News—published, despite my best efforts, by the true blue local council—is a communications lifeline. Some residents of those villages feel so strongly about the issue that they tell me they will consider voting for me and my party for the first time because of the impact the measures will have on general well-being in those villages. That is surely not what the Secretary of State thought would follow from his nonsense claims about pocket Pravdas, which he cannot substantiate. We hope the

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Government will see sense when we consider the Bill in Committee, and I hope we will have the support of the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole because, as she rightly said, this is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

When the Minister responds, will he say whether he accepts the comments made by his colleague, Baroness Eaton, a former leader of Bradford council, that the Bill centralises powers to the Secretary of State? Will he say how many local authorities in England publish magazines more than six times a year, and will he inform the House how many times the code of practice on local authority publicity has been breached? We are concerned that the third major area of the Bill on council tax referendums adds further uncertainty to council finances at a time when—as my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North said—councils face incredible challenges, and that that could lead to further reductions in essential local services.

Clause 39 means that councils may have to hold a referendum on council tax increases because of increases in levies due to agreements made in previous years or over which they have no control. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central said, we are deeply concerned about the retrospective nature of those changes—a point pressed on the Minister by the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole in another sensible intervention.

A year ago the Government signed city deals to improve transport infrastructure and boost local growth by allowing specific transport authorities to raise money for specific schemes. A year on, that agreement is being torn up. That undermines confidence in the whole city deal process across government, and harms the certainty on which sound financial planning and private investment relies. In short, it is damaging for our cities and our economy. As the LGA said:

“There is a risk of perverse outcomes that will put growth generating investment at risk”.

That is absolutely right, and I hope the Minister will address that issue and think again.

There are other complications. Authorities have no powers to reject levies, yet they are obliged to hold referendums because of large levy rises imposed on them by other bodies. The actions of levying bodies could lead to council tax referendums in some authorities, but not in neighbouring authorities because some levying bodies cross local authority boundaries. I hope the Government recognise the serious problems with those proposals.

The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy stated:

“The entire burden of any referendum is actually placed on major preceptors and billing authorities despite the fact that they have no ability either to directly influence the amount of individual levies or require a body to reduce its levy as a result of a referendum.”

Does the Minister accept that including levies in the amount used to trigger a council tax referendum will jeopardise the city deals his own Government have approved? If a council tax referendum is lost and the levying body refuses to reduce its levy, what does he expect a local authority to do?

Despite serious problems with the Bill, I will end on a positive note. The Government propose to introduce two new elements to the Bill: on parish polls and

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transparency of council meetings. As the Minister would expect, the Government will have to answer the justifiable criticism—not least from our friends in the other place—that those proposals are being introduced rather late in the day and have not had the scrutiny given to the rest of the Bill. However, we support the intentions behind the proposals, and stand ready to play catch-up and assist with detailed scrutiny of those proposals in Committee. I sincerely welcome assurances that the Government will address the concerns raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central about combined authority boundaries. I hope we can do that through the Bill, but we welcome the assurance that another way will also be sought.

Finally, I thank the Minister for the helpful dialogue we have had since my appointment, particularly over the instruction to extend the scope of the Bill, and for the way he has facilitated contact with officials at his Department involved with the Bill. I hope that he is under no illusions about the many holes in the Bill, but also that he is in no doubt that the Opposition will approach Committee stage constructively.

7.24 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): Right hon. and hon. Members have raised a number of important points in the debate, and I look forward to discussing some of them in more detail during Committee as well as now. I will first respond to some of the main points raised, and then I will speak more generally and hopefully cover all the points Members have made.

A few comments have been made, not least by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), about an audit for a modern world and authorities working together—an understandable point as we are looking to modernise the way we all work. Auditors of local government bodies and health bodies are required to comply with the relevant code of audit practice, and are used to working together across organisations in both the public and private sectors. It is right, however, that auditors must assess the body responsible for the spending, which is why the Bill is worded in this way.

The right hon. Gentleman also raised data matching, and we are sympathetic to that issue and will no doubt discuss it in Committee. The hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) mentioned a sector-led procurement body. We are open to allowing the establishment of a central procurement capacity, provided—this is key—that it is led by the sector, is not mandatory, and gives local authorities the choice and opportunity to take part or appoint locally. We will deal with that in Committee.

Comments have been made about independent audit committees, or auditor panels, and the approach in the Bill gives flexibility to local authorities. A body can use its existing audit committee to act as the auditor panel if the majority is independent, or it can establish a small separate auditor panel if it is not, thereby allowing for anything that might happen later with a centrally organised sector-led body.

The hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) raised some issues, not least competition in the audit market. We are not creating new barriers; in fact, we are opening the local audit market and I hope it will develop even further. He also commented on whether council

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tax referendums are fair—other Members also made that point—and said that nobody wants this change. Councils such as Stockport, Liverpool and Newcastle—to name a few—might disagree with him, however, as they have all asked specifically for this change, which will put all local authorities on to a consistent footing. Currently, some local authorities undertake functions directly and in-house, and are therefore subject to referendum principles within that. Levying bodies are not, and therefore the proposals will bring things closer together.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) did an excellent job early in this Parliament on ending the Audit Commission—the quango and the way in which it worked with the comprehensive area assessment. He has huge experience in and understanding of local government, and how the Audit Commission worked. I appreciate the time he has given me since I took office to work through some of those issues. His huge experience has been a great asset in reaching the point we have with the Audit Commission. We have managed to save councils so much in officers’ time, and therefore taxpayers’ money, over the past couple of years, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was able to take through the ending of the comprehensive area assessment. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst mentioned the publicity code and referendum principles, and I will touch on those in the main part of my speech.

I welcome the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for parish polls and the modernising of transparency, as I do that of the hon. Member for Corby. My hon. Friend noted how important the council tax freeze has been for families, which is one reason why we think it so important for that freeze to be applied across the board, fairly and evenly, as I have outlined. She also mentioned statutory notices, which I will touch on in a moment.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) touched on a range of issues that are probably outside the scope of the Bill. I must explain to him, however, that the Audit Commission has been contracting out a percentage of its work for some considerable time. He also touched on counter-fraud activities and outcomes, and we are clear that local government must tackle fraud. That is worth about £2 billion a year, and it is important for taxpayers that it be dealt with. We are actively supporting local government to tackle that issue, not least through the Fighting Fraud Locally strategy with the Local Government Association.

At the point of closure, the Audit Commission’s national fraud initiative will transfer in its current successful form to the Cabinet Office. We recognise the value of the Audit Commission’s other counterfoil tools and are working with it and other interested parties to develop recommendations on their future.

John McDonnell: May I suggest that the Minister meet Transparency International UK and go through its report? Perhaps he could offer advice in Committee after meeting that group.

Brandon Lewis: As a general matter of principle, I am happy to meet anybody who wants to talk about any part of my brief. I obviously extend that invitation to Transparency International UK.

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On the fairness of council tax referendums, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole rightly outlined the anger of some areas and residents when they are faced with claims of a council tax freeze but receive spiralling bills from their authority. Clause 39 specifically addresses that—it ensures that claims of a freeze are based on the bill that hits doormats rather than any half-measures.

My hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery), who has a background in local government, spoke of his wide experience of comprehensive area assessments and gave a great outline of exactly why we need a firm ending of the Audit Commission, so there is no chance of it coming back in the format we have experienced. He touched on auditor appointments, on enforcing the publicity code, which I will deal with later, and on council tax referendums and levying bodies. He suggested a range of interesting opportunities to ensure that referendums are dealt with in a proper and fair manner for the authorities. I look forward to taking his suggestions forward in Committee.

Let me be clear why the Government have decided to proceed with the final abolition of the Audit Commission. The House has heard how our reforms to local audit will result in a more efficient audit system, with an estimated £1.2 billion of savings—I would not want to disappoint the hon. Member for Corby by not mentioning the £1.2 billion of savings. That is exactly why it is important to push forward and embed that to stop any chance of future Audit Commission mission creep.

The reforms are not just about saving money. They are about the Government’s drive to decentralise power and responsibility to local bodies, and giving local people better tools to hold bodies to account. By cutting out the middleman, local bodies will no longer be forced to foot the bill for Audit Commission costs. They will know exactly what they are paying for in their audits. Local bodies will be required to publish information about their auditor appointments and any public interest reports they receive from the auditor. People will therefore be able to find that information locally, rather than having to go to a remote central body.

The reforms improve local accountability. As many hon. Members, including Opposition Members, have said, the Audit Commission had lost its way, forcing councils to focus on Audit Commission priorities rather than priorities that matter to local residents. My hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley outlined some of those. As a councillor, I remember sitting in meetings when officers told us what we should do—it was often to do with waste collection. The suggestions were not made because they were right for our residents, but because they ticked a box to please the Audit Commission, and the Government would punish us further down the line if we did not take that action. The Government’s impact assessment estimates that the cost to local authorities of complying with the CAA was around £25 million per year—that money could be better spent on other things that residents want and need and deserve to have delivered.

Let me reassure hon. Members who are concerned that the quality of audit will suffer. The Government are committed to ensuring that that does not happen. Private audit firms have long had a role to play in auditing public bodies. As I have said, the Audit Commission has contracted out some 30% of its audit

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contracts to private audit firms. Last year’s outsourcing exercise demonstrated that public audit can be carried out to the same high level but at a much lower cost to the taxpayer.

The Bill contains robust mechanisms to safeguard auditor independence. The work of the auditors remains largely unchanged and auditors will still be required to use their professional judgment to decide whether to make a report in the public interest if they believe something is amiss. To enshrine that important principle, the Bill allows auditors to recover costs for their time in making a public interest report or advisory notice. By amending existing secondary legislation, we will ensure that whistleblowers can make disclosures to local auditors directly or to the National Audit Office.

Many hon. Members have mentioned the publicity code. I want to make one point clearly at the outset: there is no change to the code. The measures contribute to the Government’s commitment to localism rather than run counter it. Given that the code is not changing, I am somewhat surprised that any hon. Member has a problem with it being put into statutory form. Opposition Members have complained that the Government have not enforced the voluntary code. By putting it in statute, we can make sure that it is enforced to ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent appropriately and properly, and not for political ends.

There have been exaggerated claims that provisions on the code will lead to central Government clamping down on, for instance, HS2 campaigning, which has been mentioned. That is nonsense. Councillors are free to campaign on behalf of their constituents. Indeed, the Government legislated in the Localism Act 2011 to give councillors the freedom to campaign. If any challenge is balanced and factually accurate, it will not contravene the code, unlike some publications. For example, Nottingham city council’s website seems unusually to mirror the Nottingham Labour party’s website. Residents might want to question expenditure on that sort of thing. If anything, the publicity code defends council communications from political interference and propaganda-pushing, as was outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, who gave a range of examples.

The Government have no intention of monitoring or censoring communications, but it is right for us to act when concerns are expressed that local authorities are in breach of a code approved by Parliament. It is certainly right to act when authorities use taxpayers’ money to fund publicity for political purposes.

Hilary Benn: Where is the evidence?

Brandon Lewis: The right hon. Gentleman keeps asking for evidence, but my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has given it to him. In addition, I suggest the right hon. Gentleman compare Leeds city council’s website with the Labour party website.

The Government are aware of the burden that placing statutory notices in newspapers can place on local authorities, and that some authorities believe there are cheaper and more effective ways of informing local people on issues that affect their lives. The Secretary of State has been clear that, in the internet age, commercial newspapers should expect, over time, less state advertising as more information is syndicated online for free. Local papers need to develop new business models to fit the

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21st century, particularly as it does not make sense to cross-subsidise one industry with fees from another. However, that will take time.

The Government’s council tax referendum measure will give protection against large increases in taxes raised by levying authorities such as waste disposal, integrated transport and pension authorities. Some say that the measure is unfair. I dealt with that earlier in my speech, but let us be clear that local authorities and levying bodies can work together and have done so, both under the old Government capping procedure, and more recently through the referendum principle. Councils have long worked together to agree council tax levels. That was always the case under previous systems.

Chris Williamson: Will the Minister at least acknowledge that levying bodies could, if the referendum goes against the council tax increase, result in even bigger cuts in the local authorities affected? Surely he must accept that.

Brandon Lewis: I do not accept that. The hon. Gentleman tried to make a good argument for his point of view—he wants more councils to increase tax—but the Government believe in freezing council tax and in keeping the cost of council tax down for families. We are unlike the previous Government, under whom council tax doubled. He made the argument for letting council tax spiral yet again, but I am afraid the Government do not agree with him.

The Government have made it clear that there has been no agreement to allow excessive increases in council tax without a referendum as part of a city deal. City deals are important, but they are also subject to the referendum principles. The largest estimate for a city levy in Leeds is still well below the 2% referendum principle—it is between 0.2% and 0.9%.

The House will decide shortly whether it consents to the Government including measures in the Bill to modernise the rules governing parish polls and to increase the transparency of council meetings. At the request of the other place, we are seeking to amend the Bill to include measures on parish polls, because they need to be modernised to bring the archaic process up to date, and to ensure they provide a legitimate method for local communities to have a voice on issues that directly relate to parish matters.

The widening of the Bill’s scope creates the opportunity to tackle not only parish polls, but problems with the transparency of council meetings. Those important measures will increase local accountability, strengthen local democracy and save taxpayers money. I appreciate the co-operation of the hon. Member for Corby on the matter and how he has worked with the Government to bring the measures forward. We will doubtless have further discussions on them in Committee, but town hall doors should be open to bloggers, tweeters and those who want to film and report on meetings. We will discuss that further in a few minutes.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker—this is the first time I have spoken at the Dispatch Box with you in the Chair. I hope the House sees fit to support the Bill.

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Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Local Audit and Accountability Bill [Lords]:


(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.

Proceedings in Public Bill Committee

(2) Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Thursday 21 November 2013.

(3) The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.

Consideration and Third Reading

(4) Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.

(5) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.

(6) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading.

Other proceedings

(7) Any other proceedings on the Bill (including any proceedings on consideration of any message from the Lords) may be programmed.—(Mark Lancaster.)

Question agreed to.


Queen’s recommendation signified.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Local Audit and Accountability Bill [Lords], it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of:

(1) any expenditure incurred by a Minister of the Crown or the Comptroller and Auditor General in consequence of the Act; and

(2) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under any other Act out of money so provided.—(Mark Lancaster.)

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Local Audit and Accountability Bill [Lords], it is expedient to authorise:

(1) the charging of fees in connection with the recognition of qualifications and supervisory bodies and of periodical fees to be paid by recognised qualifying and supervisory bodies, and

(2) the payment of sums into the Consolidated Fund.—(Mark Lancaster.)

Question agreed to.

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Local Audit and Accountability Bill [Lords] (Instruction)

7.40 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): I beg to move,

That it be an instruction to the Local Audit and Accountability Bill [Lords] Committee that it has power to make provision in the Bill about:

(1) polls consequent on parish meetings, and

(2) access to meetings and documents of local government bodies.

The motion seeks to widen the scope of the Bill to provide for the measures to be introduced. I take this opportunity to thank the Opposition, who have offered their support for the motion. I look forward to working with them in Committee.

Modernising parish polls is a long-standing issue that was raised during the passage of the Bill in the other place by the Earl of Lytton. It was agreed to consider amending the Bill in this House to include a power for the Secretary of State to make provision in regulations to modernise the rules on parish polls. We need to define more tightly what constitutes a legitimate topic for a poll, and modernise the archaic way polls are conducted, not least to ensure that all electors in the parish have an opportunity to vote. This will allow all local people to have a say on issues that genuinely affect their parish.

On openness, we want to increase levels of transparency to make it harder for councils to make decisions out of the sight of those they serve—something hon. Members touched on this afternoon. In particular, we want the public to be able to film, blog or tweet at all meetings where they are allowed to be present. Some councils are still refusing to allow people to do this, preventing local people from using modern technology to hold their elected representatives to account. Councillors should not be shy about the public seeing the great work they do for their local communities. We have already legislated on this matter for meetings of a local authority executive. The new provisions will allow us to extend that level of openness to other council meetings, closing the loopholes that councils are using to refuse the public access.

7.42 pm

Andy Sawford (Corby) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome you to your new role, Madam Deputy Speaker. This is the first time I have spoken under your chairmanship.

I refer the House to my remarks on Second Reading on the instruction issued to extend the scope of the Bill. I repeat my thanks to the Minister for the constructive

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dialogue we have had in recent days. We support the Government’s intentions on this matter. We will, of course, want to look at the detail and hope there will be strong consultation with many organisations and interest groups, not least the National Association of Local Councils, which made representations on parish polls. We should also spend some time referring back to the excellent debate in the other place, led by the Earl of Lytton.

On modernising practice in council chambers, in this world of blogging we support the principle. We are all concerned to ensure that it will enhance, not disrupt, democratic proceedings. I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) that it may enable the public to turn off council meetings when they choose, but I am sure we all hope that it will encourage the public to tune in and take more interest in local democracy.

Question put and agreed to.

Business without Debate

delegated legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),


That the draft Excepted Vehicles (Amendment of Schedule 1 to the Hydrocarbon Oil Duties Act 1979) Order 2013, which was laid before this House on 8 October, be approved.—(Mark Lancaster.)

Question agreed to.

European Union documents

Motion made and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 119(11)),

Relations between the EU and the Overseas Countries and Territories

That this House takes note of European Union Documents No. 12732/12 and Addenda 1 and 2, a draft Council Decision on the association of the overseas countries and territories with the European Union; notes the progress that the UK has achieved against its key negotiating priorities in Council negotiations; and further notes the trade advantages and access to European Union funds that the Decision provides.—(Mark Lancaster.)

Question agreed to.



That John Penrose and Mr Desmond Swayne be discharged from the Administration Committee and Mr David Evennett and Mr Robert Syms be added..—(Mr Evennett, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)

28 Oct 2013 : Column 731

Tobacco Products Directive

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mark Lancaster.)

7.45 pm

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I add my welcome to your elevation to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. This is the first time that I am benefiting from your wise direction; I am sure it will not be the last.

This is an opportunity to put the case for small retailers, who are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the sale of tobacco. A few weeks ago, I was visited by a delegation of small retailers, a number of whom were my constituents who were supported by the publication Asian Trader. Also at the meeting, and uninvited by me, were representatives of Imperial Tobacco. I was surprised to see them and wondered what role they had to play in the proceedings. They were attending, I was told, in a spirit of helpfulness, and offered their “help” to me until I explained in no uncertain terms that I was not a friend of the tobacco lobby. However, their presence did lead me to consider the amount of influence tobacco companies have in the retail industry, and the kind of messages they are giving to tobacco retailers.

Tobacco companies have a lot of money—it is a huge industry—but as purveyors of substances that kill one in two long-term users, they do not tend to be the most popular lobbyists around. I received an e-mail from a Liberal Democrat councillor, John McClurey, who has been a newsagent for more than 30 years. He suggested that the tobacco companies were using the good names of the small retailers to lobby Parliament with their own promotional messages. He also suggested they were circulating misinformation to tobacco retailers, with the aim of scaring them into becoming a voice for tobacco manufacturers.

When I met the retailers, there was no doubt in my mind that they believed passionately in what they were telling me, but knowing the involvement of the tobacco lobby led me to re-examine objectively what they were saying in the light of wider evidence. For example, on the European tobacco products directive, my retail friends told me that banning smaller quantities of tobacco—packs of 10 cigarettes and 20 grams of loose tobacco—was wrong because it discriminated against smokers on a tight budget and smokers aiming to give up. It undoubtedly does. However, it also discriminates against minors, who are extremely sensitive to price changes. These packs of 10 cigarettes have been dubbed “kiddie packs” because they are so popular with teenage smokers.

My retail friends also believe that smuggling is a growing scourge that will be made worse by the advent of plain packaging and ever-increasing duty. According to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, tobacco smuggling has more than halved in the past decade to 9% of total sales. I am not saying that 9% is not far too high, or that general statistics will help my friend Paul Cheema at his newly opened Kwik Save in Solihull if smuggled tobacco is being sold from a van near his shop. Nevertheless, despite tax hikes on cigarettes to the extent of 88% of the recommended retail price, the amount of tobacco smuggling has continued to decline. The tobacco multinationals’ concern about illicit trade needs to be evaluated in the light of their having paid billions in

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fines and payments to settle cigarette-smuggling litigation in the EU and Canada. They are being prosecuted for smuggling their own products, so their trying to unsettle small retailers, when some of their number are perpetrators of the problem, sounds a little hollow.

Is “plain packaging” not a misnomer, given that recent EU votes have confirmed that 65% of the packaging surface will have to carry writing and pictures warning prospective customers of the health dangers of the product? Other distinctive markings will also be required. The Government are therefore confident that plain packaging will be no easier to counterfeit when it comes under the scrutiny of government officials.

The European Parliament has voted for a ban on packs of 10 cigarettes; for a minimum weight of 20 grams for “roll your own” cigarettes; for banning characterising flavours, such as menthol, which are also particularly attractive to young people and women; and, as I just mentioned, for 65% of the surface carrying words and pictures informing people of the dangers of smoking. That is not in dispute. It has also voted against plain packaging; against the ban on slim cigarettes, which we know are particularly attractive to younger smokers and women; and against the ban on sales displays.

We await the final recommendations of the Government’s two consultations this Parliament, and we know that they are waiting for the results of the Australian plain packaging experiment, but will the Minister say how long she considers a reasonable time to wait before it can be evaluated? When will the Government report be published, and can the Minister give any insight into the Government’s thinking on plain packaging, slim cigarettes and sales displays? As I said, retailers are stuck between a rock and a hard place—between the health lobby and the need to trade—and so are the Government, but any indication she can give of what the future is likely to hold would be much appreciated.

The EU recently voted against prohibiting the purchase of e-cigarettes alongside tobacco and against registering it as a medicine. That is a sensible measure. Many former smokers attest that e-cigarettes have helped them to give up when nothing else had worked. Furthermore, making them a medical product would likely have increased their cost and reduced their availability. What is the thinking in the Department of Health on e-cigarettes? Will we follow the EU in not medicalising them, and if so, what product safety standards will be put in place?

Finally, I want to discuss proxy purchasing. Interestingly, there is no age in the UK at which the smoking of tobacco products is illegal, if children can get their hands on them. The legal age for purchasing a packet of cigarettes is 18, and retailers can be subject to serious penalties if caught selling tobacco to under-18s. Proxy purchasing—when an over-18 buys cigarettes for an under-age smoker—is illegal in Scotland, but not in England and Wales, so in the latter, the retailer can be prosecuted, but the proxy purchaser cannot.

Aman Bhura, from News and Booze in West Bromwich, says that now is the time for the Government to take the lead in the enforcement of illegal sales of tobacco. He says that

“we retailers are being forced to become the policing arm of the government... Responsible retailers will have staff trained to detect proxy selling, but it is an act which is extremely difficult to judge and prove”.

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It is clear that tobacco retailers are more than prepared to measure up to their responsibilities in respect of proxy selling to under-age youngsters, but without a legal constraint to back them, what can they do? Will the Government not strengthen their arm by making proxy purchasing illegal, as it is in Scotland? Will the Minister consider changing the law to make proxy purchasing of tobacco products illegal in England and Wales?

I will leave the final word to Councillor McClurey:

“I make more profit from selling a 50p packet of chewing gum than a packet of 10 cigarettes. Sale of cigarettes represents 50% of my turnover but only 14% of my gross profit. If my customers stopped buying cigarettes and bought a packet of chewing gum instead I would be a wealthier shopkeeper.”

I look forward to the day when our retailers make a much healthier profit, when they sell fewer cigarettes and more of other products that have a better sales margin. That would be a good deal and a fair deal for everyone.

7.55 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Jane Ellison): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) on securing a very timely debate. I enjoyed her thoughtful speech. I suspect that there will be things on which I cannot respond in quite the level of detail she would want, but she has posed all the important and current questions, and I will try to cover as many of them as I can.

We all agree that smoking has an enormously harmful impact on health. Nearly 80,000 people die in England every year from smoking-related illnesses, and the Government are obviously committed to reducing the number of those premature deaths—it is a priority for us—so this is a welcome opportunity to debate tobacco control. I will first take a moment, however, to highlight the UK’s international reputation on tobacco control. Successive Governments have demonstrated a commitment to improving public health through effective tobacco-control policies, and a wide range of measures have contributed to our long-term success. Over the past decade, complementary domestic and EU legislation has contributed to a decline in smoking prevalence among both adults and young people, and in England today the rate of adult smoking prevalence is under 20% for the first time. But clearly we want to keep making progress.

Since the 2001 tobacco products directive, there have been several scientific and international policy developments on tobacco control, an obvious one being the World Health Organisation’s framework convention on tobacco control, to which every EU member state and the European Commission are parties. It has become necessary to update the current directive, however, and that work is ongoing. The revised directive, to which the hon. Lady devoted much of her speech, proposes new requirements across a range of areas, including: the ingredients and emissions of tobacco products; labelling and packaging; product traceability and security features; cross-border distance sales; and novel and nicotine-containing products. The UK Government welcome the revised tobacco products directive and believe that the

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proposals will be good for public health across Europe, particularly in helping to prevent children from taking up smoking—it is of concern to us all that the vast majority of smokers started before they turned 18.

Our key objectives for the directive include: bigger pictorial health warnings; ending tobacco with characterising flavours, which the hon. Lady described, including menthol and fruit flavours; and requiring nicotine-containing products such as e-cigarettes to be regulated as medicines. During the negotiations, my predecessor and officials worked to secure adequate freedom for member states to introduce domestic policies within the scope of the directive that aim for a higher level of health protection where justified. That is important because we want to retain the freedom to do more if we want to. For example, we need the ability to introduce standardised packaging if we wish to do so.

Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): Does the Minister share my concern that some packaging is clearly aimed at children—for example, there is one with a Lego-style pattern called “14”—and women, through pastel colours and so on?

Jane Ellison: Yes, I share that concern. I saw a presentation only last week with some of those adverts and imagery. As I said, it is a key priority of ours to prevent children and young people from taking up smoking, so anything that might contribute to their taking it up is extremely worrying.

The UK’s support for the general approach agreed at the June Health Council was important in securing the qualified majority needed to avoid losing hard-won negotiated improvements to the text of the directive. Hon. Members will also be aware that the European Parliament has been scrutinising the proposal, and this is obviously where we have had some recent pushback in some areas. We were pleased to see that, on 8 October, the Parliament agreed with the Council and voted to ban packs of cigarettes with fewer than 20 sticks, to increase health warnings to 65% of the front and back of packs, to make pictorial warnings mandatory throughout the EU—as they are already in the UK—and to prohibit characterising flavours.

It should be noted that the Council and the European Parliament rejected the Commission’s proposal to ban slim cigarettes, so that will not form part of the final revised directive. As the new Minister, I made inquiries into why that was the case, and I understand that there was not enough support among EU member states or parliamentarians for such a ban. We in the UK felt that we had to go with the majority to ensure the progress of the directive, as it will be good for public health overall. That was a pragmatic decision. Like the hon. Lady, I believe that this package of measures will help to reduce the number of young people who take up smoking in the UK.

We are currently considering the detailed amendments that the European Parliament would like to make. We were disappointed that the Parliament did not support the regulation of nicotine-containing products as medicines. We believe that the medicines regulatory regime, applied with a light touch, is the best fit for these products. Although I cannot say too much more about that now, we recognise that there is a lively ongoing debate on that subject, and it is one that we are engaged in. It is also

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vital that we maintain momentum on the overall negotiations over the coming months, so as to finalise the directive as soon as possible.

The hon. Lady devoted some time to considering what the tobacco products directive will mean for small retailers. As a Back Bencher, I was co-chairman of the all-party parliamentary retail group, and I heard many of the same representations that she mentioned. I recognise those concerns. We recognise that some of the proposals will have impacts on tobacco retailers in regard to the range and pack size of tobacco products that they will be able to sell. During the negotiations, as with all of our tobacco control measures, we continue to consider the impacts on all areas of society, including businesses large and small.

I share the hon. Lady’s doubt that introducing the proposed revised directive, if and when agreed, will have any immediate or drastic effect on small retailers. As she said, retailers face an ongoing challenge to diversify the range of products that they sell so that they are not over-dependent on tobacco sales. British retailers are, and always have been, the most innovative in responding to consumer needs and diversifying. The earliest any new requirements would be likely to take effect in the UK would be 2016, meaning that shopkeepers have time to start making changes now.

The hon. Lady made some interesting points on illicit tobacco. Like her, I have heard that some tobacco manufacturers and retailers believe that certain measures in the proposed directive could drive more smokers to purchase illicitly traded tobacco products. We are not aware of any peer-reviewed and published studies that show that that would happen. However, we are not complacent when it comes to counterfeit or non-duty-paid tobacco products in the UK. The illicit tobacco market is complex and decisions by individuals to get involved in purchasing illicit tobacco depend on a range of factors. The proposed directive envisages a Europe-wide tracking and tracing system for tobacco products, the details of which we are still negotiating in Brussels. The European Commission says that that will reduce the amount of illicit products in the EU. Security features against counterfeiting will also allow consumers to verify the legal status of the products. The hon. Lady suggested that we were perhaps paying insufficient attention to the security features on the packaging, because they are often not very plain at all.

I am glad that the hon. Lady has pointed out that the illicit market in cigarettes and roll-your-own has diminished significantly since the launch of the first Government tobacco strategy in 2000, with the mid-point estimate of the tax gap for illicit cigarettes decreasing from 21% in 2000-2001 to 9% in 2012-13, for example, according to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs data. The UK’s success in reducing illicit tobacco is in no small part due to successive Governments’ commitment to, and investment in, enforcement, and that remains a key part of our policy. We should also see further progress on illicit tobacco on a global scale when the new framework convention on tobacco control protocol on illicit trade is implemented.

The hon. Lady made some interesting points about proxy purchasing. Obviously that is something that, as a new Minister, I have just begun to look at, and I was glad that she explored some of the arguments. I want to emphasise the valuable contribution that the majority

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of retailers make to ensuring that legitimate tobacco products are sold according to the law, including by not selling tobacco to people under 18 years old. Retailers get frustrated that we hear only about the occasional instances of poor practice that hit the headlines, and that decent, ordinary retailers do not get any credit for the way in which they uphold the law. I want to place on record my thanks to all those retailers who make strenuous efforts to uphold the law and who do not sell tobacco products to children.

I sympathise with the difficulties retailers face in ensuring that they do not make sales to under-age people. I also understand why some retailers feel that buying tobacco on behalf of a child should be an offence. However, we need to think carefully before introducing a proxy purchasing offence. I understand that the supply of cigarettes to children is a problem, but an offence of proxy purchasing would not necessarily tackle the wider problem of supply.

Lorely Burt: Will the Minister tell us whether any lessons have been learned from Scotland’s introduction of an offence of proxy purchasing that might be transferrable to the rest of the UK?

Jane Ellison: I was going to say that we are interested to see what will happen in Scotland. It is relatively early days yet, but I am certainly interested in looking at that.

Many children who smoke get their cigarettes from friends and family, and from other children who share cigarettes in parks and playgrounds. An offence of proxy purchasing would be unlikely to stop family members or friends giving cigarettes to young people. The offence was introduced in Scotland, where there is a slightly different regulatory regime, as part of a package of measures. Also, we cannot draw a comparison with alcohol because the regulatory regimes for the sale of alcohol and tobacco are different.

Enforcement of a good deal of tobacco control legislation, including age of sale, is the responsibility of local authority trading standards officers. I have asked questions about the capability of enforcing any such rules introduced. Currently, the Trading Standards Institute, while supportive in principle of any additional measures to tackle under-age access to tobacco, has told us that experience with the alcohol offence shows that there are likely to be difficulties enforcing a proxy purchase offence for tobacco. In practice, it is sometimes difficult to prove the offence and effective enforcement would entail surveillance of shopper and retailer behaviours, which can be time consuming and resource intensive. As I say, I am aware that, since 2011, there has been a proxy purchasing offence in Scotland, which was brought in as one of a number of changes—and we will keep a very close eye on how it has been implemented.

Having heard what the hon. Lady has said tonight, I would encourage Members who have evidence about the potential impact of introducing an offence for proxy purchasing to write to me, particularly if they have feedback from their local trading standards officers about the realistic potential for effective enforcement.

Let me finally touch on a couple of further points that the hon. Lady raised. As I have mentioned, the tobacco products directive does not seek to introduce standardised packaging, but it would allow the UK to proceed with that if we wanted to do so. The Government

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published a summary of the consultation responses, issued a written statement earlier this year and responded to an urgent question. As the hon. Lady knows and as I mentioned several times at Health questions last week, the Government have decided to wait before making a final decision on standardised packaging. The policy remains under very active consideration and the Government have not ruled out its introduction. We are assessing all the information available to us from Australia and elsewhere. I cannot give the hon. Lady a time frame, but I repeat the fact that the policy is under very active consideration. Some interesting information is coming in from around the world, not just from Australia.

We want member states to have the flexibility to make further progress on domestic tobacco control measures in certain key areas, potentially going beyond the new directive, and we have been helping to shape the final text of article 24 to try to achieve that as an objective. I hope the hon. Lady agrees that it is sensible to see what we can learn from other countries’ experience, but it is hard for me to speculate about what different impacts might be seen and when.

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It has been a key strand of the Government’s commitment to reducing the take-up of smoking among young people that the display of tobacco has been prohibited in large shops such as supermarkets since April 2012. That display consultation happened under the previous Government. In April 2015, legislation extending the covering up of tobacco in all retail outlets will come into force.

I have endeavoured to try to cover all the points that the hon. Lady raised in her very thoughtful speech. As she recognises, the topicality of this debate is notable; many of the issues are being debated here and in the European Parliament. We are very much engaged in that debate. I look forward to hearing what other Members think and to hearing further from the hon. Lady on the important subject she has raised.

Question put and agreed to.

8.11 pm

House adjourned.