Hats off to The Times for exposing the insidious relationship between a minister, the DH, the APPG on Smoking and Health, and ASH.It piqued my interest as I was rather intrigued as to what had been discussed at this meeting, so I submitted a freedom of information request. The response was a brief note which you can read in Scribd here, but this is the part which I found most interesting (click to enlarge).
And with my emphasis added.
"On plain packaging, the APPG expressed concerns that results of any consultation could be skewed if consumer/retail groups were used to inflate responses. They also wanted to know when decisions were likely to be made."
Now, I don't know about you, but that does seem to suggest that the delegation of MPs Stephen Williams, Kevin Barron and Bob Blackman (not Paul as in the document) - along with Deborah Arnott their ASH secretary - were urging Anne Milton to ignore responses from groups such as Hands Off Our Packs, the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, The Association of Convenience Stores etc. In fact, any organised group who are opposed to plain packaging.
Note that they were not concerned about organised groups of any stripe collecting signatures which, of course, would have ruled out CRUK responses as well as SmokeFree South West's government-funded campaign. No, they were only addressing campaigns organised in opposition.
In short, these MPs appear to have wanted this public consultation to be conducted in such a way that members of the public who disagree with them are excluded, and lobbied Anne Milton with this in mind.
I suppose we'll find out in due course if the half a million objections have all been counted despite APPG and ASH pressure - shocking as that already is - but there's more.
It would appear that the Department of Health may have attempted to hide this meeting from public record until it was reported in The Times at the turn of the year. An appalling abuse of parliamentary process, if true.
The Department publishes records of ministerial meetings on its website and the file for this particular period's entry says that it was amended in January 2013. However, Google still carries the previous draft which seems to omit the three MPs' meeting with Anne Milton.
Here is a comparison of page 7 from both documents put into a gif file. Look what was added to the April record in the January amendment, presumably after The Times had revealed that the meeting had taken place (click to enlarge).
You might ask why the need for such cloak and dagger tactics? Well, it could be because the meeting probably shouldn't have occurred at all according to other documents revealed on the DoH website.
Cancer Research UK had suggested a meeting with Andrew Lansley in May, and they were open about what CEO Harpal Kumar wanted to talk about.
In advance of Cancer Research UK's parliament day on 27th June, I am writing to request a meeting with you on the day.
We are delighted that the consultation has been published. You are well aware of our position and you will of course already be familiar with our desire to see plain packaging introduced as soon as possible. We would be happy to update you on the campaign
Lansley was less than enthusiastic, for good reason.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to set up a meeting on the issue of tobacco packaging at this time ...
As I am sure you will understand, there are many groups with interest in this issue and it would not be possible, or appropriate, for me to try to meet with everyone who has an interest while the consultation is underway.
So, tying it all together, we seem to have a meeting which was 'inappropriate' during a public consultation; which was hidden from public record until a journalist found it had taken place; and which featured MPs and ASH arguably attempting to hijack a public consultation with a view to excluding dissent.
This, from a tobacco control industry which casually accuses others of dirty tactics and corruption.
Stinks like a slurry pit, don't it?