Proof-of-age Cards (Ayrshire)

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:01 pm on 17th November 1999.

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Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament 5:01 pm, 17th November 1999

We move on to members' business and a debate on motion S1M-219, in the name of Phil Gallie. I make my usual appeal for members to leave quietly and quickly if they are not staying to hear the debate.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament commends the actions of South Ayrshire Council in setting up the Proof of Age Card Scheme, which addresses in a positive manner the problem of underage procurement of alcohol, cigarettes and other harmful substances.

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative 5:03 pm, 17th November 1999

Few in this chamber and, I hope, few across the country, will recognise me as anything other than a Scottish Conservative MSP. However, I am here today to praise South Ayrshire Council, which is, strangely enough, Labour controlled—although only just, as Labour has 17 members and the Conservatives have 13.

Why should I give South Ayrshire Council credit? I am frequently in dispute with it on policy issues and, on the day that it launched the proof-of-age card, it banned me from a council premise. I will, nevertheless, give credit where it is due. The proof-of-age card is a good scheme; it has been introduced in an innovative and creditable way and it addresses long-standing problems.

Age limits on the purchase of drink, tobacco, glue and a range of other products are set to protect the young. It is important that the laws are upheld, for the good of young people and for the good of the community. We all know the impact that youths can have on communities when they obtain copious quantities of alcohol—they can cause great concern, especially to the elderly.

It is illegal to sell alcohol to people under the age of 18 and it is illegal to buy it for youngsters. However, until 1997, the police could do nothing about youngsters having alcohol in their possession. Happily, the previous Tory Government gave the police the power to confiscate alcohol from youngsters.

The proof-of-age scheme eases the situation. It is important that retailers have some kind of guide when faced with young people demanding articles from the long list of items that may not be sold to them. The proof-of-age scheme is designed to leave no doubt in retailers' minds that they are operating within the law. It offers them some protection.

Irene Oldfather, who, I understand, is in mainland Europe today, has lodged a motion that suggests that a hard line should be taken against retailers who sell tobacco and other products to youngsters. If we are to take such a stance, we have to ensure that the retailers can comply. We must recognise the situation that they face when a group of young people demands a product. The retailer might be intimidated into going along with the youngsters' claims that they are old enough. However, the retailers who join the proof-of-age scheme have an element of protection: they can ask to see the card.

Councils are mandated to deal harshly with retailers who flout the law. It is to the credit of South Ayrshire Council that it has created links among its consumer protection bodies, its education body, the police and the health board, which has supplied a great deal of funding for the scheme.

Validate UK is funded by a company called Photo-me International and a number of major companies that recognise the merits of the scheme. The scheme is aimed at those between the ages of 16 and 18. It gives them cards through the education system, but it also takes account of those who have left school before the age of 18 and makes the cards available from retailers, police stations and council offices. That allows for a wide range of inclusion.

South Ayrshire Council has to be commended for its actions. Only Western Isles Council has a similar scheme. I believe that, if Irene Oldfather's motion were to be pressed, North Ayrshire Council and other councils could pick up from South Ayrshire Council and the scheme could be implemented throughout Scotland. One of the reasons why I lodged this motion was, as well as to commend Labour-controlled South Ayrshire Council, to ask the minister to think about the validate UK scheme—the proof-of-age scheme—and consider its value to young people and to people who run small businesses. There is mutual advantage in it, as well as advantage for the communities. I ask the minister to commend South Ayrshire Council and the scheme.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

Several members want to speak in this debate. If members keep their speeches to roughly three minutes, we will be able to accommodate everyone.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour 5:11 pm, 17th November 1999

I shall try to keep my contribution brief.

I congratulate Phil Gallie on his warm words for South Ayrshire Council. I welcome the fact that he recognises the good work that a Labour-controlled council in South Ayrshire has been doing over the years. That good work will continue.

It is important to recognise that the proof-of-age card scheme came about as a result of several other policies that have been adopted by the council, particularly on community consultation. The idea of introducing a scheme to tackle the problem of under-age drinking arose in consultation through community meetings; it came from young people themselves, who were consulted as part of that process.

The significance of the scheme is that it is operated by the council. Other proof-of-age schemes exist, but they are run either by licensed trade associations or by individual companies. However, South Ayrshire Council has taken the view that it should be responsive and provide a service at no cost to young people.

As Phil Gallie said, young people may want to prove their age to retailers to show that they are old enough to buy alcohol, to gain entry to discos or other entertainment facilities or to buy tobacco products. In other circumstances, younger children say that they want a proof-of-age scheme—for example, to be able to hire a video that is designated as suitable for somebody who is aged 12 or to be able to go the pictures to see a film that is suitable for 15-year-olds. It is to the council's credit that it is saying, "We have made a start on this process, which we are going to continue to roll out in the future." Phil talked about the wider vision of getting other authorities to pick up on the scheme. East Ayrshire Council—part of whose area falls within my constituency, as does part of South Ayrshire Council's—has taken an interest in the scheme. With other MSPs, I will seek to pursue that, as—I am sure—will other Ayrshire authorities.

It is not often that I have the opportunity to agree with Phil Gallie, but I thank him for securing this debate and for his warm words about South Ayrshire. I am sure that my comrades on the council will be delighted for him to have the headline in the Ayrshire Post for once.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

Things have obviously changed in Ayr since my day.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat 5:13 pm, 17th November 1999

I, too, congratulate Phil Gallie on lodging this motion. Cathy Jamieson's comments are cogent, to say the least. It is a pity that some of our friends who sit to my left are not here today—the nats are absent. I can use the word nats, as Winnie Ewing is not here.

The strength of what South Ayrshire Council is doing can be seen in relation to children going to dances, which Cathy Jamieson touched on. I have experienced such problems in the past. Our young ones get into these places and come out blootered because they were able to buy drink under-age—we know the old story. Unfortunately, I had occasion to gate one of my daughters the other day—unlike Mr Gallie, I am of an age to have teenage daughters. She turned round and said, "You are a hypocrite, Dad. Didn't you do the same in your day?" For the purposes of the Official Report, let us draw a discreet veil over that.

That problem leaves the people who organise the dances in a difficult position. A proof-of-age scheme, implemented via the schools—exactly as Phil suggested—would be very effective. Some schools already use smart cards, for school dinners and so on, so the scheme could be tagged on to that.

Let us not be too heavy on the kids. I remember that, a long time ago, a constituent came to me outraged that kids had come out of a dance and were rioting outside his front door. I was pretty green so I wrote to the chief constable. A sergeant later asked me to come up to the station to see the charge book, which showed that, in fact, my elderly constituent had come out of his door roaring drunk and shouting at the kids—it was he who had been lifted. We should go easy on the kids, therefore, but Phil Gallie's suggestion and what the council is doing would help hugely.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative 5:15 pm, 17th November 1999

I am aware that this will not find favour with my friend Mr Gallie, but I confess that as a rule I am not in favour of identity cards.

I am torn between the view that people with nothing to hide have nothing to fear and the opposite view—I wish Phil Gallie would stop looking at me—that identity cards are one step too far down the route to Big Brother is watching you. However, Phil has at least three and a half years in the life of this Parliament and I hope at least four years after that to persuade me otherwise. He will perhaps approve of the start I have made because I believe that proof-of-age cards have a significant role to play.

I particularly welcome the shift of legal responsibility from the licence holder to the purchaser of alcohol. I speak as a former licence holder. From 1982 to 1986, I was part owner of the finest restaurant that Girvan in South Ayrshire could boast. I say that without fear of contradiction because it was the only restaurant that Girvan could boast. It is still there. As, I hope, a law-abiding citizen, the hardest part of that job was ascertaining the age of customers buying drink. It was hard enough 15 years ago—the older I get, the harder it is to tell.

That the legal burden of selling alcohol to those too young to buy it falls on the licence holder is an understandable grudge of the licensed trade. The present legislation is unjust. It is akin to blaming the victim of a burglary rather than the burglar; blaming the fire rather than the arsonist; the corpse rather than the murderer. If that is over-dramatic, I am sure everyone agrees that there is far too large a grey area at the moment—far too high a level of injustice.

I support South Ayrshire Council and commend it for introducing proof-of-age cards because they remove the grey areas and place the burden of proof firmly on the young person buying alcohol. I have no doubt that, where they are introduced, such schemes allow licensees to breathe a collective sigh of relief and allow law-abiding citizens to uphold the law with certainty.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour 5:18 pm, 17th November 1999

I am a former member of South Ayrshire Council, but I am not speaking in that capacity. We thought long and hard about proof-of-age schemes during my time on the council.

I make a plea from the heart. When I was 23, I was thrown out of a pub not because I was drunk and disorderly—for a change—but because the proprietor would not believe I was over 18. Despite my former husband and my colleagues telling him otherwise he would not believe me. Later on I took the precaution of marrying a 6 ft tall 14 stone ex-rugby player but unfortunately our three children all inherited my height deficiency.

I support a voluntary proof-of-age scheme that extends to younger children. Cathy Jamieson said that South Ayrshire Council is considering that. I approach it from the point of view of young children and teenagers being allowed to access services to which they are entitled. When my eldest son was 12, he had the embarrassing experience of being turned away at the cinema—all his pals of the same age who were 5 ft 6 in with broken voices got in and my poor lad at 4 ft 6 in with his wee, piping voice did not.

When he was eight, my other son was refused entry to the swimming pool. He had to phone me to come and say that he was old enough to swim with his mates. It was doubly embarrassing because I was the convener of the committee that ran the swimming pools at the time. I feel quite strongly about this matter. My children would love a proof-of-age scheme. It would be a great relief from embarrassment for all the wee, young-looking children and teenagers in Scotland.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat 5:20 pm, 17th November 1999

Well done, Phil: good motion.

Other people have told the stories that I was going to tell, so the case for a card that will help children, publicans and small shopkeepers is established. I would like to press the minister to say either that the Scottish Executive should promote a national scheme, or it should encourage each council to have its own scheme—while ensuring that the schemes are compatible. One way or another, the Executive should promote a scheme throughout Scotland, or say, "We support the idea, but the relevant parliamentary committee should promote it." We must promote this scheme nationally and it must not cost money. A previous scheme, which was established by the charitable arm of the booze manufacturers, was free for children, but when it began to be charged for, the whole thing collapsed. The scheme must be free, it must be compatible across Scotland and it must enable people of different ages to have access to different things.

One relevant issue that we could look at is the fact that people are allowed to do things at different ages. Perhaps there should be an age at which one becomes an adult, and can drive cars, go drinking, smoke and so on. That is a separate issue, but it is worth examining.

We should support the South Ayrshire scheme strongly, but the Executive must endorse it and either promote it actively or get Parliament to do so.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour 5:22 pm, 17th November 1999

I apologise in advance, because I am loaded with the cold. If I have to stop occasionally, I hope that members will understand.

The motion that we have discussed this evening is at the very heart of community safety and the vital social welfare of young Scots. I welcome this opportunity to close the debate on behalf of the Executive. I join in the chorus of thanks to Mr Gallie for congratulating the excellent work of a Labour-controlled local authority. Cathy Jamieson is right when she says that it will continue to be Labour controlled.

The debate has been considered. It is clear from the many and varied speeches that Mr Gallie's motion has struck a chord with a great many members. We will take away some points and chew on them further: others I will respond to in the closing minutes.

I sense members' concern about not only the seeming ease with which children and young people can get hold of age-restricted goods such as alcohol, tobacco, solvents, fireworks, knives and videos, but the potentially damaging effects that those products can have on the individuals concerned. Often, the impact is felt beyond the individual. Other family members and the wider community are affected, particularly where anti-social and criminal behaviour arises as a result of youngsters getting hold of such products.

Retailers who sell age-restricted products are, of course, still primarily responsible for ensuring that such goods do not get into the hands of those deemed too young in law to purchase them. The proof-of-age card not only enables retailers to ensure that they do not breach the law, but assists people who, although of age, appear too young to buy age-restricted products. Although this is the first scheme of its kind operated by local government in Scotland, there is excellent evidence from similar schemes run elsewhere in the UK that suggests that where these cards have been introduced, the number of complaints about illegal sales has decreased.

The Executive, therefore, is happy to commend South Ayrshire Council for taking the initiative and launching its proof-of-age-card scheme, which will enable all retailers in the council's area to ask for the same proof-of-age card. A standard policy of no proof, no sale, gives retailers confidence in complying with the law.

Ultimately, of course, the scheme's success will depend on the collaboration and commitment of the local business community, trading standards, the police and schools. From what I have learned about the scheme, it is clear that the council has worked hard to get everyone on board; I am certain that that bodes well for the scheme's success.

Locally driven, multi-agency work such as this will be most effective. As Cathy Jamieson said, young people were themselves involved in the implementation. Such schemes are attractive to young people, particularly those of age who, when asked, cannot prove their age, and those who do not look their age. I have to admit, I did not think that it was a problem for most of us sitting round this chamber, aside from Elaine Murray.

Schemes such as this set up a key barrier to illegal use by young people and exploitation by retailers. The illegal sale of all age-restricted products is to be abhorred. As the motion suggests, alcohol and tobacco are probably the two products that give rise to most concern. Under-age smoking and drinking is, of course, nothing new. Children smoke and drink for all sorts of reasons; some do so to show their independence, others do it because their friends do. Some children smoke and drink because adults have told them not to. In short, there is no single cause.

For some youngsters, early experimentation is nothing more than that, but unfortunately—for an increasing number—that first puff or drink leads to a lifetime of problems associated with alcohol and tobacco. We know, for example, that 82 per cent of adults start smoking in their teens and that a third of teenagers buy alcohol for themselves. There is increasing evidence to suggest that people are presenting with alcohol problems at an earlier age, sometimes in their early 20s. There is evidence to suggest that youngsters who smoke and drink are more likely to dabble in drugs. For some teenagers, heavy frequent drinking goes hand in hand with the use of illegal drugs.

Smoking is the most preventable cause of ill-health in Scotland. It results in 13,500—that is one in five—deaths every year, and 33,500 hospital admissions. The message on smoking, therefore, is quite unambiguous: "Don't do it." Alcohol, on the other hand, in moderation and at the right time and place, can be included in a healthy lifestyle. However, excessive drinking carries a heavy toll in illness, accidents, anti-social behaviour and criminal acts of violence. Its costs—in personal, social and economic terms—are great and are too often hidden or unheeded. Research tells us that alcohol misuse is linked with crime, lower achievement, poor mental and physical health, family breakdown and poor employment prospects. Sadly, the age of 14—yes, 14—appears to be an alcohol milestone, with most teenagers having begun to drink by 15.

Not surprisingly, the Executive is, therefore, concerned about the upward trend in the levels and frequency of drinking and smoking among 12 to 15-year-olds. We are giving a high priority to tackling this problem. We have set targets to achieve a reduction in those levels and we are taking action to improve the situation.

Tougher enforcement of illegal under-age sales is another plank in our strategy. We are working closely with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Association of Chief Police Officers and trading standards representatives in Scotland to achieve that. We would encourage wider adoption of proof-of-age-card schemes, such as the one launched in South Ayrshire.

At UK level, agreement has been reached with the National Association of Cigarette Machine Operators on a code for their members that would provide clear guidance on the siting arrangements that are expected. On alcohol, there are several measures in place to address young people's drinking. For example, many councils have introduced public bylaws to curb drinking by young people in public places. Powers are now available to the police to confiscate alcohol from under-18s in public places. Those measures are having a positive effect in reducing the incidence of intimidating behaviour on street corners.

Those sanctions are backed by the criminal law, but it is not our intention to make criminals of people—young or old—who drink in public places. We want to reduce or eliminate the nuisance element and petty crime associated with it. We want the streets to feel safer for the general public. The absence of threatening groups on street corners and in public parks goes a long way towards that goal. From a health policy point of view, if more young people are drinking less alcohol, the health risks associated with alcohol consumption will be substantially reduced.

The Government has recently moved to introduce legislation to ban the sale to children of butane gas cigarette lighter refills. That blocks a potentially dangerous loophole and reinforces existing laws forbidding the sale of volatile substances to children. To complement those enforcement initiatives, we have set up the Scottish Advisory Committee on Alcohol Misuse to drive forward implementation of a new alcohol misuse strategy.

Much else is being done to reduce levels of smoking and drinking by children and young people. Local enforcement policies on illegal sales of alcohol, tobacco and other age-restricted products are particularly effective when backed by a simple and acceptable way for young people to prove their age. That more than anything removes doubts and arguments and gives retailers confidence in complying with the law.

The Scottish Executive commends South Ayrshire Council for taking the initiative, and I for one would be pleased to see other councils follow its excellent example. I can assure Donald Gorrie that I will examine the ways in which the Executive can further promote such schemes. The more difficult it is for under-age users to access potentially dangerous products, the more the young people affected and Scottish society will ultimately benefit.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

Thank you. I now close this meeting of the Parliament.

Meeting closed at 17:31.