The hypocrisy of ASH, Stephen Williams and Peter Hain
Friday, January 6, 2012 at 13:46
Simon Clark

Karl McCartney is the latest MP to be criticised for accepting hospitality from a tobacco company.

The Lincolnshire Echo reports that "The Tory MP accepted hospitality totalling more than £1,300 from Japan Tobacco International (JTI), which produces Benson and Hedges and Silk Cut".

His 'crime' was to attend the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show last May. Although there was no attempt to hide it – details of the tickets were declared by McCartney in the Register of Members' Interests – tobacco control activists have been quick to condemn him and other MPs who have accepted hospitality from tobacco companies.

Martin Dockrell, director of policy and research at Action on Smoking and Health, said: "The Prime Minister says corporate lobbying goes to the heart of why people are fed up with politics and he is right.

"The Government's tobacco plan warns of the dangers of tobacco industry attempts to influence health policy.

MPs don't always know when they are being lobbied by the big tobacco companies because they often hide behind a smokescreen of lobby firms and front groups."

Eileen Streets, director of tobacco control at the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, said "We are very disappointed to hear that Mr McCartney has accepted a hospitality package offered by a tobacco company."

According to the Lincolnshire Echo, "the chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Smoking and Health, Stephen Williams, has renewed calls on the Government to tighten up the regulation of lobbying".

Mr Williams, who is the Liberal Democrat MP for Bristol West, made the demand after it was revealed that Mr McCartney wrote to the APPG on Smoking and Health asking for details of how the public health charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) is funded.

The letter also requested details about the number of people associated with ASH who have placements with the Department of Health and other areas of Government.

Mr Williams said: "I would expect every Member of Parliament to consider carefully what message they send out about the importance of public health if they accept hospitality from tobacco companies."

In case Stephen Williams has forgotten, the APPG of which he is chairman is effectively run by ASH, a self-styled health charity but in reality a lobby group that relies to a significant extent on public money and should therefore be subject to far greater scrutiny than it actually is.

When Karl McCartney asked for details of how ASH is funded plus details about the number of people associated with ASH who have placements with the Department of Health and other areas of Government, he was simply doing his job on behalf of millions of taxpayers and those who believe in open government. He should be applauded, not demonised.

Meanwhile the APPG on Smoking and Health gives ASH and other tobacco control bodies the sort of access to MPs that other stakeholders can only dream about. So it's one rule for them and another for those who take a different view on how to tackle an issue such as smoking.

This week's condemnation of Karl McCartney is merely the latest in a series of attacks on MPs who have been "treated" to "gifts" from Big Tobacco. In December Wales Online reported that:

Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan was treated to two tickets to the Chelsea Flower Show and lunch by Japan Tobacco International, the Wales Office has revealed.

Health charities described her acceptance of the tobacco giant’s hospitality as “disappointing”, while Labour accused the Conservative Cabinet Minister of living the “high life” on the tab of “Big Tobacco”.

Former Welsh Secretary Peter Hain subsequently tabled a written question asking "whether any ministers ... have received hospitality from Japan Tobacco International since May 2010".

Hain is of course no stranger to controversy. In 2008 he admitted failing to declare more than £100,000 in donations to his campaign to be Labour deputy leader. In terms of openness, the likes of Karl McCartney have nothing to learn from the MP for Neath.

Nor is Hain a stranger to hospitality. Last year the Telegraph revealed that "Peter Hain, the former Labour Cabinet minister, had [accepted] two tickets for the British Grand Prix worth £782 from the Motor Sports Association".

In the past, courtesy of Sky Sports (part-owned by Rupert Murdoch), he has enjoyed freebies to see Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Oh, and he has also attended the Monaco Grand Prix, travel and ticket paid for by the Automobile Club de Monaco.

So Hain thinks it's OK for him to enjoy corporate hospitality but when an MP with a genuine interest in tobacco policy (and public health) accepts hospitality from a legitimate stakeholder that's unacceptable – or, as tobacco control likes to say, "disappointing".

Truth is, tobacco control doesn't want MPs to have anything to do with the tobacco companies or groups such as Forest. The thought of a level playing field, with opposing sides of the debate being given equal access to MPs and government ministers, fills them with alarm.

One has to question why. After all, if they were so sure of their case they would surely welcome a full and frank discussion. Instead they refuse to share a platform with us and, worse, resort to darker tactics including pathetic attempts to smear the names of politicians who are open and democratic enough to listen to all sides of the debate.

PS. For the sake of transparency I must plead guilty to accepting the following hospitality from JTI in 2011: Roxy Music at the O2 Arena and cricket at The Oval (England v India). I was also invited to ‘Building the Revolution - Soviet Art and Architecture’ at the Royal Academy of Arts but couldn't go.

Previous offences include tickets to see Girls Aloud, Suede and Strictly Come Dancing at the O2 Arena; cricket at Lords (England v South Africa); and 'Connecting with Colour', Royal Academy of Arts.

Oddly enough, none of these 'gifts' has ever encouraged me to start smoking any brand of cigarette, let alone Benson and Hedges or Silk Cut.

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