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The smell of freedom

Just back from a very educational trip to Blackpool.

I was a guest of the Clubs & Institute Union (CIU) which represents working mens' clubs and was founded in 1862. On Friday night we gathered at Blackpool Football Club and had dinner in a modern function room overlooking the pitch.

Yesterday I was a speaker at the CIU's annual meeting in the Opera House, close to the Promenade and Blackpool Tower. I talked about the Save Our Pubs & Clubs campaign, our aims and objectives, and how members of the CIU can help.

I confessed that I don't know very much about working mens' clubs but I do know that they are the heart of many local communities, they have been in long term decline, and the smoking ban has accelerated that decline. I promised to do everything we can to help them, and I hoped that in return they can help us.

I was number seven on the agenda, sandwiched between the Presentation of Club Management Diploma to 1st Prize Winner and Brian Binley, MP for Northampton South, who gave a rousing speech about his childhood, his council house roots, and the value he places on working mens' clubs. Brian appealed for the CIU to work with local pubs, pointing out that issues likes the smoking ban affects both pubs and clubs.

Brian and I were invited to sit on the stage alongside the National Executive Committee. I sat next to David Clelland, the former Labour MP who helped launch the Save Our Pubs & Clubs campaign. David is now doing some consultancy work for the CIU.

There was a real sense of frustration from some speakers about the smoking ban – and bureaucracy in general – that is hastening the end of many clubs, but the meeting was dominated by financial matters and the need to address some very urgent problems.

It was the first union meeting I have attended (I felt like a member of the Politburo as I sat on stage!) but I felt enormous warmth and a great sense of camararderie. Society has changed and working mens' clubs have been a victim of that change, but there is no sense in hastening their demise with unnecessary and petty legislation.

Credit, btw, to the mayor of Blackpool, who looked like a slightly older version of Frank Skinner and had a similar engaging sense of humour. He not only turned up for dinner on Friday, he also made an appearance at the CIU's annual meeting. Now that's what I call dedication.

Anyway, I am going away again on business, this time abroad and for three days. I'll post when I can. In the meantime you might like to read an article by Tom Miers on The Free Society website. Tom is currently on holiday in France – he travelled via Holland and Belgium – and is relishing what he calls "the more adult approach to smoking on the Continent".

See: The heady scent of freedom


Review of the week


Blackpool beckons

Travelling to Blackpool later today.

I'm having dinner tonight at Blackpool Football Club with several hundred members of the Working Mens Clubs & Institute Union (CIU).

Tomorrow, wearing my Save Our Pubs & Clubs hat, I'm giving a short speech at the CIU's Annual Meeting at the Opera House in the famous Winter Gardens.

I'm told there will be 900 members at the Annual Meeting. I'll be asking them to become active supporters of our campaign and contact their member of parliament. (Note: I had a call only last week from an MP who stressed the importance of of writing letters. If MPs don't hear from constituents about a certain issue they assume it's not important.)

One MP who doesn't need any persuading to change the smoking ban is Brian Binley, Conservative MP for Northampton South. Brian is another guest of the CIU tonight. In fact, I think we're on the same table.

PS. I'll also be inviting branch secretaries and other members of the CIU to join us at a special event we are organising in June. Can't say more just yet but watch this space.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.