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Minimum Pricing: Battle lines are drawn

By Editor
December 2nd, 2012 at 3:37 pm | 6 Comments | Posted in Uncategorized

There is an article in the Mail Online today that will warm the hearts of every good liberal.

Whilst Home Office Minister Jeremy Browne MP has been gagged (as has Farming Minister David Heath MP,) on the topic of minimum pricing of alcohol, word has leaked out that Jeremy is clearly on the side of the angels:

“…friends of Mr Browne have told The Mail on Sunday that he disputes claims that the policy is certain to cut binge drinking – or reduce the number of pub fights.”

A source close to Mr Browne said: ‘Jeremy’s view is that the thug who has downed nine cans of lager is hardly going to think, “Oh dear, I can’t afford a tenth because of minimum pricing. I think I’ll go home to bed instead of starting a brawl.”

Needless to say his stance has meant that Tory Police Minister Damian Green has been given the task of speaking publicly in support of the policy. Jeremy is right of course. As is the assertion made on his behalf :

“Jeremy maintains that the middle-class woman in Oxfordshire who drinks a £10 bottle of Chablis every other night will not be affected because it won’t go up in price and she can afford it anyway,’ said the source.

‘But the working-class woman in Oldham who drinks a cheap bottle of Lambrini will be hit because it will cost more”

Well said that man. Is his, and other MP’s, opposition enough though? It would appear sadly that there is no ‘organised’ campaign against minimum pricing to date. It is not clear if this is because the supermarkets & drinks companies are following the strategy of appeasement, looking at the likely boost to their incomes such a policy will deliver regardless of the hurt it will cause their customers, or were genuinely taken by surprise. Perhaps they feel the policy is too absurd to worry about?

But history tells us that you need more than having right on your side and reasoned arguments to win against the relentless, rich and powerful lobbying health “charities”. With privileged access to policy makers, often funded by those they lobby, these fake charities rarely fail their paymasters in delivering the desired outcome in such “public” consultations.

There are signs of a resistance building. An e-petition against minimum pricing was created a while ago but has trebled signatures in the past 24 hours and an informative facebook page here (and an event to sign up to here) has appeared in the past couple of days (that from which we harvested much info – thanks!) .We have also seen the excellent Chris Snowdon step up to the plate with a must read report (co-authored by statistician John C. Duffy) “Minimum evidence for minimum pricing” and enjoyed his many and brilliant turns on the media. And of course we have the efforts of Pub Curmudgeon, Dick Puddlecote, Frank DaviesSpiked! ASI, IEA and TPA, (and many others) to count on. (We also hear tell of a newspaper campaign though can’t pin that one down right now).

Whether their efforts, combined with the fact that minimum pricing is illegal , fails the evidence test, is based on a flawed model, punishes the poor, the sensible and the moderate, and of course that public opinion is against it, is enough to win out against the might and money of the government’s own pet groups, on a mission to deliver Mr Cameron’s desired outcome, however remains to be seen. For now our thanks and appreciation to Jeremy (and many other MPs) for standing firm.

Ps if you want to get the minimum pricing widget (above) for your web site, click here (courtesy of the marvelous Pub Curmudgeon).

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Why I am with Cameron on Leveson

By Angela Harbutt
November 30th, 2012 at 8:00 am | 2 Comments | Posted in Media

So here we have it – a tussle about the balance of power between the politicians and the press (neither of which have exactly high trustworthy ratings right now). And a tussle between the Coalition leader and the deputy leader (ditto). Disappointingly, (as a liberal) I find myself agreeing with Cameron on this one . Odd to see the leader of the Conservative party defending the very foundations of liberalism, whilst the leader of the liberals seems to stand firmly in the camp of those wishing to extinguish the freedom of the press. How have we arrived at this place?

On the face of it, with one or two exceptions I have noticed,  I am in the minority within the Lib Dems. Comments such as “If we never achieve ANYTHING else whilst in Government, being there on the day we stopped people like Murdoch being able to hurt again, will be worth it.” …….” I thought we’d all be delighted by the outcome? The press have always disliked us and bullied us” echo a sentiment I have heard more than once today.

Elsewhere the Lib Dem view seems to be that we must impose restraints on the press “for the victims”.

The anti-Murdoch response from the Lib Dems was predictable I suppose. The party does seem to have adopted a general stance, covering many issues, that runs along the line “if we don’t agree with something it should be banned” regardless of the underlying merit (or lack thereof) of the specific policy in question.  And as despicable as phone hacking undoubtedly is, we should not have a “victims  veto” (h/t Mick Hume from Spiked!), where the victims determine the punishment. Bleak days indeed where tribal hatred or popularity contests can veer us so far off course.

This is a time for calm, clear thinking. Not crowd-pleasing gestures to the “victims”, nor relishing our moment to get one over a press that ignored us. We must be very clear what we are sleep-walking our way into.

Leveson is proposing this Government regulate the press – and our “liberal” leader appears to be aiding and abetting this. Any movement towards statutory regulation (which is exactly what statutory “underpinning” is) of the free press is wrong on every level, plain and simple. Once parliament has granted itself such powers, it will, as sure as night follows day, expand them later. Once you open that door – even by an inch- you will never shut it. We have seen with every other piece of legislation , when a door is opened, it will only widen.

Ever thought anti-terrorism laws were intended to evict a heckler from a party conference? No one did – that is the point. I seriously struggle to understand the naivety (because I must believe this is not simple opportunism) of Nick Clegg. Another apology in waiting – but this time there can be no forgiveness. No excuses. Nick may have acquired short term notoriety for reneging on students fees. Small beer to his legacy – the destruction of the fourth estate and abandonment of liberalism.

The reason for Leveson’s recommendation to move to state regulation is because “self regulation of the press has not worked”.

[Never mind that most of the complaints were about criminal activities that, had the state spent more time worrying about doing its job properly,  the police would be less corruptable and politicians less gullable.  The decay of the the moral fibre of our so-called public servants is, and always has been the real issue here.]

In his speech in the House of Commons, Nick said :

“… when I gave my own evidence to the Inquiry, I made the point that, if we could create a rigorous, independent system of regulation which covers all of the major players, without any changes to the law, of course we should. But no one has yet come up with a way of doing that”

Well Nick, try harder. Self regulation has clearly not worked for the press, indeed it does look like the PCC was part of the problem. But self regulation can and does work. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is the self-regulatory organisation of the advertising industry in the United Kingdom. It is a non-statutory organisation (so it can’t cannot interpret or enforce legislation) but has a code of advertising which broadly reflects legislation in many instances. The ASA is not funded by the British Government, but by a levy on the advertising industry. It is fast-acting, even-handed, accessible and cheap to use.  Get off your backside and go make it happen. What is so pressing in your diary that you can’t just go find good models of self regulation, and make a new improved PCC mark2 work?

Today I hang my head in shame. The liberal leader’s stance on this is not just embarrassing – its inexcusable.

The dangers of the Leveson proposal are all too evident. Indeed the more one considers the Leveson ideas the more you scratch your head and ask how did we arrive here; how do they imagine it is going to work; and where will it all end?

Who exactly, selects the members who might sit on the regulator “independent of industry or politicians”? Talk of an arms-length body is all well and good – but whoever selects the members defines the nature of the organisation.

What happens when one, or more, elements of the press say no to the cowing of the press? I am not a reader of the Spectator. I was pointed to yesterday’s editorial and I may well sign up today. Why? Read this

“The idea of benign ‘statutory regulation’ was advocated by MPs in 1952 and The Spectator vigorously opposed it then, too. ‘Everyone who really understands what freedom of the press means and cares about it,’ we argued, ‘must resist such a proposal to the uttermost.’

That is what The Spectator will now do. If the press agrees a new form of self-regulation, perhaps contractually binding this time, we will happily take part. But we would not sign up to anything enforced by government. If such a group is constituted we will not attend its meetings, pay its fines nor heed its menaces. We would still obey the (other) laws of the land. But to join any scheme which subordinates press to parliament would be a betrayal of what this paper has stood for since its inception in 1828.

So what happens if others follow the Spectator’s spectaculary bold and brilliant stance? Will the face-off end up in editors and journalists refusing to be cowed? Refuse to pay fines? Challenge the regulation ? Go to prison ? If this is where we are heading then I am signing up to the fight. And I am firmly on the side of the Spectator. And if that means prison so be it.

And how do you define which organisations/ titles are required to adhere to the “voluntary-statutory” regulator ? The Daily & Sunday Express, Scottish Daily & Sunday Express, Daily & Sunday Star and others are currently exempt from PCC rulings – because they have opted out.  How do you deal with them ?

And whilst I am on the “practicalities” Leveson has virtually ignored on-line blogs and news sites. As they grow, will we see calls for sites such as Britain’s best-read political website, Guido Fawkes or Spiked! rolled into the regulators sphere of control? Guido Fawkes, is domiciled in Ireland – does Spiked have to do likewise? Will blogs such as this one ultimately come under the inspection of a press regulator?

Ok, I am now getting far ahead of where we are today. Many will say that this will never happen. But whichever way you look at this you see opportunities for regulatory creep and political interference. Do we really trust politicians to show restraint? History says we must not.  And the suggestion of a “First Amendment style” protection of the freedom of the press enshrined in the statute currently is a meaningless token gesture.  What will it realistically offer that Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights” does not already provide? You know the answer.

We all have sympathy for those that have suffered at the hands of the print press. We have just as much sympathy for those that have suffered at the hands of the BBC. Why treat the organisations so differently if there are no agendas or scores to settle?

As a party that has fought id cards, detention without trial, state surveillance and rendition, so must we fight the gagging, taming or cowing of the free press. Wrong-doing of the press must be dealt with through the courts, but we cannot allow a handful of political careerists and bitter celebs, to appoint themselves judge and jury.  We will fight the key Leveson proposal to regulate the press with all our might. We will fight the demands  to rush to legislation. Nothing good came out too much speed. Reflect Nick. Please.

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Tackling the Shiraz riots of 2012

By Angela Harbutt
October 20th, 2012 at 1:38 pm | 1 Comment | Posted in Nannying, Nudge Dredd, Personal Freedom

 

The Telegraph is carrying the stark warning today that the government is set to outlaw the discounting of bulk deals on wine by supermarkets, as part of a review on alcohol pricing. Ministers, they say, believe such promotions give customers a financial incentive to purchase more alcohol than they intended to buy and should be banned. It is said this is another measure being championed by the PM himself.

When this whole alcohol review was launched, the alcohol review was billed as all about trouble-making youths and other anti-social drinkers. 

The availability of cheap alcohol has been a key contributing factor in the development of this country’s binge-drinking culture. The government will no longer tolerate the sale of heavily discounted alcohol which leads to irresponsible behaviour and unacceptable levels of crime and health harms.”

To be clear I am totally against minimum pricing of alcohol, it is regressive, nannying, unfair and won’t work.  We have laws to deal with “anti-social” behaviour and crime. But this latest proposal really is paternalism gone mad. Who, I wonder “preloads” with bottles of Merlot before hitting the night clubs? Since when did Chardonnay drinkers hang around the city centre on a Saturday night hurling abuse at passers by? I don’t know and I bet the government doesn’t know either.

So what business is it of government if a shop offers me a deal, that incentivises me to buy 2 botttles of wine rather than 1, indeed 24 bottles of wine instead of 12? Isn’t that between me and the shop? It doesn’t mean I have to drink it all in one session. I frequently buy 24 toilet rolls in one session. I probably only intended to buy 4, but the shop “incentivised” me. I have also been known to buy as many as 36 cans of Coke in one go because the price was great and frankly it is more convenient for me to buy in bulk and saves me precious time and money.  I don’t rush home and consume them all at once, but even if I did whose business is it? Certainly not the government’s.

Bizarrely the Government appears to be leaving wine clubs untouched. It seems it is OK to plan to buy case loads of wine, just unacceptable to pick up a bargain whilst doing the weekly shop. Perhaps supermarkets have been added to the list of sinners, including bankers and energy companies on David Cameron’s hit list. Or maybe it is that wine clubs are the preserves of the rich middle classes who can be relied upon to decant their wine, sniff and sip, and behave in an altogether more refined manner.

I doubt there will be Shiraz riots any time soon. To be frank the supermarkets will just cut the bottle price rather than offer multi-buy discounts and life will go on. For now.

But the language being used here “the government will not tolerate ….” is very worrying. So too is the assault on the right of socially responsible people to buy a legal product in the quantities, and at the price, they choose without interference from government. Banning people from purchasing discounted wine from Waitrose or Tescos is clearly not about binge-drinking, anti-social behaviour or criminal activity – so why is this particularly bizarre proposal being seemingly led by the Home Office?

It is hard to tell how far the creeping influence of health lobby groups has actually reached – but it seems even to the Home Office. That combined with the paternalistic nature of a certain number of those in power, (Mr Cameron at the top of that list) who seem to say one thing (“individual responsibility”) but do something very different, has led us to this place.

There is a meeting scheduled next week between Mr Cameron and the Home Office. Here is hoping the likes of Damian Green and Jeremy Browne can remind the PM of what he said back in 2010

“…all these insights lead to one conclusion that is central to Conservatism: the more responsibility we give people, the more likely they are to make ethical decisions. “

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The Government energy gaff: anything but funny

By Angela Harbutt
October 20th, 2012 at 10:00 am | 1 Comment | Posted in Uncategorized

I might be the only person in the country actually feeling a bit sorry for the energy companies. I am not saying that they are the good guys – I complain like the rest of us when I see the bill. But I do look at what has happened over the past few months and I have to feel a bit of sympathy for their situation and a large amount of dread for the rest of us. Of course bankers will already know about confusing government messages – being told simultaneously to hold larger reserves and lend more. But if anything the energy companies plight is worse – and if we don’t want brown outs in the next few years we really need to get a grip on this now.

Good job the impressive Angela Knight has moved from banks to energy in recent months – she must feel right at home.

First a quick rewind to April 2011. Back then the government introduced a scheme called “midata”, as part of the Government’s “consumer empowerment strategy” ,  “Better Choices: Better Deals”. Midata was created as a “partnership” between the UK government, consumer groups and major businesses, aimed at giving consumers access to the data created through their household utility use, banking, internet transactions and high street loyalty cards. (I always read “partnership” as “government says play with us and if you don’t we will clobber you with legislation”. I am usually right too).

I wont go into the complexities, or rights and wrongs of the Government decision this summer to move from “playing nicely”, to forcing companies to join the Orwellian-sounding “midata vision” – suffice it to say it is yet another wet dream for all those huge IT giants, rubbing their hands at the prospect of all that lovely lolly (just like IDS smart cards).  Another disproportionate technological answer to a problem that almost certainly doesn’t exist and will probably be met with total public apathy.

The consultation closed last month – but in reviewing it , I noticed at that it was the energy companies that were said to have “led the way in the midata initiative“, “with a number of suppliers already giving their customers access to transaction data”.

So in August the energy companies were being praised or their boldness in embracing “the midata vision”, they were indeed responding to the governments desire to “empower the consumer” with more information.

Roll onto October (and presumably the latest set of focus group reports showing the price of gas and electricity is high on the list of concerns of would-be voters) and David Cameron has a eureka moment – force all companies to offer everyone the cheap fuel!

Yet another ill-conceived, knee jerk idea that has more holes in it than a swiss cheese. Not least the fact that would if companies are forced to offer everyone their lowest tariff then companies will simply raise the price of the lowest tariff.  Why would people pay more ? And if everyone elects to pay the lowest price, where is the profit for the developments that the Government and Ofgem say are needed, unless erm, the lowest price is higher than currently offered.

Another policy that benefits the idle that do nothing and penalises the financially prudent who have taken the effort to seek out the better deal. A deal that doubtless will no longer be available to them if Mr Cameron’s scheme comes into play. No worries people, you sit on your sofa and scoff your pies, Government will do everything for you.

If Mr Cameron really wants to see lower energy prices, how about cutting the accelerating social and environmental charges (5-10%) on our bills for useless green energies that all too often just don’t work. Or cutting back costly hyper regulation costs or dubious government initiatives such as “midata” that simply ad to company overheads.  Energy company profits are between 5 – 9% depending on who you listen to. That is not excessive. Government profits from energy are as high as 15% (5% VAT, 5-10% green charges).

It is all too clear that Cameron’s announcement on legislation to force energy companies to give the lowest tariff to all their customers’ came as surprise to everyone.

Junior minister John Hayes admitted in the Commons he had no idea how the PM’s promise might work in practice, then seemed to later backtrack on Cameron’s pledge, saying the government was only considering introducing such a law. Meanwhile Energy Secretary Ed Davey was talking about a totally different approach to cutting bills yesterday morning – promoting competition between energy companies.

It’s like the Thick of It – but not as funny.

Ofgems timely announcement may just have saved Mr Cameron’s bacon with an announcement that tariff complexity, poor supplier behaviour and a lack of transparency and competition in a market  are the main issues in need of addressing. We almost certainly do need simplifcation of the tariff system encouraging savvier customers to switch supplier to get the best deal. That in turn will encourage much-needed competition (something Ed Davey is clear he wants to see).

So what the energy companies might expect from the upcoming energy bill is anybody’s guess but I reckon they are hoping for no more unhelpful off-the-cuff remarks from the PM any time soon. The energy market is in enough turmoil already. I will sign off with wise words from Angela Knight

“As Ofgem’s proposals and the Energy Bill are debated, clarity of plans and certainty of proposals will be essential, as well as open consultation and decision-making that is grounded in facts and evidence”. 

Listen up Mr Cameron, that “clarity of plans” and “certainty of proposals” bit is aimed at you.

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Government priorities gone bananas

By Angela Harbutt
January 13th, 2012 at 10:54 am | No Comments | Posted in Government

I was reading Professor Philip Booth’s excellent blog post yesterday on David Cameron’s red tape challenge to ministers. Here is an extract that caught my eye.. (emphasis is mine) .

Of course, this is just what we need – more employment regulation. It comes in a long line of announcements and enactments over the last two weeks about executive pay, council house tenancies, the disastrous implementation of the moratorium on employment regulation for small firms, alcohol regulation, the extension of employment rights to temporary workers and the regulation of the scrap metal industry. I am wondering if I have misunderstood the government’s red tape challenge – is the challenge to ministers to produce as much red tape as possible?

And I found myself cheering his point that..

“If somebody is not very clever but good at building networks, why should they be looked down upon more than somebody who is clever but not good at building networks? The hard work that one puts into networking is not obviously less virtuous than the hard work that one puts into developing one’s intelligence. The good luck that comes from being born with a good brain is no more virtuous (indeed it is not virtuous at all) than the good luck that comes from being born with a set of well-networked parents.”

But that is perhaps because I was not a particularly brilliant scholar but had “the gift of the gab” (though sadly no “connections”). Goodness only knows what job I would have ended up with if my application had gone in “blind” rather than me tracking potential bosses down to seedy pubs to pester them into giving me an interview.

Professor Booth’s point is not that dissimilar to a point I made recently. Why is it that Government seems happy to go after highly paid bankers and CEOs on such issues as bonus’/ pay differentials etc whilst ignoring the vast sums earned by Premier League Footballers, pop stars and the like?  After all the pay differential between the average Manchester United fan and their top players is vast – and the penalty for failure? they get transferred to another team quite often for even more money. Why is it, I wonder, that it’s OK to earn fortunes because you are good at kicking a ball about – but not if you happen to be masterful at running a company? (Note this is NOT a demand that the Government starts meddling in sports pay as well.)

But returning to David Cameron’s challenge – maybe it is time for him to reconsider giving a wider challenge to ministers and put it in really simple terms – since they do seem to be having trouble grasping the point.

“If it doesn’t cut costs, improve effeciency or help business get the economy going, then JUST DON’T DO IT – unless there is a bloody good reason why you have to – Dave”

I know ministers like their headlines, feel the need to be seen to be doing something, but really! Most of us are sitting in our homes wondering what the hell this government is up to? What we want are jobs, an economy that gets going, the clearing of our debts. What on earth has alcohol regulation or executive pay got to do with any of those things?

Mark Littlewood has been asked by the Government to help them on red tape. Perhaps the Government needs a similar expert to help them sort out Government priorities – ( I say “expert” all we need is a person with an ounce of common sense and a large red pen). Here is one example concerning my current hobby horse. Why is Andrew Lansley devoting vast amounts of time, money and resource undertaking a consultation on tobacco plain packaging, when we can sit back for six months and wait for the REAL evidence to come from Australia (where plain packaging is about to be introduced). With the time and resource released he could devote that to sorting out the current crisis in the NHS now- and return to plain packs if/when the evidence from down under suggests that it warrants it. It’s just about priorities. Surely?

Enjoy Professor Booth’s musings – definitely worth a read.

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