Tory and DUP MPs criticised for ‘wining and dining’ tobacco firms
Rowena Mason, The Guardian
House of Commons data reveals MPs hosted hundreds of events in parliament on behalf of private companies in 2016-17
Conservative and DUP MPs have been criticised for hosting a string of receptions, lunches and dinners in parliament for tobacco companies over the last 18 months.
Labour said the events were inappropriate given the public health risk posed by tobacco companies, which sell cigarettes despite the government’s efforts to make them less attractive through high taxes, plain packaging and graphic health warnings.
British diplomat lobbied on behalf of big tobacco
The MPs include John Whittingdale, a former cabinet minister, and Nigel Evans, the former deputy speaker, who both held receptions for Philip Morris International in November 2016 and March 2017 respectively.
The former MP Byron Davies held a reception with British American Tobacco in a parliamentary dining room in November last year, and Craig Mackinlay, a Conservative MP, hosted a roundtable for the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association (TMA) in October last year.
A fifth MP, Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist party, held a tea with Japan Tobacco International (JTI) in a parliamentary dining room in July.
The hospitality is revealed in data from the House of Commons authorities, which shows hundreds of events MPs hosted on behalf of private companies and their lobbyists between July 2016 and July 2017. These include a defence and arms exhibition, gambling companies, drink companies and many others.
Justin Madders, Labour’s health spokesman, said: “Members of parliament ought to be setting a lead on public health issues and, with such a well-established link between tobacco and poor health, it seems incongruous and unsettling for so many tobacco companies to be hosting events here in parliament.
“Of course it’s important that businesses are engaged in implementing a health policy that works for patients, but there inevitably will be questions from the public about whether events like this are appropriate in the modern day. We need to be certain that political parties are setting their health policies according to what’s best for patients, not under the influence of big business.”
Alexandra Runswick, the director of Unlock Democracy, a grassroots campaign for democratic reform, said: “Big corporations in the arms, gambling and tobacco industries are already perceived as having an undue sway over public policy. When they are allowed to roam free in the corridors of power it is hardly surprising that the the public loses faith in our democracy.
“Most voters would find it hard to imagine being wined and dined in parliament, but for many corporations this kind of access is commonplace. To tackle public distrust in politics MPs should consider spending less time being courted by corporations, and more time serving their constituents.”
Most of the MPs did not return requests for comment, but Mackinlay, the MP for South Thanet, defended his actions. He said he feared it was “just more grandstanding from Labour”.
“I have, for a couple of years, been highlighting the issue of the illicit tobacco market and the adverse impact it has on small business owners such as my local newsagents, the exchequer [approximately £2.5bn in 2016] and additionally the serious health effects of illicit tobacco. The purpose of the event was to raise this little-known issue in parliament.
“I held a Westminster Hall debate on small shops regulation that raised the issue last year. Illicit tobacco market has been harming their trade through loss of footfall and the seemingly open selling through social media sites/boot fairs/ tobacco houses.”
Ian Paisley said it was necessary to work with a difficult industry to deal with the problem of illicit trade in cigarettes.
“The reception I hosted was promoting the problem of illicit trade and identifying that much more needs to be done and how much is lost to the exchequer. While everyone recognises there are issues to do with tobacco, it is very important that if people are going to buy a legal product, they must buy a legal one rather than a smuggled one or one that is fake or poses even more hazards. That’s why I think it was a worthwhile seminar to identify the extent of that problem,” he said.
Three of the companies said they had been highlighting the effects of illicit tobacco sales, while one said it had been discussing the goal of a “smoke-free future”.
Peter Nixon, the managing director of Philip Morris Limited, said: “We have organised a number of meetings, hosted by parliamentarians from across the political divide, to explain our company’s smoke free goals and our plans to develop less harmful alternatives to cigarettes.
“In meeting MPs and lords, we have also explained the role we believe we can play in helping the Government to achieve the goals of the tobacco control plan: ‘Towards a smoke-free generation.’”
Will Hill, a spokesman for British American Tobacco UK, said: “The event we held brought together parliamentarians, retailers, law enforcement figures and the tobacco industry to discuss how to tackle the growing issue of black market tobacco in the UK, which we felt was an important issue to discuss given the black market in tobacco is illegal, deprives the exchequer of much needed revenue, undermines legitimate retailers’ businesses and the criminality associated with it includes people trafficking, as well as the sale of drugs and weapons.”
Giles Roca, the director-general of the TMA, said Mackinlay had hosted an event on the scale of the illicit tobacco trade, a particular concern in his constituency, which was attended by a broad range of parliamentarians.
“The tobacco industry is a legal business and has every right to engage in open and transparent dialogue within parliament as those that take a different view actively do, and is important in helping to inform democratic debate and elected representatives,” he said.
“To suggest the industry should somehow be excluded is undemocratic and short sighted particularly given the negative impact that issues such as the illicit tobacco trade have on many MPs’ constituents and small retailers.”
A JTI spokesperson said: “The parliamentary event JTI held in July 2017 provided an opportunity for us to communicate the results of our mystery shop operation in London which found one in 8 retailers selling illegal tobacco. We were also able to demonstrate how JTI works with national and local law enforcement to help prevent a crime which since 2000 has cost HMRC £43.5bn.
“We are strongly of the opinion that this type of engagement results in better and more informed debate about the issues surrounding illegal tobacco.”
uploaded: Fri, Dec 29 2017
modified: Tue, Dec 30 1969
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