Protection From Smoking (Employees and Young Persons)

– in the House of Commons at 3:34 pm on 24 April 2001.

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Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire 3:34, 24 April 2001

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require employers to reduce or eliminate the exposure of their employees to passive smoking in the workplace; to protect children and young persons from such exposure in public places; and for connected purposes. The Government's Advisory Scientific Committee on Tobacco and Health has confirmed without equivocation that passive smoking causes cancer, heart disease and respiratory diseases. A seminal report on passive smoking and heart disease, published in 1997 by the British Medical Journal concluded that the effect of environmental tobacco smoke is not trivial, as is often thought. It is a serious environmental hazard and one that is easily avoided. The evidence on ischaemic heart disease warrants further action in preventing smoking in public buildings and in enclosed working environments.

My purpose is to respond to that recommended action. The Government have made great strides on their public health agenda. In late 1998, they published an excellent White Paper, "Smoking Kills", which observed that around 2,500 people die each week from illnesses directly related to smoking. Included in that horrifying figure are a sizeable number of people—the passive smokers—who contracted their illness from environmental tobacco smoke.

Passive smoking seriously damages the health and welfare of non-smokers. While the voluntary approach to reducing or eliminating dangerous exposure to noxious and toxic fumes has worked in numerous places, it has failed in many others. It will continue to fail unless the Government take action along the lines suggested in my Bill.

The House clearly believes that all employees deserve protection from the harmful effects of passive smoking while they are at work. Some 155 right hon. and hon. Members have supported early-day motion 173, on smoking in the workplace, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron). Those signatories noted the recent survey of the Office for National Statistics showing that 89 per cent. of the public favour restrictions on smoking at work", and that three million non-smokers are frequently or continuously exposed to second hand smoke at work". The Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 already requires employers to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees so far as is reasonably practicable. More than a quarter of a century after that Act's passage, however, and despite the progress made in recent years, the legal obligations and expectations placed on employers remain as hazy as the air that many of their non-smoking employees have to inhale.

The Government seem to have responded to that uncertainty. Within the range of measures to drive down tobacco fatalities, the 1998 White Paper encouraged the approach taken by the Health and Safety Commission in producing a draft approved code of practice—an ACOP—on smoking in the Workplace. That code would at last enable the 1974 Act to bear down on passive smoking, but the Government have appeared slow to introduce it. The purpose of part I of my Bill is to require its introduction without further delay.

It is surely not unreasonable or impractical to require employers to do all that is reasonably practicable to comply with the 1974 Act, which so many of them seem slow or unwilling to do when it comes to passive smoking. In addition to possible prosecution under the 1974 Act, employers may be exposed to passive smoking legal proceedings through personal injury actions under common law. In addition, they can face proceedings through employment and contract law at industrial tribunals.

My Bill would provide employers with guidance on compliance. In essence, it would provide a series of defences against unpredictable legal actions brought under ambiguous and loosely defined law. We might expect widespread support for that from employees, the general public, the medical profession and lobby groups such as Action on Smoking and Health, and it is unsurprising that many employers are themselves beginning to call for measures of the type encapsulated it the Bill, not only to show that they comply with the existing law, but because there are wider benefits for them.

One such benefit is employee welfare. Firms already take care to provide appropriate working temperatures, comfortable work stations, adequate lighting and so on. The provision of clean air would be a further expression of a desire to improve working conditions. Improved productivity is another benefit. American estimates indicate a typical minimum productivity gain of 3 per cent. from a smoke-free place of work. There are further benefits from reduced cleaning costs and fewer fire risks: smoking causes one in eight accidental work fires. All in all, an approved code of practice on passive smoking at work will save money and increase profitability, so it achieves the triple target of making economic sense, as well as being environmentally imperative and socially desirable.

I turn briefly from part I to part II—moving from addressing the effects of passive smoking in the workplace to tackling its impact in public places. Most people think that more should be done to restrict smoking in public places. In restaurants, for example, the seven in 10 people who do not use cigarettes should not—if they do not wish to—have to breathe in smoke from the three who do use them. However, as the "Smoking Kills" White Paper observes, it is a question of balance; if a smoker wants to spend an evening in a bar or pub with friends who smoke or who do not mind other people's smoke, so be it.

As with an approved code of practice for workplaces—many of which are of course public places—the key to a better code for public places is what is reasonably practical. No code can force employers—such as those in the licensed hospitality trade—to do things that would cause them serious financial pain, or even drive them out of business.

The Government are to be congratulated on agreeing with the hospitality trade the broad principles of a public places charter. The charter envisages increasing provision of facilities for non-smokers, a written policy on smoking—available to customers and staff—and a range of sensible, practical improvements to ensure that consumers are better able to choose whether to eat, drink or socialise in smoky atmospheres. The charter is welcome as far as it goes, but it is really the continuation of a voluntary approach, aimed at keeping legislation at bay—compliance levels are still low.

Part II envisages much tougher targets and tighter time scales, requiring those who provide services in public places to recognise non-smoking as the general norm where children and young people are important parts of their clientele. At present, the serious effects of environmental tobacco smoke on the young include childhood induction and exacerbation of asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia, middle ear infection and chronic respiratory symptoms.

In view of that litany of the health effects of passive smoking on the young, we really must take more vigorous action on their behalf. A major public health objective must be further measures to restrict smoking in indoor environments frequented by the young. That is precisely what my Bill aims to do.

We appear to be in the run-up to a general election and manifestos—like spring—are in the air. In my home area of Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland, a health promotion alliance has written a "Smoke Free Manifesto" as part of its campaign for that most basic right—the right to enjoy clean air, free of tobacco smoke. Two of the key ways of meeting that goal are to introduce more no-smoking policies in offices, factories, schools and other workplaces, and to introduce more no-smoking areas in public places such as leisure facilities, restaurants, buses and shopping centres.

The Government have indicated their broad support for an ACOP in workplaces and for consumer charters in public places. My modest measure aims to add thrust and teeth to the Government's warm words. Bryan Ferry was only partly right: smoke gets not only in your eyes, but also in your hair, on your clothes, in your lungs and bloodstream and on to your death certificate. It is especially important for us to protect innocent bystanders at work and play—passive smokers—from that tragic tobacco toll. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Taylor, Mr. Kevin Barron, Mrs. Liz Blackman, Mr. Ian Davidson, Mrs. Janet Dean, Dr. Ian Gibson, Dr. Brian Iddon, Mr. Gordon Prentice, Mr. Andrew Reed, John Robertson, Dr. Phyllis Starkey and Dr. Howard Stoate.