Friday 20 March 2015

50 words for lobbying

This may come as a surprise, but Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) - the UK's number one state-funded anti-smoking lobby group - is no longer allowed to lobby with the cash it gets from the government.

Ministers have been claiming since 2008 (if not earlier) that ASH's Department of Health grants can't be used for lobbying, but this lie was exposed when ASH's grant application form clearly showed that some of the money was to be used for "media advocacy and lobbying".

In recent years, the Department of Health seems to have tightened things up somewhat. For ASH's 2013-14 grant, DH put in a clause explicitly saying that the money wasn't to be used for "lobbying or campaigning purposes."

The grant is also not to be used for "organisational running costs", leaving the question of what an organisation like ASH is to do with the money when the whole reason for its existence is to lobby and campaign? The answer, it seems, is to spend it and then use as many euphemisms for lobbying and campaigning as they can when they report back to the Department of Health. The quotes below are what ASH told DH they had done with their £175,000 grant in 2013-14. (All these documents can be found here).

With local government organisations, supporting local councillors and senior officials to understand the need for effective local tobacco control and the opportunities that are available for improving local public health and wellbeing.

They're not lobbying. Oh no. They're merely "supporting" politicians to make them aware of the "opportunities that are available" and to "understand the need for effective local tobacco control". Do these opportunities involve things like plain packaging, higher taxes and so on? Alas, the report does not say.

In 2008, ASH promised to use DH grant for "media advocacy". It no longer does so, because media advocacy is obviously campaigning. Instead, it says it does things like this...

Media-related work to raise awareness of harm caused by tobacco use.

Has anybody ever seen or heard anyone from ASH give an interview that merely "raises awareness of harm caused by tobacco use"? I haven't. They always have a policy to promote—plain packs, the display ban, the vending machine ban, higher taxes etc.

Over the last 12 months ASH worked with the Smokefree Partnership and the European Public Health Association to ensure that European public health experts understood the UK position on the Tobacco Products Directive.

That sounds a bit like lobbying to me. And this sounds a lot like campaigning...

We encouraged Smokefree Action Coalition members to contact their MEPs in support of the UK government's position on the TPD in advance of the votes in plenary

How is any of within the letter of the law, let alone the spirit of the law?

I need to emphasise that this is not a general account of ASH's work in 2013/14. It is specifically about what they did with taxpayers' money.

There's more of the same in ASH's report for 2012/13, when the same restriction on lobbying and campaigning was spelled out in the grant agreement.

Nationally, ASH will:

Stimulate and disseminate further rapid research on plain packaging

I challenge you to find any ASH press releases about plain packaging in 2012/13 that doesn't call on the government to bring the policy in as a matter of urgency. The research is only ever the bait.

ASH can provide additional capacity, working with civil society colleagues at European level, to help ensure that positive policy developments are encouraged.

I bet they can, but remember: they're only encouraging "positive policy developments". Heaven forbid that anyone should think that advocacy.

We continue to provide the European Commission, and other public health organisations working in this area, with factual information and support on the policy areas under discussion

That also sounds like lobbying, but it's okay because ASH were only providing "factual information". I'm sure that information wasn't at all one-sided, nor was it presented in a way that might lead towards a favoured policy outcome.

ASH says it also does this with its grant...

Providing local opinion formers with the data and evidence base on the need for local tobacco control interventions to ensure that the priority given to tobacco control locally is adequate to deliver national ambitions

Which "tobacco control interventions" are ASH telling opinion formers about the "need" for, and doesn't that fall under the category of campaigning?

Building support for effective local implementation of legislation on vending machines from 2011, point of sale display from 2012 and niche tobacco products

Okay, these laws had all been passed by this time, but a government-funded pressure group using taxpayers' money to "build support" for government legislation definitely constitutes sockpuppetry. It is quite clear that ASH sees this as its job, and is happy to report back to DH that...

Media support was delivered on the implementation of the legislation prohibiting the sale of tobacco from vending machines in October 2011.

These, then, are the deliverables that ASH provides the government for its money. They don't lobby, oh no, they just give politicians "support on the policy areas under discussion" and make officials "aware" of "opportunities" so that they "understand" the "need for effective local tobacco control".

They don't campaign either. They just "deliver" media support for laws, "encourage" people to contact lawmakers, "disseminate" research, and provide "factual information" so that opinion formers understand "the need for local tobacco control interventions"

I'm glad we got that cleared up. I'm sure the Department of Health would be mortified if it thought that taxpayers' money was being used to lobby and campaign. Or would it?


Christopher Snowdon said...

The only useful function ASH UK has is to assist and fund Robert West's smoking toolkit stats. As these are the best in the world, judged by honesty and up-to-date accuracy, it would be a mistake to harm this effort in any way. It would be more efficient to cut out the middleman and find some way of funding West directly.

Christopher Snowdon said...

This should really be taken up with the DoH. I would love to see their response

Christopher Snowdon said...

So... any crime can be committed without fear of breaking the law, as long as the perp describes it in alternative terms?

"I enabled the lady to live without the encumbrance of her purse and helped ensure a positive pecuniary development for myself."

Christopher Snowdon said...

You omitted to mention that she would quite possibly have spent that money you so graciously relieved her of on things like salt, sugar, alcohol and cigarettes, all of which may have been injurious to her health. So you in fact did her a huge favour in helping her avoid those poisons.

Carry on with this humanitarian work, and government funding will surely be coming your way, as it does to all those who coerce people into adopting 'healthy' lifestyles for their own good.

Christopher Snowdon said...

All of the activities ASH mentions are in fact lobbying. I strongly suggest you email a copy of this article to the Crown Prosecution Service. ASH and its individual advocates--that is lobbyists--should be subject to prosecution for their deliberate violation of the law.