As this five-year fixed term Parliament draws to an end the House of Commons has been described as a ‘zombie parliament’.
No substantial pieces of legislation and hours spent on debating worthy causes put forward by backbench MPs.
So it was quite astonishing that just recently the Public Health Minister in a late night debate announced a timetable to implement plain packaging for cigarettes.
Plain, non-branded packaging is supported by both the Conservative and Labour leaderships and now by Stormont’s Health Minister too despite the fact that there is no solid evidence to support its supposed aim of ‘reducing smoking and stopping children from starting’.
Now I am not and never have been a smoker and indeed I remember as a student getting quite agitated in restaurants when someone at a neighbouring table would blow smoke in my direction.
The drop in smoking rates over the past few years (in the 1970’s over 45 per cent of adults smoked – a figure that has now dropped dramatically to 18 per cent) is a good and successive government policies to stress the health risks are clearly working.
However, I believe plain packaging will make no difference to whether someone starts to smoke. Indeed some of the horrific images featured on the package could well become a status symbol for young people adding to the appeal of a forbidden item.
The most worrying aspect of this policy is the inevitable increase in the illicit trade of counterfeit cigarettes being smuggled and sold on the black market.
The irony is that from April all cigarettes will have to be hidden behind shutters in the shop anyway as part of previous legislation banning displays.
The risk to children of starting to smoke is real but it is already illegal to sell to those under 18. This policy seems more about looking like something is being done – the kind of knee jerk reactions that Governments love. It is seen as the politically correct thing to do even if it is known that it will not have the desired outcome.
In Northern Ireland we have had the devastating news that JTI are closing their factory in Ballymena, with 800 local people set to lose their livelihoods. Undoubtedly European Union regulations such as banning smaller packets of cigarettes has helped to bring this about. Further estimates have put the potential job losses that could result due to plain packaging at 30,000 across the UK.
Of course the Treasury love smokers as they benefit to the tune of £12 billion each year. Does the word hypocrisy cross your mind?
In Australia, the only country to have implemented this policy, the emerging evidence shows that plain packaging has only increased the trade in illicit tobacco to its highest ever recorded levels whilst smoking amongst 12 to 17 year olds (the very age group the policy is designed to discourage) has instead increased by over a third.
There is even a greater worry for us here at home. It has long been established that illicit tobacco is a key means of funding paramilitaries.
A report this week by the Royal United Services Institute warns that organised crime is changing and adapting. Whilst the Home Office and security services continue to use traditional methods to disrupt the black market, criminal gangs have moved online and bolster their activities off the back of an already thriving trade in illicit tobacco.
This results in a big loss in tax revenues. The criminal paramilitary is going to love plain packaging as it will hamper law enforcers’ ability to detect illicit packaging manufacturers and retailers.
We all want to see smoking reduced, but good intentions with poor evidence can have bad consequences.
• Kate Hoey is Labour MP for Vauxhall