Some journalists are so consumed by the non-story that is Lynton Crosby and plain packaging they are missing a genuine scandal.
Yesterday public health minister Anna Soubry and Andrew Black, head of tobacco policy at the Department of Health, were summoned to attend a meeting of the European Scrutiny Committee which scrutinises draft EU legislation on behalf of the House of Commons.
According to its website, the Committee assesses which proposals are of particular political or legal importance. It then draws these proposals to the attention of the House through weekly Committee Reports and by recommending some draft legislation for debate.
Members (MPs) were unhappy they hadn't been given the opportunity to scrutinise draft proposals to revise the Tobacco Products Directive (TPD). Reading between the lines, they were furious.
At yesterday's meeting chairman Bill Cash said they wanted to explore Anna Soubry's extraordinary decision to override scrutiny of the TPD, choosing instead to go ahead and agree a general response to the Directive at a [European] Health Council meeting in Luxembourg on June 21.
"We take a decision to override scrutiny very seriously indeed, especially when it concerns a proposal of such importance,” he admonished her.
Incredibly, it emerged there had been no correspondence between Soubry and the Scrutiny Committee for six months between January and June 2013. Oddly enough, this is the very period when the Committee would have been expected to scrutinise the draft TPD which was published in December 2012.
Minutes of yesterday's Scrutiny Committee meeting won't be published until next week but I have read a summary of the meeting and what appears to have happened is this:
Rapidly approaching the end of Ireland's six-month presidency of the European Council, the DH decided it had to act fast to help move the Directive closer to implementation.
Officials (and Soubry) decided there was no time for proper scrutiny of a Directive that will affect millions of consumers in Britain, not to mention thousands of small businesses.
So they asked for a waiver from the scrutiny committees in both Houses of Parliament (Lords and Commons). The Lords agreed but the Commons Scrutiny Committee said no.
Concerned that any delay might delay the revised TPD (which includes plans to ban menthol cigarettes and restrict pack sizes) or tie the UK government's hands on plain packaging, Soubry and Black travelled to Luxembourg determined, it seems, to support the draft TPD regardless of any concerns elected members of parliament may have had.
If I am reading this correctly, they failed even to seek clearance from other government departments.
According to Soubry:
“If I’m being very blunt with you, Mr Cash, it was of concern ... that one sends out as one has to do letters to various Government departments seeking this clearance."
Events, added Soubry, were moving fast and when the Department of Health went to Luxembourg to discuss the Directive it was on the basis that the Government had yet to make made a public (my emphasis) decision on whether it was going to proceed with standardised packaging of cigarettes.
My interpretation of this comment is that the Government had made a private decision (which the minister for public health must have known about) so these are weasel words.
What Soubry has effectively done – on her own initiative, apparently, and with the support of Andrew Black – is keep the door ajar for future UK government action on plain packaging that may exceed whatever the rest of Europe decides.
(It was reported recently that the EU will leave the issue of plain packs to individual member states.)
At the meeting in Luxembourg on June 21 Soubry also agreed and negotiated with other member states to ban menthol cigarettes and increase the size of health warnings.
It beggars belief that a junior member of government has done this without, it seems, any consultation with stakeholders, ministers in other government departments, or the very committee that was set up to scrutinise EU Directives.
One member of the Scrutiny Committee criticised her for asking for a scrutiny waiver and accused her of failing to keep the Committee informed.
Another pointed out that the Committee was charged with carrying out scrutiny and when that opportunity was denied they could not carry out that work.
A third said it was “remarkable” that the Minister did not seem to know that nothing had happened between January and June in terms of the European Scrutiny Committee’s position.
Soubry said she took full responsibility for the decision she took, and she was sorry that things were not done in the way that they should have been.
“If we had not made a decision there was a danger that the moment would be gone for a very long time."
She added that it was critical and repeated her belief (my emphasis) that if the UK had abstained on the vote there was “every chance” that the Directive would have been lost.
“I supported something that I believed was the right thing to do,” she told MPs.
Note how the UK Government's support for the Tobacco Products Directive appears to hinge on Anna Soubry's beliefs. No evidence, no facts, just belief.
At that stage, the Government had not yet decided its view on standardised packaging and therefore wanted to keep its options open, she added.
The truth is, this is all about Soubry. At one point during yesterday's meeting she claimed that the Government feared Article 24 of the Tobacco Directive would have prevented the UK from introducing standardised packaging.
The Government feared? Or was it just Anna Soubry and Andrew Black who feared the TPD would stop the UK government from introducing plain packaging?
Frankly, I can't imagine that David Cameron and the majority of his Cabinet colleagues could care two hoots.
The meeting concluded with Committee chairman Bill Cash saying there had been a breach of scrutiny rules and the Committee would continue to pursue the matter.
To sum up:
A committee of elected MPs has been denied the opportunity to scrutinise far-reaching proposals put forward for discussion by unelected EU bureaucrats.
A UK government minister, having failed to correspond with the relevant committee, took it upon herself to "agree and negotiate" UK government support for hugely controversial measures such as a ban on menthol cigarettes.
The chairman of the committee believes that there has been a breach of the rules. I would put it a little stronger than that. It's scandalous. So much for Parliament. So much for open and democratic government.
Journalists should be all over this but they aren't. They have better things to do, it seems, like highlighting the fact that a tobacco company argued against plain packaging in a meeting with the Department of Health, or making unsubstantiated claims about a senior advisor to the Conservative party.
In light of what we now know about Anna Soubry, Andrew Black, the Scrutiny Committee and the Health Council's meeting in Luxembourg, there's no comparison yet one story gets all the headlines, the other nowt.
Update: Meeting can be viewed here.