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Sock puppets go too far

By Angela Harbutt
July 1st, 2015 at 12:30 pm | 1 Comment | Posted in Government lobbying government

This morning I spotted a simply astonishing post over on Conservative Home detailing how one state-funded sock puppet is not only taking vast swathes of cash from the taxpayer, but using it to intimidate local councils to stop vital work and force added costs onto the taxpayer.

Harry Phibbs reports that ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) has been quietly rolling out an initiative called the “Local Government Declaration on Tobacco Control” (LGDTC). Essentially this “encourages” local councils to refuse to have any contact/liaison with tobacco companies whatsoever.

What contact might councils have with tobacco companies?

Well, crucially a lot of contact has historically occurred between tobacco companies and local council trading standards departments, collaborating on identifying and stopping traffickers of counterfeit/smuggled/stolen tobacco products. Illegal tobacco sales costs the taxpayer over £2 billion a year, affects the livelihood of local retailers, and not only funds organised crime – but is often the entry point for gangs into an area. On top of the financial issues, are the health concerns. Criminals don’t care who they sell too, (kids) and what they sell (many fake cigarettes contain such nasties as cadmium, benzene, formaldehyde – even mouse droppings).

Clearly there are many good reasons for local councils to be as effective as possible in clamping down on illegal tobacco sales.

Of course tobacco companies have skin in the game too. Illegal sales hurt company profits and damage brand reputation.

So it is not surprising that there has historically been much collaboration between councils and tobacco companies on illicit trade. And, though not widely known, much of the initial (often dangerous) tracking and tracing work has often been undertaken by the tobacco companies themselves, liaising with trading standards once suspect warehouses/stores/factories/traders have been identified.

That has displeased the state-funded zealots over at ASH who despise any contact – however beneficial it has proven to be – between tobacco companies and local government. They have taken the somewhat reasonably phrased World Health Organisation’s directive (not enshrined in law in Britain btw), Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control

“In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, Parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law”

… and twisted it out of all recognition. As Christopher Snowdon reports, ASH has gone around local councils getting them to sign up to an agreement that includes a promise to…

“Protect our tobacco control work from the commercial and vested interests of the tobacco industry by not accepting any partnerships, payments, gifts and services, monetary or in kind or research funding offered by the tobacco industry to officials or employees.”

Snowdon has been doing some digging around. He has found the ASH document ‘Developing Policy on Contact with the Tobacco Industry’. This document highlights just how extreme government-subsidised ASH has become – using, as Snowdon puts it, “thinly veiled threats” to bully Councils into bending to ASH’s will. The ASH document states:

“[Article 5.3] could be relied upon in legal proceedings brought by an individual or other non-state body against a public authority. An authority that does not act in compliance with the convention may be exposed to risk of judicial review. If a local authority decides to diverge from the guidelines it is suggested the reasons for doing so should be documented…”

As Snowdon observes…

“…Needless to say, all of this goes far beyond anything in Article 5.3, but with the bogus threat of legal action hovering over their heads, it is little wonder that local authorities have chosen to unnecessarily milk the taxpayer for bills that have traditionally been paid by industry.

The outcome of ASH’s  interventions means that much of the collaboration with, and funding (eg for sniffer dogs etc) from, tobacco companies has, or will cease in those areas signing up to LGDTC.

Not very smart thinking for government at national or local level, as more of the costs of clamping down on illegal tobacco fall on the local taxpayer and the number of seizures is almost inevitably destined to fall, harming the Exchequer as well as public health.

And the idiocy does not stop there. Local Councils are also being advised that they must also no longer co-operate with tobacco companies on anti-litter measures.  Returning to Phibbs, this means

“…councils and the Keep Britain Tidy campaign will no longer work with the tobacco industry on anti-litter measures or campaigns such as making bins smoker friendly.”

That helps who, how? Surely it is in everyone’s interest (except ASH perhaps) to seek corporate funding where possible to make our local streets a cleaner, nicer place to be? How long before this idiocy extends to McDonalds, and other corporately responsible companies?

With a good five years in power, it is time for the Conservative government to weed out these ideologically driven sock-puppets which are not just a drain on public funds directly from the “grants” received, but are causing untold chaos – and added costs – at a local level and actively contributing to public health harm?

[Read more from Harry Phibbs here]

[Read more from Christopher Snowdon here]

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Lib Dem MP admits #PlainPacks failure

By Editor
March 25th, 2015 at 4:28 pm | 2 Comments | Posted in Government lobbying government

Lib Dem MP Paul Burstow made a remarkable confession in Parliament on Tuesday. Whether it was intentional or not, only he knows, but this is what he said

“I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to undertake a programme of research into the costs and benefits of introducing an annual levy on sales to be paid by tobacco manufacturers, with the proceeds to be used to support tobacco control measures, to discourage young people from starting to smoke tobacco, to help existing tobacco smokers to stop smoking; and for connected purposes.”

Of course what he actually means is this

“Now that we have managed to get plain packaging of tobacco through Parliament, my fellow anti-smoking campaigning chums who have earned vast sums of taxpayers money from Tobacco Control in recent years are deeply worried. The Government may actually stop handing over taxpayers money to them. To put my good friends minds at rest, I wonder whether we could all agree to force the Secretary of State to find some more pointless, evidence-free drivel to put before you to keep them busy for a while longer.  The evidence-free drivel I have in mind is to “prove”  that an extra tobacco tax should be levied and handed over to my smoker-hating mates to see them through to their fat pensions. They have a whole raft of persecutions sitting on the drawing board that they can dust off. With a few £millions in the bank they can keep their jobs and their pensions dreaming up some more evidence-free drivel for you all to swallow. And have a load of cash left over to lobby you all at every twist and turn (that is what I meant by “connected purposes” btw) – which won’t break any lobbying rules because, ha ha, it won’t technically be taxpayers money.”

Well you can see his point. Handing over swathes of taxpayers cash to so-called “charities” to be used for lobbying the very government that handed over the money is coming to an end slowly but surely. If the likes of ASH can’t get it’s money from Government to lobby Government, they will have to convince medical research charities to fleece even more cash from their supporters who think their donations are going on a cure for cancer. So on the face of it, bringing in a law to take an extra slug of money from tobacco companies and handing it directly to the anti-smokers brigade would neatly side-step the horny issue of not using “taxpayers” money to keep them all in jobs and allow them to lobby Government (national and local) to their hearts content.

But wait just a minute. We were told that the introduction of plain packaging was the very thing we needed to “discourage young people from starting to smoke tobacco” and “help existing tobacco smokers to stop smoking”. Yet here we are, just days after the parliament voted to bring in plain packaging, witnessing the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Smoking and Health himself admitting it will do no such thing! They don’t just need a few thousand to mop up the few remaining smokers, they need £millions a year to do the very thing they told everyone plain packaging would do! Oh dear.

The ever-vigilant Dick Puddlecote quotes one MP who spotted this tom-foolery immediately. Conservative MP for Shipley, Philip Davies was quick to his feet highlighting this very point…

“I particularly wanted to oppose the Bill because the right hon. Gentleman has done us all a great service. He has let the cat out of the bag. Of course, the Government have already accepted ASH’s campaigning on banning smoking in cars where there are children, which is completely unenforceable. They have also accepted the plain packaging of tobacco, which is completely idiotic. Of course, the Government accepted those policies because ASH told them that if they did so the amount of smoking in the country would plummet. We were told that if we introduced plain packaging it would be absolutely fantastic because all of a sudden cigarettes would not appeal to young people and children and that would close the gateway into tobacco use. The whole policy was based on that premise.

That policy has not even been implemented and already the right hon. Gentleman is saying, “Actually, that was all a load of tripe. It won’t make any difference whatsoever. What we need now is a levy on the tobacco industry so that we can do some research to find out why young people smoke and then try to stop them smoking”….

“The point is that this is just the latest campaign from ASH. Every time it advocates the introduction of another measure, it tells us that that is what the Government need to do to tackle tobacco, but as soon as it is implemented we are told that actually it was a load of old cobblers and now we need something else.”…

Quite [note in addition to smoking in cars with children ban, we have also seen the introduction of the cigarette vending machine ban, and the tobacco display ban in this parliament. They were also meant to discourage young people smoking and yet the effectiveness of these has also yet to be evaluated].  You can read more from the magnificent Mr Davies over on Dick Puddlecote’s blog. It is a joy to read.

Of course, both Labour and the Conservatives seem hell bent of spending any extra tobacco levy on reducing the national debt or paying for more nurses and doctors. It seems unlikely that IF the Treasury does get it’s hands on some extra cash from Tobacco that it will go to feathering the nests of anti-smoker campaigners.  All in all we should thank Paul Burstow for his public confession that plain packs is a “load of cobblers“.

As for ASH and its APPG on Smoking and Health, last month the Department for Communities and Local Government announced it was going to ensure that Government payments to external groups do not support activity that could influence or attempt to influence Parliament, government or political parties. It applies to any activity that could influence the awarding or renewal of contracts and grants or legislative or regulatory action.  Eric Pickles said that he hoped to roll this out across central government.  Let’s hope that Jeremy Hunt moves swiftly to ensure that this Government rule is stringently enforced over at the Department of Health and the many sub committees it funnels its cash into.

And given Burstow’s admission on plain packaging, here is hoping that the Liberal Democrats throw their full support behind this new anti-lobbying, anti-sock puppet measure.

To find out more on this issue read : “ASH In The Trough Edition”

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Rejoice rejoice

By Editor
February 24th, 2015 at 12:10 pm | No Comments | Posted in Government lobbying government

Full marks to Eric Pickles. The Department for Communities and Local Government yesterday announced that it is to crack down on on wasteful spending of government lobbying government.

 

“Using taxpayers’ funds to lobby government wastes public money and undermines transparency.”

“The Department for Communities and Local Government is also cracking down on taxpayer funded lobby by other organisations. The Institute of Economic Affairs has undertaken extensive research on ‘sock puppets’ – those pressure groups and charities receiving public money that then use it to lobby government and Parliament for more money and regulation. “

“The department is setting Whitehall an example by taking the additional step of amending its grant agreements to include a new anti-lobbying, anti-sock puppet clause. Simple and effective, it will bring about an end to this practice and make sure that taxpayers’ money is being spent on those things that make a real difference to the lives of hard-working families.”

We particularly welcome this statement…

“It ensures that payments do not support activity that could influence or attempt to influence Parliament, government or political parties. It applies to any activity that could influence the awarding or renewal of contracts and grants or legislative or regulatory action.”

We call this a win.

You can read the full DCLG statement here.

You can download the IEA paper “The Sock Doctrine: What can be done about state-funded political activism” here .

 

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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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