Proof of Age Scheme (Purchase of Restricted Goods)

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 1:31 pm on 11 July 2007.

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Photo of Rob Flello Rob Flello PPS (Rt Hon Hazel Blears, Secretary of State), Department for Communities and Local Government 1:31, 11 July 2007

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a national compulsory proof of age scheme for persons aged between 16 and 21 years in connection with the purchase of alcohol, tobacco, knives, air weapons and other items;
and for connected purposes.

Because of the current absence of a national biometric identity card, the Bill is necessary for reasons I shall set out.

Every day in Britain, hard-working shop workers ensure that we can get hold of everything from A to Z—from apples to cuddly zebras—and are involved in millions of transactions, many of which involve age-restricted items such as alcohol, cigarettes, knives and airguns. Conflict does not usually arise over sales of apples or cuddly toys but, sadly, it all too frequently arises over the sale of age-restricted items. Research shows that the refusal to sell age-restricted products is the most common cause of verbal abuse towards shop staff and that it can also provoke physical violence. It is believed that as many as 90 per cent. of shop workers have suffered some form of abuse, and many of them do so daily.

As well as verbal abuse, shop workers are often subjected to physical abuse, ranging from being spat at to violent assault. For example, a shop worker who refused to serve a bottle of beer to someone whom they thought was under age was told that they would be knifed. Other shop workers report being beaten up for refusing to sell alcohol to young lads. Thankfully, according to the most recent figures, incidents of violent abuse against shop workers have declined. That is in part owing to initiatives such as the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers' successful "Freedom from Fear" campaign, and USDAW is today celebrating its "respect for shop workers" day. I pay tribute to it for its work in raising the profile of the millions of shop workers who serve us each and every day.

One way of addressing the problem of assault on shop workers is to foster a culture of "No ID, no sale", so that customers know that if they look under 21, they will need to show proof of age. That would help to defuse tension and reduce opportunities for confrontation when a customer is challenged about their age.

I fear that the problems associated with selling age-restricted products will peak this autumn when the age at which tobacco products can be sold rises from 16 to 18. Many young people who are approaching their 18th birthday will have been buying cigarettes legally for almost two years but will no longer be able to do so. Similar increases in the minimum age for purchase will rightly apply to knives, airguns and crossbows.

I am particularly concerned about the availability of so-called pendant knives. They look like a piece of jewellery, but they contain two blades that fold out. I was horrified to learn that that item can be sold legally as it is not a concealed blade and the blades are not long enough to make it illegal. I fail to understand how such items can be justified, but I look forward to the date when at least no one under 18 can buy one.

The Bill has two key points: it proposes that we have a nationally recognised, Government-controlled proof of age scheme, and that that be compulsory for those aged 16 to 21 who wish to make restricted purchases. Let us be clear about what we are addressing. Tobacco and alcohol are not the only items whose purchase is age-restricted. Other age-restricted products include fireworks, which can cause great misery in the hands of people who misuse them, DVDs, videos and solvents—the problems associated with solvent misuse have been raised with the Prime Minister. Other items include aerosol paints—young people sometimes use them to put their tags on walls—lottery tickets, petrol and crossbows. It is right and proper that such items are sold only to those who are deemed to be of a suitable age.

It would be wrong to claim that there are no voluntary schemes already in place to train and support shop workers in order to help them meet their legal obligations and check the age of customers. Many Members will be aware of the pass scheme, and I pay tribute to all involved in that, including the drinks industry, which plays an active role. The pass scheme is supported by robust audits carried out by trading standards bodies, and only accredited cards may bear the registered hologram. About 2 million such cards are in use, and where they are applied, their use is beneficial. However, as well as the four national card schemes that are accredited by a pass, there are also about 20 local authority entitlement cards, which also provide proof of age, and numerous other non-accredited schemes. More worryingly, there are cards showing false details that can be downloaded and printed from the internet. Furthermore, in some parts of the country it is more usual for young people to use passports or driving licences to prove their age. I understand that it is estimated that about two thirds of those aged 18 and 19 have passports, and that a similar proportion have driving licences. Inevitably, there is a significant overlap between those two groups, so perhaps a quarter of all those aged 18 and 19 do not have some form of official Government proof of age.

Apart from the costs involved, what are the dangers in carrying around such documents? Identity theft dangers are heightened. Passports and other documents can easily be stolen when people are on a night out. Replacing them is both costly and time consuming. It is an administrative burden for the young person, the police and the passport agency.

There is currently a variety of proof of age cards and documents, and, although the pass hologram should be widely recognised, a young person who visits elsewhere in the country—perhaps a person from Stoke-on-Trent visiting a friend in Portsmouth—might find that his proof of age card is not recognised there. A single, national, Government-run scheme would simplify the position on proof of age by removing the myriad schemes. Its establishment would also raise the profile of the single scheme in the minds of customers.

If we were to have compulsion, that would help create the culture we need to foster whereby anyone who looks under the age of 21—I can only wish that that included me—automatically shows their proof of age when purchasing age-restricted items. If showing a proof of age card is compulsory, that should take off the shop worker the pressure of having to ask to see such proof. That in turn should lead to less scope for confrontation and less abuse and assault of our shop workers. Regardless of how well a voluntary scheme might be run, I do not believe that it would stop abuse of shop workers. The scheme must be compulsory.

Although we may no longer be described as a nation of shopkeepers, we should celebrate the work our shop workers do—often at times when the rest of the population is not at work, such as early in the morning, late in the evening, at weekends, and during holidays and bank holidays. Our shop workers deserve the greatest respect, and to be treated properly. My Bill would add to the protection of those hard-working men and women. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Robert Flello, Mr. Adrian Bailey, Lyn Brown, Mr. David Kidney, Sarah McCarthy-Fry and Lynda Waltho.

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