Feature Alcohol and Public Health

Under the influence: 3. Role of parliamentary groups

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f7571 (Published 08 January 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:f7571
  1. Jonathan Gornall, freelance journalist
  1. 1Colchester, Essex, UK
  1. jgornall{at}mac.com

Almost half of MPs are members of the all party parliamentary group supporting the beer industry, and undisclosed numbers belong to groups supporting other alcohol producers. Jonathan Gornall investigates what effect this might have had on the government’s alcohol policy

On 14 July 2013, the chancellor, George Osborne, was among 100 MPs and members of the House of Lords who mingled with guests from the alcohol industry at the 20th annual dinner of the all party parliamentary beer group in Westminster.

Among the various awards handed out that night, there was one for Osborne, named Beer Drinker of the Year for his decision, announced in the spring Budget, not only to scrap the beer duty escalator put in place by the previous government but also to take a further 1 pence off beer duty.

“It is more than the cut in duty for beer,” the chancellor told the guests at the dinner. “It is also a symbol that parliament cares about this industry . . . On behalf of all the members of parliament here to all the representatives of the industry, you can hopefully take what has happened this year as a recognition from all of us that we heard what you were saying and we listened and reacted.”

Four days later, the Burton Mail printed a photograph of its local MP Andrew Griffiths, pictured side by side with the chancellor at the event, both men clutching pints of beer. As chair of the all party beer group, reported the newspaper, Griffiths too had been presented “with a prestigious award” by the Society of Independent Brewers “for his work for the brewery industry.”1

The timing of the publication might have had a bitter resonance for anyone in the public health community who happened to see it. Only the day before, the government had finally announced in parliament that it was scrapping its plan to impose a minimum unit price on alcohol.

Special interest groups

There are 472 all party groups in parliament dedicated to a broad range of subjects, from accident prevention to zoos and aquariums, and hundreds more devoted to promoting the interests of nations and regions from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.2 Recently, following concerns that these groups “may provide access to lobbyists,” parliament’s committee on standards proposed reforms to improve transparency. “Improper lobbying,” commented Kevin Barron, chair of the committee, “is always a risk and we should be vigilant.”3

With a membership of 300 MPs—46% of the total in the House of Commons—and about 100 members from the House of Lords, the beer group is believed to be the largest all party group in parliament and is supported financially by the drinks industry. There are also groups supporting the wine and spirit, Scotch whisky, and cider industries.

Surprisingly, perhaps, although at least 20 members of an all party group must be members of either the House of Commons or the Lords, any individual or organisation can be invited to join as an affiliated member, and whether they are charged a fee is left to the discretion of the group. The register of all party groups shows that in the 12 months from November 2012 to October 2013—during which the U turn over minimum unit pricing was being effected behind closed doors in Westminster—the beer group received a total of £40 209 (€48 200; $65 900) in corporate membership fees, comprised of £5375 each from Heineken, Greene King, Diageo, Molson Coors, Punch Taverns, and AB InBev and £2584 from an eighth pub and bar management company, Mitchells & Butlers.2

The beer group (whose symbol is the parliamentary portcullis logo amended with a foaming head and a handle to resemble a beer tankard) exists to “promote the wholesomeness and enjoyment of beer and the unique role of the pub in UK society [and] to promote understanding of the social responsibility exercised by the brewing and pub industries.”

Constituency interests

Andrew Griffiths, the group’s chair, is MP for Burton upon Trent, home to the UK operations of Molson Coors Brewing. He has spoken out in the media in defence of the industry, denying that it has broken responsibility deal pledges. “A vast amount of time and effort has been put in by brewers to make the responsibility deal . . . deliver the kind of changes the government wants to see,” he told his local paper in July 2012.4

In March 2013, he rose in the House of Commons to thank the chancellor for his “momentous decision” to scrap the beer duty escalator. It was, he said, “a great budget for brewers, a great budget for beer, and a great budget for beer drinkers in Britain”; he was “delighted to support a coalition government who have done more for brewers and pubs than any other government for a generation.”5

In an email to the BMJ he pointed out that “I am extremely supportive of minimum pricing and have said so publicly.” So he has, chiefly on the ground that ending cheap supermarket promotion of strong beers and cider would “not only tackle the problems of binge drinking and preloading . . . but will support our community pubs and be good for the pub trade.”

Griffiths said that in fact about 70 companies made contributions to the all party beer group, mainly to cover the cost of its secretary, and most were below the £1500 threshold for declaration. During last year, however, “we had an exceptional project, our beer tax fraud inquiry and report, which inflated income and expenditure by £21 000.” One of the 10 alcohol organisations credited as having contributed towards the cost of the inquiry and its report was Molson Coors, the brewer based in Griffiths’ constituency.6

The subject of the report, published in July 2012, was a proposal by HM Revenue and Customs to introduce “new regulatory burdens on brewers to help counter beer tax fraud.” It came down against the HMRC’s proposal to tackle fraud by introducing a duty stamp for beers, similar to that already in use for spirits.

SABMiller—which did not support the inquiry financially but has been an affiliated corporate member of the beer group—told the inquiry it feared such a move would have “massive cost and brand impact.” The report duly concluded that the “superficially simple proposal of extending fiscal marking from spirits to beers is extremely problematic [and] would almost certainly cause detrimental change to the production and sale of UK beers.”7

The beer group holds annual awards, and in May 2010 it was Eric Pickles, secretary of state for communities and local government, who gave the speech at the event. He told the industry representatives present that “we take your concerns about regulation very seriously. And we’ve listened. That’s why we’ve got self-regulation, not central regulation.”8

At their best, said Griffiths, all party groups “help ensure that parliamentarians are better informed—for example, by exposing the possible pitfalls for legislators. This emphatically does not mean that the participant MPs become poodles in the service of a particular vested interest, but in forming their views they have a greater understanding to guide them.”

Griffiths pointed out that the alcohol misuse group, of which he is also a member, received administrative help from Alcohol Concern. There is, of course, a clear distinction: Alcohol Concern is a charity working to reduce alcohol harm; the beer group’s commercial supporters are working to increase alcohol sales.

The beer group, added Griffiths, “prides itself on its transparency, and our administrator, openly funded by a large number of companies with competing interests, is at pains to ensure that our agenda is balanced and that the research we undertake looks at all points of view . . . We are dedicated to supporting the brewing and pub sector . . . but by no means mindlessly.”

Hidden links

The industry support provided to the all party Scotch whisky and spirits group, which aims “to promote and facilitate communication and understanding between representatives from the Scotch whisky and spirits industry and MPs,” is less transparent. Although it declares no financial or material support from the industry, the group’s secretariat is in fact provided by the Scotch Whisky Association, which also hosts a webpage for the all party group, on which it provides no fewer than three public relations contacts, led by Campbell Evans, the association’s government and communications director.9

The Policy, Parliament and Promotion section of the Scotch Whisky Association’s website states it is “a regular visitor to Westminster and other government departments . . . It attends events, meets MPs, researchers and officials and issues briefings on relevant subjects to ensure the views of the Scotch whisky industry are understood.”10

Its views on minimum unit pricing are clear: it believes it would be “illegal, will be ineffective in tackling misuse and will damage the Scotch whisky industry.”10

According to Evans, the failure of the group to list his association’s support on the register of all party groups is not a breach of the rules governing the operation of such groups because “the very limited support given to MPs in the running of the APG [all party group] falls below the level the parliament sets for the annual return registration.”

Evans declined to answer other questions, including how many members the group had, how long his association had supported it, how many times in the past year representatives of the association had met with parliamentary members of the group, and if and when the subject of minimum unit pricing had been discussed with members in the past two years.

Following my request for clarification, Heather Wood, the registrar of members’ financial interests, investigated the extent of the Scotch Whisky Association’s support of the group and concluded it did indeed fall below the threshold for declaration—raising the point that anyone inspecting the register would remain ignorant of the industry’s involvement with the group.

Wood was told by Jim Sheridan, the MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire North and the group’s chair, that since the general election “the SWA has devoted a maximum of six hours to these services in any one calendar year.” The secretariat services provided by the association were limited to “preparing agendas for meetings (four this year) for distribution by others; posting advance notice of the group’s meetings in the All-Party Whip; occasionally drafting letters; and the provision of a webpage on the SWA website which bears details of the group’s officers and the dates of the meetings.”

The total value of these services had amounted to less than £100 in each year, “plus the small nominal cost of a webpage.” This £100 seems also to cover the cost of the services of the three public relations officers listed under the heading “Contact information.”

The two other pro-alcohol industry groups in parliament are that for cider, which exists “to support the cause of cider . . . and to inform and educate people about its role and importance, especially in rural areas,” and for wine and spirits, whose purpose is “to promote and inform on the economic and commercial benefits of the UK wine trade . . . and to introduce parliamentarians to members of the trade from their constituencies.”

The Wine and Spirit Trade Association, which has been very active in the campaign against minimum unit pricing, “acts as the [wine and spirits] group’s secretariat and also sources wines for the group’s tastings and covers the cost of corkage and refreshments for receptions.”2

Other than the 400 MPs and members of the House of Lords who are members of the beer group, the total number of parliamentarians who belong to these four cross-party groups, devoted to representing the interests of the beer, wine, spirits and cider industries, remains unclear. Such groups are not required by the rules to produce a full list of members, only the 20 members they must have to qualify for recognition as an all-party group.11

Griffiths volunteered his beer group’s entire membership figure. Bridgewater MP Ian Liddell-Grainger, chair of the cider group, did not, referring only to the list of 20 qualifying names on the register. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, MP for the Cotswolds and chair of the wine and spirit group, referred the query to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association. William Boyack, the association’s media and public affairs manager, said membership of the all party group consisted “solely of the 20 qualifying MPs and peers listed on the register.” However, “all MPs and peers are invited to group events.” Likewise, Samantha Mair, media manager for the Scotch Whisky group’s secretary, Brian Donohoe MP, referred to the published list of 20 qualifying MPs and peers and said the group’s meetings were open for any parliamentarian to attend.

Griffiths, chair of the beer group, said that while the 20 members whose names appeared on the register “had consented to being identified … we don’t make the full list [of 300 MPs and 100 Lords] public routinely, to protect them from unwanted correspondence.” This practice, apparently common across all such groups, also makes it impossible to know exactly how many members of the House of Commons are affiliated to the groups supporting alcohol, or which members support more than one such group. However, taking only the number of members who belong to the beer group, it is possible to say that it is at least 46% of all MPs.

Such groups, says John Holmes of Sheffield University’s alcohol research unit, “allow industry actors to . . . talk to lots of MPs in a way that just wouldn’t be available to any public health group.”

Neither is the industry short of direct access to all levels of government.

“The drinks industry is a major exporter and a major part of commerce, and all parts of commerce do have some access to civil servants and ministers,” said Tim Ambler, the former chief executive of International Distillers and Vintners (now part of Diageo) and a senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute.

“Certainly we talk to civil servants and we talk to MPs as an industry, as you would expect us to, not least because when the case is being overstated by the opposition one tries to balance things up a bit.”

Daily contact

But the sheer scale of the industry’s access to the corridors of power became apparent when the BMJ asked the British Beer and Pub Association—just one of a large number of representative groups and companies—how many meetings its representatives had had in the past year with members of the government or senior civil servants.

That, said David Wilson, the association’s director of public affairs, was “difficult to calculate as we . . . will have daily contacts with officials and frequent meetings with ministers and their advisers across a range of government departments,” including the Treasury, Home Office, Prime Minister’s Office, Environment, Communities and Local Government, Business, Innovation and Skills, Foreign Office, Work and Pensions, Education and the Department of Health.

It’s a similar story with the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, AB InBev, and Heineken.

“The WSTA meets with various government departments on behalf of our members,” said Boyack before listing a similarly comprehensive list of government departments.

“As you might expect for a large company employing around 2300 people in the UK we have a regular dialogue with the UK government on a wide range of issues,” said Jeremy Beadles, corporate relations director for Heineken UK. Again, Heineken was a regular visitor to the Treasury, Home Office, and Department of Health.

As the former chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, Beadles was a founder member of Andrew Lansley‘s Public Health Commission, the forerunner of the responsibility deal. When he left the association after six years to join Heineken in 2011, its chairman, Tim How, praised Beadle’s “tremendous contribution. . . the association’s standing with government and the media has never been higher.”12 Heineken joined the responsibility deal in 2011.13

Emma Reynolds, corporate affairs director for AB InBev UK, said: “We engage and meet with government and other stakeholders on issues affecting our people, our consumers and our business on an open and transparent basis.” She said she could not provide a list of meetings, “but this information will of course be available through the usual government channels.”

Except it isn’t. Although a series of freedom of information requests filed with the Treasury, Home Office, Department of Health and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills did provide evidence of the industry’s widespread access to government, Ab InBev was not one of the names that came up—suggesting that further interactions between government and industry remain to be uncovered.

In January and February 2013, during the Home Office consultation on minimum unit pricing, Sajid Javid, economic secretary to the Treasury, had no fewer than seven meetings with industry groups. He met “to discuss the alcohol industry”—no further information, such as minutes of the meetings, has been made available—with Greene King, the British Beer and Pub Association, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, Federation of Wholesale Distributors, Scotch Whisky Association, Association of Convenience Stores, and the National Association of Cider Makers.

The Treasury’s information rights unit has twice stalled over a freedom of information request seeking the release of documents relating to these meetings. On 13 December, 34 working days after the initial request was made, it announced a week’s delay because, “We have identified some further information and wish to obtain the views of the various bodies on disclosure.” On 19 December it blamed “staff unavailability” for having to further delay its response to 10 January.

Like his boss, Chancellor George Osborne, in June 2013 Javid had a beer named in his honour. “In the last budget, I was delighted to not only abolish Labour’s unpopular beer duty escalator but also cut beer duty for the first time in over half a century,” the MP told his local newspaper after learning that Bird’s Brewery in his Bromsgrove constituency had created Sajid’s Choice, a 3.5% pale bitter. The beer, Javid added, would be served in the Strangers’ Bar at the House of Commons.14

Osborne and Javid were not the only members of the Treasury team so honoured. In July 2013, Danny Alexander, the Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the Treasury, paid a visit to the Strangers’ Bar to welcome the launch of a new beer by a company from his constituency, just two weeks before the government abandoned minimum unit pricing. The name, Ginger Rodent, was a reference to a remark made about red headed Alexander in parliament by Labour’s Harriet Harman. She later apologised for the slur and was at the launch of the beer.

It was, commented brewery managing director Samantha Faircliff, “fantastic to see it served in parliament. Thanks to Danny for being supportive and helping to promote the brand.”15

In addition to Javid’s meetings, Treasury officials met with representatives of the alcohol industry on seven occasions between March 2012 and July 2013. “We do not,” said a Treasury spokesman, “hold minutes for these meetings.”

There is, says Nick Sheron, head of clinical hepatology at the University of Southampton, “a general view that Treasury policies have nothing to do with health, which is obviously completely wrong, because it controls the most important levers we have to deal with alcohol related harm. The Treasury has a really important public health function, and they should be discussing that function with public health experts, but I see no evidence that they do.”

In his two years as cochair of the Responsibility Deal Alcohol Network, Sheron had just one meeting at the Treasury, to discuss the possibility of lower tax bands to encourage the production of lower strength wines and ciders. When he arrived, he found himself in the company of eight representatives of the drinks industry and, when the official they were meeting was late, “somebody suggested giving them a ring, at which point everybody got out their phones. All eight had this person’s mobile number, which I thought was an extraordinary illustration of the level of connection between the industry and the Treasury.”

Departing from the script

But it is not only the Treasury’s door that is open to the alcohol industry. On 6 February 2013, the day that the consultation on minimum unit pricing closed, Anna Soubry, then parliamentary undersecretary of state for public health, met to discuss minimum unit pricing with seven representatives of the alcohol industry, including Heineken, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, Scotch Whisky Association, National Association of Cider Makers, and the British Beer and Pub Association.

According to minutes of the meeting acquired through a freedom of information request, Soubry said that although she had been “convinced by the arguments put forward by a group of liver doctors she had met . . . she acknowledged that the primary responsibility for reducing [alcohol] consumption lay with the individual.”

This was a reference to a meeting Soubry had held in December 2012, with representatives of the public health community. A briefing note for the meeting, seen by the BMJ, advises the new health minister to repeat that the government is committed to minimum pricing and say “we welcome views on what level will be appropriate and will consider that through the consultation.”

But a summary of the meeting, prepared that evening for Chris Heffer, then head of drugs and alcohol at the Department of Health, suggests Soubry did not adhere rigidly to her script. She was “amusingly, but appropriately frank [and] said she was not convinced about MUP, but willing to be,” it reported.

This was an odd position for a new public health minister to adopt in the face of the prime minister’s public commitment to the policy. However, added the writer of the summary, later in the meeting, Soubry “said she wavers and at the end (more riskily) said, ‘You have swung me the other way.’”

It is not clear why the writer of the email considered it “risky” for Soubry to adopt the declared government line, but other emails obtained by the BMJ reveal nervousness within the Department of Health and the Home Office concerning the level at which the minimum price for alcohol might be set.

The government’s preference, set out in its consultation, was for 45 pence a unit. But “what to say,” inquired one official the day before the meeting with the public health representatives, “if one of them asks for estimates of impact for a 50p MUP [?] I know [name redacted] said you would not agree this, but what would you say if there were a FOI [freedom of information] request?”

The meaning of this exchange is open to interpretation. But it could imply that, despite its ongoing consultation on the issue, the government had already decided that 45 pence was as high as it was prepared to go—5 pence less than the price preferred by the public health community. The clue to which department might be putting its foot down—and which, ultimately, might have been behind the death of the policy—came in the following email exchange, apparently between officials at the Department of Health and the Home Office in the run-up to the meeting, discussing what to do if the question of a 50p minimum price were raised:

“I don’t think HMT [the Treasury] would like it would they?”

“True. I suppose we would have to stall if it comes up tomorrow. Not sure how we would say no in the end, though.”

“Probably couldn’t if it came to an FOI though we would have to clear any response across Government (and I wouldn’t encourage it!).”

When Soubry met representatives of the alcohol industry two months later, they insisted they were “committed to tackling overconsumption” but “expressed deep concern” about minimum unit pricing. It was, they said, a “disproportionate response” that would cost consumers £1bn a year, have a “negative effect on the responsibility deal,” and would hit Treasury revenues.

Industry, they added, “preferred a ban on below-cost sales”—and, within a few months, industry would get its way.

According to the Home Office, Soubry and Theresa May, the home secretary, had a subsequent meeting with representatives of the alcohol industry on 3 July, three weeks before May published her response to the consultation on minimum unit pricing.

According to a Home Office response to a freedom of information request, the purpose of the meeting was “to discuss the voluntary action that industry could take to help reduce problem drinking and the crime and health harms associated with it.” The meeting was attended by the representatives of 18 organisations, including supermarkets Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, and Tesco; drinks companies Diageo, AB InBev, and Heineken; and industry lobby groups the Scotch Whisky Association, the National Association of Cider Makers, and the Wine and Spirit Trade Association. The industry-funded Portman Group was also represented. According to the Home Office, “no minutes were circulated.”

Failing responsibility deal

A few weeks after the industry had pleaded its case for the responsibility deal in its meeting with Soubry, something of a flaw in that deal was exposed at a meeting of the Alcohol Network in the Department of Health’s headquarters. Mark Bellis, as a member of the Responsibility Deal Alcohol Network monitoring and evaluation subgroup, questioned whether the pledge made by the industry a year earlier to cut a billion units from the alcohol sold had really achieved anything.

In March 2012, health secretary Andrew Lansley had cited the pledge as an example of “what can be achieved for individuals and families when we work together with industry,” adding it formed “a key part of the shared responsibility we will encourage as part of the alcohol strategy.”16

Now, a year later, Bellis wasn’t so sure.

“What people were looking for throughout the Responsibility Deal were win-wins, which don’t damage industry’s profits but reduce the massive negative consequences of alcohol use across the country,” he says. “But when you consider that the biggest source of income for alcohol companies is people who drink more heavily, looking for win-wins in there is pretty difficult.”

The billion unit pledge, he feared, was not a win-win. “Industry can stand up and say we are selling more low alcohol beer, and I’m not going to argue with that,” he said. “The difficulty with this is that there is a very important distinction between selling more low alcohol product and selling more instead of selling more higher alcohol products. If it is not reducing the overall alcohol content of the ‘national drink,’ it isn’t of public health relevance.”

Bellis says he is not at liberty to reveal figures disclosed during responsibility deal meetings. “I’m in a position now where the faculty has resigned from the network and I can’t comment on confidential data which was shown me as part of the process. What I can say is that the bottom line is that if the idea is to reduce the alcohol-by-volume of the ‘national drink,’ the trends are in the opposite direction.”

During a presentation in April 2013 to the European Alcohol and Health Forum—the European equivalent of the UK’s responsibility deal network—Scott Wilson, the director of corporate affairs at Molson Coors Europe, said it was too early “to build robust substitution data but the early indicators are that low strength will take the vast majority of its volume from higher strength drinks in the UK.”17

Internal documents dating back to January 2012 show that just two months away from the launch of the billion unit pledge there was concern within the Department of Health that the responsibility deal was faltering. “It is becoming increasingly apparent,” read a briefing note for Paul Burstow, then health minister and cochair of the deal’s alcohol network, “that greater commitment is need[ed] from the major retailers if the next phase of collective pledges is to make a significant impact.”

Burstow was being briefed for a meeting on 24 January 2012, with Henry Ashworth, chief executive of the industry funded Portman Group and his newly appointed cochair of the alcohol network, and prior to a full meeting of the group two days later.

Ashworth, noted the minister’s briefing, had been appointed to the Portman Group in the autumn of 2011 after having worked for the government in the business department’s better regulation executive and in the behavioural change unit at the Cabinet Office. Once again, the industry was able to take advantage of “revolving door” syndrome.

Ashworth, added the briefing, would be “an unknown quantity” for many in the alcohol network but had had “extensive contact with industry” from his time at the business department. He might “also be free of some of the baggage that has previously weighed down relationships with heath NGOs [non-governmental organisations] if he can persuade them that his leadership will act as a new broom.”

Whatever the truth of the net value of the billion units pledge to public health, or the extent of Ashworth’s role in keeping it flying after its launch two months later, by the time the government’s consultation on its alcohol strategy closed in February 2013 it was already becoming apparent that the entire responsibility deal had served its purpose as one of the tactical bricks in the wall of social responsibility the industry had built to protect itself from the threat of regulatory interference.

Supermarkets add to pressure

The story of a private meeting between the secretary of state for health and the chief executive of Asda supermarket—held three months after the government’s public consultation on minimum unit pricing for alcohol had supposedly closed—reveals not only the ease with which big players in the market can gain access to the highest levels of government but also the incestuous web of influence spun by the think tanks and lobbying companies paid to lobby on their behalf.

According to emails released to the BMJ under a freedom of information request, around April 2013 Asda contacted a special adviser in the Department of Health to seek a meeting with Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary. Among other issues, the company wished to discuss the “Alcohol Strategy, the status of the Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) proposal, and alternatives that will encourage responsible alcohol use without penalising poorer families.”

Under the circumstances, it was a curious shopping list. So far as the outside world was concerned, the government had already committed to the principle of minimum pricing. Its consultation, which had run from the end of November 2012 to 6 February, had been concerned only with the level at which the price should be set.18

Along with many other companies with an interest in alcohol, Asda had responded to the government’s consultation with a written submission expressing its opposition to the policy, which would “represent a significant additional burden on our customers at a time when they can least afford it.”

There was also a reminder that, as Scotland’s experience had shown, “minimum pricing could be tied up in the courts for years.” Far better, said the firm, to rely on the responsibility deal and its commitment to remove a billion units of alcohol from the market. Better still, why not double that target?19

Now, two months after the consultation had closed, Asda’s chief executive, Andy Clarke, saw fit to make his case against minimum pricing face to face with Jeremy Hunt.

More surprisingly, perhaps, Hunt saw fit to allow him to do so. The emails also reveal that a similar meeting was held with Tesco on 12 June.

On 2 May, Asda had a “pre-meeting” at the Department of Health with Sam Talbot Rice, a former director of research at the Centre for Policy Studies, the right wing think tank. Talbot Rice had been appointed as one of the secretary of state’s special advisers shortly after Hunt had succeeded Andrew Lansley in September 2012. Representing Asda at the meeting were Paul Kelly, head of corporate affairs; Allan Edwards, head of public affairs; and Martin Le Jeune, a founding partner of the communications agency Open Road, which specialises in healthcare public affairs and communications and whose clients also include Coca-Cola, AstraZeneca, Sanofi Pasteur, and Bristol-Myers Squibb.20

Talbot Rice and Le Jeune had something in common. Le Jeune, a former civil servant in the Cabinet Office, had spent three years as director of public affairs at broadcasting company Sky before cofounding Open Road in 2007. But he was also a fellow of the Centre for Policy Studies, where Talbot Rice had previously worked.

Alumni of the centre were an influential force in at least two of the government departments most involved in the debate on minimum pricing. At the same time as Talbot Rice had been installed at the Department of Health, Stephen Parkinson, another former head of research at the centre, was appointed a special adviser by Teresa May at the Home Office.21

Following the “pre-meeting” with Talbot Rice, a meeting was scheduled between Hunt and Asda’s Clarke and Kelly for 15 May. Liz Woodeson, director of health and wellbeing at the Department of Health, and Richard Cienciala, deputy director of obesity and food policy, would support Hunt.

On 10 May, Hunt received a written briefing ahead of the meeting, which noted that it had been called “to discuss the progress Asda has made to date on the Responsibility Deal and their future engagement.” Hunt was given a list of “Suggested points to make” during the meeting. He should “recognise their leadership—in particular their individual pledge to remove alcohol from their foyer.” No other store had followed Asda’s example, which was “something they feel exposed by.”

Then followed a list of other issues to be discussed only if raised by Asda, including the alcohol strategy and minimum unit pricing. “Thank Asda for strong support on alcohol,” read the briefing note.

Next came a passage which seems to indicate that the government’s consultation— supposedly solely about the level to set the minimum price—had been a sham.

“Asda are opposed to MUP,” continued the briefing. Hunt’s line should be “Government still considering the issue. Could be open to alternative proposals from industry. Welcome Asda’s views on this.”

Talbot Rice left the Department of Health in May 2013. In October the advisory committee on business appointments approved his application to return to working as an independent consultant for the Centre for Policy Studies22 23—an organisation that has attacked the policy of minimum unit pricing as “illogical, authoritarian nonsense . . . illiberal [and] unfair.”24

Whisky Association lobbying on European strategy

A hectoring email sent to several government departments by Gavin Hewitt, the chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, reveals much about the nature of the relationship between the alcohol industry and the British government.

The BMJ has discovered that in October 2012 the health departments of Britain, Sweden and Ireland presented a joint paper about the future of the European Union’s alcohol strategy to a meeting of policy makers in Brussels.

The three nations were calling for a renewed EU alcohol strategy that would “better support member states’ alcohol policy objectives.” The most effective policies, they said, were population level instruments such as taxation and minimum unit pricing, as had been envisaged in the World Health Organization paper Alcohol in the European Union: Consumption, Harm and Policy Approaches.25 In the light of David Cameron’s U turn over minimum unit pricing in July 2013, the paper makes fascinating reading.

For Hewitt and the alcohol industry, however, the message was disturbing. In email correspondence acquired by the UK based Institute of Alcohol Studies and seen by the BMJ, Hewitt says his association is “disappointed to learn” that the Department of Health, in conjunction with its counterparts in Ireland and Sweden, has circulated the paper “calling for a radical revision of the EU alcohol strategy.”

Although he does not say how, Hewitt reveals he has seen the paper, “which seeks support for . . . a range of whole population measures to tackle alcohol misuse,” including “cross-border harmonisation of taxation and/or minimum pricing, restrictions on advertising and availability.”

Hewitt points out that five EU states have raised legal objections to Scotland’s proposal to introduce minimum unit pricing, which “thus has no place in policy options for the UK government in addressing alcohol harm.”

He then expresses his hope that at the forthcoming meeting the UK government “will continue vigorously to promote a co-regulatory/self-regulatory approach and extol the benefits of innovative solutions, such as the Responsibility Deal, as effective alternative approaches to regulation in tackling alcohol-related harm.”

He concludes with what amounts to an astonishingly high handed reprimand of the Department of Health by the drinks industry.

“We find promotion by the DoH of this . . . paper at odds with the UK’s current alcohol strategy approach and contrary to the UK Government’s strategy to promote export growth of alcoholic products, as recently promulgated by Defra [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] and BIS [Business, Innovation and Skills],” he writes.

“There are serious internal inconsistencies . . . I would appreciate clarification before the meeting in Brussels [of] whether this paper . . . has been seen or cleared with other Whitehall departments who have a clear policy interest in the UK positioning on the development of the EU alcohol strategy.”

Hewitt’s authoritarian tone doubtless owes much to his own high level career in government service. After three years at the Ministry of Transport, he joined the diplomatic service in 1970, working as part of the team negotiating the UK’s entry into the European Community. Before becoming chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association in 2003, he had served the British government as ambassador to Croatia, Finland, and Belgium.26

Katherine Brown, director of policy at the Institute of Alcohol Studies, said it was “outrageous to see drinks industry trade bodies throwing their weight around, at the heart of government, in an attempt to obstruct policies designed to save lives. It is for government officials to decide on UK alcohol policy priorities, not the Scotch Whisky Association.”

It was, she added, “of great concern that the SWA would expect to achieve results through this unacceptable course of action, which clearly demonstrates their true motives for engagement with government—to protect their profits over and above protecting public health.”

Hewitt stepped down as chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association at the end of 2013. Since 2011 he had also been president of Brussels based industry group Spirits Europe.27 His successor as chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association comes with equally impressive political credentials. From 2010 to 2013 David Frost, a former British ambassador to Denmark, was director for Europe, trade, and international affairs at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

“My career to date working in economic, trade, and EU affairs in the UK and overseas has given me a wealth of experience of global commercial issues which will stand me in good stead in my new role in the Scotch Whisky industry,” Frost said in September, when his appointment was announced.28

An email exchange obtained under a freedom of information application shows that Frost was no stranger to the drinks industry during his time at the Department for Business. On 5 September he received an invitation from Franz Humer, the chairman of Diageo, to attend the company’s annual “business in the civil service” luncheon at Claridge’s in London on 10 December. It is clear from the exchange that this was an event he had attended before. “I will actually have left the Civil Service by that point for a job in business,” Frost replied. “I don’t know whether that disqualifies me or makes it more relevant?”

The invitation stood, said Diageo, which also arranged to invite his successor.

Exemptions from freedom of information

The Freedom of Information Act provides government departments with a range of excuses for declining requests for documents. Some information can be withheld under section 40(2) of the act, which prevents a public body disclosing certain personal information in contravention of data protection principles.

This section and section 42, which relates to legal professional privilege, was invoked by the Department of Health to cloak some details surrounding a meeting in May 2013 between ASDA and Jeremy Hunt, the secretary of state for health, to discuss the government’s responsibility deal.

The Section 42 exemption, said the department, was intended “to provide confidentiality between the Department and its professional legal advisers to ensure openness between them and safeguard access to fully informed, realistic and frank legal advice.”

Although the request for the information was made in October, five months after the event, “we have concluded that it is still relevant to current decision-making and possible legal challenges. Therefore we believe there remains a substantial public interest in maintaining the confidentiality of this legally professionally privileged material.”

A standard fallback defence against releasing information under a freedom of information request is cost. Section 12(1) of the act allows a body to refuse the request if complying with it would exceed “the appropriate limit of £600,” which represents three and a half working days. Faced with a request for documents relating to multiple meetings, this section of the act opens up the possibility of a department choosing which to disclose.

For example, responding to a request for documents relating to 18 specific meetings between July 2011 and December 2012, the Department of Health singled out for exclusion all documents relating to eight one-to-one meetings held in 2012 between Andrew Lansley and eight of the biggest supermarkets.

Likewise, no information was forthcoming about what was discussed by Bill Morgan, a special adviser to Andrew Lansley, at two lunches in August 2011 with two lobbying companies Burkitt Communications, which specialises in “political and government relations [and] healthcare policy communications,” and RLM Finsbury, which advises companies on “public policy and regulatory affairs” and prepares executives for appearances before parliamentary committees and EU hearings.

In December 2012 it was announced that Morgan was leaving the health department and returning to his former employer, lobbying firm MHP Communications, as a senior adviser.

“Bill is one of the smartest thinkers in health policy today,” commented Mike Birtwistle, managing director of of MHP Health Mandate in a press release at the time. “He has been at the very heart of the NHS reforms and his strategic mind will help us help our clients on how best to influence change in the new NHS.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f7571