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Nick Clegg should say No Thank EU

By Angela Harbutt
August 1st, 2013 at 11:52 am | 19 Comments | Posted in EU, EU Politics, European Politics, Liberal Democrats

A couple of days ago I re-read the “Liberal Democrat Manifesto for Europe”. On the summary page it says

“Liberal Democrats don’t believe in one-size-fits-all solutions. This is because Liberal Democrats believe that individual people, families and their communities know best about the things that affect them, so decision should be taken by them, not by distant politicians and bureaucrats in Westminster or Brussels.

That is why we insist that Europe does not act when national, regional or local action is more effective.”

I assume that is still the party position (given that the web site is still live).

I am sure that most Liberal Democrats agree that on matters of public health this is especially true.  Decision-making should wherever possible, be taken at national, regional or local level, not left to the whims of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels.

I am also sure that the party will agree that if the UK parliament has been deliberately denied the opportunity to scrutinise any European legislation, (having refused to provide a waiver on scrutiny), then that legislation should not be allowed to proceed until such times as it has.

All that being the case I will be asking Nick, as Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, to take action on a rather scandalous state of affairs.

Back in June, Conservative MP and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, Anna Soubry was summoned, very hastily, to attend a General Council meeting in Luxembourg on 21st June. The purpose of the meeting was to agree, with other health ministers from around Europe, the “general approach” to be taken on the revised Tobacco Products Directive.

Soubry requested waivers from the scrutiny committees in both Houses. The Lords agreed but the Commons European soubry picScrutiny Committee said no on the grounds that there was insufficient time (less than two weeks) to examine the very many (and complex) issues involved. Soubry decided to over-ride the House of Commons scrutiny committee, and played a full and “crucial” role in the discussions on Europe-wide regulation at the June 21st meeting.

The Directive is now due to be voted on by MEPs in the first week of September. This vote too has been hastily forced up the agenda (scheduled for October, it has now been moved to early September).

Voters in Britain will rightly wonder what is going on. Why is Brussels in such a hurry to get this legislation rushed through? Why has UK parliament been denied the right to examine the proposed EU laws? Why are most of the public wholly unaware of the proposals and therefore prevented from expressing their views on the matter? Why indeed is Europe forcing through laws banning swathes of products that no UK government has sought fit to do?

No wonder Euro-scepticism is on the rise. No wonder at least half of the adult population believe that the UK would be better off outside of the EU if this is how legislation is introduced.

The scrutiny committee has already summoned Soubry to explain herself (and a very sad and sorry affair it was too). The chair (Bill Cash MP) has stated :

“We consider that insufficient information was made available to the committee to enable it to scrutinise the Commission’s proposals”

“Negotiations on the draft Directive appear to have proceeded at unwarranted haste given its far-reaching implications”

“The draft Directive remains under scrutiny”

That begs the question how on earth can MEPs vote on the Directive proposals in early September when the Directive is still under scrutiny in the UK Parliament?

I will be asking Nick to take action. This is a cast-iron chance to make the words in the manifesto count; make it clear that EU laws that by-pass proper scrutiny in Westminster will not be tolerated.

I will be asking Nick to:

  1. 1. Work with others (including Lib Dem MEPs) to ensure that the EU delay any vote on this Directive (which has been rushed through faster than a high-speed train) until such times as Westminster has been given sufficient time to examine the proposals contained in the Directive. There is no good reason to force this through in September when, for want of a few weeks or so, the ministers can re-convene and discuss this proposal with the benefit of more time, consideration and proper parliamentary scrutiny. Then, and only then should MEPs be given the opportunity to vote on the proposals.
  2. 2. Ensure that decision-making on UK public health remains with elected politicians here in the UK, not Brussels bureaucrats.

Earlier this week the smokers’ group Forest launched a new campaign No Thank EU seeking to give the British people a voice on this piece of desperately hurried and deeply flawed EU legislation.road-sign-logo6

But it should not be left to Forest to bang on doors demanding  that the EU be made to pause whilst elected politicians here in the UK (and elsewhere I have no doubt) are actually given sufficient time to review carefully what is proposed.  Nor should it be Forest’s job to fight to ensure that decision-making on matters of UK public health remains in the UK.

This is an ideal opportunity for Nick in particular, and the party more generally, to demonstrate to voters that being Pro-European does not mean remaining silent when Brussels gets it wrong. To show that liberals are willing and able to stand up to Europe when UK parliamentary processes are circumvented or when the Commission moves beyond its remit.

I understand that smoking is a controversial topic and that some Liberal Democrats believe that any measures that may reduce smoking rates should be embraced. But this view is deeply flawed if they are willing to allow proper process to be casually caste aside in the process. Those who are passionate about the need for yet more smoking legislation and support the EU measures proposed should lobby for their inclusion in the Liberal Democrat manifesto – not hide behind Brussels bureaucrats. That is how democracy works, surely?

I have listed the key EU proposals below. I know that Lib Dem MEPs are already deeply concerned about the proposals on e-cigarettes contained in this Directive and have spoken out about it publicly on several occasions. But speaking out about some aspects of the Directive, or seeking amendments come the September vote, doesn’t go far enough.

It’s like agreeing to play a game of football knowing that the hosts of the game have changed all the rules and given themselves a 3 goal advantage. To play the game legitimises the new rules. That won’t help the 1.3 million+ vapers or 10 million+ smokers and it will outrage many ordinary voters who will wonder what on earth the EU will be allowed to railroad through next.

This is bad legislation, rushed through to avoid proper scrutiny. I am asking Liberal Democrats individually and collectively, and the leader specifically, to make a stand.

Signing the petition would be helpful so please do go ahead and sign. But I am also asking the party to show that when necessary it is willing to stand up to the EU, and to coalition ministers who have chosen to play fast and loose with parliamentary process.

What the EU proposes and Westminster hasn’t been allowed to examine:

As well as forcing all e-cigarettes to become classified as medicinal products Europe-wide, the EU Tobacco Products Directive proposes:

  • A  ban on menthol and ‘slim’ cigarettes throughout Europe.
  • Larger health warnings on packs and pouches covering  75 per cent of the front and back.
  • Standardisation of cigarette pack size and shape
  • A ban on packs of ten cigarettes
  • A ban on all smaller pouches of roll your own tobacco

For more information on these proposals, visit “What’s at Stake” on the campaign website.

For additional reading on the Tobacco Products Directive see this article “A dog’s breakfast” by Clive Bates (former director of ASH (Action on Smoking and Health).

Angela Harbutt is Campaigns Manager for No Thank EU (www.NoThankEU.com), launched on July 29.

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Lord Rennard: Good news, but MORE questions

By Angela Harbutt
February 24th, 2013 at 9:27 pm | 3 Comments | Posted in Uncategorized

Good news from the Party today that the investigation will NOW be “independently chaired”. Why such an obvious decision was not easily made at the outset is concerning. From what I can gather, they seem to have taken this decision without any conversation with the women concerned [but will happily be stand corrected]. But it is good to hear that our concerns (and others) were listened to. Special mention here goes to Stephen Tall , who piled in behind us on Friday. No news yet on who the “independent Chair” is to be or how they will be appointed.

Questions: Following suggestions that the person at the end of the “whistle-blower” hotline appears to be too intimately connected to the party, on too many levels. I assume that the hotline will now likewise be put in the hands of someone out side of the party. And quickly.

This isn’t to suggest any aspersions about the fair-mindedness of either Tim Farron (who was originally slated to head up the inquiry) or Kate Parminter (who manages the rather under-advertised hotline), but surely these things properly need to be placed under the command of those who don’t have a long history at the senior levels of the party?

Finally, it has to be asked, for the umpteenth time, who exactly is managing the party PR machine? Had the party line on Friday not been so hapless, some of the weekend’s newspaper speculation, and embarrassing statements from Cable and Browne could probably have been avoided.

Added to that, the statement made by Nick Clegg this evening, and the press office follow up,  seem to leave more questions than answers. Nick’s tone of indignation was utterly inappropriate. And he is already having to issue clarifications about the difference between his knowledge and his office’s. This is exactly the sort of running commentary that he said, rather optimistically, he wished to avoid. He is unlikely to be able to do so over the coming days.

Update: We are delighted that the party has announced that a new independent whistleblower group will deal with complaints: Telephone number 020 7404 6609

It has also announced that it has appointed Alistair Webster QC to lead the formal internal investigation under the Party’s disciplinary rules into the specific allegations made about the conduct of Lord Rennard.

Finally the party has said that it will also be announcing an independent Chair for the investigation into party procedures and to thoroughly examine how allegations made in the past have been handled.

 

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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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Lib Dems “promotion” of British business is a joke

By Editor
October 24th, 2012 at 8:23 pm | 2 Comments | Posted in Liberal Democrats, Policy

One of our readers forwarded an email they received from Lorely Burt MP today. It reads

 Dear             ,

 The Liberal Democrats are a party of business. Tonight Nick Clegg is giving a speech to a group of business leaders, to highlight just that.

 Nick will say that the Liberal Democrats are determined to put the private sector at the heart of a strong, rebalanced economy.

 As a former entrepreneur myself, this rings true with me – because since coming into Government, our party has been promoting British business in lots of ways:

  •  giving shareholders new powers
  • pushing employee ownership
  • taking action to open up more boardrooms to more women

Good grief. If the party big-wigs really think that any of the above measures have helped “promote” British business, then we are in serious, serious trouble.  We hope Nick’s speechwriters are more in tune with what business actually wants (rather than forced upon them) than this email seems to suggest.

Laughingly the email invites business people to answer a survey “Listening to Business”. Having read the above email and been reminded of the new regulations that the Liberal Democrats have played a significant hand in forcing upon business it seems unlikely that many will actually feel minded to complete the survey.

So to let you know, the survey consists of asking the following: name, email, phone number, address, business sector, turnover  – oh plus one question “If there were one thing the Government could do the help your Business, what would it be“.

How about delivering on the coalition promises of 2010? A “bonfire of red tape”; Removing existing regulation that unnecessarily impedes growth;  Introducing new regulation only as a last resort; Reducing the overall volume of new regulation; Improving the quality of the design of new regulation; Reducing the regulatory cost to business and civil society groups;  Moving to a risk-based enforcement regime where inspections are minimised etc

So far the Lib Dem’s promotion of UK business has been lamentable. Nothing here suggests it is going to get any better, any time soon.

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If News International had employed Savile how different things would be

By Angela Harbutt
October 22nd, 2012 at 6:44 pm | 3 Comments | Posted in Uncategorized

I see that Tory MP Philip Davies wrote a few days ago to Ofcom boss Ed Richards demanding that the BBC face a “Murdoch style” investigation “the BBC (should) face the test into their probity following the Jimmy Savile sex abuse revelations and the subsequent cover up that has emerged in the last few weeks“.

Spot on.

Given how (a) tardy and (b) inaccurate the BBC has been in supplying information to date on this issue and (c) the scale of the News International inquiry, we should all be demanding that the BBC should NOT be allowed to run its own “independent” reviews. If News International had been the orgnisation at the centre of this scandal we would rightly expect that any investigation be conducted, and overseen, by an arms length organisation. Indeed there would already be further widespread calls to investigate whether Sky/News International were “fit and proper” to hold a broadcasting license. We should expect no less a standard of scrutiny of a state broadcaster.

Phone hacking is a considerably lesser crime than any of the following (a) failing to take all available steps to protect children in your care, (b) failing to investigate thoroughly suspicions of abuse of minors by your staff, (c) failing to forward such serious suspicions to the police for investigation. These appear to be the very accusations that have already been laid at BBCs door.

Add to that, the deeply worrying incident of a Newsnight item on Savile being pulled. It has been said by the editor that the reason for not broadcasting the item was based purely on their belief that they had insufficient evidence to broadcast the item. Now we learn however, that the BBC has been forced to issue an embarrassingly lengthy correction to his blog saying it was “inaccurate or incomplete in some respects”.

Frankly, anyone who has ever worked in broadcast journalism will have already raised an eyebrow at the suggestion that an item had actually filmed before the decision was taken that there was insufficient evidence to broadcast.   There is also the serious question as to why they did not pass their files to the police? And we have yet to find out just how much George Entwistle (recently appointed Director General) knew of the Newsnight item. Maybe the BBCs Panorama documentary tonight will shed further light on the matter? Although I for one do not wish to be told by BBC journalists what actually occurred on Newsnight (and certainly not one as inept as this) any more than I want BBC appointees to tell me what occurred elsewhere.

All of this just feels too cosy for my liking. Who is willing to bet that we will see little more than a couple of token hacks hung out to dry (i.e. pensioned off),  much hand-wringing and an assurance that current  child protection and whistle-blowing policies are fit for purpose.

Not good enough in my opinion. We cannot have one rule for the state (broadcaster) and one rule for everyone else.  If phone hacking deserves a Leveson inquiry, then unchecked wholesale child abuse and journalistic cover ups deserves Leveson++.

In a shockingly lame reply to a question in the House last week, Nick Clegg said

“I certainly accept there may be a case for an inquiry and if an inquiry were to be held which is as broad ranging as you suggest it should be, it should be independent to look at the full range of the shocking revelations as they have come to light”

Not good enough Nick. Nowhere near good enough. What are you waiting for?

UPDATE: Excellent post here from Liberal England on how the BBC lied, and lied, and lied.

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