Labour MPs given free vote on smoking ban

Jon Smith,Pa
Wednesday 11 January 2006 12:58
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The Government paved the way for a blanket ban on smoking in all pubs by announcing today it was caving in to demands for a free vote for Labour MPs on the issue.

Downing Street said all Labour MPs, including ministers, would be able to vote as they wished on an amendment removing the Government's proposed exemption for pubs which do not serve food.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman announced the move today, but said the premier would not be disclosing in advance if, or how, he would vote when MPs debate the issue next month.

The Commons Health Committee has opposed the exemption as "unworkable" and its chairman Kevin Barron and nine other members tabled an amendment yesterday to remove it as soon as the Bill completes its committee stage.

Earlier today, parliament's Joint Committee On Human Rights said the exemption could also be incompatible with human rights legislation because it discriminated against staff in different areas.

Tony Blair's official spokesman said: "After listening to the range of opinions on the smoking issue, health ministers intend to hold discussions with MPsseeking to amend the Bill to remove the exemption of non-food pubs.

"Following these discussions, it is the Government's intention to allow its MPs, including ministers, a free vote on the amendment.

"We recognise that the public debate has moved on. Also the debate within the entertainment industry has moved on and people have expressed concerns about the practicality of separating food and non-food areas and so on.

"It's sensible to listen to those concerns."

If ministers had tried to force their proposal for an exemption through the Commons, they faced almost certain defeat.

Mr Blair's spokesman went on: "As in previous issues on which a free vote has been allowed, the Prime Minister will not signal in advance what his position is.

"He believes it's important people have a free vote and they do not feel influenced by what his position is.

"This is an issue on which we have always said there is a difficult balance to be struck between the rights of non-smokers and the rights of smokers. There are also practical issues.

"We recognise both the concerns of the industry and the public on this issue.

"The Prime Minister recognised the momentum of the public mood was going the way of a complete ban."

Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said: "We are delighted the Government has followed the Conservative Party's lead and allowed its MPs a free vote on smoking in public places.

"We now look forward to debating this issue freely in parliament, and to a workable, fair and effective outcome which protects children, staff and the public from the clear dangers of second-hand tobacco smoke."

Mr Barron said: "I'm delighted. I think the Government have rightly listened both to what the health committee has said in its report and to public opinion and to backbench MPs as well.

"I'm really delighted they took this decision and have seen sense."

But he cautioned it was by no means guaranteed a blanket ban would win approval.

"There are still issues about whether we can carry this free vote," Mr Barron added.

Charlotte Atkins, one of the Labour committee members who tabled the amendment, said it was "brilliant news" and added that she was confident the Commons would back a total ban.

"This is very, very good sense. As a local MP I have had a lot of feedback from my constituents that they want to see a total ban.

"All workers have a right to be protected."

She conceded that there were supporters of the partial ban among her colleagues - including one habitual rebel - but said she thought the amendment would be passed.

Labour MP Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) today added her name to the amendment to the Health Bill imposing a total ban in licensed premises.

She said: "I am now more confident than ever that the whole country will become smoke-free in enclosed public places. This is about saving lives and protecting bar staffs."

Mrs Ellman is also a sponsor of the Liverpool Smoke-Free Bill which would impose a 100% smoking ban in enclosed public work places in the city. She said that this Bill would become unnecessary if the Health Bill, along with the amendment, were passed.

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