Friday, 29 November 2013

Cross party to clear the packs

A guest posting by Baroness Tyler

Moving amendments to legislation in the Lords can often feel like an interesting and worthy - but ultimately pointless - activity as often nothing changes.

Not so this week!. I was one of the cross party group of peers who moved an amendment to the Children and Families Bill last week to introduce powers to bring in regulations on standard packaging for cigarettes. My fellow peers were Ilora Finlay (crossbench), Richard Faulkner (Labour), and Ian McColl (Conservative). In the Commons it has also been genuinely cross party endeavour, the campaign being led by MPs including Paul Burstow and Stephen Williams as well as Bob Blackman (Conservative) and Kevin Barron (Labour).

1 December, is the anniversary of the introduction of plain, standardised packaging of cigarettes in Australia. Ireland is going ahead next year as is Scotland, and the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Health Minister have all stated their support. I’m therefore delighted that the Government -finally and after much procrastination - has now decided to propose an amendment to the Children and Families Bill, to give the Secretary of State for Health powers to bring in regulations on standard packs to protect children's health.

I don’t really care that much whether it was all about Lynton Crosby or the fear of an imminent defeat in the House of Lords on our amendment. The fact is that the Government – and in particular No 10 - saw the light and changed its mind. The press coverage, predictably, is all about U turns rather than the substance of the change in the law and the undoubted health benefits to many children and young people both now and in the future.

Each year around 200,000 under 16year olds take up smoking , resulting for many in serious health problems in later life and, for some, premature death from smoking related diseases. Of current smokers, more than two thirds report that they started before they were 18 years old, and almost two fifths before they were 16.

The tobacco industry needs these new smokers, as its existing customers quit, become ill or die prematurely. The impact of standardised packs in Australia is already clear. They reduce the mistaken belief that some brands are safer than others, are less attractive to young people and have improved the effectiveness of health warnings. There is a reason why the tobacco lobby has been so incensed by the amendments to the Bill – they know that the design of cigarette packages is a very effective advertising tool.

Most worryingly, it is a tool that is particularly effective on young people. The groups that are most susceptible to the advertising ploys of tobacco manufacturers are also some of society’s most vulnerable; groups to whom the state has a duty of care including children in care. Teenage mothers are another group with a high incidence of smoking, being six times more likely than the average pregnant woman to smoke throughout their pregnancy.

We’re all familiar with the rhetoric of the tobacco lobby and the familiar accusation of the ‘nanny state’ from libertarians about the state poking their noses into the private lives of individuals. They tell us that people know the risks and make an informed choice regarding whether or not to smoke.

The problem is, though, that the choices made by young people aren’t always informed – I’m sure we all know from personal experience that being impressionable is an inescapable part of being young. I certainly remember going into a sweet shop when I was 15 and buying a particular brand of cigarettes simply because I thought it was the most elegant and glamorous! Sad but true.

Well, the tobacco industry knows that too. Industry documents released in the US show that cigarette packaging has been used by the industry for decades to appeal to young people, and even in today’s more highly regulated environment, cigarette producers are still bending the rules regarding packaging.

Yes, I would have preferred it if we could have moved immediately to legislation rather than having another review. But the one announced this week to be led by Sir Cyril Chantler will be short. It’s due to report by March 2014. And I get the impression that decisions will be taken very quickly after that.

In the meantime enabling legislation will be introduced giving the government regulation making powers to bring in regulations on standardised packs. We need to maintain the pressure both inside and outside of Parliament to ensure there is no slippage and that the legislation is on the statute book by the end of 2014 at the latest and plain packs on the shelves by 2015. So let’s not be too churlish about the way we have got to this stage.

This change in the law to introduce standardised packaging will be a landmark public health reform for this country and we should be pleased about that.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Nick Clegg's self-defeating move on Europe and immigration

I once heard Jim Wallace say that when your opponents start fighting on your chosen ground you should be pleased. It shows you are winning this debate.

He is right, which is why I do not think Nick Clegg's embrace of the Conservatives' anti-immigrant rhetoric will achieve its aim of curbing the threat from UKIP.

Imagine you are a UKIP voter - go on, try. If you here even the leader of the hated Liberal Democrats admitting that we are too soft on immigrants who come here to live off the state, that will confirm you in your view of the world. It will not make you question it and decide to vote Liberal Democrat instead.

I think there is a better approach and it is that advocated in the Commentary in the current issue of Liberator, which advocates the consistent third of the electorate that is pro-European:
That one third is a minority but it is a considerably larger one than that which has ever voted Liberal Democrat. It is the obvious pool in which the party should be fishing. 
The pro-European vote has effectively been abandoned in previous elections, perhaps on the assumption that it had nowhere much else to go. Not merely can that vote be awakened but it is essential that it is awakened ahead of any referendum eventually happening.
At present Nick Clegg is veering between this approach and one that seeks to appeal to everyone. When pursuing the latter he talks about the centre, but in the case of immigration at least, he locates that centre far to the right.

I  am not the most instinctive pro-European you have ever met. I recognise that being in coalition involves compromise. It is just that I do not think this latest Clegg initiative will work.

Mainstream politicians, by pandering to the Farages of this world, are feeding the very far-right public opinion they fear. I suspect that, once again, we are seeing an effect of the political class now being formed from such a narrow, privileged base.

This post first appeared on Liberal England.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Boiling blood and living wages

A guest post by Baroness Tyler.

The living standard is, I believe, perhaps the most pressing issue facing this country. Despite the recent and, of course, very welcome signs of economic recovery, real anxiety over the cost of living is the day-to-day reality of many British families, particularly people on low incomes.

The stark fact is that living standards have been stagnating for the past four years and households are spending an increased share of their incomes on ‘essentials’ such as food, fuel and housing.

The Which? Quarterly Consumer Report for October 2013 found that just 24% of people surveyed believed they were able to live comfortably on their earnings, and 52% in the lowest income group are still cutting back on essential spending.

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has done important work in bringing to our attention the growing problem of in-work poverty, and in highlighting more generally the changing face of British poverty.

It is now the case that two-thirds of our poor children live in households where at least one adult works, forcing us to abandon for good the long-held prejudice that poverty is the preserve of the work-shy.

I want to recognise that the coalition government has a genuine commitment to easing the burden on low and middle earners and acknowledge the very welcome measures already taken, particularly the raising of the tax-free allowance to £10,000, the freezing of council tax and fuel duty, expanded free childcare and increasing the state pension.

These efforts to ease the pressure on household budgets are laudable, but more needs to be done – and quickly – if we are to tackle the looming cost-of-living crisis.

In common with most people in this country, the ever-rising price of energy – way above the rise in wholesale prices – makes my blood boil. It simply feels as if we are being held to ransom for a basic essential of life.

The antics of the Big Six energy companies – which as far as I can tell seem to operate as a price-fixing cartel – tell me that privatisation has created an energy market that is simply not working in the public interest. Otherwise why would prices be going up so sharply when wholesale prices – by far the biggest element of costs – are relatively stable? Anything that could feasibly and realistically bring down prices – and quickly – deserves further investigation to test its workability and impact. I hope that this doesn’t simply turn into political football – the stakes are simply too high with the winter approaching.

I strongly support shifting some of the cost of green levies from individual energy bills to general taxation, which is more progressive in nature. In simple terms, it prevents the cost of vitally important energy efficiency measures, such as insulation and new boilers for households in fuel poverty, from falling disproportionately on poor households.

Money is tight, but if the choice is between doing something to reduce energy bills and introducing tax breaks for married couples, it’s the former that gets my vote and I suspect the same could be said for many up and down the country.

Turning to low pay, the Living Wage has a valuable role to play in the fight to raise living standards. Encouraging employers to pay a wage that allows workers to attain an acceptable standard of living without recourse to benefits is not just about fairness, it also makes sound economic sense.

According to figures from the Resolution Foundation, savings of up to £3.6bn could be made by the Treasury if employers paid the Living Wage, ending the current situation whereby tax credits to low earners are used to top up wages – effectively subsiding some employers who could afford to pay better wages.

It seems a much more empowering and liberal approach if people could maintain or improve their standard of life through earning their own money, rather than through complicated tax credits whose take-up rate is only around 65%.

There will be those who will argue that this will lead to a loss of jobs; similar concerns were raised when the National Minimum Wage was introduced and simply didn’t materialise.

We must also tackle the costs and availability of childcare. Lack of access to affordable and good quality childcare is preventing many women from returning to work following childbirth, denying their skills and potential tax take to the economy, and is proving a major squeeze on household budgets of those that do. Indeed, the Institute of Fiscal Studies has shown female employment to be the key driver for increased income among low to middle income families in the last 50 years.

However, the cost of additional hours of care above the free entitlement has been rising rapidly and squeezing the living standards of working parents. That is why I am so pleased that Liberal Democrat party policy is to extend the number of free childcare hours on a stepped basis. In addition, measures to provide more flexible childcare arrangements that recognise that not all parents work the standard 9-5 day would help better meet the needs of many.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Liberator says something nice about Nick Clegg - honest!

Credit where it’s due, Nick Clegg’s “I’m In” campaign on Europe may finally see the Liberal Democrats campaigning on Europe during the course of a European parliamentary election.

That would be a welcome break with precedent. In previous euro elections, the party has acted as though it viewed the exercise as, at best, a chance to train its organisation in target seats by campaigning on purely local issues or, at worst, something it wished would go away.

National campaigns have been hesitant and embarrassed, a situation not helped by mistaken attempts to appeal to eurosceptics by making incautious promises about referendums.

How often does it need to be said that eurosceptics will vote UKIP or Tory? With at least two choices of the real thing on offer, they will not be impressed by the Liberal Democrats suddenly trying to pretend unconvincingly that they too are eurosceptics of some sort, obsessed by pointless referendums.

That tendency was at its worst in the last euro elections, with Clegg lending his weight to calls for a referendum on the spurious grounds that there hadn’t been one since 1975.

He now appears to have grasped something that has long been staring Liberal Democrat politicians in the face. Despite the weight of press hostility, emotional hysteria and nationalist bigotry on the eurosceptic side, there is a consistent one third or so of the population that is pro-European.

That one third is a minority but it is a considerably larger one than that which has ever voted Liberal Democrat. It is the obvious pool in which the party should be fishing.

The pro-European vote has effectively been abandoned in previous elections, perhaps on the assumption that it had nowhere much else to go. Not merely can that vote be awakened but it is essential that it is awakened ahead of any referendum eventually happening.

Through a combination of coalition legislation and political reality, the Liberal Democrats have ended up, possibly by accident, with a quite sound policy on Europe – that the party favours membership of the EU, is prepared to expound its benefits, and will tolerate a referendum only when there is something to have one about, by which it means some major proposed change in the UK’s relations with the EU.

This is where the party should have ended up years ago instead of wittering on about referendums in a vain attempt to placate people who will never vote Liberal Democrat. It gives next year’s euro candidates something to fight on and the party a reason to campaign. About time too.

This is the Commentary column from Liberator 362, which will be out next week. Also includes Felix Dodds and Simon Titley on How to be a Liberal minister, Greg Mulholland MP on why the pubcos should be tackled, and Rebecca Tinsley on how to give aid to Africa without lining the pockets of the corrupt... plus RB, reviews and Lord Bonkers.