Yesterday public health minister Anna Soubry and Andrew Black, head of tobacco policy at the Department of Health, were summoned to attend a meeting of the European Scrutiny Committee which scrutinises draft EU legislation on behalf of the House of Commons.
According to its website, the Committee assesses which proposals are of particular political or legal importance. It then draws these proposals to the attention of the House through weekly Committee Reports and by recommending some draft legislation for debate.
Members (MPs) were unhappy they hadn't been given the opportunity to scrutinise draft proposals to revise the Tobacco Products Directive (TPD). Reading between the lines, they were furious.
Actually, you don't even have to read between the lines: Michael Connarty (who, despite being a Labourite, is superb in this hearing) stated that he was furious.
Anyway Simon's summation of the case is as follows:
At yesterday's meeting chairman Bill Cash said they wanted to explore Anna Soubry's extraordinary decision to override scrutiny of the TPD, choosing instead to go ahead and agree a general response to the Directive at a [European] Health Council meeting in Luxembourg on June 21.
"We take a decision to override scrutiny very seriously indeed, especially when it concerns a proposal of such importance,” he admonished her.
Incredibly, it emerged there had been no correspondence between Soubry and the Scrutiny Committee for six months between January and June 2013. Oddly enough, this is the very period when the Committee would have been expected to scrutinise the draft TPD which was published in December 2012.
Minutes of yesterday's Scrutiny Committee meeting won't be published until next week but I have read a summary of the meeting and what appears to have happened is this:
Rapidly approaching the end of Ireland's six-month presidency of the European Council, the DH decided it had to act fast to help move the Directive closer to implementation.
Officials (and Soubry) decided there was no time for proper scrutiny of a Directive that will affect millions of consumers in Britain, not to mention thousands of small businesses.
So they asked for a waiver from the scrutiny committees in both Houses of Parliament (Lords and Commons). The Lords agreed but the Commons Scrutiny Committee said no.
Concerned that any delay might delay the revised TPD (which includes plans to ban menthol cigarettes and restrict pack sizes) or tie the UK government's hands on plain packaging, Soubry and Black travelled to Luxembourg determined, it seems, to support the draft TPD regardless of any concerns elected members of parliament may have had.
If I am reading this correctly, they failed even to seek clearance from other government departments.
Before we look at this further, let us remind ourselves of five things that were not in the Coalition Manifesto:
- plain—or "standardised"—packaging of cigarettes;
- a ban on menthol cigarettes;
- an increase in the size of health warnings to 65% of the pack area;
- a ban on ten-packs of cigarettes;
- a ban—or de facto ban through reclassification—on ecigarettes.
So, to return to Anna Soubry and her quite deliberate decision to bypass Parliamentary Standing Orders...
Ms Soubry's reason for doing so was, apparently, "article 24" which—according to her—would have stopped member states introducing plain packages for cigarettes (and other measures).
And the egregious Soubry then said that she had to take a position—against all protocol—in order to preserve the "sovereignty" of the UK government!
So, here is my summary: this repulsive little liar decided that the Tobacco Products Directive simply did not allow enough scope for the UK government to be even more fascist than the TPD itself; as such, she decided to deny scrutiny of the Directive, override democratic process, because she "really believed" that if the TPD was not passed at that moment, then it would be dropped "for a very long time".
Even though the measures that the TPD introduce were never in either the Conservative or Coalition Manifesto.
If you watch the hearing at ParliamentLive.tv (or below), you will also find out some other revealing information.
Such as the fact—revealed when Soubry was challenged as to how important the UK's vote was—that the Tobacco Products Directive went through the Council of Ministers without there even being a vote. As I understand it, these ministers just sat around, had a bit of negotiation and then just cosily decided that they were all happy enough to just let this pass.
As Simon Clark says:
It's scandalous. So much for Parliament. So much for open and democratic government.
Now we know how law-making is handled in the EU: a privileged bunch of our betters just sit around, making far-reaching decisions about our lives—and all without even the fig-leaf accountability of allowing us plebs to see who voted for what.
And so Ms Soubry:
- colluded with foreign powers to pass through a Directive that will force the UK Parliament to enact legislation…
- … that was not in her government's manifesto (and which, therefore, no one in this coutry voted for);
- in doing so she ignored one of the most fundamental of our Parliament's Standing Orders…
- … because she wanted to leave the field open for the government to impose even more draconian legislation that was not in their manifesto;
- and her justification for doing all of this is that she was, in fact, "defending the sovereignty" of the UK Parliament.