The Prime Minister answered a parliamentary question earlier last year on minimum pack size, which is what the tobacco directive is all about. He said:
“It does not, on the face of it, sound a very sensible approach. I was not aware of the specific issue, so let me have a look at it and get back to my hon. Friend.” - [Hansard, 9 October 2013; Vol. 568, c. 160.]
The Prime Minister was answering a question from a Government Member, and I believe that he has been let down by a failure of his party and colleagues to negotiate the matter appropriately in Europe.
While the then public health Minister, Anna Soubry, had control of tobacco products directive negotiations for the UK Government, she was required to keep Parliament informed of developments via the European Scrutiny Committee. When she was brought to that Committee on 17 July 2013, she had to apologise for poor political practice, saying:
“I do not hesitate to apologise for the fact that this Committee has not been fully informed. I only wish that, as a Minister, I was aware of all the things that happen within my portfolio.”
That is an appalling indictment of a Minister who took her eye off a brief and allowed the policy to be rammed through with the consequences that we are feeling today. We will reap a terrible harvest in Northern Ireland as a result.
The provisions under the TPD on the minimum pack sizes that may be manufactured have the direct impact that 82% of the output of my constituency’s factory will be made illegal. The Government have done that with the sweep of a pen - it is little wonder that 900 people are being told that it is over for them. The Government could have said, “Let’s continue to manufacture, but not sell in the United Kingdom,” or looked at other options, but instead they implemented a policy even though their Minister said that she was not fully aware of what was happening. That is a betrayal. It is a scandal that the Government were not paying proper attention.Indeed, she was not only disastrously negligent in not considering the consequences of the EU TPD for jobs in Northern Ireland, she was also - as reported here last July - completely ignorant of the terms of the TPD itself, wrongly believing e-cigs had been removed from the process entirely.
At the time, Soubry found herself in a unique position where she could have protected those jobs, but - as Paisley referred to in his speech above - she instead effectively threw 900 Ballymena workers on the dole by deliberately hiding EU proceedings from the European Scrutiny Committee and other government departments.
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.
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.It turns out that Soubry held something of a casting vote in proceedings, but rather than defend the UK's interests, she instead chose to cast it in favour of her own prejudices.
Soubry said she took full responsibility for the decision she took, and she was sorry that things were not done in the way that they should have been.
“If we had not made a decision there was a danger that the moment would be gone for a very long time."Just as 900 people in Northern Ireland will be ruing Soubry's incompetence for 'a very long time' - she may as well have signed their P45s herself. In case she pops by, here's what the hard-working people she unilaterally betrayed look and sound like.
EU-enthralled Conservative Soubry has since been shifted to organising the UK's defence. I'm sure that will make you feel safer in your bed tonight, eh?