The Coalitions chance to improve the UK's health has gone up in smoke

Plus: Politics in the civil service? Never. And tempers are rising along with pay

Chris Bryant
Friday 12 July 2013 19:18

Twenty years ago, my mother was moving house and I was doing a little spring cleaning before the new owners moved in, so I decided to clean the ceiling in the living room. It was a mistake. My mother smoked very heavily and the ceiling above her normal armchair was ochre.

As I wiped, the brown nicotinic tar ran down my arm and dribbled on to my face. It was enough to put me off for life, so despite the ranting of the right-wing ideologues in cahoots with the working men’s clubs, I was defiant in 2006 when it came to the contentious free vote on banning smoking in public places.

The result was a massive majority of 384 to 184, with the opponents mostly Tories (though Cameron didn’t bother to vote). It was the most important thing I have done for the health of the Rhondda, where more people have suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease thanks to smoking than due to the mines.

So the leaked announcement that the Government has gone cold on plain packaging for cigarette packets is beyond infuriating. Let’s be clear. The tobacco industry relies on recruiting 340,000 young people into the ranks of smokers every year, and 14 per cent of teenage girls and 10 per cent of boys smoke because brand marketing persuades teenagers that smoking Marlboro is “cool”.

But we all know smoking kills. We know that the poor are far more likely to smoke than the wealthy, and the Government’s own peer-reviewed report found that standardised packaging “would reduce the attractiveness and appeal of tobacco products, it would increase the noticeability and effectiveness of health warnings and messages, and it would reduce the use of design techniques that may mislead consumers about the harmfulness of tobacco products”.

Why the change of heart? Conservative governments used to take public health seriously. They introduced the Clean Air Act and made motorcycle crash helmets and the use of rear seat belts mandatory. Even the Cameron government proclaimed itself in favour of the politics of “nudge”, gently persuading people to make better, healthier decisions on drinking and smoking. But now Lynton Crosby, whose PR company has been on the tobacco payroll here and in Australia, rules the Tory roost, so big money has won the day. One Tory MP, Mark Field, even maintains that a ban would hurt the economy. There we have it. Letting the poor smoke their way to an early death is the Government’s growth strategy.

Can Magnitsky get more farcical?

The Russian state has a penchant for deadpan irony, but this week it has surpassed itself by putting not just a dead man on trial, but a dead man who was murdered by the state, who was in prison only because he had revealed corruption by, with and in the Russian state. All that was missing was for the “judge” to arraign the man, Sergei Magnitsky (who was understandably not in the dock), for corruptly organising his own murder.

Tell me something new, I hear you say. Well, depressingly, our Government has connived with this cruel charade. Last year, the Commons agreed a unanimous motion to ban from the UK anyone involved in Magnitsky’s murder or the corruption he exposed. At the time, the government minister Alistair Burt, like a fretful poodle, begged the House to wait and see if the US passed such a “Magnitsky law”. Then Barack Obama signed the act into US law, so the Tory MP Dominic Raab and I were delighted when Mark Harper, left, the immigration minister, answered a written question from Raab in April, saying: “The Home Office is already aware of the individuals and has taken the necessary measures to prevent them being issued visas for travel to the UK.”

Hurrah, we have a Magnitsky law in all but name, much as Harper’s predecessor had previously hinted to me. But with glib disregard for the court case going on this week, Harper wrote to “correct” Hansard. Apparently “any application for a visa to come to the UK will be considered on the individual merits of the case”. A completely craven, Kremlin-courting climb-down. The words of Kafka in The Trial spring to mind: “It’s only because of their stupidity that they’re able to be so sure of themselves.”

Politics in the civil service? Never

Do you remember David Cameron and Nick Clegg in opposition, how they would inveigh against politicising the civil service? Maybe you have a copy of the Conservative manifesto, which proclaims: “We will put a limit on the number of special advisers and protect the impartiality of the civil service.” Or maybe you remember Francis Maude citing the number of Gordon Brown’s special advisers as proof that “the culture of spin was alive and well”. Or Clegg complaining that special advisers were “political jobs” that should not be paid for by the taxpayer? Well, blow me down with a Dyson Airblade, but over the past year Government special advisers have numbered between 81 and 85, breaking all records. I can only assume that taking on Andy Coulson as a Spad was such a success.

Tempers rise along with pay

You will have noticed that I haven’t said anything about the one issue every journalist has been talking about all week and most MPs have been studiously ignoring – our pay. That’s because I said two things when I first stood in 2000 – first, that I would never vote for a pay increase above the increase in the pension; and second, that MPs should be banned from setting their own terms and conditions. I still stand by that. Of course Ipsa must reflect what is happening to other people’s pay. But I’ve never taken part in an Ipsa consultation and I’m not going to start now.

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