Clause 4 - Additional smoke-free places

Health Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 8th December 2005.

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Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Shadow Minister (Health) 3:45 pm, 8th December 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 5, in clause 4, page 3, line 20, after ‘to’, insert ‘significant amounts of’’.

This is a simple amendment. I hope that it will attract the support of the Committee. It would erase an ambiguity in subsection (3). As it stands, it seems that the power to create additional smoke-free places—the Secretary of State may ordain them by regulation, a subject that we have discussed several times today—will allow her to impose restrictions on any place where there might be smoke or the possibility of exposure to smoke.

As several hon. Members have been at pains to explain, smoke can mean many things. In the context of this Bill it is fairly tightly defined as something that is smoked, which is by and large tobacco products. The question is: when does it become harmful to health? We simply do not know the answer. We can make an educated guess that trivial amounts of smoke will probably be a nuisance to us. To a greater or lesser extent, people who do not smoke find it an irritation, but it will not be harmful to health.

It is important to make it clear that if we are giving the Secretary of State powers to impose restrictions and introduce additional smoke-free places, we are talking only about places where there are significant amounts of smoke, and that this is not carte blanche to insist on additional smoke-free places wherever she has a yen to. The Minister will probably say that “significant” has to be defined. That is true. A definition would have to be constructed. I am not a parliamentary draftsman so I am ill-equipped to do so, but I think that common usage would hold that significant means something other than casual or trivial, or exposure to smoke en passant.

I hope that the Minister will accept that the clause gives the Secretary of State fairly sweeping powers to determine pretty well anywhere that she likes to be smoke-free, for whatever reason, at some point in the future. The insertion of “significant amounts of” would limit that power and ensure that she legislated by bringing in regulations geared towards improving public health, rather than for the purposes of amenity or courtesy. As I have said before, desirable though some may feel that to be, I do not think that it should be a subject for a Bill of this sort.

The amendment is kindly meant. I think that it would improve the Bill and tighten an ambiguity. I am sure that the Minister does not want to gather to herself unreasonable regulatory powers. Inserting those words would restrict her right hon. Friend’s   power and that of her successors to ordain that parts of country should be smoke-free. There would have to be a justification for that and, by implication, the justification would be public health grounds.

Photo of George Young George Young Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee, Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee

My hon. Friend’s amendment would qualify subsection (3), which gives the appropriate authorities powers to designate additional smoke-free places, by inserting the words “significant amounts of”. Earlier this morning, in the context of the debate on children, the Minister said that under the Bill a whole range of public places that children frequented would be smoke-free. She mentioned shopping malls, cafés and leisure centres, but she did not mention football stadiums.

I am sure that the Minister is a regular at the Earth stadium, Belle Vue road, the home of Doncaster Rovers. Of course that is now an all-seater stadium, and it is a place to which a large number of children go. I want to see whether we can press the Minister on the notes to clause 4, which say that examples of additional places that might be designated include:

“sports stadia and other outdoor areas”.

Many football grounds are now covered. In the old days they were all exposed and one had to stand. Now they are all-seater. Families often go half an hour before kick-off to be in their places. They will be there for 90 minutes plus half time, and at certain games they will be there for extra time. A child could be seated next to a chain smoker, with little opportunity to escape or to move. Therefore, I would argue that under subsection (3), if amended, they would be exposed to significant quantities of smoke. It would be helpful if the Minister would explain whether she plans to use her powers under the Bill to designate football stadiums.

We had a brief debate on Tuesday about stations and termini. I think that the Minister said that in Scotland stations, such as Edinburgh Waverley, could be designated. It would be helpful if she would tell us whether Waterloo and Paddington stations, which are enclosed termini, are likely to be so designated. I think that she said that that was subject to consultation. It would be helpful to know whether in Scotland they are going to be designated, and whether there is a possibility that in England they will not be. This is an appropriate time for the Minister to clarify where she is heading, if she can.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Shadow Minister (Health)

I find the amendment curious. I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Westbury said and I did not understand what he meant by “significant amounts of” smoke. If my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon were still in his place and I were to light up—leaving aside the fact that you would reprimand me, Lady Winterton—the amount of smoke would be significant to him, but by the time it had dissipated, even in this enclosed space, it would probably be insignificant by the time it reached the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire. I find some   difficulty understanding what the additional wording in the clause would add to public health. Perhaps the hon. Member for Westbury would explain?

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Shadow Minister (Health)

In a timely way, I will seek to do that. Such a situation would be forbidden in this Room under this legislation, and correctly so. But if that happened in a bus shelter or outside the foyer of a hospital—we are all familiar with that scenario—or in a stadium, the matter would be more contestable. People will be exposed to smoke, as we are when we walk down the street—I can inform the hon. Gentleman of that. Ambient smoke is always present.

In the amendment, I am trying to promote the notion that the smoke needs to be significant, or we might end up with a blanket ban because it could be claimed that everybody is exposed in one way or another to smoke. Technically such a claim would be correct, but the smoke would not be significant in public health terms.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Shadow Minister (Health)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that further explanation. I am not sure whether I am any the wiser, although I understand his examples, which, to some extent, match the examples in the explanatory notes to the Bill. Remarks have been made from several parts of the Room during our proceedings to the effect that as it is, the Bill is a charter for lawyers. If we do not have a tight definition of “significant”, we will simply add to the bonanza of fees that lawyers could earn from it.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Shadow Minister (Health)

I made it clear that I am not a parliamentary draftsman and that I will seek advice on the best form of words. Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that if we do not include the amendment, again, lawyers might have a beanfeast, because they could say that somebody walking down the Embankment was exposed to smoke? Were we not to be specific and restrict the zeal of a future Secretary of State in making regulations, we could fall into precisely the trap that the hon. Gentleman rightly identified.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Shadow Minister (Health)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. The specific circumstances need to be identified by the Minister. Perhaps she will do that in her reply to his remarks and mine. Subsection (4)(a) contains the phrase “in specified circumstances”. Perhaps examples could be put on the record as to what those should be.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health)

I support the spirit of what the hon. Member for Westbury intends in the amendment but, as has been outlined by the hon. Member for Bristol, West, there is uncertainty about the helpfulness of adding that form of wording to the clause. Will it take us many steps forward?

We do not think this is about levels per se, but about harm. We refer in the explanatory notes to the

“risk of harm from second-hand smoke”,

which will be part of the assessment. Therefore, I do not think that the word “significant” adds anything meaningful to the Bill. I would like to reassure the hon. Member for Westbury that I take on board his point that we should not be trivial in our application of the measures.

Part of the reason why we drafted paragraphs (a), (b), (c) and (d) of subsection (4) is that the regulations must consider those areas, and when they are produced in draft they will give a clearer view of the circumstances, times, conditions and areas in which they should be applied.

In answer to the inquiries about where the provisions might apply, they might apply to stadiums—whether football or otherwise—and they could take into account issues such as the ability of spectators to move around and remove themselves from smoke. That is one of the issues, and it would be part of any assessment.

I am glad that I have the opportunity to say something about railway stations, because I wanted to mention this earlier but did not get round to it. A number of railway stations or terminals are pretty much enclosed before people get to the platform. Based on our definition of “enclosed or substantially enclosed”, I imagine a lot of railway stations and termini would fall under that category. Having said that, there are also platforms that are completely open, on which people can decide where they want to stand. That might raise a different issue.

Similarly, the subject of bus stops came up during the consultation. If someone is waiting for a bus and it is raining, and there is a shelter at the bus stop, there are only so many places they can go without getting wet. One of the reasons why we have not included all those examples in the Bill is that they are just that—a few examples. If we had more time, we could think of many more. These are the sort of issues that we should have a better look at once the legislation has come into force, to determine whether there are other areas to which the smoke-free policy should apply.

I hope that the hon. Member for Westbury is reassured by what I said about the application not being trivial. Subsection (4)(a) to (d) puts the onus on the draft regulations to be clear about how and in what circumstances the assessment would be applied. For those reasons, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Shadow Minister (Health)

I would never accuse the Minister of being trivial, and what she has said on the record perhaps gives a little more meaning to her intentions regarding the clause. I am slightly perplexed about railway termini; I feel that an open platform might give more exposure to expired tobacco smoke than one of our vast termini. Waterloo station—where I hope to be in just a few minutes’ time—is a cavernous open space with a great draught going through it. I suspect my exposure to tobacco smoke there would be rather less than it would if I were standing at one of the small stations in my constituency. This is not quite as simple as the Minister pretends to make out, which is why I insisted on occupational exposure standards, maximum exposure limits and so forth earlier in the debate.

However, I shall not go on. Suffice it to say that the Minister has given me some reassurance, and with that in mind, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Debate adjourned.—[Gillian Merron.]

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Four o’clock till Tuesday 13 December at twenty-five minutes to Eleven o’clock.