January 11, 2006

England may get full smoking ban as Blair backs down

By Madeline Chambers

LONDON (Reuters) - A complete ban on smoking in all English
pubs and clubs looks increasingly likely after the government
said on Wednesday it would allow its lawmakers to vote
according to conscience and not along party lines.

The move averts a likely parliamentary revolt and possible
defeat for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose plans
propose a smoking ban which would exempt pubs which do not
serve food and private clubs.

Many lawmakers in Blair's Labour party, including some
Cabinet members, want a total ban and surveys show most Britons
support smoke-free pubs and bars.

A partial ban would put England at odds with Ireland,
Northern Ireland and Scotland which have either completely
banned smoking in indoor public places or have announced plans
to do so.

Blair's government bowed to pressure from its Members of
Parliament after several of them put forward an amendment to
remove the exemptions in the law, which is due to take effect
in mid 2007.

"Following discussions ... it is the government's intention
to allow its Members of Parliament -- including ministers -- a
free vote on the amendment," Blair's spokesman told reporters.

The spokesman said the decision on the vote, which will
take place in February, reflected a change in the public mood.

But it also means Blair, who has seen his authority wane
since announcing he would stand down before an election due by
2010, will avoid a potentially embarrassing defeat.

Fewer than 40 Labour lawmakers can defeat Blair by siding
with opposition parties after last May's election more than
halved his majority. He suffered his first ever parliamentary
defeat last year, on anti-terrorism laws.

Pub chain J.D. Wetherspoon Plc has been outspoken in its
preference for a total smoking ban in pubs. It believes a full
ban is inevitable so argues it makes sense to introduce it
sooner rather than later.

"We've always said that a complete ban, without exceptions,
would be the best option," said a Wetherspoon spokesman.

Wetherspoon, which runs around 650 managed pubs in Britain,
plans to bring in more non-smoking pubs in addition to the 50
it already has, although trading in them has suffered.

Others in the pub industry have been more cautious, warning
a ban may hit trade.

(Additional reporting by David Jones)