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8.45 pm

Mr. Brake: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.

Mr. Bercow: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Brake: I hope that that has cleared up the point. I will now push my--

Mr. Bercow: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Brake: I will not give way.

Mr. Bercow: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Brake: No, I will not give way.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) should respect the customs of the House.

Mr. Brake: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I must draw my remarks to a conclusion. I expect the Minister to outline clearly how and when she intends to address this critical issue. I understand the legislative difficulties involved, but it is of such importance that we require a strong statement from the Minister tonight.

Mr. Ottaway: I start by paying tribute to all taxi drivers, smoking and non-smoking, in the front and in the back. We are all deeply indebted to London cabbies.

Those who have travelled abroad and experienced cabs overseas will know what I mean when I say that we have the best cab service in the world. In my personal experience, a visitor to York is lucky to find a cab driver who not only knows where one wants to go, but speaks English. [Hon. Members: "New York."] Did I say York? I meant New York, United States of America.

Nevertheless, I have reservations about the proposal. Smoking is a perfectly lawful occupation. In my judgment, it should be banned only if it affects others. May I tell my colleagues, in case they are hanging on my every word, that in the view of the Conservative party, this is a matter of conscience and they have a free vote. They may pick either side of this rather difficult argument, as was the position in Committee.

The matter is one for the individual to decide. I do not accept the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) that there is a passive smoking risk. If one is sitting next to someoneon the underground and smoke is wafting past--[Interruption.] Very well, if one is sitting in a public place and smoke is wafting past, and one is inhaling it, there is a risk. [Interruption.] The Liberals are jeering in a rather anoraky way.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Ottaway: I give way first to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey.

Mr. Simon Hughes: I was trying to work out how long it must be since the hon. Gentleman was last on the underground for him to have had that experience.

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On a more serious point, he must surely accept that there is a significant passive smoking risk. If one gets into a cab, which might be the only cab that comes for 20 minutes, and it is full of the smoke left by the last passenger, one has no choice but to be affected by it, and it cannot do one any good. The driver must have the right to say that he does not want that in his cab.

Mr. Ottaway: I have been on the underground several times in the past few weeks, and I have seen the appalling mess that the Government are getting into, but perhaps that is for tomorrow's debate. Not being a smoker, I have not had to observe whether smoking was permitted or not. It does not worry me very much whether someone is smoking. People who have given up tend to be more zealous about these matters.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey says that there is a risk from passive smoking. I say that there is no evidence to that effect. If one gets into a cab where someone has been smoking, there is no smoke billowing around. One has simply to open the windows. It is not a big deal.

The hon. Gentleman may be concerned about unpleasant smells. Will he ban fish and chips, or anything else that might create a smell, from the back of cabs? The Liberal Democrats are being far too sensitive.

Mr. Bercow: Does my hon. Friend agree that the smog generated by the speech of the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) greatly exceeds anything that is likely to be generated by the smoking of a cigarette in a hansom cab? In proposing the new clause--this is a serious matter--the hon. Gentleman is intellectually confused to the extent that he still cannot give us a definitive answer about whether he believes that the owner of a taxi should have the absolute right, as the driver, to smoke in his own cab. Yea or nay--I think we should be told--[Interruption.].

Mr. Ottaway: I presume that my hon. Friend was addressing that question to me. The Minister came to the rescue of the Liberal Democrats, which is no surprise as they are coalition partners. I must confess that what the Minister said surprised me. She said that a passenger can legally oblige a taxi driver to put out his cigarette. It would be a great help if she could explain the source of that legislation.

Ms Glenda Jackson: Does the hon. Gentleman really need to know?

Mr. Ottaway: I do--it is an important point.

Ms Jackson: I was about to say that I was stunned that the spokesperson for the official Opposition on transport for London clearly does not know what is happening on the tube and, apparently, knows less about legislation affecting taxi drivers. I am perfectly prepared to go through the long list of relevant legislation. I will quickly run through it now to find out where that provision is

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listed, but it is the case that a passenger may insist on a driver not smoking but a driver may not insist on a passenger not smoking.

Mr. Ottaway: That is helpful. Perhaps the Minister will have found the source in legislation by the end of the debate.

Mr. Wilkinson: Is not the distinction this? The Liberal Democrats think that the driver can eject the smoking passenger. Given the Minister's hypothesis, is it not much harder for the passenger to eject the driver?

Mr. Ottaway: We are getting into smog-filled territory, to borrow a pun from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). The Liberal Democrats must also deal with odours. Are they saying that people who smell should not be allowed to stay in a taxi? Are they saying that people should not eat fish and chips in a taxi? There is no intellectual rationale for their new clauses.

Mr. Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman makes half-valid points. He must understand that we are discussing what is effectively a public transport service, although it is privately provided. Once the light is on, the prospective passenger has a right to use the cab. The question is whether the provider, like the provider of a pub or any other public place, should have the right to say that it should be smoke free. For the purposes of transport, the cab is a public place. That is the difference. The law on smoking is applied in other public places; it is not applied to fish and chips or smells, even though the hon. Gentleman might wish it to be.

Mr. Ottaway: The question is whether the back of a cab is a public place. It is the back of someone's vehicle. I do not think that it necessarily follows that the passenger is sharing the compartment with another member of the public. When one hires a cab, one hires it for oneself. One does not share it with anyone. I do not think that the Government propose to ban smoking in one's own house. It therefore does not follow that if one is on one's own in the back of a cab one should not be allowed to smoke--otherwise we are getting into the nanny state. The policy is interventionist in the worst possible way and should be avoided.

Mr. Edward Davey: Does the hon. Gentleman realise that as a result of what he is saying a cab driver could lose his licence because he wants the cab to be a no smoking zone? That is the logic of the hon. Gentleman's position and it would infringe the liberties of the ordinary cab driver. The hon. Gentleman started his remarks by praising the cab drivers of our great city. He wants to take away their liberties, or at least restrict them to the restrictions allowed under the Conservative Government.

Mr. Ottaway: What absolute bilge. I have said nothing of the sort. All that I am asking is that the law that has prevailed for the past 100 years should be allowed to prevail for the next 100 years. The nanny-state, interventionist side of the Liberals is coming out in the worst possible way. They want to make smoking in the

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back of a cab a criminal offence. They want people to be thrown out of taxis. Speaking personally, I do not agree with their proposal.

Mr. Davey: I shall be grateful if the hon. Gentleman, who leads for the Conservatives, will say whether he really wants cab drivers to lose their livelihood because they want to be a no smoking zone.

Mr. Ottaway: They have not lost their livelihood up to now, so why should they lose it in the future, unless we pass this ridiculous new clause?

The most sensible way for the House to proceed is to recognise that a sign asking people not to smoke should be generously respected. The Minister, who is uncharacteristically smiling, gave a pledge several months ago to introduce a new clause to ban smoking in taxis. When she was put on the spot by the Liberal Democrats in Committee, she backed off. She said that the clause as drafted would not achieve the desired result. The implication was that she would go away and have a look at it and come back to the House. As far as I am aware, she does not intend to accept the new clauses tonight, unless the reason why she is smiling is that she intends to surprise the House. I doubt it. If anyone has done a U-turn, it is the Minister. She has backed off. She made a pledge that she could not stand by and she has got herself into a bit of a jam.

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