Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Charles Clarke: At the risk of being quoted against myself at some point in the future, I can say that this is an important issue that has been well debated and discussed. I apologise to the hon. Member for Taunton for not having been able to refer to her in my Ofsted assessment. I place it on the record that her contributions, like those of her colleague, have always been pithy and to the point.

Amendment No. 5 would introduce a subjective rather than objective test of age by providing that the retailer does not have a duty to ask the customer for proof of age when the retailer forms the opinion that he could not reasonably have suspected from the customer's appearance that he or she was under 18. The hon. Lady referred to her own daughter as an example. We ask her to withdraw the amendment, because it would undermine the purpose of the clause by reducing the obligation on the alcohol retailer to take steps to ask for proof of age from the customer in appropriate cases.

The use of an objective judgment of age, based on appearance, is more desirable than a subjective estimate. It avoids the possibility of staff on licensed premises avoiding asking for proof of age on the basis of their own subjective opinion, which would be difficult to challenge in court. The amendment would deny the courts the right to test a defendant's judgment against that of an ordinary reasonable person.

The Committee may be interested to know that, in some interesting research by Professor Paul Willner at Swansea university, published by the Alcohol Education and Research Council last August, test purchasing studies were conducted using 13 and 16-year-olds. His research showed that many retailers who demanded to see the card—60 per cent. did not do so, which is unsurprising because that is not yet part of the culture—went on to make the sale, even when the card confirmed that the child was under age. That surprised me, but it is backed up by evidence.

Jackie Ballard: I am confused by what the Minister is saying. On one hand, he says that the only objective test is the proof-of-age card; the logic of that is that he should accept the amendments tabled by Conservative Members. On the other hand, he says that it would not be a defence to say that, on that day, the retailer judged by the person's appearance that the customer was over 18, if other people might have made a different judgment. That suggests that the court might take a group of people and ask them how old they judge the customer to be. Most people would judge a person in school uniform to be under 18, but if that person wore high heels and make-up—I am assuming that the person is female—it would be easy to believe that she was over 18.

Mr. Clarke: It may be like that in Taunton, but it is not in Norwich.

My inclination is towards the objective test and the proof-of-age card system, as I shall make clear when we discuss the other amendments. However, in having an objective test, we should not take away the obligation of the retailer to exercise his or her power in selling alcohol to young people responsibly. The amendment would increase the subjective element and diminish the objective element. Perhaps the hon. Lady will withdraw it when I have spoken about the objective test.

As the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire said, amendments Nos. 102 to 105 would provide that the production of written evidence of age or a prescribed card would meet the ``all reasonable steps'' defence, unless it were shown that the evidence was such that no reasonable person would be convinced by the card, or the card was obviously a forgery. The amendments suggest that the Secretary of State may prescribe one or more cards by statutory instrument. We are sympathetic to the point. We have had substantial discussions with the industry and have concluded that the case for proof-of-age certification is powerful. We are actively considering the best way in which to deliver that, through further discussions with the industry.

Three different alternatives are under consideration. First, we may use the Connexions card issued by the Department for Education and Employment, which would be given to all 16 to 19-year-olds in education. It might be possible to add a proof-of-age element to that. That is attractive for the reason mentioned by the hon. Member for Taunton—the card would be used for other facilities as well—and it is also obviously administratively attractive and effective. We are still discussing how to proceed, but that option would be attractive if it could be achieved. It has serious limitations, because the card would be issued to all 16 to 19-year-olds in education, which begs the question of how to deal with 16 to 19-year-olds not in education. We are considering whether there is a way round that problem.

The second alternative that we are examining is the creation of a national structure for the wide range of proof-of-age cards that already exist, providing a framework of certification or ratification to make them work together. In many ways, that is the most attractive option, because well-established organisations that we respect greatly have worked well to develop such an approach.

The third option is that of a specific national proof-of-age card. We have not ruled that out, because there may well be a case for it if we cannot succeed with either of the alternatives, but it is less attractive, because it would require setting up a separate structure for what is the rather limited purpose of dealing with the proof of age for alcohol, rather than with a range of matters.

I emphasise, because it is important in relation to amendment No. 105, that the Secretary of State already has the power to issue guidance; that does not need statutory backing, and I give the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire the absolute assurance that we are ready to do so. We are not opposed to that amendment in principle. We simply do not think that it is necessary, because guidance can be issued without statutory backing.

Mr. Heald: Our real concern is that at present a lot of youngsters are using cards that are forged or borrowed, which is unsatisfactory. There is a plethora of cards that could prove their age—anything from a student union card to a driving licence. Is it not urgent to sort out what the proof of age should be? Can the Minister give us a timetable by which the Government's deliberations will be complete and we will know what is the real proposal?

Mr. Clarke: I accept that the matter is urgent. When I became a Home Office Minister and started convening the seminars on alcohol to which I have referred, which have been constructive, I was struck by the strong force of opinion from a wide range of organisations about the urgency of that matter. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a timetable to satisfy him, but I can tell him that we are urgently and actively considering the matter and count it a high priority. The greatest problem in conducting discussions is that the Connexions card appears to be the best option for many reasons—it would be uniform in character and would overlap with the student union card in many colleges of further education—but we have not yet been able to find a full solution to the problem of those in the age range who are outside education. We are considering that actively and urgently.

Mr. Heald: I do not know whether the Minister can help us on this, but there is a strong rumour circulating in the industry that the DFEE may not be happy with the idea of its card being used in that way, because part of the purpose of the Connexions card is to give benefits to those who undertake study. Without lifting the veil too much, can he tell us whether using that card is really a runner, or whether he is really thinking that the DFEE is not keen and it would be best to go for the clutch of cards approach?

Mr. Clarke: My colleagues at the DFEE are committed to that approach. This week, I met the Education and Employment Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith) to discuss alcohol and education, precisely to consider how to work together more effectively. However, there is the difficulty that the hon. Gentleman mentions: some people within the education system are keen that the card should be focused on that system; I understand and respect that view, but it makes reaching agreement difficult.

Mr. Simon Hughes: An issue cropped up some years ago when I took on someone who was in his last year at university. He had been involved in a trial project of age-related cards. He was about 20-years-old, but looked about 16. He worked for me periodically until he was 25, when he still looked about 17 or 18. We must bear in mind the civil liberties issue involved when those who are not necessarily at university or institutes of education might always be expected to keep producing proof of their age well into their 20s. It is the opposite case to that cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton, of people who look considerably older than they are.

Mr. Clarke: Identity cards are a difficult issue. The Government do not want to follow that course at the moment. Speaking personally, I do not have civil liberties objections to identity cards. There is a strong case for having one card instead of a plethora of cards. However, that is not the Government's position. The hon. Gentleman is right that such issues need to be resolved. The utility of having a card is so powerful that it is worth trying to solve the problem. As I explained to the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire, that is why the Government intend to take such action.

We are sympathetic to amendments Nos. 102 to 105, but we do not believe that they are necessary. I hope that they will not be pressed to a vote. We do not agree with amendment No. 107, because it implies that guidance issued by the Secretary of State could be used to evade the responsibility not to sell to minors. It is important to reinforce the role of retailers and to say that they have an obligation under the law if they decide to trade in such products. The proof-of-age card is to help them, but it does not take away from their obligation to go through the process.

 
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