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Session 2006 - 07
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Public Bill Committee Debates

Smoke-free (Signs) Regulations 2007



The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Hywel Williams
Efford, Clive (Eltham) (Lab)
Flint, Caroline (Minister of State, Department of Health)
Gidley, Sandra (Romsey) (LD)
Iddon, Dr. Brian (Bolton, South-East) (Lab)
Kirkbride, Miss Julie (Bromsgrove) (Con)
Love, Mr. Andrew (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op)
McIsaac, Shona (Cleethorpes) (Lab)
Main, Anne (St. Albans) (Con)
Milburn, Mr. Alan (Darlington) (Lab)
Murrison, Dr. Andrew (Westbury) (Con)
Neill, Robert (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
Pugh, Dr. John (Southport) (LD)
Rosindell, Andrew (Romford) (Con)
Touhig, Mr. Don (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op)
Vaz, Keith (Leicester, East) (Lab)
Ward, Claire (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Wright, Mr. Iain (Hartlepool) (Lab)
Glenn McKee, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Third Delegated Legislation Committee

Thursday 21 June 2007

[Hywel Williams in the Chair]

Smoke-free (Signs) Regulations 2007

2.30 pm
Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Smoke-free (Signs) Regulations 2007 (S.I. 2007, No. 923).
I would like to make a few points about an argument that we rehearsed in Committee. The Minister knows our objections to the fact that we are expected to have signage that will proscribe smoking, rather than signage that would allow smoking in those few areas where it will be permitted under the Health Act 2006. I do not intend to rehearse the arguments because the Minister is aware of our concerns, but I want to press her, even at this late stage, on why she feels it necessary to have no-smoking signs. She has several international examples, which she will no doubt show us, and presumably they will be plastered all over the country as of 10 days’ time.
We are particularly concerned about certain locations that have traditionally been smoke-free. Organisations have written to us to say that they are concerned about what they believe is a heavy-handed and burdensome way to proceed, and I cite places of worship in particular. I am not sure about you, Mr. Williams, but the last time I saw someone light up in a church was a very long time ago. The whole idea of someone puffing away in the pews is, frankly, ridiculous. A number of clergy have made that point, and they are unhappy that they will have to put up no-smoking signs on their premises.
We are concerned about excessive signage in many contexts—for example, countryside clutter—and we should be particularly sensitive about important structures, such as churches, and how they might be defaced by excessive signage. It may seem a small point, but to many people it is a matter of great concern. For example, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell), agreed that the requirement on cathedrals and churches to affix no-smoking signs to doors was “lunacy”. The Dean of Southwark said that it would be ridiculous to place no-smoking signs on his church’s magnificent doorway, which has been locked for 500 years. However, as the door is theoretically a means by which people might gain access to the church, he will have to put a no-smoking sign over it or around it. The Bishop of Fulham said that the new rules are “stark, staring mad”.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has mentioned a number of churches, but there are other religions and places of worship in the United Kingdom. Surely his argument applies to them also. My constituency has 35 Hindu temples, five Sikh gurdwaras and 38 mosques. Will not the regulations apply to them also?
Dr. Murrison: The right hon. Gentleman may remember that I introduced my comments by referring to places of worship. The regulations are not confined to any particular faith.
Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman tell the Committee what he thinks might happen if the Church of England did not put up signs on historic buildings throughout the country? What does he think might happen if it did not comply with the regulations?
Dr. Murrison: I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman is trying to say. It is generally accepted that people do not smoke in church. I cannot remember a single instance of somebody having smoked in a church. To put up a sign saying, “You must not smoke here” is a bit like having one that says, “You must not murder anybody here” or, “You must not rob this church”; it seems completely redundant.
Clive Efford: Sorry—I probably did not word my first question clearly enough. The issue is not what will happen to somebody if they light a fag in an abbey or some other historic building, but what the owners of those buildings fear will happen to them if they do not put up a no-smoking sign. Have they set that out for the hon. Gentleman in their letters to him?
Dr. Murrison: But the regulations will oblige those people to put up no-smoking signs; they will be obliged to comply with the regulations. It will be interesting to hear from the Minister what she means by the soft touch on enforcement that we heard about.
Making a law means that it has to be applied. It is no good saying, “Well, we are going to turn a blind eye to it,” or, “We are going to apply a soft touch,” unless we define what that soft touch will be. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for intervening, because he has put his finger right on the issue. It is all very well for us to have reassurances that a soft touch will be applied—the implication almost being that enforcement officers will not be that interested in churches. However, there will be test cases. The important thing about the Committee stage of the Health Bill was trying to flesh out exactly what Ministers’ intentions were, so that we did not provide some sort of beanfeast for lawyers.
It is perfectly likely that to make a particular point, some of those who are very against smoking will want to look around places of worship, for example, to find examples of where there is no signage. It is no good just saying, “If you don’t have a sign up, so what?” We have heard that posters might go up in church entrances—a sort of downplaying of the amount of signage that there may be. There comes a point when we have to ask why we are obliging places of worship—churches, for example—to do that at all. Surely it is sensible to accept that there are public places where people know that they should not smoke. Surely that is the important thing.
The general point is that, given that there will be a presumption that people will not be allowed to smoke in public places, we should simply have notification of where, exceptionally, people may smoke. Surely that is right; it would be far less burdensome and far more informative.
There is an interesting exception for which one must have signage—railway platforms. I understand that for those, the issue is in hand through byelaws. Railway platforms can be enclosed, semi-enclosed or open. My understanding is that train companies have decided that platforms will be smoke-free. It is right that they should put up no-smoking signs. A lot of people would view those public places as being open, not enclosed, so they could be forgiven for thinking that they were allowed to smoke there, although they would not be under the byelaws. In such circumstances, it would clearly be necessary to put up a no-smoking sign—for public information and to ensure that people did not unwittingly transgress.
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): I agree; I have not seen anybody smoking inside a place of worship, but I have certainly seen them smoking on the premises. All large cathedrals have cloisters and cafĂ(c)s, and there are already no-smoking signs in those places. However, the hon. Gentleman is labouring his point. What is the difference between there being in future a sign at the entrance stating that there should be no smoking on the premises, and having one now in a cafĂ(c)?
Dr. Murrison: The hon. Gentleman makes a particular point. Of course there are cathedrals with cloisters and places of refreshment, where the normal rules would apply. However, we are talking specifically—I am, at least—about places of worship. Such places are not for entertainment or tourism; they are churches, of which there are thousands throughout the country. Under the regulations, they will have to put up no-smoking signs. That is somewhat redundant. I hope that the Minister will give assurances that the measure will be applied extremely lightly to such places. I am exercised not specifically about churches, but about places where it is generally held that people do not smoke. If she gives those assurances, I shall be content.
What I have heard from Minister so far is that there will perhaps be a requirement to have a portable notice on a notice board or a poster. The impact of such a requirement will be fairly small, so why do we need it? It seems superfluous in the context of what we are trying to do: to prevent people from smoking in areas where previously they might have felt that it was okay to do so.
Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab):I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s argument and according to it, it seems almost as though this is being done in isolation, irrespective of what has happened in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. They have brought in no-smoking legislation. Their public buildings, including historic buildings and churches, have these signs and there does not seem to have been a problem, so why is he making such a fuss today?
Mr. Gray says:
“We don’t understand why the government wanted to make the changes, and plastering the signs over all these buildings is just overkill”.
He continues:
“Evidence suggests that people switch off when there is information overload. What if someone tunes out after seeing three signs that are irrelevant and misses the fourth one that is extremely important?”
Mr. Gray is worried that there may be so many signs in a particular location that people do not pay attention to the important ones. His contention is that it is redundant to put no-smoking signs up where people already know that smoking is not allowed, and that doing so may obscure the important health and safety messages that he is principally concerned about. Such messages are vital to people’s well-being. I think that that answers the hon. Lady’s point, although she may wish to come back on it. Clearly, the ISO is concerned about this.
Shona McIsaac: The point that I was trying to get the hon. Gentleman to address was that legislation that has been introduced in other parts of the country does not appear to have caused this hoo-hah. Why does he think that England is different?
Dr. Murrison: I understand what the hon. Lady is saying. I do not say that the appearance of these signs will be the end of the world. Clearly, it will not be, although a certain cost will be involved, as will irritation on the part of those who will be expected to enforce the signs. The sky will not fall in, but given that we are in the business of making laws for this country that serve its people as well as possible—and given that we are dealing with British monuments, churches, places of worship and so on—it is surely right that we make the arrangements as good as possible.
I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is saying that it is necessary to put no-smoking signs in areas where, through custom and practice, it is clear that smoking is not allowed. If she is, I would say to her that an element of redundancy is involved and that many people will say, “That is bad law.” This approach calls many of the things that we do and parts of otherwise laudable legislation into question, because it imposes something that appears to be somewhat silly and unnecessary.
There is not a huge amount of difference between the hon. Lady and me on this point—at least, I hope that there is not. I am certainly not suggesting that the whole edifice of the no-smoking clauses in the 2006 Act will collapse if these things are plastered all over monuments. I am suggesting, ever so gently, that it would be nice if they were not.
If the Minister is able to say something along those lines, I shall be a little more content. My party has traditionally favoured the idea of a sunset clause—parties in opposition tend to do so—and it sounds to me as though we are part of the way towards reviewing formally in three years’ time where we are with this measure. Then, we will be able to decide whether we can revoke it or amend it, so that those who are concerned about excessive signage can be pacified.
While we are focusing on and devoting a lot of time to signs, we should be giving attention to some other matters. I am particularly upset that “quit smoking” campaigns in England have taken a bit of a bashing. We hope that the no-smoking clauses in the 2006 Act will reduce smoking. However, there will be those who require assistance—if the measure is successful, more people will need to access the relevant services—yet almost half the primary care trusts across England have cut their budgets for “stop smoking” services, which is regrettable. Although that is not strictly to do with the subject at hand, I hope that the Minister will comment on it in passing.
In the Health Bill Committee, the Minister talked about the enforcement of no smoking and the associated signage. It will be good to hear what advice she is issuing to local authorities about how they should enforce the measure. I hope that we are to have central guidance, because, given that a large number of local authorities are being expected to enforce the legislation from 1 July, there is a strong possibility of a degree of cross-border inconsistency. That will be very damaging. What is being done to ensure that local authorities are given some form of unified advice as to how they must enforce the measure?
This is all about information, and the Minister has a variety of posters in front of her; no doubt we will have a look at them shortly. What is she doing about informing those whose first language is not necessarily English, and the partially sighted? She has set up a smoke-free England ministerial reference group to bring together various stakeholders and those with an interest in the matter. To what extent has that forum influenced today’s debate, how has it guided the smoke-free signage regulations—if at all—and how often has it met since the Health Bill passed through Parliament?
I should like to persuade the Minister to think very carefully about the extent to which and how the measure will be enforced. Can she assure me that at the three-year point, we will have a proper review, with the potential to revoke the regulations or to amend them substantially? I am looking for a comprehensive review in three years’ time, which I hope will allow for the possibility of a sunset clause at that point.
2.50 pm
Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams. We seem to be seeing rather a lot of each other these days, having both served on the Mental Health Bill Committee.
There were significant arguments over the primary legislation and some serious arguments have been thrown up today. When people were discussing that legislation, I always thought it slightly disingenuous of them to pretend that it was entirely about passive smoking, because the subtext was surely the public health benefits of diminished opportunities to smoke. There is an element of state paternalism there, which it is not worth revisiting now. It is worth pointing it out, however, particularly if one includes among the growing number of human rights an individual’s inalienable right to indulge in whatever harmful addiction they choose. I do not think that it is an inalienable right, but it is an issue nevertheless.
We had parallel arguments a long time ago with regard to safety belts and so on. For me, such issues are relatively easy to resolve. I simply contrast my mother, whom I saw the other day and who is fit and healthy in her 81st year, with her twin sister, who has been dead for a quarter of a century. One smoked and the other did not. I think of my aunt’s children, whom I do not think would object to some effective disincentives to smoke. Research shows that 81 per cent. of the population approve of the legislation and the public places ban. In years to come, I suspect that people will wonder—as in Bob Newhart’s Walter Raleigh sketch—why people thought that it was a good idea to put dried leaves in their mouths and light them, and why anybody thought that it was a practice worth defending.
To delay the implementing of the legislation, which is what we are talking about here, is to delay its effects, which are thoroughly benign and very important. One must have a good reason for delaying it.
Dr. Murrison: On a point of clarification, the intention of my party’s approach is not to delay the legislation. We are concerned about the nature of the signage regulations themselves; there is no ulterior motive.
Dr. Pugh: The Minister must clarify what the effect would be of the official Opposition’s endeavours. The primary legislation specifies that as a consequence of it, there must be signage in a public place. It has been argued that some of that signage is undesirable.
Two questions must be answered. First, are there undesirable consequences? Secondly, even if there are, are they sufficiently undesirable to merit any delay or further complexity? As I understand the argument, where signs are thought to be undesirable, two grounds are given: they are intrusive, and they are unnecessary. Sometimes, both points are argued. The intrusiveness argument is weakest, because the signs are small—A5 size—and need only be in an entrance, not on a door. Moreover, they vie there with other associated clutter, even in churches, such as rules of admission, reminders about dress, postcards, places for brollies, notices about phones and so on. Church porches are not particularly tidy in my experience. The signs need not be attached to the holy water stoop, nailed to the altar piece or put around the statue of the Virgin Mary. They can put in the porch relatively discreetly.
More plausibly, it is argued that, even if signs are not intrusive, they are simply not necessary. Formally speaking, that is not the case; they are required by the law. There is a history of appeals with regard to most laws for which notices do not exist. We need think only of traffic enforcement and the ingenious lengths to which people go to avoid a fine by pointing out that a sign is defective or in the wrong place, or that the yellow lines are not there, to see the perils of not having signage if we are serious about enforcement. Parking is quite a good analogy because, like smoking, it can be done in some places but not in others. It is not always self-evident where it can be done, which is part of the reason why we get parking fines from time to time. It is behaviour that requires discretion and judgment.
That still leaves in place the strongest argument presented so far, which the hon. Member for Westbury echoed a few minutes ago. The argument is that essentially, we are prohibiting what does not happen. In places such as churches, for instance, people generally do not smoke. There is a limited aesthetic loss to acknowledge—we do not need an extra sign—to no appreciable benefit. That argument was well put by Matthew Parris in The Times, who pointed out that we cannot and do not put up signs prohibiting generally what we would not think of doing or do not do. I have great respect for Matthew Parris, whose benign wit has been a good reason to buy The Times in the past, but there are flaws in that argument. I speak as someone who may have been in more church porches than some of the people who advance it.
There is a significant minority—I can cite individuals—of tobacco-addicted churchgoers. I must say—they are priests. No, they do not light up during services, but that does not mean that they do not light up on church premises. I accept that there are rather fewer in nonconformist Churches, but I have certainly found in the high Anglican tradition a fair number of people with serious tobacco addictions that they satisfy—even, from time to time, on the premises.
A large percentage of the population do not attend church often. They go to weddings, christenings and funerals, and many of them go at no other time. It might surprise some hon. Members to learn that in some of the rawer inner-city parts of England, the protocol regarding behaviour in church is relatively unfamiliar. People simply do not have a clear idea of how to behave and what can and cannot be done in church. I know that churches themselves—perhaps they accept it—are not formally arguing against the legislation. Smoking is discretionary behaviour. It is tolerable in some places and at some times, and not others. The kinds of behaviour about which we do not post signs are those that are illegal at all times or, generally speaking, the object of some moral taboo. We do not have signs for those types of behaviour for quite good reasons, but smoking is neither of them.
A further argument is that if we have exemptions, how will we deal with them? At the moment, we have a broad definition of enclosed public spaces. I think that we all know what that means. If we are to vary that, we must decide what is in and what is out and figure out, once the rules have been drawn up, how to apply them clearly and transparently on a local basis. In considering even the word “church”, we must bear it in mind that there are house churches and community churches. The word “church”—this is not a pun—covers a multitude of sins. It can mean a range of places, quite apart from the standard Gothic building with spire.
The added difficulty is that if we have criteria for exemption, although I am not sure what they might look like, they would have to be based on second-guessing the natural history and behaviour of the attendees. What will we do as that changes over time or varies? It is easy to base criteria on the category of a building, but not so easy to take into account the likely behaviour of the people who use it.
We must accept that law-making, and even law enforcement, are relatively rough arts. They should respond to circumstances. The hon. Member for Westbury made a valid point—there should be a sunset clause and an examination of what happens. I recall that when I was a child, there were signs on buses, always on the upper deck, that said “no spitting”. They seem to have gone. I can only suppose that it is because at one time—perhaps in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s—people spat on buses all the time, but they no longer do so.
Usually, the only form of passive smoking that occurs in churches is the inhalation of incense. I am not sure whether that will be covered by the legislation, but I have always regarded the inhalation of incense as an entirely healthy process. I am told that it slows down the breathing rate and produces an element of serenity, with no complications. However, we must ask ourselves what the true effect is of quibbling about a relatively tiny sign—doing so might complicate the rapid implementation of the most important public health legislation for decades—given that the relatively religious Irish seem to have no problem with such legislation whatsoever.
3 pm
Clive Efford: I shall be brief. I am slightly bemused as to why we are here. I think not that there might be a problem with people who own historic buildings having concerns about signage clutter, but that the Opposition are guilty of chasing a press release and taking matters a bit too far. As the hon. Member for Southport said, it seems a relatively minor issue; if the Archbishop of Canterbury and my hon. Friend the Minister had had a quiet fag outside the Department of Health, they might have sorted things out, without the Committee needing to sit today.
Paragraph 76 of the explanatory memorandum states:
“The approach to enforcement will be non-confrontational, focused on raising awareness and understanding to ensure compliance, and enforcement officers will work closely with local businesses to build compliance through education, advice and support. We expect that enforcement action will be considered only when efforts to encourage compliance have failed. Any enforcement action that is taken will be fair, proportional and consistent. Enforcement inspections will be based on risk and, where possible, combined with other regulatory inspections to reduce burdens on business.”
Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): I am a great believer in the maxim, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the aim of the proposal as given in paragraphs 19 and 20 of the explanatory memorandum. Paragraph 19 states:
“In addition, there will be a reduction in overall smoking due to more places being smoke-free”.
Paragraph 20 states:
“Overall, the total benefit in reduced smoking”
is that there will be “smoke-free public places”. That said, unless the hon. Gentleman has figures to support the assertion that people smoke in churches now, he will not achieve that aim by putting up signs in those places. That is the premise of Conservative Members. There is no reason to introduce legislation that applies to places where people do not smoke now. Putting up signs is therefore pointless.
Clive Efford: I would not disagree with that. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I understand from the paragraph that I have just read out that there is leeway for discussion and a sensible approach to how enforcement should take place. Enforcement inspections will be based on risk. That suggests to me that if an area is risk-free, enforcement officers will not go round saying, “You must put a sign here, here and here.” They will take a reasonable approach, based on the risk and on the likelihood of someone smoking.
The memorandum, which I have read only briefly, states that the cost burden on businesses should be minimised. No one is suggesting that an enormous number of signs should be put up. I suspect that the cost of having this Committee amounts to more than the cost of the signs that the hon. Member for Westbury is concerned about.
Dr. Murrison: Clearly, the hon. Gentleman does not think we should be questioning the Government’s regulations. Does he agree that it is very important that local authorities, which will be expected to enforce the proposal, be issued with clear guidance about what the Government want them to do in enforcing it? It is not acceptable for a local authority on one side of a boundary to do one thing, and another—perhaps a particular enforcement officer—to take a different view ever so slightly further down the line. One problem is that the guidance does not appear to have been sufficiently clear-cut. For the hon. Gentleman’s information, that is one reason why we have taken up his Thursday afternoon.
Clive Efford: The hon. Gentleman is not taking up my Thursday afternoon; I would be busy on other matters even if I were not in Committee. It is not a question of saying that we should not be questioning these measures; rather, the hon. Gentleman is guilty of believing his own press release and taking it too far.
Dr. Murrison: What press release?
Clive Efford: This issue was debated on the “Today” programme as a bit of a joke item a few weeks ago. It has been taken far too far. The hon. Gentleman is also suggesting that every single area of responsibility for local authorities is interpreted within each local government boundary in exactly the same way. He must have enough experience of local government services to know that that is not true. One can even get different local authority planning decisions on identical planning issues. His party often says that we regulate far too much. Is he honestly suggesting now that we should regulate to the point that there is no freedom and no interpretation at local level? People would get into more difficulty if that were the case.
The regulations are very flexible indeed and allow people to take an approach appropriate to the situation being assessed. In the case of an historic building with a lot of historic artefacts to which structural damage could be done, there is enough leeway within these memorandums to allow an enforcement officer to take action appropriate to those circumstances. The enforcement officer would not be forced to put up a plethora of signs throughout an historic building. Nothing in the provisions suggests that an enforcement officer would be forced to do that.
Dr. Murrison: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the outcome of the Government’s publicity campaign in advance of 1 July has been to establish that, to all intents and purposes, there will be no smoking in enclosed public spaces, with one or two very specific exceptions that I hope we will revisit later, such as smoking in prison cells? So that message should be well and truly fixed in people’s minds, without the need for a great raft of signage covering the land from 1 July. That is the point. Does he not therefore agree that the three-year review point—or sunset point—is particularly important, so that we can at least review what has happened and abolish the provision if necessary?
Clive Efford: If I thought that the situation that the hon. Gentleman describes was going to happen, I would accept his point, but I do not think that will. These regulations are sensible enough to allow an approach to be taken that is appropriate to each particular circumstance, and any enforcement officer who reads them will be able to take appropriate action. I really do think that the Opposition are guilty of over-egging and overstating this issue, and creating a great deal of alarm where there should be none.
3.7 pm
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Caroline Flint): This is an interesting debate, because if one were new to discussion of this subject, one would think that we had not discussed these issues before. In fact, in December 2005, when we were dealing with the relevant clauses in the Health Bill—in particular, clause 6, which was about no-smoking signs—we had an extensive debate. In that debate, many of the points made by the hon. Member for Westbury today were answered. I must say to him, with regard to his own situation, that ignorance is no defence. We had this discussion at that time. We went through a number of issues about the three-year review, which I will come to shortly. In the meantime, of course, information that is available on the website, online and in the guidance packs, including the explanatory memorandum that my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham rightly referred to, has answered, in many respects, the question about the approach that we are taking to the issues of both signage and enforcement.
In fact, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), at the Committee stage of the Health Bill, with regard to the affirmative procedure, said:
“I would not insist on that in respect of the order-making power in clause 6, which defines where signs must be displayed and so on.”——[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 6 December 2005; c. 60.]
Why is that important? It is important because usually, if there is an issue where it is thought that there needs to be more debate, there is a request for an affirmative procedure in this House. In fact, I agreed that we should have an affirmative procedure applied to certain aspects of the Bill and we duly had a debate in Committee on those issues. On this particular issue, the Opposition’s Front-Bench spokesman acknowledged that it was unnecessary to seek that procedure. Therefore we have in the legislation the requirement for signage and the regulations, after consultation, which I shall come on to, just try to outline how it will be applied.
Dr. Iddon: Does my hon. Friend agree that, of the 26 bishops in the House of Lords, none has objected in the same way that the hon. Member for Westbury has objected today?
Caroline Flint: I agree with my hon. Friend on that point. It is not for me to advise the bishops in the other place of the appropriate time to voice their concerns. However, a debate on such legislation has taken place in both Houses and there was not one murmur—I am happy to be corrected if I am wrong—from the bishops about signage.
In fact, we have done a bit of mystery shopping in churches and cathedrals for the signage position. The hon. Member for Westbury referred to the Bishop of Southwark. At that place of worship, not only are there displayed at the entrances signs dealing with things that cannot be done, such as “no drinking” or “no mobile phones”, but there is a sign saying, “We accept Visa.” It is therefore clearly the case that examples of signage can be found in many heritage buildings and places of worship.
The hon. Member for Westbury asked why we do not have signs about not killing people. Over the centuries, there have been a few violent offences in places of worship.
Clive Efford: Thomas À Becket.
Caroline Flint: Indeed.
When I met a representative of the Tourism Alliance for breakfast the other morning, I was asked why we do not have signs saying, “You must not commit murder.” Well, committing murder is not location specific. To commit murder in any place is against the law. Similarly, I have received letters asking why we do not have signs saying, “You cannot use heroin here.” It is against the law to use heroin in any place, too. The signage has been proposed because we are making it an offence for the first time to smoke in certain places, while it is legal in other places including people’s homes and outdoor spaces.
Anne Main: I hope that the Minister can answer my question simply. It is not meant to be facetious. Will she say whether the signage will cover structures such as marquees, scout tents and the like, which may be open to the public for perhaps long or short periods?
Caroline Flint: Yes. An enclosed space—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady was not a member of the Committee that discussed the Health Bill, so she might like to look at the record. In fact, many members of the Conservative party, including the hon. Member for Westbury voted in favour of the legislation. The regulations will apply to an area where there is a roof, sides and when it is substantially enclosed. I refer her to the Department of Health website so that she can update her knowledge. As public representatives, it is important that people understand the law for which they voted. I do not know how she voted in the free vote on 14 February, but we can always look back.
Mr. Zac Goldsmith is a person who likes to say how we can be greener in our everyday lives. He is advising the Conservative party on what policies it can take on board to protect the environment. He is a Conservative candidate for Richmond Park—a member of the new breed of Conservative candidates. He is clearly unhappy about the smoking legislation and intends not to comply with the law. To paraphrase him, he said to a Sunday newspaper that he will smoke wherever he wants and that he has no intention of complying with the law. The hon. Member for St. Albans and her hon. Friends might want to think about that, because I thought that politicians were meant to be law makers, not law breakers.
The Chairman: Order. That has nothing to do with the issue of signs.
Caroline Flint: Mr. Williams, it is important that we know how people are approaching the law on such matters, particularly when they intend to be elected as law makers.
The Smoke-free (Signs) Regulations 2007 have been well drafted. They set out a reasonable and proportionate approach to detailing how the no-smoking requirement set out in primary legislation should work. When we discussed such matters during the Health Bill proceedings, all things being equal, my preferred option would have been to have no signs. It would be an ideal situation. However, we have to be mindful when creating an offence and, based on advice from lawyers in other countries, such as Ireland and Scotland and further afield in California and New York, experience shows that signage has to be used when changing the law in such a way. In part, it is to give individuals who may regularly go to places where they have been allowed to smoke, but will not be after 1 July, the defence in that such matters had not been clearly brought to their attention.
As I said in the debate, and on many occasions since, there is an opportunity as part of our review to look at whether aspects such as signage are necessary in future. I hope that there will be a day when it is unnecessary, but it is important when we are changing the law and there are offences attached to people’s behaviour that were not there before, that we have to be clear about that. We have tried to minimise bureaucracy and to introduce flexibility as to how the signage regulations will be applied.
The regulations were laid in March this year. As I said before, I think that we have gone over much of the ground that we covered during the passage of the Bill. There seems to be a misperception that the situation in England is somehow unusual due to the signage requirements required by the Health Act 2006 and Smoke-free (Signs) Regulations 2007. The simple fact is that we are following in the footsteps of many other jurisdictions that have introduced smoke-free legislation. We require, as one of the basic measures to support the smooth implementation of the smoke-free law in this country, that all smoke-free premises and vehicles display no-smoking signs. No-smoking signs are required under smoke-free laws in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as the Republic of Ireland, New Zealand, and many states in Australia and the United States. I mentioned New York earlier.
Many jurisdictions have much more onerous requirements for signs than those that we are proposing for England. For example, Scottish smoke-free regulations require—I am happy for colleagues to look at these later—larger no-smoking signs to be displayed. Hon. Members can compare those to the size that we are proposing. Those regulations also insist that the signs display the name of the person to whom complaints about smoking incidents can be made. We know from experience in other countries that no-smoking signs are an essential element of successful smoke-free legislation for a number of reasons. Signs will clearly communicate to smokers that from 1 July, they will be breaking the law if they smoke. They will be important for people visiting England from abroad, or where there might be some confusion about the smoke-free status of premises, such as substantially enclosed premises. Signs will assist occupiers and those concerned with the management of premises by enabling them to point to evidence of the smoke-free requirement, which is likely to be valuable if a dispute arises with someone on those premises.
Signs will be also be an indication to enforcement officers that premises are smoke-free and that any smoker in those premises ought reasonably to have known that. Signage is an important aspect of any enforcement case against an individual who smokes in a smoke-free place. On enforcement, my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham clearly pointed out that we are trying to take a common-sense approach to the matter. My experience of visiting Scotland and Ireland was that enforcement officers were proud when they could say that there had been no prosecutions in relation to smoking. The backbone of the training that we provided is a common-sense approach. We hope that engagement, compliance and reasonableness will be built into the process.
In England, we are dealing with many more businesses than was the case in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. We are dealing with many more local authorities. However, that is the cultural ethos towards which we are working. Having said that, we will clearly have to deal with places where a risk assessment on smoking will take place to see whether it is flouted, or people want to make a point in a destructive way. The enforcement officers will be looking locally at such places that are at risk.
Churches, listed buildings and heritage buildings are required to look at the signage that they require. There is no power in the Health Act for the Government to exempt certain premises that must be smoke-free from the legal requirement to display no-smoking signs. However, no-smoking signs may de designed and displayed in a way that fits with the dĂ(c)cor of premises, as long as the minimum requirements set out in regulations are met. The signs need to be in a prominent position, but they do not have to be stuck on the front door. They can be mobile; they do not have to be permanently mounted on the building. A sign could be put on a movable stand. For example, Westminster abbey has movable stands saying, “No photography in this building”. The dĂ(c)cor or colour of the signs could fit in with the style of the building itself. Officials in the Department have had discussions with various organisations that represent heritage buildings, churches and so on to get that point across.
Dr. Murrison: The Minister says that the signs may be in a dĂ(c)cor or colour that is appropriate to the buildings concerned. However, these signs are fairly formulaic. Could she describe more fully the kind of colours and dĂ(c)cor in which they might be decked out in different circumstances? [ Interruption. ] The Minister sighs, but this is quite an important point. It is important that we know how she envisages these things looking. She should understand that ISO requires a certain form of prohibition notice, for example. What she seems to be suggesting is rather different.
Caroline Flint: I shall not be drawn into trying to speculate on all the different situations. For example, there will be situations when people might want to use brass. They might want to have the sign in National Trust colours. We could consider any number of combinations. The fact is that guidance is available. These things can best be discussed locally and best adjudicated in line with local circumstances and means.
The signs have to be at least A5 size. They have to display the no-smoking symbol and use characters that can be easily read by persons using the entrance saying “No smoking: it is against the law to smoke in these premises.” Those three features are required, but the signs can be in whatever colour and font people want and made of any material.
Clive Efford: I want to clarify one point. There could actually be no sign at all. If premises could demonstrate that there was no risk and a local enforcement officer accepted that, would it absolutely necessary for those premises to have a sign? The regulations suggest that it would not.
We have tried through the regulations and the consultation to be very flexible. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham and the hon. Member for Southport should consider how we might start to make an exemption. We think of a church or a place of worship as a place where services are held. However, those buildings often include offices in which people are working. There are often halls with facilities for entertaining and meeting parishioners. How could we decide which place of worship and what parts of a place of worship would be exempt from no-smoking signs? We would get ourselves tied up in knots.
The reality is that because the legislation is clear and provides a level playing field, it has been positively received by businesses and others. They recognise that the fact that it has few exemptions makes it a lot easier to apply. We have to be sensible about this. There was plenty of opportunity for the Opposition to raise this matter before, so I have to question why they are doing so today.
I want to say a little bit more about the role of local authorities. It is up to each local council in its role as the enforcement authority to take a view on what would constitute satisfactory signage. That is best done locally in line with the regulations. We have engaged at length with leaders of the business community and local government throughout the process of developing the legislation. I can say with some certainty that a lack of clarity on requirements for the signs would be viewed as entirely unhelpful. With the simple, clear and straightforward regulations that the Government have made, there will be no room for the development of inconsistent and burdensome requirements that differ between local authority areas. We need clear, sensible arrangements that businesses and the public can understand.
There are no powers in the Act for Ministers to make regulations to exempt certain types of smoke-free premises from the requirement to display signs, whether they are places of worship, historic buildings or workplaces that are already smoke-free. If we were to go along with the Conservatives’ suggestion, signage would still be required under the regulations, but there would be a free-for-all on how it would be applied. The regulations provide the framework under which the signage rules should be applied. I do not know what the Conservatives think they would achieve by getting rid of the regulations underpinning the requirement in the Act.
Dr. Murrison: Will the Minister say to what extent it would be a defence for somebody who lit up in an enclosed public space, where, for whatever reason, there was not a sign—it might have fallen down—to say that that amounted to mitigating circumstances?
Caroline Flint: Such matters would have to be discussed locally. Let us imagine what would happen if a sign fell off and someone inadvertently lit up. Perhaps someone would say, “Sorry, you’re not allowed to smoke in here,” and the other person might say, “I didn’t see the sign.” They would then reply, “Sorry, it’s fallen off. We’ll just put it back,” and the other person would say, “Thanks, I won’t smoke.” For goodness’ sake!
If there was evidence that an employer was wilfully encouraging people to smoke on the premises, such as complaints from others, including perhaps even staff who wanted to work in a smoke-free atmosphere and did not think that their employer was supporting them in that endeavour, the situation that would have to be looked at locally and the relevant parties would be brought together. I hope—I have no reason to think otherwise—that in most situations there will be a conversation and the local environmental health officer will engage with the situation and sort it out. Given what has happened in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—and, before that, in Ireland—we have no reason to believe that any of the problems that the hon. Member for Westbury mentioned will arise.
I give credit to the English people and England—the place where we live—and say that we can master and implement this as efficiently and positively as other countries have done. I feel sad that the hon. Gentleman thinks that somehow we in England are not quite up to that task.
Dr. Murrison: The Minister must calm down. I am trying to work out what the situation should be in certain circumstances that will arise. There will be a presumption of no smoking in enclosed public spaces as of 1 July. People will not be able to smoke in such circumstances. However, the Minister is asking the Committee to approve signage that, if it were not there for whatever reason, might be cited as mitigation by a person who was challenged for smoking in such a space. To what extent might that be a mitigating circumstance? The insistence on having this signage could lead to it being used as mitigation when that would be unreasonable, given the general presumption that people will not smoke in enclosed public spaces. I think that that is a reasonable point to put to the Minister.
Caroline Flint: The law says where smoking will not be allowed in future and mentions the spaces where it will not be allowed. However, we are moving from smoking not being illegal, before 1 July, and people have got used to smoking in certain places. We are doing everything we can to build public awareness about 1 July being the date on which the legislation comes into force. We have done a huge amount of work with businesses and organisations of all shapes and sizes to provide them with guidance and information. That activity has been backed up by local support. With our advertising campaign, we have seen a greater awareness among the public of 1 July. Even given all that, we must be mindful that there might still be situations in which someone goes to a place that they go to regularly and decides to have a cigarette. Such instances would be best handled at local level. If a person is informed, “Sorry, Tom” or “Sorry, Susan, it’s the 1st of July and its smoke free”, one would hope—we have past situations from which to learn—that Tom or Susan would say, “Sorry about that, I forgot,” and that that would be the end of the story. If someone wanted to cause mischief, there might be further action, but a lot of things can be done in those situations without bringing prosecutions.
We discussed extensively in Committee a situation in which a person caught smoking puts forward the defence in court that there was no signage or that the ban was in its early days. They could put up such a defence in law, but whether they will be successful is another matter.
Dr. Pugh: I fully accept the Minister’s point that, in the first instance, the law needs to administered like the law of the Medes and the Persians—without any clear exceptions given. However, there will be a period of consultation following the law, and there are residual niggles and some dissatisfaction about it. The hon. Member for Westbury suggested that there should be a sunset clause. Any such clause should be preceded by consultation. Once the fact that people do not smoke in public places is well established among the population, and when there is clarity on the regulations, which may come in a few years, there will be an opportunity to make the regulations more sophisticated and sensitive, hence the suggestion of a sunset clause. Does the Minister rule that out?
Caroline Flint: As far as I am aware, it is not within the bounds of our current position to introduce a sunset clause. Such a clause would have to have been in the primary legislation. Nobody voted against the measure or tabled an amendment. We also had a free vote in the House of Commons on 14 February 2006, at which point hon. Members could have tabled amendments. I have said before that these measures could be reviewed, and it will be possible to amend the primary legislation.
Coming back to the point on legal defence, the Health Act 2006 states:
“It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under subsection (2) to show that he did not know, and could not reasonably have been expected to know, that it was a smoke-free place”.
We included that measure because we had to be reasonable about people recognising the change in the law. As far as I am aware, nobody objected, so I question why we have to re-run a debate that we have had before.
We consulted on the framework for signage. Three quarters of consultation respondents were broadly supported the proposals for no-smoking signs. We changed the regulations from the initial proposals following the consultation to reflect stakeholders’ suggestions on how sign requirements could be improved. The changes included relaxing signage requirements that all public entrances to smoke-free premises require an A5 sign. However, provided that a smoke-free building has one such sign, entrances such as those used only by staff must only have a sign displaying the international no-smoking symbol.
Other changes to the initial proposals include requiring only the display of the international no-smoking sign at entrances to smoke-free premises that are within other smoke-free premises, such as a cafĂ(c) within a shopping centre or bar, and, on suggestions made by the hospitality industry, removing the requirements for premises that have an exemption for designated rooms to display no-smoking signs with different wording. As I indicated earlier, we looked at reducing the size of signs, so we took on board a lot of the points made in the consultation. We have also provided free signage to many businesses up and down the country.
The Government have made a huge effort. We have learned from the experiences of Scotland and the Republic of Ireland. Our colleagues in Wales and Northern Ireland were similarly informed when they were devising regulations. We are now in a situation in which, as far as possible, we have used flexibility and common sense, and have taken on board the points that have been made about smaller sizes and how we could be flexible about how signs will look in certain places. However, I completely disagree with the emotive comments of the hon. Member for Westbury. He said at least six times that we would be plastering signs all over the place. That does not help the debate. I wonder what the Opposition hope to gain from saying that; it certainly calls into question their so-called support for smoke-free legislation.
I hope that I have covered most of the relevant points raised during the debate. I will happily to write to hon. Members if I have missed anything. I hope that the Committee agrees that the regulations are well-considered, sensible and flexible.
3.35 pm
Dr. Murrison: I thank the Minister for her remarks, but not for the way in which she made them. I make it very clear that we do not oppose the non-smoking clauses of the Health Act 2006. That is absolutely not the case. Our record in Committee will have borne that out. I resent that last remark.
What we have is a presumption that places will be smoke-free as from 1 July. I do not think there should be any doubt in people’s minds about that. What we have in the regulations is an intention to put “lots”—is that term sufficiently unemotive for the Minister?—of posters in places where, through custom and practice, people know full well that they should not smoke. That is our principal objection.
Another problem—the Minister did not address the matter—is the precise nature of the guidance and training that will be given to local authorities, so that they can consistently and across borders ensure that things are the same more or less wherever one goes. I note the Minister’s comments about the international experience, but the grey area is potentially a lawyers’ bean feast. As with all regulations, that must be eschewed as far as possible.
The Minister said that we are simply following practice in other countries, but she did not say that the signs are not ISO-approved, even in the form that she described. She then went on to discuss how we might deviate from them even further. She spoke of wood and brass, and various colours. She also mentioned the National Trust, but red does not feature very much in the NT’s colour scheme, so I presume that it will use shades of green. The signs will look very different, wherever one goes. The question is, how effective are they likely to be? That is particularly so, given that from 1 July everywhere will be smoke-free.
Dr. Murrison: Mr. Gray, the chairman of the relevant ISO committee, clearly did not agree with the Minister. He also made the further point, which I will not rehash, that it may very well conflict with other slightly more important and relevant signage in public places. However, there is no point in going further down that road.
We maintain that the order is largely redundant. We have concerns about enforcement, and the burdens being put on local authorities, given the lack of guidance. We are delighted, however, that it will be reviewed after three years. We look forward to doing so.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved,
That the Committee has considered the Smoke-free (Signs) Regulations 2007 (S.I. 2007, No. 923).
Committee rose at nineteen minutes to Four o'clock.
 
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