Thursday
Apr072011

How healthy do you feel?

I've yet to read, complete or return my UK census form.

I don't know if ours is the same, but writing on the Forest Eireann blog today John Mallom points out that a new question in the Irish census reads: 'How healthy are you?'.

John suggests a different question. 'How healthy do you feel?'.

If you're feeling up to it you can respond here.

Wednesday
Apr062011

UKIP, the Scottish Parliament and the smoking ban

Scotland: UKIP vows to scrap the smoking ban.

Fair play to Nigel Farage. He's obviously pushed this through himself because it wasn't in UKIP Scotland's manifesto last year.

I also like his pledge to sack MSPs. Sadly it will never happen (not in the foreseeable future, anyway) but it's a nice thought.

Question is, if any UKIP candidates are elected as MSPs to the Scottish Parliament, would they then resign – or sack themselves – on principle, or would they join the gravy train like many other politicians?

It reminds me of when I was a student at Aberdeen. I was editor of the 'unofficial' (non-union) student newspaper and we decided to put forward a candidate in the election for delegates to represent the university at the National Union of Students conference in Blackpool.

There were something like 16 candidates for six places and our man stood on a platform of 'Not Going' if elected. (The NUS was and still is a complete waste of time and money.)

Well, he romped home and, true to our word, we promptly declared that he wasn't going. And he didn't. And all the student union reps had the hump because we'd treated their conference as a joke.

PS. Our candidate who didn't go went on to have a long and successful career in ... the Foreign Office.

Monday
Apr042011

Housekeeping

When posting a comment on this blog have you experienced a problem?

For example, are there times when you repeatedly get a message along the lines of, "The server unexpectedly dropped the connection. This sometimes occurs when the server is busy. Wait for a few minutes, and then try again".

If so let me know and I'll look into it.

Perhaps it's just me.

Monday
Apr042011

Simon Clark is a twat

And a tosser.

Well, that's what I have been called on another "smoker-friendly" blog after I declined to respond immediately to a demand that Forest should organise a cross-channel shopping trip as part of a campaign to encourage everyone to buy their tobacco abroad.

I thought long and hard before commenting because while I'm happy to get feedback on issues like this (that's what this forum is for) I don't enjoy flame wars and I don't conduct 'business' on this or any other blog, and organising a stunt like this clearly comes under the category of 'business' if you want to do it properly.

In other words, you can discuss cross-channel shopping all day long but if Forest was to organise a trip as part of a broader campaign we would do it behind the scenes, in private. Once the details were confirmed we would announce our plan and invite people to support it. We wouldn't discuss the details in advance on a public forum.

Anyway, back to those accusations of being a "twat" and a "tosser" and doing nothing to help cross-channel shoppers or smokers in general.

A little bit of history:

In 2000 Forest launched a campaign on behalf of ordinary cross-channel shoppers who, in our opinion, were being targetted unfairly by Customs & Excise when they returned to the UK with tobacco purchased abroad, quite legally, for their own personal use.

We sent two researchers to Adinkerke in Belgium and they saw, with their own eyes, the extent of the smuggling. It wasn't just criminal gangs who were involved. Students and even OAPs were in on the act, albeit on a very small scale.

I remember too taking a call from a woman who complained that the suitcases belonging to her and her partner had been confiscated by officials. When I asked how many cigarettes they had between them she said, "36,000".

Most people of course weren't breaking the law. They were genuinely buying tobacco for their own personal use but because the guideline for imported cigarettes was then a paltry 800, anyone with anything in excess of that was likely to be taken to one side, searched, and asked lots of questions about their habit.

You would often be asked to produce a lighter to prove that you were a smoker. Sometimes they would make a point of smelling you. If officials were dissatisfied you might have your goods confiscated or, worse, your car impounded.

Our advice to the many cross-channel shoppers who contacted us at the time was to take evidence of previous purchases – receipts, credit card statements etc – plus a letter from an employer or GP to confirm that they did indeed smoke 20, 30 or even 40 cigarettes a day, as they claimed.

This itself was a bit of an imposition but without supporting 'evidence' legitimate shoppers were being treated as guilty until proven innocent and it was an exhausting and unpleasant process to go through if you had done nothing illegal.

Frankly, it was mayhem and Forest was in the thick of it as calls rained in from disgruntled shoppers, so I don't take kindly to people having a go at us for not doing anything to support the consumer.

We did everything we could, including taking on a test case. In 2000, supported by Forest (we found him a solicitor and a barrister and paid his legal fees, around £5,000), cross-channel shopper Gary Mullen went to court and won back 5,000 cigarettes that had been seized by Customs at Dover.

This case, and our campaign against the treatment of cross-channel shoppers, led to a campaign by the Daily Telegraph and, later, the Sun that resulted in the guideline on the number of cigarettes you could bring into the country being increased from 800 to 3,200, a number most smokers seem largely happy with.

I should add that at the height of our campaign we attempted to organise a cross-channel shopping trip involving not one but 20 coaches in convoy. The plan was to take 1,000 shoppers to Adinkerke, but before setting off we were going to stage a small rally in Parliament Square.

The plan came unstuck for two reasons. First, we had a small problem with Westminster Police who told us that the coaches wouldn't be allowed to stop in Parliament Square and would have to drop people off five miles away. They admitted that if we hadn't told them about our plans there was nothing they could have done to stop us, but Forest isn't like UK Uncut or Fathers For Justice. Rightly or wrongly we play within the rules.

The second (and major) problem was the coach company itself. Based in the West Midlands, the owner had originally contacted us with stories of coaches worth £200,000 being ripped apart by officials looking for smuggled goods. We suggested the trip and the rally in Parliament Square and they told us they could supply 20 coaches, each one with 50 people aboard, but two weeks before the proposed date they backed out.

Either they were got at by Customs officials (who were aware of our plans), or the company used the threat of a demonstration in Parliament Square and a potentially high profile publicity stunt to do a deal with officials. I suspect the latter because it emerged later that, unknown to us, the company had had a meeting with Customs the day before.

Either way, the event didn't take place and it demonstrates the difficulty of organising any sort of worthwhile protest. It only takes one weak link and the whole thing falls apart. Indirectly, however, our efforts did result in the guidelines being changed in 2002 to the benefit of cross-channel shoppers.

To cut a long story short, we are looking again at our options but Forest will NOT be telling everyone to buy their tobacco abroad. There are three reasons for this:

One, we never tell people to do anything. That's not our style. We inform, we educate. Thereafter it's your decision, your choice.

Two, for many (most?) people cross-channel shopping is impractical and inconvenient, especially if you live north of Watford.

Three, it could have a devastating impact on convenience stores and in the war on tobacco small retailers are our allies not our enemies and we cannot afford to make enemies of our allies.

Forest's job is to inform consumers about the price of tobacco abroad – and let you decide for yourself where you want buy it. Beyond that our role is to make sure that: the consumers' right to import tobacco from abroad is upheld; current guidelines are maintained (there is talk of a possible reduction, which is worrying); and law-abiding consumers are not harassed or targetted unduly by HMRC.

PS. I should add that standing up for consumers in this sensitive area cost Forest a great deal a few years ago. (I won't go into detail but see Frequently asked questions on the new Forest website.)

I don't expect any thanks or recognition for our efforts so I'll say just this – criticise all you like, but check your facts first.

Sunday
Apr032011

Let's call it assisted death not suicide

According to a story on the front page of the Sunday Times today, 'Woman commits suicide to avoid old age'.

Nan Maitland, 84, took her life at a Swiss clinic by swallowing a lethal solution. She "suffered from arthritis but was active and not terminally ill".

It's actually quite a nice story. The night before she died she "enjoyed a three-hour meal with friends in a five-star Swiss hotel". She left a message saying, "I have had a wonderful life and the good fortune to die at a time of my own choosing".

What I don't like is the repeated use of the word "suicide" in the article. Suicide suggests desperation, hopelessness, even mental instability at the time of death. Yet the paper reports that "When [Maitland] said goodbye to loved ones in London, her final farewells were calm and unemotional".

This wasn't suicide as we generally understand it. It was an "assisted death", something quite different. There is a stigma attached to suicide. None should attach itself to assisted death.

What also annoys me is the sentence that reads:

Her case has led to accusations that relaxation in the law on assisted suicide will lead to people dying who could have continued in meaningful lives.

Who decides whether someone's life is meaningful? The state? Certainly not. Campaigners who think they know what's best for you? Think again.

If people choose to end their lives prematurely via an assisted death it should be up to the individual in consultation, perhaps, with immediate family. Ultimately and within reason (age and infirmity should, I think, be taken into account), it must be your choice.

I am interested in assisted death because I don't rule it out for myself when I am older. Frankly, I don't fancy a long retirement if my health is poor and I have very little money. Having family and friends around me may keep me going but I wouldn't want to depend on them (for their sake) and if I was on my own, spending long hours in and out of hospital or confined to a small apartment or retirement home ... well, you get my drift.

Some years ago I read a story about a retired couple, both university dons, in their seventies but beginning to suffer from long-term ill-health. While they were still compos mentis they made a pact and travelled to Inverness where they caught the overnight sleeper to London.

The following morning the steward knocked on the door of their compartment (first class, I hope!) and when there was no answer he opened it and found both of them in their beds, dead. Back home they had left messages for their family, and all their affairs had been put in order. Their credit cards, I believe, were neatly laid out on the kitchen table along with their wills and other information.

They had also left a message for the steward, apologising for the shock he must have felt when he found their bodies, and assuring him that there was nothing he could have done to stop them.

I thought that was a pretty good way to go. The only thing to beat it, in my view, would be dying in your sleep of natural causes. And how many of us can look forward to that?

PS. Later this month I am visiting Switzerland with my family. I have no immediate plans for an assisted death so on this occasion, unless something untoward happens, I intend to return home alive and kicking.

Sunday
Apr032011

Libertarians, drugs and drink

I have returned from the Freedom Forum in Birmingham.

This is a new initiative for students and young undergraduates. There were around 100 delegates at the conference which took place in the bowels of the Birmingham & Midland Institute in a quiet street very close to the city centre. (Delegates were staying in a hostel around the corner.)

In terms of speakers all the usual suspects were there – many took part in our Voices of Freedom series of debates last year – but in my session, alongside Simon Richards, director of The Freedom Association, and Mark Wallace, former campaign director of the TaxPayers' Alliance, we also had Graham Aitken representing Students for Sensible Drug Policy UK which wants to legalise all drugs.

Afterwards we had a chat. Graham was wearing a casual but smart jacket and he told me he wears it so people don't leap to the conclusion that he's a junkie himself.

Personally, I've always struggled with the issue of hard drugs. Well, when I say struggled, I would never condemn anyone who consumes any substance, whatever it is (it's their body, after all) but would I support the legalisation of all drugs? I'm not sure. For me, the arguments for and against balance themselves out and I find it hard to decide. Most of the time I just don't think about it.

Dinner took place at Bank Restaurant in Brindley Place and the guest speaker was Mark Littlewood, director-general of the Institute of Economic Affairs. Dressed in a leather jacket and this season's Southampton football shirt (think Peru rather than Sheffield United or Stoke City), Mark gave a polished yet witty speech, well suited to the occasion.

I particularly liked the story about US humourist and journalist PJ O'Rourke who was asked by Clive Anderson, in a television interview some years ago, to explain his conversion from socialist-leaning student to Republican-leaning commentator.

Bemused by the question, the answer to which seemed blindingly obvious to O'Rourke, he replied: "I got a job."

I have noticed that a similar change often befalls students who profess to be libertarians. One minute they want to legalise all drugs and deregulate everything that moves. Then they get a job (or enter politics) and all those fine liberal sentiments are quietly ditched. (I won't speculate why but I think we can guess.)

Anyhow, I declined an invitation to stay the night and my decision was vindicated when I read the following message from Simon Richards, director of The Freedom Association, on Facebook this morning: "You know you're in a student hostel when ... you're woken up at 6.30am - by people going to bed."

Btw, when it was announced during the 'Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs' session that The Free Society would be paying for the drinks at last night's dinner there was a cheer and I got what I think was the biggest round of applause of the afternoon.

So the lesson from the Freedom Forum? Give a libertarian a drink and you've got a friend, if not for life then at least until they get a job.

Saturday
Apr022011

Review of the week

As of today and every weekend henceforth, I am going to post links to the week's news stories on the new Forest website.

Likewise I shall be drawing your attention to articles that have appeared on The Free Society website.

This week, because the site has only just gone live, there are only two Forest headlines but in future there will be more reports for you to comment on:

And from The Free Society:

Btw, I got a bit of stick on this blog when I wrote that I didn't believe there were 250,000 people demonstrating in London last Saturday. But I'm pleased to say I'm not alone in querying the estimates that varied from 250,000 to 500,000.

Writing in this week's Spectator, Charles Moore (former editor of The Spectator and the Daily Telegraph) comments:

It would be a public service if the National Office for Statistics would find a way of counting crowd numbers properly. Numbers are a huge propaganda tool and they are almost always wildly guessed by march organisers and the media.

One paper says that Saturday's march was attended by 250,000, another by 450,000. No one knows. The only large protest where a proper count was made was the second Countryside March in 2002. Official tellers ticked people off as they crossed a line in Whitehall. Obviously, you might get counted twice, but in practice, it was not easy to turn around against the tide.

The figure was just over 400,000 and the march had taken about five hours. It is extremely unlikely that the figure for [the] anti-cuts march, although certainly large, was anything like that. There must be some more scientific means of knowing.

Yes, there is – an aerial survey conducted from a small light aircraft using state-of-art photographic equipment, as I mentioned on Monday.

No-one wants to do it of course because it suits everyone – protesters, the media, even the police – to collude in the idea that we have all witnessed or been part of a major event.

Fancy that!

Friday
Apr012011

The Free Society at the Freedom Forum

Since the appointment of Tom Miers as editor of The Free Society on March 1, the number of subscribers has risen by 20 per cent (a three-figure increase).

See TFS March 2011 ebulletin. To register your support and receive a copy of the bulletin direct to your inbox, click here.

Tomorrow, wearing my Free Society hat, I shall be in Birmingham speaking at the first Liberty League Freedom Forum.

I am sharing a platform with Simon Richards, director of The Freedom Association; Mark Wallace, former campaign manager, TaxPayers Alliance; and someone from a group called Students for Sensible Drug Policy. We're discussing 'Alcohol, tobacco and other drugs'.

Speakers at other sessions include Mark Littlewood (Institute of Economic Affairs), Josie Appleton (Manifesto Club), Claire Fox (Institute of Ideas), Alex Deane (Big Brother Watch), Guy Herbert (No2ID), Tom Clougherty (Adam Smith Institute), Tim Evans (Cobden Centre), Steve Baker MP (Conservative) and John Hemming MP (Lib Dem).

After dinner tomorrow The Free Society will be underwriting some late night drinks for delegates (nearly 100 "freedom-thinking students and recent graduates"). I do hope there are no 'incidents'.

See: Freedom and liberty in Birmingham (Simon Richards)