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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman has had his allocation.

6.1 pm

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), who made a thoughtful and well-informed speech. His and his colleagues' evidence sessions have informed our debate, so it is a shame that the Secretary of State had a higher priority than listening to what he had to say.

I congratulate the Secretary of State and the Government on consulting extensively and listening to what they heard. We cannot deny that the Government consulted the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) and listened to him. They have done what he asked them to do, so they were consulting and
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listening. They did not listen to what 90 per cent. of the public wanted, but the right hon. Gentleman is obviously the person who counts.

The priority for Liberal Democrats is the freedom of people to work in a smoke-free environment. As far as I am concerned, this is an issue about the health and safety of employees in England. The health and safety of employees of England is just as important as that of employees in Scotland, Wales, and north and southern Ireland.

I can cite examples of what has happened around the world. I want to take you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—albeit not literally—to the land of the free. No fewer than 300 cities and seven states in the United States have a total ban. Since a ban was introduced in California in 1998, the respiratory health of bartenders has significantly improved. That shows the point of the exercise and where we are coming from. After a six-month trial in Montana, there was a 40 per cent. drop in hospital admissions due to heart attacks. People who are sceptical about the evidence should look at what is actually happening on the ground.

There are those who say, "You may be worried about the welfare of workers, but it is their choice because they can choose to work in a smoky bar or somewhere else." However, if asbestos was found in the roof of a bar, people would not say, "You don't have to work there—go somewhere else." We would say, "It's bad for your health, so we'll do something about it." The onus should be on the workplace to be good for the health of the people who work there and not to harm it.

Mr. Laurence Robertson : I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, as I do to all his speeches. However, if we were to follow his point to its logical conclusion, we could not allow people to work down coal mines. I am not aware that the Government are going to introduce a ban on that.

Hon. Members: Because you closed them all.

Steve Webb: Yes, the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues went a long way towards achieving that. I draw a distinction between avoidable and unavoidable risk. Being exposed to second-hand smoke is not an inherent part of working behind a bar, so we can, and should, do something about that.

I want to say a word or two about the two major exemptions. As several hon. Members have eloquently said about the exemption for food, there is no logical basis for saying that whether food is served has anything to do with whether second-hand smoke is bad for people. As far as I understand it, people may smoke if pork scratchings are served, but if pork chops are served, they may not. If pork sandwiches are served, it might depend on where they were cooked, whether they were hot or cold, and whether they were brought on to the premises. Nothing in the exemption has anything to do with the welfare of people working in pubs. It is entirely irrational.

Allowing people in so-called wet pubs—I have never quite followed that phrase—to be exposed to second-hand smoke seems to be in conflict with a recent
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campaign of which I have become aware. The campaign is an attempt to raise awareness of something called the "invisible killer". There will be adverts to

One of the main advocates of the campaign says:

The campaign is, of course, the Department of Health's. The person who gave that evidence was the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), who will wind up the debate. The NHS campaign was launched on the Department's website this autumn. How can the Department cite all these terrible things about second-hand smoke, which are true, yet say that it is all right for people who work in pubs that do not serve food to breathe it in? I do not understand how the Minister can simultaneously hold those two opinions.

I want to warn the House about the rise of death burger. Many of us who went to university will remember the burger vans that used to ply people on the high streets and what their products used to do to our health. If people can smoke in pubs provided that no food is served there, there will be an explosion—if that is the right word—of death burgers. Burger vans will park outside pubs, and people who want to smoke and eat will go out of the pub to buy a burger and quite possibly bring it back into the pub to eat it. As the burger would not have been provided on the premises, that would be no problem. Such people would get a triple whammy. They could go out to drink, nip outside for a burger and go back into the pub and smoke. The Department of Health is approving that behaviour, so I think that we are missing the point.

It is not only the exemption for food that is irrational, but the link between that exemption and the alcohol policy. It is clear that pubs that serve only a bit of food and do not make much money from that will stop serving food altogether. We will see more of what is inaccurately called vertical drinking—I have never quite understood why it is called that. There will be more pubs in which people will stand and drink, rather than sit and eat. All the concerns about alcohol abuse will increase.

Dr. Stoate: May I assist the hon. Gentleman? He says that it is difficult to define food and to determine whether a particular type of food constitutes cooked food. I met one of my constituency's publicans at a public meeting last night who made the interesting point that beer, by definition, is a food. Does that not rather confuse the situation under the Bill because any pub that sells beer will technically be selling food?

Steve Webb: I had not considered that point, but I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is keeping in close contact with his local publicans, as ever.

I have a further worry, which I have not really thought through, about the exemption's link with alcohol policy. Given the extension of licensing hours—we do not necessarily need to be talking about 24-hour licensing—the situation for bar staff will get worse. If
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licensing hours are longer, they will be exposed to second-hand smoke for longer. The case for doing something about that, which is the case against an exemption, thus becomes more pressing.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I think that we understand the hon. Gentleman's position on smoking tobacco. I hope that he will comment on his party's position on smoking cannabis. There appears to be some confusion about why he is focusing on smoking tobacco, but ignoring cannabis.

Steve Webb: The hon. Gentleman's comment gives rise to the interesting point that enforcement will be difficult if what is being smoked effectively has to be inspected. Some environmental health officers argue that if we stick strictly to addressing tobacco products, people could always claim that they were smoking something else, which would mean that an investigation of what was being smoked would be required. A broader definition of smoking could thus make enforcement action easier.

The exemption for private members' clubs also makes no sense. As the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) accepted, that exemption will increase health inequalities. Again, we must ask why the health and welfare of people working in private members' clubs is less important than that of other people. What can the Minister say about the danger of "The Rose and Crown" becoming a private members' club, which would allow people to circumvent the ban by becoming members of "The Rose and Crown"? It would not be beyond the wit of a landlord to circumvent the ban by setting up a membership scheme. How can a ban that is full of exemptions that allow it to be circumvented so easily be worth the paper that it is printed on?

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