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Nick Clegg should say No Thank EU – UPDATE

By Angela Harbutt
August 8th, 2013 at 10:54 am | 7 Comments | Posted in EU, EU Politics, Europe, Uncategorized

So not only did Conservative MP Anna Soubry act in defiance of UK parliament when she hot-footed it over to Luxembourg to negotiate on behalf of the UK at a meeting of European ministers. We now know that her support for the European Commissions proposals at that meeting was decisive in giving the green light to the Tobacco Products Directive.

In a letter (dated July 31st) to Bill Cash MP (Chairman, House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee) Soubry says:

“The committee asked whether the UK’s support was vital to a General Approach being agreed” (at the Council of European health ministers meeting on 21st June)…..

“Four member states – Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Poland and Romania were unable to offer their support, which meant that the UK’s support (of the Tobacco Products Directive) was decisive in forming a qualified majority” 

Given that we know Ms Soubry asked for, but was refused, a waiver from the relevant House of Commons committee, her statement should more accurately read :

Four member states – Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Poland and Romania were unable to offer their support, which meant that my support  (of the Tobacco Products Directive), acting on my own and in defiance of UK parliament, was decisive in forming a qualified majority

Quite how one woman – sticking two fingers up to the UK democratic process – was able to waltz into a room and declare she was negotiating on behalf of the United Kingdom – when, in fact she clearly had no authority to do so whatsoever -  will be beyond most people’s comprehension.

That her role was then “decisive” in “forming a qualified majority” at the meeting will shock and infuriate in equal measure.

In her letter Soubry goes on to explain what she thought was likely to happen had the UK abstained at the meeting.

“The Committee asked me what I thought was likely to happen to the Directive (had UK not offered support).

Whilst this would not have immediately killed of the Directive, which I believe will bring important public health benefits to the UK, it would almost certainly have represented a serious set-back. It would have re-opened the debate across all aspects of the Directive…

It would also have made it very unlikely that the revised Directive would have been adopted by Council and the European Parliament within the terms of the current European Parliament and the European Commission.”

That’s it. If Soubry had abstained (surely the correct thing to do when the proposed European legislation in question is still under scrutiny by the UK parliament?), the Directive would have continued but at a slower pace. Given the complexities involved; and indeed the far reaching unintended consequences of  the proposals, a bit more time thinking and discussing before acting is almost certainly what’s needed.

It’s hard to know if Soubry was set up/hoodwinked/sweet-talked into taking the action she did  (junior ministers come and go but bureaucrats, it seems, go on forever) or if her own obsession with plain packaging/incompetence was the cause.

What ever the reason, the fact that her role at the Council meeting of European Ministers was “decisive” in determining the outcome of that meeting is a very serious turn of events.   And whilst it is important to understand how and why we arrived at this sad and sorry place (if we are to avoid such catastrophic errors in the future) the real question is what will the UK coalition government, the European Commission and indeed MEPs themselves do to put all of this right?

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Plain Packs – This week’s non-story

By Guest
July 30th, 2013 at 12:02 pm | 6 Comments | Posted in Uncategorized

The government’s decision not to go ahead with “plain” packaging for cigarettes was welcomed by most sane reasonable people as an indication that we may finally be seeing a beginning of an end to the madness that is government by pressure group.

Only true public health disciples believe that the campaign is anything more than a vanity project intended to bash “big tobacco” and show just how powerful the activists have become. There is no credible evidence of any likely health impact whatsoever and one can be forgiven for concluding that some activists are so wrapped up with winning their “war” with big tobacco that they view health as a peripheral objective.  Others seem more interested in topping some sort of public health competition to determine which nation can be the most authoritarian.

Arnott chris oakleyThe response of the public health industry to the plain packs setback has been predictable and sad. Refusing to even acknowledge the public or its opinion, it has responded with a wave of unpleasant speculation and conspiracy theories based on the now very tired claim that the only opponents of the activists are in the pay of “big tobacco”.

This is not even remotely true but the strategy that it underpins has nonetheless been amazingly successful over the years because it has proved much easier to undermine opponents and demonize the tobacco industry than it has to rationally justify most of what tobacco control has campaigned for. It has in fact been so successful that we now live in a society in which a person’s research or opinion however valid in its own right can be effectively dismissed by any association, however tangential with the tobacco industry.  Although we do need to be alert to the influence of vested interests, the current state of affairs is lamentable and should be a source of shame to those who have created it.

The media has played a major role in the growth of what can be termed censorship by association as a result of monumental ignorance and the love of a “good smear story”. The Guardian is particularly enthusiastic when it comes to bashing industries that try to turn a profit and being staffed, for the most part, by people who would prefer not to do anything quite so vulgar themselves, provides many natural allies for public health activists.

The latest mouthpiece for Deborah Arnott’s ASH is Jamie Doward who treated us to a major scoop in this weekend’s Observer by exposing a “sophisticated lobbying campaign” by Philip Morris Industries (PMI) apparently intended to prevent plain packs being adopted in the UK.  It appears that someone leaked some 2011 PMI files intended for internal use only and from those files the intrepid Doward has managed to concoct a deeply dishonest and frankly ridiculous conspiracy theory in which organisations such as the IEA, TPA and UNITE are mere pawns in the hands of Machiavellian tobacco company executives.

In Doward’s fantasy, dissident smokers are unthinking recruits of “big tobacco” and absolutely no grass roots opposition to anything the tobacco control lobbyists have to say exists at all anywhere. The hundreds of thousands of signatures opposed to plain packaging don’t exist or are the product of manipulation by “big tobacco”. Lynton Crosby of course appears complete with photograph despite not apparently being directly involved in the leak.

It is of course entirely unsurprising that PMI analysed the politics surrounding the plain packs proposal in some depth but I would like to see the justification for Doward’s claim that the tobacco lobby has “spent millions” trying to derail the proposal in the UK.  Having waded through his nonsense in search of anything that represented fact rather than fantasy I was struck by a section in which he reveals that those dastardly executives at PMI actually resorted to canvassing public opinion in their efforts to thwart plain packs. Apparently they used their endless resources to commission a small poll of a thousand people from marginal Tory constituencies and found that only 3% of people thought that action on smoking was a top priority for the government. I hope that the 30 are a sampling artefact for the sake of mankind. When it came to proposed smoking reduction measures 24% mentioned plain packs but 62% preferred education.  Apparently Doward thinks that it is extremely naughty of PMI to expose the lack of public support for plain packs. I am trying to work out why.

Doward leaves the last word to Arnott who rarely fails to oblige with a manipulative meaningless sound bite. The Observer article is of a laughable standard but the underlying behaviour and the societal sickness of which it is but a symptom is no laughing matter. I look forward to next week’s instalment.

By Chris Oakley. Chris’ previous posts on Liberal Vision include: Minimum pricing – policy based evidenceAlcohol is Old News – Minimum Pricing for Digestives is the “Next Logical Step” , Soviet Style Alcohol Suppression Campaign Called for By Public Health Activists , Alcohol Taxation: The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth Lies, damn lies, statistics &… , The Department of Health is Watching You! , New bounty on smokers helps GPs balance their books, Smoking ban health miracles , Public health idealogues don’t come cheap


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Life imitating art

By Editor
June 9th, 2013 at 2:28 pm | 1 Comment | Posted in Uncategorized

H/T Here are three ideas for you….

  • Put all alcohol in plain packaging
  • Ban betting logos on sweatshirts
  • Print health warnings on the actual cigarettes

You might think these have been lifted from the latest indie spoof movie. Think again. These crackpot ideas are actually being put forward, for real, by those who “know best”. You see that is what happens when governments spend millions supporting so-called “charities” and institutions whose raison-d’etre is to come up with ideas that justify their existence (and their next round of funding). As for evidence? Forget it. All you need is to get some of your mates to fall in behind the idea, run a few more “studies”, get public health to back it and Bob’s your uncle, your almost there.

Click here to read more: (PS. We like the solution)

“Future generations will look back in wonder at how so many fruitcakes and monomaniacs came to wield influence in the foul years of the early twenty-first century. Sack the lot of them, abolish their grants, bulldoze their workplaces and pour salt on the land so that nothing ever grows there again.”

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Liberalising the European Union

By Barry Stocker
May 31st, 2013 at 10:41 am | 9 Comments | Posted in Uncategorized

A recent item at this blog posted by Editor, ‘EU-it really is getting sillier by the day’, refers to the attempt at an EU ban on serving olive oil in restaurants except in packaged bottles, and the reversal of this idea of by the Commission. While I think the item makes a very good point about the persistence of over-regulation by the EU, and proposals which rightly attract public ridicule, the headline at least was a bit harsh. After all the ban was reversed by the Commission. This reality also undermines the image of the EU as driven by out of control bureaucrats in the Commission dreaming up bizarre projects for an over centralised and over regulated Union. The post hints at, but does not quite reveal, the economic interests behind the proposal. It was driven by big olive oil producers in southern Europe, who claim to be ‘maintaining standards’. By extraordinary coincidence ‘maintaining standards’ in this case would have the effect of driving out competition by small scale ‘artisanal’ producers, who would find the cost of the required packaging less easy to bear than big producers.

The point here is not just that the EU often falls prey to this kind of attempted manipulation by sectional economic interests, but that regulation in the nation states of the EU, and nations all over the world, is driven by this kind of distortion of decision making through sectional interests able to undermine the common good, including that central good of depoliticised open competitive markets. The proposed olive oil in restaurants regulation was pushed by national governments in those EY countries which are large scale olive oil producers, and the political process is under the influence of the major producers in that sector. The liberal reform of the EU must include very strong, clear and enforceble measures against these forces which ravage all countries, and which are particularly necessary in the EU because it has failed to create a political system, on the whole that can resist the EU being defined by vulnerability to such forces.

As the original post points out, the Liberal Democrats, have been long term supporters of the EU, leaving open the question of what attitude the Liberal Democrats should have now, and what contribution Liberal Vision should have to make to debate on the matter. I’m sure there are differences of opinion within the Liberal Vision group on this, but we have overall taken the line of supporting a political union of European nations while questioning the form it should take. Some LV people present and past (before passing onto non-party political roles)have been deeply involved in the European Movement, and I did a few very minor things within EM and the Liberal Democrat European Group myself before I became an ex-pat academic in Istanbul.

My proposal is that we should stick to the policy of political union, but separate ourselves very clearly from the administrative centralism which is supported by the mainstream pro-EU groups. Of course the people concerned do not describe themselves in that way, but the reality is that their default attitude is to support any centralising measure, and to dismiss any  and all opposition and criticism, as populism coming from the fringe of the left or the right. The Euro crisis has dampened such attitudes, but they will keep coming back, and we should contest them. What we should aim for is clear but limited political union, a form of federalism but emphasising that federalism limits the power of the centre, We should aim for a limited number of areas of EU legislation and action, which are done well but kept within limits. I will list a series of proposals which I hope will be of interest to those who want a European political union without the drift to regulatory bloat and grandiose projects adopted regardless of the risk and the downside.

1. More of a role for national parliaments. Maybe a minimum number of national parliaments to give assent before legislation is passed.

2. All areas of EU legislation to be jointly legislated by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. A very easy to understand procedure to be adopted for how this works.

3. Abolition of the European Council, a deeply absurd addition to the EU institutions.

4. Abolition of the Commission, its best employees to be redeployed as EU civil servants.

5. Formation of a European government (probably with some less provocative name) on a roughly Swiss model, that is ministers from the main political groups in the European Parliament in accordance with representation in the EP. The idea of national style competition between political blocs across the EU has it charms, but is unrealistic for reasons which include linguistic differences and differences between national parties within the European ‘parties’. These considerations should be considered as fatal for any idea of  directly elected president of the EU.

6. Some form or EU basic law, or constitution (maybe with a less provocative name), designed to limit powers. Strong institutional arrangements to enforce limits on powers, and prevent centralist drift. This can be very difficult as US experience shows, but let the EU adopt more and stronger measures to prevent such drift.

7. A completion of the internal market to eliminate all barriers to trade, particularly with regard to contracting out of public services and cross border entry into ‘professional’ and ‘skilled employment’. The least onerous regulations of any nation to be the de facto regulation across all nations.

8. Internal market to be accompanied by equivalent (or near as possible) opening up to non-EU competition. Maybe there should be a law to bring this in within 10 years.

9. Tax competition to be allowed and encouraged.

10. The Euro, if it survives and I presume it will, to be optional for new EU countries, and to be based on a relatively clear set of enforceable restraints on debts and borrowing, and bail out conditions, with a presumption against bail out of private financial institutions, except as a genuine last resort.

10. Other big European projects, to be based on opt ins and coalitions of willing governments, not enforced uniformity.

11. Laws and institutions to be based on restraint of new regulations, with very robust tests regarding economic costs, before formulation, and certainly before enactment.

I do not make any claim to expertise on EU institutions and I recognise that not all the above are easy to combine. However, discussion of the EU has too long been the preserve of a few who understand its structures, and all political associations have some tensions within their institutions and constitutional arrangements. In any case, I offer these proposals as a stimulation to discussion, not as a prediction of where the EU is going.

The Sorry State of Debate

By Sara Scarlett
May 29th, 2013 at 2:49 pm | No Comments | Posted in Uncategorized

Today’s deeply upsetting statistics – you’re 44% more likely to die from an elective surgery on a Friday and 82% more likely to die from an elective surgery on the weekend.

Coupled with this unsettling article in the Speccie which, I’m sorry to say, directly corroborates some of the truly awful experiences with the NHS care of my elderly relatives.

And the cherry on the cake – Julie Bailey, a campaigner for the reform of the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust and founder of the ‘Cure the NHS’ group, has been subjected to startling bullying and abuse.

What a damning indication of the sorry state of debate, free speech and civil society in the UK. We’re not even fighting about which reforming action to take. We’re fighting for the right to have a debate in the first place and that shouldn’t be the battle in a ‘free’ country.