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Another scandal – another scapegoat

By Angela Harbutt
June 4th, 2013 at 1:22 pm | 2 Comments | Posted in Sleaze, UK Politics

A lot has been discussed in the past few days about The Sunday Times expose “Cash For Access”  and Panorama’s yet to be aired (but seemingly similar) expose.

The Sunday Times alleges that “PEERS have been caught offering to ask parliamentary questions, lobby ministers and host events on the House of Lords terrace for cash”. The Panorama expose is yet to air but has resulted in Patrick Mercer MP resigning the Conservative Whip. The allegations seem similar.

This has prompted a surge of cries for Government to clean up parliament and for Ministers scrambling to “do something”.  In this instance “something” appears to be revisiting the right for constituents to recall an MP and to introduce a “register of lobbyists”.

Nick Clegg has been at the forefront of this, saying that the present scandal showed how “the political system has long been crying out for head-to-toe reform” and vowing to force a statutory register of lobbyists into law.

Reform of the political system may be necessary – but are the reforms proposed by Government the right ones? I would argue no.

I have no problem with giving voters the right to force a by-election. Always assuming that careful rules can be put in place to prevent MPs opponents from forcing spurious recalls in marginal seats.  But that rule that won’t help one iota with the subject of the Sunday Times sting – The House of Lords.

The House of Lords is in a mess. It failed to sort out the expenses fiddling fiasco – with many Lords getting off scot free despite blatant breaches of the oh-so-loose rules. OK, some had to pay back some of the money they had swindled, but there seems to be no mechanism for expelling people found to have done wrong. Surely what we need is more explicit rules for Lords and much tougher sanctions for wrong-doers?

Having not seen the Panorama programme, it is difficult to judge the extent of the problem amongst MPs.  So far all we have seen is one MP allegedly breaking current parliamentary rules. If some MPs are willing to break the current rules why would anyone assume that installing more rules (and not even rules for the MP themselves) will improve the situation?

Frankly it leaves a very bad taste in my mouth. Responding to political sleaze with a promise of a statutory register of lobbyists is akin to politicians saying

 “not our fault guv – it’s those bastards over there – blame them – we politicians can’t help ourselves”….. “When sharp suited men arrive waving £50 notes we have no free will. No choice in the matter.  What we need to do is remove temptation and opportunity from us weak-willed politicians and all will be well in the world.”

Same old politicians turning the spotlight away from themselves and onto someone else.

And then we must consider what that “statutory register of lobbyists” would look like. Because this gives me great cause for concern. How do you define lobbying and/or lobbyists for the purposes of the register?

If you define lobbyists as those who undertake lobbying activities on behalf of a third party client you are, by definition, excluding those large organisations that have in-house lobbying. A small consultancy operating for, say, Stop the Badger Cull would be required to register but a large company employing in-house lobbyists would not. That’s hardly fair – and should rightly be rejected. Even if you did force such an unfair system into place, I suggest that many organisations would simply shut down their external lobbying contracts and move the activity in-house. Back to square one – except the big boys are fine and the small guys get whacked.

Then again if you choose instead to define lobbyists as those who lobby MPs (i.e. focus on the act of lobbying) then surely you encompass thousands of people from every walk of life? Whilst it may be easy to identify those individuals who, say, spend 50% or more of their time on “lobbying”,  it isn’t, after-all, just the in-house lobbying team that can and will be deployed. Any employee, director, patron, or charity ambassador must surely be counted as a lobbyist if, in the course of their interaction with a politician, they put the case of their charity, cause, campaign or company? Are we really suggesting that Cancer Research UK (which seems to lobby the government daily on one topic or another) must register every member of staff, volunteer and cancer ambassador that ever has any interaction with a politician?

A step too far surely? Some have suggested that charities should be excluded. Well that’s where most of the lobbying comes from as far as I can see?  There are 27,000 charities out there that survive on taxpayers’ cash for more than 75 per cent of their income. I dare say a large number of those, big and small, lobby politicians all too regularly, arguing for everything from more regulation to more funding. Their vested interest – in perpetuating their income streams – runs every bit as deep as those from business. (There is a strong and growing case that those charities receiving money from government should not be allowed to lobby their paymasters at all – but that is another topic for another day).

In any event, you can’t exclude a charity lobbying for more foreign aid spend from the register but force a campaign group representing taxpayers to be included in the register, surely? Unless this whole statutory register of lobbyists business is not about reform of parliament at all, but a thinly disguised anti-business campaign.

Of course, it should be mentioned at this point that 38 Degrees raised 66,000 signatories during the consultation on “Introducing a Statutory Register of Lobbyists” supporting its statement that Government should “Stop Secret Lobbying”. And actually I am in favour of that. They also call on rules to force “politicians to reveal who they’re meeting and what they talked about”. I am in favour of that too.

It’s just as far as I am aware Ministers are already required to publish a list of all meetings they have with third parties (who and about what) together with any gifts etc received. (eg “Ministerial gifts hospitality travel and external meetings”).

Except you see they don’t always follow the rules either. I won’t bore you with the whole sorry tale (you can read it here), but one Minister had a secret (sorry “informal”) meeting with an APPG and a state-subsidised “charity” that the Minister did not include in their published list of meetings. When an FOI exposed the existence of that meeting, and later what they discussed, (including lobbying for the exclusion of certain groups from an on-going consultation) – the meeting was suddenly and secretively added to the public list of meetings on the (inappropriately named) “transparency” web site.

Of course no money changed hands, unless you consider the APPG group which secured the Ministerial meeting, receives support from the aforementioned state-subsidised charity  – in the form of administrative support, provision of materials, funding for group receptions and for design, printing, photography, and dissemination costs relating to group publications and stationery. Oh quite a bit then.

And there we come full circle. You see the problem isn’t the lobbying at all. I don’t mind that a lobbying group met with a Minister. I mind that it was kept secret. And I mind that, although against the rules, when the meeting was exposed, they just amended the public records and went their merry way. The minister received no sanction or public cross-examination.

A statutory register of lobbyists would not have prevented that from happening. Nor will it prevent future cash for questions or cash for influence scandals.

The problem here is not the lobbyists it’s the politicians – who believe they can act with impunity – and that is where the focus of attention should firmly remain rather than seeking out more scapegoats. Throwing the public a bone (in this case a register of lobbyists) and trusting it will keep then distracted until the storm blows over is an age-old politicians trick. One we we should have grown wise to by now.

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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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The mother of all government apologies is just around the corner…

By Angela Harbutt
March 8th, 2011 at 4:26 pm | 9 Comments | Posted in health, Lifestyle Products, Personal Freedom

…”A health time bomb” is how BBC1’s Panorama described the cigarette counterfeiting crisis facing Britain, in last night’s programme “Smoking and the Bandits“.  The scale of the illicit trade on tobacco is eye-watering – an estimated £4billion in lost tax revenue in the UK every year according to Panorama – though I have seen much bigger figures elsewhere.

The reason why the counterfeit tobacco trade has mushroomed in the UK is obvious… “80% of the cigarette price is tax, making our country the second most expensive place in the world to buy cigarettes“.    And so the proliferation of knock-off cigarettes and rolling tobacco – selling at less than half the price of legitimate tobacco –  has reached epidemic levels. Illicit tobacco is now widely available everywhere…. open air markets, car boot sales, newsagents, pubs, factories and universities up and down the country.

And its not just the lost revenue to the tax man  that should concern us. It’s the fact that the trade is no longer being run by Dell boy down the road with his little white van and entrepreneurial flair. The trade is now run by large well organised international crime gangs using their gargantuan tobacco profits to fund god-knows what else.  One container of illicit goods costing £100,000 returns the gangs a profit of £1million. This is now BIG business for BIG CRIME syndicates. 

And if you don’t care what the gangs do with the money they make, and even less about the loss to the tax coffers, then you might be be concerned by what is actually IN these counterfeit products. A counterfeit pouch of Golden Virginia purchased by the Panorama team had 30 times the levels of lead found in a pouch of legitimate  Virginia – not to mention the humongous levels of cadmium and arsenic found in other fake tobacco examined. This is the “health time bomb” Panorama refer to – let’s not worry about the nicotine right now…….

So how to stop this trade ? Well, the government has already announced an increase in spend for HMRC to stop tax evasion and fraud. How much of the increase will be directed toward stopping illicit tobacco sales is unclear. What ever it is it won’t be enough to catch the veritable tsunami of illicit tobacco that is pouringinto the country (go watch the programme if you doubt me). So the answer to cutting the illicit tobacco trade hardly seems to lie with more HRMC men and their waggy-tail sniffer dogs.

We need a big idea to tackle the illicit tobacco trade – and fast!

One “big idea” staring us all in the face of course is to CUT the duty on legitimate tobacco – to remove the incentive for punters to buy the cheaper  alternatives full of who-knows what heavy metals an poisons. Cutting tobacco tax would almost certainly increase legitimate sales at the expense of  the illegal sales.

Raising tax on tobacco in recent years has, I suggest, not “cut smoking” as the health-fanatics would have us believe. It has driven it underground. Diverting the cash from tax coffers to crime gangs.

Another “big idea” would be for government to liaise with tobacco companies (yes that would involve sitting in the same room) to find ways to make it much more difficult to counterfeit their products (the vast majority of people purchasing the tobacco have no idea it is fake – but assume it has been brought over from elsewhere in Europe) .

So what is the Coalition Government’s big idea?  Oh I know to announce tomorrow (on “No Smoking” Day) the introduction of plain packaging on LEGITIMATE tobacco products. That’ll work (not!).

Criminal gangs must think Christmas has come early. Lets make it 100% easier to sell tax free poison-filled knock-offs and make the cost of the fakery even cheaper – no more complicated forgery to pay for. I can almost hear the whoops of delight from here.

This looks, for all the world, like another government apology in the waiting. What will it be this time… “a misunderstanding”…a “rethink after new evidence came to light”…”a matter of unintended consequences”…

…The best one of course will be the plaintive cry that “we were only trying to save the kids”… Well chaps if you really want to “save the kids” then find a way of stopping the disgusting lead…arsenic..cadmium filled alternatives from wiping out the legitimate stuff that looks like candy by comparison. Because I can tell you that kids are not going to smoke any less as a result of your action tomorrow and if there are two cigarettes that look identical and one is half the price of the other we all know which one the kids are going to buy. ….Oh and if your only answer is that you have “increased funding to HMRC” then you deserve everything that is going to be thrown at you.

Given you seem a bit short on quality PR advise right now let me help..  HOLD OFF … Think long term, not short term. Go for real success, not tomorrow’s headline..Think about what is the effective measure, not what is the easiest measure. Mostly – be very clear of the consequences of what you are about to do… and if you are in any doubt…hit that pause button now.

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