Examination of Witness

Tobacco and Vapes Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:30 pm ar 30 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Adrian Simpson gave evidence.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Ceidwadwyr, South West Devon 2:50, 30 Ebrill 2024

We now turn to our next witness, Adrian Simpson, a policy adviser at the British Retail Consortium. Colleagues, we have until 3.10 pm for this session, which is 20 minutes—it flies by when the witnesses are so good. Caroline, you can have the first question after Preet if that would help you. Witness, would you please introduce yourself and say an additional sentence, and then we will throw lots of questions at you?

Adrian Simpson:

Good afternoon. My name is Adrian Simpson. I am from the British Retail Consortium. We are the trade association for large retailers throughout the UK.

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

Q Hello Adrian. I know that ASH has done some surveys that show that the majority of small retailers are in support of age-of-sale legislation, and I know that the Association of Convenience Stores is equally supportive. Would you say that the retailers are broadly supportive of this Bill?

Adrian Simpson:

Yes, the large retail sector, which we represent, is broadly in favour of the Bill. We recognise that these products do require regulation. Putting forward this Bill at this time certainly feels like the right thing to do. Our members take their responsibilities around safe, responsible retailing very seriously indeed, but we feel that, for all this to be successful, there needs to be strong and robust enforcement behind it all.

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

Q As you know, as well as introducing the £100 fixed penalty notice, the Bill grants new powers to trading standards to make restricted premises orders and restricted sale orders. Do you think that those new powers get the balance right between providing an effective deterrent and proportionality, and do you think that, at £100, the spot fines are set at the right level?

Adrian Simpson:

I am not sure I can comment on whether the amount is right, but one thing we would like to caution on around fines is the need to make sure that businesses are adequately notified of those fines. Some of the big retailers might not always be aware that a fine has been issued at the store level. For this to be effective, we think that trading standards officers will need to work with, for example, head offices as well. Something to be aware of is that some of these fines will have substantial personal effects on the shop workers who are given them. We need to think about how that is communicated to the shop workers themselves, but also to the head offices of these large retailers.

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

Q Is there anything you want to say on the age-of-sale verification process?

Adrian Simpson:

In the large retail sector, we have worked on things such as Challenge 25 for many years, so we are used to challenging consumers buying products. One thing that we would like to make clear is that this can be a very controversial issue. We know that challenging consumers for proof of age leads to violence and aggression against shop workers. We think it would be beneficial if a long period were given for these regulations to come into effect, to give retailers the chance to educate their staff on these issues and to educate consumers.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Ceidwadwyr, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Q I want to ask you about the licensing regime. You have to have a licence to sell alcohol and tobacco, and some have suggested that you should have to have a licence to sell nicotine full stop because it is an addictive substance. That would mean that you would need to have a licence to sell vapes, partly as a way of making them less accessible to children in the places that they may be sold. Would you support that?

Adrian Simpson:

It is not an issue that we have discussed at any length in the British Retail Consortium. We are aware, of course, that there are parts of the UK where licensing is required for certain tobacco products. We are well used to the alcohol licensing that has been going on for many years. Unfortunately, I cannot comment on whether the whole sector would be in support of that. We would perhaps need to see how a potential licensing system would operate before we gave our full support to it.

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

Q Thank you so much for being here. You will be aware that, in putting together legislation, huge effort is made to be balanced and not excessive and to make it doable and achievable, nowhere more so than for those who are trying to enforce it.

May I press you a bit further on the point that Preet made about whether the fines are sufficient? You have said that it is a bit complicated and will require some lead-in time—which is obviously provided, with the 2027 date—to give appropriate training to shop staff. The quantum of the fine was intended to enable on-the-spot fines, rather than having lengthy litigation because the person who incurs the fine does not have the cash and needs to go away, may or may not pay it, may or may not have to be pursued, may or may not have to go to court, and so on. Understanding that there are different views on all sides, is the balance just about right or, if you could have put your own wish list together, are there things that you would have done differently?

Adrian Simpson:

We would have liked to see more education provided to retailers who might have broken the rules. A fine can be life-changing for someone who is given one, so we like to see whether there might be a way around that; perhaps the shop worker could be educated first, rather than going straight to a fine, if at all possible. We would like to see that balance of education before strict enforcement, if possible. That would be our wish.

Photo of Steve Tuckwell Steve Tuckwell Ceidwadwyr, Uxbridge and South Ruislip

Q Thank you for coming in this afternoon. It is a pleasure to hear your thoughts. What will be the challenges for retailers in enforcing the ban on sales?

Adrian Simpson:

The first challenge is education of all the shop staff. Our members are the very large, household-name retailers, and it will take a long time to get that education out to the hundreds of thousands—in some cases—of shop workers throughout the UK. We also think that there will be issues to do with changing our point of sale systems, things like where we are going to store some of these products if we need to, and even things like the size and nature of the tobacco notices. Retail operates in many different ways—we think of the large supermarkets, but there are very small stores as well—so a lot of thought needs to be given to the technical parts of the legislation, which of course we always work with you on.

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

Q What conversations has the British Retail Consortium had with local authorities? They have a lot of data locally on the amount of illicit vapes or illicit tobacco being sold. They are already enforcing trading standards, so there should already be a level of awareness. What kinds of conversations have you been having with local authorities?

Adrian Simpson:

Certainly. Ever since the point at which a potential vape ban and the rolling age restriction on tobacco were announced, we have been working very closely with the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, which represents local authority trading standards officials. Ever since the beginning, we have been in close conversation with them, talking about our concerns on the points I made about education and enforcement. Many of our members are closely linked to trading standards already, through the primary authority scheme. I am pleased to say that many of our BRC members have long-standing primary authority relationships, so they already work very closely with trading standards. Certainly at the BRC, I have been working closely with colleagues in the Chartered Trading Standards Institute.

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

Q You mentioned that your members are used to working with Challenge 25. Do you see the Bill working in the same way? As the age of the smoke-free generation rises from year to year, will your colleagues in the retail sector manage to look at two different customers and ask the one that they are concerned about to verify their age?

Adrian Simpson:

I think you made a wise point earlier, Minister, about the difference between a 40 and a 41-year-old. That is absolutely our concern: how will we do that? We hear a lot of things about artificial intelligence and new technology for age verification, but a lot of it is still down to human interaction—whether a human can tell the difference between 40 and 41, which can be difficult. That is certainly one of our biggest concerns. Again, we are keen to avoid situations where there could be a touchpoint for violence against shop workers.

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

Q You will have heard Mr Fothergill from the LGA saying that he has to show his bus pass every time he wants free transport. Do you feel that that is where the solution lies?

Adrian Simpson:

There certainly needs to be a bit more research into what the best methods are to keep this age restriction going. It is a new challenge in the retail sector. We have never had anything like this before, and the UK is a leader in this area. I think that, at the beginning, it will be about us all working together to try to get the age restriction going and to make sure that it is enforced, because—this is one point that I would like to make—our members are obviously very compliant and want to do the right thing. These household names are very protective of their reputations; they want to be good and to do the right thing for society. However, I certainly think that, with this new system that might come in, there could be some teething problems. We hope not, but that can naturally happen with all new systems.

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

Q May I just clarify, then, that your members support the uplift in age, year on year? As you will no doubt be aware, there are some who challenge that and say, “Well, it shouldn’t keep escalating,” but the British Retail Consortium does support the idea of the increase, year on year, of the smoke-free generation, as so many of our other expert witnesses have done today. Would that be right? I do not want to put words in your mouth.

Adrian Simpson:

It was definitely a point that came up quite a lot when we were debating this with members themselves. I would say that we are cautiously welcoming it, just because it will then bring about a level playing field for all retailers—because we know that these measures are not necessarily directed at our members, who are, as I say, in the legitimate, responsible retail sector. It will bring about a level playing field but, as I say, we might still need to see how it would operate in practice, I suppose, before we give it our wholehearted support.

Photo of Mary Glindon Mary Glindon Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q I was just searching for a quote, which I think I cited in a debate last year, about a survey that had been commissioned about buying vapes. Out of the 28 vapes that were bought, 25 were illicit vapes. I presume that those are from places that are not responsible retailers—they clearly are irresponsible if they sell those. Are there a lot of retailers that do not subscribe to your organisation where this sort of thing could be occurring? If that is the case, how can we encourage them to become responsible retailers and join the consortium? What should be done? Do you try to reach out to retailers that you know are perhaps not the best and that you would like to see engage with your organisation to help to prevent this kind of illicit sale?

Adrian Simpson:

Exactly. Our membership is predominantly the household-name retailers—the large retailers; the ones that certainly would not be selling illicit vapes. We have comprehensive supply chains, and our members put a lot of effort into making sure that their supply chains are operating with integrity, so that illicit products cannot enter them. I have not seen that report, but my feeling would be that the sellers mentioned in it are highly unlikely to be members of a reputable trade organisation. They might be ones that would not be looking for the same standards that our members would operate to.

Photo of Lisa Cameron Lisa Cameron Ceidwadwyr, East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow

Q Do any of your members worry that they might get into some bother if they think that someone looks a bit older than they are, and they do not ask them for identification? I am just wondering what sort of training would be beneficial, because you mentioned that you were looking to put in place training prior to this going through.

Adrian Simpson:

A lot of the training done by our members has been put together with the help of trading standards’ services, so there is a lot in there about the law, but also about what perhaps is termed the soft skills—how to deal with the aggression, and with violence as well. Of course, this is a high-profile issue, and it is one of the top priorities at the British Retail Consortium as well.

We know that, with new rules, new regulations and new opportunities to challenge consumers, there will always be some resistance from consumers. We will certainly make sure that all our colleagues working in our members’ stores are given all the support they need to deal with any potential aggression or any bother, and our members will comply with whatever the law says. They will not let someone who should not buy a product buy it just because they are worried, or something like that. They will follow whatever the in-store procedures are and the training from the work with trading standards.

Photo of Lisa Cameron Lisa Cameron Ceidwadwyr, East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow

Q But it is probably more difficult to tell whether someone is 35, 40 or 45 than whether someone is an older adult, going on a bus, or whether someone is a teenager rather than someone in their mid-20s. I am just wondering how that could work, in a sense, in terms of the training.

Adrian Simpson:

I agree—that is difficult. It takes me back to discussions around Challenge 25, which we have mentioned. It started out as Challenge 21, and the age was raised because it was very difficult to tell the difference between a 21-year-old and an 18-year-old. Technology is evolving in this area. There are new things. We know that members are using new forms of technology to help with that. They rely on things like Government-issued ID. There are various ways of challenging someone. It comes down to things like the training and how the consumer is around the till. Are they acting nervous or like they are up to something? It is then down to the retailer to use the training that they have been given to check the ID and use their own in-store procedures, as well to try to operate responsibly.

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

Q To follow on from that dialogue, it strikes me that a degree of social change will be needed, because it will have to become normal for you to go into a shop and provide whatever kind of ID. It seems to me unlikely that that will be a conversation that will centre on whether you look this age or a year older. Has that led you to any conversations with people who deal with things like bus passes or the voter ID that is required? Is the communication of that to the public—a different angle from the communication to the retail staff—something that you are working on?

Adrian Simpson:

Yes, we do work closely with trading standards, who are very good at doing the education side. It is not just about educating our members, but educating the public and bringing about a cultural change where it is almost expected that you will be asked for ID. If you have been in any large retailer recently, you have probably seen the badges they wear that say, “It’s our job to ask for your age”, for example. Certainly, among our member businesses, it very much is the culture to go for the Challenge 25. Although these regulations with the rolling age will have challenges, I am sure our members are well placed to overcome them.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Ceidwadwyr, South West Devon

Adrian, thank you so much for your evidence this afternoon. It has been clear and concise.

Adrian Simpson:

Thank you, Sir Gary, and thank you, everyone.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Ceidwadwyr, South West Devon

We will now move on to our next session—I am speaking slowly to allow John and Kate to find their way to their places.

To colleagues and anyone else tuning in, we are likely to have votes in the Chamber from about 3.30 pm or 3.45 pm—we are not quite sure; it is always fluid. That might do two things. It could curtail this session and prevent us from having the later sessions. Colleagues, in this session, in which we will hear extremely important evidence from the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, we might want to be concise for the first 20 minutes in case that dreadful bell goes and we all have to scarper. We will be voting four or five times and therefore not coming back. Let us get what we can from our two excellent witnesses.