Sir George speaks out on Smoking
29 Nov 2005
This is the text of Sir George's speech on the Second Reading of the Health Bill:

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton), who runs a serious risk of serving on the Committee because, until he spoke, the score was: Secretary of State 0, Labour rebels 3. I hope that the Committee of Selection reflects the variety of opinion on the Back Benches when it chooses a Committee to consider the detail of the Bill.
Before I deal with part 1, I should like briefly to mention clause 34 on ophthalmic services. The Macular Disease Society is based in Andover in my constituency and it and the Royal National Institute of the Blind have raised some issues that are best considered in Committee about the services that are optional and those that the primary care trust must provide. However, as smoking
at least doubles a person's chance of losing sight in later life, that brings me to part 1 and the wisdom of my party's allowing us a free vote. I take a substantially different view from that of my right hon. Friends the Members for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).
My right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood prefaced his remarks with a definition of what an individual was entitled to do in a private space. I agree with him. However, the Bill does not deal with what an individual does in a private space. Clause 2 makes clear the spaces that we discussing.
We have made great progress in reducing the number of avoidable premature deaths that are caused by smoking. The Bill offers an opportunity to build on those achievements. However, there is a risk of a missed opportunity because of the political compromise on which it is built. That is an unsound foundation for a credible public health policy. If, as the Secretary of State implied at the weekend, it is right to introduce a total ban in three years, it is right to do it now. It would be absurd to have two bites at the cherry and two different regimes. It is worth reminding hon. Members, especially Labour Members, of the Prime Minister's words at the Labour party conference:
"Every time I've ever introduced a reform in government, I wish in retrospect I had gone further."
That applies to this measure.
When I was first elected, the House of Commons sold its own cigarettes, with the green portcullis on the pack. My first modest engagement against the tobacco industry was with the then Catering Committee. I asked it to withdraw the product on the ground that it gave parliamentary validation to an activity that killed thousands of our constituents. I failed, but it agreed to reduce the cigarettes from high to low tar. The product was subsequently rightly removed from the shelves.
Parliament has not hesitated to use legislation to combat smoking. The ban on television advertisements dates back to the 1960s. More recently, we have introduced legislation to ban advertising except at the point of sale. I welcome that. We have also used voluntary agreements but they have been less satisfactory because the industry has been reluctant voluntarily to concede anything that would do it serious harm.
The Bill is a legacy from the previous Secretary of State for Health, the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid). He was not quite as bad as the chain-smoking health Minister in "Yes, Minister", but he did the Department's reputation no good in proposing the compromise a year ago. I recall telling him in the House at the time that it would not work. However, due to secondary lobbying, his influence is pervasive and visible in the Bill. From next March, his constituents will enjoy enclosed public spaces that are free from tobacco smoke, and the risk of lung cancer will fall by 24 per cent. for those helped by that measure in Scotland. However, he has used his influence in Cabinet to ensure that my constituents in Hampshire will not share that advantage. It is not so much the West Lothian question as the West Virginian question.
It is hard to find a subject on which the Cabinet agrees nowadays. The disagreement on smoking was the best advertised since that on prescription charges 50 years ago. At business questions a few weeks ago, I asked the Leader of the House for a free vote on the matter for Labour Members but the request was dismissed.
Conservative Members have a free vote. I understand the libertarian argument that my right hon. Friends the Members for Charnwood and for Bromley and Chislehurst presented but a person's freedom to smoke ends where my nose begins. I remind my right hon. and hon. Friends that it became compulsory for motor cyclists to wear crash helmets and car passengers to wear seat belts under a Conservative Government. When I was a health Minister some 25 years ago, I remember advocating the application of fluoride to water supplies in the interests of dental health. Despite the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood, his Government did exactly the things in the interests of public health that he claims that they should not have done. Our party has, in some circumstances and in the broader public interest, curtailed the liberty of the individual to harm himself and others. It is an extraordinary Bill. Indeed, one wonders whether it is a Bill or a Green Paper. Clause 3(2) refers to
"Examples of descriptions of premises which may be specified".
I have never come across a Bill with language of that type, being wholly unspecific as to what it is that will be exempt.
Members have asked whether there are already smoke-free pubs. There are some—12 in Hampshire are already smoke-free. Presumably, that is because it makes financial sense. I say that to reassure those in the trade who are worried that the consequences of going smoke-free will be injurious to their profits.
It is worth reminding the House that, in 2001, the Prime Minister promised in the Labour party manifesto that we would have a more democratic second Chamber. He then voted for a wholly appointed second Chamber. I hope that the Government Whips extend to all Labour Members the latitude enjoyed by the Prime Minister on the occasion when they get to vote for a total ban.
I recall negotiating with what was then the Tobacco Advisory Committee in the 1970s, trying to get the health warning not only on the pack of cigarettes but on individual cigarettes. I was told that that was not possible as the ink has carcinogenic properties. My negotiations with the committee taught me one thing, which was that the industry can live with tax increases, health warnings and a larger budget for those with responsibility for health education. It really feared that smoking would be branded as an antisocial unhygienic and unacceptable activity. A ban on smoking in public places would do just that. The industry would do all that it could to qualify that statement, hence its reliance on the ventilation argument and its enthusiasm to have as many exemptions as possible. It will do anything to give legitimacy to the activity by permitting it.
The industry wants confusion among the public as to where it is and is not legal to smoke. It wants different regimes in different parts of the United Kingdom. That is because the argument would be blunted and the waters would be muddied. The industry most fears a clear statement from Parliament that smoking is an unacceptable activity in an enclosed public space. It is that statement—not an impracticable, illogical compromise—that I hope the Bill will embody when it leaves the House.

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Copyright Sir George Young Bt. 2015