Previous SectionIndexHome Page

11 Mar 2003 : Column 264—continued

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

11 Mar 2003 : Column 265

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

11 Mar 2003 : Column 266

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

11 Mar 2003 : Column 267

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

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,

11 Mar 2003 : Column 268

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.

Next Section

IndexHome Page