New Clause 2 - Age of sale

Health Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:30 pm on 13th December 2005.

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‘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.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

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’.

Photo of George Young George Young Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee, Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee

This appears to be the last debate on this part the Bill. It is important because it deals with a subject that we have not touched on so far. I am conscious in moving the new clause that I am treading   all over the flower beds so carefully prepared by the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis). I pay tribute to his work. I reread his speech on 18 October when he introduced his ten-minute Bill. He may want to draw on the material that he deployed then. He also touched on the subject on Second Reading.

The new clause would give the Government the powers to raise the minimum legal age for buying cigarettes from 16 to, probably, 18. It would achieve that by allowing them to issue regulations under the Bill that amend the legal age for buying cigarettes specified in the Children and Young Persons (Protection from Tobacco) Act 1991. The new clause differs from the hon. Gentleman’s, which is more prescriptive. He would move the age to 18 and do so now, while mine would permit the Government to raise the minimum legal age at a later date to whichever age they might choose. If it were left to me it would be a higher age than is likely to emerge from the Government.

I said on Second Reading that what the tobacco industry fears is not so much price increases and health warnings, useful though they are, but statements from society that smoking is an unacceptable habit in a public place and that tobacco is a product that it is illegal to sell and consume in certain circumstances. Those are more effective steps to the non-smoking paradise that I mentioned.

Raising the legal buying age would be a modestly useful measure that might have some impact on teenage smoking rates. However, it should not be a substitute for a comprehensive piece of legislation that ends smoking in all workplaces and enclosed public places. I am slightly suspicious that the Government have chosen to trial the proposal in a way that was clearly designed to distract attention from the difficulties that they faced with the exemptions in clause 3.

Last Thursday, just before the Committee voted on the exemption for pubs that do not sell food, the Minister announced that there would be a consultation on whether to raise the legal age for buying cigarettes from 16 to 18. That was an astonishingly timely initiative, which went beyond what she said on the subject only on 29 November in reply to the debate on Second Reading. She said that the consultation on increasing the age limit for cigarettes and other tobacco products would be carried out next year. Clearly, if that consultation is to be meaningful, she will need powers in the Bill to change the age if that is what the result of the consultation indicates. My new clause helpfully provides that opportunity.

In response to the announcement, the Press Association said last week:

“The move follows reports that the health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, was considering backing a Labour backbench plan to ban the sale of cigarettes to under-18s, bringing the law in line with alcohol sales. This would also bring Britain into line with other European Union countries and the US.”

It then quoted what was said in the press release:

“We will consider carefully the results of that consultation before making a final decision” and continued

“Her comments came during the committee stage of the health bill, which will impose a partial smoking ban in public places—with pubs that do not serve food and private members’ clubs exempt from the ban. Doctors’ leaders, anti-smoking groups and many backbench MPs have described the partial ban as ‘half measures’. The pressure group Action on Smoking and Health described the idea of increasing the age limit for tobacco sales as a ‘cynical’ measure to appease backbench MPs who want the government to introduce a total ban on people lighting up in public places.”

I would never accuse the Government of anything so devious.

The new clause is a complementary measure, not an alternative to a ban. The Government must not seek to use it as a bargaining counter to avoid a ban in pubs that do not sell food. Survey evidence from the Office for National Statistics shows that in 2004, 9,000 11 to 15-year-olds and 21 per cent. of 15-year-olds—26 per cent. of girls and 16 per cent. of boys—smoked regularly. That is despite the fact that the legal buying age is 16. In 1998, the Government set a target to reduce the prevalence of regular smoking among young people aged 11 to 15 from a base line of 13 per cent. in 1996 to 11 per cent. by 2005 and 9 per cent. or less by 2010. The proportion of 16 to 19-year-olds who smoke is currently 26 per cent. About 450 children start smoking every day. More than 80 per cent. of smokers took up the habit as teenagers.

There is some evidence that increasing the legal buying age may discourage young people from starting to smoke. The island of Guernsey raised the age for buying cigarettes from 16 to 18 in the late 1990s. Other measures were also introduced to tackle smoking, including a targeted education programme in schools and higher taxes on cigarettes. Smoking rates among young people on the island have halved since 1997 and only 19 per cent. of adults smoke. Joanne Staples, co-ordinator of the Guernsey Adolescent Smoke-free Project—GASP—has been quoted as saying that raising the age limit has made it more difficult for children to buy cigarettes, which is what one would expect.

However, Guernsey is a small island, where the enforcement of such age restrictions is relatively straightforward. Enforcement across England and Wales would be more challenging. In 2004–05, trading standards services prosecuted 117 retailers for selling cigarettes to children aged under 16. The retailers received penalties ranging from only a conditional discharge to fines of up to £1,000. Many more received cautions. If the Government smile on my new clause—I bring up a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury—will they give local authorities the resources that they need for trading standards officers to enforce a new law? Will the penalties for breaching the law match the seriousness of the offence?

Although raising the legal buying age may be useful, the most effective way to get young people not to smoke is to persuade adults to quit. Young people generally start to smoke because they regard it as an adult activity. Putting the equivalent of an 18   certificate on cigarettes obviously will not have much impact in persuading them to the contrary. That is why a workplace smoking law that is truly comprehensive will have more effect than raising the legal buying age. As we have heard, children are three times as likely to smoke if both their parents smoke. Parents’ approval or disapproval of the habit is also a significant factor.

When the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough catches your eye, Lady Winterton, he will draw parallels with the Gambling Act 2005, under which some gaming machines will now be restricted to the over-18s, and the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, which raises to 18 the age at which airguns and some knives can be sold. I am sure that he will also give the views of the Trading Standards Institute, which wants the age limit for the sale of cigarettes to be raised to 18.

I know that the Committee is anxious to make progress. I simply say in conclusion that new clause 2 should be supported because it would enable the Government to conduct a meaningful consultation on youth smoking and, after that consultation, to raise the legal age at a future date without primary legislation.

Photo of Jeff Ennis Jeff Ennis Labour, Barnsley East and Mexborough

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind comments and for not stealing all my thunder.

It is important to present the Committee with the background as to why I think that we should consider accepting new clause 7, in particular. I welcome the Government’s initiative last week in announcing a consultation on the possibility of raising the age from 16 to 18. I certainly do not view that as a cynical ploy. When I read the White Paper “Choosing Health” when it was first published last November, I thought that there was a glaring omission in the chapter dealing with anti-smoking measures because there was no mention of a consultation on raising the age as part of the White Paper process.

Having discovered that, I submitted a question to the then Public Health Minister, Melanie Johnson, who is unfortunately no longer a Member of the House, and I received a reply on 7 December. My question was:

“To ask the Secretary of State for Health whether proposals to raise the minimum age of sale in retail premises from 16 to 18 years for cigarettes are included in the White Paper consultation process.”

Her response was:

“There are no plans to increase the minimum age of sales of tobacco from 16 to 18. We are not aware of any evidence that such a change would have a significant impact in reducing smoking rates in children and young people.”—[Official Report, 7 December 2004; Vol. 428, c. 495W.]

I thought that that was a glaring omission and I was very disappointed with the response.

I was so disappointed that, on 13 December last year, I tabled early-day motion 380 on the minimum age of sale for tobacco, which read as follows:

“That this House asks the Government to give serious consideration to raising the minimum age of sales of tobacco from 16 to 18 years as part of its consultation process on the White Paper, Choosing Health.”

I am pleased to say that that motion attracted 62 signatures in the last Parliament, from Members in all parties. I re-tabled that early-day motion in the new Parliament as early-day motion 276 on 25 May and so far it has attracted the signatures of 55 Members. I hope that Members who have not signed it will take the opportunity to do so tomorrow. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire has already referred to my excellent ten-minute Bill of 18 October, in which I proposed to raise the age of sale from 16 to 18 for tobacco products.

As I have already said, I was very disappointed with the original response. One of the main reasons for that was the statement of the Department that there was no evidence to show that raising the age had made a difference. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the example from Guernsey that I cited in my ten-minute Bill. By 2003, it was established in Guernsey that raising the age cut the rate by some 50 per cent. To me, that is compelling evidence that we ought to have considered such a measure in the Bill. We have already mentioned the fact that other European countries have raised the age, including Ireland. I understand that next year Scotland might raise the age of sale from 16 to 18. On that theme, I received an e-mail from Pamela M. Crowe, a Member of the House of Keys in the Isle of Man. She said:

“I introduced a Bill to raise the age of the sale to tobacco to 18 years 6 years ago, the legislation has worked very well as a provision for proof of age cards was included. Trading standards officers enforced the law.”

Such a measure was also implemented on the island of Jersey last year.

The measure enjoys popular support. When discussing earlier clauses, the Minister mentioned the health survey conducted by the BBC in 2004, which I quoted in my ten-minute Bill. The survey found that 80 per cent. of the people in this country support the measure, particularly young people in the 18-to-24 age category. When the issue was highlighted in the press recently, the BBC and Sky News conducted two telephone polls on the matter, and the measure was supported by 88 per cent. and 89 per cent. of respondents respectively.

The measure enjoys popular support. The Trading Standards Institute has passed a resolution to agree to the measure at its last two annual conferences. I have had numerous e-mails and letters of support from various health professionals. I shall briefly quote from two of them. The first is from Doncaster and Bassetlaw Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which covers my constituency and that of the Minister. It is dated 27 October 2005 and is from Emyr Jones, the consultant physician. It reads:

“Dear Mr. Ennis,

Raising minimum age for legal cigarettes purchase.

I understand from a recent story in the news media that you are sponsoring a parliamentary motion aimed at increasing the minimum legal age for the purchase of cigarettes and other smoking related material.

I am writing as Medical Director of your local NHS Foundation Trust to indicate that you have the full support of this Trust, and of the clinicians in this Trust, who provide care for the victims of cigarette smoking related disease. We applaud your initiative and hope that it will be successful.

Together with the measures that the Government is currently taking to protect the health and safety of employees, by banning smoking in public places, we would hope that the measures that you are sponsoring will contribute to the continuing alienation of smokers and the unacceptability of this pernicious habit.”

That is not my choice of words.

The second letter is from my other local health trust, the Barnsley Hospital NHS Foundation Trust. It is from the medical director, David Hicks. He writes:

“Dear Mr. Ennis,

I am writing as Medical Director at Barnsley Hospital NHS Foundation Trust to strongly support your forthcoming proposal to the house under the “10 minute rule”. I understand that the intention of your proposed bill to the House of Commons is to increase the age of legal smoking from 16 to 18 years.

I have consulted my colleagues at the Trust and in particular those working in Respiratory Medicine.

As healthcare professionals and respiratory physicians the devastation caused by tobacco is all too apparent. The British Thoracic Society ... has issued a position statement on tobacco in September 2004”— which was also before the White Paper was published—

“and this includes the proposal ‘to raise the minimum age of cigarette purchase to 18, without any incremental stages’ .... May I wish you the best of success with your bill which could herald a signal change in public health across the country.”

My proposal not only has the support of the people and the health professionals, but the support of the press. I have with me a copy of the South Yorkshire Times—an excellent newspaper that covers my constituency and that of the Minister. The headline in the October 27 edition reads, “Backing for Bill to raise smoking age”. The subsequent article begins:

“The South Yorkshire Times today formally backed Mexborough and Barnsley East MP Jeff Ennis in his bid to raise the minimum smoking age to 18.”

The paper also went so far as to place petitions for signature, not only in their head offices, but in the shops in my constituency and that of the Minister. In the not-too-distant future, I hope to present that petition on the Floor of the House. In that context, I single out the campaigning journalist from the South Yorkshire Times, Mr. Lee Siggs. For the benefit of Hansard, that is spelled “Siggs” not “Cigs”. Such things could not be made up.

In conclusion, I thank the Minister for the support that she has given me since she took on her ministerial job. I had a number of formal and informal meetings with her on this issue, long before we reached the debate on Second Reading.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Shadow Secretary of State for Health 6:45 pm, 13th December 2005

The hon. Gentleman has made a powerful case in support of the principle underlying new clauses 2 and 7. However, I am not yet clear about his position. Does he support new clause 2, which would put into primary legislation the opportunity for Ministers to implement such a measure in the light of consultation, or does he wish us to proceed with new clause 7, on the basis that there is good evidence and   substantial public support for such a measure and not, as far as I am aware, any countervailing evidence or public opposition that should inhibit us from doing so?

Photo of Jeff Ennis Jeff Ennis Labour, Barnsley East and Mexborough

Like the rest of the Committee, I am waiting to hear the Minister’s response to my contribution and that of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, because both new clauses are worthy of consideration by the Committee.

I certainly welcome the public consultation process that the Minister announced, and I am sure that it is not an attempt to kick the issue into the long grass, as some people might suggest, or a cynical ploy. However, I would like assurances about the process.   The announcement said that the consultation would be next year, but how long does the Minister expect it to last? When does she expect it to start? Will it be at the beginning of the year or next November or December? If the measure enjoys popular support, as I am sure that it will once we have been out to consultation, when and how does she envisage it becoming law? Will it be brought in with the Bill or in some other legal framework?

Debate adjourned.—[Gillian Merron.]

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Seven o’clock till Thursday 15 December at Nine o’clock.