The Health Improvement Bill was introduced to the House of Commons on Thursday 28 October, delayed after 24 hours of cabinet wrangling over the scope of the workplace smoking ban proposals.

The Bill contains plans to ban smoking in all public places, except private members clubs and pubs not serving fresh food, by summer 2007.  Smoking at the bar will be prohibited in all venues, and the Government will consult on how this can be achieved, whether by introducing separate smoking rooms or areas to protect staff.

This means that the legislation in England and Wales will be significantly weaker than in Ireland, where a blanket ban has been in force for almost a year.

Health minister Patricia Hewitt conceded that "many of us would have liked to go further and faster" with the ban, but stressed that even with exemptions 99 per cent of workplaces would be smoke-free.  Ms Hewitt is believed to have sought a wider ban which would only have exempted sealed staff-free smoking rooms in non-food pubs, but her plans were opposed by other members of the cabinet.

The resultant smoking ban represents a return to Labour's original pledge made in the Public Health White Paper last year, but has been condemned by the health lobby, campaigners and industry as unworkable.

The Bill includes a provision for the measures to be reviewed after three years, and Ms Hewitt has said she still believes that a complete ban on smoking, as is coming into force in Scotland in March 2006, is probably inevitable.

The Bill also contains details of a new hygiene code for hospitals and reform of controlled drugs management.  The proposed code of practice, which will be overseen by the Healthcare Commission, has been designed to tackle hospital-acquired infections such as MRSA, which is linked to 1,000 deaths a year.  Other parts of the Bill include proposals to pave the way for reform of pharmacies and increase the powers for counter fraud and security management specialists in preventing fraud in the health service.

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