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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 5:45 pm on 14th February 2006.

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Photo of George Young George Young Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee 5:45 pm, 14th February 2006

I want to make an extremely brief speech, as many other Members wish to speak in the debate. It was disappointing that the Secretary of State was unable to share with the House how she plans to vote on this matter. She is the Secretary of State for Health and this is one of the most important public health issues that this Parliament will debate. It would have been helpful if, under the protection of a free vote, she could have indicated to the House what her preference was among the options available to us. She said that she would listen to the debate. I have been listening to this debate for 30 years, and it would be astonishing if some new and decisive argument were to emerge in these two hours to clinch the debate one way or the other. The last time we debated this matter, she put forward a view, constrained by collective responsibility, with which we know she disagreed. Against that background, and with the protection of a free vote, it would have been helpful if she had been able to tell us her views on this occasion.

I want to pay tribute to the work of the Select Committee. It was courageous of the Committee to confront head on a pledge in the Government's manifesto, six months after the general election. The role of the Select Committee has been decisive in this debate and it is a model of what Select Committees should do. It detected an argument that had unsound foundations, exposed it, then produced a clear, unambiguous, unanimous report that has been of enormous assistance to the House.

I want to pick up a point made by David Taylor, and I make no apology for raising the West Lothian question. In the Standing Committee, we had a vote on whether the distinction between pubs that serve food and those that do not should be removed. The Government won by one vote, that of a Scottish Member whose constituents will have the benefit of a comprehensive ban. His vote was decisive at that stage in ensuring that my constituents would not have the benefit of such a ban. At some point, the Government will have to address that issue, because it is going to recur time and again.

I hope that, at the end of this debate, Parliament will send out the clear signal that smoking is a harmful activity that it wishes to discourage. My concern, however, is that we are about to remove one indefensible distinction, namely, the distinction between pubs that serve food and those that do not, with another indefensible distinction, namely, that between pubs and clubs. As Mr. Barron has just explained in his excellent speech, no public health argument, no employment argument and no public nuisance argument can be used to distinguish private clubs from pubs. He also explained that the barrier between a private club and a pub is a very narrow one—a £3 subscription will give access to a wide range of clubs. The tobacco industry wants a confused signal to emerge from Parliament that smoking is an activity that can be validated in certain circumstances. It would be much better to send a clear message that people can, of course, smoke in private but that smoking in a public place is something that Parliament wishes to discourage.