Lansley_5Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley reacted to last night’s comprehensive ban on smoking in public places with this statement:

"The Conservatives were the first to offer a free vote on this issue.  The House of Commons took a decision in favour of a comprehensive ban on smoking in public places.  I took the personal view that that was a step too far and that private members clubs should be able to make a decision for themselves.  I object, however, to Government Ministers who brought forward legislation three months ago which included a series of exemptions for non food pubs and to allow smoking rooms in pubs and clubs, and argued for them to the House.   This evening those same Ministers did a series of hand-break turns and voted against each of the polices they had previously presented to the House.  Why on earth did Ministers not offer options and a free vote to the House last year as we told them they should?  The Government’s conduct of this bill has been a shambles.”   

Mr Lansley is, of course, right.  Labour’s frontbench have been consistently outwitted and out-fought by an increasingly assertive parliamentary Labour party, unwilling to tolerate the high-handedness of their frontbench – high-handedness that they found insufferable during the last two parliaments with Tony Blair’s three figure majorities.  The newly empowered Labour backbenches are not going to stop asserting themselves now that they have tasted power.

HalfonrobertBut if, after this vote, backbenchers and parliament are stronger against the executive, the freedoms of groups to associate together  are weaker.  That is certainly the conclusion of Robert H Halfon, our prospective parliamentary candidate for Harlow.  Robert sets out his objections to the ban on smoking in private clubs in the exclusive text below.  He argues that "Banning smoking may be good for a health, but it represents a fundamental assault on our civil liberties."

"Last night something remarkable happened in British politics. Far more important than the ban on smoking in public was the ban on smoking in private clubs.  The implications of this are enormous.  The Governnment have ruled that a group of individuals cannot get together in an association and smoke, even if every member, including staff agree to do so. 

Of course there is a case for banning smoking in public places (not an argument with which I agree, given that restaurants etc can have special rooms and smoke filters), nevertheless there may be those who believe that the health argument is so great that the public deserve to be protected.

But the ban on private clubs is a step too far. If the state can interfere in the running of private clubs in this way, where next? What happens if the state decides that alcohol is harmful? What happens if the state decides it doesn’t like certain political activity? In short the vote banning smoking in private clubs has established a nasty precedent and given the Government unprecedented powers to intefere in civil society and private association.

This has not been a good few days for civil liberties. First the Government tried to appease Islamic fundametalists over the Danish cartoons; second the Government have forced ID cards through the Commons; and now we have  legislation allowing the state to control the activities of private clubs.

Little by little, important civil liberties are being whittled away by stealth. Now we hear the Government want to abolish next year’s local elections in the interest of ‘local government reform’.

We may not be thankfully under dictatorship, but this is not how a free, open and democratic society should work."