Friday 4 December 2015

The scandal of state-funded activism continues

Anyone expecting to see the pool of sockpuppet pressure groups dry up under a cost-cutting Conservative government is destined to be disappointed. It has been good to see Alcohol Concern finally lose its grant from central government, but the Welsh Assembly has made up the difference by lavishing taxpayers' cash on Alcohol Concern Cymru. A couple of other successes, such as the disappearance of Drinkwise Northwest, do not change the fact that the nanny state industry remains an overwhelmingly state-funded project. All the tobacco control lobbyists are still sucking on the taxpayers' teat and there are a growing number of state-funded 'non-governmental' organisations hassling consumers about what they eat.

2015 saw the creation of Obesity Action Scotland. How much taxpayers' cash it is swallowing is not yet clear, but there is no doubt that it is state-funded. Its steering group contains long-standing tax-spongers like Simon Capewell (Faculty of Public Health, Action on Sugar) and Sheila Duffy (ASH Scotland). As this government document makes clear, Obesity Action Scotland's job is to 'advocate' (ie. lobby) for political change, following the anti-smoking blueprint.

The Lancet series notes the current ineffectiveness of civil society action, partly because consumer power is constrained by the way in which industry shapes food preferences. For policies to be successful they need public engagement in stimulating their development and their implementation. Public health is seen as having an advocacy role and in creating coalitions of a broad range of organisations that have a shared goal. Several reports draw comparisons with work on tobacco, and the value of advocacy groups like ASH, and of international agreements like the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The SCOT (Scottish Coalition on Tobacco) is a relevant example here, hosted by ASH Scotland it draws together key third sector organisation and medical royal colleges. The new Obesity Action Scotland based at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow may have a role to play here. Greater public engagement and awareness should increase support for change- critical for change in the food industry.

One of Obesity Action Scotland's first actions was - surprise, surprise - to demand more taxation.

The Westminster government can't be blamed for taxpayers' money being wasted by the SNP, but it is certainly responsible for the biggest nanny state pressure group of them all, Public Health England. This vast quango was created by the coalition and its role as an 'advocacy' group was laid bare last year when the Health Select Committee complained that it had 'so far failed to set out a clear policy agenda'.

This was a strange complaint to make about an organisation whose first action was to demand minimum pricing for alcohol, but no one can say PHE has failed to set out a clear policy agenda this year. Its recent report on sugar concluded with a long list of political demands.

Not content with using its huge budget to push for policy change, PHE has also been setting up its own sockpuppet organisations to do likewise. I recently became aware of the UK Public Health Network. What is it? You may well ask. It grew out of yet another 'public health' conference (almost certainly state-funded) at which it was decided that...

...the public health profession should be clearer about the measures needed to improve the public’s health. The UK Public Health Network has been set up to help achieve this.

Their three priorities are drinking, smoking and diet—because there's a real gap in the market for groups demanding legislation on those issues, right? It's not enough that we already have the British Medical Association, the UK Faculty of Public Health, the Association of Directors of Public Health, the Royal Society of Public Health, the Royal College of Physicians, the Institute of Public Health, the UK Health Forum, the Society of Social Medicine, Action on Smoking, Action on Sugar, Consensus Action on Salt and Health, Alcohol Concern, the Institute of Alcohol Studies, Tobacco Free Futures, Smokefree North West, Smokefree SouthWest and the National Obesity Forum. No, let's have some more groups making identical demands. It all helps to create a 'swarm effect'.

I sent a Freedom of Information request to PHE in October asking how much money they had given this pointless organisation since its inception in October 2014. Last week I received a reply by post. As you can see, it decided that the UK Public Health Forum deserved £57,200 of our money just to get started.

I also asked for a copy of the grant or contract that led to this money being given. PHE has not provided it. Perhaps no such written agreement exists. It wouldn't surprise me to find that in the world of 'public health' cheques are written over a couple of drinks with no questions asked.

Somebody needs to bring this gravy train to a halt.

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