Monday 22 July 2013

Anna Soubry must go

You may have heard the news about Anna Soubry brazenly ignoring parliament and voting for the Tobacco Products Directive without submitting it to parliamentary scrutiny.

Or perhaps you have not. After all, it was not reported by any British media—although every paper heavily reported silly rumours about David Cameron's adviser, Lynton Crosby, as if Cameron worked for Crosby rather than the other way round.

The media have been almost as negligent in failing to tell the public that there is any such thing as a Tobacco Products Directive. Despite a pisspoor BBC radio show and the odd passing mention from political bloggers like Dan Hannan, the public remains largely unaware that menthol cigarettes are to be banned and that e-cigarette industry as we know it is to be destroyed.

The people have had no say in any of this. Nor, as it transpires, has parliament. As Dick Puddlecote, Devil's Kitchen and Taking Liberties reported last week, Anna Soubry (public health minister) and Andrew Black (Department of Health tobacco programme manager) have been severely reprimanded by parliament's scrutiny committee for capitulating to the European Commission with "unwarranted haste". Soubry and her DoH chums were in such a rush to get the Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) passed that they didn't bother with trifling considerations like consulting elected representatives. For six months she failed to respond to the scrutiny committee. She did as she pleased in Brussels, taking advice from the usual state-funded lobbyists and DoH officials.

By her own admission, the main reason Soubry overrode scrutiny was that she was worried that the TPD would stop Britain introducing plain packaging, or, as Devil's Kitchen puts it, she was concerned that the TPD "did not allow enough scope for the UK government to be even more fascist". She was also eager to rush the TPD through before the EU presidency passed from Ireland to Lithuania. This lowly minister, who has been in the job for less than a year and has been an MP for just three years, ignored parliamentary process and committed the UK to far-reaching legislation based on her own personal opinion.

You can watch Soubry make the nauseating and disingenuous argument that she bypassed parliament for the sake of parliamentary sovereignty here. Incredibly, you will see that she wasn't even aware that e-cigarettes were in the legislation. These are our lawmakers, or—in this instance—our lawmaker.

The problem with Anna Soubry is not that she is necessarily a bad person. In another role, she may have some merits (and I have defended her once before). She is, however, a politician and is the latest in an unbroken line of inexperienced MPs parachuted into the superfluous role of Minister for Public Health, a junior position created in the late 1990s. The list of previous occupants is a Who's Who? of where-are-they-now? non-entities such as Dawn Primarolo and Caroline Flint. Like those before her, Soubry wants to make a name for herself and 'public health' offers plenty of headline-grabbing opportunities to do so.

The Nero complex that afflicts ministers in this Mickey Mouse department is not the worst of it. The real problem is the tendency of politicians to go native when they spend any period of time with the bureaucrat-activists of the Department of Health—a department which has a long track record of behaving as a law until itself. They are surrounded and bombarded by single-issue fanatics, pocket dictators and junk scientists who have no regard for truth or democracy. It chews up feeble-minded politicians and spits them out.

In the case of Anna Soubry, we have a junior minister who is not only incompetent (I repeat that she was unaware that e-cigarettes were in the TPD) but is so self-righteous—so spellbound by her convictions and ambitions—that she feels she can disregard the elected parliament of her country. Even while delivering her forced and insincere apology to the scrutiny committee, she sticks to the Tony Blair line of martyrdom—that she did what she believed to be right. Like every starry-eyed true believer, she answers to a higher power. The normal rules of engagement do not apply to her.

There are still serious questions for her department to answer regarding the false briefing to The Guardian in March as well as the leaking of information to anti-smoking lobbyists in Australia last September. Even if Soubry was not directly involved in either of these events, her handling of the TPD shows that the Department of Health has turned another apple rotten. She should resign. 


Anonymous said...

During the scrutiny ticking off, Ms Soubry checked the clock a few times as she had to rush and run but she managed to bluster and apologise profusely to all and sundry before doing so. Her disregard of scrutiny procedure and apology are on record and you are absolutely right in all that you say. Yet her ministerial decisions and input in regards to the TPD on June 21st (particularly) still stand. How is this possible? Is it right that in order for a minister to wield a de facto dictatorship for six months all they have to do is fail to follow procedure, apologise, and close the door gently behind them? What of their dictats?

Ivan D said...

I am not sure that her resigning will help. Her incompetence is apparent but as you point out, it doesn't really matter which of our elected representatives is nominally in charge, the activists and career civil servants continue to do as they please for their own greater glory.

Public health has been allowed to become a sacred cow and nobody in government or the media has the will to challenge even its most blatant transgressions. This is not entirely surprising as public health has a long history of using nasty smear campaigns to silence dissent.

ASH provides insight into the problem in its media brief for activists. It urges them to remember:

"We are, in short, pro-health. Our
opponents are pro-death."

By opponents they mean anyone who disagrees with anything that they say at any level whatsoever. It takes guts to stand up to zealots who believe such dogma and I suspect that most career journalists are not made of the right stuff, or if they are, they are reporting something more career friendly such as international terrorism.

As for politicians, some are made of the right stuff but not it appears those in positions of power.

Based on today's news we can deduce that the PM is too busy planning how to censor the Internet to notice a junior minister playing fast and loose with the democratic process.

And he expects us to vote for him?

Unknown said...

"Soubry is not that she is necessarily a bad person."

I beg to differ. She's my MP. As a barrister (making a case for money) she might be fine. This constituency has already paid a heavy price for 3 years of her and her grandiose, cack-handed, self-interested visions, and will continue to do so until she's gone.

Smoking Hot said...

Does the UK have to abide by her signature?

l would like someone to answer this please.

Junican said...

Absolutely not, SH. This is not a matter of LAW. It is a TREATY. That is the reason that Soubry has got away with it so far. The Gov of the moment can decided what treaties can be entered into, without reference to parliament. That is the reason for the parliamentary EU scrutiny committee - it exists precisely to stop what Soubry has done.

What has happened cannot be allowed to represent the the attitude of the UK, since it is not so. It is the attitude of the smarmy git, Andrew Black.

fred barboo said...

The worst part of this whole episode is that I find myself admiring Mr Connarty.

The other aspect that stands out is that she doesn't know who / what UKREPs are.

No further questions your honour.

Chris Price said...

No doubt it is equally ineffective to point out she is either a blundering incompetent or a blatant liar; she'll still be in the same job next year, no doubt. The DoH is a toilet among ministries - the home of the most useless, fatally incompetent bunglers in the civil service.

We get the politicians we deserve and no mistake. The only suitable remedy for them is a compulsory dose of the Stafford Care Pathway.

Junican said...

I like Chris Price's point.
We have often grumbled about the quality of junior health ministers. Have we ever considered the possibility that the only reason for the likes of Soubry and - what's-her-name? - Minton? - was that no one else was willing to make fools of themselves? "OH NO, DAVID! ANYTHING BUT HEALTH!"

Jay Gee said...

There's no mention of how she didn't seem to know what MHRA stands for. Hard to believe, but whether she really is completely ignorant or putting on an act, she should be removed from office.