Despite being civil servants, PHE has loudly supported minimum pricing and plain packaging, but - astonishingly - some politicians (mainly on the left) are disappointed that it has not been even more blatant in its political advocacy.
The Committee is concerned that there is inadequate clarity about how the organisation will approach crucial policy issues such as obesity, minimum unit pricing of alcohol, and standardised packaging of tobacco products... the Committee believes that PHE has so far failed to set out a clear policy agenda.
The description of minimum pricing and plain packaging as "crucial policy issues" rather gives the game away. Bone-headed politicians are obsessed by them, therefore they must be 'crucial'.
The British Meddling Association is also unhappy:
- BMA members who are employed by PHE report that the requirement to adhere to civil service rules and regulations is having an impact on their ability to do their work. Particular concerns have been raised about [...] the ability to publicly discuss or criticise public health policies.
If their idea of work is stamping their feet and making political demands, perhaps BMA members would be better off doing it in their own time rather than on the taxpayer's shilling. This thought has probably never occurred to these perennial tax spongers.
From the Health Committee report:
Duncan Selbie told the Committee that PHE had given an unambiguous view on minimum unit pricing of alcohol, but the Committee does not believe that PHE has yet struck the right tone in its public comments. Given the toll alcohol misuse takes on the nation's health, if PHE believes that MUP is necessary, and the evidence base supports it, then PHE must be unequivocal in expressing such a view... In short, the Committee believes that Public Heath England was created by Parliament to provide a fearless and independent national voice for public health in England. It does not believe that this voice has yet been sufficiently clearly heard.
This is such hypocritical drivel. Public Health England quite explicitly supports minimum pricing. They released a statement last year - improperly, in my view - saying that they "share the disappointment of the public health community that the introduction of a minimum unit price (MUP) for alcohol is not being taken forward at this point." They had previously supported MUP both in its response to the public consultation and in statements to the media. What exactly do these politicians want PHE to do? Hold rallies? Go door to door?
The notion that Committee wants PHE to be "fearless and independent" is laughable. The entire committee hearing was a thinly veiled pretext for a small group of politicians to tell PHE what to say and how loudly to say it. If you have time, read the transcript of their interrogation (PDF). It is a lesson in intimidation, ignorance and venal self-interest. These MPs do not want PHE to be fearless or independent, they want PHE to share their opinion and preach it to the public.
Fortunately for them, it is clear that PHE does share their nauseating opinions on nanny state issues, but things break down when the subject of shale gas comes up. PHE has reviewed the evidence on the effects of extracting shale gas and found it to be rather different from what you might believe if you get your information from Youtube. This displeases Barbara Keeley (Labour) who proceeds to set about PHE's staff. In the exchange below, note how the concerns of her constituents, as well as her own vague intuition, take precedence over both the scientific evidence and her supposed desire for 'fearless independence'. Note, also, her argument that fracking has never taken place in the UK and therefore we know nothing about it (an argument that is rightly derided in the case of plain packaging and minimum pricing - although fracking is far more widespread than either of those policies and has a much larger real world evidence base).
Barbara Keeley: The next shale gas exploration site is in my constituency, so this is a very lively issue for me. I have to say that I was profoundly disappointed in what you came up with, because my constituents are very concerned indeed about these health issues... My take on this is that is that we have no idea. You have no idea and we have no idea. Nobody in this country has any experience of these processes. I think it is far too early.
I am sure the Government were delighted with what you said, given that they want to rush to shale gas and the Prime Minister wants to win a debate on it, but my constituents deserve a bit more calm and real consideration of evidence, which we do not have. I have read some very frightening things about pollution and emissions from the United States. I was very surprised at the extent to which you appeared to jump in and be prepared to say that.
Dr Cosford: I entirely understand the concerns around air pollution at a local level and at a national level. Our scientists are also doing work on combating air pollution, what is required to address that and the potential health harms from air pollution. We are very clear on those points.
Q7 Barbara Keeley: But this is additional pollution—additional emissions. There are some very dangerous chemicals indeed involved in this process.
Dr Cosford: What our evidence says at this stage is that it must be very clear all the way through the process what chemicals are being used and how they are being controlled.
Q8 Barbara Keeley: It is very clear that they are carcinogenic and mutagenic. Very toxic chemicals are used in this process.
Dr Cosford: The evidence that we have suggests that, like many difficult industrial processes, if it is done appropriately and regulated properly, it does not add extra potential harm to the local populations.
Q9 Barbara Keeley: But there is nothing to base that on. It has not happened in this country—you have nothing at all to base that on.
Dr Cosford: That is based on a thorough review of the international evidence.
Q10 Barbara Keeley: There is not much.
Dr Cosford: There are a number of different sources of that evidence; we can give you the detail of it. I have to say that I would much rather that the evidence had said something different from that which it did, but our duty is to publish the best scientific evidence that we have.
Then there is this pitiful exchange with Valerie Vaz (Labour) who, despite having "done science" as she puts it, seems unaware of Paracelsus and so yaps away with the same ridiculous question. I almost felt sorry for the PHE representative by the end of this...
Valerie Vaz: I have two short questions. Seventy-five per cent of the chemicals used in fracking are toxic. As public health officials, do you think that is a good thing? Do you think that is acceptable?
Dr Cosford: The most important issue—
Q29 Valerie Vaz: No—I just want a yes or a no. Do you think that is acceptable?
Dr Cosford: The most important issue—
Q30 Valerie Vaz: No—I just want a yes or a no. Obviously we have to move on. As public health officials, do you think that is acceptable?
Duncan Selbie: It is not amenable to a yes or no question.
Q31 Valerie Vaz: It is.
Duncan Selbie: It would depend on the chemicals, wouldn’t it?
Q32 Valerie Vaz: You obviously know what they are, because you have done a report on it.
Duncan Selbie: Dr Cosford is an expert. We have 2,000 scientists we rely on. We know what the impacts are, but I do not think this is a question we can answer with a yes or a no today.
Q33 Valerie Vaz: Not in this room, but perhaps you can tell me what your opinion is.
... Dr Cosford: Forgive me, but the issue for me is whether there is any risk of public exposure to any chemicals and whether those are handled appropriately. That is an issue with many industrial processes. That is absolutely our concern. If there is any evidence that it would worsen an issue of local air pollution, we will say so and will say so fearlessly.
Q35 Valerie Vaz: So we wait for a disaster to happen and then say that it was a bad thing.
Dr Cosford: No. Forgive me, but I think that is misrepresenting what I am trying to say. I may not be saying it very clearly.
Q36 Valerie Vaz: I am just asking whether you think it is acceptable that 75% of the chemicals that are used in fracking are toxic.
Dr Cosford: The consequence of that suggestion is that using harmful chemicals in any industrial, biomedical or other process would be unacceptable.
Valerie Vaz: No, not really.
Er, yes really.
I won't reproduce any more of this rubbish, suffice to say that by the end of the session Barbara Keeley is trying to get PHE to campaign against the 'bedroom tax'. As the main architects of Britain's sockpuppet system of state-funded activism, it is no surprise that Labour MPs think that a 'fearless and independent' quango is one that holds the same view as them. They usually do, of course, and so it's fun to see their hysterical reaction on the odd occasion when they beg to differ.