Select Committee on Standards and Privileges First Report


Letter From Mrs Edwina Currie MP to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards

  Thank you for your letter of 21 January 1997 in which you refer to the "Dispatches" programme "Cash for Questions" on Channel 4.

  When approached by the production company for this programme I made inquiries of the Department of Health to support my memory of the events of Spring 1988. Normally I understand the Department of Health would not be able to tell me which MPs I met while I was there as the Minister, but by a complete coincidence (naturally) the file had been retrieved from the archives.

  MPs who attended a meeting with me on 12 May 1988 were Michael Brown, Eric Forth, Neil Hamilton, David Amess and Sir William Clarke. I believe David Amess was there in his capacity as PPS to myself and other junior Ministers. Apologies were received from John Lee and Allan Stewart. As I recall, however, most of the talking was done by Mr Hamilton and Mr Brown.

  The relationship between several Members, including those mentioned and others, and the tobacco lobby was well known and understood. The contacts of Ministers and Civil Servants within the smoking lobby were quite good, since we were actively engaged in negotiations on voluntary agreements on smoking. On the whole their lobbying agents, the MPs, were those associated with the Right Wing or more "libertarian" side of the Party, who could legitimately make out an argument for freedom of choice.

  The meeting on 12 May 1988 was agreed in response to a request from the MPs. They did not bring anyone else with them, as I recall, but made the case on their own. This coincided with a period of numerous questions and many letters to the Department on the issue of Skoal Bandits, which were not at that time legal in the UK and which the Department wished to ban permanently, a process which was brought to a successful conclusion in late 1989 after I left the Department.

  There is not much to add to the Dispatches programme on the conduct of the meeting itself. MPs are entitled to put whatever case they wish to Ministers, and Minsters are expected to listen courteously. After all, when a consultation procedure is underway or changes in the law are contemplated, it is very important to understand the opposing point of view and to practice marshalling arguments against it.

  We wished to ban Skoal Bandits because they were an additional form of tobacco and because they caused in particular a form of mouth and throat cancer which was virulent, which tended to attack young people (unlike the main tobacco cancers), which was site-specific in that cancerous ulcers would develop at the site where the tobacco pouch was normally lodged in the cheek, and which was easily prevented by not permitting this product to be sold in the UK. It seemed to me therefore a sensible introduction to the discussion to show all concerned photographs of these cancers which I obtained with the help of a local hospital (I believe the Hammersmith but DoH could tell you if you wish to be certain). I distributed these photographs around the table and pointed out that the product they were promoting caused these cancers. Most of those present were shocked but Mr Hamilton indicated that he did not feel the photographs were relevant.

  Since you ask, I can only repeat that it was well known that these MPs were being paid by tobacco lobbyists; Sir William Clarke in particular was believed to be very well paid in his capacity as Chairman of the Back Bench Conservative Finance Committee, since it would then be his job to lobby against tax increases on tobacco products. I must tell you that Ministers regarded this as a perfectly legitimate operation, although we did not have a high opinion of those who functioned in this way. Nevertheless it was a point of view and it was legitimate that it should be put. I did not at any time check whether these financial links were registered as that element was of no interest to me.

  I hope this is helpful.

29 January 1997

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