So, we have perfect weather today - sun in Wimbledon, rain in Silverstone. Fanatastic start by Hamilton. I will spend the duration of the British Grand Prix reading and replying to comments on the 'Smoke it' post. If you're not happy with the response, bear in my mind this blog's rules. If I've ignored you totally it will probably be because you've crossed the line between passionate advocacy of your cause, which is fine by me, and being gratuitously offensive, which isn't. And although, as you say, I'm an elected representative - I'm elected by voters in Bristol East and answerable to them, not the entire British electorate. Constituents get a different level of service, which they get by writing to me, emailing me or coming to see me at one of my surgeries - which is exactly as it should be. (To the one person who asked if he could come and see me - yes, if you live in Bristol East. I'm pretty sure all the Bristol MPs voted for the full ban, so if you live elsewhere in the city you can make the same points to whoever your elected representative is).
What I have done is to cut and paste all comments into a separate document - which runs to 102 pages. I'm going to read through, delete those which don't need (or possibly don't deserve) a response. Then I'll summarise the key themes, and respond to those en masse rather than referring to individual contributions. I will spend up to two hours on this, till the Grand Prix is over - and to prove I'm devoting this amount of time to it, I will insert a running commentary on Hamilton's progess. He's just overtaken Kovalainen.
First point - my comment about these responses being orchestrated by Forest, or other pro-smoking/ pro-choice groups. I was merely noting that these were people who already had a very fixed position on this issue, rather than representing a cross-section of views. Incidentally, it's interesting to note that recent press articles about the success of the smoking ban, citing the figures on heart attacks, public support, etc, have attracted only a handful of comments. Is this because they're moderated? Or is it more fun doling out abuse to an MP than to an anonymous journalist?
Second point - Godwin's law. The references to Nazis, etc are appalling. We're talking about a ban on smoking in pubs and clubs which means people have to stand on doorsteps - possibly in the cold and rain, admittedly - if they want to have a cigarette during an evening out. And - arguably - some pubs and clubs closing down. And that's comparable to millions of people being rounded up and sent to concentration camps and starved and gassed and shot? (See also the 'Hitler was a vegetarian argument').
Third point - the scientific evidence on passive smoking was debated and discussed at great length before Parliament voted on the ban. I considered it carefully, particularly the evidence on whether or not better ventilation or smoking areas would achieve the same objective. I was, and remain, convinced that passive smoking is a genuine risk to public health. I've blogged before about the perils of citing scientific evidence in politics, as each side can usually find facts and figures which support its own prejudices (e.g. on the badger cull, on GM crops, on nuclear energy, to name just a few issues). All we can do as politicians is to try to be as open-minded as possible, read the available information, try to determine which evidence is genuinely independent (as opposed to being funded by the tobacco industry or the pharmaceutical industry) and take a steer from people whose opinions we respect (e.g. in this case, Dr Ian Gibson and Doug Naysmith, two MPs with a huge amount of experience in the health field and both with scientific backgrounds). Which I have done. I don't think the quote from ASH negates anything I've said here or on previous posts. To summarise, I haven't changed my mind about (a) the dangers of smoking, (b) the health benefits of giving up smoking, and (c) the dangers of passive smoking. You will no doubt accuse me of ignoring the evidence; I haven't, I just don't think it's authoritative or compelling.
Fourth point - for me, passive smoking and its effect on bar/ restaurant staff was only one of the factors influencing my support for a ban on smoking in public places. This obviously isn't going to make me very popular with the Forest supporters, but I subscribe to the view that smoking is something that should be discouraged. Can any of you argue that smoking is a good thing, that it ought to be encouraged? Are you comfortable with the fact that British American Tobacco are now pushing their wares on children in the developing world, selling single cigarettes in a bid to get them hooked? You say it's a matter of choice. For you, yes. But my priority is young impressionable people who I don't want to see taking up smoking. They are more likely to do so if they see it as something which society tacitly encourages. And on the McDonald's point - I think it's a bad analogy; the Government is criticising junk food manufacturers and taking some steps against them as part of the obesity drive (e.g. the ban on pre-watershed junk food advertising, and vending machines in schools). The difference is that smoking is addictive. If someone is told their consumption of junk food is harming their health, they can give it up with a modicum of willpower. When my grandmother was diagnosed with lung cancer she was completely incapable of quitting, after nearly 60 years of smoking. I remember her on her death bed, as she wasted away, asking 'how long does it take to die?' She died at 73; her three sisters died at 98, 100 and 101. My uncle's partner, who spent most of her working life on a production line in a factory where everyone smoked, died of lung cancer a couple of years ago, in her fifties, a few months after diagnosis. My dad - who smoked roll-ups and always insisted that the link between cancer and smoking, or cancer and diet was 'not proven' - died of cancer ten years ago this week. He was 56. So that's where I'm coming from.
Fifth point - I was involved in discussions on this issue prior to Labour's 2005 election manifesto; in fact I argued for a full ban at Labour's National Policy Forum a few years prior to this, but John Reid won the day on that occasion. I agree it would therefore have been wrong for Government whips to have pushed the full ban through Parliament, given that it wasn't a manifesto commitment, but they didn't; there was a free vote. Parliament votes all the time on issues which aren't in the governing party's election manifesto - e.g. the recent free votes in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. So we were pledged to introduce a partial ban, and had a free vote on whether to take it further.
Sixth point - John Reid frequently made the 'class' point, describing smoking as one of the few 'working class pleasures'. I didn't agree with him then, and I didn't agree with him now. I actually think it's just as patronising to say you're defending a working class pleasure as it is to say that the working class need to be saved from themselves. I don't draw a distinction between who smokes. I just think it's a bit disingenuous of Forest to push this line when their idea of effective political lobbying is to congregate in private members clubs in Belgravia and host champagne tea parties in the Commons.
Seventh point - public support for the ban. I was quoting figures widely reported in the press, and I don't think in any case you are saying you have majority support? I can only base it on published figures (and I've cited references for those) and what I've seen in my constituency. I've had virtually no complaints - two, I think - since the ban and one of those was from someone who said he wasn't allowed to smoke in his own home anymore. It doesn't come up on the doorsteps either (once, I think). As I've said, my office is based above a labour club, in which we hold our local party meetings. Customers there haven't complained to me. I have, I admit, had a couple of letters recently about the potential impact on corner shop profits if cigarettes have to be kept under the counter and packets of ten are banned; shop owners tell me that 25% of their profits are based on cigarette sales. I have some sympathy with them if they're facing a threat to their livelihood, but given that I think smoking is something which should be discouraged, I can't exactly condone the fact that their profits are made from selling cigarettes. We can't continue to promote cigarette sales just to keep them in business. (And just to reiterate, I'm not saying people should be prevented from smoking; I just don't think we should facilitate it. I'm not interested in forcing people to give up, but I want to make it easier for them, and I definitely do want to discourage young people from taking it up.) I think this also answers the point about why I don't think separate bars for smokers is a good idea.
Eighth point - I know quite a few smokers, and they all support the ban. Some didn't support it before it was introduced, but do now. Some have actually said they prefer being in non-smoky pubs, even though they are smokers themselves. I have not been approached by a single landlord in east Bristol about the impact on their business. I'm told dry-cleaners' business has also been affected, as people's clothes no longer stink of smoke after a night out. So should we reverse the ban just to keep them in business? It doesn't make sense. As for Ireland, my father lives in a very rural part of Carlow (not to be confused with the 'dad' I mentioned earlier, who was my stepfather from the age of two) and he says that it's actually a Government crackdown on drink-driving which has had the biggest impact on his local pubs, not the smoking ban which came in earlier. Old boys who would drive from their villages to the pub in the evenings now stay at home and drink alone. Which is sad, but does it mean Irish authorities should turn a blind eye to drink-driving?
Anyway, I've spent two hours on this, Hamilton has won (and I've missed a phenomenal race).
I don't expect to make anyone happier as a result of what I've said. As for what happens now - you are of course free to comment on this post, which you no doubt will. I am not going to close the blog down, but I am not going to prolong the debate by responding to comments as we will just end up going round in circles. I will start moderating comments if necessary. And I am going to delete any comments about smoking on non-smoking related posts. As I said, I'm not prepared to allow this blog to be hijacked by proponents of a single cause, especially not one with which I so vehemently disagree.