For the past few weeks when Parliament has been sitting, I have spent Tuesday and Thursday, morning and afternoon, on a Standing Committee, examining line by line the Government’s legislative ambitions for the NHS. We have debated the clinical skills of the pharmacist, and the ophthalmologist; but I am afraid we spent most of our time in the pub. Metaphorically.
The most controversial section of the Bill was the Government’s proposal to divide the pubs in England into two – those that sold food and those that did not. The former would have to ban smoking; and the second would not.
I am, unashamedly, on the health side of the argument as opposed to the tobacco side. When I was a Health Minister, I tried to get the health warning not just on the cigarette packs, but on the cigarettes themselves. The manufacturers resisted, arguing that the ink, when burnt and inhaled, might damage the smoker’s health. I jest not.
In the Standing Committee, opponents of the Government’s policy developed the argument that to distinguish between pubs that sold food and pubs that didn’t was illogical, from the point of view of the bar staff – whose health was one of the Government’s concerns. We had a serious discussion as to when a bag of crisps became so big that it was no longer a snack ( allowable in a smoking pub) and became food (not-allowable) We discovered that the publican could not provide the apples that came from the tree in his garden to his customers, without becoming a pub that sold food. (But he could provide less healthy salted nuts and still allow smoking.)
Throughout this debate, confronted with powerful arguments shredding the Government’s policy, the Minister stuck to her (smoking) guns. I have no idea whether she believed what she said or not, but she did a heroic job defending the distinction.
One MP put the time of this debate to the productive task of signing Christmas cards -a process that continued, worryingly, right up to the last day we sat before Christmas, Tuesday December 20th
At the end of the debate, we forced a vote on this absurd distinction; the Government scraped home by one. They were saved by the vote of a Scottish MP – whose constituents will have the benefit of a wholly smoke free environment, whether the pub sells apples or not. I had no influence over that decision, as it was devolved to the Scottish Parliament. But thanks to the topsy-turvy world in which we now live, a Scottish MP can decide what happens in the White Hart, Penton Mewsey, but I cannot influence what happens in the Thistle and Sporran – an uncomfortable combination – in Falkirk.
No sooner had the Bill completed its passage through Standing Committee than the Government announced there would be a free vote on this issue. The Secretary of State for Health promptly declared that, unshackled from collective responsibility, she would be supporting the line I had advocated in Committee.
And people wonder why nobody trusts politicians.