Monday
Mar282011

Don't be fooled by Ed Miliband or those estimated attendance figures

Inspired by Ed Miliband and the TUC rally in London on Saturday I have written a piece for The Free Society about public spending cuts.

Here's an excerpt:

Famously, the British governed India (population 300-350 million) with just 1,200 civil servants. By all accounts, British rule in India was highly efficient.

Goodness knows how many civil servants there are in Britain today (where there is a population of 60 million), let alone public sector workers, but in 2009 the Ministry of Defence alone employed 85,730 civil servants.

Clearly there is a huge amount of waste and inefficiency in the public sector which is staffed by hundreds of thousands of unelected mandarins (the same mandarins who draft tobacco control regulations).

Don't be fooled by Ed Miliband, the TUC and everyone who attended Saturday's rally in London. The economic crisis has given Britain an unexpected but wonderful opportunity to cut public expenditure and reduce inefficiency in the public sector.

See: Demonstrate? Cuts in public spending are something to celebrate

As for the estimated attendance on Saturday, I would treat that with a gigantic pinch of salt.

According to the TUC, between 250,000 and 500,000 people attended the rally. Taking its cue from the organisers, the BBC reported: "It is estimated more than 250,000 people from across Britain have taken part in a demonstration in central London against government spending".

I have very good reason to be sceptical about this estimate. In October 1983 I stood on the roof of an office in Whitehall which gave me a bird's eye view of a CND march in London. According to the BBC, it was estimated that one million people took part in the march and subsequent rally in Hyde Park. Bizarrely this was far greater than even CND's estimate of 400,000.

They were both wrong. The group whose roof I was standing on belonged to an anti-CND outfit called the Coalition for Peace Through Security (CPS). Julian Lewis, who was director of CPS and is now MP for New Forest East, takes up the story:

"The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament had, in its time, managed to rustle up more shouters on the streets than most: it turned out about 150,000 and 100,000 in 1981 and 1982 respectively, and characteristically claimed a quarter of a million on each occasion.

"In order to frustrate yet another such cavalier exaggeration in October 1983, the Coalition for Peace Through Security commissioned an expert photographic analysis which showed the true figure on that occasion to be approximately 98,000 for march and rally combined.

"So as to show 'progress' on their own grossly inflated estimates for the previous two years, the CND had felt obliged to claim 400,000 – a total ruled out as absolutely impossible by our aerial survey."

Without a similar survey I don't know how anyone could estimate accurately the number of people at Saturday's rally, but you can be sure that neither the TUC nor the BBC will have erred on the side of reality.

A bit like Ed Miliband, in fact.

Saturday
Mar262011

Squeeze at the Royal Albert Hall

I mentioned earlier in the week that I had gone to the Royal Albert Hall to see Squeeze.

It was an eventful evening because I got a puncture en route and we missed most of the support act, which was a pity because I like The Feeling too.

The first time I saw Squeeze live was 30 years ago at a very different venue - the hot, sweaty bearpit that featured in the title of the Clash's 1978 single '(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais'.

Anyway, here's a video of Glen Tilbrook at the Albert Hall on Tuesday. He's singing one of my favourite Squeeze songs, 'Vanity Fair' from the 1981 album East Side Story.

Friday
Mar252011

Scotland: time to rethink smoking ban

Tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of the smoking ban in Scotland. Forest has issued the following press release:

TIME TO RETHINK SCOTLAND'S SMOKING BAN, SAYS FOREST

The smokers’ lobby group Forest has called for amendments to the smoking ban that would bring Scotland into line with most European countries.

The group wants pubs and clubs in Scotland to have the option of providing separate, well-ventilated smoking rooms. It also wants the regulations on outdoor smoking shelters to be relaxed so that smokers can light up outside in greater comfort all year round.

Speaking ahead of the fifth anniversary of the smoking ban in Scotland, which was introduced on 26 March 2006, Simon Clark, director of Forest, said:

“Other European countries have found a sensible compromise ranging from licensed smoking premises to exemptions for small or drink-only bars. Why not Scotland?

“At the very least the regulations on outdoor smoking shelters should be relaxed so people can smoke outside in a warm and comfortable environment all year round.”

Clark blamed the smoking ban for accelerating pub closures in Scotland and called on politicians to act:

“Research demonstrates that the smoking ban is the main cause of pub closures in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

“Total pub losses in England, Scotland and Wales since the introduction of smoking bans in all three countries are in excess of 5,500. Scotland alone has lost over 700 pubs since the introduction of the ban in March 2006.

“This cannot be allowed to continue. Pubs and clubs are the heart of many rural and urban communities and their loss is having a serious impact on jobs and many people’s social lives. From the feedback we receive, the ban continues to provoke a great deal of anger and anguish.

“We accept that many people do not want to be exposed to other people’s tobacco smoke, so what we are asking for is an amendment to the ban that would allow separate, well-ventilated smoking rooms in pubs and clubs.

“The majority of licensed premises would probably remain non-smoking but there would be a degree of choice for those who want to smoke and drink indoors in a warm and sociable environment.

“At present smokers have no choice other than to stand outside, whatever the weather, or stay at home. An increasing number are choosing to stay at home and who can blame them if there is nowhere for them to smoke and drink in comfort?”

Clark added: “For the sake of our local communities, the Scottish Government must review the impact of the smoking ban and consider amendments to this unnecessarily harsh piece of legislation.”

Click here to download a pdf of the news release.

Wednesday
Mar232011

Tobacco duty increase hits law-abiding consumers who use British shops

Forest's response to the increase in tobacco duty announced today by the Chancellor:

INCREASE IN TOBACCO DUTY PENALISES LAW-ABIDING CONSUMERS, SAYS FOREST

The smokers' lobby group Forest has criticised the Chancellor’s decision to increase tobacco duty by two per cent above inflation, arguing that it penalises "law-abiding consumers".

Director Simon Clark said: "Law-abiding consumers who buy their tobacco in British shops are being penalised unfairly.

"The policy also discriminates against those who can least afford it, especially the elderly and the low paid.

"Increasing tobacco duty could cost the government billions of pounds. The people who will benefit most are black marketeers and those who purchase their tobacco abroad."

He added: "The Chancellor said the government's policy on tobacco will reduce smoking. It's not the government's role to force people to stop consuming a legal product. That's social engineering, which we deplore."

Update: Expect an increase of 33-50p on a pack of 20 cigarettes, and around 67p on a 25g pack of hand rolling tobacco.

Wednesday
Mar232011

Bad memories of Budget Day

As a small child I hated Budget Day.

I'd cycle home from school, turn on the television, only to find that all the children's programmes had been moved to BBC2 to accommodate some tedious, long-winded analysis of the Chancellor's statement on BBC1. For a six or seven-year-old it was perhaps the most boring thing I had ever heard.

The problem was, on our old black and white TV we didn't get BBC2. And we didn't watch ITV. In fact, I can't remember ever watching ITV as a small child. I don't think it was snobbishness on my family's part. I just think we got better reception on BBC1 and anyway it was too much hassle getting up to retune the television using the little plastic dial on the front of the set.

So BBC1 it was until my father bought a new (colour) television in 1971. Finally we had BBC2, and I think we even watched the occasional programme on ITV.

But that explains why, to this day, the Budget still leaves me cold.

PS. Wearing my professional (ie Forest) hat I shall however be monitoring the Budget to comment upon the anticipated rise in tobacco duty. Watch this space.

Wednesday
Mar232011

Wheel of misfortune

Is it me or am I unlucky?

Drove to London last night to see Squeeze and The Feeling - one of this week's Teenage Cancer Trust concerts - and on my way to the Royal Albert Hall I got a puncture. Again.

Tried to change the wheel myself but we were on a slope (the sliproad at junction 5 of the M1 near Watford) and the car kept rolling off the jack. My hands - and trousers - were filthy.

Called the AA. Owing to our "vulnerable situation" we were given priority status and the patrolman arrived after 45 minutes.

Thankfully, it wasn't just me. There was a problem with the jack, which twisted and collapsed when the car reached a certain height, but he eventually changed the wheel and we continued our journey.

Rest of the evening can be summed up as follows: missed all but the last ten minutes of The Feeling, saw Squeeze, then limped home (on a speed restricted space-saver tyre) shortly before 1.00am.

Excuse me if I have a nap after the Budget this afternoon.

Tuesday
Mar222011

Welcome to the Liberty League

When we launched The Free Society in 2008 the plan was to show how the war on tobacco is just one example of excessive interference by Big Government in people's daily lives.

With smoking banned in all public places in the UK, we were concerned that non-smokers might lose interest in the subject and we would lose support, even from the ranks of tolerant non-smokers some of whom, let's be honest, quite like smoke free pubs and bars.

We had to demonstrate that tobacco is one of many lifestyle issues under attack and that, ultimately, the argument goes far beyond smoking. It's about individual freedom, personal responsibility, mutual consideration and much more.

We wanted to link to other liberal or libertarian-minded groups and create a loose coalition that might recreate the "swarm effect" that Deborah Arnott, director of ASH, wrote about in her infamous Guardian article Smoke and mirrors.

That same year, in partnership with The Freedom Association, we launched The Freedom Zone at the Conservative party conference, co-hosting events with the likes of the Manifesto Club and Progressive Vision, and last year we launched a series of debates in London, Voices of Freedom: The Battle Against Big Government.

Each debate was organised and co-hosted by The Free Society in association with one of the following groups: Institute of Economic Affairs, Adam Smith Institute, Big Brother Watch, Manifesto Club and Liberal Vision.

The concept appears to have taken off. The Freedom Zone has become a fixture at the Conservative conference, the 2011 Voices of Freedom debates will be announced shortly, and I am delighted to report that the pro-liberty movement has a new ally.

Co-founder Anton Howes, a student at King’s College London and a member of the ASI's Next Generation Group, writes:

The Liberty League is a network for libertarian and classical liberal groups. It acts as a one-stop-shop for anyone wanting to get involved in the movement, helping to train and expand libertarian societies, maintaining a comprehensive list of all pro-freedom events in the UK, and channelling support to activists from campaigns and think-tanks.

It has opened applications for its inaugural Freedom Forum conference on April 1-3 at the Birmingham and Midland Institute.

For £20 (and a £10 deposit to be refunded on registration) accommodation, meals, free books and videos will all be provided. This is the perfect chance to meet other young pro-liberty activists from all over the UK, as well as taking part in seminars, meeting the libertarian movement's best speakers, and learning from activist training workshops.

Speakers from the Adam Smith Institute, Institute of Economic Affairs, Institute of Ideas, The Freedom Association, Big Brother Watch, some MPs and of course The Free Society's very own Simon Clark are confirmed.

Make sure you apply straight away, as space is limited and places are disappearing quickly.

I will be taking part in a panel discussion on 'Tobacco, Alcohol and Other Drugs'. I can report too that The Free Society has joined the Liberty League network.

To put this development in perspective, until a few years ago Forest fought a fairly lonely battle when it came to defending the sale and consumption of tobacco. Now a significant number of groups and individuals (including Clare Fox and David Bowden at the Institute of Ideas) are prepared to take a stand on the issue, and the wider implications.

In addition to Forest and The Free Society, they include the Institute of Economic Affairs, Adam Smith Institute, The Freedom Association, TaxPayers' Alliance, Big Brother Watch, Manifesto Club, Democracy Institute, Progressive Vision, Liberal Vision, Nurses for Reform, Economic Policy Centre and the Centre for Policy Studies.

Not a bad coalition, if you ask me. And it's getting larger all the time.

Monday
Mar212011

Cancer Research: overzealous, overstaffed and over here

Cancer Research has responded to my article on Politics.co.uk last week with a piece of their own: Tobacco control plan is a victory for public health.

The extraordinary thing is, they needed TWO people to write it! Here's a taste:

Large, brightly lit shop displays of tobacco act like big adverts for cigarette brands and, placed next to the sweets and crisps in shops, make smoking seem like an invitingly normal, everyday activity rather than a deadly addiction ...

The tobacco control plan is a testament to the campaigning of a huge range of organisations that care about the nation's health and want to reduce the harm from smoking. Charities such as Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation line up alongside medical bodies such as the BMA and royal colleges for physicians and GPs. We join together because we see the damage caused by smoking and the evidence for what works to cut smoking.

These motivations are in contrast to the tobacco industry whose interests are inherently opposed to the nation's health - their obligations to shareholders require them to maximise profits and sales of cigarettes. The industry's past record is such that the government limits its discussions with them to operational matters. They prefer to influence through front groups but in future anyone who lobbies the Department of Health on tobacco policy will have to declare their links to the industry.

Action on tobacco displays, a review of plain packaging, commitment to stop smoking services and a tough approach to the tobacco industry add up to a good start for the government. The crucial next step is to implement plain packaging and end the dangerously seductive branding of cigarettes.

To comment click here.