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Entries by Simon Clark (2170)

Sunday
Jul152018

My week (in pictures)

The Thames at Richmond, south west London

The River Cam, Cambridge

Reception at the British Museum, London

Wednesday
Jul042018

Trainspotting

I have a confession.

When I read, month after month after month, the problems Southern Rail passengers were experiencing, including multiple cancellations and delays, I found it hard not to feel a little smug.

When I left Edinburgh to work for Forest we had an office in Victoria, central London, but I could no longer afford to buy a house in London, where I’d lived in the Eighties, so I spent a week looking at alternative areas – mostly in Kent and Essex – that would make commuting relatively stress free.

In the end we bought a house in Cambridgeshire which was further from London than I originally intended but a key factor was the train service.

It was faster (because it stopped at fewer stations) than many services that were nearer London, and I was guaranteed a seat, even at peak times!

That was 19 years ago and although the service has been run by several companies since then it has always been punctual and reliable. Until now.

The current operator is Govia Thameslink Railway which runs the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern (TSGN) rail franchise.

A few weeks ago the company introduced a new timetable and to say the service has gone downhill is an understatement. Delays and cancellations on what was previously an excellent service are now commonplace.

An interim timetable is due to be introduced in a couple of weeks while they sort out the mess but my question is: 'Why can't they revert to the old timetable which worked so well?'

To be honest, the impact on me is relatively small because I haven't commuted daily to London for years, but it's having a huge impact on the quality of life of those who do.

For all its faults (including the lack of competition on inter city services) I was, and am, a big supporter of rail privatisation and the last thing I want is a return to a nationalised 'British Rail' type organisation.

Nevertheless, the incompetence of those who are currently running our railways (including the Department of Transport and the publicly-owned Network Rail) should embarrass a third world country let alone 21st century Britain.

Talking of privatisation, I remember the thrill (and, yes, it was a thrill) of seeing the first Great North Eastern Railway (GNER) locomotives in their new livery. Like many people I was fed up of British Rail and couldn't wait for the new age of rail travel to begin.

Since then the East Coast franchise has been passed on, first to National Express, then Virgin Trains, and no-one it seems can make a financial success of it.

Now it's back in public hands and as of last month the service is run by London North Eastern Railway (LNER) which is owned by the Department of Transport.

Sadly my first experience of LNER wasn't the best. Travelling to Edinburgh last week the train was delayed by a broken window.

Fair enough, but did they have to give my pre-booked seat to another passenger (an adult half my age) who claimed to be "traumatised" by the incident but certainly didn't look it?

The return journey was also delayed – by 61 minutes – after we were stuck behind a ScotRail train that had broken down. Allegedly.

This explanation was later changed to "problems with the power lines between Edinburgh and Dunbar".

Either way it was embarrassing, not least because I was sitting behind a group of Japanese tourists who can't have been impressed at the state of Britain's lamentable rail network.

Tuesday
Jul032018

Fall in smoking rate slows, prevalence of vaping falls

The Office for National Statistics has published the latest figures for adult smoking habits in the UK.

According to the ONS:

  • 15.1 per cent of Britons – or around 7.4 million people – were smokers in 2017 compared to 15.8 per cent in 2016.
  • The rate of smoking was higher in Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK – 14.9 per cent of adults in England smoked; for Wales, this figure was 16.1 per cent; Scotland, 16.3 per cent and Northern Ireland, 16.5 per cent.
  • Across the whole of Britain more men than women are smokers – in 2017, 17 per cent of men smoked compared with 13.3 per cent of women.
  • Smoking rates were highest among people aged 25 to 34 with almost one in five (19.7 per cent) of people in this age group classing themselves as current smokers.

See Adult smoking habits in the UK: 2017 (Office for National Statistics).

Interestingly, the figures are being spun to emphasis the decline in smoking rates over the last five years or longer:

According to Duncan Selbie, chief executive of Public Health England: “Smoking rates have dropped by almost a quarter in five years, a triumphant step in eliminating the nation’s biggest killer.

Echoing Selbie, Chris Smyth, health editor of The Times, tweeted:

"More than two million fewer people smoke than in 2011 – rates down by more than a quarter. Pretty striking public health success."

Take a closer look at the stats for smoking however and it's clear that while there was a significant fall in smoking rates between 2014-15 (1.8 per cent) and 2015-16 (1.4 per cent) the latest drop was only half that (0.7 per cent).

Adult Smoking Habits in the UK (2013-2017)

2013 – 19.0% (20.0% men, 17.0% women)
2014 – 19.0% (20.0% men, 17.0% women)
2015 – 17.2% (19.3% men, 15.3% women)
2016 – 15.8% (17.7% men, 14.1% women)
2017 – 15.1% (17.0% men, 13.3% women)

Meanwhile, what of e-cigarettes? The ONS only started publishing figures in 2015 and here they are:

Use of e-cigarettes in Great Britain (2015-2017)

2015 – 4.0% (2.3 million)
2016 – 5.6% (2.9 million)
2017 – 5.5% (2.8 million)

Significantly the latest report shows that while 5.5 per cent of adults (2.8 million) use e-cigarettes, that represents a slight dip from 2016 when the figure stood at 5.6 per cent (2.9 million).

What this suggests is that not only is the number of smokers switching to e-cigarettes flatlining, some vapers are quitting nicotine altogether, as most 'public health' advocates of vaping hoped they would.

Anyway, here is Forest's response to the ONS figures on smoking:

“Far from being a public health success story, the recent decline in smoking rates represent a victory for the bully state.

“Instead of focussing on education, successive governments have chosen to denormalise a legitimate habit. Punitive taxation and smoking bans discriminate against millions of ordinary decent people.

“Despite this a significant number of adults continue to smoke because they enjoy it. Government must respect their choice and stop harassing them to quit.”

Update: According to the ONS, 60.8 percent of people aged 16 years and above who currently smoke said they wanted to quit, based on estimates from the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey.

This is significantly fewer than the 70 per cent we are repeatedly told would like to quit, so what’s happening?

My guess is that, as the number of smokers continues to drop, the percentage who wish to quit will also continue to fall for the simple reason that we are slowly edging into hardcore smoker territory.

Truth is, there will always be people who enjoy smoking and don’t want to stop and, like it or not, the government (and others) must accept it and respect those who make that choice.

Update: Forest's response was reported by the Guardian here – Britain is winning the war on tobacco, health chief insists.

It was also picked up by the Press Association – Young adults shunning smoking, figures suggest.

Saturday
Jun302018

Flag of inconvenience

Is there no haven, however inaccessible, where smokers can light up without being harassed?

The government of one the world’s most remote islands and Britain’s second oldest oversees territory (after Bermuda) is going ‘smoke-free’.

With effect from tomorrow St Helena Government (SHG) will become a ‘Smoke-Free Government’.

The decision to ban staff and members of the public from smoking on any government site, including car parks and terraces, is baffling to say the least.

The island - a volcanic outpost in the South Atlantic Ocean - is so windy its new airport has been dubbed “one of the most dangerous” in the world.

Light up and there's every chance that the tiny whiff of smoke you've just exhaled will be halfway to Africa before you’ve taken your next puff.

Despite this the SHG insists that "second-hand smoke ... is a health risk in outdoor areas as well as indoors."

I can't be sure but I suspect that our own Government may be behind the new policy. After all, if you want to benefit from the UK’s international aid budget, going 'smoke free' is now de rigueur.

That airport didn't fund itself and the SHG may have calculated that banning smoking on all government property was a small price to pay.

Either way, anyone who thinks that living on a rock in the middle of the ocean is one way to beat the prohibitionists, think again.

Where there's a Union Flag flying there's no escape.

Friday
Jun292018

Allan Massie: Politicians can always find good reasons to curtail liberties

Forest's new report, 'The McNanny State: How Scotland is becoming a puritan's playpen', was published this week.

Written by former MSP Brian Monteith, it features a foreword by journalist and novelist Allan Massie.

Not to be confused with his son Alex who writes for the Spectator, among others, Massie senior has written regular columns for the Scotsman, Sunday Times (Scotland) and the Scottish Daily Mail.

He is also the author of nearly 30 books including 20 novels. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he was awarded a CBE in 2013 for services to literature.

Now 79, Massie is a smoker whose favourite brand is Gitanes sans Filtre. A charming and outwardly mild-mannered man, his "indignant foreword", reprinted in full below, is a hard-hitting comment on the Scottish Government and politicians who "can always find good reasons to curtail liberties".

WRITING of his time as a Conservative and Unionist parliamentary candidate before 1914, John Buchan remembered that while Tories were better-born, the Liberals were sure they were born better. As Brian Monteith demonstrates in this masterly survey of the almost twenty years of devolved government in Scotland, we are now in the grip of a political class that is complacently certain of its moral or ethical superiority, a class that in its ineffable conceit has no doubt that it knows what is good for us, and does not hesitate to legislate accordingly. The Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland may have lost much of their old authority, but that authority has been transferred to the political class, or been annexed by its members. Scotland today is governed by men and women belonging to the class of beings whom Robert Burns resented and mocked as the 'unco’ gude'. Ever since the Scottish Parliament came into being in 1999, the politicians have chipped away at the liberties of the people.

Brian Monteith calls Scotland today a McNanny State. Fair enough, you may say, for we have a state where the politicians, like Nanny, know what is best for us and are determined to teach us good behaviour. Yet the term is unfair to Nanny. A good Nanny prepared the children in her care to grow up, to be free of her, to become eventually responsible young adults. The Scottish state today treats adults as people incapable of managing their own lives and, if they are parents, as people who cannot be trusted with the unfettered care of their children. So it’s not a Nanny, or McNanny, State. It’s more like a soft fascist one: soft because there is no violence or brutality, no castor oil or camps for delinquents; yet fascist because the logic of its policies is that politicians are the masters, not the servants of the people, while the people must be pressed into a way of life as approved by the 'unco’ gude'.

Like hard big-F Fascist states, our soft small-f fascist one recognises the family as a subversive force, potentially subversive at any rate. So children are first fed, as Monteith reports, with propaganda that will render them critical of their parents, a policy pursued by the Fascists in Italy, Germany, and the nominally Communist Soviet Union. Next, our Scottish Government made its resentment and distrust of the family explicit by introducing its proposal that every child should have a state-appointed Guardian, a 'named person' responsible for overseeing the child’s welfare from birth to adulthood. Opposition has seen the plan somewhat diluted and its implementation delayed. You would however have to be a trusting innocent not to realise that once the proposal has been enacted, then the 'ratchet-effect', as seen, and so well described by Monteith, in the operation of anti-smoking and anti-drink legislation, will begin; restrictions on parental rights will be tightened and the power of the named person and the State will be extended.

Robert Burns used laughter as a weapon against the unco’ gude - see 'Holy Willie’s Prayer'. We ought likewise to mock the self-righteousness of today’s Holy Willies, and expose their hypocrisy. One example – a small but significant one – is the readiness to grant charitable status to a political pressure group like ASH Scotland. This body, formed to lobby against the tobacco industry and, by extension, with the purpose of restricting the freedom to smoke, gets the bulk of its income from taxpayers. The smokers it persecutes are taxpayers, disproportionately highly taxed ones indeed. So they are compelled to finance an organisation that harasses them.

Politicians can always find good reasons to curtail liberties, invoking the General Interest, as they do so. In this the Scottish Government is no worse than others. But it is still bad. Brian Monteith’s examination of the consequences of devolving power to Holyrood is measured – more measured than this indignant foreword - and cogent. He recognises more clearly than most that the extension of government is always presented first as a boon and blessing, and time may pass before it is felt as a burden and a curse.

He calls for action. I hope, without much confidence, that it is not too late for his call to be answered, and we elect politicians who respect inherited liberties and speak up for the common sense of people, and against the prejudices of the Unco’ Gude.

Allan Massie
June 2018

To download the full report click here. Hard copies are also available on request.

Thursday
Jun282018

Forest's night at the museum

We had a great night at the National Museum of Scotland on Tuesday.

Following similar roundtable events in Dublin it was Forest's first 'Burning Issues' dinner in Edinburgh.

Joining me were 16 guests including our speaker, former MSP Brian Monteith, plus journalist and novelist Allan Massie, a revered figure in Scotland and the father of Spectator columnist Alex Massie.

The event was organised to mark the publication of a new Forest report: 'The McNanny State: How Scotland is becoming a puritan's playpen'. Written by Monteith, it features a foreword by Massie senior.

I'll write about it in my next post. In the meantime I'm pleased to say that the evening was a great success. I can't reveal the names of any other guests (the dinner was conducted under Chatham House rules) but they included journalists, politicians and one of Scotland's leading civil rights campaigners.

We began at 7.00pm with drinks on the Museum's roof terrace which is accessed via a narrow staircase from the sixth floor and offers views of Edinburgh Castle, the Old Town and the Firth of Forth.

Smoking was allowed (which is why we chose it) and a surprising number of guests lit up – cigarettes, cigars and roll-ups with Allan Massie smoking his favourite Gitanes sans Filtre.

Dinner was served on a magnificent burr maple table in a private dining room with similar panoramic views.

The format of these occasions is always the same. Between the starter and main courses the guest speaker gives a 10-15 minute address on a given theme. This is followed by a roundtable discussion on that same theme.

On Tuesday the subject was 'The nanny state we're in' and the evening fairly raced by. Everyone contributed to the discussion, opinions were shared and occasionally there were conflicting views, which is how I like it.

One or two guests had to leave 'early' (10.30) to catch trains to Dundee and Glasgow but most stayed until it was past eleven. At midnight the last guests were asked to vacate the terrace, where they'd retired to smoke, because staff wanted to close the building!

A few of us then went to a bar across the road but I was back at my hotel and in bed shortly after one. However a hard core, including a leading councillor, stayed until 3.00am. Their names shall remain anonymous.

Most guests have been in touch since the dinner and I reproduce some of their comments:

"Very many thanks for last night’s dinner which was hugely enjoyable. And a lively debate too."

"Many thanks for last night. It was great fun in a wonderful venue with good company ... and very thought-provoking."

"Thank you for a wonderful evening. Good and entertaining company in a spectacular setting."

"Thanks v much for an excellent evening. Most impressed by the group you had put together."

More specifically:

"There was an interesting division between those who, understandably, and wanted to talk about the impact of government policies on their own line of business, and those who were more concerned with the political-philosophical questions."

And finally ...

"Thank you for your kind invite to dinner last night. It was much appreciated and a most interesting and informative discussion. Keep up the good work as you really are at the cutting edge of the freedom debate."

Special thanks to Brian Monteith for giving the address and providing the cigars.

And thanks to Allan Massie, 79 years young and ageing very well on his Gitanes!

Thursday
Jun282018

Smoking during pregnancy

As a general rule I don't comment about smoking during pregnancy unless I'm asked to.

Even then I think very carefully about it and sometimes decline. I'm just not comfortable talking about something that, as a man, is none of my business.

In fact, it's no-one's business except the woman concerned.

If push comes to shove I'd say that pregnant women should listen to their GP or midwife but the decision ultimately rests with the individual and no-one should be put under pressure to quit.

Smoking during pregnancy certainly shouldn't be made illegal, as it is in some US states.

I might also point out that in the Fifties 48 per cent of women smoked – many of them during pregnancy – yet the generation of babies born at that time is living longer than any generation in history.

The two aren't linked, of course, and I accept that advances in medical treatment are partly responsible for people living longer, healthier lives.

Nevertheless, if smoking during pregnancy is as dangerous as the public health establishment would have us believe, one might expect to see far more evidence of harm – within that generation in particular.

Anyway, I was asked last night to comment on a story, the gist of which was that the Royal College of Midwives Wales wants more money to help pregnant women quit smoking and manage their weight.

The crucial word here is 'money' because everyone wants more, especially if the taxpayer is paying. Hence my response:

"Ask the general public and many people would say this is not the best use of taxpayers' money.

"Most people want government to invest in new doctors and nurses, reduce waiting times in A&E, and address care for the elderly.

"Tackling smoking is not a top priority for most people because the health risks are already well known, and if women choose to ignore advice about smoking while pregnant that's a matter for them not government."

Full story: Midwives in cash call to cut smoking in pregnant women (BBC News Wales).

The only thing I'd add – not to this story but to a wider discussion on smoking while pregnant – is something that struck me during the abortion referendum debate in Ireland.

If, as many believe, a woman should have the right to abort a child because it's her body, surely the same argument applies to smoking during pregnancy?

I don't want to spell it out, but the impact of smoking whilst pregnant is hardly on the same scale as an abortion, not even close.

And yet, I'm prepared to wager, many people who correctly, in my opinion, support a woman's right to have an abortion are probably among the first to condemn pregnant women who smoke.

To be clear, I'm not advocating smoking during pregnancy (err on the side of caution would be my suggestion), but it's the hypocrisy that stinks.

Tuesday
Jun262018

Smoking and the NHS

I was asked yesterday to comment on a report, embargoed until midnight last night:

According to the press release:

A major new report released today [Tuesday June 26] by the Royal College of Physicians calls for a radical change in the way the NHS treats smoking, by providing opt-out cessation services as a routine component of all hospital care.

Giving smokers the help they need to quit smoking while in hospital will save lives, improve quality of life as well as increasing life expectancy for all smokers, and help to reduce the current £1 billion per year cost to the NHS of smoking by patients and staff.

The report ‘Hiding in plain sight: Treating tobacco dependency in the NHS’ from the RCP’s Tobacco Advisory Group says that:

– Treating tobacco dependency is not just about preventing disease: in many cases it represents effective disease treatment. Clinicians working in all areas of medicine can improve their patients’ lives by helping them to quit.

– Current models of delivering stop smoking services separately from mainstream NHS services, while successful in the past, may now not be the best approach because the patient has to seek help themselves.

– Most health professionals receive little or no training in treating smokers

– The NHS does not collect data on smoking treatment delivery, or have a payment tariff for treating tobacco dependency

– Smoking treatment also tends to be squeezed out, even in the management of diseases caused by smoking, by other, less cost-effective interventions

To address all these issues, the report recommends:

– As smoking cessation treatments save money for the NHS, in the short as well as the long term, they should be prioritised as a core NHS activity

– Smoking cessation should be incorporated as a systematic and opt-out component of all NHS services, and delivered in smoke-free settings

– As systematic identification of smokers and delivering cessation support doubles quit rates, health service commissioners should ensure that smokers are identified and receive cost-effective smoking interventions – failing to do so is as negligent as not treating cancer

– We should allow e-cigarettes to be used on NHS sites to support smokers to remain smoke-free and help to sustain smoke-free policies

– Legislation requiring hospitals to implement completely smoke-free grounds should be introduced, as the current guidance isn’t being implemented

– Training in smoking cessation should be introduced into all undergraduate and postgraduate healthcare professional training curricula and as mandatory training for the entire NHS healthcare professional workforce.

In response Forest issued this statement:

"Providing smoking cessation services to patients in hospital is at best a questionable use of public money.

"Smokers contribute £12 billion a year in tobacco-related taxes. That far exceeds the estimated cost to the NHS of smoking by patients and staff.

"According to polls, the general public would like to see taxpayers' money spent on providing more doctors and nurses and reducing A&E waiting times. Tacking smoking is not a top priority for most people.

"Smoking is a choice and if adults choose to smoke they shouldn't be pestered to quit while in hospital."

Most media reports today led with the recommendation that the use of e-cigarettes be allowed on hospital grounds, which we hadn't commented on.

Nevertheless we were quoted by the Daily Mail, Mail Online, ITV News the Daily Star and, thanks to the Press Association, hundreds of local titles (online).

Curiously, a journalist from The Times rang Forest for a quote but the subs cut it. (Help smokers quit, doctors tell hospitals.

Update: I shall be discussing this on BBC Radio 5 Live between 1.00 and 1.30pm.

Professor John Britton, chair of the RCP’s Tobacco Advisory Group and lead editor of the report, will also be on but he doesn't want to be on at the same time as me!

Update: On the insistence (apparently) of Prof Britton we were kept apart so we couldn't have a direct 'debate'.

Instead Britton was interviewed by presenter Nihau Arthanayake who then interviewed me.

Lo and behold, Britton was then given a second bite of the cherry and used it to attack Forest and our tobacco funding!

Needless to say I wasn't given a chance to respond.

Thanks, Five Live!