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Clause 2 — Duty to prevent sunbed use by children

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 12:00 pm on 12th March 2010.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 12:00 pm, 12th March 2010

The amendments in the group deal with offences and penalties. Amendment 7 seeks to reduce the maximum penalty in clause 2(6) from £20,000 to £5,000. That would be a more reasonable and proportionate maximum penalty in this context, because a maximum penalty of £20,000 on summary conviction of the offence of breaching the duties imposed by the Bill would be devastating for someone carrying on a sunbed business. Many such businesses are relatively small, employing small numbers of people-perhaps one or two-and as my hon. Friend Angela Watkinson said earlier, we are talking about something that is tantamount to a strict liability offence. It will therefore be very easy for people to be found to be in breach, albeit not knowingly in breach-for example, if a sunbed is used by somebody who is under 18, but who looks significantly older.

We know that offences relating to the sale of alcohol to under-18s, which is pretty rife up and down the country, do not result in penalties anything like as great as that which is proposed by clause 2. I hope that the Minister will explain why she thinks that a penalty of £20,000 is appropriate.

There is a difference between this proposed penalty and the penalty of £20,000 that I envisaged in new clause 1, which would have been imposed for a breach of equipment regulations in which someone had supplied equipment, for hire or otherwise, that was unsafe for use. That is a very different proposition from the imposition of a fine on someone because they have been duped by a young person into unwittingly allowing them to gain access to a sunbed.

Amendments 21 to 25 relate to clause 8, which deals with the obstruction of so-called authorised officers. Amendment 21 would have the effect of making clause 8(2) read as follows: "A person who without reasonable excuse fails to give to an authorised officer, acting in the exercise of the officer's functions under this Act, information which the authorised officer reasonably requires of the person for the performance of those functions commits an offence." As currently drafted, that subsection states that the offence would be committed if the person failed to give the authorised officer

"any facilities, assistance or information".

That is far too vague and wide-ranging, given that it would trigger an offence for which there would be a substantial financial penalty. I hope that the Minister and the promoter of the Bill will be able to explain what those words add to the Bill.

The clause, as drafted, says that anyone who does not answer the questions put to them will be committing an offence. That seems to cut across the principle of being innocent until proven guilty, and the principle that no one should incriminate themselves under English law. My amendment would not exclude all that; it merely says that those principles should not be undermined simply because someone fails to provide facilities or assistance. We all remember people in "Dixon of Dock Green" assisting the police officers with their inquiries. Under clause 8, anyone who did not assist the police officer with his inquiries would be guilty of an offence, and that seems a step too far.

Amendment 22 tries to address the mischief of strict liability. Clause 8(3) states:

"A person ("P") commits an offence if, in purported compliance with any requirement of an authorised officer mentioned in subsection (2)-

(a) P makes a statement which is false or misleading in a material respect".

I believe that that should be an offence only if the person knows the statement to be false or misleading in a material respect. Even in this House, even by Government Ministers and even perhaps by the Prime Minister, statements are sometimes made that are

"false or misleading in a material respect", but they may not be "knowingly made"; rather, they can be described as "inadvertently misleading the House". Why should someone who inadvertently makes a misleading statement be guilty of an offence? I hope that the Minister will address that issue, as I would suggest that this is not a million miles away from some of her own recent experiences.

Amendment 23 would simply leave out the word "and", taking out the conjunction between subsection (3)(a) and (b), while amendment 24 would remove paragraph (b). It would remove the words:

"P either knows that it is false or misleading or is reckless as to whether it is false or misleading."

The purpose is to emphasise that actual knowledge rather than any lesser test should be necessary before an offence is committed. I hope that the amendment will commend itself to the House.

I also hope that amendment 25 to clause 9 will find favour. Clause 9(2) provides:

"If the offence is proved to have been committed by, or with the consent or connivance of, or to be attributable to any neglect on the part of...any director, manager or secretary of the body corporate, or...any person who was purporting to act in any such capacity", that person

"is guilty of the offence and liable to be proceeded against and punished accordingly."

It seems to me that it would be much better to limit that to offences proved to have been committed by the person. As currently drafted, the clause extends the effective criminal liability to somebody who is conniving with an action or is guilty of "any neglect". A very stringent penalty is being imposed on someone working for a body corporate, who by definition does not have knowledge of what is happening. Once again we are over-egging the pudding, so I hope that the House will accept the amendment.

Amendment 32 is similar to amendment 7 in that it would reduce the maximum penalty from £20,000 to £5,000. In this context, the Local Government Association has asserted that the Bill will result only in an additional regulatory burden for the whole of local government, amounting to a cost of £88,000 a year. That is not a net but a gross figure. If the whole Bill is going to cost only £88,000 to police, a maximum penalty of £20,000 seems disproportionate. The promoter clearly failed to understand the nature of the sunbed industry, and failed to heed the warning that such draconian and stringent penalties might cause people to take their business underground rather than risk the consequences of inadvertently committing an offence.

Although this is a narrow point in one sense, it is serious none the less. The Bill creates new criminal penalties, coupled with the power to amend and extend them. We need to ensure that those penalties are tightly defined, and not more extensive than is reasonable in all the circumstances.

I hope that the Minister will engage in the debate rather than reading out a prepared script, so that we can understand the position fully. If, when the Bill has been enacted, any of our constituents-perhaps not many in the south of England, as this does not seem to be such an issue there-find themselves before the courts, they will look back at this debate and wonder why the offences were drawn so widely. They will wonder why it was necessary for the Bill to make it so difficult for people to avoid conviction even when they had been unwittingly duped into believing that a person using a sunbed was not under age.