HC Deb 12 February 2004 vol 417 cc479-81WH
7. Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)

What plans the Government have to introduce legislation to protect people at work from the effects of passive smoking. [153646]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Miss Melanie Johnson)

We currently have no plans to introduce such legislation. Employers have a duty under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees, including risks from passive smoking. The Health and Safety Executive has published guidance to employers on effective smoking policies at work.

Mr. Sheerman

I am sad to hear the Minister's answer. She knows as well as I do that our great party came into existence to protect workers' rights, and their health and safety must be part of those rights. There are many people whose health is under daily attack from passive smoking. The health of people working in restaurants, bars and clubs comes under great pressure and deteriorates. Much research, including this week's report, shows that smoking is linked to infertility in men and women. Can she reassure me about the story on the front page of The Times today? The Secretary of State for Health has ruled out any vote on the issue, but I warn the Minister that we, as the party of Government, have had some recent lessons about Ministers being out of touch with Back Benchers and opinion in the country.

Miss Johnson

I know that my hon. Friend feels passionately about this subject, and the Secretary of State and I share that passion. We have consistently said that smoke-free indoor public places are the ideal way of protecting people from the health dangers of secondhand smoke, which we fully recognise. There will be an opportunity for further debate on the subject, and an examination of how to take it forward, as part of the consultation leading up to the White Paper. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and I had a meeting on the subject with the hospitality sector, and we are trying to make progress there. Some 50 per cent. of workplaces are now free from tobacco smoke, up from 40 per cent. in 1996. In addition, about another 36 per cent. of workplaces limit smoking to specific areas. There is a particular issue in the hospitality sector, and we are holding discussions to make progress, to which the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and I are committed.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con)

Can the Minister specify what the issue is in the hospitality sector?

Miss Johnson

I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) specified clearly what the issue is: customers can choose whether they want to be in a smoking environment, but it is more difficult for workers employed in the sector to choose a smoke-free environment.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op)

Our Government have a remarkable record in the area of public health: we had the first Public Health Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). However, this is an area of acute disappointment, as my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield said. The presidents of the royal colleges were united in calling for legislation, and the Government's chief medical officer agreed. However, the Secretary of State for Health said that the chief medical officer was "an outrider" on the issue. Can the Minister please come to the meeting of the all-party group on smoking and health, which I have the privilege and pleasure of chairing, on a date of her choosing, to explain the Government's rationale? It defeats many of us who are active campaigners in the field. The evidence on health mounts up, as does that on economic benefits. How much longer must we wait? Sometimes, the talking and the consultation must stop, and action must begin.

Miss Johnson

I reassure my hon. Friend that action has begun and much progress is being made. I should be delighted to come, at an appropriate time diarywise, to meet the all-party group, and I look forward to receiving an invitation to do so.

I should like to assure my hon. Friend that we are determined to make further progress. Secondhand smoking in the home is a major issue, and that is why we launched a major, national, hard-hitting advertising campaign that is changing people's attitudes. That is against the background of the banning of cigarette advertising, and all the work and fantastic investment in smoking cessation services. That is the key: seven out of 10 smokers would like to give up smoking. We want more people to give up so that the problem will be much smaller. I have already outlined to my hoo. Friend the Member for Huddersfield the progress made in terms of workplace smoking, and we are determined to make more. The indications are that people are divided on the issue, and that there is not public support for bans across the board. While we can continue to make advances through voluntary measures, we should do so.

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