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Earl Howe: My Lords, it has been an interesting and unusual debate, bearing in mind that, as a number of noble Lords have pointed out, it is not often that the Second Reading of a private Bill excites the attention of so many speakers or, indeed, generates a maiden speech of the wit and quality of the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Stratford.
 
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When a private Bill is presented to the House, it is customary, although not by any means automatic, to allow it to proceed quietly to a Select Committee, where it is considered in depth and objections to it can be aired. It is not for me as spokesman for the Official Opposition to suggest any other course of action for these two Bills. In that context, we would do well to heed the words of the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees. However, I hope that I may be allowed to adopt something of a questioning approach. I would hope that the questions that I have will be ones that a Select Committee will wish in due course to take up.

It seems to me that we are dealing with two debates. The first debate is about the merits or otherwise of introducing a ban on smoking in public places. The second debate, once we have decided that there should be a restriction in some form, as the sponsors have, is about what is the best and most appropriate way of achieving the desired aim.

Luckily—I say this with some deference and a measure of apology—notwithstanding the views of my noble friends Lord Geddes and Lord Naseby, the noble Lord, Lord Harris of High Cross, and others, the first of those issues carries with it broad consensus across the parties. I listened with close attention to the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, whom we all respect greatly as someone who has championed this cause for many years now, and my respect and regard for the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, is exactly the same.

The case that they have put about the health hazards of passive smoking seems very powerful. The evidence that has emerged, especially over the past five to six years, about morbidity and mortality stemming directly from passive smoking has been endorsed in many countries at the highest level of the medical profession. The noble Viscount, Lord Simon, referred to some of the evidence, as did the noble Lord, Lord Rea, and most notably, the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg. Speaking for myself, I find it compelling. Those who find it compelling must necessarily believe that action of some sort needs to be taken.

I speak for a party that believes that we should find workable ways of delivering smoke-free environments for all adults who want them and that we should make it our business to end smoking in areas to which children have access. The operative word there is "workable" because the current government proposals seem to be an unsatisfactory sort of fudge, fraught with problems. No doubt, that is a matter that the evidence-taking process will tease out.

It is right to mention that the scientific case is not without its critics. We heard some of those criticisms this evening. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of High Cross, and my noble friend Lord Liverpool, for example, argued forcefully that the presentation of the statistics on the risks associated with environmental tobacco smoke was flawed. They pointed to what they saw as—I paraphrase—tendentiousness, unfounded assumptions and mathematical sleight of hand that together served to sully the science. I mention that only because I think that it has to be mentioned.
 
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I am extremely doubtful about the validity of those criticisms because of the extent and nature of the advocacy weighed against them, but they need to be faced squarely and dealt with. I hope that the Select Committee will do that. I agree with the critics to this extent: surely we cannot force businesses to change their practices or even urge on them the merits of doing so voluntarily, without completely sound epidemiology supporting the underlying policy.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, will not doubt my sympathy for the motivation underlying the Bills or in broad terms their tenor. The more troubling questions that I have about them are to do not with the science or the content but with the legislative approach. As a number of noble Lords have pointed out, we are in the middle of a public consultation about the regulation of smoking at work and in other public places. The Government initiated that consultation following their White Paper of last November and the undertaking given in the gracious Speech following the election. It is a major issue of public health. It affects all of us and, rightly, the Government have taken the lead in promulgating a series of questions to which industry, the medical profession and the public will be able to submit their answers.

We may not agree with the formula proposed by the Government for achieving the objectives that they have set, but that is not the central issue this evening. In the context of these Bills, the central issue is whether we think it appropriate that, on a major issue of public health, two areas of the country should be able to declare UDI by ignoring the national consultation and bypassing whatever proposals emerge from it.

Against those considerations, I confess to being uneasy about whether the two measures are an appropriate use of the private Bill mechanism. The logical consequence of that approach is that we may eventually have a patchwork quilt of private legislation throughout the country, each statute subtly different from the next, to which businesses, the public and the police will somehow have to adapt. Of course, in some areas we may well find ourselves with no legislation on the matter at all.

For many sorts of policy issue, that kind of regional variation does not matter in the slightest. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, expressed her support for local pilots and initiatives. In many areas of policy making I would agree with her 100 per cent, but in public health, where policy should be driven by the underlying science and not just by what people want, I suggest that it does matter.

There is an additional dimension to this, which is that, taking the London Bill as an example, it would be open to individual London boroughs to opt out of the legislation altogether. Westminster City Council, despite having taken the lead in promoting the Bill, has announced that it does not intend to implement it if it becomes law. So, as we heard today, have three other local authorities.
 
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That is a strange situation in itself. My purpose in drawing attention to it is not to embarrass anyone but rather to make the point that it is an inherently unsatisfactory state of affairs when we are dealing with people's health. Either there is a public health case for doing the kind of thing proposed in the Bill or there is not. If Parliament agrees that there is, it seems inappropriate for Parliament in the same breath to say that individual areas are free to opt out of applying the law.

It is difficult to think of a precisely comparable issue where the exercise of private rights affects the wider interests of innocent members of the public. One could perhaps cite the drink-driving laws. Having agreed that there was an empirical public interest case for legislating on a maximum blood-alcohol level in drivers, Parliament did not then say that certain London boroughs should be able to opt out of the provisions if they did not like them; nor did it say that different areas of the country could set their own maximum blood-alcohol levels by legislating privately. The public interest case was made and, rightly, then applied across the board.

Like my noble friend Lord Naseby, I am not clear that the consultation undertaken by Liverpool City Council and by the London boroughs has been as thorough as it surely needs to be if substantial costs are to be imposed on businesses in the manner proposed. For example, what basis is there in local opinion gathering, either in London or in Liverpool, for the decision to disallow smoking in the workplace in specially designated rooms? What was the basis for the decision to proscribe the possibility of segregated smoking areas in pubs and bars?

The Bills appear to prohibit smoking on covered station platforms and covered street cafes. My noble friend Lord Skelmersdale mentioned company cars, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, spoke powerfully about theatres and rehearsal rooms, which would be caught by both Bills. Is that really what most people want? I know that the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, recognise that there is a balance to be struck between private rights and the public interest, but are they really satisfied—hand on heart—that the Bills achieve that balance?

As I said at the start, it is not, I believe, appropriate for the House to impede the passage of the Bills at Second Reading, but I am impressed by the point made by several noble Lords that, with a government Bill coming down the tracks, a considerable number of petitioners against these Bills will be put to a great deal of expense to little ultimate purpose—whatever the outcome of their petitions—if the Bills are in due course to be overridden by nationwide legislation.

Perhaps the sponsors of the Bills are prepared to live with that, if it means being able to activate legislation more quickly than the Government intend to do. But I would suggest that that in itself opens up all kinds of questions about what is a reasonable lead-up time for businesses that have to comply with the law when it
 
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comes into force. I should particularly welcome the comments of the noble Lord and the noble Baroness on that point when they come to reply.

9.58 pm


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