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Mr. Simon Hughes: I take one last opportunity to try to get the hon. Gentleman, whose philosophy on these matters I support, to understand that he is in a muddle. We are arguing that the driver should have the freedom to choose. We are not advocating the nanny state. We are not saying that drivers must choose not to allow smoking in their cab. Unless we have all misunderstood where the Conservative party has come from and is going, surely it must defend the freedom of people to choose whether to run a smoke-free business in their own vehicle.

Mr. Ottaway: That is where I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I do not think that a driver should have the discretion to decide whether someone should undertake a lawful activity. That is just a plain difference of opinion. For that reason, I personally will not support the new clause.

Mr. Clive Efford (Eltham): We have reached the controversial issue in the Bill. The Liberals are anxious and stressed, and the Conservatives are planning to have a vote of conscience. For me, the debate is simple and straightforward. It is about the workplace and about the worker being able to work in a smoke-free environment. It is plain and simple. If the driver chooses to work in a smoke-free environment, he or she should be able to enforce that decision. This has gone on for far too long. Drivers are operating outside the law. They have polite notices in the cab--I had one in the back of my taxi--thanking people for not smoking, but if someone chooses to smoke and the driver finds that offensive and unacceptable, he cannot enforce the notice. Drivers are forced to suffer and become passive smokers. On a wet winter evening, they are not going to open the windows, believe me.

The Government have said that they want to consult further and that this is not the relevant vehicle for this measure. We have to accept the Government's position,

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but I urge them to deal with the matter urgently and without further delay. There is a great deal of concern in the trade. Drivers are currently placed outside the law; the Government must tidy up the anomaly. Other forms of public transport are free from smoking and there is no reason why taxi drivers should not be able to choose whether anyone smokes in the back of their taxi.

9 pm

It is not just a question of the taxi driver's becoming a passive smoker; it is a question of his protecting the tools of his trade. High standards are set for London taxis. Smoking can damage the fabric of the inside of a taxi, and when the time comes for the annual overhaul, the Public Carriage Office will not pass a cab whose upholstery is damaged; yet the simple fact is that it is expensive to replace it. There are other factors involving the need to maintain standards relating to cleanliness in the back of taxis. For instance, the ceilings of taxis quickly become sooty as a result of smoke fumes. One of the most unpleasant tasks that I had to perform as a London taxi driver was cleaning out the ashtrays. As a non-smoker, I found having to dispose of other people's mess extremely unpleasant.

I understand that the Transport and General Workers Union has written to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions--on the understanding that amendments would not be forthcoming from the Government--seeking further meetings involving representatives of the taxi trade. I hope that the Minister will feel able to give us an undertaking in that regard because, as our debate has demonstrated, there is considerable concern about the issue. It should be dealt with, as a matter of urgency.

I have to say that I have reservations about making smoking in taxis a criminal offence, and would like to consider that further. For one thing, there is the issue of proof. If we are to introduce a law, it should be workable and enforceable. By the time a taxi driver reaches a police station in an attempt to eject a passenger who refuses to leave the taxi, if that person has just put out his cigarette, where is the proof? It will be the driver's word against the passenger's--and, if there is more than one passenger, the driver will be outvoted. We need a more moderate provision, allowing drivers to drive to the nearest police station--they know where they are--and then to seek the assistance of the police in ejecting the passenger.

If a passenger refuses to pay in such circumstances, it is up to the police to ensure that names and addresses are exchanged. That is my understanding of the regulations. It is then up to the taxi driver to institute a civil action for any inconvenience or loss of income caused. In such circumstances, small claims courts fine people heavily for messing taxi drivers around when those drivers have been pursuing their profession.

Mr. Simon Hughes: I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument, but not imposing criminal sanctions will not solve the problem. Let us suppose that the hon. Gentleman was the driver involved. He would have risked the damage to his upholstery and the smoke-filled cab. Driving to a police station three miles away in an attempt to get rid of someone who might not easily go would not get to the

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bottom of the difficulty. I think that the criminal sanction is needed because without it, there is no solution if a passenger insists on lighting up in the back of a cab.

Mr. Efford: I do not accept that. I think that, again, the issue of proof applies. Moreover, neither party will want to take a detour: both parties will want to go from A to B. That, surely, is the main sanction. I do not think that we need to take a sledgehammer to crack a nut; what we need to do is tidy up a situation in which many taxi drivers find themselves placed outside the law in an attempt to work in a smoke-free environment.

I hope that the Minister will tell us that there will be further dialogue, and that she will undertake the consultation that the Government feel is necessary before they can legislate.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): I am grateful to my Front-Bench team for allowing Conservative Members freedom of choice. It is perhaps a slightly difficult and worrying situation, but I find myself in agreement with the thrust of the Liberal Democrats' new clauses. It is not because I am a non-smoker. From time to time, I hide away in the Smoking Room in this place, but I respect the view that was eloquently expressed by the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford), who should, after all, know what he is talking about. The fact that the vehicle is the workplace and, in many cases, the private property of the individual cab driver should give that driver and owner the right to choose whether his environment is non-smoking, or smoking.

I have some worries. I have a great worry about the difficulty of enforcement. I worry that the people who might light up when asked not to might be coming back from the pub or somewhere such as that.

Mr. Brake: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in relation to public transport, to a great extent, the smoking ban on the tube and buses is being enforced not actively, but because people know that they are not allowed to smoke? The vast majority of passengers observe the ban.

Mr. Randall: To some extent, I agree, although, on the tube, for example, there may be people who will smoke when alone in a carriage--when there are no other people there to tell them off, if you like, or to embarrass them. We do travel on the tube. We see people light up, particularly late at night. Despite the remonstrations of fellow passengers, they continue to do so. Normally, however, when other people are around, people do not light up. Of course, when we get to a station, there is the possibility of calling someone in.

I would be a little concerned about the situation getting somewhat out of hand and the possibility of violent attacks. However, taxi drivers themselves are asking for the measure and I am sure that they are aware of that possibility--I understand that it is the taxi and cab drivers and their professional organisations that are asking for the measure. It is long overdue.

I do not accept the view of some of my hon. Friends that the issue is freedom of choice for the passenger. As the Liberal Democrats and the hon. Member for Eltham have said, it should be put the other way round. I am a

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great believer in freedom of choice, but that must not impinge, as these things sometimes do, on other people's liberty or freedom of choice.

As I have said, the measure should be looked at and enshrined in law. Again, I have my doubts about the criminal offence side of it. I understand from what the hon. Member for Eltham said that he has already spoken to the Government and that the let-out excuse is that they will be looking at the matter further. I think that we shall continue to hear that. It would be a good thing if a marker were put down that the House respected the rights of individual drivers to choose.

I feel that, although in their hearts many Labour Members support the new clauses, they will be persuaded by their devotion to the Whips--they are without the benefit that Conservative Members have of freedom of choice on the matter--to vote against them.

Mr. Simon Hughes: May I suggest an argument that the hon. Gentleman, with me, might make to Labour Members? In the new clauses, Liberal Democrat Members are attempting to persuade the House to support a policy that was, until recently, the Government's very own policy. Just recently, for some inexplicable reason, the Government backed away from that policy. I hope that that will persuade Labour Members to be true to old Labour policy, rather than the Government's new-found, rather inadequate substitute.

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