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A “fat tax” in definitively NOT the answer

By Angela Harbutt
August 26th, 2011 at 12:04 pm | 1 Comment | Posted in Uncategorized

First they came for smokers, then they came for drinkers, now they are coming for obese – or more correctly “the potentially obese”.The topic of the day – when not discussing the likely whereabouts of a certain Libyan leader – is the most recent “expert” report telling us that unless we tax unhealthy foods,  half the UK population “will be obese by 2030“.

This  headline grabbing report appears in the Lancet that is running a four-part series looking at the “global obesity pandemic”  (yes that is right – pandemic) and how it believes it should be tackled.The answer it comes up with is somewhat more complicated (and frightening) than the simple “fat tax” on unhealthy foods reported in the papers today. But surprise, surprise,  the “fat tax” is the main “weapon” against the “pandemic” that the “experts” themselves have chosen to highlight – so lets stick with that.

The first question I find myself asking, is what the hell  is an unhealthy food? Surely the odd bag of chips, the occasional Big Mac or sneaky bar of Cadbury’s fruit and nut is not intrinsically bad for you? I accept of course that consuming any of these items to excess is likely to lead to me adding on the pounds – but even my 14 year old niece knows that.  It is an unhealthy diet that leads to obesity (combined with lack of exercise in some cases) not  so-called “unhealthy” food.  

If we listen to the experts everything is unhealthy for us – except possibly lettuce. If we start down this route of taxing unhealthy food – lets say anything with “high” sugar content or “high” fat content – how long before the so-called experts decide that its not sugar or fat that’s the killer its carbs – so let’s tax food with “high carb content” ….. then it will be “high salt” foods ….and so it will continue until everything is taxed (except possibly lettuce). We never get an apology from these experts about their nutrition advice from the past that was just plaing wrong and led us down this particular route… oh no not their fault guv. And now it isn’t our fault either apparently -this is no longer about individual repsonsibility –  it’s the Government’s responsibility what we eat – at least according to these “experts” . And if I had a tenner for every time the term “pandemic” has been used in the past  years I’d be rich… and how many times have the pandemics actually materialised?

The next question I ask myself is .. why is the automatic solution to every health problem that the experts identify these days  -either a ban or another tax? Why not tackle Fair Trade – or EU protectionism – keeping the cost of fruit and veg artificially high – not the answer? Why aren’t nutrition classes the answer? Why is not making people responsible for their own health care costs the answer ? Why does it always come down to a ban or a tax, the fault of slack Government or evil food manufacturers.  

And perhaps the most annoying aspect of this – is the idea from the health experts that we should tax “unhealthy food” now – to prevent the possibility of  mass obesity sometime in the future. Whatever they say about the UK we just don’t have the same level of obesity as they do in the USA – and having just returned from vacation there I can tell you its not just about WHAT they eat – its HOW MUCH  they eat. Portion sizes in the USA are ENORMOUS.. Their appetisers were often twice what I would eat for a main course … even child portions often saw me leaving food on the plate.

So before we get too carried away with trying to map USA trends onto UK figures to get a few shocking headlines – and a knee jerk “fat tax” solution…. let’s be more sensible about this. Let’s pursue the route of education and information. Let’s look at how trade barriers and shocking restrictive practices artificially inflate prices of raw foods. Let’s consider how health and safety madness has caused many small retailers to go out of business.

And perhaps most importantly, let’s not allow scaremongering headlines from faceless “health experts” make those struggling with weight problems feel as disgusting and self-hating as smokers have been made to feel about themselves. Let’s not criminalise an even wider section of the population by forcing them into purchasing  illicit, unlicensed chocolate, soft drinks etc smuggled in overseas containing god knows what because its half the price of over-taxed legitimate products  in the UK. Please let us learn the lessons from what we did to the tobacco industry – and beware of the unintended consequences of well-intentioned actions.

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Tim Montgomerie is wrong to blame IDS’s failure on the Lib Dems

By Tom Papworth
August 26th, 2011 at 10:42 am | Comments Off on Tim Montgomerie is wrong to blame IDS’s failure on the Lib Dems | Posted in Uncategorized

A letter to the Evening Standard:

Tim Montgomerie’s attempt (David Cameron must get back to work on broken Britain, 24 Aug 11) to paint the Liberal Democrats as roadblocks to change is misplaced. In his speech of 13 August, Nick Clegg identified three priorities for government social policy – “gang culture; failing families; a welfare system that traps too many in dependency” – and championed the coalition’s response, including the “radical welfare reform agenda.”

On the economic front, the Lib Dems have fully backed the essential deficit reduction programme, but more action is indeed needed to boost economic growth. The role of liberals in government should be to resist the Tories’ natural instincts to subsidise favoured industries, pick winners and intervene more, and to instead push for labour market reform, lower taxes and that bonfire of the regulatory vanities that both parties promised before the election.

There are always heated debates in Cabinet, whether the government is made up of one party or several. This creative tension at the heart of government is part of the genius of the British constitution. It is easy for Tory bloggers to point the finger of blame at their coalition partners, but if Iain Duncan Smith and Steve Hilton cannot convince their own Cabinet colleagues that their policies are correct, then what hope have they of persuading the wider public?

Tom Papworth, Director of Policy, Liberal Vision

It'll all be perfect once we're rid of Clegg, Clarke and those pesky Human Rights!"


Smoking ban petition: “What’s to disagree with?”

By Angela Harbutt
August 25th, 2011 at 5:31 pm | 6 Comments | Posted in Personal Freedom

I have just returned from my USA vacation and am delighted to report that tales of the demise of the smoker across the pond are greatly exaggerated. Indeed in some states the fight back seems to be on.

Despite what you may have heard, it was ludicrously easy to find hotels in New York offering smoking rooms.  Much easier actually than finding a smoking room in many UK cities. Smoking on the streets remains common place – and the numbers of open air bars encouraging you to light up are, if anything, on the increase.

Over in Las Vegas the story is even more encouraging. Back in around 2006 Nevada introduced a smoking ban on places that served food. Initially this meant that several bars simply went smoke free. In some casinos it was actually difficult to find a decent bar where you could sit down with your Sapphire tonic and enjoy the odd Marlborough Light. But public demand has caused many owners to rethink their policy. One casino on the strip has not only opened up two new smoking bars (complete with waitress service) in the last 12 months, but rejigged two of its most popular restaurants to accommodate outdoor seating for smokers. At the other end of the strip, my favourite restaurant – which bizarrely banned smoking on the terrace when the ban was first introduced – has relaxed its rules to allow its patrons to enjoy a cigarette once more. None of this is to the detriment on non smokers. There are still many places that you can go and find a smoke free atmosphere. But a sense of balance is finally being restored. Amen to that.

Returning to a damp Britain was therefore rather depressing.. A return to standing outside the pub with two bar staff avoiding the cars throwing up spray from the gutter while half a dozen people inside enjoyed their “right” to a smoke free environment. How marvelous it would be if we could see some of that Clark County commonsense over here. 

So what to do….? My first political act post-vacation has been to sign the e-petition calling for a review of the smoking ban.

The petition states

We petition the Government to review the impact of the smoking ban on pubs and clubs and consider an amendment that would give licensees the option of separate well-ventilated smoking rooms”

I share many folks scepticism of e-petitions but there is nothing to lose – and just perhaps something to be gained. I have tested out the wording of the petition with friends and family (mostly non-smokers) … “what’s to disagree with?” was the over-riding consensus.

Original legislation went too far. It is now widely known that the intention was never to include every single pub and club in the smoking ban. A growing number of MPs regret voting it through. And as a society,  we are frankly getting rather tired of the pontifications of those on high, and the intolerance and scorn of those who seem incensed by anyone around them who seems to be taking any enjoyment from life. 

So why not give this e-petition a go? You never know it may just work…..


Riots: Who is playing politics here?

By Angela Harbutt
August 16th, 2011 at 6:00 am | 3 Comments | Posted in Liberal Democrats

I was away in the USA when my neighbourhood got trashed. The road I live in was under siege, the shops I shop in were looted (and in at least two cases totally destroyed) and the bar I drink in saved only by the locals standing outside with the ubiquitous baseball bats.

It was odd to be so far away looking at the TV pictures… Listening to reports of mob riots, looting, arson, murder …happening in places I know – not some far off place that I have never visited. I was wondering what on earth I might return to, but was somewhat pleased (and to be honest relieved) that all parties and wider community leaders were unanimous in condemning the lawlessness. Maybe THIS would be the turning point, when political parties would put their general (or internal) differences to one side and work together in the interests of the country…..

Err no…. No sooner have my feet hit home soil then it all goes tits….. last weeks hand-wringing and consensus was replaced yesterday by an unseemly scrap for political advantage from all sides…..special pleading, finger pointing and cries of  ” we need more money” and “it’s all the bankers/MPs/Murdoch’s fault” and “we will fight the government on this” a-go-go.

The worst offender by far was Ed Miliband. His speech yesterday was lamentable – a disgrace – and in parts down right divisive. For a start, most of his speech was “all about him”… how he had talked to Tom or Dick or Harry from Tottenham, Croydon or Clapham….how he had walked the streets, he had listened to the victims.. he got down with the kids… Yeah..Yeah ..Yeah ..And….his solution after all that walking, talking and listening ???? An inquiry. Yep that’s it folks ..sum total.. another bloody inquiry.

You might have thought that with over a decade in power, his party might have just a few ideas. Not the full answer – but just a couple of ideas… But no….he wants an inquiry and suggests that we should listen to the “communities” to “understand” the issues. They spent three terms in power -with all the experience, knowledge and information that must have surely given them… and yet bizarrely 18months later have absolutely no ideas what so ever as to what to do. Except bizarrely (and without any hint of irony) -listen to  –and empower -local communities (without any acceptance or apology for running well over a decade of top-down dangerous social experimentation). His attempt to somehow equate the banking crisis  and “boardroom greed” with mob-looting was downright irresponsible … And surely I was not the only person in the land contemplating smashing up my own TV when – during the Q&A… nasal Ed’s reply to every question asked – was “excellent question”….before tossing every one of those questions into the “inquiry long-grass”. One wonders why he even bothered to turn up – other than to hurl mud at the Government.

More worryingly for me today however were the Lib Dems. We (the Lib Dems) are increasingly looking like two parties. One in power – working with the Conservative Government (in times of crisis folks!) – and one out of power acting as a minor opposition party.  Today was a classic case in point.

David Cameron came out strongly today returning to his favourite theme of social morality, the Big Society etc etc though with a heavier tilt toward clear old fashioned Conservative values than we have heard more values, supporting the institution of marriage, a 21st century national service, more discipline in schools etc etc.

To be honest it wasn’t a bad speech. I supect that Nick agreed with  70% of what Cameron said… But who really knows what the Lib Dem’s view on this is? What we actually heard yesterday was firstly that Lib Dems would vociferously oppose any move by the Government to remove benefits from those convicted (though not necessarily imprisoned) of rioting.  Not a “we will wait and see exactly what is proposed ” line – straight out “muscular liberalism” – or a rather unwelcome bit of political haymaking – which is what it looked like.

The next I heard (on Newsnight) was Jenny Willetts who seemed to be saying we needed to spend even more money on the poor – but perhaps I misunderstood her? Finally – at about 1130 pm last night we finally heard that Nick Clegg would be making a speech today calling for “swift strong justice” …that those involved in the rioting should be made to help with the clean up and meet those that suffered at the hands of the rioters – to face up to the consequences of their actions.

I am not saying that these Lib Dem lines are contradcitory -just that it would have been nice on such an important issue to have seen the two party leaders shoulder to shoulder – standing firm as a coalition government… Why allow the media to run most of the day with talk of the Lib Dem awkward squad all over the airwaves (especially as it is by no means clear that the benefits withdrawal talk was anything other than kite-flying )…Why wait 24 hours before Nick comes out with his ideas… Why put IDS all over the TV -topping and tailing the Prime Ministers speech rather than Nick….?

I can’t work out whether this is (a)Coalition comms cock up, (b)brilliant bit of Tory party muscle, (c)Lib Dem leadership fuck up or (d) some “canny” Lib Dem policy to “differentiate itself from the Government”at every opportunity. If it is (a) (b) or (c) they should sort it. If it is (d) they should not be playing politics on this issue. There are undoubtedly battles to fight – but this is not one of them – and at least if you have to do it, make it clear where you agree with the Government before commencing the sniping. Otherwise please sort your comms out now.


The “Government Cuts” phoney war

By Tom Papworth
August 9th, 2011 at 11:00 am | Comments Off on The “Government Cuts” phoney war | Posted in Uncategorized

The government’s “Cuts” agenda is expected to dominate politics over the next three and a half years and during the next election. I expect that we will hear the word “cuts” eminating from the lips of Labour politicians more times during this parliament than we heard Gordon Brown boast that he’d abolished Boom and Bust during the previous three.

Yet the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats will also freely talk of the cuts they are making, while challenging Labour’s narrative that this is all a heartless exercise motivated purely by ideology. They will point out that Labour left them with an unsustainable deficit, the largest (at 7.2% of GDP)of any country in the OECD bar the United States of America (excluding that of Ireland, which was artificially inflated in 2010 by the one-off costs of its bank bailout) and far larger than that of Greece (5.4%) or Portugal (6.1%). They will accuse Labour of also planning swinging cuts.

So riddle me this: if the Coalition are planning big cuts to government spending, how come the March 2011 Budget revealed that UK government expenditure is planned to increase over the next four years from £685 billion in 2010/11 to £763 billion in 2015/16?

Inflation is only part of the answer. If it continues to run at 4.2%, there will be real term cuts even if there is a nominal increase of £78 billion. But if the government achieves its inflation target of 2% then the level of spending in 2015/16 will actually be just above current levels in real terms.

One has to assume that the government accepts its own inflation target – at least publically. As such, they should acknowledge that their official figures show that overall government spending will be at least as large as, and perhaps slightly larger than, the level of spending they inherited.

So what’s all this talk of cuts? Somehow, it feels a bit like a phoney war. Both camps believe that they can gain by exaggerated what is going on: Labour by suggesting that their political opponents are going after vital services with a scythe; the coaltion partners by pretending to be taking tough action in the face of a foul Labour inheritance. The truth, as the numbers demonstrate, is rather less impressive.