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Thursday
Jul182013

Minister denied MPs opportunity to scrutinise Tobacco Product Directive

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.

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Reader Comments (13)

If one digs deeper you will find that she took advice to support the effective EU proposed banning of e-cigs solely on the dubious evidence from the MRHA a government organisation funded by the pharmaceutical industry. E-cigs are now used by 1.2 million people in the UK and are rapidly becoming not only a direct replacement for the harmful tobacco cigarettes ( nicotine without the harm), but a genuine alternative to all the pharmaceutical nicotine replacement therapies that fail 90-95% of the smokers that try them. In fact a £1500 pharmaceutical industry report clearly reports that the electronic cigarette will revolutionise the face of tobacco smoking and could pose a threat to the 3 billion a year smoking cessation market. The scandal isn't plain cigarette packaging but the covert proposed banning of e-cigarettes by the EU to benefit the pharmaceutical industry and tobacco industry.

Thursday, July 18, 2013 at 15:02 | Unregistered CommenterRoger Hall

We might have hoped that The BBC at least would cover this but the DoH seems to be utterly immune when it comes to criticism from that quarter. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the DoH is ideologically driven, dishonest, corrupt and unfit for purpose but the media continue to pretend that people like Black are of spotless character and incapable of anything less than sound judgement. This could explain why more and more people are turning to other sources of news. Anyone who actually cares about the truth has good reason not to trust the mainstream media. As far as I am concerned, selective reporting is little better than actually lying.

Thursday, July 18, 2013 at 15:28 | Unregistered CommenterIvan D

She also appears not to know what's in the current draft TPD - have electronic cigarettes been dropped from the directive?

: (14:41:20) http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=13645&player=silverlight

My arse have they

Thursday, July 18, 2013 at 16:02 | Unregistered CommenterDave smith

The whole meeting can be seen here --
http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=13645

Not only did Ms Soubry fail to consult adequately with the committee, but under examination actually false information was given to it by her, @ about 14.30 in the recording.

She said that E-cigs had been removed from the TPD.

Thursday, July 18, 2013 at 16:15 | Unregistered CommenterMiles Dolphin

An excellent piece.
Media coverage of this is to be hoped as voices have not been heard on the TPD issues and no parliamentary debate taken place as a direct result of Anna Soubry's failures.

Thursday, July 18, 2013 at 22:32 | Unregistered CommenterJosef K

I would argue that if she cannot be aware of ALL her portfolio and the implications therein Anna Sourby may not herself be fit for purpose regarding the position she holds and would do this country [the UK] a great service by tendering her resignation to the post so as to make way for someone who can be aware of the portfolio in it's entirety.

I'd add that to not be aware of article 18 of the Tobacco Products Directive, is not just an oversight on her part, it is inexcusable.

Friday, July 19, 2013 at 0:53 | Unregistered CommenterSam Munro

Par for the course with TC, going back to the 'partial' ban. Deceitful and machinating. Black comes across as your archetypal pathetic crawler. I, really, do think it's the civil servants in the DoH causing the problems as both Milton and, now, Soubry have not the faintest idea. When the dept. says jump, they ask 'how high?' Shocking state we are in.

I doubt anything will be done, with one shuffle already it's too near an election, now, to cause a rick.

Friday, July 19, 2013 at 9:53 | Unregistered CommenterFrank J

Lot of moans on here (and I don't blame them) but what we should really be looking for is a solution - something that we can initiate, maybe through an MP or a group of MPs?

If Bill Cash takes her decision to override scrutiny very seriously indeed, then what does he intend doing about it? - Not a lot it seems, unless he is pushed - Can we push him - How about it Simon - you must know some very serious 'pushers' ?

Friday, July 19, 2013 at 11:20 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Thurgood

Anna Sourby did not appear to know that E cigs had not been dropped from the TPD. Even I could have told her that they hadn't been dropped. Shows how much attention to she paid to detail.

Being very blunt, she's totally incompetent, and should be sacked, along with Andrew Black.

Friday, July 19, 2013 at 14:11 | Unregistered CommenterLynn

I think Black is pulling the strings here. Soubry may be the sacrificial lamb for big tobacco.

Friday, July 19, 2013 at 17:54 | Unregistered Commentercastello

Suppose that it had been the other way round. Suppose that she had gone to Brussels and had plain packaging removed from the directive.
Imagine the screams and shrieks from the zealots in parliament!

Friday, July 19, 2013 at 19:23 | Unregistered CommenterJunican

Scandalous beyond imagining! She admitted that the directive would not have gone forward without UK support and so it would not have gone through in this presidency, and it was because of this that she overrode Parliament's supremacy.
Incredible!

Friday, July 19, 2013 at 21:31 | Unregistered CommenterJunican

Junican, webmeister of the Bolton Smokers Club has pointed out that the latest You Gov survey asked the following question with the following preface:

===
Some people have criticised the Prime Minister’s appointment of Lynton Crosby as the Conservative party’s election strategist as Mr Crosby’s company also does work for a tobacco company, saying it risks a conflict of interest. Do you think…
1. Is acceptable for Mr Crosby to work part-time for the Conservative party and part-time for other commercial clients.
===

It's a highly prejudicial question that would have been MUCH more fairly stated if it was set in a true general form:

“Do you think it is acceptable for people to work part time for political parties and part time for commercial clients?”

Note that there's no need to say “for commercial clients whose business could be impacted by political decisions” since EVERY business can be impacted by political decisions.

A negative response on that survey would mean that political parties could NEVER hire anyone on a part time basis who also worked part time for commercial clients. That would somewhat limit their ability to hire just about ANYONE on a part time basis.

Junican's full analysis can be found on his website at:

http://boltonsmokersclub.wordpress.com/2013/07/19/yougov-up-to-their-tricks-again/

- MJM

Saturday, July 20, 2013 at 0:53 | Unregistered CommenterMichael J. McFadden

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