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Smoking: Churches and Cathedrals

Volume 694: debated on Monday 16 July 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will exempt churches and cathedrals from the requirement to display “no smoking” signs.

My Lords, the requirement for smoke-free premises, including places of worship, to display “no smoking” signs is enshrined in primary legislation that was passed into law last year. The Government do not have powers to exempt specific types of premises from the requirement to display “no smoking” signs, if they are required to be smoke-free under the Health Act 2006. Churches are not exempted from signage requirements under smoke-free legislation in other parts of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is she aware that in 1650 the Catholic Church passed a papal bull that prohibited smoking in churches and cathedrals and the taking of snuff? For over 400 years, that law has been obeyed without the need for any signs. Will the Minister revisit the very prescriptive guidance that is given to churches and places of worship in smoke-free England about the size of the sign, the wording of the sign, which is very secular, and the places where it has to be displayed, with a view to dispensing with these signs altogether?

My Lords, I was not aware of the papal bull, but that is an interesting fact. No, the Government are not going to review this at present. We have declared that we are going to review the smoke-free legislation in three years’ time and that is what we will do. In the mean time, I am very grateful for the opportunity to explain to noble Lords what is required. The requirement is for an A5 sign—that is half an A4 piece of paper—saying, “No smoking. It is against the law to smoke in St Stephen’s”, or St Mary the Virgin or whatever the name of the church may be. It does not have to be displayed on a great big notice board at the front of the church; it can be just inside the church on a notice board. I do not think it is a particularly onerous charge for churches, but I hear what the noble Baroness is saying.

My Lords, we have just heard the “no smoking” sign described as secular. What would a non-secular “no smoking” sign be—“God asks you not to smoke”?

My Lords, does the requirement apply, as I assume it does, to mosques, to synagogues and to temples? Further—and this may have to be looked at in two years’ time—is there any evidence that anyone has ever smoked in a place of worship? If there is no such evidence, surely such places should then be exempted.

My Lords, this regulation applies to all places of worship. The Department of Health has consequently reached out to all faiths. It has had discussions with the Church of England, as requested. No other faith has asked for such discussions, but we are very happy to have those discussions, if necessary. Have people smoked in church? I think some gentlemen of the road, for example, may well have smoked in churches in the past. But here we are talking about a cultural change. It is encouraging people not to smoke. I hear what noble Lords are saying, but I can assure them that in three years’ time it will be reviewed.

My Lords, would the Minister publicly endorse the rather helpful advice given by some officials and by the previous Minister of State at the Department of Health, Caroline Flint, that local authorities are encouraged to take a fair and proportionate approach to the enforcement of this legislation, recognising that the smoking of tobacco in churches and cathedrals has been much less prevalent than the legal burning of incense, which happens very frequently in Norwich Cathedral—I am glad to say—and agree that a punitive approach would be highly counterproductive?

My Lords, indeed, we are not talking about a punitive approach. We are talking about an educational and non-confrontational approach focused on raising awareness and understanding to ensure compliance. It might be helpful if I read out the report of the relevant Merits Committee at the time, which said:

“We note the extensive consultation that took place in preparing these regulations and commend the Department of Health’s pragmatic response to the issues raised in relation to the size and positioning of the notices”.

My Lords, reverting to the Roman Catholic Church for a moment, did my noble friend see the report in a recent issue of the Tablet, which said that a number of Roman Catholic priests are tackling the problem of “no smoking” signs by putting them up in English and in Latin, complying perfectly with the law, the only dispute being on the correct form of Latin? One prefers, “Non licet fumare” and another, “Luminarium nullus”. Will my noble friend give some guidance on that matter and commend the church, first, for complying with the law and, secondly, for keeping Latin alive?

My Lords, I hope I have greater success than with my previous Question. Does the Minister agree that this is a nonsensical regulation that attacks no habit? Is it not time that the Government immediately went through that? Could it be in contravention of listed building consent in some places?

My Lords, we are talking about a cultural change. When the Bill passed through this House last year there was not one single amendment about this issue. Does it contravene historic monuments legislation? No; a small piece of paper on a notice board inside the church does not contravene such legislation.

My Lords, if the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, will permit me, may I ask the Minister whether she is not slightly concerned about the profound lack of logic in the Government’s position? In the past, when smoking was permitted in some public places but not in others, it might have been a help to the public to have a notice to indicate where smoking was not permitted. Now, when smoking is not permitted in any public place, there is no need for notices to warn people, but notices are required.

My Lords, that is an interesting point, but I do not think it is illogical. The Government, with the support of many noble Lords, are trying to bring about a cultural change so that we have a healthier nation that does not smoke.

My Lords, the Minister may not be aware that last week I was wheeling through the cloisters of Westminster Abbey and I saw a cigarette butt stuck in the stones, so I assure her that some people must be smoking and it may still be there.

My Lords, the Minister said that no amendment was moved in Committee on the Health Bill. I took part in all the clauses referring to smoking. There was a lot of debate about signage, but noble Lords taking part did not believe that anybody, especially the Government, would be stupid enough to insist that there should be “no smoking” signs in churches.

My Lords, I, too, participated in that debate. I remember it well and know that the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, raised this issue. She spoke of her concern that such notices would deface any building. I hope that at that time I was able to allay her fears by explaining that such notices would not deface buildings.