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11 Mar 2003 : Column 268—continued

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 the 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.

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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

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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.

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