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Monday, 19 November 2012


Ever since the plain packaging consultation began, there have been quite a few curious happenings at the Department of Health's Freedom of Information site.  In case you aren't aware of how the DH typically releases FOIs to the public, it works like this:

Once every three months, the DH quietly posts up a full disclosure log document listing the FOI requests that were received and released to interested parties over a given quarter, for example:  FOI releases to requests made from 1 January to 31 March 2012. 

It's not exactly a "full disclosure."  If you want to know what was released, you have to write to the DH and request copies of the correspondence relating to a particular FOI.  I don't know why they do it this way, but if I had to guess, I'd say it's to make it a lot more difficult for people to be aware of what's going on. How many people in the general public are going to take the time to write to the DH for a particular matter?  The answer is likely to be very few, and I would think that the DH counts on it. What the public doesn't know, and what the press won't tell you, won't hurt the government.  

Because it would be just as easy to dump all of the documents on the site -- to make them all available to all UK citizens at once when they release their disclosure log.  We know that the DH can do it.  They've done it recently.  For some "unknown" reason last September, the DH released all of the documents pertaining to this FOI request:  

FOI release – correspondence about the Government’s consultation on the packaging of tobacco products:

Click to enlargify
Obviously, somebody at the DH believed this particular FOI, as opposed to 1,647 FOIs released over the previous seven months (Jan 2012 - July 2012)  in the typical fashion, was in the greater public interest to provide all of the documents on their server. The question is not necessarily "who did it?" (we may never know the answer to that, but I can of course speculate wildly) but rather "why was this done this way?"  Whose purposes are best suited by publishing the FOI in this manner?  Because the documents released seem to indicate that one signature gatherer for the plain packs opposition was cheating, caught out by none other than the man responsible for the plain packaging public consultation, Mr Andrew Black.

Indeed, "filling in screeds of made up names," said Simon Chapman on Twitter on 20th June 2012, a time before anyone else in the general public had been made aware of Andrew Black's confrontation with a signature gatherer near Waterloo station.  How on earth did Chapman come to know this information? Who shared it with him? And just as important, why did someone in the DH share that knowledge with a man who lives in Sydney, Australia, or at least share it with someone else who later shared it with Chapman?  Again, we need to ask, whose purposes does it suit to do this? 

(And just another curious aside here:  the very first mention anywhere of the FOI release up on the DH's site was by Mr Collins, a volunteer ambassador for CRUK, a man who tirelessly campaigned for plain packaging. Do note, I'm not saying that Collins made the FOI request, but he certainly knew about it before most people. How? Maybe I ought to ask him...)

Another thing to pay careful attention to when noting the curiousness of this release is the length of time it took the DH to publish the data on their web site -- just a few short days over a month.  They sure did not waste any time -- it takes longer than that to post up the disclosure log for previous quarters.  To be fair to the DH's FOI office, they are incredibly efficient when responding to FOIs.  Here's a table of their performance for this year -- it's perfect, even in February when they received a massive 672 requests:

Also in fairness to the DH, it also broke usual form again in posting up another FOI release from someone who had requested documents about the pro-plain packs campaigners, also in just over a month and some change, which was:  FOI release – correspondence about the Government’s consultation on the packaging of tobacco products:

Why they published this request is also a mystery, although we must assume they did it to placate the opposition to plain packaging, to avoid a scandal, perhaps.  "We published both sides' FOIs," they can claim. Regardless, we know that the DH can release the full contents of any FOI request when it suits them. But normally, they just release the disclosure log and (one assumes) quietly hope that nobody notices it and/or bothers to write in for the materials pertaining to any given request.

But what is missing from all of the FOI correspondence the DH has released to date is Simon Clark's response to Andrew Black in respect of the "screeds of made up names" by a lone signature gatherer for the Hands Off Our Packs campaign.  And we must ask the "why question" again.  Why has the DH not released that information?  

Well, we know it fell out of the time period of the first FOI request, so it cannot appear in that batch, obviously, but even so, the public deserves to have all of the information to hand about the plain packs consultation.  The DH has released two FOIs so far.  Surely, the answers to the first FOI are equally important?  Yes?  No?  Apparently not, because there is no more information to be gleaned from the DH's FOI site, and questions raised there remain unanswered. Publicly, at least.

And there is something else -- something that is most unusual and disturbing -- happening on the Department of Health's Freedom of Information page.  As I wrote above, they usually release three-months' worth of FOIs in their full disclosure log, all at one time. Yet all of a sudden -- well, let us have a look at what they've done recently by comparing it to how it used to be done:

Here is how FOIs are typically released on the DH's site.

And here is how they are doing it this month. Spot the difference!
Did you spot the difference? What's changed?  And what's missing?

Well, they've switched from releasing three months' worth of FOIs in one posting, to posting up the months individually.  And can somebody explain what happened to September's posting?  Why, that's curious. It's not there.  Where is September?  Why isn't September posted?

Better question:  What, exactly, is the DH hiding by not releasing the disclosure log for September 2012? Is there something in September's releases that damages the plain packs supporters?

OK, OK, OK, I know.  Let's not jump to conclusions. I gotcha. True, this is all circumstantial. Right?  We have no evidence of any deliberate attempt by the DH, a government body, funded by the taxpayer, to obfuscate the truth by withholding information from the general public. The DH may have a very good reason for not releasing September's disclosure log. Maybe they forgot.  It could happen.

But when you add up all of the circumstances that we already know to date -- that the DH clearly wants to implement plain packaging, and the early release of the plain packaging FOI request, and how Simon Chapman knew about the "screeds of made up names" well before anyone else on this side of the world ("screeds" is certainly a gross exaggeration, but then we come to expect nothing less from the Root of All Evil), and of course the sudden changes to how the DH is presenting their full disclosure logs, and ...

... it stinks.  Something is curiously amiss. Something is going on. I can feel it, balls to bones.

It certainly appears to me as though the DH is desperately trying to influence the opinions of the public and our ministers in Parliament by presenting a wholly-biased view of the facts and by withholding vital information about what happened during the consultation, to deliberately mislead them into believing that those who oppose plain packaging had cheated.  Appears that way to me. But I do not know.

There is, however, one man who certainly does know.  Andrew Black. We must ask our MPs to investigate whether a known tobacco control advocate has any businesses at all presiding over a public consultation that must remain unbiased and fair.  This is scandalous. Yes, scandalous.

And I would wager anything that Stephen Williams MP also knows what is going on, along with the other anti-smoking members of the APPG on Smoking and Health and ASH. But of course I have no proof of collusion, no proof of deliberate obfuscation, and no proof of corruption throughout the Department of Health. But I suspect there might indeed be something in September's FOI release that is going to hurt them. And I suspect that the reason why we aren't seeing it is because they don't want you to know what is happening. Because all things being equal, it is a clear lack of transparency to exclude the disclosure log from September, especially when we are expecting the report on the consultation any week now.

There are many unknowns at present. I would not be surprised if the DH tries to throw out the signatures gathered against plain packaging. It's a likely scenario as any. But if they do not throw out the signatures, then perhaps they will probably ignore the public's will and do what they like. That is equally likely. 

The game is afoot, except this is no game. This is very real for a great number of Britons. The livelihoods of real people, ordinary and hard-working citizens in Britain, are at stake here, and they will indeed by greatly harmed by plain packaging if the government goes against the public's will and proceeds to implement it.  

It's almost time we made our move and put an end to this rampant bullying against a significant percentage of the population.  So stay tuned for more details over the coming days.

UPDATE:  Rather timely, Simon Clark has just posted up his response to Andrew Black regarding the signature gatherer incident at Waterloo station.  You ready for this? The kid that Andrew Black confronted added two signatures!  Two! How the hell does two forged signatures constitute "filling in screeds of made-up names"?  It just proves that the people working in the tobacco control industry are deliberately and maliciously deceiving everyone. And this includes some of our elected representatives in Parliament, like Stephen Williams MP.  Do not trust these people! They are not telling the truth.

UPDATE 2:  Dick Puddlecote shine more light on the corrupt and deceptive practices of the APPG on Smoking and Health, and it's corker!  I really don't want to spoil it for you. ;)

UPDATE 3:  On 22 November 2012, the DH finally released the September 2012 FOI disclosure log.  I cannot be certain that this blog post had anything at all to do with that, but it's a nice thought.