4.5 pm

Health Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 13th December 2005.

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Question again proposed.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Shadow Minister (Health)

What a pleasure it is to see you, Mr. Illsley. Before lunch, I was in the middle of summing up my remarks on clause 6, which has to do with signage. I was saying how much sense there was in proposals that, rather than having no-smoking signs, we should have smoking signs. Given the direction in which we are going, in the fullness of time smoking will be the exception, having once, sadly, been the rule. That being so, it will be better to have smoking signs where that exceptional activity is permitted, rather than no-smoking signs, which—we would hope—will be largely redundant.

Of course, there would be cost implications, although signs are relatively cheap. I recall the observation of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) that there is the possibility that in creating this legislation we are assisting not only lawyers but signmakers. If they have any sense, they will be watching our deliberations very closely in the expectation of producing lots of signs in the not-too-distant future. That is not, in itself, a bad thing, but it will be a good thing to reduce the burden on those who operate premises by minimising the amount of signage that is required. There are other good reasons for minimising signage, including the fact that signs tend to clutter a place. We are all aware of highway clutter—in my case, I pass signs about this, that or the other every five minutes all the way down to the west country. I know that one or two of my hon. Friends have been exercised by that, especially the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning), who is particularly concerned about roadside clutter.

However, it is a more general point. We seem to be erecting more and more signs wherever we go, so surely it is a good thing to minimise that, especially in sensitive areas, which places open to the public often are. I am thinking particularly of historic and listed buildings. It would be good to have as few ugly signs intruding on our enjoyment of those places as possible.

The trouble with signs is that if we institute a new range, that will lessen the significance of those that we have already. At the moment, we have helpful signs telling us where to go and so on, safety signs, exit signs, and signs telling us what to do to maximise our chances of having an incident-free visit. We are at risk of going into information overload. By having smoking rather than no-smoking signs, we will improve signage in general, ensure that we do not dilute the existing messages, particularly the important ones relating to health and safety, and reduce the regulatory burden on businesses that will have to display signs and, importantly, police them.

The Bill places an obligation on individuals to ensure that there is adequate signage. If we can keep that as simple as possible, that has to be a good thing. Later in our consideration of the Bill, remarks on keeping things simple, made by the Local Government Association, will probably be mentioned. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats have tabled an amendment that is taken, pretty well verbatim—correction, verbatim—from a suggestion made in an LGA paper, which was sent to all members of the Committee, stating that it was worried about the complexity of some of the arrangements. By keeping matters as simple as possible we will at least satisfy the LGA and, I suspect, many others.

I hope that the Minister listened carefully to the helpful suggestion made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), which is sound good sense. Let us please have smoking signs rather than non-smoking signs.

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

Before I enter into discussions about signage—whether signs should say smoking or non-smoking, for example—I want to repeat that I am considering the issue of fines, based on consultation.

I sought advice during the break about who would be liable in respect of the offence of not displaying signs and so on, a matter which was raised by the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb). I was pleased to have had an opportunity to think about that matter and to discuss it with officials. We would not necessarily target ordinary bar staff, but people who have a position of responsibility in a bar; that could be the licensee, the manager or someone who is given additional responsibilities over and above serving in the bar or cleaning it.

I have some sympathy with the suggestion made by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire about signs. I asked questions about that issue when we drew up and received responses to the consultation document in the summer and when we discussed the drafting of the Bill. In an ideal world, the presumption would be that everywhere was non-smoking unless there was a sign stating that smoking was allowed. It would be nice to believe that that would happen, as it would be the easiest option. Unfortunately, we do not live in that ideal world.

As part of my deliberations, I discussed what happens in other countries and as far as I am aware—I stand to be corrected—the countries that have introduced restrictions, even those such as Ireland and   some states in America that have a total ban, still make provision for the focus to be on non-smoking, rather than smoking, signs. That is partly because of the defence issue—people should know that they are entering a non-smoking environment. We are at the start of a legislative process in defining, in law, those places that should be non-smoking. In the debate on this clause we are discussing the defences available to people to argue that they were unaware that they were in a non-smoking or smoke-free establishment.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Opposition Whip (Commons)

The purpose of a Committee stage is to reflect on the Bill. Having listened to the debate, I think that we are in danger of getting the proposal wrong. Surely, the duty should be on the smoker to establish that smoking is permitted. Will the entire country be splattered with signs pointing out that it is not permitted? The responsibility should lie with the smoker. There should be no defence for a smoker who lights up in a place where smoking is not permitted, because smokers should take care to establish that smoking is allowed before they light up.

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

I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, but he should reflect on the fact that we are legislating for the first time to make it an offence, perhaps with a fixed penalty notice, for a person to smoke in a non-smoking environment. There are some real problems with people being able to say that they were not aware that it was a non-smoking establishment. As for splattering the country with signs, we are looking for a relatively light touch.

I take on board what the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) said about listed buildings and so on, and the fact that we should be sensitive about signage. We should also be sensitive to the fact that many of the establishments that now operate voluntary no-smoking policies already have no-smoking or smoke-free signs; we want to be mindful of that and how any new system of signage builds on or links with it. We certainly are not looking to overburden establishments with no-smoking signs. As I said, we have a record of what other countries have done. Some of them have restrictions and have since gone for a total ban. Indeed, Ireland has gone for a total ban, but it still believes that is it right to have no-smoking signs.

The other aspect is the message that signage sends out. It is quite positive that adults and young people should see no-smoking signs in places where they are active, or visiting or working, rather than seeing smoking signs all over the place. The no-smoking sign sends out a visible message that is clearly understood. If we were to move to smoking signs, however, the question is where they should be placed. We have been speaking of places where people will be able to smoke. For instance, should we have signs outside every pub saying that you can smoke outside but not inside?

All sorts of issues will be raised if we clutter with signs those areas where people cannot smoke. I would ask hon. Members to pause for thought if they were thinking of moving to a regime of smoking signs, as a   huge number of places would be cluttered with signs. If we did not have no-smoking signs, the reverse would be to have smoking signs.

Photo of George Young George Young Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee, Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee 4:15 pm, 13th December 2005

The Minister is making a good case for clause 6, as it is at the point of inception of a new regime and the creation of the criminal offence of smoking in a public place. I am minded to be persuaded by her argument. My concern is that if, in a few years’ time, we have successfully changed the climate and non-smoking becomes the norm, we will need primary legislation to remove clause 6. If we do make substantial progress, is there a better way of dealing with clause 6 than having to make fresh primary legislation?

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

I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman raises. However, I am sure that future Governments will be able to make time to deal with such issues through primary legislation. We have already said that we intend to monitor the legislation from day one and to review it within three years. If it was thought that we could move to an environment where smoke-free or no-smoking signs were not necessary, I am sure that an opportunity would present itself.

A number of other countries have extensive restrictions and bans in place. For example, although California has a smoking prevalence of 15 per cent., it still has no-smoking signs for establishments that are smoke-free. Such signs will have a role as the legislation comes into effect and for the foreseeable future.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Shadow Minister (Health)

Is the Minister seriously suggesting that she will review the issue after a period to be defined and that she might then be minded to change the signage from “No Smoking” to “Smoking”? That is extraordinary.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Shadow Minister (Health)

Well, that is the implication of her remarks. Why is she talking about reviewing matters? What purpose will the review have?

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

No, I said that for the reasons that I outlined, we should have a presumption in favour of no-smoking signs, rather than signs that define smoking areas, as has been suggested. I have outlined the reasons why and, as with everything, we shall have to see how the legislation comes into force. However, for the foreseeable future—to be honest, that is quite a long time—there will still be a need for no-smoking signs. That has been the experience in countries that have legislated to restrict or ban smoking in all public places.

I am certainly not suggesting that we expect to change this around; we want to take a light-touch approach to these signs and to work with the grain of existing measures, given that several establishments have already voluntarily become smoke-free or have smoking restrictions. We also want to take into account what is appropriate in different types of building and the different language requirements in England and Wales.

Signage is important for another reason. London is a major tourist attraction, and it is important to make clear to tourists what the laws of the land are and how they should be applied.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Shadow Minister (Health)

The Minister’s last point is reasonable, but her argument about signage might be driven by a degree of expediency, if I may say so. I thought that the Bill was all about not smoking and I can think of no better way of getting that message across than saying that there will be no smoking unless an area has a notice saying, “Smoking”. That is a clear public health message, and I wonder whether we are having no-smoking rather than smoking signs because the Cabinet and Ministers have difficulty with a ban on smoking, which will be unpopular with some sectors of the community.

I ask the Minister to give the matter further thought, because my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire has made a sensible point. The more I think about it, the more I feel that having smoking rather than no-smoking signs would send a firm public health message, because there would be a ban on smoking unless it were explicitly stated that one may smoke in an area.

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

I think that the hon. Gentleman is becoming rather silly, if I may say so. Not having signage could result in enforcement difficulties in premises that have to be smoke-free under the law. It would be nice to believe that we could pass a law in this place and that everybody out there would simply be aware of it and carry it round with them, but we are talking about a real shift from voluntary restrictions and bans to restrictions and bans that are enshrined in legislation. If somebody does not abide by that law, they will commit an offence, and I am thinking particularly of members of the public who go into a place and start to smoke a cigarette.

However much I might like to believe that we will one day live in a world in which nobody smokes—we would all hope for that, but it is a long way off—an individual has the right to be warned that they might be committing an offence. All the countries that have sought to restrict or ban smoking have felt that it is part and parcel of good compliance and enforcement to alert individuals as to the status of the establishment that they entering to give them a reasonable opportunity not to commit an offence under the law. That is important. The signage that we will discuss in regulations should not be over-burdensome. It should not spoil buildings. But we should also recognise the need to have those places that are smoke-free defined as such.

In many respects, as a firm message of health, I personally would rather see more signs saying “No smoking” than be confronted by signs saying “Smoking allowed”. I hope that hon. Members will   support the clause. There are certain issues relating to the fines that I will take away to think about. I will come back to the Committee on them in due course.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Health

On a point of order, Lady Winterton. I do not want to pre-empt what you are about to say, but you will be aware that we are now encountering a series of clauses to which no amendments have been tabled. There was some uncertainty earlier about the procedure. May I, through you, encourage the Minister to initiate each of the debates with some words on the clause stand part issue? It would make our proceedings more efficient if we could avoid uncertainty about who kicks off.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

I am grateful for that point of order. I can only call those who rise to try to catch my eye. I am sure that the Minister will have heard that request, but I am bound by procedure.