by Ewan Turney
The Welsh Assembly has voted to ban smoking in all public places, but may excuse small and rural pubs from paying business rates amid widespread concerns about mass closures.
Assembly Members (AMs) voted 40 to nine, with three abstentions, to uphold the Smoking in Public Places Committee report that a total ban should be imposed within two or three years.
Campaigners will now step up their lobbying of MPs to ensure the Assembly is given the necessary powers to enact a ban as promised in the Queen's speech.
The news is a huge blow for the trade after a recent Licensed Victuallers Wales survey claimed 29% of all pubs and bars could shut and a further 20% would be forced to lay off staff. Calls fora full study of the economic impact of the ban seem to have been widely ignored.
The committee and its report came under fire from some AMs for ignoring the needs of small businesses. "Our committee report is very weak on the negative effect of a ban," said Plaid Cymru AM Elin Jones.
"It concentrates on the net effect across Wales without mentioning the effect on individual sectors."
Tory AM Alun Cairns reminded members of the "outcry" that usually follows the closure of community facilities, such as post offices, shops and pubs.
However, Labour AM Leighton Andrews has vowed to explore avenues to help pubs cope with the change. Small rural pubs in Wales already enjoy more significant rate relief than in England and Andrews plans to lobby finance minister Sue Essex to extend that grace to urban pubs and double the relief to 100%.
Cardiff-based brewer and operator SA Brain, criticised for failing to give evidence to the committee, called for the timescale to be widened.
"The Assembly should give more time perhaps 2009 before introducing a ban, to allow both the public and the trade to adapt," said retail director Philip Lay.
"Twenty-four months is insufficient," he maintained.