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New Clause 5 — Smoke-free premises: exemptions

Part of Orders of the Day — Health Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 14th February 2006.

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Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Health 4:45 pm, 14th February 2006

Stephen Pound is a tough act to follow. Although I have been the butt of his humour, I think that the Standing Committee might have been greatly enhanced by his presence.

At the heart of this debate are the health and safety of people working in pubs, clubs and enclosed public spaces. That has to be our starting point. It is welcome that the Government have got rid of the absurd distinction between food and non-food pubs.

In the Standing Committee, on which I served, and on Second Reading, the House was told why a gradualist approach was the thing to do: any country that introduced a ban had done so gradually, so the food/non-food distinction was a vital part of the effective implementation of the policy. Some weeks later, it is apparent that that was nonsense and that the Government knew it all along, so at least we have made some progress on that front.

I am trying to work out what constitutes a rebel nowadays, because we seem to have reached a never-never world. The Secretary of State has tabled an amendment in defiance of her party's manifesto and her junior Minister has tabled an amendment to the right hon. Lady's amendment, while the Department of Health press release, issued on 2 February, stated:

"Although the New Clause has been tabled in Patricia Hewitt's name and the Amendment in Caroline Flint's name, this is simply in order to facilitate a free vote and does not necessarily indicate which way either will vote themselves."

That is an incredible situation and, even today, in response to an intervention, the Secretary of State said that she had not made up her mind. One can understand the merits of a free vote, but the idea that the Secretary of State, who is responsible for the health of the nation and thus, to some extent for the health and safety of workers, does not know what she thinks is extraordinary. Indeed, the whole sequence of events has shown a lack of leadership by the Government. They tried to discern and follow public opinion, realised that they were running behind it and so they are trying to play catch-up. That is no way to set a health policy.

The principal bone of contention is the position of private members' clubs. If we consider the matter, as I have done throughout, in terms of the health and safety of people who work in those environments, the fact that I am breathing in the second-hand smoke of someone who happens to have a membership card is irrelevant. The fact that they have agreed with other club members that they have the right to smoke, and I am expected to breathe it in, is irrelevant. The club is not home and people are inflicting smoke not on themselves or their loved ones, but on other people.