HC Deb 11 March 2003 vol 401 cc263-70

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Stephen Twigg.]


Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

Few of my hon. Friends would disagree that workers' health is crucial in all the communities of our country. Having a healthy work force benefits individuals, employers and the United Kingdom as a whole. Tonight, I want to focus on a particular sector of that work force—people working in bars, pubs, clubs and restaurants. Employees in that sector are especially vulnerable. They are vulnerable because they are almost always on the minimum wage, or just above it, and because they are hit by serious health risks—risks that regularly affect 3 million people. The effects of those risks kill 1,000 people a year. I refer to passive smoking—something that is entirely preventable.

The debate is timely, as tomorrow is no smoking day, although I was not aware of that when I made my request for an Adjournment debate.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

As my hon. Friend points out, national no smoking day is tomorrow and my early-day motion 833 refers to it. Does he agree that the sizeable group of workers to which he refers includes people in this place, the Palace of Westminster? Like those hon. Members who signed the early-day motion, does he lament the fact that smoke-free air is still not the norm in the bars, restaurants and corridors of the precincts of the Palace of Westminster?

Mr. Sheerman:

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend, who is well known for his activity in and chairmanship of an all-party group on smoking and health.

My focus this evening lies outside the world of education. When one is the Chairman of a Select Committee, it is a great relief to speak on other subjects in this place; one sometimes feels that education and skills are the only things that one ever discusses. However, we have a life outside Select Committees and my passion for protecting the health of vulnerable workers is of long standing.

I am disappointed by the Government's record. The Labour Government who came to power in 1997 have had 2,016 days during which they have chosen to do little or nothing to protect the health of workers in the pub and club industry. The measures that they have tried to introduce have, on the whole, been half-hearted and ineffectual.

The White Paper, "Smoking Kills", published in December 1998, commissioned the Health and Safety Executive to draft an approved code of practice. Where is it? Is it buried somewhere at the HSE? The code is ready but successive Ministers have said, "No, not just now; it is too hot to handle."

There is no reason for that. Why did the Government ask for a draft code and then not introduce it? Instead, they called on the hospitality trade to adopt a voluntary non-smoking policy in facilities for customers. That is fine for customers, but anyone who visits busy pubs, clubs or restaurants, where much smoking takes place, knows that the people who work there—on long shifts, for low wages and at unsocial hours—spend many hours absorbing polluted air. One large pub chain, J.D. Wetherspoon, has introduced non-smoking areas, but that does not affect its employees. Voluntary adoption of a code is not enough.

Polls commissioned by the Government found that the public favoured Government involvement to control passive smoking at work. Polls tell us simple things, such as that 70 per cent of the people of this country do not smoke. However, those people are excluded from many public and private places by people who smoke. That antisocial behaviour is regrettable.

Despite the fact that the HSE approved the draft code of conduct in 1999, it has not yet been approved by the Government. There is speculation as to which Minister buried the code and why it cannot be resuscitated. Such speculation points to concern about bureaucracy and the costs to business, especially bars, pubs and clubs.

Experience in other countries shows that the introduction of such protection for workers leads to more people deciding to go out for a night. Pub and club entrepreneurs found that when there were no-smoking areas in pubs, clubs or restaurants, more people in the non-smoking 70 per cent. decided to go to them. Indeed, in New York, where a code was introduced by former Mayor Giuliani, but implemented by the present mayor, there has been a rise in the volume of trade in the leisure industries. More people have been liberated to get out there and enjoy an evening's entertainment.

The HSE is privately consulting the hospitality sector about an informal agreement on passive smoking, but in my view and that of my colleagues that is not a matter for an informal arrangement when 1,000 people a year die as a result of passive smoking. Of course that is a large number, but 120,000 people a year die from smoking-related causes.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

My hon. Friend mentions New York and the leisure industry, particularly restaurants. Does he agree that people have chosen to go to non-smoking restaurants for many years in New York and that has been good for business? I cannot understand why people in the United Kingdom's leisure industry do not look at the positive things that are happening around the world, given that many of us would enjoy our restaurant meals more without that interference with our fresh air. That points to the conservative nature that we in the United Kingdom have in not wanting to change.

Mr. Sheerman

My colleague is a longstanding anti-smoking campaigner, and he is absolutely right. The fact of the matter is that, on one side, the leisure industry in this country is deeply entrepreneurial, but on the other, it is deeply conservative about predicting how people would react to a cleaner atmosphere.

I intend to introduce a Bill along the same lines as this Adjournment debate to protect employees, so I want to concentrate on them this evening because they cannot escape. Employees do not have a choice about whether they work a shift, and their health is under threat. I was reading the history of the slow introduction of protecting miners from dust. For hundreds of years, men were asked to crawl into holes in the ground to mine coal, and I was amazed to find that the first real step towards regulation was taken in 1954 and that effective regulation on the inhalation of dust by miners was not put in place until 1975. That really makes one think how slow we have been to protect one group of workers from crippling diseases, and we now have another conservative sector in the shape of the leisure industry, which is so reluctant to protect workers from something that is proven to affect their health.

A study in New South Wales showed that carbon monoxide in the bloodstream of non-smokers increased four times after they had worked for four hours in licensed premises. That is a remarkable piece of research. In California, a study of what happens before and after exposure to passive smoking showed that 74 per cent. of people initially reported respiratory problems. That is a daunting figure, and it is clear that something drastic must be done, and that the foundations are already laid in common law.

I want to give a warning to the industry this evening. If we cannot wake up the Government and get them to do something about this, the industry should watch out, because there will be class actions against employers and severe repercussions for the insurance industry. There will be a dramatic change in the atmosphere in this country, because insurers will steadily learn that insuring the large chains that are negligent of their workers' health represents a very poor risk. Employers should be held responsible for the conditions in which their employees work. Given that, it seems to me that insurance companies would do well to get on the bandwagon of the trade unions and other bodies who have been calling for protection for employees' health. Indeed, the trade union movement has galvanised itself into action in recent years, and we have seen a much more positive attitude from the trade unions that represent workers in those areas

I hope that the Government will respond positively this evening. I know that this matter straddles the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health. What we want from the Minister is some recognition that the Government have wasted a great deal of time in doing anything positive about smoking and health, particularly in relation to employees at work. Under two Administrations, I have listened to various Ministers' pretty words and fine speeches, but there has been little action that has made much difference. In relation to smoking and women's health, young women have been smoking much more than in past years, and the impact on their health is showing already in the statistics. Will the Government accept that they must also take action on passive smoking to protect the health of a vulnerable section of the work force, as was belatedly done to protect workers in mining and in other vulnerable circumstances?

Let me finish by talking about what is happening elsewhere. In Ireland, the Minister responsible, Michael Martin, announced in February a complete ban on smoking in public places beginning in January next year, inspired again by the desire for workers to be protected, following a successful campaign by the relevant unions in Ireland. That came after a substantial report by the Office of Tobacco Control and the Health and Safety Authority, suggesting that the only effective way to control passive smoking was to enforce an outright ban—in Ireland, everyone's image of which is a wonderful smoke-filled little pub. Again, the Irish are taking the lead.

In the United States, in New York, the smoke-free laws were introduced in 1995 by Mayor Giuliani, and were passed by Mayor Bloomberg. Those mainly concerned drinking and eating establishments with a capacity of 35 people or more. Today, however, the ban extends to all establishments. Four years later, as I have said, bar and restaurant sales have increased substantially. The Labour Government should not therefore be timid or frightened: it is good for business. Are we not best when we are at our boldest?

For goodness' sake, will the Minister listen to what the Prime Minister said at our last party conference and be bolder in protecting workers' health? It is high time we tackled this issue by introducing legislation that protected vulnerable workers.

David Taylor

My hon. Friend is painting a vivid picture of clubs and restaurants in New York. Karaoke and club singers often have in their repertoire the song, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes". Does he agree that that is only partly true, as it gets into our clothes, our hair, our bloodstream, and, eventually, on to our death certificates? Is not that the harsh reality?

Mr. Sheerman

Absolutely. I must admit that Nina Simone's rendition of that song is one of my favourites. My hon. Friend makes a serious point, even if he starts with a light introduction.

The fact is that this country, yet again, in the vital area of protecting our citizens' health, lags behind the competition. Is that the sort of society that we want in the 21st century? Surely, at some time, we want to build on those areas in which we lead in health rather than trailing the frontrunners.

7.19 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle)

I am afraid that I cannot compete with Nina Simone, but I will do my best to deal with some of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) has raised. I congratulate him on the way in which he has raised these issues. It is clearly a matter about which he and his colleagues who have attended the debate feel strongly. I have never smoked except passively, and I understand why he and other hon. Members hold such strong feelings.

I note that tomorrow is national no smoking day. I will not have a problem managing not to smoke tomorrow, but I hope that the many people who see tomorrow as the first day of the rest of their lives and who try to give up the habit will not have any trouble.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) referred to the position in the Palace of Westminster. The issue is of concern here, as it is in any other workplace. He was right to raise the subject.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield made clear, the Health and Safety Executive has been dealing with the matter for some time. It launched a strategic initiative to revitalise health and safety and has given particular prominence to securing improvements in workers' health. The occupational health strategy—securing health together—was launched two years ago, and it represents a long-term commitment to improving occupational health. There is no doubt that the HSE has examined the issue and is trying to reduce ill health among workers and the ill health among members of the public that is caused or made worse by work. The strategy also aims to help people made ill—whether caused by work or not—to return to work, to improve work opportunities for people not in employment owing to ill health or disability, and to use the work environment to help people maintain or improve their health. An important component of that is dealing with exposures to toxic substances, including the hazards associated with passive smoking. Passive smoking in the workplace—or, indeed, anywhere else—is a topic that generates strong debate and, as my hon. Friend made clear, the Health and Safety Commission consulted on the matter some time ago.

The Government's scientific committee on tobacco and health published a report in 1998 on the emerging evidence of the effects of exposure to passive smoking. One of its recommendations was that, wherever possible, smoking should not be allowed in the workplace. As a result, Ministers asked the HSC to give advice on possible ways forward. My hon. Friend has referred to the proposal for an approved code of practice that followed the consultation that took place.

In formulating its advice to Ministers, I know that the HSC carefully considered the views of those who might not want such an advisory code of practice. It is often said that small businesses and the hospitality sector are against a code, and my hon. Friend referred to some of those sectors. Of course, their views were considered, but the HSC had to consider the need to protect the 3 million people who are involuntarily exposed to other people's tobacco smoke at work and to do this for all workers regardless of occupation or industry. He referred, in particular, to those who work in the hospitality industry and in pubs, clubs and bars.

I emphasise that the law on this issue is already on the statute book. Under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, all employers have the same duty to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the welfare of all their employees at work. In particular, section 2(2) of the Act requires employers to provide a working environment for staff, which is adequate as regards facilities, and arrangements for their welfare at work". Of course, that covers hazards such as passive smoking, and the proposals in the approved code of practice would not introduce any new legal duty. That legal duty already exists. The code would simply set out what are regarded as reasonably practicable methods of complying with existing law.

My hon. Friend asked why has it taken so long for the Government to act on the proposed approved code of practice. In considering their response to the advice received from the HSC, they have listened to other views and asked that further consideration be given to the needs of smaller firms and the hospitality sector. After taking legal advice, however, the HSE concluded that it would not be possible to exempt any sector or industry, or to stage compliance by different sectors, by using an approved code of practice because the approved code of practice method sets out ways of meeting a duty that already exists. In the meantime, the Government have done much to deal with passive smoking.

If we are to ensure protection against passive smoking in public places, we need action nationally and locally to raise awareness of the risks associated with it and to increase the prevalence of smoke-free environments. We will continue to encourage the development of smoke-free policies, working with both employers and communities.

Mr. Gareth Thomas (Harrow, West)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the strong record of my hon. Friends the Members for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) and my right hon. Friend Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) on the issue.If another Labour Back Bencher were to make a specific case for a complete ban on smoking in restaurants, would she undertake to consider carefully the arguments that such a Back Bencher might make?

Maria Eagle

If my hon. Friend is referring to himself, he knows that I always take a great deal of notice of him. Indeed, Ministers consider carefully the views of all Back-Bench Members. I would take such a Bill seriously. I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield said about his intentions. I also recognise the work carried out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) on all aspects of smoking. He has a fine record on that and it does not surprise me to see him in the Chamber.

Ministers are still reviewing the practicalities of an approved code of practice, but it would not change the law. We have been concentrating on dealing with awareness raising and voluntary action. We have worked with the hospitality industry since 1998 to reduce the problem of exposure to passive smoking by developing a public places charter. It commits signatories, and many have signed up, to increase the provision of facilities for non-smokers, to improve ventilation and to give customers better information about the level of smoke-free facilities in an establishment. An independent evaluation of the charter is being commissioned and further work will be considered on the basis of the findings.

Mr. Sheerman

I hear what my hon. Friend says, and it is interesting, but why have the Government set their face against introducing legislation to protect vulnerable workers when the Irish have not?

Maria Eagle

The Government have not set their face against legislation and we are still considering the approved code of practice. The 1974 Act places obligations on all employers in respect of the health of their workers. We know that gains can be made by voluntary action. My hon. Friend mentioned other jurisdictions, such as Ireland and New York, and smoking in public has been banned in some places. Regulations in Ireland to ban smoking in all workplaces have been published in draft and will be implemented on 1 January next year. However, such legal restrictions have to be policed.

We believe that it is possible to make substantial progress on a voluntary basis while we consider the issues. The Government have supported the licensed hospitality industry's public places charter, which aims to improve facilities for non-smokers in pubs, bars and restaurants. As my hon. Friend made clear, it makes good commercial sense to improve facilities for non-smokers. Voluntary action is taking place and it can make a difference. I am certain that we will watch with interest what happens in Ireland. The Government are determined that progress must be made. That is a necessity.

Mr. Barron

The Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act contains a test of what is reasonable and practicable. I have seen evidence, which I know that the Government have received, in which barristers say that the test has never been applied to people suffering from passive smoking in the workplace. Are the Government prepared to publish the advice that they have been given on that issue?

Maria Eagle

I shall certainly have a look at that, as my right hon. Friend has raised the matter with me. I am not in a position to tell him now what the situation is, but I undertake to get back to him once I have investigated it.

The Government are funding local tobacco control alliances throughout England which work in communities to raise awareness and increase the number of smoke-free environments. Findings from those projects will also inform the future development of work in that area. There are 42 such alliances in England, and the Government spend about £1 million on support for their work. We are considering, in addition to action that is already under way, developing education and information resources to raise awareness and understanding of the risks associated with passive smoking.

Again, I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield and other colleagues present for raising the issue. The Government take it seriously, and we want to see progress. My hon. Friends and I agree that we need to make sure that workers in these industries are offered appropriate protection, and once the review of the approved code of practice has been completed, the Government will return to the House with our conclusions.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Eight o'clock.