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Sock puppets go too far

By Angela Harbutt
July 1st, 2015 at 12:30 pm | No Comments | Posted in Government lobbying government

This morning I spotted a simply astonishing post over on Conservative Home detailing how one state-funded sock puppet is not only taking vast swathes of cash from the taxpayer, but using it to intimidate local councils to stop vital work and force added costs onto the taxpayer.

Harry Phibbs reports that ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) has been quietly rolling out an initiative called the “Local Government Declaration on Tobacco Control” (LGDTC). Essentially this “encourages” local councils to refuse to have any contact/liaison with tobacco companies whatsoever.

What contact might councils have with tobacco companies?

Well, crucially a lot of contact has historically occurred between tobacco companies and local council trading standards departments, collaborating on identifying and stopping traffickers of counterfeit/smuggled/stolen tobacco products. Illegal tobacco sales costs the taxpayer over £2 billion a year, affects the livelihood of local retailers, and not only funds organised crime – but is often the entry point for gangs into an area. On top of the financial issues, are the health concerns. Criminals don’t care who they sell too, (kids) and what they sell (many fake cigarettes contain such nasties as cadmium, benzene, formaldehyde – even mouse droppings).

Clearly there are many good reasons for local councils to be as effective as possible in clamping down on illegal tobacco sales.

Of course tobacco companies have skin in the game too. Illegal sales hurt company profits and damage brand reputation.

So it is not surprising that there has historically been much collaboration between councils and tobacco companies on illicit trade. And, though not widely known, much of the initial (often dangerous) tracking and tracing work has often been undertaken by the tobacco companies themselves, liaising with trading standards once suspect warehouses/stores/factories/traders have been identified.

That has displeased the state-funded zealots over at ASH who despise any contact – however beneficial it has proven to be – between tobacco companies and local government. They have taken the somewhat reasonably phrased World Health Organisation’s directive (not enshrined in law in Britain btw), Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control

“In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, Parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law”

… and twisted it out of all recognition. As Christopher Snowdon reports, ASH has gone around local councils getting them to sign up to an agreement that includes a promise to…

“Protect our tobacco control work from the commercial and vested interests of the tobacco industry by not accepting any partnerships, payments, gifts and services, monetary or in kind or research funding offered by the tobacco industry to officials or employees.”

Snowdon has been doing some digging around. He has found the ASH document ‘Developing Policy on Contact with the Tobacco Industry’. This document highlights just how extreme government-subsidised ASH has become – using, as Snowdon puts it, “thinly veiled threats” to bully Councils into bending to ASH’s will. The ASH document states:

“[Article 5.3] could be relied upon in legal proceedings brought by an individual or other non-state body against a public authority. An authority that does not act in compliance with the convention may be exposed to risk of judicial review. If a local authority decides to diverge from the guidelines it is suggested the reasons for doing so should be documented…”

As Snowdon observes…

“…Needless to say, all of this goes far beyond anything in Article 5.3, but with the bogus threat of legal action hovering over their heads, it is little wonder that local authorities have chosen to unnecessarily milk the taxpayer for bills that have traditionally been paid by industry.

The outcome of ASH’s  interventions means that much of the collaboration with, and funding (eg for sniffer dogs etc) from, tobacco companies has, or will cease in those areas signing up to LGDTC.

Not very smart thinking for government at national or local level, as more of the costs of clamping down on illegal tobacco fall on the local taxpayer and the number of seizures is almost inevitably destined to fall, harming the Exchequer as well as public health.

And the idiocy does not stop there. Local Councils are also being advised that they must also no longer co-operate with tobacco companies on anti-litter measures.  Returning to Phibbs, this means

“…councils and the Keep Britain Tidy campaign will no longer work with the tobacco industry on anti-litter measures or campaigns such as making bins smoker friendly.”

That helps who, how? Surely it is in everyone’s interest (except ASH perhaps) to seek corporate funding where possible to make our local streets a cleaner, nicer place to be? How long before this idiocy extends to McDonalds, and other corporately responsible companies?

With a good five years in power, it is time for the Conservative government to weed out these ideologically driven sock-puppets which are not just a drain on public funds directly from the “grants” received, but are causing untold chaos – and added costs – at a local level and actively contributing to public health harm?

[Read more from Harry Phibbs here]

[Read more from Christopher Snowdon here]

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Should government regulate marriage?

By Sara Scarlett
June 27th, 2015 at 11:48 am | No Comments | Posted in Equality

Probably one of the best commentaries on Same-Sex Marriage I’ve seen so far.

Public policy failure

By Alex Chatham
June 19th, 2015 at 2:30 pm | No Comments | Posted in Economics, Public Sector Reform

Lord Bob Kerslake, the author of a report in housing in London, has said that the failure to build enough homes “has been the biggest public policy failure of the past 50 years”. It is refreshing to hear someone admit that public policy can fail. Normally, commentators and policymakers talk about market failure. This is normally a cue to proposal State intervention. Lord Kerslake appears to be thinking along these lines, which is a shame. It would be better to admit that public policy has failed and that it is time to let the market function properly.

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Farron Vs. Lamb: Another Underwhelming Election

By Sara Scarlett
June 15th, 2015 at 11:52 am | 2 Comments | Posted in Uncategorized

The Liberal Democrats have already sown the seeds of a disappointing 2020 General Election. I predict they will get four MPs. Neither of the leadership contenders show any sign of stemming the bleed.

Largely regarded as the favourite, Tim Farron has written a lot of op-eds on LDV sending out the right signals. He’s talked a little about rebranding… But there doesn’t seem to be a lot of substance and detail on how he will do that. Norman Lamb has talked about Mental Health a bit.

Farron is right, the LibDems do need a rebrand, however…

In order to rebrand – you have to admit you’ve gone wrong.

In order to admit you’re wrong – you have to know that you were wrong.

Neither candidate seems to have shown any inkling that they believe either of these things. You’ve also got people like Ryan Coetzee who thinks he ran a perfect campaign… Too many have also bought the ‘it was the politics of fear’ narrative which, whilst it may be comforting, does not actually exist.

The most important thing the next Leader of the LibDems will have to do is convince Joe Public that there is a reason the LibDems need to exist. At the moment, it is not obvious to anyone other than LibDem members and the few remaining LibDem voters why the LibDems still exist at all. Unless the next Leader of the Liberal Democrats can get inside the heads of the people who don’t think the LibDems should still exist and attempt to engage with them then it’s just playing at politics. If this is the case then the LibDems should just reform as a hobby/club and drop the pretence that they’re a poltical force of any kind.

Full School Choice In Nevada

By Sara Scarlett
June 15th, 2015 at 11:36 am | No Comments | Posted in education, US Politics
As of next year, parents in Nevada can have 90 percent (100 percent for children with special needs and children from low-income families) of the funds that would have been spent on their child in their public school deposited into a restricted-use spending account. That amounts to between $5,100 and $5,700 annually, according to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Those funds are deposited quarterly onto a debit card, which parents can use to pay for a variety of education-related services and products — things such as private-school tuition, online learning, special-education services and therapies, books, tutors, and dual-enrollment college courses.
Notably, families can roll over unused funds from year to year, a feature that makes this approach particularly attractive. It is the only choice model to date that puts downward pressure on prices. Parents consider not only the quality of education service they receive, but the cost, since they can save unused funds for future education expenses.
I’ve been wanting to see how a full school choice model will work and now we finally get a chance. It’s a profoundly egalitarian model that gives access to all whilst still allowing the markets to function freely and obliterating the flailing government monopoly on education. Despite record investment in education, the USA’s public school system remains an inconsistent, mediocre, zipcode lottery.
School choice interests me because it’s one of the policy areas that should be loved by Libertarians and Social Liberals alike. To me, it’s a policy that schould distinguish the Social Liberals from the Social Democrats. The way it will be enacted in Nevada, it makes the State’s poorest completely equal with the majority of the Middle Classes. The more affluent Middle Classes will still be able to top up these funds, of course, but this is a hitherto unknown level of education equality. Local government ensuring equality of access to services whilst fully exploiting the benefits, decentralisation and pluralism of the markets. This should be the dream of a Social Liberal. Sadly, SLF’s declared hatred of monopolies never seems to extend to failing government monopolies…