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Mrs. Iris Robinson: I thank the hon. Gentleman. In the Irish Republic, one person in three used to smoke, but that has fallen to fewer than one in four. That significant change shows that the ban has been a deterrent. If a ban is good enough for the Irish Republic and for Northern Ireland, I do not see why we should differentiate on the mainland.

Stephen Pound: It is clear that two of us here read the Irish Medical Journal. The figures show that there has
 
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been a continuing decline in the numbers of smokers over the past five years. There is no statistical evidence to suggest that the numbers have risen since the smoking ban was introduced. The long Kondratiev cycle has to be borne in mind, but five years is statistically significant.

I do not want to detain the House, but I appeal to hon. Members to think about the practicalities. A total ban will not make tobacco disappear, but coexistence is possible. I accept that we would prefer not to have either tobacco or smokers, but in fact we have both.

Earlier, I mentioned the smoke-free cowl on the Upper Committee Corridor, but now I refer the House to the dystopic hell—"Hernando's Hideaway"—that is the smoking room on the Library Corridor. It is like the "Raft of the Medusa" most nights, with great groups of people crammed into it. The air there is a little much even for my fragile lungs.

We need sanity and sense. This debate has stirred great emotions, but talking about dead bodies littering the streets, adopting an absolute position and saying that smoking will disappear if it is banned are not good ways to approach the matter. We must accept the reality of tobacco's existence and try to mitigate the nuisance and annoyance that it causes. We must protect young people from tobacco smoke and stop them taking up smoking, but for heaven's sake we must not make matters much worse by introducing legislation that Draco the lawgiver would have felt was too extreme.

Steve Webb: The hon. Member for Ealing, North (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.

5 pm

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:

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
 
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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.

Sir Patrick Cormack: The hon. Gentleman is not obliged either to join a club or to go to one as a guest. If he knows that there is smoking in the club and he does not want to go there, he has no need to do so.

Steve Webb: I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman was listening to what I said. The point that I am making is not about other customers or members of the club but about the health and safety of the people who work there. It is not about whether I choose to patronise the club, but the workers. As the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said, we are talking about not one or two people but a large number—about 166,000.

Andrew Selous: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that many of our constituents in many parts of the country may not have a choice about where they work? Jobs may be in short supply, especially for young people—16 to 17-year-olds—for whom getting a first job is extremely difficult. They are often jolly lucky to be offered anything at all.

Steve Webb: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point and I admire his courage in standing up for his principles. It is an extraordinary notion of health and safety that we should tell people who are working in an environment that is bad for their health, "Tough. Go and work somewhere else." If asbestos was found in the roof of a private members' club, we would not tell the staff to work somewhere else. We would sort out the health and safety problem, which is exactly what we should do in this case.

Mr. Devine: Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the British Medical Association report produced at the end of 2005, which compared the respiratory function of bar staff in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland before and after the introduction of the ban? The respiratory function of bar staff in the Republic after the ban was significantly better.

Steve Webb: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. There is also evidence from the land of the free—California—showing precisely the same
 
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thing over a much longer period: the lung and respiratory function of bar staff has substantially improved since bans were introduced.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument, but can he explain why smoking will be allowed in prisons? I do not follow the logic of that.

Steve Webb: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. I suspect that the reason is more to do with pragmatism than anything else, but I am making an argument about private clubs. The Secretary of State says that 95 per cent. of passive smoke comes from the home, as though the other 5 per cent. is somehow inconsequential, yet we have heard that we are talking about a very large number of people whose health is clearly adversely affected and, probably, thousands of premature deaths over a period of years. Although I enjoyed the comments of the hon. Member for Ealing, North, perhaps we need not be apocalyptic, but such things are fundamentally important to each individual case.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Of course, such things are fundamentally important to each individual case but, if only 5 per cent. of those who have died of passive smoking acquired that outside the home—that seems to be the figure that the Secretary of State was quoting—will the hon. Gentleman explain on what basis we are supposed to make a judgment? Of course, if that was 100 per cent. likely, the case for banning it might be better than if it was nil per cent. likely. What we seem to be hearing is that that is relatively unlikely. Is not passive motoring a great deal more dangerous?

Steve Webb: No. The hon. Gentleman is getting confused between a certainty of 5 per cent. and a probability of five in 100. In other words, as we have just heard, no one doubts that the health of people who work in bars where people smoke suffers and that some of them die prematurely. That is certain, inasmuch as these things can ever be proven with certainty. There is not a 5 per cent. chance that that is true; it is pretty much 100 per cent. true for that 5 per cent. That is the distinction that I am making. A set of people who work in such environments suffer and that is pretty much proven empirically.

Irrespective of whether we are talking about private space, the issue is about the welfare of the people who work there. If we exempt private members' clubs, do we risk driving a coach and horses through the exemption altogether? I am not sure whether I am clear about the answer. Will the Rose and Crown turn itself into a private members' club?


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