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Last Updated: Friday, 28 October 2005, 10:11 GMT 11:11 UK
Smoking out the big question
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News politics reporter

Health campaigners are furious that - thanks to what they see as a classic government fudge - English pubs could soon be the last refuge for smokers in the UK.

It is absolutely extraordinary; indefensible
Tam Dalyell on the West Lothian question

Provided the bar does not serve food, smokers will be able to puff away with impunity, while their compatriots in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, where much tougher blanket bans are set to come into force, are left to shiver on the pavement outside.

But what is really getting up the nose of some MPs - apart from the smell of stale cigarette smoke - is that the architect of this policy, former health secretary John Reid, represents a Scottish constituency, Airdrie and Shotts.

"John Reid's constituents are going to get comprehensive protection against secondary smoke on 26 March next year but he's telling me that people in the Rother Valley are going to have a lesser one and I find that very difficult to accept and many other Labour backbenchers do as well," fumed Rother Valley MP Kevin Barron, who chairs the Commons health select committee.

Some Labour MPs are even threatening to rebel against the smoking bill in an attempt to prevent it becoming law.

Two Labour backbenchers, David Taylor and Lynne Jones, who want a complete ban, have tabled a Commons motion, calling for MPs to be given a free vote on the issue.

Awkward question

But at least one Old Labour firebrand is permitting himself a wry smile at the unfolding row.

"It is the West Lothian question in excelsis," says Tam Dalyell.

The former Linlithgow MP and father of the House of Commons, who stood down at this year's general election, made a career out of asking awkward questions.

And the West Lothian question, with which he became synonymous, was possibly the most awkward of all - namely how was it right after devolution that a MP representing a Scottish constituency could continue to be allowed to vote on issues affecting just England?

"It is absolutely extraordinary; indefensible. It makes a mockery of accountability," says Mr Dalyell.

Crucial

And it is not just smoking. The government is increasingly relying on its Scottish and Welsh MPs to get controversial legislation such as Foundation Hospitals, which only apply to England, on to the statute books.

In January, the government relied on the votes of 46 Scottish MPs to pass its university fees legislation, in the teeth of backbench opposition. The measures was passed by just five votes.

Since then, the government's majority has been slashed to 66, meaning it may have to rely on its Scottish MPs even more, says Mr Dalyell.

This year's election also left the Conservatives with a small majority in England, but only one MP in Scotland and two in Wales. Labour now has 40 Scottish MPs, partly because of a reduction in the number of Scottish constituencies.

Mr Dalyell says: "When I was in the Commons, the whole issue was very much disguised by the size of the government's majority.

"In 1997 and 2001 when I refused to vote on purely English affairs, Hilary Armstrong, the chief whip, wouldn't have lost a wink of sleep."

Vindication

Now, he says, every vote is crucial. It is the perfect time, in other words, he says, for MPs to make a stand over the West Lothian question, even though he admits there is no easy answer to it.

The only way to solve it once and for all would be to have no more Scottish MPs at Westminster and a fully independent Scottish state, something he was "personally against".

Nevertheless, he must feel some sense of vindication now that the question he pressed for so long is finally creeping up the political agenda?

"I would be inhuman if I didn't," he replies with a smile.






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