Clause 79 - Commencement

Tobacco and Vapes Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 14 May 2024.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East 2:00, 14 May 2024

I beg to move amendment 24, in clause 79, page 42, line 16, leave out “and 8” and insert

“, 8 and (age verification policy)”.

This amendment to the commencement provisions would mean that NC6 (age verification policy in England and Wales) would come into force six months after Royal Assent.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 6—Age verification policy—

“(1) A person commits an offence if the person—

(a) carries on a tobacco, herbal smoking product or vaping product business, and

(b) fails to operate an age verification policy in respect of premises at which the person carries on the tobacco, herbal smoking product or vaping product business.

(2) Subsection (1) does not apply to premises (“the business premises”) from which—

(a) tobacco products, herbal smoking products, cigarette papers or vaping products are, in pursuance of a sale, despatched for delivery to different premises, and

(b) no other tobacco, herbal smoking product or vaping product business is carried on from the business premises.

(3) Before the specified date, an “age verification policy” is a policy that steps are to be taken to establish the age of a person attempting to buy a tobacco product, cigarette papers or a vaping product on the premises (the “customer”) if it appears to the person selling the tobacco product, cigarette papers or vaping product that the customer may be under the age of 25 (or such older age as may be specified in the policy).

(4) After the specified date, an “age verification policy”—

(a) in relation to a tobacco business or herbal smoking product business, is a policy that steps are to be taken to establish the age of a person attempting to buy a tobacco product, cigarette papers, herbal smoking product or cigarette papers on the premises (the “customer”) if it appears to the person selling the tobacco product, cigarette papers, herbal smoking product or cigarette papers that the customer may have been born on or after 1 January 2009 (or such earlier date as may be specified in the policy);

(b) in relation to a vaping product business, is a policy that steps are to be taken to establish the age of a person attempting to buy a vaping product on the premises (the “customer”) if it appears to the person selling the vaping product that the customer may be under the age of 25 (or such older age as may be specified in the policy).

(5) In relation to times before the end of 2033, the reference in subsection (4)(a) to the customer being born on or after 1 January 2009 (or such earlier date as may be specified in the policy) has effect as a reference to the customer being under the age of 25 (or such older age as may be specified in the policy).

(6) The appropriate national authority may by regulations amend the age specified in subsection (3) or (4)(b).

(7) The appropriate national authority may publish guidance on matters relating to age verification policies, including, in particular, guidance about—

(a) steps that should be taken to establish a customer’s age,

(b) documents that may be shown to the person selling a tobacco product, cigarette papers, herbal smoking product or a vaping product as evidence of a customer’s age,

(c) training that should be undertaken by the person selling the tobacco product, cigarette papers, herbal smoking product or vaping product,

(d) the form and content of notices that should be displayed in the premises,

(e) the form and content of records that should be maintained in relation to an age verification policy.

(8) A person who carries on a tobacco, herbal smoking product or vaping product business must have regard to guidance published under subsection (7) when operating an age verification policy.

(9) A person guilty of an offence under subsection (1) is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 2 on the standard scale.

(10) Regulations under subsection (6) are subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.

(11) In this section—

“the appropriate national authority” means—

(a) in relation to England, the Secretary of State, and

(b) in relation to Wales, the Welsh Ministers,

“herbcal smoking product business” means a business involving the sale of herbal smoking products by retail,

“the specified date” is 1 January 2027,

“tobacco business” means a business involving the sale of tobacco products by retail,

“tobacco, herbal smoking product or vaping product business” means a business which involves any one or more of the following—

(a) a tobacco business,

(b) a herbal smoking product business, or

(c) a vaping product business,

“vaping product business” means a business involving the sale of vaping products by retail.”

This new clause introduces a requirement on tobacco, herbal smoking or vaping product businesses to operate an age verification policy covering steps to be taken to establish the age of persons attempting to buy tobacco, herbal smoking or vaping products, or cigarette papers. It reflects provisions in place in Scotland.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I rise to support the amendment and new clause tabled in my name. I will save the Committee time and will not go through the amendment in detail, because obviously colleagues have it in front of them. The key point is that the new clause would introduce a requirement on tobacco, herbal smoking or vaping product businesses to operate an age verification policy, covering steps to be taken to establish the age of persons attempting to buy tobacco, herbal smoking or vaping products or cigarette papers. It reflects that which is already in place in Scotland, where mandatory age verification has been a legal requirement for tobacco and vapes since 2017. A survey of independent UK tobacco retailers for Action on Smoking and Health in 2022 found that 83% supported the introduction of mandatory age verification for anyone aged under 25, with only 5% opposing it, and 91% supported it in Scotland, where it is already in force, with only 4% opposed to it.

I think we should take a lead from our colleagues in Scotland on this particular issue. The Scottish legislation is supported by guidance from the Scottish Government and the Government worked with trade bodies to ensure that retailers understood it. The Scottish legislation provides a legal underpinning to the voluntary Challenge 25 scheme, which operates in the rest of the United Kingdom. A voluntary scheme such as Challenge 25 is by definition inconsistent in its application, leaving some customers unsure about whether they will need to provide proof of age. Seeking verification for anyone who looks under 25 is in line with the legislation for alcohol and is supported by retailers and by the Association of Convenience Stores.

One of the key challenges we face in this Bill is that of workers in retail units challenging people about whether they are old enough to buy such products. The new clause would make it clear that they have a requirement to do so, which would be a good defence for them when they are challenged by their customers.

As the explanatory notes to the Tobacco and Vapes Bill set out, the Bill updates the Scottish legislation to ensure that age verification is consistently and appropriately applied in line with the new age of sale restrictions for tobacco products, herbal smoking products and cigarette papers. Ensuring consistency in the application of age verification is just as important for the other nations of the United Kingdom as it is for Scotland. Why should the Scots have this and not the rest of the United Kingdom?

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way when he was making such a compelling argument. I am also very grateful to hear him speaking so positively of the Scottish Government. He is almost doing my job for me, so I will not seek to speak on the amendment. I want to make it clear to him that I will not support the amendment and new clause purely because they do not impact on Scotland. That says absolutely nothing about my interest in the principles of what he is setting out.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I am always willing to praise people who do the right thing. Unfortunately the SNP Government do not always do the right thing, as many of us know.

Extending the requirements for Scotland to the rest of the United Kingdom is supported by the vast majority of the general public and of retailers surveyed by ASH in 2024. To quote John McClurey, a retired tobacco retailer from Newcastle who, during his 39 years as a small shop owner, successfully implemented the increase in the age of sale from 16 to 18, putting tobacco out of sight in his shops and introducing standardised packaging of tobacco products:

“Like the communities they serve, retailers support creating a smokefree generation by raising the age of sale one year every year from 2027 onwards. However, I know from experience it will be easier for retailers to implement if age verification was required from anyone trying to buy tobacco who appeared to be underage. This won’t apply to existing adult social smokers only to those who look as though they were born after 2008. It’s popular with the public as well as with retailers and it will be a legal requirement in Scotland, so why not the whole of the UK?”

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

I thank the hon. Gentleman for setting out the case for his amendment. We have already debated clause 79 to some extent, and I raised my concerns that we were not introducing regulations to close the loophole on the free distribution of vapes to under-18s sooner.

On new clause 6 and amendment 24 I recognise the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, which is that a mandatory age verification policy has been in force in Scotland for anyone looking under 25 since 2017. My understanding is that that is working well and, indeed, we also have Challenge 25 here in England and in Wales, although not on a legislative footing. The policy of providing a buffer can only help to ensure that those who are under-age, but who look over-age, are caught and are asked for ID—provided everyone knows where they stand and the Challenge 25 policy is well advertised.

As we have already discussed, the view taken in the design of these regulations is to put the responsibility for age of sale restrictions with the retailer, rather than the customer. The question the hon. Gentleman is raising is whether to make carrying ID effectively mandatory for customers buying cigarettes or vapes. I have a few concerns about that that I would like to raise. First, quite rightly, in order to be consistent with the rest of the regulations, his amendments put the responsibility for such a policy on the retailers. However, the effect of the policy would be to require customers to carry ID in order to buy these products if they were under a certain age. There does seem to be a bit of a disjunct, as that risks legislating twice for the responsibility to make sure that retailers do not sell to people who are under-age. Does this not suggest that the penalties for breaching the age of sale legislation need to be stronger in order to incentivise retailers to put robust policies in place?

I am slightly concerned that the policy will also remove flexibility when it comes to, for example, shop workers in local corner shops, who know their customers. Would they not end up having to ask people for ID every time, even when they already know they are over-age? Secondly, I just want to ask how the hon. Member envisages this working in the longer term, given that the age of sale for tobacco will rise every year? How will the Challenge 25 buffer be set accordingly? As it stands in his proposals, it would run out in 2033.

My other question is for the Minister. Presumably there has been a conscious decision to not align with the Scottish law on this subject. Can she explain why that decision was taken, on balance, when consistency in the law across Great Britain would surely be beneficial? Moreover, can I ask whether she has discussed this with Ministers in Wales? Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East for tabling the amendment and I will be interested in the responses to the questions that I have raised.

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

I have a lot of sympathy with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East, and with his amendment and new clause 6. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston mentioned some of the reasons why they are potentially slightly confusing and also, perhaps, unnecessary. I understand the point about the neatness of aligning to Scotland. The hon. Lady asked whether we have discussed this with Ministers in devolved Administrations and, of course, the answer is yes.

The decision we took is that the proposal that we have is adequate. New clause 6 would introduce a requirement for businesses selling tobacco products, herbal smoking products and vaping products in England and Wales to operate an age verification policy. The policy would establish a customer’s age if they look under the age specified by the new clause. The new clause seeks to replicate the existing requirements in Scotland, and the related amendment 24 would mean the requirement to operate an age verification policy would come into force six months after Royal Assent.

For purchases of tobacco and herbal smoking products from 1 January 2034, when anyone born on or after the 1 January 2009 turns 25, the age verification policy would need to be updated to reflect the new age of sale for tobacco or herbal smoking-related products. That means that a person selling such products from 2034 onwards would be required to take steps to establish a customer’s age if they looked like they were born on or after 1 January 2009. The age verification requirement for vaping products would remain the same—that is, to take steps to establish a customer’s age if they look under 25.

Although I welcome my hon. Friend’s intention to ensure that retailers do not sell to anyone under-age, there is a fine balance to strike. We do not want to place undue burden on those retailers who understand their business and customers by introducing new mandatory age verification policies. It is already an offence to sell tobacco and vaping products to anyone under-age, and that is enforced by trading standards, who will continue to take an intelligence-led, proportionate approach to enforcing the law through age of sale test purchases. Retailers should continue to take reasonable steps and exercise due diligence to ensure they do not break the law. Most retailers already follow recommended practice and regularly ask for identification from customers, but, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston said, they do not have to do so every single time if they know who the person is and they always buy products at that shop.

Under the new clause, failure to operate an age verification policy could result in a fine of up to £500 for a business on conviction. The Government feel that that is disproportionate and not what we are trying to achieve through the Bill with the introduction of fixed-penalty notices. The on-the-spot fines will complement existing sanctions, allowing trading standards to take swifter action to fine retailers that sell tobacco or vape products to someone under-age.

The new clause would give the Secretary of State in England and Welsh Ministers the power to publish age verification guidance, which businesses must follow. Again, we feel that that is not needed. We are working closely with retailers and will continue to use the long lead-in time before 2027, when the age of sale of tobacco provisions come into force, to better support retailers in preparing for the introduction and implementation of these changes.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East 2:15, 14 May 2024

One of the clear concerns expressed by retailers—not necessarily the owners of shops but the staff who work in them and sell the products—is that if they can turn round to customers and say, “Look, it’s the law. I’ve got to ask you for your age verification. It is not something I can choose not to do; I have to do it,” that would strengthen their position. It would prevent arguments when they say, “I think you look under 25,” or “I think you look under 21.” That would strengthen their arm and make sure they abide by the law.

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

As I say, I have a lot of sympathy for my hon. Friend’s point of view, but he will appreciate that Challenge 25 has been in place for a good long time, and it works reasonably well. It is well understood right across the country, and therefore the Government’s position is that it is not necessary to move to mandatory age verification.

I can also reassure my hon. Friend that we are investing £15 million a year in national anti-smoking campaigns, which will help explain the legal changes that the smoke-free generation policy implements. They will also prepare the public and retailers for those changes. For those reasons, I ask my hon. Friend to withdraw the amendment and the new clause.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Given the Minister’s answer, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 79 ordered to stand part of the Bill.