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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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Time to end Government lobbying government?

By Angela Harbutt
October 5th, 2012 at 9:00 am | No Comments | Posted in Government lobbying government

There was much talk at the start of this coalition government of ending the practice of government lobbying government. Eric Pickles led the way by promising to end “lobbying on the rates” . Back in August 2010 the BBC reported that

“Government agencies and councils in England that spend public money on lobbying ministers face a crackdown. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said it was wrong that taxpayers’ money was being spent on political lobbying. He has told his department’s quangos to cancel lobbying contracts and the code of conduct governing when councils can employ lobbyists is also being changed.”

Sure enough some work has been done, including the introduction on a Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity. Yet the truth is that many councils have found ways of circumventing the code – employing agencies for “strategic advice” rather than lobbying or campaigning work – or simply ignoring the guidelines.

Perhaps more worryingly are the vast number of taxpayer funded charities/NGOs/campaign groups, spending untold £millions of government cash, with the primary aim of lobbying government. Many of these groups are totally opaque on their websites as to what proportion of their income comes from government departments, government agencies, other government quangos or combinations thereof. You have to be damned determined and have a great deal of spare time on your hands to get to the bottom of just how much taxpayer money some receive. And even then you are often left scratching your head. Some government cash gets passed from department to agency, from agency to quango, and from quango to campaign group. It must be near impossible for the originating department to know exactly how its money was actually spent. No wonder government lobbying government is alive and well in Britain.

In just one example, during a public consultation,  a staggering £450,000+ was recently spent by just one government funded group on the sole activity of persuading parents (and especially mums) to add their signatures to a campaign supporting a proposed government policy.  Worryingly, nowhere on the campaign literature, web site or advertisements, nor in the script used by the agency temps out on the streets across the country collecting signatures, did the campaign explain this was a taxpayer funded campaign.  Indeed so secretive was the funding source of this campaign that it took several Freedom of Information requests from bloggers to expose exactly where the funding came from. And did the group running this campaign apologise for its lack of transparency ? No  it did not. It took to the airways complaining about being inundated with FOI requests. In the end the campaign raised a colossal number of signatures lobbying government to introduce the erm proposed government policy.

So it is refreshing to hear from Chris Snowdon over on The Free Society that Australia is seeking to tackle this problem with action rather than words. The State of Queensland is stopping NGO’s using government funds to lobby for special interests.  The new rule that says NGOs who rely on taxpayers’ money for more than 50 per cent of their income “must not advocate for state or federal legislative change”. We agree with Chris when he says:

“Any political action in this area must be mindful of the threat to free speech, but the Queensland ruling is not really about censorship, rather it is about how public money is spent. Any of these groups are free to campaign on any issue, but in the future they will not be able to force the taxpayer to subsidise the bulk of their activities.

“If a lobby group cannot attract non-governmental funding for at least half of its income, it cannot properly be called a non-governmental organisation and they should accept that they only ever had a voice because the state gave them one. If these groups are providing public services then they are effectively part of an extended bureaucracy and should behave as such. Civil servants are expected to remain politically neutral, but nobody seriously alleges that this is tantamount to them being “gagged”, let alone that it is “a hallmark of a totalitarian regime.

Click here to read the rest of his excellent piece.

But I for one would go further than Queensland. Not only would I say that NGOs who rely on taxpayers’ money for more than 50 per cent of their income should not be allowed to lobby government, but that every NGO receiving any government money should state clearly on the landing page of its web site exactly how much taxpayer money it receives and what proportion of total income this represents.  This is a simple plea for transparency.  Many NGOs are currently calling for food and alcohol to have clearer information on the packaging about the contents; percentage of fat/salt etc; health warnings; consumption guidelines etc. I think it reasonable to ask NGO web sites (i.e. their packaging) to provide information on funding. They would of course then be at liberty to detail exactly how that breaks down if they feel that information would be useful.

These two simple moves would help ensure that taxpayer money given to NGOs is spent in the way was originally intended; encourage NGOs to seek wider public support if they wish to engage in lobbying government; clean up government – stopping government using taxpayer money to pave the way secretively for (often unpopular) policies it wants to introduce; and gives the consumer landing on any charity/NGO/campaign website clear information on how it is funded and so inform how they then view the information contained.

Tick box better use of stretched taxpayer money. Tick box better democracy. Tick box transparency.

Angela Harbutt is currently running the campaign “Hands Off Our Packs” funded by Forest.

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