Clause 19 - Enforcement by local weights and measures authorities

Tobacco and Vapes Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 9 May 2024.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

With this it will be convenient to discuss clauses 20 and 21 stand part.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 3:00, 9 May 2024

Clauses 19, 20 and 21 relate to the enforcement requirements of local weights and measures authorities in England and Wales. Clause 19 places the duty to enforce the tobacco and vaping measures in England and Wales on local weights and measures authorities. For England and Wales,

“local weights and measures authorities” means local authority trading standards.

The clause provides local authority trading standards with the power to use the investigatory powers under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 to conduct their enforcement activity. The investigatory powers are comprehensive and include the power to purchase products, observe a business, enter premises with or without a warrant, inspect products, test equipment, require the production of documents, seize goods, seize documents as evidence, break open containers and require assistance from persons on the premises. The existing regulatory regime for tobacco enforcement provides for local authority trading standards to use the same investigatory powers, which are considered to be effective, and thus clause 19 provides continuity with the current enforcement approach, ensuring enforcement of this new legislation at the local level.

Clause 20 provides a requirement for local authority trading standards in England to consider yearly a programme of enforcement, and the potential design of such a programme of enforcement, for offences under part 1 of the Bill. A programme of enforcement includes at least one of the following: investigations of complaints regarding alleged offences, prosecutions in respect of such offences, and/or other measures intended to reduce the incidence of such offences. The clause is important to the Bill, as it reconfirms what local authority trading standards should consider as appropriate to enforce the tobacco and vapes regulations.

Clause 21 makes the same provision for programmes of enforcement in Wales as is made for England under clause 20. I commend clauses 19, 20, and 21 to the Committee.

Photo of Preet Kaur Gill Preet Kaur Gill Shadow Minister (Primary Care and Public Health)

Trading standards officers are experts in this area. They know what they are looking for in retail settings, they are experts in the legislation they have to enforce, and they do an important job in difficult circumstances. As we heard in evidence, trading standards officers enforce dozens of regulations, but in many local authorities there are barely one or two officers to do the job. As we consider the new regulations that we give to them to enforce, it is important that we make sure they get the support they need to do the job.

As I mentioned, I have some concerns about clause 20, in that it provides a relatively weak basis on which to compel a programme of enforcement to be carried out. However, I am glad it at least sets out something of the Minister’s expectations, and we acknowledge that different local authorities face different local challenges. We do not want to be overly prescriptive in what we set in law. The issue therefore comes down to resources, so can the Minister tell us what has been the result of Operation Joseph and whether it will be continuing? I note that it received £3 million in funding last year, but the timeframe in which that was scheduled to be delivered was unclear. Can the Minister clear that up?

The Chartered Trading Standards Institute estimates that one in three vapes on British shelves may be illicit, which suggests that local authorities are struggling to fully get to grips with existing enforcement priorities, as we add new ones. What assessment have the Government made of authorities’ capacity to absorb these new responsibilities with the resources allocated?

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I want to put one issue to the Minister before she sums up these clauses. Obviously, the overwhelming number of retailers will wish to conform to the rules and regulations under which they exist. On re-reading the Bill, I notice that it does not cover the contents of products. For example, we have cited the issue of so-called nicotine-free products that contain nicotine and, indeed, many other products that may have different amounts of nicotine from what is stated. We hear anecdotally of some suppliers wanting to reduce the amount of nicotine in vapes to get people to buy more of them because the nicotine hit is insufficient. Under these powers, will trading standards officers have the opportunity to look at those products and take action against retailers who are clearly selling products whose contents clearly do not accord with what should be in them?

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central

I want to pick up on this point as well because it is incredibly important, and we cannot put the responsibilities on to trading standards if they do not have the tools to do the job. Clearly, this is a new field and, as we have discussed throughout the Bill, new products will come out and be marketed if we do not get ahead of the curve. It is therefore important that we ensure that new testing kits are made available and that we look at how they can be brought into play.

We heard strong evidence last week about the benefits of introducing a track and trace system, which would simplify the work of trading standards. If a product has not been through that process, and there is therefore not an authoritative basis on which to say that it can be sold, it would clearly be an illicit product. If a proper track and trace process was put in place, that could aid the work of trading standards, and addressing the real challenges we are trying to deal with through these clauses would not require such extensive resourcing.

Will the Minister therefore comment on her appetite for bringing in a track and trace system for vaping and other nicotine products to get ahead of the curve? That would ensure that the illicit trade is suppressed and does not rear its ugly head and that it is as easy as possible for trading standards to uphold every part of the Bill.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

This is obviously an incredibly important area of enforcement, and successful enforcement is integral to the success of this policy.

To the question from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston about Operation Joseph, in the year before the operation—2022-23—2.1 million illicit vapes were seized by trading standards across England. In the same year, 1,199 test purchases were carried out by trading standards in England, with 27.3% resulting in an illegal sale. Those are the numbers. As the hon. Lady says, Operation Joseph has had £3 million of investment over two years, led by National Trading Standards. It conducts a range of illicit vape enforcement activities, including data collection and analysis of the scale of illegal products and under-age sales; market surveillance; under-age sales testing; court enforcement action; and upskilling of trading standards staff. A further operation—Operation CeCe —was established in January 2021 as a joint venture between National Trading Standards and His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to tackle illicit tobacco sales.

So those individual measures are in place. As hon. Members will know, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency looks at the product notifications for legal products, which have to meet the compliance standards of the MHRA. It is then for trading standards to enforce, and they have had a significant increase in resources to tackle enforcement, as I have set out. I am obviously happy to write to Members with more detail should they wish.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 19 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 20 and 21 ordered to stand part of the Bill.