Politics: Labour MPs turn on Jowell over tobacco loophole

Labour backbenchers show signs of restlessness
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The Independent Online
The Government's handling of the proposed ban on tobacco advertising in Formula One came under fire yesterday from Labour MPs. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, reports on an uncomfortable day for Tessa Jowell, the public health minister.

Labour MPs last night launched a withering assault on the Government's case for seeking a permanent exemption for Formula One motor racing from a ban on tobacco sponsorship.

Two cross-party committees, both chaired by senior Labour MPs, delivered reports undermining the defence of government policy by Tessa Jowell, the public health minister, who is due to fight Britain's case in the European Union council next week.

One committee challenged the Government's central claim that it was exempting motor racing because it would lead to the loss of 50,000 jobs in Britain. Both reports said all sports should be equally treated.

The decision to rush out the reports will be seen as an attempt to force the Government into a U-turn over its policy at the EU council in Brussels. The Independent understands that the Government is preparing a fall-back position to exempt Formula One for 10 years, but the reports will add weight to EU demands for a compromise which will suit all sports.

Within 24 hours of taking evidence from Ms Jowell, the Commons Select Committee on Health said: "We believe Formula One should be placed under the same pressure as other sports to seek alternative sponsorship." But a more damning verdict was delivered by the cross-party select committee on European legislation, which said the claims by the motor racing chiefs, led by Bernie Ecclestone, that the sport would relocate needed to be "treated with some reserve".

Coming a day after the Labour Party repaid a pounds 1m donation to Mr Ecclestone, the report raises questions about why the Prime Minister found the industry's arguments so convincing. The committee said: "Why should Formula One be singled out for an exemption ...? We think it reasonable that other sports dependent on tobacco sponsorship may think the Formula One exemption unfair." The committee said the proposal to exempt Formula One motor racing permanently from the ban "deserves closer examination".

The Prime Minister's office said last night that the Government was engaged in negotiations about the EU directive, and said other countries found difficulties in accepting the EU proposals as currently drafted.

However, Ms Jowell has made it clear she wants to secure an agreement, and to avoid Britain being part of a blocking minority, raising expectations of a last-minute compromise.