Friday, 16 September 2011

One step forward, two steps back on outdoor smoking?

Not much time available today. Two stories via Dick Puddlecote: One with the welcome news that Councillor Paul Bartlett's motion to ban smoking outdoors in Stony Stratford, due to be proposed on 20 September, has been withdrawn (go here, background links provided).

Two (the bad bit) on the implications of the Localism Bill, currently going through the House of Lords. A motion has been added that would enable local councils to outlaw smoking in 'any place or description of place that is not smoke-free under section 2 of the Health Act 2006'. It seems that no conclusion has yet been reached on this part of the Bill, since yesterday's debate didn't progress enough.

One might think that a Localism bill would offer councils the opportunity to overturn a smoking ban if local people wanted them to, but it appears that 'localism' only works under certain conditions, according to the New Local Government Network.

There are elements that, at a quick glance, look decidedly devolutionary. The General Power of Competence, for instance, gives local authorities the same power to act that an individual generally has. They will be freed to act in innovative ways, that is, in doing things that are unlike anything that a local authority, or any other public body, has done before or may currently do. Where Councils were previously overshadowed by uncertainty – nervous about investing resources in doing something for local citizens, only to then be told that they weren’t allowed – now they can just get on with it.
Great, but wait, there are some strings attached … The Bill has three clauses that give provision to the Secretary of State to restrict any activity of a local authority under the new general power. In its current form perhaps it would be more accurately called “A General Power of Competence, except when the Secretary of State, or one of his successors, decides that it is not”.
It allows local authorities to legislate only in areas approved by the Secretary of State. That's not really localism. Incidentally however it does typify officialdom in the area of smoking. No one would officially criticise someone for refusing to hire a smoker (that's an employer's prerogative), but an employer would be breaking the law by supplying a smoking room. 

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